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The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

Choi

One part poetry, one part meditation on memory, Chiwan Choi’s third collection, The Yellow House, is a collage of captured instances, a tale of remembrances fragmented by time. A haunting, semi-hallucinatory trip through the immigrant’s perpetual no-man’s land—that zone between old home and new where people and places, love and death, happiness and sadness mingle—The Yellow House is about the struggle to belong, to reconcile the land of the past with that of the present. Seeing that reconciliation as a fundamentally impossible endeavor, the poet’s thoughts turn to forgetting one set of memories or the other, ultimately failing in this as anyone must.

Born as it is of a multitude of recollections, The Yellow House is not so cerebral as to be inaccessible. Far from it. This collection feels immediate, reads very much as the story of Choi’s life, often flirting with the mode of lyric memoir. There’s an acceptance of paradoxes here, the sort of contradictions that define everyone’s relationships with their parents. At once somehow god-like, everything to us, all parents ultimately fail us both while they are alive and in the fact that they do not live forever, leaving us assured only of our own mortality.

Choi’s parents figure prominently in these poems, many of the pieces referencing his father, more still his mother. His family having emigrated from Korea when he was very small, Choi seems constantly at cross purposes with himself, struggling to feel at home in the new land and the forgotten one, never completely achieving the sort of idyllic existence he longs for in either. There’s a glorification of both old and new homes here, and, thus, a devaluation of them as well. In this, Choi captures and rarefies the immigrant’s experience—the lure of the perfect future that never comes to pass, the love for a past made grander by the fact that it never was.

 

There haven’t been many weeks since the summer of 2014 ended in which I haven’t thought about or someone hasn’t reminded me of #90for90, that time we did 90 events over 90 days in a train station bar. When it ended, it felt like those corny movies where our characters have a terrifying, exciting, overwhelming, but ultimately unforgettable summers that forever change them. In many ways, none of us—Jessica, Peter, Judeth or myself—have recovered from it.

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So, your first week on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List, you were #8; you were recommended in People magazine for ‘Great Fall Reads’; you had a full page in the New York Times Sunday Style section, a half page in the New York Post, you’ve done many radio shows, and Connie Martinson’s PBS television show Book Talks.  And, well, how do you feel with all this success?

Pinch me!

 

When did you decide to write your memoir, and why?

I knew I would write when I was ten (in 1953!), when I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I wanted to escape my molesting, child-beating stepfather.

I started writing in 1988 to talk to young people coming into the hairdressing field, to share about this town and the celebrity hair history of the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to share about being a woman and breaking into an all-male field, life before credit cards, cell phones, and when a drive-by meant a visit, not a shooting. And most importantly, I wanted to talk about recovery in many areas.

 

How did you come up with the title Upper Cut?

I had the title before the book.

Then everyone said that Uppercut sounded like a boxer’s story. But I didn’t relent. I defended the title! I was the Upper hair-Cut-ter, in the upper echelon town—Beverly Hills. And I knocked myself out with drugs and alcohol (okay, so there’s a bit of a boxing metaphor going on there).

However, I have a code: if ten people tell you that you have a tail, you better turn around and check your butt!  So I thought about it, then did what I do best, I cut it. Into two parts. Upper Cut.

Luckily my agent and publisher never questioned my title.

 

Why did it take so long to write the book?  From 1988 to its release date on September 20, 2011?

I started when people didn’t have personal computers. I wrote my book by hand on twelve Steno pads. In 1990 I got my first computer, handed down by a friend. I hired someone, as I read from my Steno pads, to transcribe my book into my computer. Finally one night I wanted to write. I pushed that power button and said to myself…’I’m going in!’ I still salute on bended knee: Cut and Paste, my best friend.

In the years to follow, it was writing, re-writing, vacations, romantic distractions and new hobbies, my own photography shows, poetry readings. (Helloooo, it was the  hip 90’s, with the hip-hop and poetry slams.)  I was on NPR with my poetry, recording my poetry, including presenting my own poetry show with the best poets of this town, every Sunday night at a popular coffee house called Lulu’s Alibi.  People didn’t even know I was a hairdresser. Finally, though, I’d heard the painful question one too many times:  ‘Are you still writing that book of yours?”

I stopped everything and enrolled in Jack Grapes’ writing class.  For the next two years I immersed myself in his two books of writing assignments. When I completed that, I hired the teacher’s pet and my favorite writer from class, who was starting his own editing class, Chiwan Choi.  He worked with me another two years…guiding me with no frills, just strong direction to expand on this, and eliminate that, and get deeper. As he insisted, I started Upper Cut all over from scratch.

My Steno pads, and previous renditions of Upper Cut became flash card notes.

Chiwan was a 36 year-old, Korean NYU literary snob. I knew if I could keep his interest, I would have a good book. His poetry book The Flood and soon-to-be-released Abductions are so stunning. I knew he wouldn’t tolerate shallow writing and would challenge me to do my best.

 

Writing is so isolating. Did you feel alone all those years?

Never. All of my people, and all of the memories in Upper Cut, were so alive in my house, before I even flipped on my computer. I would sense Billy lighting his Sherman cigarette, Richard rolling a joint, hear the music of the Rolling Stones, the bubbles dancing at my nose from the champagne in my mind, and I would feel my children running all through the house with my Newfoundland, Max, sitting by my side like a big sleeping bear.

Now I feel alone. Now they are all out in the world. It’s so quiet in my house. I have empty-nest syndrome.

 

Can you believe that you’re published by Simon and Schuster/Atria Books?

No, but here it is, so it must be real. I slept with my galley the first two nights. I kept looking at my words printed on pages, words and sentences I had written and re-written a million times.

 

Can you share a little wisdom with hopeful first-time writers?

I say finish your product to the best of your ability before you let anyone you want to do business with see it. If you get an advance and are just starting… you will now have a boss!

What if Salvadore Dali had a backer, and halfway through he said to Dali: “Hey, what’s with the melting clocks buddy? Dump them!” But when finished, you know the guy would say, “Wow, fantastic… and I love the melting clocks!”

 

What is your bottom line message?

Never give up.

 

Any regrets with Upper Cut?

I regret that my beloved Michael Crichton is not here to know all the wonderfulness that finally happened for me and the book. His recommendation to his agent, Lynn Nesbitt, changed my life.  He didn’t even think she herself would take me on, but he thought that if I was represented by her agency, I would have a good chance of getting published. Well, she did take me on, and I am forever grateful to him.

 

Do you have new goals?

Of course, Upper Cut...the movie. Upper Cut the Musical! And dare I say: Book 2.

 

Bunker

By Chiwan Choi

Poem

i don’t know
if everything they told me
is true,
about statues carved in stone
that blinked in the chilean sun,
about grandfather’s deal
with the russians to save the family
as the communists came.

these are questions
i allowed myself to forget in ‘99
soon after
mother asked me what
she should do
about the tumor
in her stomach.

it is a monday
for all of us—
sons, fathers,
street sweepers,
to forgotten things
on the pavement,
a box of books,
most of them in tact,
on 7th street.

my parents only taught me
what was given them,
this ability to spill
inward,
to hold our blood
inside us
in bowls made
from hollowed trees
until the weight
of what survives us
gives us comfort.

my father—
and mother too—
wanted me to learn
to keep my eyes
on the ending,
to call death
by a familiar name,
giving me god
so i can embrace it.

how mother—
and father too—
held me until
i was able
to release these poems
that cannot
save us,

to whistle down
the street
on the intermittent yellow paint
in the center,
to the fire,
to skeletons of ancestors,
to the disappearing shadows
of a neighbor that stood thinking,
to the glory
of these things
we have not known.

it is monday,
but how can i speak
of the sky,
a blue that isn’t blue,
when we are
in the basement food court
of a koreatown mall,
eating spicy burnt rice
from stone bowls,
sitting in these end of days
in this bunker
beneath
the world we have fought
to love
as father keeps himself
from smiling at me,
a bunker that will
not hold forever
but long enough
for mother to drop seaweed
on my food
with her wooden chopsticks,
long enough for me
to protest.

What have you been drinking?

I’ve been drinking a lot (like gallons) of a beer called Maredsous. A Belgian. Like 9% alcohol and delicious. I go to Pete’s Cafe & Bar on 4th & Main during happy hour and drink much of it. Before that it used to be Piraat Ale. Also Belgian.

And I also drink wine because I love it. I have writing workshop at my apartment on Tuesday nights and we drink and snack during the class. Whatever is left over, I drink it on Wednesday morning for breakfast.
And tequila.


What is your favorite recent film?

Ok. So I can’t stop watching Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. I watched it recently on cable only because it was directed by the guy who directed Raising Victor Vargas, which I also could not stop watching (In fact, for a while, while living in New York after watching that movie, I couldn’t stop saying, “Hey, I’m Victor!”). Anyway, I’ve watched Nick & Norah like 4 times now. I think I will have to illegally download the soundtrack. Kat Dennings! Mmmmm…

Which got me thinking (the movie, I mean) about writing, about what I wanted to accomplish as a writer, and then I thought I had this huge breakthrough of a thought and so I’m walking down 7th St. toward Maple through all that piss stink and I’m walking with my wife and I’m all excited as I tell her that I’ve figured out what I want to do and she says, “What?” and I say, “Ok, so if I could just combine high literary art with uber-melodrama, THAT would be the holy grail!” She’s like, “What?” And I say, “You know, combine, I don’t know, William Faulkner with, you know, Dawson’s Creek! That! That would be the greatest thing!” And she says, “William Faulkner already did that.” And that was the end of that.


Are you tired?

Yes.


Are you excited?

Very!


About?

Well, couple of things.

One — this is HUGE! I got the opportunity, I mean the honor, of working with O-Lan Jones and her Overtone Industries on an opera she’d conceived and was developing. This started like 10 years ago. I got to write one segment/world in the story and one song. And guess what? It’s here! Opening July 8! (Previews starting July 1) In beautiful Culver City! In a beautiful abandoned 25,000 sq ft car dealership space!! It’s actually one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in. Go here for tix.)

Two — this month’s edition of The Last Chapbook Salon was awesome. Every third Sunday of the month, we have a reading at an amazing bookstore in downtown LA called The Last Bookstore. They gave me a shelf to curate with chapbooks from local writers and in return, the writers donated 3 copies each of their chapbooks so the store can make a little money. And it’s been great because people you may not normally see at a reading have been showing up and sharing and trading and buying. Very cool. I’m proud of that one.


What else?

I hate Boston. I’m so happy we beat the Celtics. I’m so happy the Bruins self-destructed in the hockey playoffs. I can’t wait to see the Red Sox lose a 7-game series too.


Any last words?

She’s just jealous because you have a beautiful thorax.