Kim Hye-Soon for TBS eFM 1013 Mainstreet Listeners

1013 MainstreetAs most readers know, each Tuesday morning I go on TBS eFM at 10:12 (or so) to discuss Korean literature on 1013 Mainstreet. Today I talked about poet Kim Hye-soon, and the following is a pre-transcript of that conversation, with the links I mentioned on-air, down at the bottom of this post (so scroll straight down there if you’ve already heard this).

What will we be talking about today?

Poetry, oddly enough. Although I’m generally not a fan of translated poetry, I have two recommendations. Over the next two weeks we’ll talk about two very different poets, Kim Hye-soon and Ko Un.

Wait, why aren’t you a fan of translated poetry?
Because I don’t think it is often done well. The difficulty of translating poetry is dual: on one side you have the words and meaning and on the other hand you have the flow and rhythm (or rhyme). In between are all sorts of other things like alliteration, repetition, assonance, and dissonance. There are cultural references, metaphors and allusions which might have a different meaning in the target language, or more likely no meaning at all. All of these things are packed into these relatively short lines and short bursts of texts. With all of that ‘work’ to accomplish it is very difficult for translations to turn out well.

However, there are at least two poets who seem to have at least partially overcome these hurdles. As I said, these are Kim Hye-soon and Ko Un.

Tell us a little about them
They couldn’t be more different, really. Kim is female, Ko male. Ko is economical, Kim writes in an outpouring of words. Kim is avant-garde, Ko is colloquial. Kim writes in physical, visceral, grotesque, often savage images, while Ko’s work is usually restrained. Kim is feminist, Ko is Buddhist. Both, it is fair to say, are activists.

What is important about these differences?
I think the first difference, the male/female one, may be the biggest – it is the one that defines the other differences. In South Korea there are poets – that is to say male poets, who are called siin (poet). Women poets comprise a separate category, that is yŏryu siin (female poet). Kim believes this gendered bifurcation diminishes women, and asks them to write feminine poetry; to write pretty, sentimental verse that speaks in a passive voice. Guernica magazine notes that women only have three acceptable roles in Korean society,

ch’ŏnyŏ (young unmarried woman/virgin), ajuma (middle-aged woman/mother), and halmoni (grandmother). Each role requires the woman to serve a different master, Kim has noted: “She must first obey her father, then her husband when she becomes an ajuma, and finally obey her son as a halmoni. Any woman who violates or lives outside of these roles is called a ch’angyŏ (prostitute).”

About the feminist nature of her poetry, Kim says (again, from Guernica):

Women are foils to men. It is hard for women to take a lead role even in NGOs for political resistance. Men think women should do trivial things on the margins. They think women should be merely a seasoning for a dish. I feel anger and sorrow seeing this. When anger and sorrow overflow, sometimes it becomes poetry. Regardless, I have to reach “the poetry condition” to write. Then it is as if the border around me is thinned or blurred or erased or disappeared or dead. Women who have been disappeared by violence are howling. The voices of disappeared women are echoing. I sing with these voices.

What does her poetry sound like?

Here’s a sample of the poem “Manhole Humanity” from the book All The Garbage of the World Unite:

At one point a rumor spread that, if you can digest all the rats living in the hole, you could reach nirvana and wouldn’t ever have to be born again. An afternoon of a woman already pregnant with the next like walking waddlewaddling by. Packs of rats are bartering me in my hole. I hear a chorus of rapid breathing.

Do you know that as you walk into the backlight, you are a hole floating in air? I who walk you are another hole? The inside of your hole is infinite.

So, tell us a little about Kim Hyesoon.

(From Wikipedia, but that’s OK since I wrote it there^^) In 1955 Kim Hyesoon was born in Uljin, Gyeongsangbuk-do. She received her Ph.D. in Korean Literature from Konkuk University and began as a poet in 1979 with the publication of Poet Smoking a Cigarette (Dambaereul piuneun siin) and four other poems in Literature and Intellect. Kim is an important contemporary poet in South Korea, and she lives in Seoul and teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Kim was in the forefront of women published in a literary journal, Munhak kwa jisŏng (Literature and Intellect).

Kim started to receive critical acclaim in the late 1990s and it is her own belief that her work was partly recognized because at that time there was a generally strong wave of women’s poets and poetry.

Kim is the recipient of multiple literary prizes including the Kim Su-yŏng Literature Award (1997) for her poem, Poor Love Machine, Sowol Poetry Literature Award (2000)[4], and Midang Literature Award (2006), which are named after three renowned contemporary Korean poets. Kim was the first woman poet to receive the Kim Su-yŏng Literature Award, Midang Award, contemporary poetry award and Daesan Literature Award.

Kim has participated in readings at poetry festivals all over the world: Smith College Poetry Center (2003), Taipei Poetry Festival (2008), 41th Poetry in International Festival Rotterdam (2010), Poesie Festival Berlin (2011), etc.

Wow, that’s a lot of awards and appearances. What has she written?

Kim’s poetry collections include: From another star (1981), Father’s scarecrow (1984), The Hell of a certain star (1987), Our negative picture (1991), My Upanishad, Seoul (1994), Poor love machine (1997), To the Calender factory Supervisor (2000), A glass of red mirror (2004), Your First (2008), and Sorrowtoothpaste, Mirrorcream (2011)

How much of that has been translated into English?

Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers ISBN 0979975514
Anxiety of Words (Collection with other authors): ISBN 0939010879
All the Garbage of the World, Unite!: ISBN 0983148015
When the Plug Gets Unplugged
Princess Abandoned (essays), (Tinfish, 2012)

So, why do you like her work?

Kim’s skill as a writer resides in her facility at combining poetic images with experimental language while simultaneously grounding her work in ‘feminine writing’ drawn from female experiences. Her language is violent and linguistically agile, appropriate for her topics, which often center on death and/or injustice. Many times, Kim’s poetry is marked by the color of blood, as in “red baby,”“red embryonic fluid,”and “red dew.” She is also fond of using rats, garbage, and other kinds of detritus.

Do you have an example of that?

Sure, Red Scissors Woman, again from All The Garbage in the World Unite!:

That woman who walks out of the gynecology clinic
Next to her is an old woman holding a newborn

That woman’s legs are like scissors
She walks swiftswift cutting the snow path

But the swollen scissor blades are like fat dark clouds
What did she cut screaming with her raised blades
bloodscented dusk flooding out between her legs

The sky keeps tearing the morning after the snowstorm
A blinding flash of light
follows the waddlewaddling woman
Heaven’s lid glimmers and opens then closes

How scared God must have been
when the woman who ate all the fruits of the tree he’d planted
was cutting out each red body from
between her legs

The sky, the wound that opens every morning
when a red head is cut out
between the fat red legs of the cloud

(Does that blood live inside me?)
(Do I live inside that blood?)

That woman who walks ahead
That woman who walks and rips
with her scorching body her cold shadow

New-born infants swim
inside that woman’s mirror inside her as white as a snowhouse
the stickysticky slow breaking waves of blood
like the morning sea filled with fish

Kim has had the benefit of working with a brilliant translator. Kim’s translator is Choi Don-mee. Discussing Kim, says:

The writer was actually introduced to the English-language international community through one her fans. Choi Donmee contacted the poet, explaining that she wanted to share the insights of Kim’s work with a range of readers. The writer agreed, and Choi got to work on translating the poems, eventually resulting in several collections: When the Plug Gets Unplugged (2005), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (2008), All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (2011) and others.

Kim fully entrusts the translating to Choi and, though the expressions used might be somewhat different from the original Korean, Kim feels confident in her work. “I consider translated literature as a different genre,” Kim says. “It’s a different work of art from the original and that’s why I just let her do her own thing with the work. She knows better than I what English word choice will appeal to readers most to deliver the message hidden in the poem.”

Why does Kim Hyesoon trust Don Mee Choi this way?

Some of it likely has to do with the fact that Don is also a poet, and a poet who writes in a voice very similar to that of Kim’s.

Weaver in Exile 7 

Dear rock,
Dear tree,
Dear sky,
Please let Father die.

From the braids of crows’ backs I open a door. Drops of white resin lead to a pond of molten carps. Flimsy orange and blue skin swim across the Milky Way, leaving nothing behind.

Dear rock, 
Dear tree,
Dear Father,
Please let me cross.

Where can listeners go to find out more about Kim Hyesoon?

Wikipedia has an article I created, but I think the best thing is just to read her poetry and interviews. There are a whole bunch of these listed today at www.ktlit,com.

An interview at Guernica:

from the excellent Korean Poetry in Translation site by Dr. Chae-Pyong (“J.P.”) Song who teaches at Marygrove College in Detroit Michigan:

Flu, by Kim Hye-soon
Sand Woman
On The Horizon

From Poetry international Web


From Words Without Borders
Kim Hye-soon in a video by LTI Korea: Remembering all, Poet Kim hye-soon



One thought on “Kim Hye-Soon for TBS eFM 1013 Mainstreet Listeners

  1. As a question, (and I know that Korean uses chosungul rather than Chinese logographs) does the shape of the characters matter in Korean poetry, as it does in Chinese poetry?

    And, since Korean poetry was written in the past using Chinese logographs, is that classical Korean poetry translated into chosungul characters?

    What role does brushstroke play (if any) in Korean poetry?

    In Chinese (and Japanese) it can matter alot.

    In Vietnamese it is the same as with English.

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