Who is EJ Koh: Newcomer Makes Us Care About Poetry Again
Korean-American poet EJ Koh met with me at a coffee shop on a suburban corner. I was anxious meeting an intense intellectual for my first in-person interview. But EJ smiled at me and I instantly felt a warmth about her. Her eyes sparkled and her every word contained conviction. She made you willingly surrender all your undivided attention. Inspired, I was convinced I sat next to one of the most talented artists we have today. The movement to define herself as an artist and the unconventional way she goes about doing just that; it is an honor to introduce her to readers who have yet to hear her name.
EJ is currently Seattle-based after completing her Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University in New York. Her work has been published in illustrious journals and literary magazines including TriQuarterly and La Petite Zine. Flavorwire named EJ #2 of 23 People Who Make You Care About Poetry in 2013. With a book tour under her belt for her experimental novel Red (Collective Press, 2013), there is no surprise she’s been Top Rated on Amazon with over 18K fans on Twitter in tow.
But wins came at a cost. With many novels taking 2-10 years to formulate into existence, EJ gave herself a deadline of just 6 months for her sci-fi graduate project Red. During the 6 months, she had described herself as competing for Adrien Brody’s role in The Pianist because the long hours and sleepless nights took a toll on her appearance and health. One night, her roommate walked in to find EJ collapsed and unmoving at her desk. EJ feels embarrassed at the memory. And despite Red’s success, EJ broke down mentally and physically. She said, “I vowed to never do that to myself again.” Taking the negative experiences, EJ returned with lessons of not only literary measure, but by using patience to continuously grow as a writer for her hungry audience.
At the beginning, EJ was a California native who pursued competitive hip-hop dancing during her undergrad. Only her last year did she enroll in a poetry class to meet a minor requirement, which shifted the path of what she wanted for her life. She changed her major, her practice, cleaned up, and despite all odds, moved to New York to attend Columbia University for Poetry in Creative Writing. While finishing two theses, writing her novel, working at Union Square, and attending full-time at Columbia, she lived dangerously and without fear. She achieved in 2 years what seemed impossible to doubters of this young Asian American girl who had only her deadly focus and discipline.
What makes EJ stand out from the crowd is her unconventional attitude. Even Red is raw and unforgiving of what is considered right in accordance to formality, grammar, and context. Then EJ’s choice to publish Red only online also attests to her active interactions with the Internet and her online community, a great platform bringing other Asian American artists to the surface. “It’s about surprising yourself with what you’re capable of,” says EJ. “When I realized that, and it was this tiny moment, the top of my head just opened up. I hope it helps someone else to hear that as much as it did for me.”
Right now, EJ is working on a children’s book and a literary fiction novel. True to her character, she revealed, “This new novel is a complete one-eighty. New approach, new risks, and an entirely new genre.” When I asked her if she was worried to lose fans, she said, “To be honest, no. There is nothing like Red, and there will be nothing like this next one, and I think that freedom I get to have is something like an imagination rocket launcher. Either way, they’ll see the impact, even if changed, is still there. It’s sort of like Stockholm Syndrome isn’t it? Once I have you or you have me, we’re going to start loving each other. That doesn’t sound creepy, does it?”
“Don’t look around. Stay in your lane, focus on the road…”
Her biggest advice to aspiring Asian American artists: “Don’t look around. Stay in your lane, focus on the road. Because every time you pay attention to someone else’s accomplishments, it’s distracting and it gets you down. Comparison only leads to mediocrity. Challenge yourself to rise above your own measure, which often goes far beyond anyone else’s you may feel inferior to. Then nothing, absolutely nothing can stop you.”
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