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RECITING THE STORY INSIDE
Ishle Yi Park, the Poet Laureate of Queens, New York, and regular performer on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, will bring her spoken-word art to the central San Joaquin Valley this weekend for the first Slam Fresno 2006.
Park has performed at hundreds of venues across the United States, Cuba, Korea and New Zealand. She is the first Korean American to compete in the final stages of the National Poetry Slam. Her work has the power to disarm and engage listeners and readers in the greatest of spirits.
She published her first book, The Temperature of This Water, in 2004 and has seen her poetry anthologized more than 20 times -- all this at 28 years old. Park welcomes visitors to her website and says, "Make yourself warm and cozy. I'd bring you a drink and cookies if I could."
In an e-mail interview, community journalist Sylvia Savala asked Park about living the life of a performance poet, coming to terms with gender and cultural stereotypes in her art, and about navigating the trappings of being a poetic rock star.
Spoken-word performance art has evolved from people in the community, as opposed to an academic setting. How important is a formal education to the performance poet and do you think it's necessary?
Just as singers study songs and woodworkers know wood, true poets should love and respect the word and dedicate themselves to the art. People don't need to go to school to learn poetry, but poets can educate themselves by reading writers they love and expanding from there.
That's what I did. I started with Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez, and Jessica Hagedorn -- all women of color whose work I could relate to -- and I finally got around to [Walt] Whitman and [Herman] Melville. I'm appreciating the spirit and fire and adventurousness of these old, dead white men who I didn't give the time of day ten years ago. It's good for my soul because I recognize the imperfect humanness and beauty of all poets who are trying to say something true.
How does a literary reading differ from a performance? Do you ever do just a reading or is it always a performance?
Whether it's a quiet reading or a raucous performance, I say a small prayer before I take the stage to ask my ancestors for strength, light, love, and humility. I try to give an honest part of myself to the audience. I read best when I forget about my own nervous body and ego and let myself become a vessel for something larger. That doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, it's a luminous experience.
You sometimes perform multiple times in a given week, which takes an enormous amount of energy. How do you cope with being on the road and how do you sustain your energy?
I try to keep healthy by avoiding eating at restaurants that end with a "y apostrophe s" -- meaning no Friendly's, no Wendy's, and definitely no Denny's. [I eat] lots of cashews, chocolate, chicken caesar salads, and smoothies. When I come back to New York, I rarely socialize -- I just sleep, read, relax, eat, and recuperate near family and very close friends.
I'm amazed by the many venues all over the world that you have performed in. What inspired you to include Fresno as part of your itinerary?
I've never been to Fresno and I've heard it's lovely. There is also an Asian American professor there who I look forward to meeting, [poet and Fresno City College professor] Lee Herrick. And as much as performing for a living is a blessing, it is also my livelihood -- like everyone else, I need to pay my bills.
Many of your poems are about the experiences of urban Koreans. According to recent census numbers, there are approximately 78,000 Asian Americans living in the Fresno area. How do you think your words speak to them?
Asian Americans may be able to relate to certain experiences I speak about that deal with identity, culture, inter-racial relationships, racial tensions, and being a second-generation child of immigrants. However, the basic force driving all my work is love, so I think anyone can relate to my stories. They deal with what it is to be a human being, a woman, and a person who is trying to be a small light in a world of overwhelming darkness.
How do you locate yourself as a female poet in an often male-dominated performance genre, and in a patriarchal society in general?
To be honest, being an outspoken, sensual Asian American woman is interesting and difficult territory to negotiate. On one hand, I want to be free to be my whole self onstage, and that means sometimes being reckless, bawdy, and carefree. On the other hand, I don't want to feed into the stereotype of the oversexualized Asian girl because I myself can't stand it when we're only seen in a sexualized context.
It's interesting that you ask this question now, because [recently] I just performed in Jamaica at the Calabash International Literary Festival, and my biggest personal dilemma was whether or not to perform the p*ssy poem, which is a rather explicit sensual poem describing what a woman wants in lovemaking. Two things made me regret doing this poem: 1) In the end, after reading my poems about family, politics, and Korea, many people left thinking about that crazy Korean woman talking about her private parts; and 2) This one man -- a respected college professor! -- came up to me and said something completely inappropriate.
However, two things made me not regret doing the poem: 1) Thirty to fifty local Jamaican women -- teenagers, mothers, and grandmothers, came up to me and told me how liberating, refreshing, and empowering it was to hear this poem; and 2) The bookstore people told me droves of people came in requesting it. So in the end, I do think seriously about what I am putting out into the world, and I am trying to find a natural balance.
What advice do you have for a poet who thinks she may want to try spoken-word performance art?
I'll answer that question with an excerpt from a journal entry on my birthday this year. It speaks to life as a performance poet, and might be more honest than any answer I try to think up:
May 24, 2006
"I'm living out of suitcases and boxes. I'm sleeping as the sun rises for a few fitful hours. I'm thin, living on chocolate Hershey's kisses and smoothies and single slices of wheat bread with peanut butter. Yesterday I wowed the old suits at the first Asian American ceremony ever conducted at City Hall for the Manhattan Borough President -- but what kind of life is this? Alternately luxurious and chaotic and unstable and terrifying. After [a fellow performer] finished his impassioned drum performance, I watched him from a distance, standing like a loner behind the stage, exhausted, vagrant, and clearly not one of the mixers and minglers at this event. And it hit me that we, as musicians and artists, bring our souls to the stage, then we leave, on a high or completely depleted, but we never truly fit in. On top of being marginalized as a Korean and a woman, I live on the fringes as a performer. And this is the life I have chosen. This is the freedom I have gained from much hard work and sacrifice. But [poet Chris] Abani's right. I must never complain, as I have the luxury of choosing my own form of enslavement. ... Let me not forget that, please. To dare to dream big and work hard. Sarang."
A New York Times article once said that you have the face of an angel and the soul of a rock star. What's it like to be a poet who gets called a rock star?
Funny, I recently read an article by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine where he talks about the use of the phrase "rock star" when it is not applied to real rock stars. While it is a compliment, he says, it is also slightly disparaging in that it focuses on the glamour and appeal of a particular person over their craft. It has been used for people like Barack Obama and Serena Williams. So I'd take the compliment with a grain of salt.
In the end, I want the fire of my spirit to outshine the surface glitz. But to be completely honest, when I was younger, I always dreamed of being a rock star -- I grew up as heavy metal's last siren song was trampled under the hip-hop's hooves -- so to have someone say I have the soul of a rock star is a beautiful thing for me.
Ishle Yi Park will perform with other nationally renowned spoken-word performance artists this Saturday, June 10, at 7 p.m. as part of Slam Fresno 2006, hosted by Ululate Productions. Check the calendar for details.