This first full English translation of a landmark collection published nearly twenty years ago takes us back to a turning point in Korean poetry. When Kim Hyesoon won the Kim Su-Young Literary Award for Poor Love Machine, she became the first female poet to receive this coveted award, following many years when the women poets who had emerged during the 1980s struggled for recognition in a literary culture policed by Korea’s male-dominated literary establishment.
Kim began publishing her work in 1979 and was one of the first of few women to be published in Literature and Intellect, one of two key journals which championed the intellectual and literary movement against the US-backed military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan in the 1970s and 80s. She has since won numerous other literary prizes, and was also the first woman to receive the coveted Midang Award in 2006.
The naming of prizes after esteemed poets has symbolic force in Korean literary politics, so there was significance in Kim being awarded major prizes honouring both Kim Su-Young (1921-1968), who was closely associated with “engaged poetry” that displays historical consciousness, and Midang, the penname of Seo Jeong-ju (1915-2000), a poet who stood for “pure poetry.”
Poor Love Machine was born out of Kim’s reaction against the still massively popular works of the Korean poets of the 1900s, notably Kim Sowol and Han Yong-un, who adopted female personae to express their grief over the Japanese occupation of Korea. That literary convention or pose involved ventriloquizing an anti-colonialist agenda by appropriating and clumsily feminizing the voices of a gender oppressed and silenced in their own culture:
As I began writing poetry, I often felt as if my tongue were paralyzed. I had no role model for poetry. The woman’s voice made by Korean men, the voice that is even more feminine than a woman’s, was not mine. I had no role model, especially because even pre-modern women’s poetry only consisted of songs of love, farewell, and longing for the other.
The impetus for Kim’s poetry came from her decision to explore in her own voice “the possibilities of the sensory” and to believe in her own “feminine individuation, its secrets.” In sharp contrast with the language of passivity and contemplation typical of earlier women writers, Kim’s work—along with that of Choi Seung-ja—was resonant with what her translator Don Mee Choi has called “a stunning language of resistance to the prescribed literary conventions for women.” So the publication of Poor Love Machine—with its grotesque imagery of rats, pigs, holes, garbage, excrement, and death—delivered an almost physical body-blow to the established corpus of Korean poetry in 1997:
Kim Hyesoon is a poet and professor of creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. She has written twelve poetry collections, out of which Poor Love Machine; Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream; All the Garbage of the World, Unite!; Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers; and I’m Ok, I’m Pig! have been published in English. Her poetry has been featured and reviewed in The Independent, Guernica, Mānoa, The Margins, World Literature Today, and Po&sie.