Poetry or Letter To the Other of My Inside-Outside: Poet Kim Hyesoon

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.22 Winter 2013
  • byShin Hyoung-cheol


Shin Hyoung-cheol: You have published 10 volumes of poetry since your debut in 1979.

Kim Hyesoon: I never look at my previously published books. Whenever I see my poems cited somewhere, I feel awkward and embarrassed.

Shin: In something I came across published abroad, you are introduced as “a prominent woman poet who has received two awards named after poets Seo Jeong-ju and Kim Su-young, who are representative of pure poetry and engaged poetry, respectively.” I was thinking that it may come as a surprise to readers abroad that one poet alone could traverse and dismantle these two opposing poetic trends.

Kim: It feels embarrassing and awkward to receive awards, but then it would be even more awkward to draw attention to myself by refusing them, so I end up accepting them. I think the debate about “pure poetry” vs. “engaged poetry” was inevitable and essential to Korean poetry. I think Kim Su-young is a poet who went beyond the confines of the structure that surrounded him. Who would have known that his wailings, in everyday language, would amplify so much? I may be someone who belongs to both sides, or I may be a dual national who doesn’t belong anywhere.

Shin: This term “woman poet” shows up above. In your case, I think that term has rarely been used negatively, but still you must be tired of it. I wonder if your book of criticism, To Write as a Woman: Lover, Patient, Poet, Me (2002), represents a koan, the endless questions you ask and answer in your lifetime.

I want to get your take on this, and also do you think categorization of poets by gender is meaningful or meaningless within contemporary poetry, and in what way?

Kim: No one fails to ask me about the term “woman poet.” And even if I’m not asked about it, I always insist that I’m a “woman poet.” The consumer of poetry has categorized me as a woman, differentiating me, and so I howl that the inside of that category is the place of paradoxical poetry.

When I was younger, I was active in a feminist group called Another Culture, and I observed then that the ideology of the women’s liberation movement was in discord with my poetry. In my everyday life and in my essay writing, I was engaged in feminist thought and activism, but my poetry covered my contentious thoughts with a sheath that was bright and alive, like something woven with vapor. Not only “woman” became blurry, but also “me”—this blurry state of being is poetry. My poetry tells me to bring the life-giving water that will save father’s life as the songs of a woman heading to the afterworld, my poetry tells me to become a ghost.

When I was writing To Write as a Woman, I wanted to say that the ignition point of a genre called poetry is a feminine position. I wanted to say, regardless of a poet’s gender, poetry is where night is, where absence is, poetry begins where mother is (who has lost herself to me), it’s where I “do poetry.”

Shin: Poetry differs from prose, so I think that in many cases the subject matter, imagination, and speech may occur simultaneously. I would like to ask about these three in the order above. What is the main passage through which the things that are perceived as poetic come to flow into your body?

Kim: The point of ignition for poetry is multiple, but the material to ignite is one. My body has to be in a poetic state. No matter how great my ethical or feminist rage may be, no matter how much another text resonates with me, no matter if some dream smacks me and takes off, unless my body, the material for ignition, is in a poetic state, it is pointless. I am colored by the poetic state like some kind of bodily sign. As if I’m about to cry, as if my laughter is about to explode in giggles, I need to overlap with a blank paper-thin girl. And while I write, the girl becomes a witch or grandmother, but first I need to be in that state. I call it the “the state of something yet nothing.”


Critic Shin Hyoung-cheol and poet Kim Hyesoon


Shin: Much of Korea’s poetry is neatly written, depicting everyday experience along with an adequate message, yet your poetic texts provide inspiration to critics who are trying to theorize the role that imagination plays in poetry. In your poetry there is fairy-tale-like imagination, grotesque imagination, mythical imagination and so forth; in fact, there are multiple imaginations at play.

Kim: When I began writing in my 20s, I just wrote down any “poetic” thing that soared up in me. I wasn’t conscious of what I was writing or why I was writing it. Back then I didn’t even have friends or teachers. Meanwhile my imagination developed like the muscles of someone who exercises. Imagination is the process of moving muscle in sync with bone, to a place of freedom, poetry’s vast outer side. It activates something to nothing. Perhaps I should say it’s a cloud mill? The place where cloud (poetry) knows but poet (me) doesn’t know. With bone and muscle, I repeatedly call someone who disappears into the slippery crack of time and space, someone who becomes more unfamiliar and mysterious by the day. Lately I’ve been thinking that someone laid up in an intensive care unit, or “me” the woman, a few seconds before death, is dreaming for real “now, here, me.” You could say it feels like the observed and the observer, before they perish, are trying to move something together, inflating the muscle of the ignition point.

Shin: In the past, as well as now, whenever I read your poems, the first thing that strikes me is the sense of liveliness and liberation of your speech. What kind of relationship is there for you between what you will say and how you will say?

Kim: Language is conversation, so poetry also converses with someone. Of course, that someone is not tangible or definable, someone on other side of cognition. That someone is preferably a poetic inspiration or poetic other. Naturally, speech begins directed at the other. Like illness, which is a reply sent by the body, poetry is also a reply in regard to inspiration or the other. Therefore, language or speech changes according to the one who is receiving the letter. And so each poem can only be spoken in a particular way, while striving first for the impossible communication with the other, rather than communication with the reader.

Shin: In connection to the previous question, as a poet who writes in Korean, what kind of freedom does Korean allow for you, and, conversely, what structural aspects of Korean are suffocating to you and when do they occur?

Kim: When I write, I start to feel through my body that Korean has a “feminine language” and a “masculine language.” When I begin to write, in whichever language, it feels as if I’m tugging down on my skirt in an uncomfortable seat. It’s not just the Korean language, for I also simultaneously feel the suffocation and freedom in regards to Korean poetry. Adding an aphorism after describing something is the way Korean poetry speaks, something which has been continuously passed down from when Korean poetry was written in the style of classical Chinese poetry and traditional Korean sijo (three line poem). Maybe this is why I have extreme reservations about any explanatory statements in poetry. The Korean language has countless variations in adverb, adjective word endings, multiple onomatopoeia and mimetic words, and through them the Korean language is vibrant with ironies and fluid in syntax. And it’s a phonetic language rich in history, which allows for possibilities of rhyming through countless homonyms that are closely or directly related. In translation, it becomes difficult to reveal all these aspects of word play in Korean.

Shin: You have two books that have been translated in English. The selected poems, Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers came out in 2008 and the collection of recent work, All the Garbage of the World, Unite! in 2011. Please introduce me to any new criticism of your work that you haven’t encountered in Korea.

Kim: Johannes Goransson has used the term “gurlesque” to review my poetry. Perhaps he has heard my “grrl’s language.” I found it interesting because I was wondering at times why a girl is never absent from my poetry.

Shin: The poem, “All the Garbage of the World, Unite!” from your ninth book, Your First (2008), which is also the title of the book in translation, seems to have gotten a lot of attention from readers abroad.

Kim: I was trying to express that perhaps my muse is inside the community of all things discarded after they’ve been used up. I still remember writing it one afternoon in just one sitting.

Shin: Two poems, “Dear Choly, From Melan” and “Saturn's Sleeping Pill” from your tenth book Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (2011) will be published with this interview, and it appears that the subject matter in both poems is melancholy.

Kim: I was trying to pick relatively easy poems, so I ended up selecting those two about melancholy. And it may also have turned out that way because the whole book is steeped in melancholy.

Shin: Such melancholy shows up particularly well in “Manhole Humanity,” but it also seems to organically embody a critical message of civilization.

Kim: I didn’t seek out such subject matter, but rather it just happened organically. I have a tendency to look first and think about the ending of things. This applies to civilization as well. I frequently imagine civilization as a makeshift stage or art installation, and a scene in which it all collapses. But lately, I think about living out the rest of my life laughing meaninglessly a rhythmical laugh.

Shin: I think certain exceptional poets are also exceptional critics. I remember being deeply moved by a piece you wrote on poet Lee Seong-bok. What kind of qualities should one cultivate in order to reach an exceptional level of poetry criticism?

Kim: I think of criticism as something that reads the way thin yet resilient fibrous strings are found inside a sponge gourd after its flesh has been scooped out or something that reads the habitual movement of muscle and bone in the space between the hand and the handle of a broom after sweeping the courtyard of a Buddhist temple a thousand times. Criticism lets you know how a poem has tried to go against the destiny of poetry that is vast yet narrow, and, conversely, it lets you know that the poem has tried so hard to live inside the horizon of such destiny. I like it when a critic’s hand enters my poem, touches the bone then leaves. I like criticism that is written as though it’s completing another poem upon meeting a poem in which the critic is also part of the poem. I think everyone knows more or less what the sponge gourd is used for after its flesh has been scooped out, why someone has to sweep the temple’s courtyard.

Shin: Would you choose the life of a poet if you were to be born again?

Kim: I don’t want to be born again. I have never thought about being born again as a human who contains “me.” I have written in a poem that, if I were to be born again, I would be born without any borders, like certain adjectives. And if that is the poetic condition then I have no choice in the matter.

Shin: For someone who has stepped into your world of poetry for the first time, especially readers abroad, would you please share several key words for your poetry?

Kim: Death, Woman, [South] Korea, You, Seoul, Absence, Illness, Rats, Poetry.


1. Your First
Kim Hyesoon, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2008, 176p, ISBN 9788932018492

2. Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream
Kim Hyesoon, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2011, 186p, ISBN 9788932022413

3. To Write as a Woman: Lover, Patient, Poet, Me
Kim Hyesoon, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2002, 264p, ISBN 9788982814525

4. All the Garbage of the World, Unite!
Kim Hyesoon, Action Books 2011, 135p, ISBN 0983148015

5. Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers
Kim Hyesoon, Action Books 2008, 93p, ISBN 9780979975516