|“I am Homeland,” a collection of poems by a total of 12 Korean-American poets. (Poetic Matrix Press)|
Titled “I am Homeland,” the collection is edited by Choi Yearn-hong, a scholar who also serves as the founding president of the Korean-American Poets Group. In his introduction, Choi explains why the collection is unique compared to other works of literature written by second- or third-generation Korean-Americans.
He identifies as a first-generation Korean-American poet as well. Born in 1941 in Korea’s Chungcheong region, Choi first moved to the U.S. as an international student in 1968 and eventually settled in Washington, D.C., in the early ’80s. He still lives in the city.
“The second and third generation of Korean-American poets may not identify themselves as Korean poets. They are already part of the American mainstream,” Choi writes in his introduction.
“However, first-generation Korean poets must be recognized as the border-land people between Korea and the United States. They are neither Korean nor American. In a real sense, they are Korean-American.”
The Korean-American poets who participated in the collection, mostly in their ’60s and ’70s, have diverse occupations, including medical doctors, a Buddhist monk, a former diplomat and an economist. While each offers a different writing style and flair, their works all deal with their experience of assimilation and acculturation in the U.S.
June C. Baek writes in her poem “Rich and Poor”: “Farewell to my rich cousin; with her pride, now she says, / ‘English is My Language’ / And learns American laws and regulations, manners and business ethics / To stay afloat as a big fish in the ocean and to be a / World-class citizen.”
Lee Byoung-kie summarizes his life as a first-generation Korean-American in his short poem “Born, 1945”: “I was born in a Korean farm house in the last year of the Pacific War / or in the year of Liberation from the Japanese yoke / I grew up in the barley hill, survived the Korean War, / and witnessed the Korean modernization campaign. / Now, I realize I am the last analogue generation fellow / in front of innocent grandsons in the United States of America.”
Meanwhile, Yi Chun-u writes in his poem “My Homeland” that he is his own homeland: “My homeland, where grandfather’s breath is long gone, / with morphed mountains and streams, lost without trace. / Since I carry the olden times, I am the homeland.”
Scholar Yoo Sun-mo, a longtime researcher of Korean-American literature, points out that the poets’ rather conflicted yearnings for belonging and acceptance ― as well as the complex sense of where their home is ― are what make these poems special.
“They will never forget where they came from, but they want to forget their hometown that was already displaced and abandoned inside Korea,” he said.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)