Diana Park, Stadler Fellow 2010-12, talks with us about imaginary spaces, mugwort and garlic, and the frustrating devotion that writing requires.
What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I’m still working on my first book of poetry, More Snow than Rice. It’s a lyric narrative of a heroine’s journey through an imaginary country scarred by war.
During the Stadler fellowship, certain themes have come to the forefront of this manuscript. The original form of the book was a long poem following the heroine through villages, forests, and mountains as she invented an identity apart from a dutiful daughter. Now the book is a collection of poems organized into two sections, a depiction of a lonely girlhood preceding an adventure through a snowy landscape. The search for a whole self and a home poses a greater challenge than survival. The cruelty of women, especially between mothers and daughters, heightens tension more than the brutality of war. While drafting and revising poems, I find myself asking how women shape and embody spaces—interior selves, familial roles, kitchens, trees, and on the page. I explore how a woman is defined.
What do you love about it?
I’ve always loved storytelling. I’m drawn to myths, folktales, and fairy tales for various reasons. One, these tales contain surprises. Two, they can preserve or convey cultural values.
I’ll illustrate my points with a very short version of a Korean myth. Thousands of years ago, a bear and a tiger living in the same cave prayed to Hwanung, a holy god, wanting to become human. Hwanung appeared and gave them a challenge. Handing them some mugwort and garlic, he said, “If you can stay in the cave for 100 days and eat only these foods, you can be human.” The tiger ended up running away and remained a tiger. The bear endured and became a woman. Later, she gave birth to a son, Tangun, the first king of Korea.
Why mugwort and garlic? I find this detail so curious. I wonder what the cave smelled like, how time seemed in such darkness and isolation.
There’s a Korean notion that a good mother is like this bear: devoted and able to endure hardship. Well, can a good mother possess different qualities? Other questions and images begin to form.
Tales trigger my imagination. They give me a lens to approach, understand, and write about certain issues. They influence many of my poems.
What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
What isn’t driving me nuts? Whatever it is changes all the time. For one draft of a poem, I spend a lot of time and energy on commas. Is a comma needed here? No. Yes. Yes? For another draft, I’m not happy with the last two lines, so I write many different ends of a poem. I also try moving those two lines somewhere else in the poem, as though they’re puzzle pieces. What’s driving me nuts can depend on the draft, the day or time of day, the subject matter in the poem, the amount of vitamin D in my bones, the occurrence of solar flares, the fact that I’ve never seen a shooting star or cut open a durian.
What drives me crazy is really me. I can edit or doubt myself so much that I stop writing, which is the worst thing that can happen. My ego gets in the way of my work.
When it happens, my healthiest response is to stand up, walk away from my desk, and drink some water or tea. I often recall something my MFA thesis advisor, the poet Norman Dubie, would say at the end of each workshop. “Don’t be boring! Have fun!” His commands were once daunting but are now comforting. I return to my desk and think: OK, Diana, let’s try something, anything!
How would you describe your writing process?
I’m honestly not sure what my writing process is. But I know more and more that writing is indeed a process. It involves many drafts and stages—including stages of self-loathing and self-acceptance at times.
I’ve begun to consider a general cycle of creation: nourishment, digestion or incubation, germination, fruition, rest. Revision seems to happen during fruition or rest. And reading is an essential part of nourishment. Each cycle represents a poem, from seed to completion.
The length of time for each cycle varies, and I can never predict it. I wrote one long poem in three drafts, in two sittings within a month. But I also have a short poem that required many drafts over a four-year span. Perhaps an oak tree is just not the same as a stalk of corn.
I do know what my favorite writing conditions are. I’m happiest writing late at night, in complete silence, wearing pajamas and having a mug of tea nearby.
What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
I’ve received the most help in the following three circumstances.
One. I’ve been working on a poem for some time but see little growth. I’ll show the draft to a trusted reader and ask, “Keep going?” He/she recognizes potential in a detail I overlooked or confirms the suspicion that I’m just spinning my wheels.
Two. A poem has been revised and feels nearly done. I’ll give the poem to someone with two questions. “What’s boring? What’s confusing?” The response will help me refine and polish the poem.
Now. It’s been awhile since I’ve really wanted any feedback on my poetry. I’m still working through many poems and drafts, finding connections within them and between them. Figuring things out on my own and learning to trust myself has been nice. The quiet has been a comfort.
Receiving a response to the manuscript rather than individual poems would be more helpful. But I’m not ready right now to hand over my manuscript to someone.
What would you like your students to know about you as a writer?