Poetry as the Sublimation of Suffering: A Conversation with Poet Shin Dalja

  • onJanuary 5, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • byYoo Sungho


Shin Dalja is known for capturing her reflections on long-accumulated suffering and the will to overcome that suffering through her poetry. Her collection Passionate Love is the result of this determination, and is a confession of honest self-reflection towards the possibilities of living anew. Shin’s poetics are therefore a journey towards love and healing, but while she creates this record of inner wounds and longing, she also pays close attention to the specific and concrete in the lives of others. Such a worldview is faithfully adhered to and expanded upon in her recent collections Paper and Flowing Flesh. We met in the Bukchon neighborhood of Seoul, where she now lives, and I began by asking how she was.


Yoo Sungho: How have you been? Your recent prolific output must have meant you were busy.

Shin Dalja: After publishing Bukchon, I’ve had people come up to me saying they’d lived here for forty, fifty years without knowing of the places I mention in the poems, so I’ve been busy going around giving talks about them. I can’t say I’ve captured everything about this neighborhood, but apparently, it’s the first time Bukchon was made into poetry. Bukchon is not a large urban village, but it happens to be a point of origin for many art works dealing with the politics, economics, and culture of Korea. It’s also a historic place for Korean Buddhists and Catholics. People are interested in Bukchon, which bodes well for me.

Yoo: You’ve been living in Bukchon for only two and a half years, but you’ve already published a collection of poetry about it. I sense that it will become an ever more important place in your life. When did you first want to become a poet, and what was the world like when you debuted?

Shin: I wasn’t thinking of becoming a poet per se, but I did begin trying to express my feelings in my second year of middle school. I was going through puberty, and as I became interested in the opposite sex I began thinking about what it meant to express oneself. I studied traditional dancing in middle school, but expressing how I felt was too difficult to do in dance. The written word was what I came up with instead. There was a program for writing letters to military conscripts, so I borrowed a poetry collection from a friend’s brother who majored in Korean. I wanted to quote from it. It was by Kim Sowol, and it was the first time I had read a collection of poetry. I realized, “Wow, poetry—this is what it means to express yourself.” It was so moving. His work is very, very honest. So that’s where I started from. I began with the feeling that this is what poetry was, and using that, I wrote many letters. And here we are now.

I debuted in 1964 when I won the New Woman Poet Award in a magazine called Yeosang. Then I got married and took a break from writing. Later, I met the poet Pak Mogwol and made a comeback through Hyundae Munhak. I worked hard from then on. What I really wanted to put down in writing back then was human suffering. I’ve always wondered why despite our desire for beauty, joy and happiness, we have to suffer the reality of scars and pain. Life was extremely difficult back then, and I hid that pain for a long time. Hiding it made my writing take a turn for the conceptual. But the point where people talk about my poetry beginning to change is when I began revealing the real “me.”

Yoo: I think that with your poetry becoming more expressive and concrete in language, the poems have become clearer and closer to life. Your work is also beginning to be read outside of Korea.Paper, which won the Daesan Literary Award, was translated into Spanish and Mongolian, and Passionate Love into German. What has that been like?

Shin: Paper is being translated into English through support from the Daesan Foundation. Translation is definitely the biggest issue when it comes to foreign readership, although I’m often told my poetry is difficult to translate. So many walls have come down in our time that places like America are no longer faraway lands, and even our literature is connecting with the world. But it’s not a good attitude for a poet to write with translation in mind. The best we can hope for is to write as well as we can in our own language and have these feelings translated accurately. I think the trend in poetry now is that heavy styles are becoming heavier and lighter styles lighter. A kind of polarization. I’m approaching the lighter side, towards a language that is light but meaningful and can still contain a world. I think about this problem a lot, and try hard to write that way.

Yoo: Topic and space in Bukchon may seem a bit specific, but I think you’ve managed to capture both the universality and individuality of the Seoul experience. I hope the translation is successful and leaves readers with a good impression of Seoul. You’ve also participated in several international Korean literature events such as the 2015 Guadalajara International Book Fair and the event in Iran earlier this year. What are your impressions or takeaways from such interactions, and have they influenced your writing?

Shin: I don’t think my poetry has changed in any way from such interactions, but I do feel a greater sense of anxiety afterwards. It’s good if those readers could understand even half of what I’m trying to express, but isn’t it more interesting that they understand Korean thoughts and feelings? But meeting foreign writers is actually very inspiring, in the short-term at least. I once attended, with Spanish-language poets, a publication party for Paper at the Korean Cultural Center in Argentina. They recited my poetry in Spanish, and I in Korean. But when they were reciting, and I’m sure it was a kind of reflexive affection for my own work, I felt tearful suddenly. I couldn’t understand their words, but I could experience how poetry was a conversation between our inner selves. Despite our differences in language, I could still feel something being given and taken. I realized that Spanish-language poets had the same emotional reality as we do. It was a joy to share a stage with them. But we mustn’t stop there, and our poetry must keep moving outwards through good translation. We’re doing fine right now, but maybe we’re at a point where we need to go a little further. I think the Literature Translation Institute of Korea is doing very well in leading us to this next level. 

Yoo: A close reading of Bukchon suggests thematic similarities with Pak Mogwol’s Iris, Etc., which deals with daily life. What other writers, Korean or foreign, do you think influenced your work? 

Shin: When I first had pretensions of writing literature, I visited So Chong-ju’s house in Gongdeok-dong quite often as a college student. I began reading his work, and became familiar with Pak Mogwol because he taught at our school. Kim Nam Jo was also a professor there, so naturally I became familiar with her works too, and I loved Rainer Maria Rilke as well. I would scrapbook even the tiniest mention of him in the papers. His poetry, too—so fantastic and beautiful at the same time. But wounded somewhere. That’s what made me like him and his work. I also liked Shin Dongyup’s work. I read quite a variety of poetry. Looking back, I feel that So Chong-ju, Pak Mogwol, Kim Nam Jo, and every other person I grew up reading is within me now. I’m very grateful for that.



Yoo: The main themes of your poetry seem to be the healing of suffering, the realization of love, and, because you’re religious, an approach towards the sacred. Your recent poems even deal with very specific sensations from everyday life. What do you think is the literary truth you’re trying to reach with your work?

Shin: When you asked me earlier about how I started writing poetry, I said that I had wanted at first to express myself, and that I questioned why we had to suffer despite our pursuit of beauty. Since finishing Bukchon, I’ve been wanting to continue my inquiry into the process of sublimating suffering. Why must we fight suffering as long as we’re alive, what is suffering, why does the body have so many wounds—these are things I want to explore. I’m mulling them over at the moment. I’m not trying to approach the sacred. A lot of literature on the road to the sacred is about using human suffering and realities to reap literary profit. My religion is closer to being an attempt to let go of such human intention and let life play out in a more natural manner. I want to write poetry that isn’t forced, poetry that flows.

Yoo: I have a feeling your poetic exploration will take after The Book of Job. Will your next collection deal with universal themes?

Shin: I don’t know about it being universal, I just want to write about suffering. I feel like the past seventy years of my life has been a long struggle against suffering. Suffering of the mind, body, and life itself. When I think about how, despite dreaming of a glamorous, fantastic, and beautiful life, I ended up with the opposite, I get to thinking about suffering being too great to express in a single collection of poetry.

Yoo: How do you feel about the long and difficult poetry written by young poets these days? And what do you think makes a “good poem”?

Shin: A good poem moves from sympathy into rapture. That’s the point of poetry. The point isn’t about searching for an interpretation. This difficult poetry trend and where it was going was a big topic in the sixties as well. Poets would be asked why poetry was getting more difficult, and they’d answer that the world was getting more difficult. Today’s poetry is even more difficult than the poetry of those times. But I went on thinking they had their own reasons for writing that way, or they felt poetry was so neglected they might as well do what they wanted. I continued to write for sympathy and rapture. I kept telling myself to learn restraint and not talk so much about myself. I try to take things away. So my poems tend to be short. I think a lot about restraint.

Yoo: Your poetry reminds us of a true spirit or ultimate meaning that we tend to forget in these fast times. It lifts us up from our familiar surroundings and yet is deeply rooted in that same earth, and it is this paradoxical transposition that is the essence of your work. I hope more readers will discover your world. Thank you very much for your time. 


by Yoo Sungho
Literary Critic
Professor of Korean Literature
Hanyang University