Unpacking fear of poetry and love of language with Su Cho

Korean American poet, editor, educator Su Cho on poetry

When Su Cho meets someone, she starts by saying that she teaches and writes. 

While these are both true, they only scratch the surface of who Cho is. Currently serving as a guest editor at the prestigious Poetry Magazine, she’s also a professor of creative writing and a poet whose forthcoming debut collection The Symmetry of Fish won the National Poetry Series. 

We got to talk with Cho about her upbringing as a Korean American in the American Midwest, why people seem scared of poetry, and how poetry fits in today’s day and age. 

Language and identity 

Cho’s family immigrated to the States when she was five. Her family first settled in West Lafayette, Indiana near the Purdue university campus, which was more diverse. Then she moved to Carmel which was more predominantly white. 

“The Midwest is such a vast place and there’s a lot of silence,” she said about the landscape where she grew up. “The vastness leaves a lot of time to think about yourself.” 

At first, growing up in the more diverse West Lafayette made Cho not want to think about herself in a cultural or racial context. When she moved away, she started engaging with that part of her identity as she also started having interest in writing. 

At first when she started writing, she didn’t want to write about herself. But in her creative writing classes, she started getting questioned about her identity. As she cultivated her writing chops, she also started analyzing herself. 

One way that she combined her identity with her work was by incorporating 한글 (Hangul, or Korean) into her poetry. Growing up, she spoke Korean with her parents and continues to do so.

“Hangul is how I talk,” Cho said. “I had to stop censoring myself when I wanted to use Korean.”

Cho started mixing Korean into her poems when she felt frustrated. She felt a pressure to either explain Korean terms well or not use them at all. She channeled her frustration onto the page by mixing Hangul into her poems, recreating what she felt towards the questions about her identity. 

“When you’re something American, you’re constantly balancing how much of which part you are and it’s really tiring to me,” Cho said.

By having poems that switch languages, she created something that’s different depending on the reader. For those who don’t know the Korean language, she replicated that frustration she felt but for the Korean diaspora or anyone who knows the language, she created something to enjoy. 

“It took a long time to come to that,” Cho admitted. “It stems out of anger, almost.”

See also: Navigating between languages

Poetry’s charm 

“I like being a poet because poets have to be honest,” Cho said. “But it’s so easy because honesty is full of contradictions, so I feel like I have a lot of freedom.” 

For Cho, poetry is both straightforward and contradictory. It’s something like an image that connects on a deep, spiritual level but also something that allows for complexity. And poetry matches how Cho thinks. 

“Poetry gives me freedom to showcase how I think, especially with language,” she said. “I’ve always thought in ways that didn’t make sense or weren’t legible to everyone. If it makes sense to me, it makes sense on the page.” 

Su Cho Poet
Photo credit: Lily Shea

Poetry’s fluid nature also allows Cho to engage with her cultural identity. 

“Poetry lets us collapse time,” Cho said. “It’s still the past and it conflates with your present cause you’re thinking about it and get to interact with it in a way that’s fully yours.” 

This is especially meaningful to diaspora who tend to learn about family history in snippets and out of order. 

Especially in the chaotic times of the past two years, Cho found that her relationship with poetry deepened. Poetry gave her a chance to escape from her thoughts and circumstances.

“A good poem will tell you how to think and how to feel and there’s something reassuring about that,” she explained. “It’s a door I can open; I go sit inside the poem, listen to it, then go huh, that was really nice.”

But a poem feeling nice also allows for complexity. 

“Just because you feel grounded in a poem doesn’t mean it’s comfortable,” Cho said. She pointed out the charm of poetry to hold contradictions while still remaining a steady space. Though a poem was cozy, she still felt different by the end of it, even if slightly.

See also: Author Alia Rasul embodies tenderness and hilarity in super important Filipina thoughts

Su Cho, the editor and the educator

Still, there remains confusion around poetry. Cho admits that if she tells someone that she’s a poet, there’s a range of awkward responses to weird situations in response to her. 

But Cho was never just a poet. As she started her writing career, she also started her editing career. Because of this, she never asked about the relevance of poetry because of the number of submissions she saw. 

“It feels like an abundance of interest that people seem to keep to themselves because people don’t know how to talk about it,” Cho said. “It’s my job as an editor to model low stakes and casual ways to talk about poems.” 

Su Cho Poet
Submitted photo

In her position as a guest editor of Poetry Magazine, she hopes to further make poetry feel reachable to people by showing ways to talk about poetry in vulnerable, imperfect ways.

Cho also is a professor of creative writing and her experience as an educator also informs how she approaches the craft. She’s seen that people tend to be scared of poetry. Her first step to tackling said fear is by talking about it. 

“There is no wrong answer; it’s poetry, a mode of creative expression,” she emphasized. “It’s meant for you and for you to bring your life to the poem. However you understand it is a way to understand it.” 

Admitting that everyone is correct means that everyone has a unique perspective and relationship with language. And this means that every perspective has a stake in the discussion. Cho acknowledges that perhaps that’s where the fear comes from. 

In loosening the fear, Cho likes to recommend two different poems that use language in different but accessible ways. One is “The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi which shows the power of a quiet image. And the second is “For Estefani Third Grade Who Made Me A Card” by Aracelis Girmay, which encapsulates what not knowing a language can create. 

Poetry in society 

But does poetry fit in society? Cho thinks so. 

She points out that poetry is both a revered craft and also an ideal case study of language usage. 

After all, poems are used in the greater public for special occasions, such as Amanda Gorman’s poem at the American presidential inauguration.

On a smaller scale, poems are a great resource for learning to write efficiently. As a professor teaching creative writing, she gets a mix of English majors and non English majors. She pitches the importance of poetry by first saying that everyone has to learn how to talk about themselves. Whether it’s for a cover letter, job interview, or statement of purpose, it’s a life skill. 

“In no other genre will you get this thoughtful attention to the exact words you use to talk about your experience,” she said. “Poetry’s the ultimate case study in thoughts and feelings.”

Upcoming projects for poet, educator and author Su Cho

Cho’s next projects will further engage with language and identity. The title of her debut book, Symmetry of Fish, is a glimpse at how she feels about language. 

“If you imagine a fish and slice it one way, it’s symmetrical but the other way, it’s not,” Cho explained. “That’s how I feel about language; depending on how I look at it, it feels very easy and symmetrical, but other times it feels nonsensical. Both are true.”

She’s also working on an essay collection on themes discussed during the interview, especially on her upbringing in the Midwest. One topic she hopes to shed light on is growing up in a tiny Korean American church, an experience she wants to bring up more. 

As for her reading list, she’s been reading books about teaching poetry and especially recommends Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver, both of which don’t take themselves too seriously. 

“I was reading both of them recently and it struck me how casual and how profound both of them are,” Cho said. “That’s the kind of ethos I want to bring to the table. The overall tone of ‘this is poetry, take it or leave it.’ I think that’s really powerful.” 

You can read the special editions of the Poetry Magazine that Cho edited here. She emphasized that the November edition is unique in that every poem was a collaboration. 

And you can keep up with Cho on her social media on Twitter @su__cho (two underscores), and Instagram @_sucho.

Featured photo: CJ Scruton

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