[Web Exclusive] Ordinary Alienation: A Conversation with Lee Byungryul

  • onJuly 23, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: As a poet, you must have a keen sensitivity. What are you mostly sensitive about?

Lee Byungryul: Indeed, I was born a highly sensitive person. I could have done other things with my sensitivity. I think I was born with immense sadness in me that I could hardly endure. To me, most things appear sorrowful. When you see something for the first time, you may find it dazzling, beautiful or impressive. As for me, I become overwhelmed with sadness.  When you feel grateful for something, it brightens your mood. But even in those moments, I turn to sadness. As a sensitive yet sorrowful person, I reckon I’ve chosen the right path for myself. Looking back on my childhood, I was never a cheerful kid. Even as a young boy, I rarely smiled.


KLN: Is there a reason why you often go away, write poetry and then come back?

Lee: My background and the environment I grew up in, as well as the norms and messages of our society all tend to be rather conventional. Therefore, when I’m away from home, experiencing and internalising unfamiliarity, I often feel a slight change in me. When that happens, I write poems or wait for a line of poetry to arrive. I think such times have become almost embedded in me. In the city where I currently belong, I take care of practical matters. But when I go somewhere far away, I can be a boy or a tame sheep, and recall the things I have to do or love back in the city. My travels are all about that process, which, I suppose, reflects the journey of poetry writing.


KLN: Please tell us about your poetry collection Radiant.

Lee: I’m sure the definition varies depending on the person. There was still so much I hoped to achieve and none of my passion and aspirations diminished. But I underwent an experiment whereby I tried to suppress all those things. Back then, by suppressing my desires and having patience, I thought perhaps I’d acquire a new sensibility. It’s the moment that brightens us up more than anything else, when our hearts take on a healthy, red glow. I believe it refers to that state of being. I tell myself that I should collect many such moments in life. And in a way, those murmurs pervade this collection

Also, there were times when I realised that I’d had many wonderfully radiant moments throughout my life and that I’d been at least honest in order not to miss those radiant moments. So I thought I should discuss the notion of the radiant even though it might be a bit premature. With that motif in mind, I decided on the collection’s title.


KLN: What’s your take on poetry in translation?

Lee: The very idea of sharing my poems not just with readers who speak the same mother tongue but with people from all over the world is fascinating to me. Even though I write and publish poetry and prose within a certain frame, my words are conveyed differently depending on the reader, and on where you’re or what state you’re in. That’s where the fun lies. In terms of the value and significance of literary translation, I think the same impact can be achieved. According Haruki Murakami, when you translate a collection of poetry, you may have something extra that goes beyond your curiosity or love towards the collection or the poet, and those with that extra something are bound to be good translators. A good translation must delve into the heart and soul of the original author. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a task that belongs to the realm of the divine.


KLN: You’re an excellent photographer. What do poetry and photography have in common?

Lee: Poetry and photography are very similar.  Our field of vision is usually this big. Then there’s a wider area that we can figure out without moving our eyes too much. In photography, you decide which part of this area you want to cut out or take a photo of, and adjust brightness and exposure. Similarly, when you write poems, some of your sad or depressed emotions become textualised. The same goes for many other things in life. When it comes to poetry and photography, unless you write and photograph copiously, you can never truly own poetry or call yourself a photographer. So they are very similar in that respect.


KLN: How do you transform a scenery into a poem?

Lee: I’m drawn to decrepit and humble sceneries: things with peeling paint, cracked tiles, thick layers of dust, broken camera tripods or chairs. The same can be said about people. I care for people with wounded hearts, people who’ve been hurt, or people who are so shy that their hands shake as they reach into their pockets for sweets they want to share with you. When I encounter the faces, words or stories of different people, they remain with me for months and years even if I don’t put them in poems right away. Perhaps I have a separate storage device in my mind where I keep all my memories and experiences until one day they become ripe enough for me to write about out of the blue.


KLN: What kind of life do you envision for yourself in the future?

Lee: I think I have one very important strength. There’s nothing else. Apart from poetry, my one other powerful strength is my freedom I can go to sleep anytime. If I need to sleep less, I can do that too. I can get up at dawn, and stare blankly out of the window. Or, I can go outside, walk around all day and not come home. There’s no one else at home anyway. I can only say that I cherish the power of freedom. Without letting go of the things I enjoy in life, I’ve definitely made some achievements and found answers. Therefore, I’m going to keep doing what I like. I hope to continue this way of life so that I can respond favourably to the poems I’m going to write in the future.