Interview with Ian Haight

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Ian Haight’s collection of poetry, Celadon, won Unicorn Press’ First Book Prize and is scheduled for release in the fall of 2017. He is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea, and with T’ae-yong Hŏ, he is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesimfinalist for ALTA’s Stryk Prize—all from White Pine Press. Other awards include Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Translation, and grants from the Daesan Foundation, the Korea Literary Translation Institute, and the Baroboin Buddhist Foundation. Several of Ian’s poems were published in Issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review in February 2016. More information can be found at ianhaight.com.

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3288 Review: When did you first start writing? Was there a particular event or inspiration?

Ian Haight: I started writing at a young age. One of the first “big” events was winning a Michigan Young Authors prize for a story I wrote with a friend. It was some crazy adventure story that had the protagonist zipping from Mauritania to the Dachau concentration camp in WWII Germany. I just remember it was pretty long too; I think I did most of the writing and a couple of illustrations, while my friend did most of the illustrations and some of the writing. Anyhow it topped out at over 20 pages I think, which as a 3rd or 4th grader I was pretty proud of. Looking back, that was probably the first public affirmation that I could do something with writing.

3288 Review: You lived in Korea for almost two decades. What took you from Michigan to Korea, and how did you become a translator?

Ian Haight: I lived in Pusan, South Korea, from January 1992 to December 2009. What motivated me to leave Michigan and go to Korea was mainly adventure. I had just finished my BA and was looking to make some money for graduate school and have an international experience at the same time. I did some research, made contact with a recruiter, and soon had job offers to teach English at different schools all over the world. I had a lot of interest in Asian culture—meditation, martial arts, literature, and fine arts—so going to work in Asia was important to me. I chose South Korea because it paid the most among the Asian offers I had, but at the same time seemed to be the comparatively least trodden by westerners. I chose Pusan because it is a large coastal city and I felt like, again, it was comparatively untrodden by westerners among cities in Korea, but also because it was on the coast, and so would be a little familiar to me with respect to Michigan’s Great Lake waters. Every year my life improved so I ended up staying much longer than the initial 1-2 years I had planned.

The seeds of becoming a translator were planted about 1993-4. I met James Kimbrell, who at the time had just finished an MFA in poetry and was about to begin his PhD in Creative Writing at U of Missouri, Columbia. He was in Pusan for much the same reason as me: adventure in between degrees. Through his example and encouragement, Jimmy inspired me to take the writing of poetry seriously, and eventually I went back to school to earn an MFA, which I did at Goddard College. This was about 2001. At Goddard I soon realized most every poet I respected had at some point in their careers done translation—including Kimbrell, who near this time published his own book of Korean poems in translation. I figured since I lived in Korea I should be taking the opportunity to improve myself as a writer via the practice of translation, so I set about the task of finding Korean literature that I believed in and seemed suitable for publishing. Luckily I found several authors I could commit to, and so from there the actual translation/learning/writing process began.

3288 Review: What was the literary “scene” like in Pusan? How much interaction did you have with currently-active Korean poets and writers?

Ian Haight: So far as I could tell the main expat literary scene was most active in the resort beach area (Haeundae) or down near Pusan National University. Mostly those were spoken word/open mic events run by expats at bars. I lived more in what was and I think still is the center of Pusan—near Children’s Park along the green belt ridge that runs up from the former US military base there (Camp Hialeah). I could do spoken word but I was just more into my family, writing, working, and meditation. Those things occupied so much of my time I had to be very careful with how I spent my free time.

The other thing was the kind of writing I was deeply involved in, which was translation of classical Korean poetry. There was a growing pressure to leave Korea so my kids could get a western education; that made a concerted effort on translation of this literature important. It would be hard to summarize the translation process for the language we were dealing with—kind of a sub-language of Korean intended for a literati community several hundred years old. It was not easy work by any means, and I knew I would not be able to continue this work once I left Korea because I really needed the resources available in Korea to do the translations. Your average native speaking Korean cannot read this literature in its original language so I was in many ways forced to work in isolation. This was fine because I was passionate about the work. I worked on an almost daily basis with my translation partner, T’ae-yong Hŏ, who, as fate would have it, was very knowledgeable about this literature and turned out to be a committed and indispensable resource. T’ae-yong remains a family friend and we keep in touch.

Beyond Pusan though there were other things going on: I love Kangwon Province for its pristine beauty and Gangneung has a special place in my heart for the Korean writers who have lived there. Gene Justice ran his Pushcart Prize winning magazine Triplopia there. Gene and I hung out a number of times; he’s a heavy thinker and writer, and we’ve shared some good conversations. I still keep in touch with him. Seoul is the main scene though when it comes to international “things going on.” Most events are held through the Korea Literature Translation Institute and the Daesan Foundation. I got to spend several wonderful days with Gary Snyder and Robert Haas, which was instructive for me; they gave generously of their writing wisdom. So many things—hanging out in a hotel ballroom full of Nobel Laureates—Korea was a blessed place for me in many ways.

To the second part of your question: most of the interaction I had with contemporary Korean writers was through translation. Either I was asked to translate their work or I was on committees evaluating translations of their work. I enjoyed the committee work because it was an opportunity to be exposed to Korean literary canon—or what Koreans thought could become a part of their canon. The Korean literary mind is much different from the west, which of course is to be expected, but to have the writing be so appealing right off the bat I did not expect. Good Korean literature is counter-intuitive and complex in all the right ways; it deserves more recognition and attention in the world literature scene, and I hope eventually we can list from memory the names of great Korean writers just like we can when we think of writers from the East Asian countries of China and Japan.

3288 Review: As you move from country to country, do you notice your own writing changing with the surroundings? Does the location have any particular influence on your voice?

Ian Haight: Yes, I was wondering, in fact, if that would happen or if I would even notice it happening when I knew I was going to move to Guam. I don’t know if I can summarize meaningfully my life in Guam and how it affected my writing. It is an astonishingly beautiful island—the very definition in so many ways of paradise. I lived in Guam for about four and a half years, and certainly it had a tremendous impact on my thinking and how I define my life. At the same time there were so many unexpected pressures that I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, but I did remain somewhat productive. Most of what I was able to do in terms of writing was to finish and publish a book of translations (Selected Poems of Hyesim); draft some new poems based on dreams; and continue revising a whole range of my own poems. In terms of my own literary community life, Guam was probably the most sequestered I’d ever been. Despite the beauty of the island, there was very real poverty and follow on exploitation based on power; a kind of love-hate relationship among Pacific Islanders with the American government and its military on their island territory (which I, for better or worse was endemically conflicted by being a white man working for the US Dept. of Defense); the intense heat; and constant reclamation of all human made things by the jungle and the ocean. The gift in terms of voice that Guam gave me was a deepening sense that anger about injustice is fundamentally meaningless when at base, what most people really want is a way to live in and survive their surroundings. Justice and morality become quite relative under these terms. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I might have become less angry and more ambivalent–and possibly pessimistic–with my cosmological view of human beings in relationship to the world. I think this kind of voice and vision is more apparent in my second book of poems, which I have just completed writing.

Having recently moved to Europe, again I have been wondering what sort of impact my surroundings will have on my writing. At the moment I live in a remote farmland area of Bavaria most Germans have never heard of. It is lovely land, lovingly cared for in a manner demonstrating that the people of Germany respect the natural surroundings of the world they live in. Western history is everywhere and strange as it may seem in comparison with the United States, in practically everything. The quality of the food is incredible. There are significant European literary communities less than three hours from my house and there are places relevant to western canonical literature and culture less than an hour from my house. This is all very cool and new to me. I have noticed I am more interested in classical music and composers than I ever was before. This has led to an exploration of the work of Eric Satie, among other composers. I’ve begun drafting a new long poem about what I have learned from that exploration and its relationship to current themes in American poetry and culture. I am excited about that and it’ll be fun to see where that goes. I’m also looking forward to connecting with some of these literary communities in Europe–attending readings, publication events, and other cultural happenings I might not otherwise get to do. Who knows what the impact of all this will be on my voice but I am hopeful that my new experiences will help my writing grow.

3288 Review: There’s a lot of heavy stuff happening in Europe right now. How are you and your family holding up through all of the turmoil?

Ian Haight: Thanks for asking about my family and the European turmoil.  The easy answer is we are fine and not really affected. The harder answer comes from the question we are constantly asking and having to deal with: what does it mean to live in a country that has decided to let in 500,000 war refugees from all walks of life, but all in need? How do we respond when they bring their cultural/social norms into a more open western value system? Our news cycle and personal experiences went something like this last spring: elderly couple robbed and murdered in our idyllic Bavarian village, suspects refugees; metal posts on neighbor’s house vandalized, possibly for scrap metal, suspects refugees; middle school aged girls at local swim center ogled and fondled sexually, suspects refugees; man wandering neighborhood looking for handyman work then assumes odd presumptive attitude towards woman (my wife) and house I live in when possible handyman opportunities are discussed. Behavior is so off-putting wife drives husband to cancel any offers and never consider any future offers of work to this person. He was a refugee. I feel bad about that but don’t blame my wife for her founded concerns, either. And then the terrorist nonsense going on—believe it or not we know one of the families who was in the Belgium bombing. I mean we were neighbors back in Guam, their daughter tutored my son, my eldest was interested in dating her but then went off to college and they moved to Europe where they were attacked and the mother died before the children’s eyes…you want to help people in need, you understand your country might be or is part of the chain of events that caused these people to be refugees, but at the same time, I also end up completely understanding others who fear the consequences of providing that help. The recent bombing by a Syrian refugee in Ansbach—a German farm town with a large military community about 80 or so minutes from my house—doesn’t help. So we just soldier on through the crap and try to live the best lives we can under the circumstances we are given. I believe in my kids and my family—I can say that.

3288 Review: In your years living abroad and participating in other literary communities, have you developed an “outsider” view of American arts and letters? What have you noticed that might not be apparent to someone who has never worked or studied abroad?

Ian Haight: Yes, unfortunately, I have. And I think communities in America tend to view me as an outsider too. In point of fact I am an outsider so I just try to live with the circumstances, for better and for worse. Back in my South Korea days it was Robert Haas who told me (and Gary Snyder who sadly agreed) that I probably wouldn’t be able to make much of a writing career for myself outside of America. The problem, besides inability to network and give readings, was what I was writing about. Most Americans have never heard of the places or circumstances I’ve been in. I remember one American in a US workshop commenting that my writing was a kind of fantasy because these places and circumstances did not really exist in the world. Ouch! But also, what does that say about our geographically large nation with, I suspect, one of the most diverse populations on the planet? How provincial we are. Is it too damning to say, how shallow?

On the plus side, I think because of the information age, where I live matters less than it did in the youthful times of Haas and Snyder. I’m not incredibly active in social media but I do have a presence on Facebook, I comment on fellow poets’ and people’s posts that are of interest to me, and I think I am able to be surprisingly informed about what is going on in contemporary American poetry and America in general because of fb. So for that I am grateful. Juliana Spahr once told me poetry is a longevity game–if we think of it as a game–and I think she is right. As the years have ticked by I think people are becoming more aware of me via publications, online friend networks, online comments, etc. It’s not a perfect situation but at this point I am in it for the long haul. I have several manuscripts of translated poetry and my own poems ready for publication so the only reason to quit now is laziness.

As far as what I have noticed that might not be apparent to someone who hasn’t been abroad—to be honest I can’t think of anything I see in American poetry/letters that another person might have missed. Critical thought and self-awareness regarding poetry has never, in my view, been stronger in America. If I think about the question in relative terms, however, like what I see that comparatively fewer poets seem to see/acknowledge/want to do something about, then there are a couple things.

In the end, language is a tool to bring people together, but because of ego, it is also a tool to drive people apart. It’s easy to complain about class and privilege via language, but if your behavior fundamentally fosters hierarchies, should it be a surprise that you may be victimized by privilege? I direct this question to no particular group, and ask it rhetorically. It’s an unfair question in a way, because it has to do with how human beings live in the world. When human beings see the world as something they are all closely connected to as opposed to a resource to be used or exploited, then we might see societal shifts in the human heart and human beings might be on a solid track to end exploitative privilege. I’m making some leaps here but the assumed idea is our inner reality is intimately connected to our outer reality. The problem is the follow on consequences to making such a shift. Where humans get their food and energy are some chief questions that need to be resolved for humans to live in a more integrated manner with the world. Some kind of contemplative practice to resolve self-other duality is also necessary. This is, of course, a simplification of a number of things, but as a general gloss I think it works. The only other American poet I know of who is thinking of these matters the same way as me is Gabriel Gudding, but he’s probably more rhetorically devout about the origin of human societal suffering. I didn’t have to leave America to come to these ideas but it did help.

3288 Review: What are you working on right now? Do you have any writing scheduled for publication in the upcoming months?

Ian Haight: Right now I’m happy to have time to make writing a bigger part of my life, as it once was. When Prince died last spring it was a real motivator for me, and other artists, I know. I thought about what it means to be an artist, to have poetry that might be good just sort of somewhere but not really doing anything with it for whatever reason. So the big thing for me now is coming back into publishing, now that my family and work situations are more stable. Winning the Unicorn Press First Book Prize in poetry has also been motivating. I am planning a book reading tour to go from Michigan east through Pennsylvania and then south, possibly ending in Florida. If things go really well I might try to head west for some more readings. Since I work in Europe I am also planning some reading events there. I should go to the 2018 AWP. I’ve never done any of these things before so it’s all pretty new.

On the actual writing side, the second book of poetry I just finished is personally exciting because I can see growth and depth to the writing. It contains the best poems I’ve ever written, I believe. There’s a manuscript of translated poetry and prose which is completed. It’s on the subject of green tea and probably should have been published years ago. The obstacle there has been it is an illustrated book and has an ambitious marketing plan, so might be a better fit for a mid-level publisher, meaning I have had to learn how to do a book proposal for an illustrated text, which is much different from a small press poetry query letter. Those green tea book queries have all gone out so I’m waiting to see what the world thinks of that project. There’s more but that’s what I am working on in the immediate now.