Shin Hyoung-cheol: You have published 10 volumes of poetry since your debut in 1979.
Kim Hyesoon: I never look at my previously published books. Whenever I see my poems cited somewhere, I feel awkward and embarrassed.
Shin: In something I came across published abroad, you are introduced as “a prominent woman poet who has received two awards named after poets Seo Jeong-ju and Kim Su-young, who are representative of pure poetry and engaged poetry, respectively.” I was thinking that it may come as a surprise to readers abroad that one poet alone could traverse and dismantle these two opposing poetic trends.
Kim: It feels embarrassing and awkward to receive awards, but then it would be even more awkward to draw attention to myself by refusing them, so I end up accepting them. I think the debate about “pure poetry” vs. “engaged poetry” was inevitable and essential to Korean poetry. I think Kim Su-young is a poet who went beyond the confines of the structure that surrounded him. Who would have known that his wailings, in everyday language, would amplify so much? I may be someone who belongs to both sides, or I may be a dual national who doesn’t belong anywhere.
Shin: This term “woman poet” shows up above. In your case, I think that term has rarely been used negatively, but still you must be tired of it. I wonder if your book of criticism, To Write as a Woman: Lover, Patient, Poet, Me (2002), represents a koan, the endless questions you ask and answer in your lifetime.
I want to get your take on this, and also do you think categorization of poets by gender is meaningful or meaningless within contemporary poetry, and in what way?
Kim: No one fails to ask me about the term “woman poet.” And even if I’m not asked about it, I always insist that I’m a “woman poet.” The consumer of poetry has categorized me as a woman, differentiating me, and so I howl that the inside of that category is the place of paradoxical poetry.
When I was younger, I was active in a feminist group called Another Culture, and I observed then that the ideology of the women’s liberation movement was in discord with my poetry. In my everyday life and in my essay writing, I was engaged in feminist thought and activism, but my poetry covered my contentious thoughts with a sheath that was bright and alive, like something woven with vapor. Not only “woman” became blurry, but also “me”—this blurry state of being is poetry. My poetry tells me to bring the life-giving water that will save father’s life as the songs of a woman heading to the afterworld, my poetry tells me to become a ghost.
When I was writing To Write as a Woman, I wanted to say that the ignition point of a genre called poetry is a feminine position. I wanted to say, regardless of a poet’s gender, poetry is where night is, where absence is, poetry begins where mother is (who has lost herself to me), it’s where I “do poetry.”
Shin: Poetry differs from prose, so I think that in many cases the subject matter, imagination, and speech may occur simultaneously. I would like to ask about these three in the order above. What is the main passage through which the things that are perceived as poetic come to flow into your body?
Kim: The point of ignition for poetry is multiple, but the material to ignite is one. My body has to be in a poetic state. No matter how great my ethical or feminist rage may be, no matter how much another text resonates with me, no matter if some dream smacks me and takes off, unless my body, the material for ignition, is in a poetic state, it is pointless. I am colored by the poetic state like some kind of bodily sign. As if I’m about to cry, as if my laughter is about to explode in giggles, I need to overlap with a blank paper-thin girl. And while I write, the girl becomes a witch or grandmother, but first I need to be in that state. I call it the “the state of something yet nothing.”
Critic Shin Hyoung-cheol and poet Kim Hyesoon