[Web Exclusive] Beware when poets and poetry disappear: Interview with Kim Hyesoon

  • onDecember 31, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: Your poems have been described as having a ‘grotesque’ quality. What is your take on that?

Kim Hyesoon: I’ve heard my work described as ‘grotesque’ a lot. I don’t necessarily agree with it. Take a microscope to the face of a beautiful woman and tell me it isn’t grotesque. Poetry is such a broad genre, it covers so many ways of looking. Zooming in, zooming out, turning something over, inside out; it would be stranger if it weren’t grotesque. Or take romantic love, for instance. Movies and fiction will have you believe it’s all beautiful but up close nothing is more grotesque than love.I’m just writing this reality as it is but people call that grotesque. Personally I find so-called realist poetry much stranger, as if they held up a mirror only to the outside, to the everyday. I’m just following the traces of what I see and people call it what they want. If you want to define poetry, you have to work on a poem-by-poem basis. That applies to my poems as well. You could apply any of these words to my poems: grotesque, merry, witchy, virginal—so if I were to be asked to define my poetry, I would say that it’s a space that reveals my genre. As the inventor of the genre of myself I am constantly evolving within that genre. That’s what I think. You can’t expect a single answer to such a question. I have five hundred, maybe a thousand different answers to that question that I’ll vary according to the weather that day or the interviewer.


KLN:  How do you feel about the English translation of Autobiography of Death?

Kim: I have great translators so I’m not worried about that aspect. My translators look for and find what makes my poems poetry. Translation is a service performed for the language you are translating into, rather than a service for the Korean language, in this case. If you were to translate a foreign poet into Korean, that would be a service to the Korean language, not that poet. So the translator has to have that in mind, that they’re broadening the horizon of their working language. One hopes that translators of poetry do so out of a deep attraction to the source material. I couldn’t ask for better translators in that aspect, so I have no complaints there, I feel deeply honored. My translator in English, the poet Don Mee Choi, has worked so much with me that I feel like she knows everything about me. When we meet I actually feel a little bit afraid of her, as if she could read behind the lines of everything I say. That’s a bit of a scary feeling.


KLN:  Tell us about how you came to write Autobiography of Death.

Kim: The school where I teach is nearby the Sewol Ferry Disaster school. So when the accident happened I would go visit the school grounds or go to pay my respects at the shrine on the way to work. Quite a few of my students were volunteering there as well. I would be in the subway on my way to work and the announcement would say, those wishing to visit the shrine should take exit so-and-so and take this bus. And then a bunch of people would get off and take the bus. Only in Korea would you hear a message like that on the subway, I thought.

That made me think about the deaths of people I knew about the people who died during the years of dictatorship and I wrote a poem for each of them, each death glowing like a firefly in my heart. You could call it my own 49-day rite for the dead. So I wrote forty-nine poems that became the Autobiography of Death. All of the deaths I have known are in that book. Afterwards I went to the south coast where the Sewol Ferry went down and I looked on those waters and thought, here is the sea full of ink, and my pen that might as well be the leg of an insect. How long would it take for me to dip my pen in there and write all that ink away?


KLN:  You once said, ‘Being a woman is not an epistemological business but an ontological one.’ What did you mean by that?

That quote is from a book I published in 2002, To Write as a Woman: Lover, Patient, Poet, and You. This was years before #MeToo became such a huge movement in Korea. I was thinking what it means for a woman to write. I thought, a woman cannot write poetry like Joseon white porcelain, from a place of pure enlightenment. That is a luxury afforded only to male poets. In other words, the traditional lyrical poem was not for us. That was the germ of that book. Let’s say that you peel back all the layers of a normal person, of humanity, of modern living: there stands the woman poet, and that’s where she starts writing poetry. It’s only after falling from all the privileges we have agreed upon in normal society that women poets can write. That is the place of female poets and of women’s poetry.


KLN: Could you explain what you mean by the disappearance of poetry that you mention in “Thus Spoke No (Poessay)”?

Kim: “Gone are the poets, leaving behind mythical figures and rumors of poetry.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind pop songs, work songs, proverbs, essays, gossip, and the barest metaphor.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind poetry collections and magazines.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind the mundane ramblings of everyday life and self-help titles.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind romantic, sentimental, pastoral music.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind poetry education, poetry institutions, old poets.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind what poets say when not writing poetry.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind whispers of poets and their poverty.

Gone are the poems, to be repeated and recycled, repeated and recycled.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind an ocean of posturing and sentimentalism.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind the effect of poetry, the use of poetry, the means of poetry.

Gone are the poems, leaving behind the projects of poets.

I write poems. I write in the void left behind.”


That’s from my book Thus Spoke No (Poessay). It seems to me that there are less and less poems, the way there are fewer children born in Korea these days. Not because there are less people producing poems, but because there’s a certain dimension opened up by poetry that doesn’t exist in the everyday world, that’s invisible through everyday eyes. It’s a deeper, wider sort of world and I feel like there are less and less people capable of appreciating and adding to that world. I wonder if we haven’t become what we are because of that, because people no longer appreciate that world and poetry has become nothing more than a genre. This poem/essay (poessay) was prompted by those thoughts.


KLN: What are your concerns when writing in a language that mimics reality?

Kim: It comes down to semiotics. If you look at the Korean language, if you took words or images related to women and did a semiotic analysis of them, you would be struck by how much of our language is used to degrade women. And we’re just using that without question. The discrimination runs deep in the language so I can’t help but have reservations about my native tongue.  I don’t put so much as a single sentence down without asking myself, is there a language for me to draw on, to imitate? So it’s inevitable to a certain point that I’d come up with what you called a bizarre or deconstructed language. With the discrimination underlying the language, it stands to reason that images created in that language be fundamentally unfair. That’s where the responsibility of reproduction comes in. To protest that unfairness, that’s what’s behind the bizarre language I use.


KLN: What are your plans for the future?

Kim: I’m always writing something. All poets are sovereigns of their own countries, equally impressive figures over their realms. Poets are completely absorbed in their worlds that way.  And the same goes for everyone, the poet’s land is the most equal one you’ll find. For the immediate future, Autobiography of Death has been published in the US and France, so I’m going to be on tour early next year (2019).