[A Conversation with Kim Haengsook] “Precise Ambiguity” and the Poetic Power of the In-Between

  • onMarch 23, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byJake Levine


Jake Levine: I hear that you’re travelling through Europe as we conduct this interview over email. I’m in Europe too at the moment. From time to time it’s nice to have a break from the fine-particulate dust, no? What are your travel plans?

Kim Haengsook: I was just in Barcelona for four days. At some point during that time our shadows probably overlapped. In Korean there’s a saying that goes, “Even the brushing of coattails forms a connection between people.” And in the word “connection,” or inyeon, that Koreans use, there is a sense of the mystical time of “past lives.”

I thought that to travel simply meant having “a different window,” but now I think that it’s also about living to “a different time.” In Seoul I write at night before going to bed, and here, a thirteen-hour flight away, I write in the early morning right after I wake up. If I really had to give a reason for my coming to Europe, would it be these kinds of things? The aim of this holiday is something I’ll have to find while I’m on it.


Levine: Speaking of travelling and aims, what originally brought you to poetry? Is there any singular event?

Kim: I think of the daydreams I was endlessly lost in as a child. This was long before becoming a poet, before I even knew what poetry was. Among those daydreams, an image that captivated my young self was a scene where, having become a homeless orphan, I would wander around unfamiliar alleyways on a winter day while white snowflakes fell. Without a mother or father, without anything to my name, it was such a light existence that I felt I could float away. To that girl of my daydream, all the windows revealed a world soaked in lights that were like jewels she could never possess. The fear and uncertainty that coiled around that girl were the price that would have to be paid to be captivated by beauty.


Levine: The work of contemporary Korean women poets has struck me as being a part of a tradition that has a different kind of projection and history than poetry written by men. How much of a role do gender and gender relations play in your work?

Kim: For poets, language is not merely a tool for communication. Human language is not a transparent bowl that holds content. The history and subconscious of the group that has used a language is melted into it. The patriarchal culture and ideology of Korea has permeated the grammar of the Korean language. And therefore I think that the poetic renewal of the Korean language must be even more actively carried out by the hands of those who are the most sensitive to the stains that mark their language. What I’m talking about are the hands of poets, and women poets in particular.

With my own work I am interested in that which cannot be captured in symbolic language, things that cannot be prescribed, things that brush against the skin before language, and things that approach existence namelessly. When I write poetry, I don’t think about whether I’m a woman or a man. In that sense, there aren’t any instances of me consciously taking a feminist stance. When I’m writing, I am freed from the multitude of categories of the world, and try to traverse boundaries freely. However, it is my hope that such poetic freedom will bring about discord and cause a ruckus within the seemingly solid patriarchal narrative of this world.

I’ll give you an example. What is simply “sister” in English, is separated in Korean into different words, including nui, pronounced “nu-ee,” and eonni. Nui is the term a male uses to refer to or address a female sibling, and eonni is the term used between female siblings. In traditional Korean literary history, the woman was only ever called into being by men, and thus it can be said that the symbol for woman was made within fantasies of masculinity. One day, around the time when I was writing Adolescence, my first poetry collection, I felt as though I had made a literary discovery by addressing and referring to eonni. In the Korean language, where honorifics have an intricate subdivision, the eonni that I was using felt affectionate and utterly egalitarian to me. It was as though I was belatedly reading a love letter I’d somehow found, one that had always been hidden from me. I thought that feeling was something very important. It’s not a secret only for women. It can become music in the space between any two people.



Levine: I know that your work is filled with a lot of allusions to other artists who work in other mediums. How do you decide whom your work dialogues with?

Kim: To my mind, the body in a poetic state is less like a factory that produces something and more like a corrugated steel roof on which raindrops fall. A steel roof doesn’t make sounds of its own accord, but raindrops also don’t make a sound unless they meet with something like a steel roof. It’s impossible to know what might come to pass when the outside world is approached and accessed in such a way. This is why it’s possible to say something like, “We don’t write new things in poetry, but rather become new by writing poetry.” I consider the hand of “chance” to be more important than the intention of the artist. Even if there may be a certain inevitability to life, it will always come to find you wearing the trappings of “chance.” In every genuine crossing of paths there is an element of invention. In a way, it causes the occurrence of a new third realm, one that didn’t exist beforehand.


Levine: Your poems have a light and spatial quality. It is almost as if they expand and move through space rather than progress through time. These qualities also make them incredibly difficult to translate. What is it like to see your work in translation?

Kim: There have been times when I wanted to make our beings flow and jumble together with words so lightweight that they could float from the page like air. This was something I was particularly preoccupied with when I was writing my second poetry collection, The Goodbye Ability. I wanted to draw up a kind of space where the division between you and me is annihilated, just like my breath mixes with yours in the air. I wanted to express beings that are not tough or clear-cut like solid matter, but rather beings that are mobile and tender, flowing and permeating. I think that’s what makes my poems come across as ambiguous. But I also think that this ambiguity itself must have some precision. It has to be “precise ambiguity.”

All languages, Korean and English included, create meaning through contrast and fragmentation. With regular ways of using language, although it is simple to show that A and B are “different,” it is difficult to reveal what is “between” A and B. That’s why poetry is not only linguistic “expression” but also linguistic “experimentation.”


Levine: In the poem “The Position of the Neck” (found here in this issue) there is a push and pull between the infinite world of heaven and the passing, momentary sensations experienced in our bodies. The poem ends with a question about the purpose of moving the neck. Is this question alluding to the in-betweenness you were just talking about?

Kim: I am very interested in the language spoken by the body. I would like it if my poems were conveyed like the speech expressed by the body. Those very “momentary sensations experienced in our bodies” that you mentioned are more concrete and more complex and more historical than the language we produce from our mouths. Nietzsche once wrote, “If you show me how you walk, I will tell you how you think.” I think I know what Nietzsche meant when he said that. However, it’s impossible to completely carry through on Nietzsche’s claim. I suppose when it comes to language I’m more skeptical than a philosopher. Poetry is not something that conquers the impossibilities and limitations of language; rather, it pushes those limitations out further. Whenever language is used for things that don’t use language or can’t use language, other things get brought along with it, following like a shadow. Sometimes that shadow swoops up and engulfs the body. To mimic Nietzsche, I think you could say something like, “If you show me how you walk, I will tell you how you walk.” We let the words that our bodies speak just slide away. And so we don’t really know ourselves, how we walk. Poetry doesn’t just show us how we walk, it also adheres “invisible thoughts” and “sensations” to that moving body. It’s mere fantasy to believe that thought will be revealed transparently through language. Along with the limitations of language, which operates through distinction and segmentation, we have to scrutinize the opacity of thought itself. It might seem as though attempts to skim away the opacity of thought would guide us to more intelligent thought, but in fact this all too easily reverts to a discourse of power that suppresses the irony and complexity of existence.

I’m not simply trying to say that mind and body are one. For instance, my mind may be facing you, but my neck could be staring off in another direction so as not to meet your gaze. You can express the same situation in the opposite way too. My neck wants to face you, but my mind keeps pressuring my neck not to look at you. Even when the body and mind fight with each other like that, they share some kind of common goal. There are many stories in the neck’s line of movement, in its slanting, and the sensations of that moment. Recreating all those stories in a comprehensive way is impossible, and that totality wouldn’t guarantee truth anyway. It’s important to create the feeling that there are many hidden stories that can’t all be guessed at, and call attention to suggestion and mystery.



Levine: Is there a story behind this poem?

Kim: If madeleines dipped in tea were a catalyst for Proust to bring back long forgotten memories, for me I think the practice of writing poetry itself brings up those kinds of happenings. I could mention as the back story something that came to mind while writing this poem and even later—the memory of a woman standing on a bridge on the Han River. She was looking down at the flowing waters and shrugging her neck into her coat on a really chilly day. I could add that, while at that moment I felt as though the woman might be in danger, I passed her by, holding back my imagined thoughts of her misfortune. I also remembered a fish seller saying, “Fish don’t have necks” as she brought her knife down and chopped one up, and the shiver that ran down the back of my neck at that moment. But then I remembered that the scene was actually something I’d created in a poem. Poetry and memories change each other like that.


Levine: In the poem “Dear Angel” (also found in this issue) there is an image of people in a zombified state riding the subways and later, an image of the speaker whispering about humans who “kill each other even in their dreams.” I made a connection in my mind between the hidden violence of everyday life that often makes itself visible in the landscape of dreams or fantasy. How did you go about coming up with a concept for this poem?

Kim: When I was little, my mother, who was a devout Protestant, took me by the hand to Sunday school every week. Among the things we had to recite back then, there was something that went like this: “On the third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.” To me, the expression “the right hand” of God felt somehow significant. When I was little, I would often confuse my left and right shoes (and of course I got teased for it), so the idea that right and left were also differentiated in heaven felt very odd to me. That was the starting point for this poem.

Having grown up to become an atheist, contrary to my mother’s wishes, I think that “God” and “heaven” and “angels” are all things created by the peculiar powers of the human imagination and human dreams. I think that’s why, although “heaven” is set up as a world on a different plane from the world of the living, it also has many strangely similar aspects. Just as God resembles humans, if angels and humans are placed in a dichotomous structure, it wouldn’t be a clearly divided dichotomy like black and white, but rather, it would have to be a dichotomy that overlaps, each polarity entering into each other’s territory and mixing together.

Particularly on the divided Korean Peninsula, the terms right and left, far-right and far-left, are used as rhetoric to bring about hysterical responses in an environment of ideological polarization. If I imagine an angel wandering the earth, its wandering is not led by images of beauty and happiness, or the essential goodness and hope of humanity. If there was an angel that couldn’t leave earth, it would be because it couldn’t turn its back on human suffering. Picturing this angel with wings like lead, I was able to imagine a “community of sadness.” It’s humans who are ruthless, stepping on each other, committing murder, but it’s also humans who create community out of suffering and sorrow. If you were to ask the angel if it loves such humans, I don’t think it would be able to come up with a quick answer. It might be that it can’t bring itself to say it doesn’t love humans, or it may be that it can’t easily bring itself to say that it does love humans. But in that time where we are left waiting for an answer, we come to think about humanity a little differently.


Levine: What can we expect from you in the future?

Kim: I’m on a plane returning to Seoul from Rome at the end of my long travels. So, right now, I’m in the air. Answering questions like this, even if it isn’t on a plane like I am now, I think I’ve always felt as though I were floating mid-air. When it comes to poetry, I never have any particular plans. Poetry is written irrespective of my intentions or planning. It’s not I who lead the poems, but rather the poems that lead me. I rather like this passivity. I am always ready to be transformed by poetry. 


by Jake Levine
Poet and Translator
Assistant Professor of Creative Writing
Keimyung University