In 2021, Howard County Poetry and Literature Society launched the Ellen Conroy Kennedy Poetry Prize in honor of its founding member, Ellen Conroy Kennedy. The contest received more than 100 submissions in its inaugural year, and the selection committee chose Arhm Choi Wild’s poem “Rummage” as the first place winner. The committee cited the poem’s “strong, poignant narrative voice telling a powerful story of a parent/child relationship that reveals what we often miss or misunderstand.” Arhm’s poem is published in the 2022 Winter issue of The Little Patuxent Review.
Here is Arhm reading “Rummage” for HoCoPoLitSo:
We wanted to learn more about Arhm, so we asked them a few of our favorite questions.
HoCoPoLitSo: Tell us about your poem “Rummage.” How did it come about? What sparked or inspired it?
ACW: I’ve been trying to write this poem for a long time but kept running into the irony of trying to magnify the limits of language while depending on it to convey the insatiable desire I have for connection with my mother tongue and those who reside in its geography. Over the years, I have collected the mis-translations between my mother and I, some hilarious, others devastating. It wasn’t until I tried bringing in synesthesia and my decades of not having a sense of smell that something clicked about how to convey the heartbreak of knowing my mother is simplifying her thoughts so I can understand them in Korean, and that I was doing the same in English. What is the sum total of loss when you put all of these almost translations, vague translations, ghost translations together? It is so revealing what words you turn to when you are angry or lonely, and I hoped this poem to speak to what it feels like to not share the same compass points of language with someone I have tried my whole life to understand more deeply.
HoCoPoLitSo: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
ACW: Though I was born in the States, we moved to Korea shortly afterwards, making Korean my first language. When we returned 5 years later, I remember very clearly practicing my introduction speech with my dad before the first day of school. We practiced over and over how to say where I was from, what my hobbies were, the members of my family. I remember it feeling like a suit I was sliding into while not recognizing the fabric, the way the cuffs folded, the shade of blue. I think the speech convinced my classmates and teachers that I was more fluent in English than I actually was, and I spent much of the following year choosing between replies of “yes” and “no,” fervently hoping the 50/50 chance wouldn’t reveal my inadequacies. I share this memory to talk about how it felt to finally speak English, the immense relief of being able to answer the teacher’s questions, of making an argument in English, of being a self who had more depth than “yes” and “no”. It both terrifies and exhilarates me that language can be both an ironclad door and also an amorphous key, opening to experiences I didn’t even know I was missing.
HoCoPoLitSo: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
ACW: I have always loved elephants and collected tiny figurines of them over the years. As a writer, I would love to borrow some of their long term memory and their ability to remember a vast variety of experiences. For me, traumatic experiences hold the most weight in my memory orbits, and sometimes I wish I had just as clear memories of ecstatic moments, of perfect moments. I also love how fiercely family-based elephants are, both biological fam and chosen fam. Being part of writing communities, especially in these last two years of the pandemic, has been life-saving on so many levels. Investing in and building community feels like an integral part of my writing practice, and I am extremely grateful for Kundiman, for Emotional Historians, and the various classes and workshops I’ve had a chance to work with.
HoCoPoLitSo: Tell us about a writer or a book that you return to over and over for inspiration.
ACW: An impossible question to just pick one! My younger, closeted self would have been overwhelmed and overjoyed to know that in my future I would have the immense fortune to know and read so many queer poets of color. People who have been particularly influential in the ways that they’ve liberated my sense of possibility and what it looks like to engage in work that is by and for our communities are Ocean Vuong, Natalie Diaz, Nikky Finney, and Marwa Halal.
HoCoPoLitSo: What are you working on next and where can we find you?
ACW: I’m working on a 2nd poetry manuscript that has been orbiting around my father’s death in 2020, my divorce, and finally coming out as transgender and beginning to transition. Sometimes I wonder what will be the thread that ties all of these subjects together. Today that thread is a look at what it means to start over and again, how grief brings out truth even if its unbearable, how much life can change in unexpected ways when one claims themself. I can be found at arhmchoiwild.com and @arhmcwild on Instagram, and am sending out signed copies of my first book, “Cut to Bloom,” for anyone who is interested!
Congratulations, Arhm! Thank you for sharing your poetry with HoCoPoLitSo and the world!
Arhm Choi Wild is the author of CUT TO BLOOM, the winner of the 2019 Write Bloody Prize. Arhm received a MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and their work appears or is forthcoming in Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Split this Rock, Blackbird, and others. They were shortlisted for the Poetry International Prize and have received fellowships from Kundiman, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. They work as the Director of the Progressive Teaching Institute and Diversity Coordinator at a school in New York City. For more information, visit arhmchoiwild.com.