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Poems and Identities: On Reclaiming “Correct”
Rosanna Young Oh reflects on the process of developing her first poetry collection, from academia to the corporate work world
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rosanna Young Oh about her debut collection, The Corrected Version, a book that explores identity and storytelling, plus thoughts on how to write a book of poems while working in corporate America.
Rosanna Young Oh is a Korean American poet and essayist who was born in Daejeon, Korea, and grew up on Long Island. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Best New Poets, Harvard Review Online, Blackbird, The Hopkins Review, and 32 Poems, and has received honors that include scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and New York State Writers Institute. Her poetry was also the subject of a solo exhibition at the Queens Historical Society, where she was an artist-in-residence. The Corrected Version is her first book.
Watch the video below, or keep scrolling to read the interview. To hear Rosanna read poems from The Corrected Version, check out the video (I highly recommend it).
Poems and Identities: On Reclaiming “Correct”
Radha Marcum: In the book's opening poem, you ask a really interesting question, which is, "Should I pretend my stories are untrue?" That seems like a really good place for us to start today because I think it's a good place to start with poetry in general. For many poets, myself included, it seems the world want us to conceal something—and we just can’t hide from our stories. So where did the poems in this book start for you?
Rosanna Young Oh: That question, I think, touches on a... I don't want to say a struggle, but perhaps a challenge that I've encountered throughout my life. It's something deeply connected to the way I grew up, my upbringing. My parents are first-generation immigrants, and they run a grocery store.
Growing up, and even now sometimes, when I enter spaces that are so unlike the ones I grew up in—very privileged spaces to be in, I admit to that, especially when we're talking about literature—I had a tendency to cover aspects of myself. That was true in school, since I was younger, all the way through college and grad school. So when I was thinking back, I genuinely asked myself this question. The book is playing with that. What is the version of myself that I want to express, that I want to show people? You're opening yourself up to judgment, ultimately, you know?
Radha: Oftentimes, a writer will pose a question to the reader in that opening poem or opening sequence that informs a pathway through the book, through the poems. I appreciate that this question is a guiding principle in a book that give us many different perspectives. I sense a little bit of irony, or at least a number of layers of meaning in the book's title The Corrected Version. What does it mean to you, and why did you choose that as the book's title?
Rosanna: When I first heard a professor recommend that title, I resisted it. But as I put together this collection and started submitting it, I thought about it. This book is about the stories we live and how we make stories about our lives. There are different versions; we're always evolving. And I think I wanted to highlight that. The other title I was considering while submitting this manuscript was "Erasers" because I thought that highlighted the book's immigrant narrative more directly. But that can be too simplistic a term.
So the title The Corrected Version is about a person trying to tell her story—what is the right version? There are different versions of this person, of the speaker, poet. So it was more true to what the book was trying to do.
Radha: The word "corrected," I think, holds a lot of weight in those contexts that you just brought up, with the immigrant narrative. Poems in the collection directly address relationships with teachers or with fellow students. There’s a sense of processing or taking back the idea of “correct”—taking it back as the speaker or the poet, versus “correct” being dictated by the external world.
Rosanna: That's really astute. Thank you. I didn't think of that.
Radha: Can you share a little bit about the process of developing the poems for the book? Where did the poems start? And maybe where do poems start for you generally?
Rosanna: A lot of the poems started when I was actually an undergrad. Then I kept writing throughout my MFA program. I started a Ph.D. and then I left after a year because I wanted to pursue a different career path, something I never thought I would. I always envisioned myself as an academic. So there were five years of my life where I wasn't really reading or writing, and instead focusing on my career as a marketer in corporate America.
As I kept evolving and growing older, my perspective shifted. Looking back, when I was in school, I had a certain view of the world that was very idealistic. After I left my Ph.D. program and started working in corporate America, my perspective totally shifted. I was reading business books and interacting with a completely new set of people and ideas. There's a kind of duality in the two perspectives I had, being in school and then being in “the real world.” The tension between the two is what the book is about.
Radha: It’s interesting how you bring in that perspective, something as ”normal" as the business world. Poets certainly can develop complex work while also participating in that corporate work world. I think it’s a good example for poets.
Rosanna: One of the core themes of the book is liberation. I didn't really write about that earlier, when I was in school. I started embracing and writing about it meaningfully once I started working. I hope the book reflects that.
Radha: It certainly does. How many years did it take from the time that those poems started to having this book come out?
Rosanna: The earliest poem is 14 years old. But again, for about five to six years, I wasn't really writing, just focusing on making a living. So I would say nine to 10 years earnestly writing.
Radha: It’s a long-term process. That is really common for first books, among folks that I have interviewed. A lot of poets will say, you know, expect it to take 10 to 15 years. It seems like a really long time; nevertheless, it seems important to the development of the work. Over those years, what changed?
Rosanna: Leaving academia was a strong reality check. Poetry is something that is sacred to me. And in grad school or in academia, it's kind of taken for granted. In academia, people know what it means to put out a first book. In corporate America, no one really understands. That was hard for me because poetry is a really key part of my life.
The value system in business is different. In academia, if I put out a good poem or did good work, that was my way of contributing value. In business, it's really the results, your KPIs [key performance indicators], something quantifiable. And that was hard. It sounds simple, but it was actually a huge mindset shift for me. In the end, it worked out because I have the left brain, right brain kind of thing going on. I do like the strategy that I do as a Marketing Exec. It balances out the creative activity of writing. So it worked out, but it took a while.
Radha: I relate to this sense of having multiple identities—a professional identity (a work identity) and a poet identity, among other identities that we might have. Maintaining enough footing in that poet identity can be a real challenge, especially when we are building careers and are immersed in the all-encompassing, all-absorbing world of corporate America. It's so easy to check email and be engaged, to be the person that the corporate space wants you to be. To let go of that poet identity while doing that has always been a source of tension for me. How did you—and how do you now—maintain your life as a poet? How do you honor that on a day-to-day or year-to-year level? What did you do to stay engaged with the work behind this book?
Rosanna: After I left academia, I didn't have anyone to turn to. My schedule became erratic. I eventually started waking up at 5:30 in the morning, even though I'm not a morning person. To finish this book, I had to work around my corporate job, writing in the early mornings and late at night.
I also had an accountability partner, a college friend who is not a poet but a fiction writer, to whom I would send my work to keep myself writing and accountable. I didn't have a traditional writing group for my first book, but now, for my second book, I'm fortunate to be part of a writing community formed through my first book.
Radha: Having a supportive community can be so important. Apart from other writers, what other sources of inspiration help you stay connected to your poet self?
Rosanna: I read a lot of newsletters and subscribe to many. I also enjoy listening to podcasts, like "On Being" with Krista Tippett and "The Slowdown" by Major Jackson. Social media, particularly Instagram, is another way I engage with the poetry community. Additionally, art museums and their exhibitions inspire me, and a significant aspect of my work is influenced by Buddhism as a philosophy.
Radha: Is there a particular aspect of Buddhism that you feel compelled to bring out in your poems?
Rosanna: I find the inquisitiveness and curiosity of Buddhism very intriguing. The philosophy emphasizes open-endedness, constant evolution, and non-linearity. This perspective has influenced me to always ask questions in my work, and it has made me less rigid in my thinking.
Radha: That’s beautiful and reflective of the essence of poetry itself.
Do you have any advice for those putting together their first poetry collection? Anything you wish you had known earlier in your process?
Rosanna: I wish I had realized the importance of taking care of myself physically and mentally during the process. While in academia, I was obsessed with achieving perfection and dedicated long hours to writing. Looking back, I wish I had understood the value of balance and self-care. Living life, experiencing new things, and tending to your mental and physical health is not time wasted; it nourishes your poetry and enhances your writing.
Learn more about Rosanna’s work at rosannaoh.com.
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