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.”

Walking on a Washing Line

Walking on a Washing Line:
Poems by Kim Seung-Hee

BY Brother Anthony of Taizé
AND Lee Hyung-Jin
(Cornell University, 2011)

I Want to Hijack an Airplane

I Want to Hijack an Airplane
BY Kim Seung-Hee
BY Kyung-Nyun Kim Richards
AND Steffen F. Richards
(Homa & Seka Books, 2004)

You are an accomplished writer of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism. What specifically attracts you to poetry?

Fundamentally, my poems are pieces of confessional literature. The inner part of the self in crisis is exposed via exaggeration and dysphemism. As I once said in 1995, writing a poem is like committing suicide in vain. It is a rebirth in a world filled with sin and gloominess, by way of poetic language. When writing poems, I feel that I am transported to a free and weightless world from a repressed and heavy reality. With the help of poetic expression, reality, like a black and white television, is transformed into a world of various color screens.

However, upon finishing a poem, finding myself still captive in a heavy world full of sin and gloominess, I’m overwhelmed by melancholy. I continue to search for poems and write them in order to free myself from repression and melancholy. Thus, for me, poetry is the pursuit of the moment when water evaporates.

In your opinion, what role do poets and poetry play in South Korea? How has the role of poets and poetry in Korea changed over time?

Poets received a particularly high esteem in Korea, due to the Confucian tradition that placed high social value on scholars (Seonbi 선비). Scholars in the Josen Dynasty valued the study of humanities and showed their noble spirit by writing Sijo (시조), a short poem prevalent at the time, which contained their philosophy and sentiment. Poets were looked at favorably because of their spiritual purity, high integrity, and because they were considered to be men of pure courage and linguistic competence who would never lower themselves to worldly demands.

On the basis of this tradition, when democratic and anti-governmental protests broke out in the 1970s and 80s under the military dictatorship, many poets made sacrifices and contributions for the benefit of the democratic movements. In this way, poets had great influence over issues of social reform and the public, feeling indebted to their sacrifices, respected them even more. A number of this era’s influential poet activists became celebrities, for example, Kim Ji-ha (김지하), Ko Un (고은), Kim Nam-ju (김남주), and Ko Jung-hee (고정희).

However, nowadays the prestige of poets in Korean society has been downgraded substantially. As poetry comes up against the capitalist market paradigm, poets are relegated to an abject existence in a neoliberal world.

Similarly, how has women’s poetry figured into the larger tradition of Korean poetry?

Kim Seung-Hee

In former times, female poets assumed their roles and status in traditional society and sang about subjects generally of a female nature such as the loss of love, sentimental sorrow and the beauty of nature, etc. However, in the 1980s, Korean women awoke to feminism and female poets took an interest in social issues such as democratization and human rights. They raised the issue of gender in a society that was still embedded in the patriarchal system and wrote poems of social criticism about gender inequality, female sexuality, etc. If we are allowed to categorize the poems that women wrote as feminist poetry, these poems in a way brought a certain change to traditional women’s poetry. However, they also served as a reformatory stimulus in Korean society as a whole. In fact, there was a concomitant development of democratization, feminism, and the labor movement in Korea. The poet Ko Jung-hee was a very influential feminist writer in this regard.

How do you see your poetry as responding to or departing from the traditions of Korean poetry in general, and Korean women’s poetry, in particular?

My poems are unique because they are different from traditional Korean poems and also from feminine poems. When my first poems were published, in the period when Populism prevailed in the Korean literary scene, they were badly received. I depicted the self’s grotesque inner reality with a Modernist perspective, so my poems were stigmatized as escapism, pieces full of Occidentalism, and the voice was labeled as one of surrealistic autism. As such, they were hardly recognized in poetry circles.

Rather, a poet is one who gazes at the landscape of our lives. If poets can get at a certain idea or ideology behind this landscape, poems can have a deeper meaning.

But after I got married and became a mother, my experiences as a woman developed. At the same time, my poems started to touch upon reality more concretely, as I tried to express my experiences as a woman. For example, “The Female Buddha” ( 여인등신불) is about giving birth, “Institution” (제도) is on parenthood,” A Love Song for Belly Button” (배꼽을 위한 연가) is on relations between mother and daughter, “Man-pa-sik-jeok” (만파식적) is on marital relations, etc. These real life scenes pervaded my poems which in turn enabled them to obtain universality. This universal empathy brought me a certain recognition from the poetry community.

Women writers who were awakened to feminism in the 1980’s resemble one another, but at the same time they are different. People who highlight elements of Modernism in my poems call me the mother of futurist writers, yet on the other hand those who see more of the feminine features in my work address me as a guerrilla feminist.

One of the elements of your work that most strongly draws me to it is the way the speaker in your poems displays a deep social consciousness. For me, your poems work like acts of witness. They highlight suffering that might otherwise be overlooked, encouraging the reader to consider their complicity in the social forces that have produced this suffering. Why is it important for you to perform this kind of witnessing in your poetry?

This is because poetry inevitably speaks of the time and place where we live. Human beings are to exist in the time and place where they’re assigned. We are destined to witness and testify to what happens in the world we are thrown into. I don’t argue particularly that poetry should be a testimony about our society. Rather, a poet is one who gazes at the landscape of our lives. If poets can get at a certain idea or ideology behind this landscape, poems can have a deeper meaning. Quite frequently, the injury and pain that we suffer are caused by social forces rather than by individual destiny. I’d like my poetry to portray the fact that individual injury and pain are both social and political, though it is neither with the camera angle nor with the linguistic technique of realism that my poetic self witnesses.

Although you touch on a number of social issues such as suicide, war, and economic struggle, your poetry displays a particular interest in women’s issues. Indeed, I’d say many of them — “Death Korean Style” and “A Cast of Ghosts,” for instance — take direct aim at the patriarchy that oppresses women in Korea and beyond. What is the relationship between your poetry and your feminism?

I don’t define the world by applying an ideology such as feminism. In fact, I don’t like any ideology because it places shackles on us. Nevertheless, I intend to practice a critical autopsy on authority that deceives us with lies disguised as culture.

Poetry seems to have spurred me to look at the patriarchal, masculine, and oppressive reality of Korean society, to search for its invisible elements — those that are tarnished and hidden under the disguises of culture, and use the poem to make them appear in front of us. That is why I analyzed the patriarchal and masculine elements that wield their power in Korean culture. My writings such as “Death Korean Style” and “ Institution (제도)” are examples. I looked at the world with the eye of a woman, inhaled the world with the lungs of a woman, felt sorry for the world with the heart of a woman, and sang a song with the voice of a woman. However, I’m not an activist.

Your poems also address global events such as 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. I’m curious to hear you discuss your sense of nationality and how this impacts the themes that appear in your work.

Naturally, our existence is confined to the concept of nationality. Whenever we go abroad, we have to carry passports that show our nationality. When we cross national borders, nationality gets an absolute meaning. I taught Korean literature at the University of Berkley in California for a couple of years. When I moved to California, it was a symbol of freedom. However, during my stay, I found out that in a foreign country, when I act in a certain way, people assume that is how all Koreans act. What I wanted in California was to have the freedom to be incognito, but Californians looked at me as if they were looking at Koreans as a group. When I realized that, I came to understand that personal freedom is locked in a prison of nationality.

Affairs around the world are not owned by only people in their country, they are also mine. This is closer to the concept of sympathy as explained by Czech writer Milan Kundera. The ability to be sympathetic comes from a poetic and feminine understanding.

On the other hand, people share a universal self, which is different from nationality. Being an attentive reader of newspapers, I don’t think that incidents in faraway countries or experiences of people of different nationalities are unrelated to me. My poem “Floating Pot (냄비는 둥둥)” describes how the issues raised during cacerolazo [a form of popular protests in which people bang on pots] in Argentina overlap with the extreme poverty of the Korean seniors, and especially women. It might be true of East and West as well as North and South that the worst poverty is always inflicted upon old women.

Affairs around the world are not owned by only people in their country, they are also mine. This is closer to the concept of sympathy as explained by Czech writer Milan Kundera. The ability to be sympathetic comes from a poetic and feminine understanding. When I wrote the poem about the attack on September 11th [“The Woman Falling From the 110th Floor”], rather than focusing on the meaning of such a political, social and historical disaster, I tried to imagine what a person would think and say in the time of such a crisis, as he or she is an individual who both loves and is beloved. In this mindset, the falling of a woman from the World Trade Center is my falling; her failed love is my love; her cry “I love you” as she crashed to the ground while holding her cell phone, is my scream before death.

Similarly, I always have the illusion that Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe — who lived alone in New Mexico painting flowers — are my sisters. Also, I have the same illusion with Hwangjini (황진이) and Hunanseolhun (허난설헌), who were both female poets in the fifteenth century Joseon Dynasty. They are a part of me which I call “intersubjectivity,” formed by a poetic “intertextuality” that transcends history and space.

In his preface to Walking on a Washing Line, Brother Anthony describes your writing method as a “subconscious process” in which you let the poem unfold organically rather than attempting to exercise control over the composition. Why does writing in this way appeal to you?

As Brother Anthony aptly pointed out, my writing is closer to a subconscious process rather than a conscious work. I write poems when unknown words come out of my mouth accidentally and when unknown music flows from my body. That my poems are a little distracted, composed of several whimsical images juxtaposed and also sometimes confusing is because a stranger living inside of me writes them rather than the me who is a professor and mother.

This stranger seems to be a subconscious monster who I’m not aware of. Maybe it’s a primitive impulse. I feel that a stranger who destroys logic and reason dwells inside my body, jumps out accidentally, and write poems as if he or she surfed on the sea of language. That’s why my poems are said to have a heavy sense of breath and an urgent rhythm. A foreign reader who knows the Korean language very well told me one day that in the English translations of my poems one can also feel the same breath and rhythm. Good translation like Brother Anthony’s can transmit not only the meaning of poems but also their breath and music.

In the essay “Why I Write” that prefaces a selection of your work in the anthology Echoing Song: Contemporary Korean Women Poets, you state: “My writing is a rejection of the world of ‘rightness’ and ‘of course.’” It sounds as if you view your writing as a message that is meant to agitate against the worlds of “rightness” and “of course.” Does this mean you view poetry as capable of encouraging social change? In other words, can poetry be effectively political? How so?

Poets should refuse the world of “당연 (rightness)” and “물론 (of course),” because of their avant-garde existence. However, this refusal does not necessarily lead to social change. It is because people think the existing world of “당연 (rightness)” and “물론 (of course)” is better and they decide to stay there. Or it’s because only minorities pay heed to what poets say and agree with them.

A poet is a solitary being who resembles an old and ailing female shaman murmuring incomprehensible words toward the wall. Her words are so isolated from reality that they can’t bring change any time soon. However, a poem can create a crack in the archaic thought of “당연 (rightness)” and “물론 (of course).” But it is a just a small and political trace, if there is any effect at all. What remains to poets are only the melancholies.

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