Hong’s Language Gives Poetic Sound New Meaning

Louise Edwards, Arts editor

Cathy Park Hong, OC ’98, opened the first poetry reading sponsored by the Creative Writing department last Friday with “Roles,” the first piece from her book Dance Dance Revolution. “Opal o opus, / behole, neon hibiscus bloom beacons! / ‘Tan Lotion Tanya’ billboard . . . she / your lucent Virgil, den I’s taka ova / as talky Virgil . . . want some tea? Some pelehuu?” she read. In a foreword to the book, Hong writes in the voice of one of her characters, a historian, who explains the context of the following poems, which are written in a new creole language created by Hong. The historian says, “In the Desert, the language is an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects imported into this city, a rapidly evolving lingua franca. The language, while borrowing the inner structures of English grammar, also borrows from existing and extinct English dialects. Here, new faces pour in and civilian accents morph so quickly that their accents betray who they talked to that day rather than their cultural roots.”

In addition to a new language, Hong creates an alternative history for the world the characters inhabit. The poems in the book are snippets from interviews of a tour guide that the historian has recorded on tapes damaged by rain. The poems tell how the tour guide, a former revolutionary from South Korea, helped stir unrest against a military coup and later moved to “the Desert” to work as a housekeeper and tour guide at various hotels. While the tour guide speaks Hong’s language, the historian speaks “standard” English, grounding the book with their explanatory notes and short memoirs.

Hong’s work is ingenious. Despite the amalgamated language, it is not hard to understand. The poems rely heavily on sound, which is intriguing to hear aloud and helps to create nuanced meaning. In “Services,” part of the “St. Petersburg Hotel Series,” Hong describes one of the hotels the tour guide works at. “See radish turrets stuck wit tumor lights around hotel / lika glassblown Russki castles sans Pinko plight, / only Ebsolute voodka fountains. Gaggle fo drink?” The hard “t” and “k” consonants create a short, clipped cadence that reflects the precise and tidy hotel environment Hong illustrates. Additionally, the unique wording creates an aura of wonder that a tourist might feel when visiting a new place for the first time. It also highlights the grandiose and surreal space that tourists inhabit through consuming goods like vodka and living in luxurious hotels. Hong clearly has a deep understanding of how to elicit emotions in readers through sound and syntax, and it was exciting to hear Hong read her own language with her own inflections.

Yet her choice to construct a character that speaks in an amalgamation of languages is also a political statement. In her poem “Toast to the Grove of Proposals,” which Hong introduced as an “ode to interracial marriage,” Hong uses the refrain, “les’ toast to bountiful gene pool, / to intramarry couple breedim beige population!” Here, her syntax shapes a celebratory atmosphere, yet the clinical and cold word choice creates a humorous tone, mocking how people often exoticize interracial couples. Since the character speaks in Hong’s amalgamation of language, this highlights the irony in the character’s statement — they stereotype interracial couples, yet use an amalgamation of languages, a common practice for some interracial families.

In a question and answer session after the poetry reading, Hong explained that she had been writing two separate pieces — one in Korean and one in English — before the conception of Dance Dance Revolution. Hong noted that this involved a lot of code switching. “I just wanted something that unified all these different voices,” she said. That is how the idea of creating a new combined language came about.

The work also challenges ideas about cultural and linguistic accessibility. “Certain cultural references are considered accessible over other cultural references,” Hong said. By creating a new language, Hong navigates this problem in an insightful way, since there will be some part of the language that every reader doesn’t understand. While this lack of familiarity may make some readers uncomfortable, it forces them to acknowledge that some things are simply unknowable.

Linda Gregerson, OC ’71, and Director of the M.F.A. program at University of Michigan, read after Hong. While Gregerson’s poems were much more traditional than Hong’s, the two poets’ works complemented one another. Gregerson’s work highlighted varied voices and her pieces made connections across time and place. “I’ve always liked multi-vocality in the lyric,” she said. “I like making it porous so other voices can come in.” Her poem “Salt” included voices from various generations. She introduced the poem by explaining that her grandfather, who lived in Newport Township, was the justice of the peace, the sole elected official for many small rural communities at the time. The poem describes a depressed and abusive father: “Because my father hated his life, / my sister, / with her collarbone broken, was spanked / and sent to bed for the night, to shiver / through the August / heat and cry her way through sleep.” While the roles of justice of the peace and an abusive father seem contrasting, Gregerson’s piece finds the similarities: Both are the official arbiters of justice within their spheres.

Another layer of complexity comes toward the end of the piece, when the narrator notes that they couldn’t understand why their sister enjoyed swinging on the hammock that eventually caused her to break her collarbone. Gregerson cleverly ends the piece by writing, “Some children are like that. … I had one myself.” This brings the story full-circle, demonstrating how actions of older generations in families still influence younger generations, even after older generations have passed away.

Another multi-layered poem by Gregerson titled “Ceres Lamenting” uses the Roman myth of Proserpina to talk about current events. In the myth, Proserpina was raped by Dis, the god of the underworld, and forced to live with him for half of the year — the reason that it is winter during those months. Gregerson uses this story to reflect on the 2012 gang rape and fatal assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus. “The crowbar, / the bus, the whole / ungodly mess of it lit and scripted on a / stage,” she writes. While the classical allusions could have come off as remote and stuffy, Gregerson’s contemporary imagery brought a fresh and dynamic twist to the age-old tale. Both gruesome stories highlight how rape culture has infiltrated societies across time and place. The poem continued, asking “do all / of our stories begin with rape?” This line not only expresses frustration about rape culture, but also about how women’s stories that garner the most media attention are often those concerning violent sexual crimes. Both Gregerson’s and Hong’s work pushes readers to think about how language and the way that stories are told privilege certain voices.