[A Conversation with Kim Sun-woo] The Eye of Your Heart

  • onDecember 11, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byChristopher Merrill


Christopher Merrill: How would you characterize the relationship between your poetry and your prose? Can you describe your decision to include both verse and prose poems in If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth? Does your fiction feed your poetry, and vice versa?

Kim Sun-woo: My poetry and prose stand independently, although they subtly supplement one another. Both start with the literary inspiration I find in every moment of daily life. I go about capturing that inspiration in multiple ways, usually by jotting things down or sketching them. My notebook is a black hole of ideas and inspiration. This “storage process” is important—it’s the stage before the inspiration has evolved into poetry, essays, or novels. Getting to collect inspiration daily is a blessing that comes with being a writer. A writer is someone who discovers new impressions and insights from every moment and place. And that inspiration doesn’t just drop into your lap. It only comes when you tune the antenna of your intellect and emotions to the highest sensitivity and endure each day of your life. That is, you have to open your mind as much as possible and take in the full range of feelings in the world. Ending this effort is essentially death for a writer. The more inspiration from the “here and now” you have saved up—whether it’s from the ordinary or the extraordinary—the better it is.

Once I’ve collected ideas in my notebook, I take my time exploring their possibilities. And at a certain point I realize which ideas want to be poems, novels, or essays. Until each collected idea independently asserts its identity, all I can do as a writer is to keep myself open to the world and be true to each moment in my daily life. Training the “eye of your heart,” that is, practicing to see with your heart, is a crucial part of being a writer, and an act of due diligence. You have to have more than two eyes if you want to become and remain a writer.

Korean writers produce a lot of prose poetry. It’s what modern poetry in Korea began with: a break from the rigid formalism of classical sijo poetry. In my case, some of my inspirations clearly want to become poetry, but are unusually full of things they want to say. These become prose poetry. However, this doesn’t mean prose poetry is exempt from the need for poetic tension.

My poetry has a certain level of impact on my fiction—it’s the reason I can use such rich metaphors in my novels. But it doesn’t work the other way around. My novels and short stories are generally slow-paced narratives; stories from history that have meaningful social implications. I turn ideas that are difficult to express in poetry into prose: stories about the nature of society, history, and the multilayered relationships between people. For instance, my novel A Prayer: Yoseok and Wonhyo, based on the Silla-era philosopher, Buddhist monk, and religious reformer Wonhyo (617–686 CE), is also a story about the kind of democracy that can be realized in this human world. My novel Lovers of Water is about the South Korean government’s thoughtless Four Major Rivers project (and the violent destruction of the environment it caused). But it also connects environmental destruction to the destruction of connections between people, conveying this message through a narrative of love. Stories like these were just too big to put into poetry. I’m also wary of falling back into the same old habits if I try to cram one of those ideas into poetry.


Merrill: I admire your commitment to environmental activism which has led you to take part in political demonstrations, and I wonder if you believe a writer is obliged to be a political actor? Does your activism inform your poetics? If so, how? Do you distinguish between the work you do in solitude and the public role you have assumed?

Kim: I don’t believe all writers are obligated to be political actors. Of course, everyone has a different idea of what constitutes political action. But part of being a writer is to support a life without rules or obligations. A writer is someone who lives among the people from many different stations in life, trying to glean the realities of the times and places they face. Sometimes, the act of writing is itself a political act.

It’s not easy to be a writer when one is blind to the violence of the world, where destruction and brutality run rampant. It’s a writer’s raison d’etre to face the world before them, unflinching and unblinking in spite of the pain it brings. Only with that foundation in place can a writer truly understand the deepest depths of existence. Understanding the conditions necessary for a person’s life and understanding the historic events of one’s era is an arduous process of conflict. If you can’t even face forward, how can you understand the flip side and depths of the situation?

Writers must never become so accustomed to the preexisting order that they end up feeling numb. They must always have that antenna up and must have the intellect to discern the true nature of the things happening around them. It’s a writer’s fate to respond to the violence and destruction enacted by humans upon other humans or the environment that they witness, without feigning ignorance or turning away. I personally welcome that fate.

My outlook on the world naturally affects my poetry and the rest of my literary work. For me, political action is an attempt to love the world better. I believe feeling deeper love for people and the world is the same as adding depth to one’s own literature. In other words, to create literature is to try and love the world better. My hope for my poetry is that it will give strength to other people living in the here and now.

Merrill: The American poet Howard Nemerov called poetry “an act of attention”? Is this your experience? How does a poem begin for you?

Kim: For me, poetry is like the air I breathe, in that I encounter “poetic moments” constantly. Each moment feels like an extension of a special singularity. These moments fill my daily life, until one day a poem begins. To have that sense of being filled in daily life is crucial to my life as a poet. If I could interpret “an act of attention” in my own way, it would be “to be fully awake.” Or maybe I would say, “to be fully empty.” For me, going through daily life as a “poetic existence” is the foundation for living as a writer.

And even when I reach that moment of wanting to compose a poem, I hold back. For the time being, I keep that poetic inspiration in my body and let it sit there. Sometimes it matures and ages, sometimes it goes bad and falls. It’s only after a long process that the inspiration that stays with me boils over uncontrollably. I only start writing the poem when the words bubble up and I can’t hold them back anymore.

Once I’m in a poetic mode, I write and write for a week or two without regard to whether it’s day or night. I don’t take calls or check my email. I’m cut off from the outside world, as if I’m living in a different time. Once I’ve poured out all that poetry, I go back to daily life. I start over carefully from the beginning, with slow, relaxed breathing. That is to say, I don’t even think to myself that I have to write poetry until that moment the poetry comes overflowing of its own accord. I simply live, breathing in that inspiration like it’s oxygen.


Merrill: Where does a novel begin? Do you know the ending before you begin writing? Do you grieve for your characters once the book is done?

Kim: My notebook houses many stories that want to become novels. There are so many that I worry I won’t have time to write them all before I die. So I have to really think before I decide that a certain story has to be written. After all, once I start, it will take about a year on average for me to finish it.

I don’t have much of choice with a poem. I hold it in until it spews like lava. I go where it takes me. It’s different with a novel. I carefully decide which story to work on next. It’s a very rational process. But it still needs a magical spark to kick things off. For example, something like a sob resounding from the depths of the earth, or haunting laughter that seems to burst from the abyss. The story reveals itself to be “the one” out of the many others via this magical moment.

Once I start writing, I work like I’m walking through an endless tunnel. I have no idea what awaits me at the end, only the belief that there will be an end. And even if there is no end, what choice do I have but to keep going to my desk every day to enter this tunnel I’ve dug, working like a manual laborer? The keyboard is my pickaxe. Each day I dig out one layer of unfamiliar things from the earth, and my heart races. The fact that I can do this exciting work every single day completely fulfills me.


Merrill: Readers of your poems know that you have a keen eye for the natural world. Do you look for anything in particular when you are outside? What inspires you in nature?

Kim: I’m inspired by everything in nature. Not just specifics like mountains, rivers, seas, trees, rocks, animals, plants, and insects, but the basic elements of water, fire, earth, and air—my sources of inspiration are endless. This even includes things beyond earth, like the universe itself. I am nature. So are you. We are all nature. Everything in the world, including humans, is both a speck of dust on the earth and a cosmic existence. Every aspect of nature, each and every one, is dear and precious to me.


Merrill: I am struck by the number of temples that appear in If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth. Can you discuss some of the ways in which your spiritual concerns shape your work?

Kim: I’m fond of Buddhism not as a religion, but as a philosophy. My ultimate dream, actually, is a world without religion. I think the world would be better if poetry and philosophy could flower in place of religion. As for Buddhism as a philosophy, there’s a lot I find attractive about it. The idea of an innate Buddhahood in all things makes a world of acceptance possible that Western humanism cannot attain. The Buddhist worldview is founded on the concept that we are all connected, not in a hierarchy but as equals. Humanism puts humans at the top and is thus very narrow, but Buddhism teaches that humans, animals and plants, and even rocks and individual grains of sand, are precious components of the universe. Buddhism also encourages people to live free, unrestrained by authority. The teaching that we must not be ruled by any authority or god—this awareness of freedom—is one of the foundational concepts of Buddhist philosophy. To feel compassion and respect for all things in the world, and to be free—these are the goals I pursue through my literary work. And that’s why you’ll find recurring Buddhist elements in my work.

Merrill: The portraits you paint of the women in your family are by turns endearing, whimsical, and filled with sorrow. Can you discuss the complications of writing about the people closest to you?

Kim: The family member who appears most in my works is my mother. I have one brother and five sisters, which reflects the once-ubiquitous patriarchal idea that favored sons over daughters. My mother tried six times before she gave birth to a boy. (My brother is the youngest of the family.) From her, I had a very close look at the unspeakable suffering imposed on the women of the generations before mine. Thus, I studied feminism by experiencing gender inequality within my family before studying it in books. She appears so often in my poetry because, more than just being my individual mother, she is an archetype of the women of her generation. Today we live in an age of comparative gender equality, but this would not have been possible without the tears, pain, and struggles of the women who came before us. The poems where I remember and memorialize my mother are also an ode to all women of her time.


Merrill: May we say that the passage of time is a secret theme of your work? If so, how does poetry measure or redeem the work of time on one’s body, memory, and imagination? Or does it?

Kim: To live is to be in a state of constant change. One of my great fascinations is with all things that the flow of time changes. We are all like specks of dust in the universe. Although each of us is like a singular universe in our own right, we are at the same time such tiny, insignificant things in this massive world. That’s why I treasure every piece of evidence—like change—that shows us continuing to live to the fullest each day. We change by simultaneously manifesting the greatness and nothingness of existence. I only hope this change is leading us to a path of freedom and love.


Merrill: Please tell us something about your next book of poems and your next novel.

Kim: Right now I’m working on a novel about a boy who develops the ability to find joy even in the midst of overwhelming sorrow and pain. Once I’ve finished this book, I plan to compile a new volume of poetry next year. In A Nocturne, my fifth and most recent volume, I created a time called OM, a symbol of resistance against the a.m./p.m. distinction imposed upon us. In my sixth volume, I will take various poetic approaches to the concept of the freedom to be myself, a sort of nirvana in daily life where even time does not exist.


by Christopher Merrill
Poet, Writer, Translator
Director, International Writing Program 
University of Iowa