Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

There’s not enough good Korean food in Miami for Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s taste. There are some places, she tells me, but they’re mostly sushi joints that also serve Korean food. None of them are as good as Gabose, which is near my parents’ house in Lauderhill, nearly an hour and a half from where she lives in Coral Gables. Normally I would never ask someone to make a trek like that, but Marci tells me it’s a pleasure--she only gets to eat there once every four to six months, and she loves how much it really feels like Korea.

A Korean adoptee, Marci was raised in upstate New York but lived in Korea on and off for a year after graduating high school early. Her experiences became the background of her award-winning poetry collection Hour of the Ox, about an immigrant family’s struggle with displacement and wanderlust. The collection was honored with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ 2015 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, which led to Hour of the Ox’s publication with University of Pittsburgh Press. Marci has also been a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellow and a two-time prizewinner from the Academy of American Poets. She occasionally teaches as an adjunct faculty member in the creative writing department at Florida International University. Last year, her poetry was published in The New York Times.

For someone who has numerous accolades as a poet--a descriptor that still often brings to mind the “tortured artist” persona--Marci is a sunny ball of giggles and positive energy when we meet. We hug and make our way to the table, immediately deciding that soju, the distilled Korean beverage that’s 20-24 percent alcohol by volume, is in our sights. But not too much, because we both have to drive home. Next, Marci opens the menu and wants to know what flavors I like, what meats I like. Am I interested in trying blood sausage? Indeed, I am. Soon dae, as it’s called, is made with intestines, noodles, rice, and pork blood, among other flavorings. We also select Ojingo Bokum, a stir-fried squid and vegetable dish, and Jajangmyeon, a noodle dish made with a bean sauce that’s black in color. The latter is good for the winter, Marci tells me, because it’s so thick and hearty.

The food arrives and Marci folds her chopstick wrapper into a tiny paper shelf where she will rest them when she’s not eating. We dive in and everything is extraordinary, especially the blood sausage, which is my favorite. Marci discusses where her work is going next. She is working on poetry translations and a collection of lyric essays but is also taking time off from teaching this coming semester to focus on writing more of her own poetry. She has enough poems for a book right now, she tells me, but they’re not quite a collection yet. “I’m a slow writer,” she laughs. But sometimes slow is good: soon four hours have passed and we’re still laughing, chitchatting, drinking soju.

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