Seoul, South Korea, native Sun Yung Shin ’05 M.A. earned a master’s degree in secondary education from the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at St. Thomas. Adopted by American parents and raised in Chicago, Shin now makes her home in the Twin Cities with her husband and two daughters. Her published work includes Cooper’s Lesson, an illustrated children’s book and two poetry collections: Skirt Full of Black and Rough, and Savage, published last year by local literary publisher Coffee House Press. She also is co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption and a contributor to eight anthologies.
While teaching at Perpich Center for Arts Education, Shin continues to make her mark as a poet, receiving artist grants and fellowships from the Archibald Bush Foundation, two from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, Blacklock Nature Sanctuary and the Loft Literary Center. This year she is a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award.
Shin, who teaches 11th and 12th grade English, took some time last week to answer a few questions via email for the Newsroom.
What do your students think about having a teacher who is a published author?
I honestly do not know! I don’t really think they give it much thought, if they even know. I don’t talk about it very much. If they do find out, I think it’s probably pretty abstract to them.
You graduated from St. Thomas in 2005 with an M.A. in secondary teacher preparation. Did you work on your first collection, Skirt Full of Black, while still a graduate student?
I did. I started writing poetry because of an adjunct teacher I had there − John Fenn, a playwright here in the Twin Cities. He and his partner, the poet Jill Breckenridge, encouraged me very kindly.
Do you incorporate poetry into your teaching?
As much as possible, but I could do more. It’s easier in some classes than others.
What kind of research did you do for Rough, and Savage?
I did a wide variety of reading and traveling for Rough, and Savage. I made two trips to Korea before the book was finished. I read more Korean history. I read a bit about Paleolithic pre-history on the Korean peninsula. I read the Inferno for the first time. I also read Metamorphoses by Ovid.
Please tell us about your history and how it influences your poetry.
I was born in Seoul and I grew up in an old suburb southwest of downtown Chicago called Brookfield. It’s a working class “village.” When I was growing up it seemed that there were a lot of Italian, Irish and Slavic folks. My adoptive dad’s family is from the south side of Chicago − they’re Irish and German. My adoptive mom’s family is from the little Ukraine area in Chicago − Polish people. Both my parents and their families were and are Roman Catholic, and I grew up going to Mass every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. My older brother is also adopted; he is a domestic adoptee and has the same ethnic makeup as our parents, but in reverse. His first mother was German and Irish and his first father was Polish. My brother could easily “pass” as our parents’ natural child. All of this influences my poetry in many ways. I would say that a few highlights are my interest in class, ethnicity within a “race,” and the language of the invisible.
One reviewer called Rough, and Savage, “more focused and more ambitious than [your] fascinating and strong debut, Skirt Full of Black,” in which you explored Korean History. Would you agree that Rough is a grander extension of your first collection?
It’s definitely more focused and ambitious, although I had to wander around a lot before putting all the pieces together. It didn’t come together all at once or from a precise plan from the beginning. I don’t really see Rough, and Savage as an extension, but maybe recursive in some ways, and I had a better sense that I didn’t have to try to do everything in one book, that, with luck, there would be more books in my future and I could go more deeply into fewer territories at a time.
Could you explain briefly “epic-style” writing in poetry for those who aren’t familiar? And why did you choose to write your second collection in this style?
I would explain it as a way to explore the heroic psycho-spiritual journey that each of us is on, which is really a journey to the deepest parts of ourselves, but is still in and part of the world, because we are of the world and of the planet, like all other living and non-living things on and inside Earth. I definitely chose it because I am drawn to writing like that − writing that attempts to tackle the vast and mysterious. Classical epics feature noble-born male protagonists, and I have been thinking a lot about what “heroic” means for females, what, if anything, is different.
You were editor of a collection of essays on transracial adoption, a slice of life you are familiar with and a theme you pursue in your work. Is poetry your preferred style of writing? And do you think you’ll ever delve into fiction again, as with Cooper’s Lesson, or adult fiction?
Poetry does allow me to communicate best what I have to say. It doesn’t require a narrative or characters; those two elements in (realistic) fiction can be reductive. In poetry, language is front and center. Poetry is like prayer and music and alchemy − condensed and mysterious. Multivalent, a good poem or even word opens and opens into the infinite and deeper and deeper into the self, which is a microcosm of the universe. All living things are omphaloi of the world − navels of consciousness that create axes that extend like poles through the planet. Each word, which has its own history, is like that.
I don’t really have any writing rituals. My main habit is reading a lot. I usually have books out and around when I’m writing.
When do you find time to write?
Whenever I can fit it in − weekends are better than weekdays. Mornings are better than nights these days. I usually write if I have a deadline and/or on breaks from school. I don’t have a routine, but I admire writers who do.
What books are on your guilty pleasure reading list?
The Game of Thrones books were a guilty pleasure, as were The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. But I don’t have anything new, I’m open to suggestions.