[Web Exclusive] Interview with Oh Eun: Being a poet is to wonder

  • onMarch 15, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: What does a poet do, actually?

Oh: I think being a poet is to be curious. A poet is someone who stops and looks up at a flickering lamppost, someone who runs their hands over a poster on a wall, someone who sees a flower growing in the street and wonders what it’s called. I’ve satisfied and added to my curiosity over the years, looking at things, and now I would say that the same applies to listening. You ask a question and you listen, and then the response opens up so many more questions. When that happens I think, I sure wonder about a lot of things. Maybe that’s why I write poems.


KLN: Can you tell us about the podcast you host?

Oh: It’s a podcast created by YES24, the online book retailer, so it’s a book podcast. I’m on it every other week with my co-host, Kim Hana. I host a segment called ‘Oh Eun’s Cozy Corner.’ I’ve been doing it for almost two years, and I would say that you start out with books and in the end it becomes about people. You have guests on the show because they have a new book coming out, but through the conversation you start to warm up to them, you want to learn more about this person. So you start by talking about a book but you end with the feeling that you’ve got to know this person a little bit. I feel like I’ve done a good job when I have a guest I didn’t know very well, except casually through their work, and then actually getting to meet them and discovering they’re so cool, and getting to take that feeling home with me, that’s the best part.


KLN: Which work of yours would you like to introduce to foreign readers?

Oh: I’m not sure how easy that would be. I use a lot of wordplay in my work, a lot of double entendres that contribute to the reading experience in Korean, so I am concerned how that could work in translation, but I’ve decided not to worry too much. I think it’s better to think of translation as a second creative process.

The year before last I published a collection called I Had a Name. It’s about thirty-two people. So each person has their own poem, thirty-two in all. Now, these people are Korean, but I think their experiences are universal. Everywhere over the world, people know what it feels like to be jealous of someone, to weep out of sadness. So I’d like to see what meaning those poems take on in translation, what meaning people take away from poems that are other people’s stories.

One of the poems in that collection, “Thirty,” has this line: “All those years I’ve eaten/I must have forgotten to digest them.” In Korean, we say “eating a year” for turning a year older. But I don’t know if they have that expression in other languages. I wonder how something like that could be translated. I have to admit, it’s also kind of fun to imagine someone working out that conundrum. I think they might have a tough time, but looking at is as a new kind of creation, a new challenge, that could lead to something interesting. I look forward to it. 


KLN: You’ve said in the past that you want to break the stereotype of the poet.

Oh: The image of the poet as sensitive loner, there is truth to that. But those are also the same qualities that allow poets to not pass over things but commit them to memory and then to writing. The stereotype I want to break is that poets are helpless at everyday life, that we’re a bunch of wastrels and alcoholics. A poet may be someone who holds a day job and writes poems in their spare time, but the image people have in their minds is of this consumptive person.

Part of the reason I consciously expose myself is to break that image. I want to show that poets can tell funny stories, that we’re not so different from you. We’re not weirdos.


My name is Eun [Silver].

The day I turn forty-seven,

I will be thinking of you again.

I will be looking at the periodic table

Patting myself on the back for coming this far

I will still be writing poetry

Still a person

Still human

In the space between persons


KLN: Where does poetry come from?

Oh: You could say that poetry exists between people, but with emphasis on the “between.” Between people and objects, people and animals, myself and the self within, between me and myself. The role of the poet is to capture that space. The space in between, or the cracks. I like to say, ‘Open the cracks, so the light can shine through.’ In other words, make some time for yourself. Not just physical time, but time to discover your other self on the inside.

You know that feeling of surprise when there’s someone you know well and you discover a new side to them. You start chasing that feeling and that leads to writing poems. For me, it’s the feeling I’m hoping to experience whenever I meet someone, whether it’s an old friend or someone I don’t know very well. And when I see something I didn’t know about in that person, I realize how much it means to me to not give in to sweeping certainties or judgements. To always remain fluid. That’s when I think, that’s what it means to be a poet. 


KLN: Who are your favorite poets?

Oh: Among international poets, I’ll get to Korean poets later, I like the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, the Nobel laureate. She is mentioned in my poem, “Land.” Her collected works have been published in Korean under the title, The End and the Beginning. I’ve read it many times. The first time I read it, what astonished me was that, in an anthology you have poems from every stage of the poet’s life, and in her case age only made her sharper. She put herself out there even more. And that’s not an easy thing to do. When you get older, usually you’re better off financially, you have social status, it becomes easier to compromise.

You would think at that stage you would write easy poems, just relying on yourself, using what’s inside you, but she refused to let go of that alertness, that instinct to uncover the darkest, most inconvenient parts of society that people don’t want to talk about. I thought that attitude was so inspiring. I can only hope that when I write poems in my old age, I won’t have forgotten my edge, like Szymborska. As for Korean poets, I like Kim Hyesoon and Kim Eon. Kim Hyesoon has published over ten collections of poetry, and I’m bowled over how every collection is better than her last. Kim Hyesoon keeps outdoing Kim Hyesoon. It’s very, very tough to better yourself.


KLN: What are your plans for the future?

Oh: I’m a reader and a writer to the core. I’m going to read as much as possible, making sure to take my time over poetry. I’m going to keep working on my podcast, and teaching my students, mindful that I’m learning at the same time. And I have a book coming out, a collection of columns that I’ve written. I’ll probably be doing book talks and events for that, meeting my readers.


English subtitles translated by Yoonna Cho