Korean Literary Society of Washington, D.C.
By: Will Schick
We all ordered the cabbage and beef short rib stew. Six bowls. But, as these things happen, the restaurant ran out. That’s when a fight erupted.
“Sorry, we’re all out,” the server said as he set five bowls down on our table.
At that moment, a roar from an apparent scuffle came crashing through the doors to the private dining room located at the rear of the Woo Lae Oak restaurant in Vienna, Virginia, where I sat with approximately twenty-five other members of the Korean Literary Society of Washington DC around a group of four tables to have lunch and talk literature.
I got up to investigate the source of all the commotion. Just inside the main dining area, two men exchanged insults with one another, while a frazzled server tried to keep the peace by reminding them the police were on their way. Now that the commotion had subsided, there was no spectacle to be seen.
(It should be noted that the Woo Lae Oak Restaurant is a lovely Korean-style restaurant with an expansive menu that is great for families. This fight was highly uncharacteristic of the place’s typical peaceful ambience.)
When I came back, I reported to my table the result of my investigation: as far as I could tell, the fight must have erupted because of a shortage of cabbage and beef short rib stew. We laughed and advised the server to bring us a plain beef short rib stew for the remaining person without a soup at our table.
“We promise not to fight over the stew,” someone added.
The Korean Literary Society of Washington, D.C. started about thirty years ago in the basement of a restaurant in Maryland and has since grown in size, drawing members from all over the region.
I was first introduced to the group through a mutual acquaintance in January; on this day, in late February, I was going to be work-shopping the first poem I ever wrote in Korean. I was nervous. This poem wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you bring home to show your mom. For one, it made use of a racial slur—one that is used to describe people of mixed-race backgrounds, like me. It also contained some unsettling graphic imagery. Oddly, the excitement of the fight had given me a sense of calm. It distracted me from the poem, but when it came time for us to divide up into our workshop groups: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, I started to feel a sudden resurgence of anxiety. How would they see this work? Was it too inappropriate?
It can be easy to forget just how diverse the greater Washington area is: Thirty-two percent of Montgomery County residents are foreign born, while thirty-nine percent of people in Fairfax County speak a language other than English at home. Even though the foreign-born population in D.C. is much smaller (thirteen percent), and the proportion of people who speak languages other than English at home is also much smaller (seventeen percent), they are still very much an important part of our overall community.
It can be easy to forget that people write in other languages in D.C., especially when we spend our time writing and reading English. But, let me assure you that English is not the only language used in D.C.’s literary scene. There’s a strong and active community of local writers publishing work in Korean, sharing amongst themselves. And I’m sure, if you were to look, you would find others in other languages, too.
In my group, there was no fixed workshop leader. We took it upon ourselves to take turns reading our work aloud, later providing each other with feedback. Everyone commented on everyone’s work, taking time to notice the spaces between stanzas, the places where each writer decided to break their lines, and so on.
The group must have sensed my anxiety. As the youngest member there (I’m only thirty-four, while the rest of the group was a mix of middle-aged folks and senior citizens), I felt intimidated by the presence of so much talent. But, as we moved from poem to poem, someone would ask me, “Will, what do you think,” or “What about this line here?” Gradually, I forgot the source of all my nervousness.
Then it came time for me to read. My voice shook with every line. And by the time I finished, the group was clapping. Their comments were encouraging.
“That was a great poem, Will.”
“Thank you for sharing something vulnerable.”
“You had no reason to be nervous, that’s how poems are supposed to be.”
It wasn’t all praise, though. That’s not what workshops are for. Now that the hard part was over, it was onto the real work. There were suggestions on where to reduce some redundancies, different places to break the line. Someone suggested a different word to use in one stanza. We worked through the piece thoroughly before ending.
On the way out, one of the other poets approached me, and said, “Remember, workshop feedback is not proscriptive. This is your work, after all.”
It reminded me of how we are taught to approach workshops in the MFA program. Then, it reminded me that as writers, we all rely on communities to help us improve our writing.