[Web Exclusive] Interview with Ha Jaeyoun: Once I Lived on Earth

  • onDecember 4, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byKim Hyun


Kim Hyun You published your third collection, Cosmic Goodbye, this year, seven years after your second collection, Like All the Beaches in the World (2012). There was also a six-year gap between your first collection, Radio Days (2002), and your second collection. You said once that “putting together a collection of poems requires quite a lot of courage.” What kind of courage did you need for this third collection?


Ha Jaeyoun I’m wary of romanticizing the past, of confession that reads as self-pity. When I’m looking closely over the poems I’ve written to pull them together into a collection, I worry that’s the inclination they have. Being objective about oneself is always difficult, so I become suspicious: Is this poem too wrapped up in its own mannerisms? Does this poem call too much attention to itself, disrupting the flow of the collection? I have to get over these concerns and suspicions to send a collection of poems out into the world. It’s an act of courage, an act of determination to move forward from where I am now.



KH  Reading the introduction to Cosmic Goodbye, I was struck by your explanation that you set down these poems like the “following footsteps” behind a “disappearing child” and the “back of a mother receding into the distance.” It seemed, perhaps, like a message about “time,” which is an overarching theme in this third collection. I’m curious why you included this child and mother in the introduction.


HJ  Once, on a rainy day, I was looking out the window and I saw a mother receding into the distance, one hand holding the hand of a five-year- old child with yellow rain boots, the other hand holding an umbrella. I watched them for a long time. Even now, when I visualize that scene, there’s something almost painfully poignant about it. I was looking down at them from a high window. The child looked so small that I felt he might disappear at any moment. In the mother’s bent back, I saw layers of the past stacked together. The child is always asking questions of the world, but the world, myself included, isn’t valuing that tiny voice enough to hear it and answer. The mother, who will soon disappear into the other side of time, won’t be able to say all the things she wanted to say, and those unspoken words will fade away. I may not be able to give form to their voices, but I wanted, in my poems, to at least remember what their backs looked like as they walked away in my poems.


KH  I’m not sure it was intentional, but your collection came out in April and is titled Cosmic Goodbye. Since the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16, 2014, April has become a significant month for any writer in South Korea. It seems that this collection has been influenced by the “societal death” experienced then.


HJ  I really wanted my collection to come out in April. I kept being drawn to the motif of “snow in April” that appears in the collection. Something that makes you doubt your own eyes, that makes you wonder if what you saw was real, that makes the world suddenly strange. A moment, it’s there, and then gone. And what writer in South Korea wasn’t affected by the Sewol ferry tragedy? In this collection about death, many of the poems are related to that incident. Experiencing the death of someone else reminds you that death is universal, that you yourself will also die, and yet no death can be made into a universal or generalized event. I wanted to explore this—death’s insistent individuality and concreteness. I wanted to depict the ironic relationship between the universality of death, which is a part of all human existence, and its concrete specificity.


KH  Ever since your debut you’ve been writing poems about the “I” and the “infinite you.” What does the poetic object “you” mean to you as a poet?


HJ  Despite the singularity of pain and death, despite the absolute impossibility of sharing that experience, the issue of solidarity continues to be important to me. The “you” gives hope to the isolated “I”s, and makes it possible to dream of solidarity between the “I”s. But the “you”s also run away from me. They entice, but they’re opaque. For me, writing poems is the act of imagining the infinite “you”s, dreaming of communicating, and trying to get a little closer. Poetry is also a record of failure—the inability to describe, the falling apart, the defeat of being ultimately unable to get closer.



KH  You’ve spoken up as a writer in regards to a variety of issues. You’ve spoken against the forced evacuation in Yongsan and the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. You’ve also added your voice to the #MeToo movement within the literary community. Do you think there is power in a poet speaking up beyond the page?


HJ  It’s not so much that I think there’s power in a poet who has left the page. It’s more accurate to say that I go there, into that physical space, when I can no longer stand inaction. When disappointment in humanity encroaches upon me, along with sadness and pain, there comes a moment when I feel like I will tip into a kind of nihilism and cynicism. In those moments, when I step into that space of action, I learn so much from other people, their innovative and diverse movements. I don’t go there as a writer; I participate as a person. Since writing poems is a part of my life, and I am a writer, the contribution I can make in those spaces is naturally connected to my writerly life.



KH  When you are not a person who works, a person who researches, or a person who writes poems, what is your life like? And does that life influence your poems?


HJ  I think in those times, I’m a person who reads, a person who sees, a person who listens. Those moments are reflected in my poems, and often I am motivated to read better, see better, and listen better in order to write poems.


KH  What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed in yourself from before and after you started writing poems?


HJ  I’ve started paying more attention to the unseen on the other side of the seen, the unspoken that comes just before or just after the spoken, the unheard on the fringes of the heard. I’ve also come to realize that there are so many people who are meticulously and passionately paying attention to those things, and I’ve come to value that effort.


KH  You once said that you strive to “remember to record” and that faithfulness in “recording to remember” is the writer’s work. As someone who believes that it’s important work to know what you want to say in this exact moment and bring it out of yourself, what has become important work to you after Cosmic Goodbye?


HJ  Remembering and recording are still important issues for me. I believe the form of poetry occupies a unique area of this remembering and recording— not in the rendering of factual language, but in recreating the truth of what was felt.

I’ve just put out the collection, so I don’t think that my interest has shifted. I want to continue thinking about the relationship between “work” and “art.” Right now, when I try to perform the “work” activities of my life alongside the “art” activities, one tends to encroach upon the other. But this can cause a decrease in productivity or the quality of what I produce. Sometimes art falls within the realm of “work” for me, but not always. What’s important to me now is how I establish a relationship between work and art. In the end, I think a person needs both in their lives, but there are times when it’s hard for me to maintain respect for my own life as either a person who works or a person who makes art. It’s something I will keep puzzling over, in my life and in my poems.


KH  I’ve heard that translations for “Hello, Dracula” (from Like All the Beaches in the World) and a few poems from your third collection are being published. For foreign readers who are new to your work, could you talk about your own poetics in relation to these poems?


HJ  “Hello, Dracula” uses the motif of vampires to explore why human love is so fragile and finite. To dream of love within the confines of these limitations seems almost impossible to me. If you think about the space-time of Earth, and, beyond that, space, then human beings are merely chance, coincidence. To roughly generalize, the other poems here are also written from a desire to speak on the irony and beauty of humans, who exist within this randomness and incompleteness and yet are able to imagine what might lie beyond.


KH  I want to ask about two poems in Cosmic Goodbye collection, “Research on Light” and “This Life.” They’re romantic in a way that few poems in this collection are. Still, I feel like the theme of “the disappearing light and mom” is one of the pillars of this collection. How did you write it? What compelled you to write it?


HJ  The occurrence of light has to do with birth. Researching the beginning of existence falls within the realm of science. I wanted to write not about the beginning, but rather the disappearance, and what is left after disappearance. Death is a powerful event which snuffs out existence, but there are things that remain and continue after death. What if those invisible things became a kind of sound, like a note, and floated all around us? What if the air around us was made up of these infinite notes? I started writing “Research on Light” from these imaginations.

“This Life” is related to these themes as well. Might there be a life beyond this one? And if so, will I be able to experience my mother’s life, which will be erased by death, in a different way in that next life? “This Life” is not entirely romantic though, because it begins with what my motherwould not or could not do for me in this life. I’m not saying that my mother did these things for me in this life, and therefore I will do them for her in the next one.


KH  In 2017, you participated in “Yeok : Si (譯 : 詩 Translation : Poetry),” the bilingual poetry reading event hosted by LTI Korea. What did it feel like to hear the translations of your poems read?



HJ  Before I published my first collection, I had an opportunity to translate my poems myself. That experience of thinking about the universality and uniqueness of the language I used became a point of reference for my writing afterwards. When translating, the translator is both a reader of the work and a creator of the work. When I listen to or read translated poetry, I become both the creator and reader. I think this two-way process that inverts the role of the participants is the most dynamic way I can communicate with others through my poems. At “Yeok : Si,” I could hear the translators read their translations out loud, which allowed me to enjoy the visceral experience of hearing the rhythm of my language being transposed into the rhythm of another language.


KH  If you could have your work translated, what collection would you want translated, and into what language?


HJ  I have a collection that has been translated and is awaiting publication. To answer your question, it’s hard to say what collection, what country. But I do imagine what it’d be like if a future collection of mine, the “best” one that is ahead of me, could be written in a future language or translated by a machine so that everyone could read it or listen to it regardless of national boundaries.


KH  No doubt it wasn’t easy for either the translator or the poet to translate a collection of poems. Are there any anecdotes you want to tell us about the process of translation? I’m also curious about your impression of the translator.


HJ  The first collection was translated by a Korean American living in the US, who received funding from LTI Korea, and the second collection is being jointly translated by a Korean, a Korean Canadian, and an American. It was interesting to see the process of my poems being translated by those who didn’t grow up in Korea, or learned Korean later, or learned another language as a Korean, and to see how they transformed my poems to a language that was or wasn’t familiar to them.


KH  Last question: if you were “alone, left in space” what’s the first sentence you would write?


HJ  “Once I lived on Earth, a part of the solar system in our galaxy.” Assuming, of course, that I’m given pen and paper.


Interviewer: Kim Hyun
Kim Hyun has authored the poetry collections Gloryhole (2014) and When Lips Open (2018).
Translator: Hedgie Choi