Poetry of prize-winning PhD student weaves social issues and art

Emily 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.

Navigating these difficult spaces is one of the reasons Yoon, a UChicago graduate student, was selected as this year’s Offen Poetry Prize winner. 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. This year’s 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,” said Reeves in introducing Yoon last month at a public reading of her poetry. “Her ability to straddle multiple spheres at once, I think she can do so many things. I think she’s doing amazing, amazing work.”

Yoon, a second-year PhD student in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, never dreamed she would continue to write poetry after college, yet 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. This year, her poems are appearing in outlets such as Poetry Magazine and The New Yorker.

“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,” highlights this balancing act between the personal and the political. Published in the March 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.”

Kyeong-Hee Choi, associate professor in East Asian Languages & Civilizations and Yoon’s academic adviser, is impressed by Yoon’s ability as a poet and a serious academic.

“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,” Choi said.

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.”