PhD student’s debut poetry collection earns rave reviews

Emily Jungmin Yoon’s poems capture plight of Korean ‘comfort women’

Emily Jungmin Yoon’s poetry is not meant to be pretty. In writing about gender, race and violence against women, she intertwines the histories of her native Korea and the United States, revealing the painful echoes of the past. It is through such memories Yoon finds a particular beauty.

In September, the UChicago PhD student released her first full-length poetry collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species. Across 80 pages, the Busan native confronts the histories of sexual violence against women—focusing on the Korean “comfort women” forced into sexual labor by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

“Poetry is not just relief; poetry is tension,” Yoon wrote in an author’s note. “Poetry is departure. Poetry is return. Poetry is memory. I wrote this book to say that one has the agency and command to preserve their own narrative.”

The new collection has been lauded by critics and writers alike. “Miracles of clarity and precision,” said Pulitzer-winning poet Vijay Seshadri. “A heart-wrenching debut,” wrote Elizabeth Lund for The Washington Post. “A lovely, moving, and ultimately devastating book,” said Pulitzer Prize finalist Chang-rae lee. 

The book marks a career milestone for the poet and scholar. A fourth-year PhD student in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Yoon never dreamed she would continue to write poetry after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, let alone be published. But after attending New York University for her MFA, Yoon discovered a community of poets who helped shape her writing and inject a new seriousness into her work. 

“NYU is a relatively diverse program, and the poets of color there and I gathered to talk about social activism, the role of poetry within activism, political poetry,” Yoon said. “I learned a lot from my peers, and that definitely affected my writing. I gradually began to feel that writing poetry wasn’t just about me.”

Yoon’s poem “Bell Theory”—which produced the eventual title of her new collection—highlights this balancing act between the personal and the political. First published in the March 2017 issue of Poetry Magazine, the poem begins with a memory of Yoon as a student being mocked for her English, and by the end touches upon the current refugee debate in the United States and the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s.

“I try to address current events in both Korea and the U.S., and my own stance living in this historic time,” Yoon said. “It’s draining to keep up with both countries, especially because they are both going through chaotic periods.”

Navigating these difficult spaces is one of the reasons Yoon was selected as the Offen Poetry Prize winner in 2017. The prize, given annually by the University’s Program in Poetry and Poetics, is awarded to an established Chicago poet who then selects a UChicago student to read his or her work. The winner, Roger Reeves, selected Yoon for her inventive ability to deal with both the political and the artistic.

“I think she deals with the difficult in some really interesting ways and understands that beauty is in that difficulty,” Reeves said in his introduction of Yoon at the February 2017 reading. “Her ability to straddle multiple spheres at once, I think she can do so many things. I think she’s doing amazing, amazing work.”

Added Kyeong-Hee Choi, associate professor in East Asian Languages & Civilizations and Yoon’s academic adviser: “Her most recent poems certainly bear witness, not only to the rise of a young poet with extraordinary talent, but also to the steady emergence of a young and serious scholar.”

In addition to juggling her academic studies and poetry, Yoon is also the poetry editor for The Margins, a literary magazine published by the Asian American Writers Workshop. She has published poems by contemporaries including Chen Chen, Fatimah Asghar, and Kimiko Hahn. Yoon has strived to publish works that surprise and challenge her—important qualities in helping to revive poetry’s place in the modern world.

“A lot of people say poetry is dying, but I think that it’s because people think that poetry is out of their reach or irrelevant,” Yoon said. “I think that especially when times are hard, poetry is most necessary.”

—This story was adapted from an article by that originally appeared on UChicago News in March 2017.