Why Chiwan Choi Is the Jay-Z of Poetry
Chiwan Choi is subverting the tropes and expectations of a poet, using innovative new outlets -- including through Facebook -- to get his work to a broader audience.
Poet and publisher Chiwan Choi had just finished a reading in Highland Park and was riding the bus back to his downtown L.A. apartment when something changed.
It was one of those picturesque days when the city seemed too perfect; the sky looked as if it had been painted by Rembrandt. Choi was excited, because the reading at Avenue 50 Studios had been packed, hinting at an epoch when poets were respected and idolized.
He found himself thinking that he was reaching a point of success as a poet. And that's when he realized, "Wow, I'm done."
"The stupid Facebook posts I write are probably seen by more people than all those who have read both my books combined," he says today, two months after his bus-ride awakening. "And if poetry is about getting to the reader and the world, then doesn't that defeat the point to write poetry and put it in a book that no one would read?"
At 42, Choi had achieved no small level of acclaim. A graduate of New York University's MFA program for dramatic writing, his work had been published in Esquire and ONTHEBUS. He even had his own indie press, Writ Large.
Yet, like Jay-Z, who famously announced his retirement from rap in 2003, Choi decided to retire at the top of his game: No more writing poetry; no more performing at poetry readings.
"I felt like I was getting lazy," Choi says. "I kept writing to the farm. ... I just hit a wall."
For artists, and even athletes, comfort can be the kiss of death. Unless Choi felt challenged or pushed, he worried, he'd be stuck singing the same old song and talking to the same old people. And the frustration built as he attended readings in Los Angeles and throughout the country: The poets he observed seemed to be deliberately alienating their audience by using obtuse language and hidden themes.
Choi once was guilty of this behavior, too. In his first book of poetry, he included a 70-page poem, which had taken 10 years to write. "It completely disconnected me from the reader," he admits.
He's sitting in a booth at King Eddy's Saloon underneath a painting of Charles Bukowski, sipping a beer. "Like a Rolling Stone" is playing through the sound system. "So I've been thinking of different ways," he says. "If I just got rid of any idea of form or structure, could I connect with the reader as immediately as possible?"
So his "retirement" is about abandoning traditional poetry tropes — and finding new ways to express himself and actually communicate to his audience.
"A friend — she's covered in tats — asked me to tell her my favorite line from one of my books, and then she would tattoo it on her shoulder," Choi says. "That would make her tattoo artist a publisher — and my friend a book. And I would have no problem calling that publishing."
Choi also has been talking to RISK, the legendary L.A. street artist, about incorporating his poetry into a mural. He wants his words to interact directly with an audience, and street art is a perfect vehicle.
Facebook is another outlet. When writing posts, he says, "I feel like I've jumped into this perpetual live-writing session that's never going to end. And it has no structure, no plot; it just goes where it's going to go."
But poetry on the printed page? Well, somewhere along the way, poetry on the printed page lost its purpose.
"Before, it was a means to get people to read the poem, and now it's become its own reward," Choi says. "Even if no one reads it, it was still published."
His dramatic decision is rooted in his family's history. His family left Seoul, South Korea, when Choi was 5, too young to understand international boundaries. Literally he walked onto a plane, and when he walked off, he was in Paraguay, and everybody was different. He felt like he'd been abducted.
And just when he was getting used to speaking Spanish and his friends in Paraguay, his parents got visas to move to the United States and he was abducted all over again.
Choi says he couldn't connect or find a community in Paraguay or in the United States because of these "abductions."
"That's when I really chose this path to be an outsider. I was being forced there anyway, so I had to embrace it, or it's going to feel like I'm failing, that my life is meaningless. I have to embrace the fact that I'm an outsider."
Poetry, for Choi, seemed transgressive — the act of a subterranean. Which is why he grew so frustrated that L.A. reading series didn't feel broadly inclusive. Participants in some readings were 90 percent white; others were 90 percent Asian or Latino.
His annoyance with the scene was one reason he called his second book, Abductions, a "science-fiction poetry book." "I just wanted to take a crack at the sacred place of poetry. ... Why do you hold [poetry] in this really high, sanctified place? I'll put aliens in it." It was both a "fuck you" to the literary elite and a vehicle to express his alienation.
He will continue to publish new books at Writ Large Press, he says, which causes some tension in his life. On one hand, he doesn't know what the purpose of a poetry book is anymore; on the other hand, continuing to publish other writers is a way to explore the question of why books are important in the first place. "Each book," Choi says, "we're trying to figure out why we exist, and why we do what we're doing."
But he won't be performing at poetry readings anymore. He says he's going to do things differently — although L.A. will watch, knowing the real Jay-Z's retirement didn't take. The rapper lasted three years before releasing a new album, and even less before launching a world tour. He later called it "the worst retirement in history."
Chiwan Choi may return to traditional poetry one day — perhaps better than he left it. But for now, poetry lovers would be better off skipping the poetry reading and logging into Facebook.
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