'Languaging' the third space

Language as activity in the prosody of Myung Mi Kim

Myung Mi Kim. Photo courtesy of Norma Cole.

A way is open(ed), a hole is made
— Myung Mi Kim, Dura 

In an interview, the poet Myung Mi Kim explains her prosody as a temporal/spatial concept, existing in “the space between time and space”[1] that can be understood only through an experience of the “sensorium” — when “all your senses are involved in understanding.” There is clearly much that needs to be unpacked from such a statement. What does she mean by this inter-temporal/inter-spatial site where her poetry is located? Why is her prosody — her (mis/dis)use of meters, lines, rhythms, beats, sounds, poetic melodies — so “different” and “difficult” (two comments that Kim admits she has received most frequently), and what does this say about her concept of the nature of poetry? How does one overcome ocular-centric tendencies and use one’s breath and ears when reading her poems, and how is this central to the understanding of Kim’s idea of versification? These are, of course, vast questions that have no definite answer(s), but I believe that they lay adequate groundwork on which a study of the Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim, a veritable tour de force in contemporary American poetry, may proceed. 

The hyphen between the words “Korean” and “American” in the previous sentence, then, would be a good point of departure for a discussion on Kim. In her talk at the fifth KAFSEL conference entitled “Translingual Consciousness: A Meditation in Four Movements,” Kim talks about “the predicament of the hyphen”:

I could be (and am often) variously hyphenated as a Korean-American poet, a Korean-American woman poet, an immigrant Korean-American woman poet, a Korean-American woman poet of the diaspora, a bilingual Korean-American woman poet, and so on. These markers of ethnicity, gender, displacement, migration, and linguistic affiliation, however, tend to reiterate the “purity” of languages, inviolability of nation boundaries, and fixity of categories that elide the complex geopolitical and historical forces that produce these hyphenations.[2]

What is implied through the small punctuation sign of the hyphen is a forced conjoining between two uncombinable languages, cultures, and sociopolitical ideologies. For Kim, a subject who left Korea at the tender age of nine, “Korean” and/or “American” are categories that cannot specifically define her own current position. Though her ethnicity as well as her childhood memories depicted in her poems are both intensely Korean, her Korean language itself is “truncated, stunted, and ruptured,” and thus “something [she] do[es] and do[es] not know or ‘possess’” (F, 30); hence she is a Korean but not really a Korean. On the other hand, though her tongue finds English more effortless to pronounce and her hand finds Romanized alphabet more comfortable to write, she is still an “otherized” figure in the landscape of America because of her Korean appearance; hence she is an American but not really an American. Perhaps this tension between the two categories that are neither equivalent nor selectable to Kim is shown best in the following line from “And Sing We”:

Um-pah, um-pah sensibility of the first grade teacher, feet firm on the pump organ’s pedals, we flap our wings, butterfly wings, butterfly butterfly, fly over here[3]

Here Kim describes a Korean memory, abundant with Korean sounds (“Um-pah, um-pah”) and melodies (“butterfly butterfly, fly over here” being the lyrics of a well-known Korean children’s song) in an anglicized mode, but this instance is much more than a mere transliteration. If transliteration is an act that is linear in its dynamic and is based on the assumption that there is a fixed co-relation between word A and word B, what is taking place here is significantly different from such an act in that a communication of languages is occurring. It is not so much a “tension” between two words and/or phrases that is taking place, than it is an act of what Kim refers to as a “hybridization” of language, a formulation of a third linguistic mode C through the dialogic interaction between language A and language B, in her case English and Korean: “I am constantly aware of this particular English I participate in — perhaps an English that behaves like a Korean, an English shaped by a Korea.”[4] Thus Kim can be seen acknowledging how languages are continuously influenced by other languages, whether it be through emulation or repulsion, and through this process, “the spectral, the remaindered, the asymmetrical, and the incommensurable in traversing languages and cultures” (F, 30) is revealed. The “residual” material that emerges from this process is what comes to compose the language of languages, namely the language Myung Mi Kim aspires to transcribe and enunciate in her own writing.

For Kim, then, capturing the access to a language that is both permitted and denied becomes the site of attention she wishes to delineate first and foremost in her poetry:

So, in this effort and failure of bridging, reconfiguring, shaping, and being shaped by loss and absence, one enters a difficult negotiation with an Imaginary and a manner of listening that to me is the state of writing. (JKL, 95)

Writing for Kim is an act that occurs in the interstices and/or ruptures of languages and cultures; it is the ongoing “effort[s] and failure[s]” of narrating the “spectral” and the “incommensurable” that have been unseen/dismissed by so many other writers in the past that characterize Kim’s poems. She accepts the trauma of her displacement and her diasporic positioning and utilizes it to examine how “the space between the two languages [becomes] a site of mutation between an English and a Korean” (JKL, 94) and thus a hybridization of language occurs. This third space Kim’s prosody finds itself located on is a space that is situated on the process of “languaging,” on the intersections of temporal and spatial construction.

“Languaging,” then, as Kim explains, “is a practice of language that reconfigures legibility, intelligibility, and sense-making by heeding the liminal — the not-yet-available to culture” (F, 31).[5] If “language” implies a conforming to a fixed set of rules and is judged according to whether it has been mastered or not, “languaging” — language as an ongoing act of (re)creation — is a process which accepts that there can never be an either/or situation when it comes to lingual orality and/or textual legibility. Through this process, language “factors in, layers in, and crosses fields of meaning, elaborating and extending the possibilities for sense making,”[6] and it is this continuous fluidity and subsequent polysemy of language that enables “[a] measure, a page, the book to embody the multivalent, the multidirectional — a cathexis of the living instant” (Commons, 111). In other words, for Kim it is the incommensurability of language that both limits and legitimates one’s recognition of his/her present space at the moment. Because language is always approximate, and “diction(s), register(s), inflection(s) as well as varying affective stances … have and will continue to filter into [language]” (Commons, 110), it can never comply to the demands for a linearly coherent history nor a narrative that can be encompassed by all. In this way it is limiting. But it is also liberating in that, through “languaging” one is able to express an individual experience, to make visible the invisible, to let the unheard be heard through nonteleological enunciations. I believe this is precisely what Kim strives to articulate through her poetry.

How, then, does this idea of language as an activity manifest in Kim’s poetry? An instance where the “lyric as it embodies the processural” (Commons, 111) and the ongoing act of languaging is depicted by Kim can be found in the third part of “The Bounty”:


in measure and in collusion separate and bound



by nine entries in the figure of nine propertied



by nine entries in one acre shallow well and pump



hairy snouts arrows in wealth parade of gifts



rain soaked evergreen



note circles heat swelling



familiar dipthong again siege



wrench its nature alloy encumbering



quality of light mineral


This is only the first page of part 3; eight more pages continue in exactly the same format — three pillars of words placed in three rows (except for the last page, which is to be discussed in detail later on in this essay). How is one supposed to read, moreover understand, this passage? Of course the obvious answer would be that there is no definitive interpretation, and as Kim always emphasizes, “confusion [can] be productive … [as] reading and poetry are sites of self-reflexivity, even if they fail.” In other words, it is the process of reflexivizing that Kim valorizes, and there are various possibilities of such an act of languaging that can occur here. A reader, for instance, could read the words/phrases line by line, from left to right: “attenuate / in measure and in collusion separate and bound / wrench / mill / by nine entries in the figure of nine propertied / cell.” The thought process starts in medias res with forceful imperative verbs that seem to command the reader to participate in actions of violent pounding and weakening (“mill,” “attenuate”), twisting (“wrench”), and tying up (“bound”). What is being separated and beaten to a pulp, so as to be fragmentized to the minimal size of a “cell” is yet to be revealed. The second column on the following page, however, provides a hermeneutic opening: “village home for bridal bequest fish by dozens to fry” … “proffer armfuls of just pressed noodles” … “ivy and clematis unhurried / one and one conjoined” (The Bounty, 92). By ceasing to read from left to right, and applying a vertical reading, from the top of a respective column to its bottom, an environment of patience and generosity can be seen to be depicted, which is juxtaposed with the brutal violence drawn on the previous page. While the piercing sounds of “wrench / cell / force / precisive” are accentuated in the third column of page 91, more rounded out sounds, in the form of “o” — “threshold” … “rotation / born” — occur on the third column of the following page. Thus a shift in the poem’s mood is brought about through not only how the poem is textually approached by the reader, but also through how the reader aurally voices the poem itself.

There is also a contrast that emerges in the imagery: the “unhurried” (92) sense of the past, where communal rituals of “hairy snouts arrow[ing] in wealth parade of gifts”[8] (91) and meals of “armfuls of … noodles” along with “fish by dozens to fry” (92) on wedding days, are suddenly forcefully ceased; “the property of daughters” (96) ends up having to resort to sparse resources (“shallow well and pump” [91]) and even endure a surrender of language — “familiar dipthong [sic] again siege” (91). Hence the vowel diphthongs in the left column (“familiar,” “bestiary,” “espouse”) are “in measure and in collusion separate[d]” (middle column) to become a “cell” (right column) and/or its “nature” is “wrench[ed]” (middle column) as its “alloy [is] encumbering” (middle column) and thus meaning is “force[fully]” (right column) extracted. What we see here is not only how language that once “bloom[ed]” in the “fertile” “unctuous hills” (92) is grinded, “dulled,” and “defer[red]” (91) by external forces, but also how the middle column acts as a phrasal bridge that connects whichever word on the left with whichever word on the right, thus enabling numerous chiasmatic readings to be possible. If the interpretation focused on a convergence towards the word “need” (right column), then the ominous reading of a language “wrench[ed]” out of its due environment would be overturned, and one would be able to assume that the reading is actually championing a “need” for redemptive measures, thus tinted with a more optimistic hue. This myriad of polysemic interpretations is especially apparent in page 98, where Kim writes, among other words, “resilient” and “bare” on the right column. Whichever action in the left column (“envision” / “recitation”) and phrasal bridge in the second column (“her, and reading” / “object and word”) is used, the meaning of the resulting line will differ greatly. Compare, for instance, “envision / object and word / resilient” and “envision / object and word / bare”; while the former opts for the possibility of language, the latter rejects it and thus the “bare” ends up sounding inconsolably hollow.

As noted earlier, the final page of the poem is drawn out differently from the previous pages, with its disorganized form and erased/missing parts of the column:


its own property chemical and



bricks    free    of straw



alter           primacy









brush    mound   and   gravel









unruly enter



Gaps occur in the columns that were, in previous pages, so meticulously formed to perfection with nine words on each left and right column and nine phrases in the middle. Here, in not only the final part of the poem but the final page of the book itself, the reader’s participation is maximized through the processural space of languaging opened up by the poet. The “synaptic / unruly enter” may, as Kim points out, “fire or misfire, connections can be constituted or dismantled [and] no conclusions are possible” (JKL, 101). However, it is because the blank spaces can resonate a sound of their own, according to the voice the reader hears from it, that “the synapse of language” and the “perpetual motion toward the beginning and not necessarily toward knowing” (JKL, 101–102) is deemed so important in Kim’s poems. Both the words/phrases and the gaps are like tesserae that create a textual mosaic according to the method of languaging the reader implements, thus producing a different picture for each respective process of cognitive organization. Kim’s third space of language, then, becomes an inter-temporal, inter-spatial plane on which not only the writer participates in the act of creating her own language, but where also the reader joins in the act of writing as well; the act of languaging becomes a joint endeavor.

It is important to explain, at this point, why Kim locates herself in the spaces between languages and finds it impossible to recite her story in a putatively conventional way. For Kim, the story she wants to tell about herself is a specifically personal one, meaning that it is one that cannot follow the narrative trajectory that has been traditionally agreed upon nor be transcribed with the tools of an accepted storytelling mode. If there has been an assumption (or at least an agreement) between the writer/transmitter and the reader/recipient that the historical continuum is linear and exists on a single plane, in Kim’s poems such an assumption ceases to exist. It is only though the refusal of chronological linearity that migratory, diasporic, and traumatic experiences can be faithfully written out. As she remarks in her own talks, this is the only way she can “show a respect” to her own particular specificities. The polysemic reading of the three columns, whether it be from left to right, from top to bottom, or in the form of chiasmus, is, essentially how Kim understands her own fragmented experiences and thus the only way she knows how to write it out in paper.  

Her experimental uses of meters and rhythms can further be seen in “Hummingbird,” a poem included in Dura (1998). In the following passage the reader is able to experience Kim’s own modification of the caesura, here visually re-created to divide and/or connect syntactic phrases and meanings:

Argue:   precedents,   oaths,   public record,   witnesses
Deliver:   introduction,   narration,  statement of the case,  and  peroration
The   writing   hung   on  the   wall]        [whose  writing  is it
Meal   means:   stuff,   material
Hummingbird    happens   as   a   sound   first
Is  it  clear]      [then   it   is
Heal]     [landed   parole
Continuous,  as  of   line   or   time
A    perceiver  without   state (100)

In the lines “The writing hung on the wall]  [whose writing is it” and “Is it clear]  [then it is” the brackets — and the space between — act as visualized caesuras that not only break or interrupt the flow of thought but act as, to quote Kim’s explanations, “a pivot.” Kim defines her use of the caesura as a device similar to the “hinge,” for it is a “break in the measure [that] travels both ways … like sense breaking and joining simultaneously.” If a caesura in traditional English verse were simply an audible pause used to break up the line, Kim’s caesura acts as a transhistorical space where the line not only shifts forward but thrusts backwards as well: one sees “the writing hung on the wall” and subsequently asks, “whose writing is it[?],” but this question sends one back to look at what is written on the wall once more, and the process is continued over and over again until an answer is deduced. But can there be an answer? Do we know whose writing consists the language of “precedents, oaths, public record, witnesses,” not to mention the formulaic linguistic modes utilized when “deliver[ing]” an “introduction, narration, statement of the case, and peroration”? For these are all static forms of language that were concocted and solidated before we even learned how to speak our own first words. We have been seasoned to believe that language is resolute and knowledge exists in corresponding equivalents, and this is shown through the use of colons. A:B means that A and B are correlated, and therefore “meal” is automatically linked with “stuff, material.” But this is far from how language truly exists for the poet and moreover ourselves as well; “meal” does not necessarily share a relation with “stuff, material,” and the words and language used in “argu[ments]” and “deliver[y]” are not commensurate to the actual experience itself. This is what Kim means when she writes “Hummingbird happens as a sound first,” for it is never the written words but the resonating sounds that can be most truthful to the re-enunciation of the experience. Hence the question “whose writing is it[?]” naturally shifts to “is it clear[?]” for clarity (the basis for transmission/communication) is of more importance than the actual writer — if it is sincere toward expressing the truth, “then it is.” In this sense, through this use of an end-stopping and simultaneously open-ended caesura, Kim emphasizes the “perceiver without state,” always in the fluid process of experiencing without the linguistic means to re-create his/her perceptions. Experience, for Kim is “continuous, as of line or time” and she strives to implement language as an “instrument for gauging, approximating, and rendering” (JKL, 103) the ever-changing world and her own specifically shifted/shifting position in the “clear[est]” way she can.

It is Kim’s aforementioned attention toward the sounds of experience and language (“Hummingbird happens as a sound first”), most prominent in part 1 of “The Bounty,” that makes her poetry so rich in its portrayal.

Lilacs   to   the   post   foretold
Learning   fetch   of   water
                    ranges   lingering
Funnel   thirty
                    merges   temporial   wreath

For shelter the pounding sheet rain

ponder shir rain roof

Hovers it starts start over field and plain

mute forging how compass

Locate a thousand arrows deciphering one

degree salted (down)

By granite specked by pink

fraction to aim so

Uterus as uphill child’s heartbeat

repentant am in

Distinct from awash of mother blood

rimless to whole

Without specifics, wind

broken participle

Pins joints held forth

two a nestle axis to tunnel

As axis what revolves

three behest insistence

Lilacs   to   the   post   foretold
In   the   first                           in   three   as
Signal   and   hook               fey                       lingual
                                                                                (The Bounty, 67)

Kim remarks that she when she wrote this she was able to hear the five columns “more or less simultaneously,” as if five voices were speaking all at once. Her focus on the “materiality of language” in which “[e]very world, every syllable—each sound, each rhythm jostles meaning, contributes to meaning-making” (F, 32) enables a prosody of the polyvocal to materialize. Poetry for Kim is no longer limited to the confines of the page, but rather, its lines are able to sonorously resonate in a cognitive space created by a sensorium — a place where sensory reception and interpretation all converge. Using one’s ears to hear the reverberating “r” sounds in the lines “For shelter the pounding sheet rain” and “ponder shir rain roof” when spoken at the same time, or breathing out the spaces between “Learning fetch of water / [    ] ranges lingering / Funnel thirty / [    ] merges temporal wreath” to feel the slow movements of “lingering” and “merg[ing]” occurring here is the way one needs to experience Kim’s poems, for they tend to demand a synesthetic application of senses. “The essence of poetry,” Kim explains, “lies in what emerges at that very moment of encounter with the written text, with your ears, body, psyche, historical condition.” Reading and writing, speaking and listening all become acts that not only Kim partakes in, but acts she urges the reader to join in as well, so that language can reach its potential of dialogism to the fullest degree, and so that the process of communication can be observed.

In this sense, Kim’s own personal experience becomes a metaphor for the possibilities of language itself: her loss of language (Korean), her newly acquired but still awkward new language (English), and the third space on which she can only reside in her linguistic endeavors becomes analogous to what all experience in today’s world, where the locus of enunciation is ever-shifting and the belief in a historical continuum — where experiences can be faithfully expressed — is questioned. For Myung Mi Kim, who often finds it difficult to find by herself an exact word to replicate an experience — “Hummingbird  No word for its size” (Dura, 94) — writing becomes an act that is simply a part of a larger process in “the language of languages, the communication of communications” that she so emphasizes. The ideal reader of her poetry is not one who extracts meaning from the text, but one who accompanies it and the process in which it was created. The third space erected for the progression of understanding and/or language is what needs to be acknowledged by those who endeavor to both study Kim’s poetry and participate in the translingual experience.


1. An interview with the poet was conducted on June 18, 2009, at the Ewha Womans University BK English Lab, thanks to the generous efforts of both the BK and HK organizations. Unfortunately, as the interview content has yet to be published, all remarks referred to will be missing paginations. The full transcript can be provided on demand.

2. From the proceedings of the Fifth International Conference of the Korean Association for Feminist Studies in English Literature, held June 12–13, 2009, at Ewha Womans University, 30. Hereafter cited as F.

3. Myung Mi Kim, Under Flag, 14.

4. From James Kyung-Jin Lee’s interview with Kim included in Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, 94. Hereafter cited as JKL.

5. All citations of “F” refer to the proceedings of The Fifth International Conference of the Korean Association for Feminist Studies in English Literature, held June 12–13, 2009, at Ewha Womans University.

6. Kim, Commons, 110.

7. Kim, The Bounty, 91.

8. It is Korean tradition to place a head of a pig on a table at the beginning of a financial endeavor (such as an opening of a store, the first day of planting crops, etc.), and put money into its mouth as a way to pray to the gods for success.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “Images of Form vs. Images of Content in Contemporary Asian-American Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 22, no. 4 (1996): 764–89.

Chiu, Jeannie. “Identities in Process: The Experimental Poetry of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Myung Mi Kim.” In Asian North American Identities Beyond the Hyphen, edited by Eleanor Ty and Donald C. Goellnicht. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 84–101.

Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun. “Speaking in Tongues: Myung Mi Kim’s Stylized Mouths.” SLI: Studies in the Literary Imagination 37, no. 1 (2004): 124–48.

Kim, Elaine. “Korean American Literature.” In An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by King-Kok Cheung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 156–91.

Kim, Myung Mi. Under Flag. Berkeley: Kelsey Street Press, 1991.

———. The Bounty. Minneapolis: Chax Press, 1996.

———. Dura. New York: Nightboat Books, 1998.

———. Commons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Lee, James Kyung-jin. “Interview with Myung Mi Kim.” In Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, edited by King-Kok Cheung. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. 92–104.

Liu, Warren. “Making Common the Commons: Myung Mi Kim’s Ideal Subject.” In American Poets in the Twenty-First Century: The New Poetics,edited by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 252–66.

Park, Josephine Nock-Hee. “‘Composed of Many Lengths of Bone’: Myung Mi Kim’s Reimagination of Image and Epic.” In Transnational Asian American Literature: Site and Transits, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, John Blair Gamber, Stephen Hong Sohn, and Gina Valentino. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 235–56.

———. Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Xiaojing, Zhou. “‘What Story What Story What Sound’: The Nomadic Poetics of Myung Mi Kim’s Dura.” College Literature 33, no. 4 (2007): 63–91.

———. The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.

———. The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.