Poet, Sue Hyon Bae, is the former International Poetry Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her work has appeared in Four Chambers Press, Minetta Review, Apple Valley Review, Please Hold Magazine, and elsewhere. Her poem “Homeless Ghosts” appeared in Potomac Review #60 in spring 2017. Additionally, her manuscript, a collection of poetry entitled Truce Country, was shortlisted for the 2017 Sexton Prize for poetry.
Last fall, former intern, Spencer Adkins, spoke with Bae about a whole host of things such as the act of telling ghost stories, childhood memories of grandparents, and keeping a list of things that inspire you.
Spencer Adkins: When looking through the Potomac Review’s Issue, your poem “Homeless Ghosts” really caught my attention. Is there anything you can tell me about what inspired you to write that piece?
Sue Bae: It was inspired by real life, more or less. When I was a small child in South Korea, both my parents worked, and my maternal grandmother, who passed away recently, looked after me during the day. I do remember making up monsters together, but I was thinking about a different type of storytelling we used to do when I wrote this piece. When we watched nature documentaries in the evenings, my grandmother would pretend to be frightened by the predators. When lions came on screen, she would put on a show, hiding her face and clutching me, and I would shriek with her and clutch her back. But I knew we were both pretending. I remember one time she got so interested in the documentary she forgot to pretend, [amd] instead listen[ed] intently about the rearing of lion cubs. I don’t know if I had the thought then or as an older child, but I wondered why we both pretended if we knew we were pretending. The answer, I suppose, is that we like storytelling. The ritual for feeding the ghosts of ancestors is a traditional rite in Korea, still practiced by my family. I have never taken the ghosts literally even as we lowered our heads kneeling in front of the laden table, waiting for the ghosts to eat their fill before we ate their leftovers, but that never stopped me from telling ghost stories.
SA: Going off my previous question, and of course if you didn’t already answer it, was this a memory you had?
SB: Another memory of my dead grandmother, while I am indulging in remembering—she put black masking tape over a drawing of a crow in one of my picture books. I think crows are bad luck in Korean culture; my knowledge of Korean folklore is very light, partially because I left so young, and also because my grandmother was a remarkably non-superstitious person in almost all aspects and raised my mother and me without bothering us about such things. I wonder now how sincere the masking tape was. Did she really think the crow was bad luck and wanted to keep its influence away, or did she think it was only a picture but that I would be disturbed by what I was taught by culture to fear, or did she think it was just the thing that she was supposed to do even though neither of us cared about crows? Now that I will never know the answer, I feel as though I have been taught a terrible lesson about the unknowability of others and their thoughts, much more vividly than I gesture at [at] the end of “Homeless Ghosts.”
SA: The poem is able to capture emotion and detail really well in such a disciplined, concise way. One of my biggest weaknesses while writing is trying to avoid sounding too wordy and completely lose the images/idea. Is this something you ever struggled with, and if so is there any specific thing I can do to improve?
SB: I struggle with being too wordy and too terse simultaneously, which is a silly and complicated problem to have. When I’m revising a first draft, I have to be ruthless and cut off much of the beginning and end. Usually, that’s just explanation (how the speaker came to be in such and such situation, the setting, the people) and conclusion (this is what I want you to take away). A poem doesn’t need those things, which is one of the reasons why I was attracted to writing poems in the first place. And then I’m left with a middle that’s really what I wanted to say but probably not a complete poem yet. It takes some wrangling and talking over with others before I can turn the kernel into something that feels complete, usually after the poem has taken some turns I wasn’t expecting when I first planned it. For example, “Homeless Ghosts” first began as a simple explanation of my early storytelling experiences, and I had no idea it would end in an insight into others’ mindsets.
SA: Being an editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review, what do you look for when choosing work for a literary journal? What stands out? Are there specific elements that stand out to you?
SB: I am no longer at Hayden’s Ferry Review since I’ve graduated and moved away in 2017. During my tenure, I was one of two translation editors. As we received comparatively fewer submissions in translations than in English poetry and fiction, we were able to read all the submissions ourselves without relying on first readers. Of course, we looked for the usual qualities that we look for in reading un-translated work, poems and stories that meet the standards of HFR: surprising, interesting, experimental work. In addition, we also took into account translation quality as well as we could, considering we didn’t always know the source language, and I liked looking for works from languages that are underrepresented in English translation.
SA: Not to sound too generic but what made you start writing or when did you begin? Was there something that happened and as a result, made you begin writing? Or was it always an aspect of your life?
SB: I started relatively late as a writer. I have always been a serious reader but didn’t consider writing; it didn’t feel like something people did. I took a poetry workshop in my freshman year of college and discovered I liked it enough to keep taking workshops. Eventually, I reached a point where I realized I didn’t want to do anything more than I wanted to write, so I applied to MFA programs. I’m really glad I took that plunge because it’s given me the training to be a lifelong writer, no matter what else I’m doing with my life.
SA: To wrap up my questions, are you currently working on any new projects or expecting to release any new material soon?
SB: A book of Korean poetry by Kim Hyesoon called A Cup of Red Mirror I co-translated with Lauren Albin will be published by Action Books in 2018. My own collection of poems, Truce Country, will be published by Eyewear Publishing, scheduled tentatively for fall of 2018.
SA: What are some specific creative inspirations you turn to when writing?
SB: I don’t exactly have a specific go-to, but I always keep a running list of small ideas in my files. Whenever I think of a specific phrase or image or find some concept that I find interesting but don’t have a use for yet, I store it away. If I see a quote or historical fact I like when I’m reading, I store that away too. When I’m in the mood to write and don’t have something specific in mind, I go back to this list and read until something catches my attention.