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Interview with Kim Seung-hee: Poetry Through the Power of Paradox

by So Yu Jeong June 13, 2022

Kim Seung-hee

Kim Seung-hee is a critically acclaimed poet and professor emerita of Korean literature at Sogang University. Her life as a poet began in 1973 when she won the annual contest for new writers held by Kyunghyang Shinmun. In a career spanning almost fifty years, she has published eleven volumes of poetry in addition to two volumes of fiction. Her accolades include the Sowol Poetry Prize (1991), ARCO’s Artist of the Year Award for poetry (2006), and the Cheongma Literature Prize (2021). She received the 2021 Manhae Prize for Literature for her latest collection, The Truthful Human of Pickled Radish and Bacon (Changbi, 2021). Recent collections of her poetry in English translation include Walking on a Washing Line (Cornell East Asia Series, 2011) and Hope is Lonely (Arc Publications, 2021)

Your poetry collections Dalgyal sog-ui saeng (Life in an egg) and Huimangi woeropda (Hope is Lonely) were both translated into Arabic. And I know that you met with Egyptian readers in 2019 at the Cairo Literature Festival. I’m sure that this was a special experience for you. What do you remember about it?

The Arabic translations of Dalgyal sog-ui saeng and Huimangiwoeropda by Professor Mohmoud Abdul Ghaffar of the Department of Comparative Literature at Cairo University were both published in Cairo. It was fascinating to see my works translated into Arabic, a language I have no knowledge of. That text of translated poetry, written in unfamiliar Arabic letters, looked to me like a book of spells. And when I listened to poetry readings of my works in Arabic, it felt like I was listening to music because I had no idea what it meant.

  The Cairo Literature Festival was an enjoyable experience because I met many famous poets from around the world, not just Egypt. It was fascinating to meet Egyptian poets like Ahmed Al-Shahawi, Ibrahim Bagalati, and Mohamad El Kelleni, as well as people like the Malaysian poet Bernice Chauly and the Filipino poet Alfred Yuson—these people really left an impression on me. In particular, the poetry reading of Catalonian poet Mireia Calafell was extreme, dynamic, and memorable.

  There were also poetry readings and lectures on literature at Ain Shams University, and a little more than a hundred students attended, most of whom were Korean language majors. They all spoke good Korean, and I got the feeling that they were familiar with, and envious of, Korean culture, perhaps thanks to Hallyu. They said they enjoyed my poems because they often contained objects from the dailylives of women, like eggs, frying pans, refrigerators, washers, clothes lines,brooms, and cutting boards. Actually, I was in a lot of pain back then because of my insomnia. I remember getting up early in the morning after sleepless nights to walk along the Nile, and drinking lots of hot hibiscus tea and pomegranate juice.

I want to hear more about your time in Egypt. Their culture has much that is unfamiliar to Koreans, and I’m curious if there are any interesting stories you might have to tell us. Was there anything you saw while in Cairo that left a deep impression on you?

Almost all of Egyptian culture is connected to the afterlife. The pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza were really powerful sights to behold. I was completely lost for words at their size and mystique. At the time, they were in the process of moving museum artifacts from the old building to the new one, so I got to see a moving line of mummies wrapped in yellowed cloth. They told me that in Egyptian burial culture, the heart of the deceased was removed and stored separately in a jar. They placed the jar with the heart inside next to the corpses of pharaohs in gold masks. The god Osiris, they told me, had scales of alternating hearts and feathers. The terrifying goddess Ammit who had the head of a crocodile would devour a deadperson’s heart if it was too heavy, and people who had their hearts devoured by Ammit would not be given an afterlife. Hearing this, I brought my hand to my chest and realized that mine was heavy. I shuddered with fear. How could a heart possibly be lighter than feathers? When I asked them this, they told me one had to live a life free of wrongdoing.

  We passed a commoners’ graveyard while driving in a car once, and the graves were so desolate. It was like a dismal quarry with rocks scattered all over the place. It was in such stark contrast to the tombs of kings. It was terrifying to see this disparity, even in death. I also heard the story of Osiris’s wife, Isis, who traveled far and wide to find the fourteen pieces of his corpse, how she used her wings to fan the fragments of his body and resurrect him. They also told me the story of how Isis conceived achild while weeping next to Osiris’s coffin. Of course, there are many versions of the story.

  I get to encounter a lot of unfamiliar culture and myths while abroad. Such foreign things often pique my imagination and allow me to write more original and rich poems.

You once wrote that “poems are what people who are in pain but don’t really want to be healed write”—a line that has stuck with me for a long time. I think that poetry and literature is knowing you’re suffering but having no choice but to make that suffering even more painful. If there’s a driving force that has allowed you to continue to not let your pain heal and write poems, what would that be?

I think a poet’s passion comes from life’s hardships. I realized while reading Pablo Neruda’s autobiography Memoirs that he often says things like “. . . if X did not exist, I wouldn’t be able to write poems.” For example, he wrote, “Without body-shuddering loneliness, I would be unable to write poetry” and “A mature writer can write nothing without a humanistic sense of comradery and society.” You can tell from such statements that even a great poet like Neruda was terrified of ruin, of being unable to write poetry. The driving force that has kept me writing poetry for fifty years is the power of the paradox described in the quote, “Poets are at once a patient and a doctor.” I have always believed that poetry has the power to heal.

I want to talk about your recent poetry collection published last year, Danmujiwabeikeon-ui jinsilhan saram (The truthful human of pickled radish andbacon). In the title piece, the poetic narrator talks of “sincere mind” and“real mind” and says, “I just want to become pickled radish or bacon already.” The way I understood this was that the narrator wanted to become a sincere being with nothing to hide, even if that meant they weren’t complicated or multi-layered. And that was because, as you wrote, “At least pickled radish is yellow to its core and bacon is striped pink and white, front and back.” At the end of the poem, the narrator says, “It has been a long time since yesterday disappeared,” and then goes on to repeatedly ask, “What do I want[?]” I wonder if the narrator’s reason for repeatedly asking this is because they wish there was something to want, another step forward. But perhaps I’m just reading this the way I want to read it. What did you mean by sincere mind and true mind when you wrote this poem?

Actually, it would be fair to say that this poem was written in an ironic tone of voice about one poet’s despair about the age of post-truth. In this age, emotion, faith, and partisan politics have more power than truth. No one cares what the truth is anymore. Seeing people who will risk any deception or hypocrisy just for the sake of furthering their own party’s interests, I posed the questions: What is truth? What is a truthful person? I thought of a real mind as desire filled with impulse and libido, and a sincere mind as the pure heart after those desires and impulses have been filtered out.

  Pickled radish and bacon are the same front and back, so perhaps they are the only honest things of our time. Pickled radish and bacon might look like pure sincerity, the kind of sincere mind you would have after cutting out all your organs of desire, like the womb and guts, but they are not actually symbolic of truth. Although they might seem to symbolize truth or honesty because they have no deception, in reality, they’re just a symbol of fixed death, because they have no secrets, no change, no dreams. So, I used pickled radish and bacon as a type of satirical allegory for the deceptive hypocrisy of our society. They’re symbols of a dystopia, and in that way, it’s a sad story. In this age of post-truth when people are tired of the politics of deception and hypocrisy, someone expressing their desire to become pickled radish and bacon was meant to be ironic. Irony is a form of talking that makes sincerity double-sided. To be honest, for me to talk about truth this, sincerity that, should clearly feel anachronistic, and so I’m quite lonely in that respect. [Laughs]

One of the things that drew my attention in Danmujiwa beikeon-ui jinsilhansaram was when you had scenes of vestiges of pain being replaced with flowers. For example, in “Baekhapkkot-gwaposeuteu-it” (The lily and the Post-it), the narrator says while looking at an ultrasound image of a friend who has Stage IV stomach cancer, that it seems like white lilies are blooming from the mass. And in “Moran-uisigan” (Peony’s time), you write that “The time when alone at night /Spasms lap against my whole body” is the time when only “the peony, is left.” It’s not easy to picture flowers growing from pain. How should one read and understand this transition?

Such a transition comes from the imagination of reversal, and with such reversal, poems can make miracles. So why the transformation into a flower? During crises of extinction, I think the type of images that we can lean on most desperately are the most universal, the most archetypal, the most absolute. In fact, our age is not an age of symbolism but an age of allegory, but I feel that I lean on symbols at critical moments. Lilies and peonies are regarded, perhaps subconsciously, as a symbol of absolute beauty and eternity. What those two poems show is precisely that kind of poetic miracle. The imagination to take the crisis of extinction and change it into a symbol of eternity, and to go from extreme pain to extreme beauty, can make poetic miracles. And when you reach that point, even pain, I think, can be extinguished. That’s the healing power of poetry.

With each of your poetry collections, I always pay close attention to your serial poems. In Danmujiwa beikeon-ui jinsilhan saram as well, there is a seven-part serial poem that ends with “Poseuteu-it”(Post-it). Support, immortality, hope, change—these are the keywords I wrote down on a Post-it as I read these poems. Recording something on a Post-it, because it’s just a temporary record, is somewhat momentary, but it’s also a memorable type of stamping, like a “momentary eternity” (“Ireum-uiposeuteu-it” Name Post-it). The same can be said for the words I wrote down while reading these seven poems. When you write down one word by itself, it looks so weak, but when you write down several together, it feels like they gain a lot of power. I’m also reminded of the wave of Post-its that passed through Korean society, as shown in the expression “yellow wave” from your poem“Jakbyeor-ui poseuteu-it” (Farewell Post-it). I wonder if this Post-it serial poem isn’t a single work that brings together those various waves onto one large Post-it. What’s the background of these poems?

Although the time it takes to write a Post-it is short, there is a powerful energy that shoots out of one’s fingers toward the receiver, the second person. You could call it a “momentary eternity,” an “absent fullness.” I think there are two types of Post-its: the Post-its of closed rooms, and the Post-its of open plazas. And Post-its also have a “time lag of love.” That’s because you either leave Post-its for people you can’t meet, or express belated feelings for someone who’s already left. So, I think that Post-its of closed rooms are filled with confessions of sadness of grief-stricken love constrained by time. And Post-its of open plazas make me think of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Post-its placed in a plaza of disasters and social injustice are a type of manifesto, a flag of appeal, of rage, of fierce love. And just as you pointed out—support, immortality, hope,change—these are all keywords. After the Sewol ferry disaster, waves of yellow Post-it notes started to circulate in every corner of our society. How do we express those feelings of unfinished lament, of sorrow, of heartbreak? And since the Sewol ferry disaster, we had the murder of a woman in the bathroom at Gangnam Station; the death of Kim Yong-gyun, a subcontract worker who fell into a furnace at a thermoelectric power plant; and the death of parliament member Roh Hoe-chan. Following each of these tragedies, a wave of Post-it notes formed a monument of unfinished lament, grief, and mourning. So, if we combine all the passion from those Post-its that were put on walls across our society—as you so keenly pointed out—we might have one large Post-it, like a large mural to represent an entire generation.

It’s impossible not to talk about love when talking about your poetry. In “Sarang-ui jeondang”(Hall of love) you have lines like “Loving [. . .] / Is grand / Like the inside of a sweet potato [. . .].” There are countless metaphors for love, but I think comparing love to the inside of a sweet potato [“Yam” in the translation—Ed.] is something only someone who has written extensively and passionately about love could do—someone like yourself. I want to hear more about this love that’s like “the inside of a sweet potato.”

I once saw a flower sprouting from a burlap bag of sweet potatoes I had placed in the dark basement of my home. In disbelief that a sweet potato flower could grow without dirt or water, I opened the burlap bag to find that the sweet potatoes had rotted in the darkness and given birth to a flower in their decaying flesh. Seeing this, I thought to myself that the condition for love is the devotion, pain, and self-deconstruction of decaying bodies. As the art of Frida Kahlo shows us, pain, self-deconstruction, and devotion foster love.

I thought your attempt to sense the pain of the Other on the everyday level shines particularly bright in Danmujiwa beikeon-ui jinsilhan saram. Although the poems are filled with everyday words like radish, green onions, garlic, onions, laundry, and hairrollers, the depth of the gaze that holds these things in its sights is never shallow. I’m sure you were inspired by everyday objects around you. Is there any everyday object that catches your eye these days?

I’ve been keeping an eye on onions and on my TV these days. [Laughs] I think I’ll write a poem about those two things in the near future. After that, there’s my daughter’s piano which is taking up space in my living room, and a basket of small sun-like oranges.

The voices of female agents in your poems have always been quite distinct. In fact, women are mentioned in four poems of Danmujiwa beikeon-ui jinsilhan saram. Of these, the poems about mothers caught my eye. And in “Bunmanedaehayeo” (On childbirth), the poetic narrator is a mother reliving childbirth while at a photo exhibition on childbirth. I want to know the reason for your focusing on female narrators who are mothers, as well as on mothers who cannot help but become the eternal poetic subject of a female narrator.

It’s not just me. Probably a lot of female poets have written about mothers. After all, that’s the one subject we know best. In my second poetry collection Woensoneul wihanhyeopjugok (Concerto for the left hand) (1983), I wrote a five-partserial poem “Baekkobeul wihan yeonga” (Love song for a belly button) around the motif of mothers. At the time, having just started raising my newborn baby, I had rediscovered the idea of “mother.” The discoveries I made about my body—my womb, my vagina, my breasts, my milk, my period blood—were all discoveries of a mother.

  The belly button is a symbol for separation and severance from the mother, a symbol of an orphan. The moment our belly button forms, we are separated from our mothers, thrown out into a wasteland and left to live a life. My mother was, all at once, a girl who liked literature, a “modern woman” who graduated with a degree in education, and a teacher (before she got married, that is). But when she got married, she had to raise five children. It was sad because it looked like she had thrown away her dreams and was living as a wife to a governor-general [laughs] of patriarchal Confucian culture. And like most Korean mothers, she was very son-centric in her thinking. [Laughs] My generation grew up holding onto modernist ideas about never being like our mothers, but after living a hard life, I came to understand my mother. Through that process, the concept of “mother” itself eventually solidified into my alter ego. The reason why mothers often appear in my poems is because mothers are my sad alter ego, the alter ego puddled in my mirror.

  My poems have a multitude of female narrators, and in some ways, all the many females of the world are the alter ego of my poems. Because poets and their poetic narrators are different, I think a female narrator can serve lots of functions if we don’t equate ‘I’ with the author. I think the proposition that poets and their poetic narrators are different gives poets so much freedom. It’s precisely because of this sense of liberation that I write poetry.

Earlier, in response to a previous question, when you said, “The discoveries I made about my body . . . were all discoveries of a mother,” I was reminded of “Choeumpasimjangsori” (Ultrasound heartbeat). I think what you said allows a more meaningful reading of the poem. The narrator of the poem can speak to “you,” the person living in her body, through “me.” Because I’ve never experienced pregnancy or childbirth, I naturally read the poem while identifying with the stranger known as “you.” And then, naturally, I am reminded of my mother. I realized that my mother might have had these thoughts; she might have felt the same way while listening to my heartbeat. And because of this, I was able to rediscover my mother as someone connected to “me.” In this way, the poem can evoke not only a sense of identification with the first-person mother, but also an identification with the second-person fetus. In your answer to my last question, you said that you were able to rediscover your mother through yourself. Is it possible for a child to be discovered through the self as well?

Our mothers leave with us a piece of their flesh in our belly button—the end of an umbilical cord. The belly button is both the end of our mother and the beginning of ourselves. Because of this, it’s difficult for a mother and child to otherize each other. They exist as vaguely intertangled beings. And the distinction is even harder when the child is a daughter. There’s a mirror-like axis of reflection that exists between a mother and her daughter. Because we project our problems onto our daughters,and because we see the hardship, gender pain, and social discrimination that she must live with, we feel simultaneous feelings of love and pain when we look at our daughter. In the poem titled “Jedo”(System), the line “Kill Mother, lala” also depicts the dream that a child can only be happy when they kill the mother inside them. Older generations often say things like, “Sons are lovers to a mother, and daughters are their mother’s other self.” While sons can become objects of love because they are somewhat apart from their mother’s body, because daughters are like a piece taken from their mother, mothers cannot easily otherize their daughters, and because of this, they feel a complex feeling toward them, the way narcissists might feel both love and hatred toward themselves.

Your poem “Jabonjuireultalchulhan bom” (Spring, escaping capitalism) is about a horse that jumps off the racetrack and runs down Gangbyeonbuk-ro highway. In fact, this actually happened last March. I saw a news article about the event, and I just laughed and forgot about it. It just seemed like another crazy story. But when I encountered the horse again, in a poem of yours with the word “capitalism” in the title no less, I realized it wasn’t that funny. It’s almost pointless to distinguish between the seasons in a racetrack for horses because the only thing running the place is capitalism. So it was so sad that when the horse escaped and found an area to frolic and enjoy spring, it wasn’t a wide-open field but a place dominated by capitalism: a concrete road. The horse might have escaped capitalism, but it wasn’t a complete escape. And yet the line “Yes, you can do what you want” comforted me somewhat. I’m curious about what else you thought about that horse on the road, and anything else you couldn’t put into the poem.

Oh, you saw that on the news, too? Wasn’t that amazing? When I saw that, it hit really close to home. Spring belongs to people who can enjoy it. And that beautiful spring day belonged completely to that one horse. Horseracing is one of the greatest examples of the logic and greed of capitalism. A racetrack isn’t a place where people make money through their own work; it’s a place with a nonsensical structure that enables you to make money through the exploitation of others, breeding them and forcing them to compete. But on that beautiful spring day, one horse quietly made its escape. “Argh, I’m tired of capitalism . . .” the horse probably said as it fled. So this isn’t just a story about a horse. What’s funny is that the horse stayed in its lane while running down the highway. As you pointed out, the horse escaped from capitalism, but it wasn’t a complete escape. So, it was a contradictory horse of joy and sorrow, and I also felt conflicting feelings of both liberation and sadness. It was from those emotions that I impulsively began writing, composing the poem in one sitting.

One of the main words that runs through all your works is the word “sun.” That goes as far back as your first poetry collection Taeyang misa (Massfor the sun). This might be too broad of a question, but what meaning does the word “sun” have for you?

I think the sun will be the beginning and end of my literature. Actually, the meaning of the word “sun” is multifaceted,changing depending on the context. I like the line “Love in the light while you have the light.” I live rotating and orbiting around a sun field.

The collection of prose Eomeoni-ui eumseonggachi yet aein-uieumseong gachi (Like a mother’s voice, like an old lover’s voice)released last year was a reprint of the work Segye munhakgihaeng (Exploring world literature) published in 1992. That book, I think, is a collection of all your deep knowledge about classical literature across the world. Although they were all works of literature that I was very familiar with, I discovered new things about them through your point of view.Like you said in the author’s note for the revised edition, I discovered the “newness of reading boo ks.” For readers who want to experience that newness, do you have any works of classical literature that you wish to recommend, and could you share your reason for recommending that specific work?

To me, a classic is a book that allows for new discoveries every time you read it. Because of this, I think classics reflect our love and hatred. After all, with each generation, good and bad are always changing, and some meanings are lost while other meanings are discovered. Recently, I’ve been reading Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk and Memento mori by Lee O-young. Living with COVID-19 for two years, stuck in tight spaces and never being able to escape from daily life, my soul has become two-dimensional and I feel a sense of metaphysical want. As Orhan Pamuk puts it, death makes us think about the metaphysical.

For half a century, you have been for readers and writers of poetry, as well as women, a role model for dynamic writing. In the future, is there anything you want to write or feel you must write?

I’m not sure. I just write. I’ll go as far as I can manage to hobble. After all, poets don’t have a GPS. [Laughs] I think the one desire of a poet—the hope that today’s poem will be better than yesterday’s—is what sustains the poet each day. Whatever I write, I want to write poems that have beautiful reversal, like that of a caterpillar metamorphosizing into a butterfly.

Translated by Sean Lin Halbert

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