As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Kim Shuck in response to a video of her reading her poem “Smuggling Cherokee” aloud. Kim Shuck wrote letters back to four of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Kim Shuck reads "Smuggling Cherokee" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Ms. Kim Shuck,
My name is Ahn and I am currently a 9th grader. I connected with your poem, “Smuggling Cherokee.” Your unusual oxymorons such as “good mistranslations” helped me discover how I can help identify myself. Throughout the poem, you grapple with your identity and while I read it I did too.
Do you feel as if you can use writing to identify and discover yourself? For me, I have used creative writing as a channel for my emotions. Furthermore, I used writing when I coped with the loss of my grandmother but I’ve also used it through happy times too. I have realized writing is a resource no one can take away. Your poem was crafted originally: you were able to discuss your past while moving into the future. I think this poem speaks close to home for me because I am Asian American. I don’t speak Mandarin and I don’t always feel like I fit in or am the “typical” Asian. Can you relate to not always being the stereotypical version of your race/ethnicity? When you said, “But it's all I ever speak” I came to a big realization. People are going to question who you are, just like the man in the poem. But you and only you are the decider.
When I watched you read your poem online I could sense your emotions that were conveyed. The specific pauses you made and the way you slowed down, sped up and changed your tone and volume helped illustrate the emotions you felt through the poem. While listening to you read aloud your poem, the flow was incredible. One question that popped into my mind while listening to your poem was do you think about your ancestors regularly? When you said “The end goal of several generations of a smuggling project,” I immediately thought about my grandmother who passed in 2013. She helped me remind myself of my roots and taught me many Chinese cultural traditions. I remember her teaching me how to cook Chinese food and she bought me my first traditional Chinese dress. Do you use writing as a way to recall the past? I’ve noticed that I’ve often written about my grandma to feel closer to her.
You discuss being grateful for your ancestors' sacrifices and it reminded me everything my grandparents did. For example, my grandma snuck out of China on a boat, leaving her family, never seeing her father again, all to help the next generations. Your poem helped me reflect on the enormity of these sacrifices. To connect with my grandma I often take out her Chinese cookbook that was always propped up on her shelf. I reminisce over this book, I can smell the recipes and envision the memories in my mind. Your poem is like the cookbook. It contained the power to transport me back to when she was still with me. Do you find anything in your life that makes you connect back to your ancestors, almost as if they are in the moment?
“Smuggling Cherokee” was a sensory experience to read. No poem I've read has produced so many emotions for me. I am grateful for the experience of reading “Smuggling Cherokee.” Have you read any pieces of literature that light you up inside? Thank you for sharing “Smuggling Cherokee,” it's been a magnificent read. You have taught me about my identity and who I am.
New York, NY
Thank you for your kind words. I think that the experience of feeling other is common to many communities and I’m glad that my work spoke to you. My children’s father is Chinese American by way of Hawaii, and I think they’ve each had moments of feeling as if they have to hold on to cultural things tightly if they want to keep them.
I had my great grandmas until I was almost done with High School and my grandmothers until about nine years ago (they passed in the same year). I don’t know if writing generally inspires memories, but sometimes I write them letters. Still. Now. Those inspire memories. I’m closer and closer to my ancestors as I get older, if that makes sense. I think about decisions they made and even the things I used to feel some irritation at or some impatience with, these days I’m more patient, I think.
I believe that if writing hadn’t lit me up I probably wouldn’t write now. I had one favorite poet who really inspired me, Carol Lee Sanchez. She just really said the things I couldn’t find words for and I found it really nourishing to read her work.
I hope that you continue to find things that bring you light and insight.
Best with everything,
Dear Miss Kim Shuck,
Hello! My name is Arri. I am a student at the University School of Milwaukee, and I love poetry. I am also Native American.
Your poem, “Smuggling Cherokee”, is a beautiful work of art. I love your poem. I can’t get it out of my head. The way you number your stanzas really helped the reader separate and comprehend each and every idea you were trying to get across. I felt as if the first stanza was about rebuilding oneself and seeing someone from within. I could picture the crystals you wrote about. The imagery surrounding the piece of flint was mind-blowing.
The bits about rage and the smooth rocks also just added to the masterpiece that is your poem. “Things as edgeless as I can have them” opened my eyes. I believed it to be a metaphor for depression or anxiety, but it could also be quite the opposite. So, yes, I do agree that misconception can be an amazing art.
Trying to keep our culture alive and our lands safe is a never-ending goal for us. In your fourth stanza, when the man in the poem asks the storyteller “Do you speak Cherokee?” it made me wonder. I understand your perspective on smuggling in the poem, but I have a question to leave you with and a fact about Native Americans. My question is, how can we smuggle something into the land that has been ours all along? My fact is this: women in our culture are powerful. We are the ones that discovered the medicine that kept us alive, and we are the ones that can change the future.
With deep respect and admiration,
Siyo. I’m honored by your words and I really like your question about smuggling. For me, and understanding that art is not always the same for each person, I’m not smuggling the culture to the land. We got the culture from the land. I’m smuggling Cherokee into places where it is not always welcome. I’m smuggling my ancestors, the ones who were killed and the ones who weren’t, right into academia and literature and cultural organizations who never expected us to be here. We were not meant to survive this long, you and I. I’m smuggling Cherokee through time. They meant for us to be dead. Yet here we are, smuggled here in DNA and songs and smoke. It’s a big responsibility, to carry that forward. It’s frightening some days and I haven’t always been sure that I could do it. It makes me happy that you enjoyed my poem. It means I’ve contributed something.
Stay healthy, cousin, change the future, heal, be stubborn,
Dear Ms. Shuck,
My name is Amelia and I am in 9th grade at a school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At first, I was drawn to your poem,“Smuggling Cherokee,” because it conjured such vivid images in my mind. In sections one and two, I imagined a girl sitting at a desk in a warm room, studying a copy of her left hand, not quite sure what to make of it. I could envision her trying to read the lines on her hand, looking for her identity. The third section took me to an image of the girl playing with smooth rocks. Maybe she’s a little older, her rough edges smoothed out over time. Maybe the girl is sick of rough things and rough times and just wants easy. Smooth sailing. The fourth section seemed to be the end of the girl’s journey in accepting her Cherokee identity; “It was the end goal of several generations of a/Smuggling project.” The girl realized that her Cherokee identity was not something that she needed to hide or be ashamed of.
This fourth section reminded me of when I accepted my Chinese identity. Growing up, I remember I always wanted to have brown hair and blue eyes just like the main characters in my favorite books and television shows. All of my dolls also didn’t look like me. However, when I was ten, I moved to Taiwan. There, I was exposed to more people who shared my Asian identity. As I became more immersed in the culture, I began to embrace my Chinese identity. I went to Chinese public school, I learned Mandarin and I ate a ton of fried rice and mantous. As I think back to this time now, I can’t remember when exactly I let go of my desire to have blue eyes and brown hair. But this poem made me realize that I no longer long for those causcasion physical characteristics.
One line that stuck out to me was “[t]here is a certain art to a good mistranslation.” The girl didn’t have a clear understanding of her identity. She thought that being Cherokee was something to be hidden or smuggled. But your use of the word “art” made me think that shaping one’s identity is not a matter of right or wrong. Oftentimes I feel so much pressure to know my passion and exactly who I am and what I want to be. But this line made me think that “mistranslating” who you are can bring you to where you are in life. I was wondering how you think of this line; what does this line mean to you?
I also noticed how there was a motif of rocks throughout your poem. For example, at the beginning of your poem you mentioned peach colored flint, a barite rose, gypsum, ruby jack and the smooth river rocks that the girl stacked in the bathtub. The line, “We’ve slipped the barriers/Evaded border guards” also reminded me of rocks slipping down a river. I was wondering what your reference to these rocks was trying to express? Are these rocks important in Cherokee culture?
I am so happy that I read your poem and tried to understand it because by doing so I have realized how far I have come in accepting my Chinese identity. Your writing is so beautiful. The words you use truly come alive and paint stories. I am a dancer and last summer I came across the phrase “dancers are poets of gesture.” I hope that one day I can conjure stories and vivid images with movement as well as you do with words.
Thank you for taking my words and using them. Poems are interesting to me, they aren’t keys but they can be keys. Unlike most other things, poems can become the tool you need at the moment. That’s as true for the writer as the reader. I was much closer to your age when I wrote that poem than to my current age. Early 20s? Mid 20s? I’m in my 50s now. My kids’ dad is Chinese and Hawaiian, and I sat with my daughter when she was in school and talked about her straight dark hair and her nearly black eyes. I talked to her about the food she’d find in her packed lunches, unfamiliar to many even here in San Francisco, and treated by some of her classmates with a bit of suspicion. She was never going to be blue eyed with her genetics, and she had some of those moments of finding self that you’ve described. I was always delighted to be Cherokee, but when I was a kid in school my classmates always told me that there weren’t any Native people in the US anymore. So for many readers, the point of the poem is that the author was denying a heritage, but for me I was always carrying an unexpected thing into places where it was often unwelcome. I’m delighted that people take my words and take what is useful for them, that isn’t mistranslation, even when we don’t understand the words in the same way. I wrote that poem to think about what a life might be for a mixed-race Cherokee woman at the end of the 20th century. Now here in the 21st I think that I did ok, but I wasn’t sure when I wrote that. It’s a poem of finding your way. I’m glad that you took it personally and I will watch for your dance career. Everyone has part of the mystery, I’m glad that you are making space to express yours.
Stay well, dance, inspire others,
Dear Kim Shuck,
Your poem, Smuggling Cherokee, speaks to me in many ways, but I especially enjoyed the word choices you made. Word choice such as “peach colored flint” and “a Barite rose” really engaged me into the poem and the messages being conveyed. Specifically, “peach colored flint” conjures up memories of my childhood hikes with my grandparents. My favorite place to hike with them was composed of large orange canyons. I remember the peach-ish color of the rocks we were stepping on. As I read about the “peach colored flint” I was reminded of the fond memories of my time with my grandparents. Another thing that I found a connection with when I read this poem were the lines “There is a certain art / To a good mistranslation”. Although this does not conjure up a specific memory of mine, something about the wording really grabbed my attention. Immediately after finishing reading the poem for the first time I found myself immediately going back to those lines to read them again. The third stanza also spoke to me in a way because it shows a transformation from being rowdy and rambunctious at a young age to maturing into a more calm and patient person. Although I wouldn’t call myself totally matured, I can personally relate to the journey of learning to control your emotions and appreciating things through patience. I also find myself liking the simple structure of the poem. From simple lines such as “Barite rose” to the simple and succinct second stanza. I find that length of the poem is one of its strengths, it is neither too short that it is hard to understand nor is it too long that it loses its intentions or direction. The combination of length, strong and illustrative word choice, and pleasant memories makes Smuggling Cherokee a read that I thoroughly enjoyed.
For me, the main value that this poem promotes pertains to kindness. This is primarily due to the fact that the narrator is smuggling a person across a border. Specifically, the narrator is smuggling a Cherokee in a multigenerational “smuggling project”. Any project that has to do with smuggling is obviously dangerous or illegal in some way. Given the way the poem is written and who is writing it, I can assume that this smuggling has a benevolent goal. The narrator seems to be putting themselves on the line for the person that they are smuggling, which is clearly voluntary. The fact that the narrator is voluntarily putting their safety aside to help smuggle this person in need immediately makes me think about kindness. Although the storyteller would lose nothing from not helping this individual, instead they are putting themselves at risk for the sake of another person. I think that this poem is arguing that as people mature they become more empathetic and able to understand other points of view. I think this because in the third stanza the reader is given contextualization as to who the narrator used to be compared to who they are now. Originally impatient and immature, the storyteller has grown up into a patient person who has a “love of smooth things”. Along with this transformation comes the empathy, which allows her to understand this Cherokee and volunteer to help the cause, whatever it is. I like the meaning of this poem a lot. It makes me hopeful for my future as a person. As I am currently on my journey of becoming a more mature and patient person, this poem gives me hope that one day I can be as courageous and strong as someone who would put themselves at risk for the sake of helping other people.
There are a few formal choices made in the writing of this poem that grab my attention. Firstly, the lines “The man asks me / “Do you speak Cherokee” jumps out to me due to how it rhymes. The combination of the “s” sounds with the “k” sounds to be finished off by the “e” sound makes this line very pleasant to read both in your head and out loud. Though it does not follow the exact rhyme scheme, the following line: “But it’s all I ever speak”, also has the “s” “k” and “e” sounds in it. Another line that gets my attention is the internal rhyme and consonance in the line “I remember rage and impatient violence”. This line has prominent “m” and “a” sounds that make the line flow out of the reader's mouth. I do have a question about the process you went through when writing this poem. How did you decide how to format this poem? Was it a conscious decision to rhyme things sparingly, or did you write the poem and tweak it to make it more enjoyable to read / hear? As someone who can never quite decide how I should go through the process of writing a poem, I am amazed at the idea of being able to produce something like this. Though I am sure that there are still things I am yet to figure out about this poem, I sure have enjoyed dissecting it so far and I plan to continue to study this poem more in the future.
Well done. Not everyone notices the internal rhymes in my work, not even poetry professors. Over the years I’ve played with different line breaks and style choices and I have found that the lightest hand works best for me. I have overwritten so many poem, just done too much to them. I went through a phase where I wouldn’t start a line on a word like ‘the’ or ‘a’ that I wanted active verbs beginning things. Those poems are almost yelling. Anyway, again, very well noticed. Traditional Ethiopian poems have internal rhymes, if you like that style.
I’m glad that you’ll keep reading my piece, I’m sure that there are things that I have yet to learn about it too.
Thank you so much for your kind words, stay well,
Dear Kim Shuck:
My name is Patrick. I am a sophomore from Houston, TX. I am writing to you after reading your poem Smuggling Cherokee, a poem that consciously jolted me to life while I read through the other poems by your peers. What struck me most about your poem was the second stanza, a beautiful oxymoron with powerful diction that I myself identify with: “There is a certain art to a good mistranslation.” As I read, I found myself, a normally reserved person, unexpectedly attacked, exposed while no one else was around, by your soft-spoken poem. I was scared by how much the line applied to me and my own experiences. Recently, poetry has served me as a release, a medium in which I can write secrets, secrets I could never tell anyone, in cryptic metaphors and analogies that cover up the truth just well enough to trick me into letting it out but not well enough to remove the hope that someone just might discover exactly what I am hiding.
Then your third stanza uncovered a deeper layer, leaving me unguarded. I have known “rage and impatient violence” in my life, anger that stemmed from insecurity towards anyone who reminded me of that insecurity, especially myself. As I grew up, I found my “river rocks,” strategies to keep me calm and collected. In middle school, I would allow myself to get as angry and sad as possible and write down everything I hated about myself, every source of insecurity I could find, exaggerated to the extreme. I would then read over it, challenging what I had written and inventing methods to reduce the list to nothing. After years of slowly replacing lines like “You aren’t truly a part of this family” and “Would anyone even blink if you were gone?” with assertions of courage like “You are loved” and “Prove to them that you are important by doing important things,” I now realize those lists, lists I burned after writing, were really my first journal entries and my most emotional poems. While I cannot assume anything about your own life, I know that poetry must have served you in a way similar to my own: a welcome release of emotion.
I, however, do not have the same connection to your first and fourth stanzas, as I am not as familiar with Cherokee culture as the poem makes me want to be. Because of this, I did not fully understand the introduction of your poem. While poetry is mostly subjective in meaning, I believe that the intention of the poet is very important to developing a personal meaning within a poem. This leads me to the following questions: why did you choose the objects as paperweights in the first stanza? Beyond the candlelit imagery they create, are they symbols for you personally or symbols for something greater? Lastly, my understanding of your poem is that the “end goal” of your project, your extended metaphor of a “smuggling project,” is the dispersion and exposure of your Cherokee culture to other cultures, allowing understanding and movement beyond prejudice in both directions. Am I correct in this, or does your poem hold another meaning for you and those around you? In many ways, I regret asking this question, in fear of being wrong and seeing my own understanding shattered, losing what I enjoyed most about the poem: the bridge I had to build to connect your message to my own experiences. Without the foundation of your meaning, the bridge would crumble and I would drown in the river between my side and yours; nonetheless, I must ask, as I cannot fully appreciate the poem without an understanding of its intention. In knowing your purpose I can then understand your voice and how you can speak so straightforwardly and still portray layers of meaning beyond the words, something I myself struggle with by sounding cliché or ambiguous. Until then, I understand the poem in a fairly straightforward manner: that I am to myself what Cherokee is to you. My actions, my life, are “a good mistranslation,” and poetry has been the release to escape my own border guards, the means to disperse who I am, to speak my own language.
I also have several questions about your experiences as a poet. How do your poems first come to you? As I noticed, you used several speech additives in your poem. Do your poems come to you as spoken stanzas or do you have to build off ideas and sit down to write? Do you keep a poet’s journal and if so, what do you write in it? What in your life serves as major sources of inspiration for your poetry? How has your past led you to discovering how to “speak Cherokee”?
Lastly, I would like to thank you for writing your poem. I chose your poem not only because it revealed something about myself that I have not consciously known, but also because it did not leave me all the answers. I have spent weeks running lines of your poem over and over again in my head like a record, trying to find the hidden meanings planted in each line. I hope that you will write back and complete my understanding of your work, cementing the poem in a foundation that my future writing will build off of. Thank you for taking the time to read my letter and for partaking in the 2020 Dear Poet project.
I’ve always liked poems that challenge me and I think that everyone brings what they have to a poem. So you can’t be wrong unless you attach too much to what I meant rather than what you got from it. In that spirit I’m not going to tell you what I meant, because, for me, what you got may be more important.
In terms of writing practice, my poems don’t so much come to me. I hunt them down. I write every day. I don’t keep all of what I write, but for me it’s the practice of writing. If I come up with a line or two that I like I’ll read them out loud and see where that takes me. For me, I had to learn to speak English, not Cherokee. I’m always speaking Cherokee, even if the words are English. I used to work very hard at putting hidden meanings into my poetry but I find that if you let it happen they’ll be there anyway. I control my work less than I used to, and it could be that after decades of writing I don’t have to control it so much. Still, I wonder if maybe I never had to control the hidden meanings.
Anyway, thank you for your letter, stay well,