David Shook: Your work as a younger poet seems to engage in a very conscious dialogue with Modernism. Do you recall the first Modernist texts you encountered and how you responded to them?
Oh Sae-young: The meaning of the term “Modernism” as used by English speakers is somewhat ambiguous. Under the banner of Modernism they group together the European avant-garde and the Modernism of the English speaking world—things like the Imagism of Ezra Pound and others based on the philosophy of T. E. Hulme, or the Neoclassicism pursued by T. S. Eliot—but I think that this is misleading. The worlds that these two literary tendencies look towards are in fact opposites. Most fundamentally, the former is romantic while the latter is classicist. Therefore so-called Postmodernism, which has been discussed mainly in North America in recent years, has its roots in the European avant-garde, not the Modernism of the English-speaking countries.
In this same vein, during my twenties and early thirties my poetry was somewhat chaotic because I was flailing around in the tight spot between these two. In the beginning I was completely taken by the European avant-garde, in particular the surrealism of people like André Breton and Philippe Soupault. From there I moved on to Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the poetic tendency of Eliot to be critical of civilization. Then, finally, going into my forties I was able to overcome these two literary tendencies in my own way. I was inspired by a number of poetry collections such as André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s collaboration in Les Champs Magnétiques, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” and also Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
During this time, I also gained a great deal of poetic inspiration from surrealist paintings, especially those by artists such as Salvador Dalí and Paul Klee, and that’s also why my first book of poetry has a work by Klee on the cover.
Shook: Do you feel, as your work evolved toward what Brother Anthony has called “ontological authenticity,” that you moved beyond the concerns of Modernism—that it was no longer relevant—or just that your own interests as a poet were outside its primary concerns?
Oh: As I mentioned earlier, I parted company with Modernism in my late thirties to early forties, or you could say that to a certain degree I overcame it. This was because I thought there was no way to express a healthy introspection and foresight about life through Modernist poetry. Rather than delving into the subconscious, I wanted to reach existential enlightenment through meditation. More than anything else, in Modernist poetry there was no depth of feeling or meeting of minds. This kind of change also had something to do with the fact that it was around this time when I started to open my eyes to a Buddhist worldview. From then on Modernism was still one of the methods by which I wrote poetry, but it was not the aim in and of itself.
Shook: Several American reviews of your work mention the disarming manner in which you achieve such powerful epiphanies in your poems by priming the reader with straightforward imagery from the natural world. Is that a technique that you developed consciously, or is it something that emerged naturally over the course of your aesthetic development?
Oh: That is the fruit of conscious effort and constant searching in my process of writing poetry. It is true, however, that the asceticism of Zen has also had a huge influence on this. It is no different now either. I think that writing poetry has a lot in common with the act of gaining some insight through the Zen asceticism of the most reverend practitioner. From this perspective you could say that the reverent practitioner of Zen is the poet, the hwadu (topic of contemplation) becomes the poetic subject, enlightenment becomes the poetic idea, and meditation becomes the expression of imagination. Above all, both of these things are about reaching, for a moment, some world of truth through intuition rather than intellect.