Poet Hwang Tong-gyu recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his debut with “A Joyful Letter” in 1958. He has opened up a world of rich, unbridled poetry in 14 volumes, the latest being A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours. Hwang discusses his poetry, which combines the East and West and the modern and traditional, with literary critic Lee Soong-won.
April 1st – as the nippy remnants of winter overpowered the faint warmth of early spring, I met up with poet Hwang Tong-gyu at the Professor Emeritus’ office at Seoul National University. Author of 14 volumes of poetry including his latest, A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours, Hwang greeted his guest with an enthusiasm rarely found in a seventy-one-year-old.
Lee Soong-won: You have been publishing a book of poems every three years, give or take, and your latest came out about three years since your last volume. The poems in A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours are divided into four sections. Could you tell us about the characteristics of the sections?
Hwang Tong-gyu: I did not divide the poems into four categories following a strict criteria, but grouped them roughly according to the mood of the poems and which seasons they convey. Revisiting the poems after the book came out, I noticed that poems in section one mostly have to do with human responses to mankind’s pains and joys, those in section two are meditations on the directions life takes, section three has to do with journeying away from routine to face the tangible in life, and section four deals with the surprising revelation that a meaningful encounter with life makes the body ache and become numb. This is just a rough grouping; different readers may perceive them differently.
LS: One poet said in a review that this book made Hwang’s gi (energy, spirit, and life force) younger. I also felt the tension that must have gone into your careful avoidance of any expressions that could be considered cliché and your endeavor to reconfigure every line and word. Where do you find the energy to maintain this level of poetic tension at your age?