A Way With Words

Assistant Dean for Public Service Annie Kim '99 Is a Poet on the Rise
Annie Kim
May 1, 2017

For both poets and lawyers, words are their stock-in-trade. Yet the two types of writers differ in how they express language.

Annie Kim ’99, UVA Law’s assistant dean for public service and director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service, would make a counterargument.

“I think there are a lot of parallels between poetry writing and legal writing,” Kim said. “You’re always seeking after a beauty of some kind — clarity, precision, compression. You want to tell a story.”

Kim is a poet rising. She won the 2015 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from the University of Southern Indiana, which recently published her first book, “Into the Cyclorama.” She has received two prestigious fellowships, with the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. Her poems have nested in prominent literary journals and earned a Pushcart Prize nomination.

When she first began to write with seriousness, she had to overcome perfectionist tendencies that stifled the creative process, she said, as well as another lawyerly urge.

“It was hard for me to figure out how to prove my statements,” she said. “How can I make grand, sweeping statements about life without backup? As a lawyer you’re always citing the record, to cases or to people. As a poet the proof is your own life.”

Having flirted with poetry as an undergraduate — she majored in English at UVA, graduating in 1996 — Kim was a practicing lawyer in her 30s when she started taking one-off classes at night as an outlet, then began attending writers’ conferences.

“Poetry was a way of connecting both the intellectual and emotional sides of myself, to try to create meaning out of my life and observations,” Kim said.

She finally decided to pursue a master’s in creative writing. In 2009 she graduated from the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

Among her professional experiences, Kim worked over a combined nine years as in-house counsel for the Henrico County Attorney’s Office and the Albemarle County Attorney’s Office. She litigated all sorts of cases, but many of them were related to public safety. Poetry helped her to process, and to cope.

For years I listened to 911 calls.
Sorting photos on the conference table—
a bullet tweezed from the lung;
an arm peeking out from the wet blue tarp;
all the mangled cars, starbursts in the glass
where heads hit.
My job was to tell the story
and I was good at it

Kim said working with students for the past five years, helping many of them find entry points into public service jobs, has been a boon for writing. “You don’t have to compartmentalize,” she said.

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