Interview with Poet Kim Hyesoon
Last year, in the course of working on an article on Kim Hyesoon for Yonhap, I was privileged enough to interview poet Kim Hyesoon (about whom you can find more information on Wikipedia, in a page KTLIT put up^^) via email. Special thanks to Joanne Yoon for doing the translation of the questions and KTLIT’s own Ed Park for translation Kim’s occasionally quite complicated responses.
1) Who are some of the poets that influenced you the most in your aesthetic pursuit?
Even before Hangeul, Korea’s own writing, was created men’s poems were written in Chinese characters, and women’s poems were told or sung in oral tradition. I liked those female words of sorrow and dejection originally composed 500, 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. I enjoyed reading books that recorded women’s songs. What I enjoyed reading of was the anguish of separation, the pains in the life of a daughter-in-law, the sorrow of losing a child, the agony of hard work—all transcribed in shaman’s songs, songs of lady’s living rooms and prose-type sijo [translator’s note: The Korean traditional sijo, is a style of poem composed of only 3 verses] by women. Korean men mainly wrote poems in set patterns, songs with a set number of words, or derived from Chinese classics. Sometimes they wrote songs with a fixed chorus. Reading these, I didn’t feel particularly moved. One exception could be those poems written by men on their way to exile, expelled by their king. Those poems are truly written from a woman’s position in women’s voices. I liked those “ousted voices” found in men’s poems. There are two great poets who opened the gate of modern poetry in Korea. They are Kim So Wol and Han Yong Un. They, too, sang their sorrows of being colonized from the position, tone and sentiment of women. I like their songs. In particular, I love Han Yong Un’s grand and worldly perspective of separation and Buddhism which he discloses in his poems. I did not realize it when I started writing poems, but the more I wrote poetry, the more I felt paralysis in the tongue that speaks the words of poetry. I felt uncomfortable about the history of poetry in which words that do not befit my style have been called poems. So, slowly but surely, I began wishing that the language of my poems would make even a tiny scratch and eventually crack the existing system of language. I have grown apart from off the rack clothes.
2) When you write a poem, how does your stance/position of being a woman, mother and poetess affect your work?
Through my experience of writing poems, I have understood that the genre of poetry is feminine. Femininity, often criticized for being passive, clammy, dark, deprived, wasteful and dirty in nature, is in fact a place charged with poetic inspiration. Thus, the speaker in the genre of poetry takes up a feminine position. Poetry is like a Mother who gave birth to my body, but severed herself at that moment—who can no longer be part of me, but permeates my being to the end. I think of poetry as ‘the thing’ that exists in me with its absence, in the form of separation, just like she who bore me. Thus, the speakers in my poems are “mothers”, “disappeared women” and “certain voices whose absence is in itself an existence that builds a poem.” In my poetry, a woman’s identity exists not as a single entity. I, made of various women, talk about the many “I”s I met at the crossroads of my life. Those “I”s are the women who are “doing my poetry.”
3) As a groundbreaking female poet in the history of Korea, what can you tell us about your experience of and perspective on history?
I am afraid what Koreans have experienced—colonization, war and dictatorship—is not yet finished. The attitude of Koreans dealing with foreigners, unidirectional cultural phenomenon not unlike the lines of refugees [moving away from a disaster], the fear and insecurity smoldering in election time, the attitude of us facing those that are not connected by blood or regionalism—all these speak to the ongoing. Koreans do not say sorry when shoulders bump on the road. This is because each of us is in the midst of a war in various senses, if not just the separation between the South and the North. Rather than to specifically answer the question, I would like to introduce a poem I recently published. Titled I’m o.k. I’m a pig, this long poem was published in a literary magazine (MunyeJoongang, 2012 Summer edition). Last year, I watched several million cows and pigs being stamped out during the foot-and-mouth epidemics, and I began pondering on how the dictatorial authority [which ordered that] treated the ‘body’ of Korean citizens. That was the starting point of the poem. However, I did not write the poem in order to directly report on the subject. The incident combined with my ethos was the starting point, and, gradually, the words evolved through new levels of senses. For Korean poets, the reality to be washed away with songs feels like a mountain, overly immense, and a barrier that always blocks the way.
4) Some have called your work “grotesque,” citing the parts that invoke chaotic, unstable and uncomfortable feelings. Strangely enough, however, in my opinion, there is another independent aspect to those parts: emotionally focused and self-controlled. Is this “balance” intentional? I wonder how this balance affects your work?
It seems critics call it “grotesque,” or “surreal” when faced with writings or attitudes they can’t readily understand. These labels are only words they attached for their own convenience. They always try to find something from the past. Poetry is not a genre in which one writes what is expressible. It is to write what is inexpressible. I am challenging the impossibility. I once dubbed my writing process as “fractal” and “Mandala.” In poetry, what truly exists or does not is not of importance. I would like my poems to have multiple points of pursuit. So, I tend to follow a style in which a number of people become main agents or personas. Poetry becomes a polyhedron when I am or an object is split, mended or shaped in a play on words. On the other hand, poetry becomes simple when in a scream. In one or another of my poems, chaos and simplicity often exist together. When looking down from above, a swirl appears simple, but it soon becomes overwhelmingly chaotic when in it. Perhaps, that is why the most frequent comment I hear from readers is “difficult.”
5) In many of your poems, the subject matter seems to be the excluded, the ignored and/or the absent. Could you explain about the importance of such themes and where they come from?
My feminist friends once made an Internet webpage filled with stories of “disappeared women.” When I visited the site, I was surprised and enraged at the historic incidents and social reality that make women disappear. I am always startled about indiscriminate violence used in dealing with women. In a way, I talk like those disappeared women. I may appear to observe reality, but I also arouse what doesn’t exist in it anymore. To reiterate, I make what exists in reality into a ghostly existence by employing oxymoronic approaches, or through metaphorical speech on metonymic existence. I turn what people have come to believe undoubtedly exists into a place of insecurity, destruction and mystery. I turn a familiar space into a strange place, like that of a haunted house. Such a style of poetry writing has more to do with “senses” applied to the poem, rather than the theme. When entering into such a poem, one doesn’t understand where to find the theme. Climbing up and down the stair of senses, obvious logics and steadfast realism, including feminism, are understood as nothing [more than a speck], perhaps like the Earth in a limitless void.
6) In a previous interview you said, “Poetry always boils up in me. I must write it out.” You also mentioned “the unsettling wrath that you can’t stifle.” Do you still feel this way?
At times, anger leads away my poems. Like an arsonist holding a lit candle shouting to the world that it will soon be his, the anger either explodes or weighs me down like a stone that knows no bottom. In the case of I’m o.k. I’m a pig, a type of anger was the starting point. I left for a templestay just to calm it down. But I was not able to get into Zen Meditation. That’s when I started the poem. From then on, my anger was smelted and compacted. Just like the ‘pig’ whose flesh was hung in the air like a flag, my body was left all by itself.
7) Could you expound a little on your translation process with Choi Donmee?
The work of Choi Donmee has a remarkable strength of further clarifying my poems. It is like Choi catches drifting clouds. Occasionally, Choi Dwould ask me about Korean sentence structure or words, and I would answer those questions. That’s all. If she would not ask, I would not say anything.
8) Personally, in the process of translating your work, what do you feel you are losing and gaining?
A play on words and ambiguity in Korean language, of course, gets lost. To reiterate, I often intentionally use words with 2 or 3 different meanings in an ambiguous manner. Rhymes are often employed, too. However, after translation, these no longer exist. Because of this we were not able to translate some of the poems. One of my poems, titled Disgusting ㅃ, is a nice example. Korean women address their men as 오빠. They also address their husband 오빠 or 아빠, older brother or father, respectively. I find such an appellation truly odd. I feel that, in such designation, women’s independence blurs and they set themselves up as an entity to be protected. Given such a social phenomenon in Korea, I gathered all the words with ㅃ in them, such as 아빠, 오빠, 나빠 [bad], 이뻐 [pretty], to tell about the appalling symbolism of 아빠 and 오빠. After translating this into English, however, the ㅃ phonemes were mostly gone. They disappeared. In Korean, there are cases where you make sense of a sentence without the subject. When a translator asks me a question, such as “What is the subject of this sentence?” I get completely flabbergasted. What I gain from translation would be the surprise I get by witnessing another version of my poems. It is like meeting a twin poem, refined, neat and trimmed and speaking a foreign language.
9) I wonder if the fight against patriarchy gets more difficult with age or with further success. Or do you experience something else entirely?
Korean women experience a Korean family structure that is relative to their ages. That experience changes and develops the women’s “feminine identity.” Marriage and aging strengthens such identity bestowed on her, and two types of reactions occur to it. She either strictly exercises the role of a mother-in-law who reinforces the patriarchal social structure, or becomes a more liberal woman who thinks and acts outside the patriarchy. Recently, I have become rather diffident due to those TV soap operas, movies and novels written by men that beautify the mother who sacrifices her life. In the inundation of such productions, I wonder if Korean mothers shiver at the doubt of whether they “are not up to par with sacrifice?” It probably is true that aged mothers are at the most vulnerable position in our social structure. The fact that older Korean women, or “ajumma” act roughly, is perhaps because they have nothing to lose anymore. Because I wasn’t able to bear such an identity bestowed on me, I at times borrow in my poems the voices of women with rather mixed identities—shaman, holy woman, mother, young child, old woman, lover or goddess.
10) How do the overly structured, patriarchal and social status-oriented aspects of Korean language affect your work?
Fixed language dominates our senses. The dominated senses, again subjugate our body. Imagine a language lodging itself in the bedroom of lovers and assign the sensation they must have. Perhaps, we are not able to feel other sensations except those drawn by the language system in existence today. Poetry is a type of speaking that utilizes different levels of sensation. The evidence of a language system that treats women as “the other” is everywhere, even in literary works. I can’t quite finish reading such literary works to the end. Nor can I finish reading poems that are rampant with “the observation” which overtakes and judges an object or [story] subject under the perspective of the poetic-self. Those beings, or the others, or the women, who stand before the violence of such a gaze, are only prisoners, not poetic subjects of the poem. The sensation that blooms in those poems, of course, is very masculine and traditional. In Korean poems, nature and women have always been judged in that way. A patriarchal society is a class-based society. In it, women are of low class in exchange value. A male community does not desire improvement in the status of women. Instead, the community tries to deny, govern or protect women. As a woman, I must first rupture the existing senses of language if I want to speak in poetry. I must shed the shapes of myself and the society where I belong. That is when the inescapable reason arises for me not being able to write “an easy poem.”
11) Lastly, what advice would you give to a younger you? Also, what advice would you give to young feminists who aspire to become poetesses?
“Advice” does not fit the way I speak. In my classrooms, there are many young people, aspiring to become poets. I discuss with them in various ways what poetry is. They tell me their thoughts on poetry, how poetry rose and fell in what shape in their experiences. In the process, they start to speak about “poetry.” Gender equality in Korea has been rising gradually to strike a balance. However, a flood of TV soap operas are making a caricature out of the seriousness, urgency and unearthing of issues from the perspective of feminism. In the South Korean government, there exists the Agency of Women and Teens. I wish the agency would no longer compile a list of songs and movies not recommendable for teens. [Instead,] I wish women’s studies departments in colleges or women’s studies centers would research and point out the language usage that degrades and belittles women, and is overflowing in articles and internet-specific terminology.