Notes on How I Became a Poet”

I am twenty-seven. 1997. In Fresno, I meet the poet Andrés Montoya. We become friends and discuss poetry, politics, and faith. He passes away in his early thirties before his first stunning first book is published. Leukemia.


I am twenty-eight. 1998. I travel to Guatemala. This trip begins a ten-year span of traveling overseas during each summer break for a month or two each time. After Guatemala, Honduras. Then, Belize. In the years to follow I travel to China, South Korea, Laos, Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, and El Salvador. I hike through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu. I see the Great Wall. I migrate to the poetic and the political. There is beauty. I am forever changed. Always, I am writing poems.


I am thirty. 2000. Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear physicist in Los Alamos, New Mexico is arrested in suspicion of being a nuclear spy. I meet Cecilia Chang, chair of the National Legal Defense Fund for Wen Ho Lee. I become active. I am relieved when he is released, after 278 days in prison and solitary confinement without having ever been convicted of a single crime. I learn more about language and influence, politics and race, fear and the public, prison and freedom. I remember why I loved Che Guevara’s books, Helen Zia’s work, and other activists of my generation.


I am thirty-one. 2001. I travel to Korea. I am forever changed.


I am thirty-one. 2001. I meet Deann Borshay Liem. I moderate a panel at the Fresno Art Museum, where she discusses her newly released first documentary film, First Person Plural. I receive a screener a week before the panel event. I watch the film at home. I cry, quietly at first, then more loudly and more freely. I say to myself that if I ever write a book, Deann’s creative spirit will be with me as I write.


I am thirty-five. 2006. I become a father. My daughter was, and is, my biggest joy. I am forever changed.


I am thirty-seven. 2007. I begin to meet tens, then hundreds of Korean adoptees. I meet fellow Korean adoptee writers, filmmakers, and begin to meet adoptees from other countries. I sit in bars, and I sit on panels. I begin to listen, and I begin to speak. I begin to give readings and do book signings all over the country — universities and colleges, art museums, community centers and book clubs, sometimes related to adoption, but usually not. I am forever changed. I am so grateful.