When it comes to the arts, literature may be the University of Chicago’s strongest suit. One of the highlights of the University’s literary calendar is the Committee on Creative Writing’s Emerging Writers Series, a quarterly event for which an emerging professional writer chooses a student writer for a joint reading of poetry, novels or short prose. Last Thursday’s installment featured the poetry of published author Cathy Park Hong and UofC student Christopher Miller.
Skipping a lengthy introduction, Hong jumped straight into her poetry, reading from “Translating Mo’um,” her first book, and “Dance, Dance Revolution,” her most recently published work. She spoke quietly, reading casually from books set on a classroom lectern, but she used a huge range of pronunciations and intonations in her voice, mirroring her complicated writing. Hong writes her poetry in multiple voices, each narrated by a different character. During the reading, she spoke in the persona of characters ranging from a Korean-American scholar, who speaks in calm standard English and can be thought of as Hong’s alter ego, to a gushing tour guide from the fictitious city that is the setting for “Dance, Dance Revolution.” The city, often referred to as “the desert” in the poems, is a Las Vegas-like conglomeration of phony replicas of the landmarks of other cities. Most important for the poetry is the city’s unusual language. As Hong explains in the forward to the book, the city’s residents each speak their own unique shade of a patois, which is based on standard English but which also has elements taken from over three hundred languages and dialects.
In introducing Hong’s work, visiting Professor of Creative Writing Ed Roberson compared “Dance, Dance Revolution” to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” saying, “If it is starting to sound like ‘Invisible Cities,’ it is that wonderful.” At the same time, Hong’s work is closely attuned to real-world events and her playful use of language is used to describe some serious topics. Both of her books make references to the 1980 government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in South Korea and take up themes related to immigration and identity.
If Hong sets her poems amidst the world of imaginary cities and colorful accents, student Christopher Miller set his against a backdrop of concrete, streets, and apartment buildings taken from the city around us. Miller’s way of reading was calm and steady, as his poems were generally written with a single voice and perspective. Some of them were inspired by particular places in Chicago like “Down the Line,” which Miller explained, “was inspired by all the time I have spent on the Green Line.” Miller originally intended another poem, “Family Dentist,” to form part of a longer work that would profile the numerous small family businesses found in the North Side neighborhood where Miller used to live.
For the audience, the reading was a rare opportunity to hear poetry straight from the authors themselves, and they made the most of it by listening intently. From the start of the reading to the end, the poets had their listeners hanging on every word.