The refrigerator is the highest honor a poem can aspire to. The ultimate publication. As close to food as words can come. And this refrigerator poem is honored to be here beneath its own refrigerator magnet, which feels like a medal pinned to its lapel. Stop here a moment and listen to the poem humming to itself, like a refrigerator itself, the song in its head full of crisp, perishable notes that wither in air, the words to the song lined up here like a dispensary full of indispensable details: a jar of corrugated green pickles, an array of headless shrimp, fiery maraschino cherries, a fruit salad, veggie platter, assortments of cheeses and chilled French wines, a pink bottle of amoxicillin: the poem is infectious. It's having a party. The music, the revelry, is seeping through this white door.
I just think goodness is more interesting. Evil is constant. You can think of different ways to murder people, but you can do that at age five. But you have to be an adult to consciously, deliberately be good – and that’s complicated.
It would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely. It would be a bland sort of world if we could not spend time with people who thought differently, and who saw the world from a different place. Kipling was many things that I am not, and I like that in my authors.
"I have thought a lot about being things since trying to be an onion," Harriet writes in her notebook. "I have tried to be a bench in the park, an old sweater, a cat, and my mug in the bathroom. I think I did the mug best because when I was looking at it I felt it looking back at me and I felt like we were two mugs looking at each other. I wonder if grass talks."
Creative property, Lessig reminds us, has many lives—the newspaper arrives at our door, it becomes part of the archive of human knowledge, then it wraps fish. And, by the time ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we lose track of where they came from, and we lose control of where they are going.
This week I have no faith in language. I must tell you I don’t, but that’s my own failing, not language’s. I feel like it’s the last outpost for us humans. I take it very seriously. I feel language has been utterly cut off by this culture and used in the service of consumerism and that poetry insists on the integrity of words, of a word... The language itself I feel is endangered more than it has ever been. To try to say what we mean, to try to make something beautiful and meaningful from language, feels to me like a profound political act still and a spiritual act.
It’s terrifying, really terrifying what Madison Avenue and people who sell things are doing. I feel like poets and writers are the monks writing illuminated manuscripts, in the sense of trying to preserve the integrity of language, just to expand the possibilities for expression, because the culture is trying to push us into the same twenty words over and over again.
People now want the information fast and they want a certain kind of information that they can eat, essentially, instead of dwelling with mystery. Negative capability, Keats called it—to dwell with uncertainty without grasping after an easy solution. A poem often asks us to dwell there, and it’s unbearable, especially if you have no practice, if you don’t read or if you don’t go off by yourself and sit alone for a while. Even those of us who write, we’re often rushing around. So this dwelling, not fully comprehending something instantly, is very difficult. Anything that pushes us into the depths of our being is very hard to bear. I find it hard to bear. Sometimes I open a book that’s so beautiful I have to shut it because it hurts me. I can’t stand it. It’s like, Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! This is going to drive me into my own heart. A day or two days later I’m saying, All right, and I just surrender to it: Do it to me. Go ahead. I want it. I don’t want it. I want it. I don’t want it.
One cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do no have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and can enjoy its details.
Say you hoped to tame something wild and stayed calm and inched up day by day. Or even not tame it but meet it halfway. Things went along. You made progress, understanding it would be a lengthy process, sensing changes in your hair and nails. So it’s strange when it attacks: you thought you had a deal.
At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border
This is the field where the battle did not happen, where the unknown soldier did not die. This is the field where grass joined hands, where no monument stands, and the only heroic thing is the sky.
Birds fly here without any sound, unfolding their wings across the open. No people killed — or were killed — on this ground hallowed by neglect and an air so tame that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
If you said "Nice day," he would look up at the three clouds riding overhead, nod at each, and go back to doing what- ever he was doing or not doing. If you asked for a smoke or a light, he'd hand you whatever he found in his pockets: a jackknife, a hankie – usually unsoiled – a dollar bill, a subway token. Once he gave me half the sandwich he was eating at the little outdoor restaurant on La Guardia Place. I remember a single sparrow was perched on the back of his chair, and when he held out a piece of bread on his open palm, the bird snatched it up and went back to its place without even a thank you, one hard eye staring at my bad eye as though I were next. That was in May of '97, spring had come late, but the sun warmed both of us for hours while silence prevailed, if you can call the blaring of taxi horns and the trucks fighting for parking and the kids on skates streaming past silence. My friend Frankie was such a comfort to me that year, the year of the crisis. He would turn up his great dark head just going gray until his eyes met mine, and that was all I needed to go on talking nonsense as he sat patiently waiting me out, the bird staring over his shoulder. "Silence is silver," my Zaydee had said, getting it wrong and right, just as he said "Water is thicker than blood," thinking this made him a real American. Frankie was already American, being half German, half Indian. Fact is, silence is the perfect water: unlike rain it falls from no clouds to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes, to give heart to the thin blades of grass fighting through the concrete for even air dirtied by our endless stream of words.
...I write my books on what I call "The Pizza Model." Fifty years ago, pizza was a strange exotic food, the subject of ethnic slurs. Now, not only does it have coast-to-coast acceptance, but American chefs and eaters have made it their own: in Italy you would be hard put to find a Cajun-blackened-chicken pizza topped with mango salsa on a whole-wheat sourdough crust! In the same way, I think of [A Single] Shard as an "American" novel. Its setting and characters may be twelfth-century Korean, but its author was concerned with the search for belonging and the drive to innovate, both very much part of the American experience. This strikes me as a fine parallel to both the Newbery Award itself — named for an Englishman, yet now wholly American-and to American culture as a whole. It is one of our great strengths that we have such a richness of cultures from which to draw in the continuing evolution of our own.
Is it important that I am the first Asian American in seventy-five years to have been awarded the Newbery Medal? In some ways, yes. Seventy-five years is a long time — three or four generations. We all know now how important it is for young people to see themselves reflected in positive images from the culture around them. And I think it is even more important for those in the majority to see images of people of color in a variety of contexts, to move away from seeing them as "other."
However, I was pleased by Kathleen Odean's comment that the book's multiculturalism was not a factor in its selection. Certainly I did not write the book with an overt political agenda in mind. It has also been difficult for me to deal with the idea of becoming a sort of poster child for Korean Americans and for Asian writers in general.
I feel strongly that the author's bio should be kept separate from consideration of the text itself, so much so that for my first three books I declined to have my photo printed on the back flap. I wanted the books to stand or fall on their own, without help or hindrance from information about my ethnicity. And I still believe that this is the goal — the ideal we must strive for, But the response from Koreans and Korean Americans demonstrates that we are still a long way from inhabiting that ideal world. I was stunned and humbled to learn what the award for A Single Shard means to so many people, young and old, complete strangers, who have written to tell me how proud they are that a book set in Korea by a Korean American had won this award — how they now feel "included" in a way that they did not before...
Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.
I don't really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible, I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.
They shut the road through the woods Seventy years ago. Weather and rain have undone it again, And now you would never know There was once a road through the woods Before they planted the trees. It is underneath the coppice and heath, And the thin anemones. Only the keeper sees That, where the ring-dove broods, And the badgers roll at ease, There was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods Of a summer evening late, When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools Where the otter whistles his mate. (They fear not men in the woods, Because they see so few) You will hear the beat of a horse's feet, And the swish of a skirt in the dew, Steadily cantering through The misty solitudes, As though they perfectly knew The old lost road through the woods... But there is no road through the woods.