Friday, September 26, 2014

Swimming Up A Waterfall

Photo of EJ Koh by An Rong Xu

Today, EJ Koh shares two poems, plus thoughts about writing poetry. Thanks for giving me permission to post these, EJ!

Carp ascending a waterfall
by Keisai (aka Ikeda) EISEN (1790 - 1848)

Everyone Should Write Poetry
by EJ Koh

In my own Utopia, every man and woman would write a poem. They would write it with intent and care, re-write it several times, read it in a whisper, place it under the pillow before bed, and then tear it up.

For me, I became a grown-up with zero exposure to poetry. I felt love without having to write it down, or pain without trying to find a measure. Now, I write couplets to feel love, entire poems to remember pain. It’s all backwards ever since I have decided to let poetry into the center of my life.

The truth is I want to stop. Not only stop writing, but also, speaking. I want language to end for me because I’m sick of saying the same thing about my mother, about my grandmother, about my inconsiderate childhood—for years. When I’m sick of hearing myself, I turn to the craft of the poem, and even then, the rhythms sound like me. I become sick of me. No one is sick of me more than me.

Despite the lows between manuscripts, rejections, and joblessness, it’s an honor to be a poet. That’s my unpopular opinion—that a poet must remain humble, changing, and sincere. In exchange, I will opt for the shorter life, and potentially destructive, because few things in occupation depend on sincerity.

I recall this piece of information I had tucked away: There is an ancient Chinese belief that if a carp swims up a waterfall, the carp will turn into a dragon. To me, the waterfall is the life that I watched from a distance. When I read poetry, I am standing under that waterfall. I am experiencing the brunt of every droplet—of incident, memory, and dialogue.

Read the rest here.


EJ Koh is a poet and translator of Korean poetry. Her poems have appeared in Southeast Review, Columbia Review, and World Literature Today with recent work in Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics from Black Ocean Press (ed. Andrew Ridker, 2014). She earned her Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University in New York. She was awarded a Kundiman Fellowship for Poetry and The MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She blogs at


Laura at Writing the World for Kids is the Poetry Friday round-up host today.


Author Amok said...

These are powerful poems. The last line of "Ghosts" is beautiful and haunting. Thanks for introducing me to EJ's work.

Diane Mayr said...

The essay was a poem itself!

"So what is it like to write poetry? There is a shift much like swimming upwards and reaching wisdom outside of my normal self."

Thanks for sharing EJ, Tabatha!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Yes, thanks to you and to EJ for sharing these poems and thoughts today. I'm most taken by "Ghosts" - gorgeous.

Tara said...

"When I read poetry, I am standing under that waterfall. I am experiencing the brunt of every droplet—of incident, memory, and dialogue."

This is exactly why I love poetry, too - and why that first poem will stay with me for a long time. Thanks for giving us the chance to meet EJ, Tabatha.

Liz Steinglass said...

Wow. These are stunning. As is her statement. I want more.

laurasalas said...

I'm especially enchanted by the raspy voice of that old wooden staircase. Lovely and haunting.

jama said...

Thanks for the intro to EJ's work! Her poems are thought provoking, powerful, and haunting.Especially liked "Ghosts."

Buffy Silverman said...

Haunting poetry--thanks for sharing EJ's thoughts and poems. I have to admit that when I read "the present is the revenge of the past" I could hear my mother's voice from many years ago saying that she couldn't wait until I had children who did/said whatever my offense was at the time.

Bridget Magee said...

Thanks for showcasing EJ's work, Tabatha. Her words are powerful and will linger in my mind long into the future. =)

Linda B said...

Just as Diane mentioned, I thought the essay was the poem at first, Tabatha. I enjoyed it, certainly have not heard of EJ & her work. The poems are interesting, seem a bit unique to culture, although my mother often told she knew a ghost had entered he house. And sometimes it had to do with shadows. That poem made me examine my mother's words more closely. Thank you.

Unknown said...

I agree with what Diane Mayr said above: "The essay is a poem itself." Leo Tolstoy said, "Every true artist is a seer." EJ's lyrical interpretations of her life experience strikes me as having this penetrating quality. Love both of these poems. And admire her intimacy with her father, who clearly respected and believed in her.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Thanks for the introduction, Tabatha! EJ Koh has much to offer... I hope she does not opt for the shortened life that is too short. We need to hear much, much more from her.

Mary Lee said...

I am in love with that image (and that metaphor) of a carp swimming up a waterfall.

Becky Shillington said...

These are beautiful and powerful, EJ. Thanks for sharing them, Tabatha!