Join the Bodega: the reading adventure central Minnesota is talking about
We hope those who read Bodega will gain helpful insights into some of today’s most politically divisive topics, and find their own way to help heal those divisions. For more information about this book, read Lyricality’s recent article “Su Hwang’s Bodega: 7 hints for embarking on the risky adventure of getting into poetry.”
Join the Bodega: Read Along
Su Hwang’s Bodega is Lyricality’s 4 counties, 1 book read for 2020, selected to help us share our stories, listen to each others’ stories, and think about how our own stories may be in conversation with this Minnesota poet’s. Get the book, and use our resources (scroll down) to enrich your reading and discussion.
Educators, use our easy lesson plan and videos in the resources below, to effortlessly bring contemporary Minnesota poetry into your classroom. Book groups, make use of our reading and discussion guides below. Readers, join in one of two Zoom discussions, co-sponsored by Great River Regional Library, on October 14th at 1:30 and 7:00 pm. Fans, listen to Su Hwang read and answer questions on October 28, 7:00 on Zoom.
This program is designed to help us build a stronger, healthier community through meaningful connection. Join the Bodega!
Book Groups' Discussion Guide
Bodega by Su Hwang is a coming of age story told in poems. Set in New York and California, with excursions to Korea in the days of the author’s parents and ancestors, this collection “moves through individual and collective memory as one might move through an actual bodega: fingers running across detergent and snacks in bright packages, delivering greetings to someone from the neighborhood, trying to remember what you came to get in the first place, recalling a memory sparked by the sudden whiff of a familiar smell,” Leah Silvieus writes in her review of Su Hwang’s first book.
As in a bodega, the pieces of story are packaged in a wide variety of forms, small and large, traditional and experimental. Enter, browse, and sample. Ask how your own story might relate to this poet’s. Explore Bodega and enjoy the adventure.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- Consider the title of this book. Why do you think the poet chose the word Bodega? What is a bodega and where does it appear in the book? What symbolic meaning or association might the urban, communal space of a bodega have in terms of race, identity, community, belonging, and disenfranchisement or marginalization?
- Do you have a favorite poem from this collection? Did one of these poems strongly speak to you? Why?
- When Abbey Faulkner from WJON asked what kind of poetry she writes, Su Hwang answered that these poems are narrative and lyrical. A simple way to define those literary terms is that narrative tells a story, and lyrical poetry reveals the observations of one an individual from his/her/their personal perspective. Su also explained that in this collection, she presented a wide variety of forms, long and short, traditional and experimental. Which poems’ form did you particularly like, appreciate, or find interesting?
- Explore the theme of Han, a particularly Korean feeling, which can be described as a permanent emotional imprint, rooted in an experience of injustice or unfairness. Han can include the sense that one’s tiny but important life is doomed to be consumed by invisible, unconquerable systemic powers. How is Han depicted in the book, and how does it shape the behavior and attitude of the people we meet—the author, her family, friends, and acquaintances? Does Han seem to have a mostly positive or mostly negative impact on the people who experience this powerful feeling?
- What perspective does this book offer on the subject of otherness? For example, in the long poem “Bodega” (pp 44-50), who perceives another as different, and therefore suspicious, untrustworthy, or deserving of contempt? What shapes people’s beliefs about others? How do people’s beliefs impact those around them?
- Evaluate this poet’s use of epigraphs (short quotations from other writers’ poems) to begin each section. Is there a common thread—an image or a tone or sound—that somehow connects the epigraphs to each other? Or, in the same way a pound of coffee and a bottle of shampoo are unrelated, but both might be found inside a bodega, do the epigraphs seem disconnected and unrelated? When you read the epigraphs, what image or memory springs to mind, or what emotions do you feel?
- To divide the book into sections, and longer poems into smaller sections, this poet frequently uses small roman numerals. Try to guess why she made this choice, when she might have used roman capitals ( I., II., III ), or the ten digit hindu-arabic system ( 1, 2, 3 ), or chosen some symbol like the infinity sign ( ∞ ), as she does in “Duende Essays” beginning on page 63.
- The word duende is Spanish. Duende might refer to the fiery spirit behind a great emotionally-stirring performance, or it might be one’s emotion or response to a selected piece of art. Why do you think this poet chose to borrow words from other languages instead of translating them into English? What might her choice—to leave words like duende and han untranslated—say about the effectiveness of words to identify or describe human emotion?
- “Coming of age” is a literary name for a story relating to an adolescent’s movement toward adulthood, in which the protaganist—the main character—awakens to a new understanding of his or herself and the surrounding world. What makes this collection a coming of age story? What new understanding does the central character—the Korean American daughter—gain about herself, her family, her community, and the world?
- Solmaz Sharif writes that the poems in Bodega “are observant and cinematic, tracing the way our many-languaged lives come up against each other in these united states.” Do you agree? Has reading this book changed your perception of, or feelings about, “the way our many-languaged lives come up against each other?”
- What is “language?” Do you have experience communicating in other word-based languages? Are you proficient in any non-word based language (such as music, visual art, mathematics, physics, computer code, or sign language)? Have you “come up against” the lives of people who communicate most proficiently in a language different from yours? What was that like? Having read Bodega, in what ways do you see, feel, or think differently about “these united states” now?
- Reading Bodega, were you reminded of any of your own life experiences? How might your own story be in conversation with this poets’? In a conversation about your stories, what question or questions would you ask Su Hwang?
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Central MN Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
Bodega Readers' Guide
7 hints for embarking on the risky adventure of getting into Bodega by Su Hwang
This readers’ guide will help you Join the Bodega and “get into” poetry. Poetry requires a reader’s participation. Reading poetry can be a risky—but rewarding—adventure.
As Alice B. Fogel writes in Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader, “Poetry is art … it’s here to join us on the journey we call life.”
Sitting on your couch and watching a documentary about rock climbing won’t take you anywhere. Putting on the harness and climbing the crag will reveal your strengths and limitations, providing opportunities for growth. Reading poetry isn’t passive. It’s an encounter with your whole self in the world.
Lyricality aims to introduce Minnesota poets to new audiences, and to encourage book groups to consider poetry collections as a way to facilitate lively, meaningful discussions. People who read Bodega might gain insight to foster compassion around some of today’s most politically divisive topics.
While its themes may be political, this book is not. There are no proposals of superficial resolutions to American culture’s fragmentation and polarization, no calls to take a side or a stance. There is, however, the invitation and opportunity to observe “where it hurts.”
This is a book for people compassionate enough to say to others, who may come from entirely unfamiliar places, “Tell me where it hurts.” It’s for those humble enough to question their own assumptions, and brave enough to recognize that the world contains pain and trauma they will be incapable of healing. It’s also for those who would like to become more self-aware, as well as more accepting of others.
If you’re willing to join central Minnesota readers on this journey, choose one of the following ways to get into a poem, and start reading.
1) Notice the shape of a poem on the page
Poems look different because they are asking you to read them differently, to get into and inside them. Alice B. Fogel says that reading prose is like looking at your lawn from your kitchen window—you notice it as one thing, an expanse of green. But if you were a bug in that lawn, you’d see a lot of air. In her book Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader, Alice invites you to read a poem as if you were “that bug on a blade of grass. Crawl up one side and down the other of every line.”
Bodega opens with the poem “Something of a Proverb on Luck,” with these lines:
In starfished palms.
Survey its yarns—
The many threads. We are
All blood, guts
& wants: alien …
Crawl each line. Feel yourself hanging out there, as if at the tip of a blade of grass. Wing your way back to the left margin and crawl again. Notice how, from this new perspective, what you just read seems different.
2) Notice what the words of a poem are doing
Poets play with words. Su Hwang noticeably plays with the Korean word Han, giving us 3 different poems with that same title, one in each of the book’s three sections. In section i. she explores Han as a verb. In section ii. Han becomes a noun, and in iii. it’s an adjective.
To enjoy Bodega’s poems, it is not necessary to know that Han is a particularly Korean feeling, which can be described as a permanent emotional imprint rooted in an experience of injustice or unfairness, a sense that one’s tiny but important life is doomed to be consumed by invisible, unconquerable systemic powers. Some readers of poetry, however, will enjoy tackling a new poem as if it’s an expedition or archeological quest. When they make a discovery—of a new word, for example—they’ll bring in a team of experts to shed light on what it could mean. If you’re that kind of explorer, these articles will help you mine deeply, to discover more of Bodega’s buried treasures.
A Complex Feeling Tugs at Koreans, Los Angeles Times
Psychology of Korean Han, The Korea Times
And if you’ve never lived in New York City, you might ask your favorite search engine, “What is a Bodega?”
3) Notice how the words of a poem sound
In the essay “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird,” Donald Hall explains how poetry touches us on archetypal, as well as deeply personal levels, through the pre-verbal experience of pleasure. You don’t have to understand this to experience it. Forget your need to make meaning for a moment, and simply enjoy the word-music. Mouth the words. Wrap your lips, tongue, and even your throat around this poem’s juiciness.
Corner Store Still | Life
Behind rainbow Skittles, Marlboros,
Whatchamacallits—a recessed figure
Pines: her profile scored by fluorescence
Like a knockoff Vermeer. Just as
Antique coins are painstakingly preserved,
She’s rendered motionless: boxed in.
4) Visualize the poem
One of the tools of poetry is image. Poets paint pictures with words.
Solmaz Sharif calls these poems “observant and cinematic.” Read these poems while letting your mind’s eye see a film unfolding. Try that trick with these lines from “Assimilation Bouquet”
like a nesting
5) Feel the poem
Poetry is an exchange. Poets give readers the gift of their words. Readers give a poem their open hearts. A poem is like soup. It’s not quite finished until a reader seasons it with the sweet-hot-salty-sour-bitter flavors of their own emotions.
In Bodega’s Han poems, the poet is signaling that we will encounter the intense, personal and collective emotions brought to the making of these poems. To get into “Han—3.”, is to open your heart to a complex tangle of fear, rage, confusion, stress, curiosity, and bemusement, which crescendo into a commingling of love with misery.
6) Think the poem
Poetry is also an examination, a testing of our ideas, opinions, and biases. When Su Hwang tells us,“Bodega explores issues of identity, race, im/ migration, and marginalization within marginalized communities,” we can expect to encounter poems that will prod us into thinking about these issues. For readers of poetry, thinking becomes a wonderfully stimulating activity—an intriguing, tickling urge. If curiosity is an itch, thinking is the satisfying scratch.
The long poem “Bodega” is a drama with five characters: the Bodega owners, Mr. and Mrs Kim; a (possibly undocumented) immigrant worker who sweeps floors and stocks shelves; and two customers—a large black man; and a blond white woman wearing a “nice dress.” One of the customers is a thief. “Bodega” shows what’s under the skin of these characters, revealing who is, and who is not, a threat. This poem makes explicit how easily racism can sucker us into misjudging the safety or danger of our encounters with other humans.
The poems of Bodega might confirm or challenge your world view. They might encourage you to think in new ways, even inspire you to change how you live. If you “get into” thinking about these poems, you will be led to consider uncomfortable issues. But you won’t find solutions. Bodega is not a how-to manual for navigating race and marginalization. It is artful, thought-provoking poetry.
“…Bodega is a quarry—mining directly into the immigrant heart, the daughter’s heart, the American heart. Real excavation always rends and breaks and words to bring something new into the light…”—Kaveh Akbar
7) Get into the poem
Trust the poem. Relax into its current. Allow the poem to carry you downstream, taking you where ever it will take you. Experienced readers of poetry accept they might be mystified by a poem, and they make mystification a non problem. Alice B. Fogel calls this way of experiencing a poem, “unknowing.”
She writes, “Tyrannical logic reigns in our daily lives. Also sneaking in frequent appearances is a particular lack of logic we might call stupidity. Poetry’s brand of reason is neither of these. Its carriage of meaning rolls along on wheels of intuition, is-ism, truth and mystery, and what it conveys, even if we can’t name it, is something we cannot sensibly live without…Poetry draws us out of our automatic-pilot, running-around-unsmellingly-through-the-roses and into the physical, messy, exquisite reality of who we are—not what we know or do or what we’re supposed to do next, but what it feels like to a be.”
Try reading Su Hwang’s Pushcart-Prize nominated poem,“The Price of Rice,” (page 58) to feel what it’s like to be a daughter “always negotiating that emotional space between gratitude and guilt,” as a child of immigrants.
Whether you’ve chosen to Join the Bodega on your own or with your book group, after you’ve had an opportunity to read and/or discuss the book, please take a short survey, to let us know whether this program served you well, and what else we might do to help you connect with one of Minnesota’s finest cultural assets—our community of Poets. Use this link to access the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HVWLDWZ
Demographic data helps our funding and program planning, and enables us to evaluate how well we are achieving our mission to support diversity and foster community. Use this link to access the demographic survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HCT2FDL
THANK YOU. We value your participation.
Educators' 10-minute lesson plan
Lyricality invites you to open your classrooms for a few minutes to watch “Hopscotch,” from Bodega by Su Hwang. No need for prep time. Join the Bodega has been prepared for you. Just show the 2-minute (poem only), or the 4-minute (poem + poet’s explanation) YouTube video, and if you have five or ten extra minutes, allow students to respond. Or simply let there be one minute of silence after viewing, and then move on.
Bodega by Su Hwang is a moving coming-of-age story by an award-winning Minnesota poet, and is Lyricality’s 2020 selection for “Read Poetry Central Minnesota,” a 4-counties, 1 book reading program cosponsored by Great River Regional Libraries. “Hopscotch” was selected by Sauk Rapids High School English teacher and published poet, Nicole Borg, who believes high school and college students will appreciate and relate to this poem.
Minnesota is home to many award-winning poets, and Lyricality aims to foster the widespread appreciation of our cultural resources by teaching“this mind-changing secret about appreciating poetry: ‘It’s not about getting it…Poetry will give you endless ideas to think about, confusions of emotions to explore, images of beauty and horror and everything in between to contemplate and share. It will surprise, delight and inform about all the ways language can be artfully arranged to viscerally express the impact of the world upon us. It will connect you to nature and civilization, other people near and far, now or then, and to your own inner life. But it will not give you answers” (Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader by Alice B. Fogel).
To access the video “Hopscotch by Su Hwang,” go to Lyricality.org/read-poetry
After showing the video, if you wish, choose one of the following options, based on your understanding of what would most likely work with your students. Please tell students there are many ways to experience a poem, and none of them are wrong. Whatever anyone thinks or feels is the right response.
- Ask: What feelings, thoughts, music or mystery did these words stir up in you? If your students are not talkative, you might show the video again and allow that question to accompany their second viewing.
- Ask: How could this poem open our hearts and minds to what is happening in our lives today?
- Explain: Poets are passionate about words—they think words are fabulous company. Ask: What are you passionate about doing or spending time with? Which seems more important to you: to have the same passion as people you like, or to know that you each have a passion of your own?
- Ask: If you were going to dedicate a poem to an important friend or friends, what game or activity would you use for the title?
for Heather, Dana & Natasha
We invented kingdoms in the alley that
summer—housing projects sandwiched
between a Baptist church & synagogue—
bricked monstrosities where witches &
hunchbacks surely lived. Daring each other
to climb imagined steeples, ring the bell,
we squealed in the boxed chase. Blindfolded
with glee, our fingers covered in chalk like
dried milk—we clapped above our heads in
unison. Clouds of pixie dust & daylight stars.
When your Mom brought an iced pitcher
sweating Kool-Aid (in cherry!!), we pretended
to be vampires—thick as thieves—crushed
flesh dripping down our chins as the setting
sun drained our powers—beatboxing
against the humidity. We laughed without
punch lines, holding our sugar-filled bellies,
lips wide—clown-stained. You called me
silly for wanting my hair braided in rows like
yours. No way, José, you echoed: shiny beads
won’t tame such slippery eels! We thought
ourselves Siamese: yellow & black, black &
yellow—a jolly, three-headed creature forever
conjoined—not knowing my parents would
flee to where it’d be impossible to revel with
sisters whose marvel wasn’t make-believe.
From Bodega by Su Hwang (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Su Hwang. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org
Reads & Discusses
Get Su Hwang’s Bodega
Donate $20 or more to Lyricality, and we’ll send you a copy of Bodega as a gift.
Request a discounted price for your book club combined purchase
Request to borrow a book club kit of 10 books
Meet up via Zoom with readers for a discussion facilitated by Lyricality’s Director, Tracy Rittmueller, and co-hosted by Great River Regional Library. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a link to join the meeting.
An Evening With Su Hwang
Su Hwang will read from her award winning book, Bodega, followed by and Question & Answer with the author, via Zoom on October 28th at 7pm.
Click here to register for meeting
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
About Su Hwang
Born in Seoul, Korea, Su Hwang was raised in New York then called the Bay Area home before transplanting to the Midwest, where she received her MFA in poetry from the University of Minnesota. A recipient of the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature, the Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize, writer-in-residence fellowships to Dickinson House and Hedgebrook, among others, her poems have appeared in Ninth Letter, Water~Stone Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and is the co-founder, with Sun Yung Shin, of Poetry Asylum. Su Hwang currently lives in Minneapolis.
Su Hwang author website: https://suhwang.com/
Past “Read Poetry” Selections
Read Poetry 2020 Sponsors and Supporters:
Read Poetry 2020 is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Central MN Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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