Mark Kyungsoo Bias on How Hip-Hop Influences His Poetry
This Week from The Common Podcast
Mark Kyungsoo Bias speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about his poem “Adoption Day,” which appears in The Common’s new spring issue. Mark talks about the inspiration and process behind the poem, which looks at issues like memory, immigration, and racism in post-9/11 America, all through the lens of a family experience. Mark also discusses his approach to language, sound, line breaks, and more, and the methods and techniques he’s found helpful in revising poetry. He reads two additional poems published in The Common: “Meeting My Mother” and “Visitor.”
On the influence of hip-hop on sound in poetry:
Most of the time when I’m writing, sound comes unconsciously, but that doesn’t mean it’s a natural skill. When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of hip-hop, and I still am. I listened to Tupac, Lil’ Kim, Biggie, Nas, Gangsta Boo. These are artists that I really admire, not just as artists but as writers, as poets.
To this day one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard is in Tupac’s “If I Die Tonight,” where he says, “I’m sick of psychotic society, somebody save me.” Beyond the clear alliteration, we get the internal rhyme of that psy-sound. The word psychotic is front-loaded with that sound, while the word society is back-loaded with that sound. That makes you hyperaware of timing and how you can purposefully miss time, sonic satisfaction, and create more catharsis. And that’s just one technique out of many. If you listen to lyrics like this every day for years, it’s almost a promise that these maneuvers will show up in your work, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously.
On two techniques for revising poems:
The bulk of my editing happens through two techniques that I always suggest to every writer. The first is taking the first one or two stanzas and deleting them. I find that often these stanzas act as a runway or a warm-up for the poem. Most of the time when I delete them, it helps the poem tremendously; I’m getting rid of the exercise it took to get into what I really wanted to say.
The other technique is finding your favorite lines and deleting them. We become attached to our favorite lines, because they’re sonically pleasing, or because we think they’re cleverly written, or because the message is there. But because we’re so hesitant to detach ourselves from those lines, we don’t realize how much they are weighing down the poem. They might be great lines, but they might not be great lines in that poem. If you just try it, and sit on it for a few days, and consider it, you see so many possibilities for the piece. For me, the poem opens up after that happens.
Mark Kyungsoo Bias is the recipient of the 2022 Joseph Langland Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the 2020 William Matthews Poetry Prize. A semi-finalist for the 92Y Discovery Prize, he has been offered support from Bread Loaf, Kundiman, and Tin House. He is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has work published or forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets, The Common, PANK, Poets.org, and Washington Square Review, among other journals. Read more from Mark at markkyungsoobias.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mk_bias or on Instagram at @markbias.
Emily Everett is managing editor of The Common magazine and host of the magazine’s podcast. Her stories appear in the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Tin House Online, and Mississippi Review. Say hello on Twitter @Public_Emily.