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Originally published Saturday, December 17, 2011 at 8:03 PM

Don Mee Choi finds freedom in poetry

Meet Don Mee Choi, a GED instructor in Renton who recently won a $50,000 Whiting Writers' Award for poetry.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Poems

From the book "The Morning News Is Exciting," by Don Mee Choi (Action Books).

"Instructions from the Inner Room," part 6.

Author's note: In pre-modern Korea, self-educated, upper-class women wrote instructional poem-songs (kyubang kasa) that were mainly passed down from woman to woman, mother to daughter. These poems, usually recorded in vernacular Korean, "hangul," spoke of family genealogy, proper conduct, duty and obedience to husbands, in-laws and parents.

I have one more thing to tell you

Don't envy another's wealth

Don't be negligent of nation

Concentrate on house management

Pack bags, pack eggs

pack pegs, pack pigs

It's done, well done

Your in-laws will smile

Sit for a while

Your husband is the sky

He'll land one day

Act in a timely manner

Explain to him in an orderly fashion your zeal

Stand up appropriately when you leave

You are peeved

Pack up, pack north

pack down, pack south

Remove your seal and beg

Your husband is the sky

He'll land one day

Open his seam then close

Open again.

"Nothing Happens"

Editor's note: This is one part of the book's titular poem, "The Morning News Is Exciting."

I have written LETTERS. I sat in my car and cried for a long time. Then I lashed out. I decided to write a long letter. When nothing happens I cannot repress my rage. Far nation calls you and you go. You run with a camera. Far nation pays you to run. Hence morning news is exciting. Far nation pays the petite nation to run. Naturally you run and follow the bomber. You sit behind the electronic warfare officer and puke. Manage your fear, far narration is here. Everyday life seen through everyday eyes. Troops on foot. Flashes of napalm intercut with everyday man singing and playing a guitar. Flashback to Ho. Everyday woman and infant looking distressed. Everyday man's guitar. POV from F-4. Very low level. Series of aerials looking back over everyday craters. Glistening water. Aerial nation for everyday eyes. Hence I wait for the morning news. She has written that nothing happens to the unwanted girl. What error. She's an errorist.

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A student struggles with a page of math equations.

Don Mee Choi kneels beside her, smiles and lightly scratches out the solution on a sheet of notebook paper. Choi's voice is soft and kind. Here, at Renton Technical College's downtown campus in a YWCA building, she is a full-time GED instructor.

Many of her students are homeless or live in transitional housing. Most come from generations of poverty but have hopes of eventually finding a job; Choi helps them complete their education to move on.

Few of her students are aware that she is not just their patient, quiet teacher — Choi is also a noted, award-winning poet.

In October, she won the 2011 Whiting Writers' Award for her debut poetry book, "The Morning News Is Exciting." Just 10 writers per year win this prestigious award. Past winners, including fiction writer Michael Cunningham and poet Mary Karr, have gone on to become best-selling authors.

At work, though, Choi has little time to think about her poetry. It is not until the weekends — after a long week of teaching — that she comes home, closes her eyes, gathers her thoughts and begins to write. It is then that words begin to flow onto the page.

"Poetry frees me up in the most magical way," she said. "I can be inventive — with the language, with the syntax, with the grammar."

Choi was born in South Korea in 1962; in her book, she writes about the "shoeshine boys" — young children, orphaned in the Korean War, who were forced to make a living shining shoes in the streets. During an uprising known as the 1960 South Korean Student Revolution, these children joined the protest as a last resort, and many were killed.

"They threw their lives to the revolution because they had nothing more to lose," Choi said.

It was her father, a wartime photojournalist, who witnessed their despair.

"They made themselves into a single mass by locking their arms and shoulders and moving like a tide. Hence bring down the world," a poem in her book reads.

Choi grew up listening to her father's vivid stories of his life. He moved his family to Hong Kong in 1972. Choi was 10 years old.

At 19 she immigrated alone to the U.S. to study art at the California Institute of the Arts. It was here that a professor first urged her to give poetry a try. Her life poured out onto paper. Themes of cultural displacement, isolation and power struggles, drawn from her immigrant experience, are woven throughout her book.

The Whiting judges praised "The Morning News Is Exciting" as "a wildly surprising work describing the collapse of empire — bracing and invigorating. Its anger glows."

Choi said, "It contains emotions associated with being displaced from one's home. Loss, longing, loneliness and anger. Those are the primary emotions."

After graduating from the Union Institute and University with a doctorate in Korean literature and translation, she started translating many works of other contemporary Korean female poets and writing more of her own poetry. It took her 10 years to complete "The Morning News Is Exciting," and it was published last year by Action Books.

She never expected the book would draw the attention of the Whiting Foundation. When a caller from the foundation left a message on her answering machine this fall to give her the good news, she mistook it as a solicitation and deleted it. Luckily, they called back.

In October, Choi flew to New York City to receive her award, complete with a $50,000 prize.

"It just felt like a dream, it didn't feel real at all," she said.

She has already begun writing another book. This one will delve even more into her father's wartime stories, from the Korean War and the Vietnam War. And her recent translation of Kim Hyesoon's poetry book, "All the Garbage of the World, Unite!" was just published by Action Books.

The fame hasn't made her lose track of her priorities. Her focus remains on not only writing but also on translation, raising a teenage stepson and teaching her students — whom she is drawn to helping, having experienced times of unrest and transition in her own life.

"I like helping them move forward," she said. "They inspire me."

Kirsten Johnson: 206-464-3192 or kjohnson2@seattletimes.com

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