Minneapolis Poet Sun Yung Shin on portals, 'Tygers' and the magic of collaboration

A Korean-American woman with red lipstick and a gold "Sunyung" necklace
Sun Yung Shin
David Boyer

Throughout National Poetry Month, we have been talking with poets around the state about their inspirations, past and present.

Sun Yung Shin lives in Minneapolis and is nominated for the Minnesota Book Award in two categories — poetry and children’s literature.

MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer talked with Shin about collaboration and the creative process behind her books, “The Wet Hex” and “Where We Come From.”

Sun Yung Shin also shared a poem that drew her to poetry early on.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: April is National Poetry Month, and we've been talking with poets around the state about their inspirations past and present. Sun Yung Shin lives in Minneapolis and is nominated for the Minnesota Book Award in two categories, Poetry and Children's Literature. And she is on the line. Sun Yung, congratulations. It's just a huge honor.

SUN YUNG SHIN: Thank you so much, Cathy. We're really excited. We're really happy. Yeah. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Good for you. Let's talk about your most recent poetry collection, The Wet Hex. It's very interesting. You draw from Christopher Columbus's journals-- traditional Korean burial rites, and your own immigration documents. That's a lot of material to knit together. How did you do it in that way? What was the thought process behind that?

SUN YUNG SHIN: I think it's because as an immigrant, as a Korean adoptee, there's just so many things that had to come together for my particular history and the history of my community of Korean adoptees in the 20th century. And so I'm always just trying to understand, what all happened in history that created these conditions, whether it's Korea, South Korea, United States and its relationships around the world?

So I've always been fascinated, of course, with books and words and documents. And so I think I just follow my curiosity and try to understand what our culture is now and kind of how I fit in it.

CATHY WURZER: You are a Korean-American transnational adoptee, as you mentioned. You deal with the themes of adoption, and you dedicate the collection to those cast away. Tell us more about that.

SUN YUNG SHIN: Correct. Yeah, thank you. I was a legal orphan, which means at the time it doesn't mean necessarily that both parents were deceased. It means in South Korea at the time legally abandoned or placed for adoption.

And there's a really complicated history of Korean adoptions starting with the Korean War and the US military occupation and partnership with the South Korean government.

I feel like I've just always had an affinity for people who've been either sent away from their original families or societies for a variety of reasons, people who have had to leave their homes, people who are in some state of exile or migration, uncertainty. I realized that's really who I write for in an abstract sense.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, too. The collection has a section where you collaborated with a visual artist Jinny Yu. How did you two work together to pair the drawings with poetry?

SUN YUNG SHIN: I'm so glad you asked. Thank you. Jinny Yu is such an extraordinary artist. We got paired together just by being in the same exhibit by a curator, Godfre Leung, who is in Canada but was here in Minnesota for a while as a professor. And when I saw her work. I just immediately fell in love with it.

I've always been interested in doors and portals, and her work has all of these windows, passages, squares, rectangles. And so I just asked her if she would like to collaborate on this project that I had this idea for a 12 or so part poem about the legend of the first Korean shaman. And I said, how about this?

Or we figured out I would write a section and send it to her, and she would create a drawing and send it back to me. And then we would just go back and forth, and so it really went piece by piece like that. And rather quickly, it felt really good, and her work inspired me to move on to the next piece and really stay in what I see in her work as mystery and openings.

CATHY WURZER: I love the fact that you're fascinated with doors and portals. Where do you think that comes from? What's that about?

SUN YUNG SHIN: Maybe it's just every kid who grows up in a house, the room seems so big. Doorways seem really big. It might be because of growing up in the Catholic Church, and passages have ritual significance. You have to stop and anoint yourself with holy water.

You have to stop in front of the altar and receive communion. There's all these sacred spaces that you move through, and I feel like that's part of what I'm fascinated with.

CATHY WURZER: We're going to talk about a specific poem that you've picked for us. But before we get there, I need to talk about your other book nominated for a Minnesota Book Award-- which again, it's huge that you're nominated in two different categories. Children's book, Where We Come From, written with three other Minnesota writers, Diane Wilson, Shannon Gibney, and John Coy. All of you have different backgrounds. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but was it a difficult process to work with all these other individuals? Did it create any challenges?

SUN YUNG SHIN: It was such a joy, Cathy, because we started right before officially the pandemic and lockdowns started. We had one meeting in person, and then for the next two years, we really met on Zoom. Thankfully, we were friends before and had worked together. I'd worked with Diane before in A Good Time for the Truth, and I'd worked with Shannon in A Good Time for The Truth and with my previous anthology.

It was kind of the opposite of difficult. It was so it was so uplifting because we were all experiencing so much isolation, and I have such deep respect for them as humans and as artists. I would say the challenges were more so at the beginning of just figuring out, how did we want to tell a story? Or did we want to have separate threads?

We ended up with poetry and kind of this weaving. But at first, we were toying with the idea of a story, and that was challenging to think of-- well, were we all going to be kind of characters? Were we going to have a problem that the children solved? And we eventually landed on this idea of having first person poetry and seeing how our stories could weave together. But it was just really fun for the most part.

CATHY WURZER: It is beautiful. Say, this is our opportunity where you get to do a poetry recitation for us. Each poet that we've been talking to this month is bringing a piece that got them hooked on poetry, so tell us about the poem you chose.

SUN YUNG SHIN: This is so awesome. Thanks for having this segment, too. I really appreciate you making room for poetry. So I chose the poem "The Tiger" by William Blake. And it was I can't remember exactly when I came across it, but I remember not only being just enchanted by his mystical illustrations and artwork but by the rhythm of this poem and, of course, its mysticism and its questioning, really, of God.

What kind of God would make this ferocious creature, and how did that occur? And so even though I believe in evolution-- but I think because of my upbringing. Just that idea of creation and just the wonder of our world and the wonder of this creature, the tiger.

I was born in the year of the Tiger. The tiger is the national animal of Korea, and so I've always had a special relationship with the tiger figure.

CATHY WURZER: You've got to read this for us. Would you please?

SUN YUNG SHIN: I would love to. Thank you. "The Tyger" by William Blake. "Tyger Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art, could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, what dread hand? And what dread feet? What the hammer? What the chain? In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? What dread grasp dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears and watered heaven with their tears, did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the lamb make thee? Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

CATHY WURZER: That's a great selection. You're right.

SUN YUNG SHIN: It's so good.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, it's so, so good. OK. So before you go-- and thank you, by the way, for doing that recitation. It was beautiful. What's your pitch to young folks getting them in to poetry? I can almost see an eye roll. Like, oh, really? I don't know.

SUN YUNG SHIN: No, no. I love this.

CATHY WURZER: What do you say to a young person?

SUN YUNG SHIN: I love this. I would say that poetry is a place for you to be completely free. There's no rules. There's no expectations. It's not that there's no traditions and there's no practices. There are, but it's really a space in many ways free from market considerations.

People aren't looking to get rich on poets' work. It's a place where you can unmute yourself over and over again lifelong. It's a place where you can connect with other spirits across time and place, and it's a place where you can always grow, and you can always be deeply honest. That's what I would say.

CATHY WURZER: Love it. I am honored that you have joined us today. Thank you so much.

SUN YUNG SHIN: Thank you, Cathy. Really appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: Sun Yung Shin has been with us, Minneapolis writer, author of the poetry collection Wet Hex and the children's book Where We Come From. Both are nominated for the Minnesota Book Awards which will be announced next month.

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