GROWING UP IN THE U.S.
I grew up in Whitestown, Queens--a small suburb of New York. When I was growing up, it was a predominately Italian neighborhood, and it was pretty difficult to live there as a Korean kid. My family was one of the few Asian American families living there at that time. It also made me aware of race politics early on in life, because the racism was so blatant. I ended up hanging out a lot outside of my neighborhood. My boyfriend lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which became the neighborhood that I grew up in. It is more Puerto Rican and black. So my childhood was very interesting.
Now my parents are supportive of my career because I'm successful enough that I don't have to rely on them for money anymore. My mother was always supportive of me because she wanted to be a writer, but at the same time, both of my parents were worried because they didn't know if I could make a living doing this. They just wanted me to be comfortable, safe and successful. They wanted the typical Asian American dream for their children.
But the tides turned when an article about me appeared in the Korean newspaper. It was a big article about up-and-coming second generation Korean Americans, written in Korean, and it included my picture. My grandfather clipped it out and he brought it with him to Korea. Then all of a sudden they started calling me Shi'in Bak Issilshi, which means Poet Ishle Park. They would joke about it in the family. Once they saw an article written in their own language, it was a validation that I was actually doing something important and positive. Then they started having more faith in me, giving me a lot more support.
Ever since I was a little girl, I was always into writing. I used to make little books for myself, write book reviews and other people's fortunes. When I was around 12, I used to write song lyrics all the time, because I was big into heavy metal and rap. I'd write little rhymes in my tattered blue notebook. But I didn't really start writing poetry until high school. My teacher, Miss Rizzuto, made me see that poetry is not an old archaic art form that only old white men write, but something that I could do, and that I was doing without even knowing it.
When I was younger, my mother had once taken me to see a poetry reading in New York City at the Asian American Writer's Workshop. And to me, it was this huge deal. I was floored by it because we rarely left Queens. My mother didn't cook dinner for my father that night. We went to see this reading of other Asian American writers, which gave me hope that I could do that one day in the future.
Right after I graduated high school, I ended up applying for an assistant poetry editor position at the Asian American Writer's Workshop. I got the job and started working there when I was 18. The workshop was like a second home to me for a long time. I was able to see all these other Asian American writers doing their thing. They really nurtured me and helped me grow. I was working there for a while, but I didn't really start performing out loud until I graduated from college.
SPOKEN WORD BEGINNINGS
I was invited to this reading called "Tongues Afire: Asian and African-American poetry." A lot of people I admired were reading that night, such as Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Regie Cabico, and Roger Bonair-Agard. I read these two short literary poems. And then I read this one that was more like a rant, you know. And people were kind of going crazy over it. So that was my first taste of the whole performance poetry scene. Then I went to a couple local open mikes and I started to read.
Eventually, people asked me to do features and it kind of blossomed from there. The first year that I slammed was 2001. And then things went crazy. From 2001 to 2003, everything kind of happened. I competed in New York at Bar 13. I slammed and I won. I won the LoudPoet of the Year and Grand Slam Championship for that actual venue. Then a talent agent signed me and I went to nationals representing my team. So, it was kind of crazy like that. In terms of getting national visibility, I think it all happened within one year. It was pretty surprising.
Ishle Park is a 26-year-old Korean American woman poet who lives in New York. Her poetry has been published in more than 20 anthologies, including THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY OF 2003, NUYORASIAN ANTHOLOGY and THE BEACON BEST OF 2001. She was the first Korean American woman to compete in the finals of the National Poetry Slam. Ishle has performed her work at more than 100 venues throughout the United States, Korea and Cuba, including HBO's Def Poetry Jam. Her first book, entitled THE TEMPERATURE OF THIS WATER, is published by Kaya Press. For more information, please log onto: http://www.ishle.com.