Poet Kim Kwang-Kyu has been active in the Korean poetry scene for the last 40 years. We visited the poet at his home to hear his views on poetry and everyday life, poetic language and translation, and Korean and world literature.
Ahn Seohyun: I’m excited to have this little tête-à-tête with you in your own yard—this beautiful space where your touch and easy going nature can be felt in every nook and cranny. I’m looking forward to asking you a few questions and sharing a conversation with you about your life and poetry in this beautiful setting that perfectly matches the feelings evoked by your poetry.
You pioneered and established the category of “everyday poetry” in Korea. What significance does everyday life have in your poetic world? Even while dealing with the everyday world, your poetry doesn’t stop at middle-of-the-road descriptions. Instead it brings to life the tension between the everyday and philosophical thought through a fundamental introspection about language and existence. How do you maintain this balance?
Kim Kwang-Kyu: Everyday life holds a lot of hardship and suffering. Whether it’s the tedious repetition of making a living every day or the effort and patience required to endure an impoverished existence day after day. This everyday is the foundation of life. A life in which you put down roots, suffer, and persevere cannot possibly be detached from the day-to-day. Everydayness started appearing in Korean literature in the early 1960s after the emergence of the “4.19 Generation.”
I haven’t yet reached the stage where I can achieve a one-on-one balance between the everyday and philosophical thought. Everydayness is rooted in the concrete, while philosophical thought belongs to the abstract. Everydayness is inductive, while philosophical thought is deductive. When I write I always start from the reality and experiences of the concrete day-to-day. I strive to maintain a balance between the concrete and the abstract but in reality I tend to tilt towards the everyday.
Ahn: On reading your poems, readers get clues about certain thoughts and realizations drawn from everyday life since it is central to your poetry. You mentioned the 4.19 Generation. Are we to understand that this pursuit of everydayness is connected to you being part of that generation?
Kim: That’s right. The rise of everydayness is an important clue, whether in poetry or prose. Take novels for example. The petit bourgeois started appearing in the novels of the post-4.19 Generation instead of the heroic protagonists that appeared in earlier generations. A similar transformation of the poetic ego can be seen in poetry. Examples of such everyday poetry can be seen in my fourth poetry collection, Like Someone Fussing and Fretting (1988) and my fifth collection, Aniries (1990).
Ahn: Indeed, everydayness or petit bourgeois-ness is a significant characteristic of the 4.19 Generation. All of a sudden, I’m curious about your day-to-day life. Could you tell us about it through words instead of poetry? There has to be a certain distance between the everyday life of the poetic ego in your poetry and that of your true self.
Kim: I’ve been planting and nurturing each and every one of the trees here in this yard for the past forty-five years that I’ve lived here. This definite routine of life must have served as the foundation of my poetic ego.
I’m the head of a household who has been in the teaching profession for more than thirty years. I think this career is the foundation of my true self. Writing poetry and earning a living can be in conflict at times. On the other hand, there certainly is a gap between the poetic ego that appears in poetry—the poetic ego doesn’t necessarily appear as “I” but can take on plural forms like “he/she,” “we” or “them.” Rather, in poetry, “I” or “We” is a typified figure that observes me, the true self from a distance.
Ahn: You’ve been a student of German literature your entire life and have also translated German literature into Korean, so, consciously or unconsciously, a dialogue between translation and creation must take place inside you. Even if you weren’t influenced by a particular writer for example, your consciousness must have been influenced in some way, say, by the German pursuit of civil society. With German literature as the big Other, you must have written poetry that was “needed in this place” or “possible only in this place.”
Kim: I majored in German literature and have spent a lifetime teaching it, so it would be a lie if I said it didn’t influence me. Don’t writers, painters, and singers study under the masters? Artists seek out great teachers and learn from them, become influenced by them, and respect them as they would their own parents. But I wasn’t able to do that. I simply kept writing what I observed, read, and thought on my own. I have taught myself literature, so to speak.
I’ve written close to 800 poems, and have translated nearly 300 German poems. I worked hard on those translations. To translate poetry properly, you need to transfer both sound and meaning. It’s easy to transfer the meaning if you read the poem accurately, but it’s hard to keep the sound and meter intact. There were instances where it took me a week to translate a single piece of poetry. German literature has a lot of depth, and it’s like a dense primeval forest too extensive to be fully explored. I’ve concentrated on and researched and translated the works of 19th and 20th century German writers, especially Heinrich Heine, Bertolt Brecht, and Günter Eich.
These three poets share a common trait in that they didn’t conform to reality. I was young at the time when I was first introduced to their works and took a liking to their poetry. The poems I translated from Heine’s Loreley were met with a great response in Korea. I even corrected many mistranslations that dated back to the Japanese colonial era. I translated Brecht’s Ich, der Überlebende in the mid-80s, but it was banned as soon as it came out. That was a time when our country’s political situation caused us to feel ashamed to be alive. A poet friend of mine remarked that reading the translations was like reading poetry by Kim Kwang-Kyu. It must be because I empathized with the original and then expressed it in my own poetic language.
Ahn: Let’s talk about the subject of language. Your poetry generally doesn’t extend beyond the scope of “everyday language,” which is why readers find your poems accessible. What is your idea of an ideal relationship betwee...