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INTERVIEW

[Web Exclusive] The language of lightness and light: Interview with Chong Hyon-jong

  • onApril 3, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byKorean Literature Now

 

Poetry: the language of lightness and light

 

1. Do you think your childhood surrounded by nature influenced your poetry?

 

Certainly. I lived outdoors when I was a child. As I always say, we were so poor when my generation was young. It wasn’t just food, we didn’t have much in the way of toys, either. We would play at flipping sticks. You just need a short stick and a longer stick to play that. Children were allowed to run free then. We’d go to the mountains, the fields, the river. I’m so thankful for that now. Because when you’re an artist, the things that define your work tend to be formed in childhood. I can still remember holding a bird in my hand, a live sparrow, feeling its heartbeat. Once you’ve felt that, you never forget it. I’ve touched life and felt it, the vibrancy of living things. If there’s a spark of life in my work, that’s where it comes from. I call that the archeology of the senses. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

 

2. You’ve dubbed poetry “the language of feathers and light.” Could you tell us more about that?

 

I was on a walk when I saw a bird sitting on the path. It was a hoopoe. You know, they have this crown of feathers. It was sitting there and when I got closer, all the feathers on its crown stood up and it flew away. That’s when I thought, that bird is carrying all the weight of this world on its back, like Atlas. So I went and wrote about it. I came up with the terms, “feather-language” and “light-language.” I thought it was a good way to describe poetry. What is poetry? Poetry is what we turn to when life weighs us down. Our lives are so heavy, so full of strife. Poetry, or art, lightens that burden and makes it bearable. That’s where “feather-language” comes from, with a hyphen. As for “light-language,” we’re on the same track. Poetry helps you see the true shape of things. The secrets of objects, or, let’s say, the dark parts of your heart. Religion plays a big part there. Or, say, dullness of the mind. We are quite an obtuse bunch, us humans. Poetry shines a light on all that, hence “light-language.”

 

3. Many of your works have been translated, have you had much interaction with your foreign readers?

 

I’ve told this story before, but it was 1989 in Bhopal, central India. They were holding a World Poetry Festival for the centenary of Nehru. There were readings and question and answer sessions afterwards. The poets would read in their native language and then in English. Also in Hindi, a university professor would read in Hindi—that makes three languages. When my turn came I read a two-line poem of mine called “Island” in three languages. The response was electric. I found out then that people over there have this rhythmic way of clapping. They were clapping like that, really enjoying themselves. That was when I felt that poetry does come across in translation, that I could trust translation. So there you have it. I’ve given readings in many countries but I’ll always remember that.

 

4. How did you come to translate Pablo Neruda into Korean?  

 

I was hesitant at first, but then my publisher said if I really liked the poems I should do it, even if I were to be working from an English translation. So I translated Neruda and Lorca, too. (38:00) Reading Neruda’s poems, I thought, this is a poet who is breathing life into objects that might not have known their value otherwise. I wrote something like that, and I still stand by it. And as for Neruda’s imagination, it’s like a waterfall that comes crashing through. That’s the amazingness of Neruda. I said, this man is no mere mortal, he’s everything. He contains all the universe in his body.

7. How is poetry relevant to people’s lives?

 

For the same reasons as we need other art, I suppose. To go wider and deeper in your understanding of this world, your inherent faculties are what you rely on. How keen are your senses? Your imagination? Your capacity of feeing, of thought? All of those things add up. But then there’s your whole childhood experience, school, all of those things that come afterwards that also make a person. If you want to enrich your senses, your mind, to exalt the truth, then you need to constantly surround yourself with art, to look and to listen and to read. There’s no other way.