Jason Koo is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and cultivates the poets, poetry, and literary heritage of Brooklyn. He also teaches creative writing at Quinnipiac University. When he started working as a professor at Quinnipiac, he gave an interview that the university published on its website. Below the interview, one of his former students from Lehman College left a comment. “At Lehman we used to write ‘Koo is Kool’ on the blackboard. Quinnipiac students are very lucky to have Jason Koo as a professor.”
Although Koo didn’t see himself as a professor early on, after moving to New York for the first time in 1998, and spending a year working as a paralegal, he continued his education by earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and he started to come around to the idea of teaching, and excelled.
When he moved back to New York again a decade later in 2009, he wasn’t sure what job he’d find, or for how long he’d be able to live off of the money he had earned from a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Although he quickly found work as an adjunct professor at NYU., he also started to think of other ways that he might earn enough money to live and work in New York as a poet.
When he came up with his idea to create an organization for aspiring poets to learn from and take workshops with more experienced poets who were looking for teaching opportunities in a tight job market, he thought that the name, “Brooklyn Poets,” would have already been taken. But it wasn’t. He started a Tumblr page.
Five years later, Brooklyn Poets launched its first edition of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology this past April with copublisher Brooklyn Arts Press, which features a collection of poems from one-hundred and seventy different poets from the borough.
When we met with Jason on a hot and partly-sunny day in mid-July, he filled us in on what brought him back to New York the second time around; what he’s enjoyed about building Brooklyn Poets; and the importance of creating open and inclusive poetry communities.
And oh yeah, he’s from Cleveland, and cares quite a bit about his hometown teams. And as Major League Baseball recently released a documentary about the Cleveland Indians of the 1990’s, we also talked for a bit about The Dynasty That Almost Was.
Isaac: You were actually born in New York City, do you remember anything from the first time around?
Jason: From when I was born?
Jason: Not much. There’s a tribute poem that I wrote last year on the occasion of my fortieth birthday, and I was sitting right where you are [in a chair on the rooftop facing the Manhattan skyline] when I start the poem, and I’m thinking about being born here, and how little I remember. So it’s kind of like trying to trace my origins to the first year of my birth, when actually a lot of terrible shit was happening here. That was when -- do you know the Son of Sam killer? He killed his first victim five days before I was born. And it was in the Bronx, just a few blocks from where my parents lived. That’s not where I was born, but they lived there. And I hadn’t actually even realized that until I started writing this poem and started reading up on that summer, what was going on then.
Isaac: What summer was that?
Jason: That was the summer of 1976, his first victim. And then they call ‘77 “the Summer of Sam.” That’s when he started killing a lot of people; it took them about a year to figure out what was really going on. And then ‘77 was also the year of the big blackout. The whole city lost power, and there was mass looting in all five boroughs. 3,776 arrests, apparently until this day still the largest mass arrest in New York City history. So that was all happening during the first year of my birth in New York City. And I had no idea. My parents had never told me about any of that. So I was thinking about -- in the poem -- how we process history, and how you can kind of carry yourself with a certain amount of security, especially by the time you turn forty, but still how little you actually know about who you are.
Isaac: That’s right.
Jason: Yeah. Even in the present moment. Because I think of myself as someone who has a pretty strong identity. Because I had to fight for a while to be proud of my identity, and what I’ve been able to make of myself -- specifically, in the American way, feeling like a self-made American and son of immigrants. But at the same time, the more I explore it, my outlook has changed a lot over the years. I always feel this paradox, with a strong sense of identity and knowing who I am and what I want to do, and at the same time, a profound sense of feeling like there’s just an emptiness ––– there’s a void underneath all of that. My identity is so tenuous.
Isaac: Maybe the void feels like, “I know who I am and I know what I want to do, but what’s that based off of?”
Jason: The sense of the void?
Isaac: Well, what I’m hearing you say is, if we have this strong sense of knowing who we are and what we want, but if we never ask why, why am I this person, why is this what I want to do? Then you can sort of get lost.
Jason: Yeah, maybe they’re actually symbiotic. Maybe that’s what you’re saying. If you’re not asking why, then you probably won’t have a strong sense of identity. So maybe it’s not as strange as I think. It is a paradox, but maybe it’s a necessary paradox.
Isaac: The more you know yourself, the less you know yourself.
Jason: Yeah. Exactly. The last poem of my new book is called “More Than You Know.” It’s kind of riffing off of the song “More Than You Know.”
Isaac: Which one is that?
Jason: The jazz standard. I’d been listening to the Thelonious Monk / Sonny Rollins version of that song. I was born here, and we left, and we moved to Toledo, and I grew up in Toledo and Cleveland. And then I didn’t move back to New York until after my first year out of college, 1998–1999. That poem is kind of an elegy for that year. And just how lost I was. I moved here to be a poet, but I was just on my own and lost.
Isaac: How long did you stay the first time around?
Jason: Just a year. I worked as a paralegal.
Isaac: And you were in Astoria?
Jason: Yeah. Not far from here. My parents wanted me to go to law school. I was actually open to it, because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know anything about MFA programs at the time. I knew I was serious about poetry and I wanted to write poetry, but I didn’t know how I would make a living. So I figured, oh maybe I’ll become a lawyer and do that. But then I worked at a law firm and, oh my god.
Isaac: What sort of cases, what sort of firm?
Jason: It was a mid-level Midtown firm that was in the Rockefeller Center. They didn’t have me do much. You don’t do much as a paralegal, you’re just like a glorified photocopier. Every now and then I would file stuff. Because they have actual law students that were the real paralegals. They’re not paralegals, I can’t remember what they called them -- associates or something, maybe clerks. But there’s some title that they have. But they’re doing the real work. So I felt entirely useless. I feel like you like that for a week when you do it, you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to get dressed up everyday, and take the train . . .”. It’s kind of a bit like -- even before Mad Men -- there’s this romance with working in Manhattan. But it gets old quickly. Especially when it’s hot out, or super cold, and you’re just miserable with commuting. And then I would get there and just do nothing.
Isaac: Midtown is one of the more exhausting neighborhoods.
Jason: Yeah, because there are so many people there.
Isaac: And everything is high.
Jason: And then you go to lunch, and you just sort of go downstairs to a food court. So the ironic thing is, when I graduated from college -- I feel like it doesn’t exist so much today -- people used to talk about the real world versus academia. And they would be like, “Are you going to get a job in the real world?” And so I used to think, being a paralegal is a job in the real world. But then when I started grad school, they threw me in to teach right away. I had no teaching experience at all. And I was teaching composition right away to help fund my schooling. They gave me a teaching stipend and everything. It’s one of the reasons why I went to Houston. And the irony is I felt like that was a lot more like the real world because that job actually had responsibility. If you didn’t show up, your students were pissed. Well, maybe not pissed. But you could see the impact that you were having daily on people’s lives. Whereas when I went to work in Midtown, I had zero impact on the world.
Isaac: What’s at stake?
Jason: Yeah. I’m convinced that not a minute of the work that I did there had any impact on anything. And I would think, why am I getting paid for this job? Whereas I got paid less to teach English composition, but I felt like I was actually making an impact. So I immediately liked teaching, because I felt like I could be passionate about what I loved, and it actually had . . . you could see it had a physical impact on people. It wasn’t just an intellectual impact. You could see it on people’s faces -- getting them excited about literature. You could see a lot of these people had never had a teacher be excited about writing. If you’re a young twenty- three-year-old creative writer, and you go into a composition class, most of those students have never had a person like that talk to them about writing.
Isaac: That time, the late teens, early twenties is such a key time to actually help someone keen into, and get a sense of -- oh, this is what creative writing can do for you.
Jason: Yeah, and if you’re lucky enough to have a young and compassionate teacher, then that’s almost better than a senior teacher who has been teaching for decades. When it’s the first class you’ve ever taught, you’re really excited to talk to human beings about poetry.
Isaac: Did you have any nerves?
Jason: No, that’s how I knew that I would be good at it. That’s why I’m still teaching. Because I was surprisingly just calm about it. Somehow between college and working as a paralegal, I changed. Because when I was an undergrad, I didn’t think I could go to grad school because I hated other students. I never talked. I was a total loner. I just read by myself. I didn’t talk to anybody. And I was really socially awkward. Even in class I never talked. My senior year I started coming out of that maybe a little bit. But I used to think, how can I go to grad school, because I can’t teach, I’m just going to hate the students. But then somewhere -- maybe it was New York City, even though when I lived here I barely talked to anyone. Maybe it was the paralegal work, I just got so bored with it that I was excited to talk to people about writing.
Isaac: Well, there are a lot of jobs where you don’t interact with people in an entire day, or really that much at all.
Jason: Yeah, I think I was craving community. Because I had been doing the alone thing for about three years. When I started getting serious about poetry it was around my sophomore year in college. I started shutting everyone out. So for about three or four years . . . it’s not like I was a hermit, but I was not really that social. I feel like I had about three friends. And also my family, I had to kind of be aggressive, especially with my mom, because they were trying to control my life. And I was just like, “Look, I’m not going to talk to you on the phone,” I was barely communicating with my parents. Because every time my mom would call me it would just be a war on the phone about what my life was going to be. And we’d get into an argument every time. Now she’s great. She’s like, “Oh, you made it.” She doesn’t know how, because to her, from her perspective, she was just thinking, how are you going to do that? Your dad is a doctor. How are you going to write poetry? And make money?
Isaac: When did your parents start to come around?
Jason: After the first book came out. It was that and also I got my PhD. That was really important to them, because they wanted to see that I was a professional. And it happened at about the same time. I got my PhD in 2007, and the book was accepted in 2008 and came out in 2009. And then I got my first full-time job. The biggest thing was that when the book came out, I went to Cleveland to do a reading at Cleveland State University. And my parents invited all of their Korean friends. Till this day, it’s still the biggest reading that I’ve had. There were probably over one hundred Korean people in the audience. And then my parents really enjoyed the reading. They had never seen me read my poems. They had never seen me command an audience. So I think they were impressed with what poetry had done to turn me into an adult. They never said that, but that was my sense of it. Because they were really proud of me in that moment, with all of their friends there. And then they bought the book, and they were giving it away to everyone.
The thing with parents, especially Korean parents, is that they just need a story, something that’s going to impress their friends, right? So the problem when I started doing poetry was all of my Korean friends, they were all growing up to be doctors and lawyers and people in business. Kind of like most Asian American young professionals. No one else did what I did. Not a single person. There was one other person who I knew that went to grad school, but it was for fashion or something. One other person went in a humanities direction. But she didn’t become a poet. The problem was that all they could tell their friends for ten years was that I was writing poetry. So what they would do -- that’s why the PhD was important --they would say, “Oh, well, he’s getting his masters, he’s getting his PhD. He’s going to become a professor.” Because that sounds like something. Just saying “He’s writing poetry” sounds absurd. And that became a big subject of antagonism between me and my mom. If you know the “Charlie Tuna” poem in the first book, she would say, “No one asks about you anymore,” or “No one is interested in having their daughters marry you anymore because you’re such a failure.” But when the book came out, suddenly I was unique because they had this book that they could send to everyone, and nobody else had that. And they were like, “Oh, your son’s a doctor, who gives a shit. All of these fifty other kids are doctors, too.”
Alex: Should we go inside? It’s blazing.
Jason: Yeah. I’m probably getting burned.