[A Conversation with Kim Haengsook] “Precise Ambiguity” and the Poetic Power of the In-Between
- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byJake Levine
Jake Levine: I hear that you’re travelling through Europe as we conduct this interview over email. I’m in Europe too at the moment. From time to time it’s nice to have a break from the fine-particulate dust, no? What are your travel plans?
Kim Haengsook: I was just in Barcelona for four days. At some point during that time our shadows probably overlapped. In Korean there’s a saying that goes, “Even the brushing of coattails forms a connection between people.” And in the word “connection,” or inyeon, that Koreans use, there is a sense of the mystical time of “past lives.”
I thought that to travel simply meant having “a different window,” but now I think that it’s also about living to “a different time.” In Seoul I write at night before going to bed, and here, a thirteen-hour flight away, I write in the early morning right after I wake up. If I really had to give a reason for my coming to Europe, would it be these kinds of things? The aim of this holiday is something I’ll have to find while I’m on it.
Levine: Speaking of travelling and aims, what originally brought you to poetry? Is there any singular event?
Kim: I think of the daydreams I was endlessly lost in as a child. This was long before becoming a poet, before I even knew what poetry was. Among those daydreams, an image that captivated my young self was a scene where, having become a homeless orphan, I would wander around unfamiliar alleyways on a winter day while white snowflakes fell. Without a mother or father, without anything to my name, it was such a light existence that I felt I could float away. To that girl of my daydream, all the windows revealed a world soaked in lights that were like jewels she could never possess. The fear and uncertainty that coiled around that girl were the price that would have to be paid to be captivated by beauty.
Levine: The work of contemporary Korean women poets has struck me as being a part of a tradition that has a different kind of projection and history than poetry written by men. How much of a role do gender and gender relations play in your work?
Kim: For poets, language is not merely a tool for communication. Human language is not a transparent bowl that holds content. The history and subconscious of the group that has used a language is melted into it. The patriarchal culture and ideology of Korea has permeated the grammar of the Korean language. And therefore I think that the poetic renewal of the Korean language must be even more actively carried out by the hands of those who are the most sensitive to the stains that mark their language. What I’m talking about are the hands of poets, and women poets in particular.
With my own work I am interested in that which cannot be captured in symbolic language, things that cannot be prescribed, things that brush against the skin before language, and things that approach existence namelessly. When I write poetry, I don’t think about whether I’m a woman or a man. In that sense, there aren’t any instances of me consciously taking a feminist stance. When I’m writing, I am freed from the multitude of categories of the world, and try to traverse boundaries freely. However, it is my hope that such poetic freedom will bring about discord and cause a ruckus within the seemingly solid patriarchal narrative of this world.
I’ll give you an example. What is simply “sister” in English, is separated in Korean into different words, including nui, pronounced “nu-ee,” and eonni. Nui is the term a male uses to refer to or address a female sibling, and eonni is the term used between female siblings. In traditional Korean literary history, the woman was only ever called into being by men, and thus it can be said that the symbol for woman was made within fantasies of masculinity. One day, around the time when I was writing Adolescence, my first poetry collection, I felt as though I had made a literary discovery by addressing and referring to eonni. In the Korean language, where honorifics have an intricate subdivision, the eonni that I was using felt affectionate and utterly egalitarian to me. It was as though I was belatedly reading a love letter I’d somehow found, one that had always been hidden from me. I thought that feeling was something very important. It’s not a secret only for women. It can become music in the space between any two people.