Poetry as the Sublimation of Suffering

Shin Dalja is known for capturing her reflections on long-accumulated suffering and the will to overcome that suffering through her poetry. Her collection Passionate Love is the result of this determination, and is a confession of honest self-reflection towards the possibilities of living anew. Shin’s poetics are therefore a journey towards love and healing, but while she creates this record of inner wounds and longing, she also pays close attention to the specific and concrete in the lives of others. Such a worldview is faithfully adhered to and expanded upon in her recent collections Paper and Flowing Flesh. We met in the Bukchon neighborhood of Seoul, where she now lives, and I began by asking how she was.


Yoo Sungho: How have you been? Your recent prolific output must have meant you were busy.


Shin Dalja: After publishing Bukchon, I’ve had people come up to me saying they’d lived here for forty, fifty years without knowing of the places I mention in the poems, so I’ve been busy going around giving talks about them. I can’t say I’ve captured everything about this neighborhood, but apparently, it’s the first time Bukchon was made into poetry. Bukchon is not a large urban village, but it happens to be a point of origin for many art works dealing with the politics, economics, and culture of Korea. It’s also a historic place for Korean Buddhists and Catholics. People are interested in Bukchon, which bodes well for me.


Yoo: You’ve been living in Bukchon for only two and a half years, but you’ve already published a collection of poetry about it. I sense that it will become an ever more important place in your life. When did you first want to become a poet, and what was the world like when you debuted?


Shin: I wasn’t thinking of becoming a poet per se, but I did begin trying to express my feelings in my second year of middle school. I was going through puberty, and as I became interested in the opposite sex I began thinking about what it meant to express oneself. I studied traditional dancing in middle school, but expressing how I felt was too difficult to do in dance. The written word was what I came up with instead. There was a program for writing letters to military conscripts, so I borrowed a poetry collection from a friend’s brother who majored in Korean. I wanted to quote from it. It was by Kim Sowol, and it was the first time I had read a collection of poetry. I realized, “Wow, poetrythis is what it means to express yourself.” It was so moving. His work is very, very honest. So that’s where I started from. I began with the feeling that this is what poetry was, and using that, I wrote many letters. And here we are now.


I debuted in 1964 when I won the New Woman Poet Award in a magazine called Yeosang. Then I got married and took a break from writing. Later, I met the poet Pak Mogwol and made a comeback through Hyundae Munhak. I worked hard from then on. What I really wanted to put down in writing back then was human suffering. I’ve always wondered why despite our desire for beauty, joy and happiness, we have to suffer the reality of scars and pain. Life was extremely difficult back then, and I hid that pain for a long time. Hiding it made my writing take a turn for the conceptual. But the point where people talk about my poetry beginning to change is when I began revealing the real “me.”


Yoo: I think that with your poetry becoming more expressive and concrete in language, the poems have become clearer and closer to life. Your work is also beginning to be read outside of Korea.Paper, which won the Daesan Literary Award, was translated into Spanish and Mongolian, and Passionate Love into German. What has that been like?


Shin: Paper is being translated into English through support from the Daesan Foundation. Translation is definitely the biggest issue when it comes to foreign readership, although I’m often told my poetry is difficult to translate. So many walls have come down in our time that places like America are no longer faraway lands, and even our literature is connecting with the world. But it’s not a good attitude for a poet to write with translation in mind. The best we can hope for is to write as well as we can in our own language and have these feelings translated accurately. I think the trend in poetry now is that heavy styles are becoming heavier and lighter styles lighter. A kind of polarization. I’m approaching the lighter side, towards a language that is light but meaningful and can still contain a world. I think about this problem a lot, and try hard to write that way.


Yoo: Topic and space in Bukchon may seem a bit specific, but I think you’ve managed to capture both the universality and individuality of the Seoul experience. I hope the translation is successful and leaves readers with a good impression of Seoul. You’ve also participated in several international Korean literature events such as the 2015 Guadalajara International Book Fair and the event in Iran earlier this year. What are your impressions or takeaways from such interactions, and have they influenced your writing?


Shin: I don’t think my poetry has changed in any way from such interactions, but I do feel a greater sense of anxiety afterwards. It’s good if th...