Behind the Masthead: Sue Hyon Bae
Our new International Editor, Sue Hyon Bae, discusses Mark Doty, Korean euphemisms, and the lack of seasons in the desert with intern Michael Cohen.
Michael Cohen: You’re the new International Editor at HFR—what does that title mean to you?
Sue Hyon Bae: Being constantly surprised, from the moment I accepted the position and every time I look at the queue and find a new amazing translation. I’d applied for poetry editor initially and was flattered but alarmed to be made international editor. It’s also a lot of responsibility; since we don’t have international readers, my fellow international editor Aria and I are solely in charge of choosing which translations to publish, without any third opinions. I feel really weird about having so much say-so over the final content of HFR, and underqualified for the job because usually I can’t read the original language, although of course that’s a ridiculous expectation. It kind of makes me want to learn French or something new.
MC: What do you think makes international submissions stand out from others?
SHB: It’s a more diverse bunch, not only the authors of the original works but the translators themselves. The translators range from MFA candidates who happen to have taken an interest in a particular author, to scholars abroad who want to spread awareness of a fellow countryman outside their home. There’s a huge range in year, from contemporary to centuries old, and all types of genres. It’s impossible to confuse one submission for another.
MC: You’re originally from St. Louis (or at least had your undergrad there)—what is the biggest difference, for you, between there and here?
SHB: Well, I only lived in St. Louis during college. Of all the places I’ve lived, though, I’ve never experienced desert weather. The bougainvillea reminds me of Malaysia, but otherwise it’s all unfamiliar. Sometimes I send photos of the landscape around me to my mom, who sends back astonished IMs about how it’s still snowing in Korea. My grandparents keep telling me to keep warm because they can’t quite grasp the idea of a place without winter.
MC: Do you find yourself returning to any themes in your own work frequently? Any itches you have to keep scratching?
SHB: I haven’t noticed any, but maybe that’s something you have a hard time seeing in yourself. Maybe my peers in workshop are secretly muttering to themselves about how I keep writing the same poem. Some of my recent poems have been conversations between my mother and me. I have a suspicion that my thesis will have to be dedicated to her because she’s the only one who’ll get all the inside jokes.
MC: What’s the best thing you’ve read in the last, say, 6 months or so?
SHB: Somehow I’d managed not to read any Mark Doty until very recently. I read “Atlantis” five minutes before I had to start teaching and regretted that I wasn’t at home where I could sit back, read it a few more times, and get really emotional. There was a short story, “The Quiet Thing” by Che Yeun in The Kenyon Review that I loved because every line evoked Seoul, where I lived, for about nine years now. Currently I’m reading this nonfiction tome, wonderfully titled The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat, about murder pamphlets in early modern England. It’s good prose and of course the woodcuts of murders are fun, but I find the narrow topic weirdly comforting—Peter Lake got obsessed with something, and he responded by doing research and getting even more obsessed, and that’s perfectly acceptable, fascinating to those who don’t share the obsession, even useful in its findings. It tells me it’s okay to have esoteric interests.
MC: Who or what would you say inspires you? (not necessarily just in your work, but also in life)
SHB: I keep a giant document titled IDEA BIN full of small observations, thoughts, pleasing phrases. Recently, I was scrolling through this file, looking for inspiration for a poem due the next day, and I saw an old description of a ginkgo tree, followed by an unrelated list of Korean euphemisms for death. So I wrote a poem about a ginkgo tree reflecting on death. I think that’s pretty representative of how I work.
MC: You’re stranded on a deserted island—you can bring 3 nonessential items (food, water, basic clothing, shelter, etc. do not count) what do you bring?
SHB: I have an answer for a similar question, which asks what books you would bring to a deserted island, and which I’ve been mulling over for a few years. I’ve never considered the bigger question of any nonessential items. Probably I would still bring books. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. Not only because they are some of my favorite books, but because they’re all really long.
MC: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to go into the writing/editing/publishing field?
SHB: A student recently asked me this and I ended up rambling about how I used to get up at six in the morning so I could write in the library when there weren’t other people around making annoying noises. The basic idea is probably true, if not the details about what time to get up or where to go—put in the effort to actually sit down and write, write, revise, write. It’s advice I don’t follow too well myself. I think we shouldn’t take stereotypes about writers too seriously. You do you, etc.