[Web Exclusive] Interview with Kim Jeong-hwan: To Write and Reason outside “My Poetry”

  • onDecember 4, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byKim Suyee


Kim Suyee I know it’s a pain to have to explain your poetry, but I’d like to ask: What is writing poetry to you?


Kim Jeong-hwan  Early in my career, I was commissioned to write a poem and asked to include an author’s note. As soon as I started writing the note, I felt the life and blood being sucked out of me. You either put everything into a poem or empty it entirely. What more can you say? But when I read other poets’ notes, they were often not only necessary but even better than their poetry. If you think of an author’s note not as a short memo stuck onto a poem like leftover breath but more as a question to oneself—“Why am I writing poetry?”—then whatever you end up writing about, it begins a process of answering that question. Even if the question wasn’t asked, you strive to answer it and the thought that your effort will never reach fruition makes you continue to strive for it. In fact, that’s the most significant attribute of writing. If you write to organize your thoughts, the writing, in turn, organizes your thoughts. In this way, I think “thinking outside poetry” helps me clarify the direction of my poetry, which, for me, is very vague.



KS  You’ve taken a deep look at and resisted the violence perpetrated in the name of modernity during military dictatorship in the late twentieth century and even into the democratized South Korea of the twenty-first century. I think the entirety of your poetics is one long contemporary poem exploring the corruption of Korean society and the life and death of the people in it. It’s a poetic insight about what is personal and what is public. What is modernity and the ethics of modernity for you?


KJ  For me, modernity is the aesthetic system of enduring and finding cohesion in the experience of being pierced by public death. I didn’t begin to write long poems because of this realization. I wrote them for a long time and then realized: Oh, this is what I’m on about. The thought that national authority is public and that the individual stands against it is too simple and naïve. That’s because when national authority reaches the point of a “public” that encompasses all classes, we call it utopia. “Public” and “private” truly are antonyms. The joy of life will become more and more personal and death will become more and more public. It’s been happening for a long time. When we start forgetting that, public death reminds us by abruptly ripping apart the boundary between public and private, returning them to their original status at the same time. In my early days of writing, public death was common. It happened nearly every day. One time, I got a call and had to give a eulogy in ten minutes. The deaths that suddenly ripped into my private everyday life felt alien and horrid no matter how many times they happened, but time passed, and I wanted to forget that experience and I thought I had. But I hadn’t. Those deaths had spread far beneath my everyday life, becoming familiar, lifting it up. Recently, I’ve certainly felt that writing, especially writing long poems, is similar to living out the most public death in the most private way. Living out the death that was sudden because it was public. Living it out for as long as possible because it’s private. I also feel strongly that all sudden, accidental deaths are public and even that all deaths are public. Whether they’re far or near, long ago or in the future. That “public” has nothing to do with any existing ethics or nationalism. Actually, it’s more like a minimum requirement for the future that if the ethics suffocates the new generation for the interests of the older generation, that if nationalism thwarts the advancement of the younger generation, then they need to be abolished. The minimum systemization of general knowledge as the negation of knowledgeability. Late last year, I finished a five-year project of translating the complete works of twelve contemporary global poets. That must’ve contributed to this feeling.



KS  You’re also a translator who has introduced world literature to South Korea, a representative translator of South Korea. Who are the authors that influenced you and what does translation mean to you?


KJ  Robert Frost, the American poet whose entire life of poetry was the continued development of his “first”; T.S. Eliot and his poem “The Wasteland”; Giorgos Seferis, the Greek poet who overlapped ancient Greek myth with how James Joyce interpreted myth in Ulysses;the German poet Ingeborg Bachmann who, as the new generation’s conscience in a defeated Germany, performed a ritual cleansing of guilt by pushing language to its limits; the Irish poet William Butler Yeats whose entire poetry is a deconstruction and reconstruction effort of Shakespearean English as well as some of the greatest love poems ever written; the Peruvian poet César Vallejo whose figurative language and reasoning reached the depths of tumultuous anguish and remains the greatest achievement in 1922, “the year of modernism”; the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova whose “Requiem” expresses a sorrow of unparalleled depth in the age of Stalin; the Spanish revolutionary poet Federico García Lorca who expressed the rapturous body of dark despair with surrealist, extreme lyricism; the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert who is celebrated as the poetic conscience and pride of a people with little power; Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who accomplished the “global” level of the countryside . . . Their poetry and the act of translation has deepened and variegated my public death.



KS  This interview is accompanied by your poems which you have translated yourself. Why did you decide to translate your poems yourself and what are the benefits and limitations of that choice?


KJ  The minor reason is that I wanted to deliver the meaning and nuance of my work as much as possible. The major reason is that, as when Samuel Beckett wrote most of his work in French and then in English, I find it interesting that, ultimately, the task of delving into the depths of the difference between two languages is impossible and, recognizing that at every step, a new domain of expression opens up.


KS  “Public death” is a phrase that compresses the meaning of writing to you as a poet and your sense of social responsibility. In this way, it comes across as something similar to “public life.” As someone who lives in Korean society, as someone who is public because he is private, and as someone who is a writer and a translator as well as a man of nature, how is your “public death-life” going?


KJ  Since the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, my public death intensified in panic and confusion. Last year, many elders (who would be in their sixties this year) passed away. I would have rejected writing poems of eulogy if people my age had died, thinking, I’m about to go, too. About five poems in, I felt déjà vu. Wait, I already did this a long time ago! Yes. When young people took their lives one by one in the early ’90s, these elderly were the ones who mourned their deaths, held funerals, and sang, “We are marching on; those who live, follow us.”⁎Those adults are the elderly now. Yes. My public death went through a whole generation. I feel less shock as I approach closer to natural death. My public death will deepen exactly just as much.



KS  What is the relationship between poetry and life for you?


KJ  Poetry is the cause and result of my literature and the record of reconciliation between “the self I’ve lived” and “the self I haven’t lived.”


* These are the lyrics to the song “Marching for Our Beloved” written in the 1980s for the spirit wedding of Yoon Sang-won who died in the Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Over time the song has taken on a symbolic meaning and has been sung at public protests in South Korea and overseas, most recently in Hong Kong.—Ed.

Interviewer: Kim Suyee
Kim Suyee is a professor at Kyung Hee University’s Humanitas College
Translator: Soeun Seo