EJ Koh is a poet and an author. Her work has been published in TriQuarterly, Southeast Review, La Petite Zine, Columbia Review, and elsewhere. She was a finalist in the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Prize in Poetry, appeared in Time Out New York, Flavorwire and was named #2 of 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013. She has an MFA from Columbia University, and her first novel, Red (Collective Presse), was released earlier this year. You can find out more on her blog.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein — Earlier this year, I had been dabbling in writing children’s books. And on a walk near Central Park, I picked the book up from a vendor. It was raining, and I remember soaking as I read the first page that had a dedication from December 1987:
The most special gift we can give
is ourselves to one another, who we love
completely. You have given me an even
greater gift; the opportunity and the
environment to grow in my love for you
and to gain a better understanding of
May you be filled with happiness of
memories of the past, and hope for the
future, each time you journey through
Maybe it was my time in New York, the years I had put into hoping, and very aptly, failing. But this book combined with the inscription revived me at a point when I was looking to be destroyed by my own dreams to write full-time. But I remember the end: “I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet place to sit and rest.”
“Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
Poems and Antipoems by Nicanor Parra — I discovered Nicanor Parra’s work at a vendor fair in New York. I didn’t know his Spanish poetry had immortalized him in the canon, or that the combination of his brutish wit and vulgar comedy had been translated by our most loved poets. All I saw was “antipoetry,” and I was hungry to shake the structure of my own poetic theory—to somehow come back to poetry that is understated and honest. The most remarkable thing: I bought his book for a dollar. The following months, Parra sent me devouring every book of translated Spanish poetry and every seminar I could find on Chilean poets. That single dollar changed my poetry, prose, and most importantly, the surfaces of my own life. I still remember memorizing one of Parra’s poems the day I took his book home:
Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.
In poetry everything is permitted.
With only this condition, of course:
You have to improve on the blank page.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell — To be candid, I have a hard time talking about this book. I read it before I had any inkling of creative writing, but I knew something was stirring my little heart. I think the impact of feeling so deeply affected by the written word left me confused. The book deals with childhood and memory—both topics I grapple with in my own poetry and prose today. The story coincides with my experiences growing up in Milpitas, California while my immigrant parents traded night shifts at work. I used to live closer to my neighbors, used to hear everything. I remember so much death and pain, and feeling helpless to do anything about it. There is something Maxwell describes between the moments of childhood and adulthood that strikes me where it matters.
While turning the pages of his book, I remember thinking, “I know exactly what the author means, how he feels in this moment.” In fact, it is now the one thing I work so tirelessly for: to have a hand appear out of my words and reach out to hold the heart of someone who needs comfort much more than I do.