Poet in the Mirror: Rosanna Young Oh
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This month, Rosanna Young Oh—author of The Corrected Version (available now from Diode Editions)—shares insight into writing in service of the poem, vocation, and reading widely, among other things.
The Corrected Version is a title that implies revision, adjustment, a desire for precision. Could you tell me a little bit about the origins of this title and how you imagine it as a framework for this book?
Thank you for this question. The title comes from a poem in the collection called “The Problem with Myth,” in which the speaker observes how each of her parents interprets the same folktale differently.
A professor recommended the title years ago, but I resisted it at first, thinking that it was too meta. When I started submitting this manuscript to contests, the title was Erasures, which seemed at the time to highlight the book’s immigrant narrative more directly.
Ultimately, The Corrected Version seemed right because this book is about the speaker trying to tell her story. She wants to be precise, as you observe. And that process of becoming has an element of wabi-sabi, too–there’s beauty in the imperfection.
I am also a huge fan of Walt Whitman, a fellow Long Islander, who revised Leaves of Grass multiple times throughout his life. That he continued to add to his masterpiece suggests a desire for and belief in progress. I like to think that The Corrected Version suggests the same, too.
On Writing Family
This collection contains a lot of poems that very directly engage with the speaker’s relationship to their family. Do you have any reflections regarding poems in this vein? What were some of the challenges of writing them and/or what did they teach you?
It took me years to understand how and why I wanted to write about family. For a long time, when I wrote about family, my feelings would take over. One teacher encouraged restraint during a workshop of a poem that I had written out of pure emotion. At the time, I interpreted his suggestion as censure, but now, I am grateful for his advice. For me, a poem is about trying to understand, and having the humility to admit that I don’t know everything about everyone, especially my family. Writing the true is different from writing the truth.
Of course, writing about family is a person’s right, and a poem can be anything it wants to be. And as someone who was raised in a Confucian household that prioritized family, how could I not write about family? I do not ask for permission from family members when writing a poem initially. But in shaping or writing such poems, I hold myself accountable as a writer and as a person since there are artistic and ethical considerations. If I take the mother or father figure out, for example, would it improve the poem? If the answer is yes, then that poem needs to be rethought. Everything needs to be in service of the poem.
For the record: I told my family about the poems in which they appear, in detail.
On Folklore and Myth
Several of the poems in The Corrected Version draw from Korean folklore and myth. Can you share a little bit about the process of writing them and how you approach drawing on stories that exist in a larger cultural and historical imagination/have been inherited through time?
Thank you for this question. My father used to tell me stories as a child, and took us to see local Korean-language productions based on Korean folktales when they happened (which was rarely) in Queens or Manhattan. Years later, my mind went back to those stories naturally. They provided frameworks that were appropriate for the poems about family.
On Writing as Vocation
When did writing become a professional endeavor for you? How did that begin?
For me, writing is a vocation. I knew that I loved writing in high school, but it didn’t become a serious endeavor until sophomore year of college, when I was accepted into my first poetry workshop with Louise Glück.
She was also my senior thesis advisor–a privilege that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I witnessed a true poet at work, someone who completely devoted herself to poetry as an artist and person. Like all heroes, she showed me what was possible.
I’m not her best or most successful student by any measure, but here’s another fond memory that will stay with me: she asked to meet my parents during my graduation from Yale, and said kind things. She shook my father’s hand–a gesture he remembered with pride when she won the Nobel Prize more than a decade later. When someone like that believes in your work, even for a moment, you pay attention. You begin to dream bigger dreams.
On Reading Widely
What is craft advice you absolutely stand by?
I love reading and supporting living poets who are writing in the U.S. but it’s valuable to one’s development as a reader and writer to read voices that are strange to you, whether they are from a different time period or country. In grad school, for example, I wanted nothing to do with Chaucer. Turns out that he is one of the most forward-thinking poets of his time. I recommend Troilus and Criseyde, in particular. I’ve also enjoyed reading Kim Hyesoon and Henri Michaux.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I hope that you–whoever is reading this–write the poems that you’re meant to write, which are different from poems that you want to write or what others expect from you.
The poems in The Corrected Version were necessary for me. In this life and the rest, I can write only the poems that I’m meant to write.
Rosanna Young Oh is a Korean American poet and essayist who was born in Daejeon, South Korea, and grew up on Long Island. She is the author of The Corrected Version, which is her first book. Her writing has appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as Literary Hub, Best New Poets, Blackbird, and 32 Poems. She lives and writes in New York.