[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?