[A Conversation with Shim Bo-Seon] On Poetry and Home
- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byJon Thompson
Jon Thompson: Pleased to meet you, Bo-Seon. I admired Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow and was happy to publish it in the series I edit, Free Verse Editions. I thought I’d open this interview by asking you to discuss your relationship with Korean poetry. What traditions in Korean poetry and what Korean poets have been important to you? Why?
Shim Bo-Seon: First of all, I’d like to thank you for helping to introduce my collection to English readers. I studied sociology rather than literature, so from the beginning, I read and wrote poetry as an amateur and an autodidact—and maybe I still do. I’m very selective with the poems that I read. I think that looking at Korea’s poetic traditions and placing my poetry within that history is more the role of readers or critics. As I started actively writing and publishing poems in the 1990s, I was in some sense able to naturally overstep the dichotomy between modernism and realism. I broke away from the classic poetic references of art history and political reality and began to bring the tension and dynamism of everyday life into focus. To me, and maybe to our generation, politics, art, and the everyday life are not separate. I use the sensations and imagination that result from their intersections as a source for my writing. That’s why Ki Hyongdo is one of the poets who has influenced me the most. His poems portray the abyss of despair hiding in the lives of the office worker, the commoner, the city dweller, as a grotesque landscape or drama. I was attracted to his work when I began to seriously write my own poetry.
Thompson: Readers wanting “personal uplift” from poetry are going to come away empty-handed. I don’t mean to suggest that the business of poetry is to uplift. It seems to me your poetry veers more toward exploring disaffection and the fleetingness of joy and pleasure, and there’s no small amount of ennui, or to put it more plainly, boredom, in your poetry, but not the “abyss of despair” you speak of in Ki Hyongdo’s poetry. Or perhaps it’s not accurate to think of your poems in terms of these structures of feeling, and the more perceptive point of view is that the poems themselves are ultimately expressions of some more fundamental angst?
Shim: I want to say that one of the jobs of poetry is the “crafting of emotions.” Of course, this study of feelings isn’t the totality of what poetry can do. Readers of poetry are on the one hand emotionally uplifted; but on the other hand, they lose their way within the poem and I think this has to do directly with a poem’s crafting of emotions. When a poem deals with sadness, the reader experiences a sorrow that is both familiar and unfamiliar to him or her and also receives an invitation to experience a further sadness that is already articulated and simultaneously expanding. The abyss that I speak of in relation to poetry is something that is distinguishable, and yet it holds immeasurable depth. I think that when we fill this kind of blank space in poetry, we create even more blank space.
Thompson: Your poetry also appears to be influenced by Western poetic traditions and to my ear, American ones. Does that seem like a fair claim? If so, what Western and poets do you admire and why?
Shim: I occasionally hear that my work reads like foreign poetry. One of my friends even asked me once if I’d read a lot of English-language poems. But that’s not why my writing sounds the way it does. I only started reading English poems after I’d entered my mid-thirties. And when I did, I was very selective about which poets I read. I think that what has influenced my work is not English literature, but prosaic English writing. When I lived in New York as a graduate student from 1998 to 2006, I was constantly writing in English. The experience trained me in thinking and in expressing myself. I wasn’t doing literary writing, it was sociological writing, and so I always had to keep clarity and logic in mind. But it is difficult to have a full understanding of what influence this learning and training had on me, and whether it’s given my poems a foreign flavor. In any case, the English-language poet I admire the most is Adrienne Rich. She was free-spirited, precise, and most importantly, radical. And she managed to create a deep emotional reverberation with her poetry.
Thompson: Adrienne Rich was “radical.” You’re right: this is the term we use now for those who demand social justice and push for change in that direction. Some readers find her work sometimes pedantic in its political insistence, though I agree with your more generous characterization. Your work seems marked by a sense that the kind of change Rich wanted—call it revolution—is a chimera. Or maybe it’s truer to say it is haunted by that dream?
Shim: When I say “radical” I don’t simply mean it in the political sense, or to mean progressive. The word “radical” can also mean “going back to and restarting from the root.” If my poetry is governed by dreams of a world in which everything is destroyed and recreated anew, then in some way, that is a blessing.
Thompson: Briefly, could I return to your interest in “prosaic English writing”? For me, the poems that play off this prosaic sense of things or other effects—the strange, for example—produce some very interesting effects in your poetry. But I was wondering if English affords an access to a different sense of the prosaic than Korean?
Shim: Writing prosaic English, especially sociological English, has led me to reason more clearly about who and what constitute the “main agent” and the “object” in my writing. This naturally makes me think more transparently about how the main agent and the object of a piece of writing come to be: through what actions, for what reasons, and through what emotions. Of course, there is the pursuit of clarity in Korean as well. But I’m not a native English speaker, so I can’t help but make mistakes when writing in English. You could say that’s why I’ve spent so much time practicing written clarity.