I met poet Kim Nam Jo in her study in the picturesque environs of the Eocheon Lake Farm in Hwaseong City, Gyeonggi Province. It was an invaluable opportunity to listen to the poet share insights from her long and distinguished career. Poetry was at the heart of our conversation as Kim spoke with great candor and warmth about humanity and the world.
Yoo Sungho: In a world of perpetual war and endless natural disasters, I believe it is all the more necessary that we as a generation think about literature and the arts in greater depth. First of all, what do you think is the role of literature in the current state of the world, or to put it differently, what do you personally consider to be the proper path of literature?
Kim Nam Jo: In an age when difficult surgeries are performed with the aid of robotic devices, there is no doubt that there have been drastic changes in the status of humans and the function of literature in society, but there is still a need for us to discuss the expansion of the meaning of literary truth and human nature. When I was in middle and high school during the Japanese colonial period, the Korean language, both spoken and written freely in the home, was strictly forbidden at school. Subjected to such acts of injustice, I had no choice but to think about how human dignity and human rights must be protected at all costs. In that sense, the starting point of modern Korean literature was contradiction and suffering, and a literary person should therefore set out on a lifelong journey based on truth in search of a language that enables one to retrace the agonies of the time, protect human nature and decode the true meaning of life, and ensure that the language is widely available.
Yoo: That reminds me of how Martin Heidegger referred to Fredrich Hölderlin as “a poet in a destitute time.” If I were to think about it in terms of Korean literature, I couldn’t help but wonder if in this time of destitution, now is not the right time to redefine what in fact a poet is. I would also like to ask about your world of poetry. You must have gained much insight now that you’ve been writing poetry for over 60 years, and you must have noticed how recently poetry is becoming increasingly marginalized. And yet I still believe that poetry has an aesthetic value that is not transferable. Can you tell us about your long career as a poet who continues to steadily write poems in her mother tongue?
Kim: A poet must walk a few steps ahead of other people, but also follow at the end of the line, that is, she must play both roles simultaneously. In addition, a poet must offer insight and linguistic finesse through her poetry, and must make it known, and see that it gets published on paper. For instance, the early spring scenery of February that still feels chilly can be referred to as “the young day of spring which does not even have a name.” I personally decided to pursue a literary career at a time when the use of my mother tongue was forbidden, and since then I’ve written a little over 30 collections of poems and essays.
However, this should not be the end of literature, but its beginning. It should keep its roots firmly in the soil of human nature, and bear in mind its calling to understand, embrace, and heal the wounds of human beings, and should continue on its journey, slowly and humbly, and to the farthest possible distance.
Yoo: Your poetry is literally like water from a spring that has grown deeper amid extreme pain. In that aspect, I believe one can learn a great deal from your understanding of art on a more theoretical level. In your view, what aspects of our lives should be further developed in order to experience the true value of art?