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Korean-American Writers Release Landmark Poetry Volume -- in English

A group of Korean-American poets has just published a collection of seventy-five of their works, entitled Fragrance of Poetry. All the authors are first-generation immigrants from Korea, and all of them earn their livings working in other fields. In this edition of New American Voices, three of the poets - an economist, a pharmacist and a professor of public administration - talk about the wellsprings of their creativity.

The poets who contributed their work to this collection straddle two worlds: the Korea they left behind and the America in which they live. Their poetry, says Yearn Hong Choi, the editor of the book and an accomplished poet himself, is an attempt at cross-cultural communication. The book aims to find a place for Korean-American poets in mainstream American literature.

"This is a kind of first attempt by Korean poets, publishing their poetry in English, a new movement," says Dr. Choi. "We try to show our existence, our literary voice to the American mainstream. The Korean immigrants, their voices should be heard in this country. So we are trying to get into American literature as an immigrant group, maybe as a minority group."

For poet Soon Paik, a senior economist with the U.S. Department of Labor, memories of Korea are an integral part of his poetry. He has lived in the United States more than half his life. When he arrived here as a graduate student in 1967, he was 28 years old. And yet, he says, the images of his Korean youth remain a source of his poetic inspiration.

"My professional and my other life is here, but in Korea is my early age," says Soon Paik. "When I came here to study, I have a memory of my early life in Seoul. So when, for example, I look at nature, like leaves, and hear some kind of sound in the autumn, in that time and season, I remember my mother's sound asking me to come. And also I have a memory of my father's sound, somehow. And I write a poem about that."

Mr. Paik writes mostly in Korean. Sometimes he translates his poems into English himself. Sometimes they're translated by others. But increasingly he expresses himself in English, as in the poem "Sound of Autumn".

Is it the sound of the wind
Sweeping away fallen leaves once
Containing spring's hopes and dreams
On grass lawn?

Is it the sound of nature
Converting the color of forest
Carrying summer's prosperity
Along the Potomac River?

Yes, it is a cry of cricket in the backyard
Like a mother's call of
"Dinner's ready!"

It is a speech of silence
Traveling across the Pacific Ocean
From father's tomb in North Korea,
'I want to go home!'

It is a whisper of heart
Echoing along the Appalachian Mountain trail
"I am the love!"

Another Korean-American poet, Haeng Ja Kim, immigrated to the United States with her husband and two small children in 1976. As a pharmacist, she says, she liked the fact that in America, the pharmacy field offered a wide range of professional opportunities. But as she pursued her career here, she continued to develop other aspects of her life that were important to her -- enjoying nature, and writing poetry.

"I have been writing poems since I was still in elementary school," says Mrs. Kim. "What I feel is that life itself is a poem, and we need to take the time to stop and see the poem all around. Early in the morning I usually run for like 20, 30 minutes, and then just walk slowly and smell the flowers and [enjoy] the beauty of nature. And then I write poems."

While nature is a strong current in Haeng Ja Kim's poetry, the real subject is often people and their interaction with the natural world, as in her poem, "The Waves":

You have run a long distance
and been dashed to the earth wall,
and then have disappeared.

Your body is tired, and your face is scraped and bruised by the salty wind,
but you will wake up in the morning,
and run again, and disappear.

You have your soul in the blue moon
and cry at the bitter sadness of white disappearance.
But you embrace sea birds with your warm heart
at the beach.

Life is like running a long distance,
and dashing to the finish line,
only to disappear.
The waves have the last hurrah
clapping at my feet.

Mrs. Kim says she loves writing poetry, that it gives her comfort and strength. Yearn Hong Choi, however, has a different explanation for the poetic impulse. "Modern society is like prose. American life is a kind of a prose," he says. "I feel like Monday through Friday, forty hours a week is a kind of prose. We need, somehow, the poetry of a verse -- like a weekend, or like the Sunday service, or like heading to church with Bible in hand. I think maybe science cannot fulfill the human desires and dreams. I think technological society cannot provide the things we need. I think that's why still the presence and value of poetry exist in this society."

To get away from the prose of his busy professional life as a lecturer in public administration at universities in Washington and Seoul, Professor Choi visits the American Southwest. He says that in the vast emptiness of land and sky there, he finds peace -- and inspiration for poems like In the Arizona Desert.

I meet the rain on my desert odyssey.
A rainbow emerges as an arch over the desert.
The moon rises above the desert.
A coyote barks at the full moon.
Stars shine in the desert sky.
An Indian village's light on the far horizon
Is shinier than the stars.
The light from the Indian village comforts me
More than anything else
On Earth.

The anthology Fragrance of Poetry, edited by Yearn Hong Choi, highlights the different approaches to the act of writing poetry by Korean-American authors, whose poems reflect both their Korean background and their American experience.