Poetry Chants at the Moment When Water Evaporates: South Korean Poet Kim Seung-Hee

First published in 1973, South Korean poet Kim Seung-Hee has gone on to publish nine volumes of poetry in her native Korean, as well as several volumes of fiction. Though Kim’s work may not be well-known in the Anglophone world, over the course of her career, she has garnered a number of major Korean literary awards, which include the prestigious Sowol Poetry Award in 1991 and the Go Jeong-Hee Literature Award in 2003. In light of her importance in the Korean literary scene, her poetry has been made available in English translation in I Want to Hijack an Airplane (Homa & Sekey, 2004) and Walking on a Washing Line (Cornell University, 2011). At present, she is a professor in the Department of Korean Language and Literature at Sogang University in Seoul.

Kim Seung-Hee

Kim Seung-Hee

In his introduction to Walking on a Washing Line, translator Brother Anthony of Taizé observes that Kim Seung-Hee’s work, while full of surreal images and unexpected leaps in logic, displays “a strong thematic unity that often springs from a deep compassion.” It is seemingly this compassion that drives Kim to use her poems as a platform for engaging with the social concerns that trouble contemporary South Korean culture, such as suicide and the U.S. military presence on the peninsula. Yet, her poet’s gaze is not restricted to the geographic boundaries of her native country; indeed, Kim Seung-Hee’s work acts as a kind of witness to suffering on both a local and global scale, often illustrating the hidden connection between these two planes of existence.

Though Kim writes on a wide variety of topics, one of the main themes her work returns to again and again is the unique suffering of women. By interrogating the gendered nature of this suffering, the poet offers a critique of Korea’s patriarchal culture as well as an affirmation of the value of women’s voices and experiences. Consequently, critics have often called her poetry feminist, though Kim herself takes issue with the application of this label, preferring to eschew all ideologies in pursuit of a radical personal freedom.

In this interview, conducted in February 2012 with the help of Korean translator S.B., Kim Seung-Hee discusses her attraction to the genre of poetry, how her work fits within the larger traditions of Korean poetry and Korean women’s poetry, as well as her interest in using poetry to engage with the social and political topics. Ultimately, though many of the topics Kim explores in her poetry are dark, she is also a poet with a deep sense of humor and hope. As she suggests in the title she gave this interview, poetry is what “chants at the moment water evaporates.”

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