By Adrianna Burton
Even from Ring Road, the sound of laughter and chatter emanating from HG1030 was audible as poetry fans flocked to hear renowned poets E.J. Koh and Carly Joy Miller read. Following up on their Fall quarter plans, New Forum staff, with the support of the Department of English and Campus Writing, coordinated this reading on October 25 in order to feature Koh and Miller, two accomplished women who received their bachelor’s degrees here at UCI.
Koh is the author of “A Lesser Love”, which won the Pleiades Press Editors Prize and “The Magical Language of Others” . She has several fellowships under her belt, as well as an MFA from Columbia University in Poetry and Literary Translation in Korean and Japanese. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of Washington in English Language and Literature.
Joining this Anteater alum was Miller, the author of “Ceremonial,” selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2017 Orison Poetry Prize. Just a year before, her chapbook “Like a Beast” won the 2016 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. At the moment, she is a contributing editor for Poetry International, the co-director of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, and a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.
The evening began with editor-in-chief Misha Ponnuraju setting the tone of the night by describing these writers as “a shining example of what can come from our undergraduate English program.” First to read was Koh, who admitted her nervousness due to the presence of her undergrad mentor and friend, Professor Susan Davis, getting a chuckle from the audience. After describing how she found herself and soul in writing during her time as an undergrad, she read a short selection of poems from her books. She began with “My Father in His Old Age,” a poem exploring a Korean belief that “you are born the parent of the one you hurt most.” Koh admitted the rest of her poetry was just as dark, including the poems “To My Mother Kneeling in the Cactus Garden,” “South Korean Ferry Accident,” and “Valentine Chapter;” “Happy,” the last poem from Koh, was her “attempt at a happy poem.” You can find some of her poems online at her website, but here’s a little peek of the first poem read at the event:
MY FATHER IN HIS OLD AGE
There is a Korean belief that you are born
the parent of the one you hurt most. Watching
my father use chopsticks to split chicken katsu,
he confesses that I may be the reincarnation
of his own father. We finished our waters in silence
and walked home chatting about who to blame
for where we are. He says, The present is the revenge
of the past. Revenge goes too far, I argue. And
in our unhappiness, we both want to know
we cannot pay enough. Pain becomes meaning.
After this life, I fear I’ll never meet him again.
Miller, introduced by social media editor Julianna Vu, read a longer selection of poetry from her book and chapbook. She began by reading colleague Victor Vasquez’s poem “Men,” stating that his writing embodies one of the two most important lessons she learned from Professor Davis: to keep your community close. The second lesson she learned was to let her poems stand for themselves, so she signaled to the audience that she was going to give a reading with no explanation, unlike Koh’s pauses between poems. The poems came out of her as if they were an extension of her fingers, which traced the air and slithered up her own arms as she truly performed her poetry. Her list of publications and books for purchase can also be found on her website, along with a selection of published poems free to read.
Following each poet’s reading was the Q&A portion of the night that lasted about half an hour. The room buzzed with excitement as the poets moved away from poetry to talk about their writing process, inspiration, and creative struggles. One salient quote that struck a chord with the band, choir, and musical fans in the audience was from Miller, who said, “Poems, for me, are my other way of singing.” While she is no longer in her high school or college band, she carries on her spiritual tradition and pure feeling of joy through speaking, and at one point actually singing, her poetry. Miller had always engaged in the arts, but entered UCI as a Business Economy major. After realizing her hatred for economics in the first quarter, she immediately changed majors to align with her passion—english. Every audience member sat in admiration listening and relating to Miller’s struggle to chase after her dream. Koh shared a similar story, describing how poetry just fell into her lap. An English teacher told her she should go into poetry, which prompted her to defiantly respond: “Screw you. You don’t know me.” Against all odds, something in her tugged until she gave in and let out her thoughts and feelings through words. From the two poets’ perspectives, the Humanities aren’t typically seen as safe career choices, especially the paths that creative writers take. Yet, because of UCI, they have made their way through the world successfully.