‘It started with joy’: Monica Sok talks poetry, embracing heritage in art creation

Nov. 4, 2020, 7:32 p.m.

On Thursday, Oct. 29, Stanford’s Creative Writing Program hosted an interview with Jones Lecturer Monica Sok as part of its Poetry-In-Conversation series. Sok has received fellowships from Kundiman, Hedgebrook, the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations, and her debut poetry collection “A Nail the Evening Hangs On” was published this past February. This winter, Sok will teach ENGLISH 92: Reading and Writing Poetry and ENGLISH 192: Intermediate Poetry Writing. 

The interview began with a few readings from the book, including a poem about her grandmother Em Bun, titled “The Weaver.” Bun, who has been recognized for her own art with a National Heritage Fellowship, is a major influence on Sok’s work — both the book itself and the cover art are dedicated to her grandmother. 

The cover pays homage to multiple generations of women in her family, as the golden fabric is a skirt woven by her grandmother for her mother. Sok said Bun was the “first artist I saw at work … and the first time I saw anybody’s craft.”  

Asked by English lecturer Keith Ekiss about her early experiences writing poetry, Sok spoke about rhyming with friends during walks as an undergraduate at American University. She said, “It started with joy, and it started with friendship.” 

After graduating with a B.A. in International Studies and considering becoming a foreign service officer, Sok decided to apply for New York University’s M.F.A. program after encouragement from her poetry professor, David Keplinger.  

Sok spoke at length about her time at the Kundiman Retreat, which she attended between her first and second years at NYU. Kundiman is a national organization dedicated to supporting Asian American creative writers, and its annual retreat includes Master Classes and mentorship meetings. 

Sok credited Kundiman with giving her the community and ability to commit to writing about Cambodian history and her own personal experience. She discussed the marginalization of Asian American narratives, emphasizing how literature on the Cambodian genocide has largely been written by white male authors.  

Sok also pointed out how she hopes her poetry will encourage readers to learn about the richness of Cambodian history on their own, rather than just focusing on the violence. “I’m not here to answer to people’s ignorance,” Sok said, “I’m here to write about and center my people.” 

At the end of the interview, Sok gave advice for future poets and writers: “If you love writing, give yourself time … the poem will tell you what it wants to do, so get ready for it.” 

Contact Ellie Wong at elliew2 ‘at’ stanford.edu

Ellie Wong, a native of the suburbs of Atlanta, writes for Arts & Life and The Grind. She studies English and psychology and uses her English education to point out typos in The Daily's videos before they're published.

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