Interview with Portia Choi, First Friday Zoom Open Mic, March 4, 2022

By: Carla Joy Martin

A meaningful time was had by the participants of our First Friday Zoom Open Mic on March 4, 2022.  Persons who read their work were Sandra Hughes, Christopher Nielsen, Shelley Evans, Heather Ponek, Suzanne Weller, Carla Joy Martin and Portia Choi.

Video Link:
First Friday Zoom Open Mic, March 4, 2022
Passcode: 2MAUL?aV

As the world reels from the Russian attack of Ukraine, we are forced to reckon with the evils of war. The two poems Portia Choi read that evening dealt profoundly with this issue.

Portia wrote of the Korean War in her chapbook, Sungsook, Korean War Poems.  The poem  “Oak-sun, For My Doll,” is the beginning poem in the chapbook about her memories when she was a young child refugee during the Korean War.      

Q.  How did the Korean War affect you, and your mother, father, sister?  What were the physical hardships, the emotional hardships? 

A. The Korean War started suddenly with the invasion of the southern part of Korea by the northern Korean communists.  My family fled; my mother with my 4 year old sister and me, a two year old.  We walked on dirt road or sometimes took the train.  We did not know whether there would be food or a safe place to rest or sleep. 

For our mother, she had to look out for herself and also for her two daughters.    

Emotionally, I probably felt the fear and uncertainty that was all around me.  Although, I felt safe when my mother was around.  But there were probably times, when I was left in a safer place, perhaps alone, as our mother went ahead where to go next.  She had to look and find refugee encampments, food distribution centers or other hiding places, away from the fighting. 

Our father was in the United States, studying for the ministry when the war broke out.  He knew of the war from the newspaper and radio.  But there were many times, when he did not know whether his family was alive or not, and he was worried and grief-stricken. 

Q.  How did the war affect the geography of Korea?  Q.  How did it affect the hearts of your fellow Koreans?

A.  Korea is one country, a small peninsula, called the “Land of the Morning Calm”.  After the Korean War, the peninsula was divided in the middle at the 38th parallel.  The South was “given” to the democratic powers and the North to the communist. 

My parents and older sister were all born in northern Korea.  I was born in the south.   

There is a profound sadness in the Koreans who live in South Korea or in other places of the world.  Some still have family in North Korea.  For example, my parents had siblings and their off-springs in North Korea.  There was no communication between the North and the South.  My parents died without knowing what happened to their family in the North.  I also do not have any communication with them.  I remember visiting South Korea as an adult, in my early 20’s.  I met an older man.  And he said he had family in the North, but had no word of them.  He simply thinks of them as being dead.

Our family were very grateful to the American missionaries, those who were in Korea, and also in America.  They helped our family to contact each other.  Koreans are very grateful for the help they received.  My observation is that Koreans are very loyal.  Especially to those who have helped them.  During the war, help which one received meant a lot.     

Q.  How did writing “Oaksun, My Doll” and the other poems in your chapbook help you deal with, confront, make sense of, your memories of the war?  What inspired you to begin writing these poems?  Was the process painful, or liberating?

Here is the poem:

Oaksun, My Doll

by: Portia Choi

Oaksun, you are my love,
you make me smile
Oaksun, my dear Oaksun,
dressed in silk stripes of grass green, tomato red, 
butterfly yellow, cloud white and sky blue.
Your slip sewn together of tattered, thrown-away clothes.

I find a torn piece of red balloon among pebbles and dirt near the chain fence.
I suck a circle into my mouth, out pops a rounded, shiny ball.
My teeth rub back and forth, squeaking the rubber.
For you, Oaksun, your balloon.

I am your mother, Oaksun.
I will protect and hide you from the soldiers.
I will look for you, so you cannot see the shattered arms.
I will cuddle you to sleep, so you cannot hear the cries.  

I protect you.
You know, Oaksun, I am frightened of the night.
I think that dying man may grab for me in the dark.
I will hide you.
Oaksun, no one will take you from me.

I feed you a kernel or two of rice.  I find one stuck on your cheek.
Just a kernel dried from yesterday’s dinner.
You are very lucky, Oaksun, having rice two days in a row.
You are very smart too, saving one for tomorrow.
Yes, Oaksun, who knows when we will eat again.
Oaksun, the sun is out.  There are clovers among the grass.
See, I made a bracelet for you and a ring for me,
the white crescent flowers and the three leaves playing together.
I throw you up in the sky.  You fall face down in my palms.
I throw you again, you fall with your back down.
Fly higher and again higher, Oaksun.

You are with me and I am with you.
I am your mother. Oaksun, my love, my doll.

A.  I began writing poems of the war in my 20’s after having therapy sessions.  With help of a trusted, compassionate counselor, I became aware of my feelings of being in the war.  I also remembered my experiences and what my mother had said to me about the war.    

I wrote the poems, hoping to connect with others in sharing one person’s life experience.  I had a profound sadness, a loss that I could not understand.  Writing the poems helped me become whole.  There were lot of tears and release while writing the poems and remembering.  The process was liberating in that, I felt and was thankful for being alive to share my experiences.  I am one person who survived a war.   Many others survived and many died.

The second poem Portia read was “Please Call me by My True Names,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist master.  The poem was a result of his walking mindfully for hours after he had heard that an adolescent refugee was raped by a sea pirate and she drowned herself in the surrounding waters.

Here are excerpts from “Please Call Me By My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow— even today I am still arriving.
. . . . .
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.
. . . . .
I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog
. . . . .
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am also the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
      . . . . .
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.”

(One can read the entire poem by searching on the web for the poem “Call Me by My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Q.  What is the back story on your deciding to read his poem?

A.  The poem had a profound effect on me.  It revealed the sea pirate in his humanity behind his actions.  I had already been reading Thich Nhat Hanh.  The first book I read, authored by him, was  Peace is Every Step, The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.     I was transformed by the clear messages on practicing mindfulness daily.  For example, when hearing a phone ring, one takes a breath and with mindfulness listen to the person calling; and also about dealing with anger and being compassionate with oneself and others.

Q.  How did the Indochina war affect Thich Nhat Hanh?  Tell us about his odysseys and his consequential philosophy. 

A.  I found the following on the internet’s Wikipedia.  Thich Nhat Hanh was Vietnamese, born October 11, 1926 and died on January 22, 2022.   It states further that he “was a Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, prolific author, poet, teacher,[2] and founder of the Plum Village Tradition, historically recognized as the main inspiration for engaged Buddhism.[3] Known as the “father of mindfulness“,[4] Nhất Hạnh was a major influence on Western practices of Buddhism.[2]

In the mid-1960s, Nhất Hạnh co-founded the School of Youth for Social Services and created the Order of Interbeing.[3] He was exiled from South Vietnam in 1966 after expressing opposition to the war and refusing to take sides.[2][5][6] In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.[7][2] Nhất Hạnh established dozens of monasteries and practice centers[2] and spent many years living at the Plum Village Monastery, which he founded in 1982 in southwest France near Thénac,[8] traveling internationally to give retreats and talks. Nhất Hạnh promoted deep listening as a nonviolent solution to conflict and sought to raise awareness of the interconnectedness of all elements in nature.[9] He coined the term “engaged Buddhism” in his book Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.[10]

Q.  What is the Buddhist view on war?

A.  I can only express my understanding of Buddhist views.  One precept is “Do not kill”.   Another is to have compassion for all beings.   

Q.  What can survivors of war teach us today? 

A.  I will respond as one survivor of war.  I value life.  I value having food to eat.  I remember to live my life according to what is important.  And poetry is certainly one of highest importance.

Q.  Do you like to read poetry? 

A.  I like reading poems of persons that I know personally.  It allows me to get to know them even more.

I also like reading poets, who I have not met.  Beautiful poetry.  An example is a Korean poet, Ko Un, whose works have been translated into fifteen languages.  One of his books is Ten Thousand Lives.  In it are poems of ordinary Koreans, images to enjoy the flavors of the Korean heritage.     

I want to thank teachers who inspire their students to write.  I remember my high school English teacher, Mr. Jellison, who would read our essays to the class.  He read one of mine.  And, even though, I don’t remember what I wrote, I remember that he read my words to the other students, out loud.  I think he instilled a love of poetry within me.

I remember Mr. Jellison reciting from Dylan Thomas’ poetry,
“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night. . . . .
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I enjoy keeping poems around me.  Here is one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush,
a fire with God.”

Q.  What advice would you give to other folks wanting to create poems?  How do you make a poem?  Do you have a special place you go to, or music you listen to, etc.?  Give us a glimpse into your creative process.

A.  I suggest each person to listen to their inner guide, their creative self.  Each person is unique and has a special way of being and writing.  I write every day, a form of journaling.  I have lots of ideas and words that could become a poem.  I have yet to have the disciplined approach of writing poetry daily.  I hope one day to be able to set aside time each day to write poetry.  Inspiration for a poem comes from my daily life.  I observe, and some of the thoughts and feelings become poems.   When a poem is almost done, I read it aloud.  I listen to how the words in the poem sound together.  Then the poem is complete.