This is part one of a two part interview with Koon Woon whom I first met when he read at Community Mic and then later as a featured reader. I am excited that he has chosen to join the Editorial Board of PoetryBridge Times.
My founding experience would be living in a timeless village in China, without running water or electricity for the first nine years of my life.
Leopoldo: The Seattle Review of Books said you had lived “long enough to fill a hundred memoirs”. You have published a memoir titled Paper-Son Poet which is available on Amazon. What are the key experiences that shaped your life as a person, a writer and a poet?
Koon: My founding experience would be living in a timeless village in China, without running water or electricity for the first nine years of my life. Seeing the flora and fauna of a tropical climate, having all the carefree time to play as a little boy in the care of my grandmother and my uncles, while my parents were overseas in the United States.
When I came to this country in 1960, at age eleven, I became president of my grade school in Aberdeen Washington, which was odd because some little kids thought it was neat to have a minority person in the school, so they nominated me for president. I didn't know what president of the school was. So this kid says, "I want to be your campaign manager, leave it up to me". I made up some campaign posters which said, 'Don't be a Goon, Vote for Koon'. It got all the kids excited so they voted for me. The big kids didn't vote for me but the little kids overwhelmingly voted for me. So, I found out what politics was all about. The principal had a say in everything we did so we couldn't do anything. We were just puppets. It was all run by the principal.
I was the literary chairman of the literary club at my high school club. We put out a little publication called Ariel. It was the title of a book by Sylvia Plath. I was the only male in the group. Instead of me being able to meet with all those girls and having a good time, after the first meeting, my dad says, “Where've you been?” I said, “ I've been to the literary Club”. He said, “you've got to come directly home and work because we have a family of ten and there's only me working here to support ten of you”. So, I had to come home and work in the restaurant every day in high school.
I finished high school in Aberdeen and spent a couple of quarters at the local college and then transferred to the University of Washington. Those were the hippie days. That was my downfall. I was experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Later I found out it was to mask my symptoms, what was beginning to be schizoaffective bipolar disorder, which is sort of like schizophrenia, sort of like bipolar, but sort of like both.
In my 20's I was not very functional, even though I had lucid periods. I was studying math and philosophy. I just wandered up and down the West Coast. About 1977 I went to San Francisco and lived there for two years. That was where I had my first complete psychotic breakdown. I was hospitalized for four months in a mental hospital, was released and stayed in a halfway house.
Leopoldo: Had you started to write poetry at that point?
Koon: No, actually, I didn't start to write until after my break down several years into it. I think I started about age 30, writing bits and pieces. I feel terrible today but what can I do about it. Every once in a while, I would write something that seemed like questioning my soul. What is this all about? How can I capture my feelings, these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts? I was very introspective.
The first thing is avoid self-pity like the plague. The second thing is don't pay attention to what seems to be going around you just work at a steady pace and soon all kinds of good things will happen to you.
I came back to Seattle at around age 30 and lived in one rooming house to another. At age 35, I went to a workshop led by Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. That's when I started writing for real. Within one year I was chosen to be on the Bumbershoot Literary stage, one of three people chosen that year. In 1985, my first poem was published called Goldfish and then Nelson Bentley said "I think you should give poetry a try". So, I did.
A couple of things he told us which always stuck in my mind. The first thing is avoid self-pity like the plague. The second thing is don't pay attention to what seems to be going around you, just work at a steady pace and soon all kinds of good things will happen to you.
A lot of people write out their angst. I had been doing 5 years of that. Nelson set me straight. Write about other people. Write about what you see in the world. Write about what can be useful to other people. Read other people. Write about what they're concerned with, life liberty and livelihood, freedom, the humanity of all these things that we share, regardless of race or religion. We have families, communities. We have countries. Humanity itself, the whole world. Some people go beyond that and see other parts of the universe.
Leopoldo: You had some success being recognized by other poets, people who devote their life to the study of poetry.
Koon: That didn't come till later. I just collected my poems. I started officially when I was 35. As a rule, I do not send my poems to academic or university quarterlies, but I did send and get published in the Seattle Review at the University of Washington and in the MacGuffin, which is at Schoolcraft College in Michigan, where my late professor Nelson Bentley grew up. MacGuffin is a term that Alfred Hitchcock coined for who has the action, who has the drive in the story.
From 1990 to 1997, I was editing a little poetry zine of my own called Chrysanthemum, a little pamphlet or chapbook form. I tried to publish quarterly but ended up only twice a year. One day I get a telephone call from this older lady in Wisconsin. Are you the editor of chrysanthemum? I said yes and I told her I stopped publishing because I ran out of money. She says, would you be wanting to look at my short stories? Sure, send them to me. At that time, my meds weren't working miracles on me yet, so I was still kind of up and down in my moods and I was in a hyper manic mood. I read her stories and wrote back honestly. This story is so bad, please don't send me anything for 5 years. (Koon chuckles)
She thought that was funny. She kept calling me. I decided to talk with her. She's a retired librarian and was very interested in China, in Chinese things. She said, do you write poetry? I said, some. Can I look at some of them? I sent her twenty poems and she was thrilled. She said, we must get you published. So she acted as my literary agent. Right away. she sent it to the University of Hawaii. They said, we don't publish original material, only translations from Asia. I thought that was a joke. We sent it to Kaya Press in New York who said they would consider it seriously. Within two months, they accepted my manuscript. The book was called The Truth and Rented Rooms which became a finalist in the Norma Farber First Book award of the Poetry Society of America. It was considered one of the three best books of that year in poetry. And then I won the Penn Oakland Award in California in 1998.
Leopoldo: So now suddenly you have become famous...in a relative sense
Koon: Not exactly. A big frog in a little pond. (chuckles again).I kept collecting poems and sent them to magazines. My editor and publisher at Kaya Press, ten years later, said we don't want your book to go out of print. So, I sent her 70 to 80 poems. She chose about 50 pages and added to the content of the first book and that book cane out as Water Chasing Water. It won the American book award in 2013.
Leopoldo: I don’t know too much about these awards but they sound prestigious.
Koon: They were national awards. The American Book Award is given by writers to other writers. There's no winners or losers because there is no contest that you enter. A writer from Bellingham awarded it to me. My publisher flew me to San Francisco to the award ceremony in 2014.
Leopoldo: is that where you had an almost connection with Lawrence Ferlinghetti?
Koon: No, that was before, when I had a reading for The Truth and Rented Rooms. I was invited to read at a Chinese American Cultural Center in San Francisco. My friend Jack Foley, a literary figure in the Bay Area had invited me to see Ferlinghetti, but I had to go to lunch with the people who had invited me from the Cultural Center, so there was a missed opportunity. (Koon chuckles). But he did write a blurb for my book.
Leopoldo: How would you describe your writing process?
Koon: These days, it comes out from what I call poetic feeling. You kind of feel like you have this poem in you coming out like a woman about to give birth or something. But before that happens you have to incubate this poem for a long time. There may be snatches of poems that you have written in the past that didn't work out. You think about your life, you think about other people, you see what's going on around you, politically, socially, economically, people who have been homeless I've been homeless three times as a result of my mental illness. So, you think about things, you feel things. They all come together.
Like suddenly you have a glimpse of nature, like I never saw the world be this beautiful before, I never knew he was that nice of a guy. I never knew that humanity could do such bad things to one another.
Leopoldo: That's the end of the incubation period?
Koon: Yeah, you can't force it to happen.
Leopoldo: So, there's a physical experience as well as an emotional one?
Koon: Not physically. but there's something that make you aware, mostly emotional. Like suddenly you have a glimpse of nature, like I never saw the world be this beautiful before, I never knew he was that nice of a guy. I never knew that humanity could do such bad things to one another.
Leopoldo: Do you use a typewriter? Write with pencil or pen?
Koon: Most of the time I write on a computer now. But there's a process I do to get things started which I call free typing. You just sit down and type anything that comes to your mind. That stops the censor from stopping you going in certain directions. I wrote fiction before. My teacher said, never censor your first draft. You might never show it to anybody but never censor your first draft.
Leopoldo: Do you edit a lot? Do you keep working the poem?
Koon: in the beginning, I edited poems maybe 20, 30, 40 times and they still go nowhere. I used to have this joke I would play upon Professor Bentley. I would tell him I just destroyed 25 cubic feet of poetry. He would say, what do you mean by that? I destroyed a 5 foot by 5 foot by 1 foot. I dumped it all out. That's my poetry drafts. I was just joking.
I just put everything in a drawer, taking them out randomly and revising them. I did that for about 5 years. I don't do that anymore. Now it seems like some poems write themselves. I have one poem that's nine pages. it dictated itself to me. Now there's a process. It seems more subconscious. But you have to think about things, you have to feel things, feel your way through things.
You can read the second part of the interview with Koon Woon in the April Issue of PoetryBridge Times. He talks about finding your distinctive voice, what he learned while living in Chinatown, how he experiences living in West Seattle and why poetry matters to him.