South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon on subverting expectations, her use of grotesque language, and the state of feminism in Korea.
Within the South Korean literary tradition, women poets are called yŏryu siin (female poet). Male poets are simply called siin (poet). According to Kim Hyesoon, this gendered terminology results in the marginalization of women poets’ authentic voices, as yŏryu siin are expected to write pretty, sentimental verse that speaks in a passive voice. It’s not a stretch to see this, as Kim does, as an extension of Korean gender norms that define “acceptable” behavior for women according to three rigid roles: ch’ŏnyŏ (young unmarried woman/virgin), ajuma (middle-aged woman/mother), and halmoni (grandmother). Each role requires the woman to serve a different master, Kim has noted: “She must first obey her father, then her husband when she becomes an ajuma, and finally obey her son as a halmoni. Any woman who violates or lives outside of these roles is called a ch’angyŏ (prostitute).”
In direct contrast to the sentimental and gentle poetry of the yŏryu siin, Kim Hyesoon’s work functions like the body of a female grotesque; her poetry seeps from the page, protruding with images of violence, vomit, trash, bodily decay, and death. Kim’s poems consistently resist the pressure to beautify; they take instead the subjects deemed appropriate to Korean women—family, motherhood, romantic love—and defile them with the violent expressions of an oppressed identity. However, this grotesqueness is no mere aesthetic choice; as Kim tells me in the interview that follows, her work serves as a kind of conduit for a collective voice: “Women who have been disappeared by violence are howling. The voices of disappeared women are echoing. I sing with these voices.” Thus, for Kim Hyesoon, poetry engages directly in a political struggle in which Korean women articulate a “new voice” that allows them to inhabit multiple and fluid identities free of restrictive gender norms. It’s an incredibly powerful tool in women’s struggle for equality because it is only the “language of [a] poetry that has schizophrenia” that can force the “father language down from power.”
While Kim Hyesoon’s poetry certainly has much to offer women poets and readers interested in feminism, her work also presents a unique voice coming out of the landscape of a fully industrialized, globally ascendant South Korea. In light of the ongoing military and economic ties between South Korea and the U.S., such a voice is worth examining. Regardless of gender or national identity, the allure of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry lies in its enjoinder that we embrace the differences we embody even if these aspects of ourselves are maligned by culture at large. “If someone asks,” she writes, “Is / anyone alive? Break, your, head, open, and, show, your, ten, ta, cle.”
Given the powerful imagery, language, and experimentation that typifies her work, Kim Hyesoon is one of the foremost Korean poets today. Among the first women to begin publishing in Korean literary journals in the late 1970s, Kim’s work has earned her numerous accolades. She was the first woman poet to receive the prestigious Kim Su-yong and Midang awards, both named after contemporary male poets. Three English translations of Kim’s poetry by Don Mee Choi have appeared. When the Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish Press, 2005), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008), and last year’s All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011) serve as wonderful introductions to Kim’s work. A selection of translations of Kim’s poems alongside the original Korean can be found in Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women (Zephyr Press, 2006), also translated by Don Mee Choi. While Kim’s poetry is well known throughout Korea, she is also a respected author of literary criticism and a member of Another Culture, a Korean feminist organization. Currently, she lives in Seoul, where she teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
In the conversation that follows, Kim describes her attraction to the grotesque, offering American readers insight into the rich tradition of Korean poetry and mythology. Additionally, she discusses the role poets play in Korean culture and comments on the current status of women’s poetry and feminism in South Korea. We corresponded by email with the generous help of Song Gyu Han, who translated the questions into Korean and Ms. Kim’s answers into English.
—Ruth Williams for Guernica (Questions and answers translated by Song Gyu Han.)
Guernica: What was it that attracted you to poetry?
Kim Hyesoon: In my childhood, I suffered from tuberculous pleurisy. I was brought up by my grandmother for many reasons. She was running a small bookstore in a small village near the East Sea.
As a sick kid, I always looked out the window. The objects of my observation were the sun, the seasons, the wind, crazy people, and my grandfather’s death. During my long period of observation, I felt that something like poems were filling up my body. They were in some kind of state and condition that made them difficult to render into words. As a university student, I tried hard to write them in Korean. It was at that time that I foresaw my death and the world’s death. I think my poems started at that time.
Guernica: What has kept you writing poetry these many decades?
Kim Hyesoon: If you happen to live in Korea, you might always suffer from anger towards people in power, because of political and social problems. I felt gloomy under this social dictatorship. Looking back, I feel like I never saw a sunrise in Seoul. When I was at university, the policemen used to measure how short the women’s mini-skirts were and how long guys’ hair was. We were living under a government that considers her people to be soldiers. Living in Korea as a girl meant living under a lot of discrimination and limitation. It was the same in my university and in the Korean literary world I am involved in now.
Women are foils to men. It is hard for women to take a lead role even in NGOs for political resistance. Men think women should do trivial things on the margins. They think women should be merely a seasoning for a dish. I feel anger and sorrow seeing this. When anger and sorrow overflow, sometimes it becomes poetry. Regardless, I have to reach “the poetry condition” to write. Then it is as if the border around me is thinned or blurred or erased or disappeared or dead. Women who have been disappeared by violence are howling. The voices of disappeared women are echoing. I sing with these voices.
When I first started to write poetry, I used to feel as if my tongue would go numb.
Guernica: How has your work been influenced by the various traditions within Korean poetry, specifically Korean women’s poetry?
Kim Hyesoon: The first Korean poem is “Gongmudohaga.” A woman cries sadly and sings when she sees her crazy husband with gray hair cross a river. Another woman called “Yeook” sees this and writes this down. This feminine persona (and her sorrow) are the contents of Korea’s first poem. Thus, Korean poetry starts with two women’s emotions. Under the influence of this beginning, emotions and longings for love are the main ideas of Korean poetry.
And in Korea’s creation myth, a bear called “Woongnye” and a tiger challenge each other to eat garlic and wormwood. The tiger fails, but the bear succeeds. This bear becomes a woman. She gives birth, but never turns up again. Women in Korean myths disappear after giving birth. The reason they were born is to produce sons. But there is one myth where no female disappears. It is a fable of the foremother of shamans. Baridegi was the seventh daughter of a king and was abandoned because she was a girl. After she came back from a pilgrimage to the world of the dead, she saved her father and became the foremother of exorcists who help lead those who have died into heaven.
There are two types of ancient Korean poetry. One is the poetry of aristocratic males written with rules of rhythm and restrictions on the number of Chinese characters. The other is oral poetry by women. The government conducted a test for this type of poetry and hired civil officers through it. If you were a good male poet, you could work for the government. Korean women composed poetry about the experience of daydreaming caused by their hard life or loves, longtime grudges as daughter-in-laws, or the poverty, hard labor, and cruelty they faced. At this time, women’s poetry was not written. It was spoken or sung. Not until the twentieth century was it written.
There was a period after 1900 when the two types of Korean poetry were united, which is generally called the “modern poetry period.” This combined poetry was called the “poetry of liberty,” because it ignored the cadences and rules of traditional poetry. There were two famous poets of this style whose poems Koreans love most. They are Kim Sowol and Han Yonhwun. A distinctive aspect of both poets is that they chose women as their personas and sang about sadness and feelings of farewell with a female voice. In my personal opinion, this is similar to civil servants in old times who sang poetry to the king in a female voice in order to suck up.
Kim Sowol and Han Yonhwun started to sing in a female voice about their anger during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea. In these poems, they expressed their anger against losing their country in a way that was very similar to the songs that illiterate women used to sing in the ancient period.
Guernica: So how did this influence you?
Kim Hyesoon: When I first started to write poetry, I used to feel as if my tongue would go numb. I did not have any role model. I could not learn anything from the female voice that these male poets used, a voice which is more “feminine” than female. Nor could I learn anything from ancient female poetry that only sang about love, the feeling of farewell and longing for others.
Read Kim Hyesoon’s poem “Why Can’t We…” here
You can easily find the views I mentioned above in modern male poetry in Korea. They use a poetry persona to speak for the poet, thus the poetry persona corresponds to him in the views espoused. So I had no choice but to invent a new formality, a new voice, a new view, and a new way to describe scenes. At the same time, in front of me there was an unknown vast open field and a prison. I had to escape from the traditional Korean way of writing poetry and the prison of metaphor.
Guernica: In an interview with Don Mee Choi, you said, “To live as a woman poet in Korea means to occupy a marginal place, a mere ‘spice’ within a world of poetry constructed by men.” Is it merely tradition that pushes women poets to the margins in Korean culture?
Kim Hyesoon: When I became a poet, the Korean literary world expected women poets to sing passively of love. Naturally, this was not written anywhere, but this rule existed nonetheless. Consequently, I received plenty of serious criticism. Korean male poets did not let me in their groups. Nor could I find my role model among Korean women poets. I did not have any teacher, seniors, or coworkers. My tough and grotesque images were thrown on the roads and were stepped on by my critics, and I was talked about with scorn. I felt regret that readers only seemed to like something they were accustomed to. I gradually realized that speaking as an outsider is the most authentic voice for a poet. Poets who have one hundred thousand or one million readers [as many South Korean poets do] might not be a real, authentic poet. Now, I can see that many young poets have adapted my poetry’s style of speaking.
Guernica: In the same interview, you told Ms. Choi you believed poetry is an especially powerful tool for Korean women. Why?
Kim Hyesoon: I think that solely through a language of poetry that has schizophrenia can women force the father language down from power. It is only possible with poetry to find a new Korean word or coin new Korean words. What other things can stand against it when it is a language that is a prison of discrimination for women? The language of poetry is on the margins, and it is passive, feminine, and dirty. Poetry is something that disturbs the mainstream with minor things and it is something that breaks down active discrimination with passive things, and it can break down something that polishes the filthy things with filthy things. I think it is difficult to disturb the common usage of Korean that is bent to the perspective of a male-oriented society. Korean society is based on both a politics and history that have been disguised as a solid society of solid male poems, a solid written language, fixed rules of how to write literature, and a narrative language.
Guernica: Your poetry is grotesque, asserting a kind of violent ugliness that disrupts the poem’s surface, seemingly offering an open challenge to those who might assert that women must write only about “pretty” things. What draws you to this?
Kim Hyesoon: We carve on our body what society teaches us and continue this task, not knowing the identity they force us to have. This identity is carved on our faces and our skins. Not knowing our bodies have become “the paper made of human meat,” we stuff our bodies and make them a theater where cultural symbols or suppressed symbols play. It is not possible to explain women’s poetry until you sympathize with how women painfully go through the experience of having these tattoos carved on their bodies. At this point, women’s language is the butcher’s language who sells his or her body. It is grotesque and miserable. Female poets can finally step into the world of language after crossing this river of the grotesque; the words cannot gush out of their mouths until they cross the river of screams where you witness death like everyday affairs.
I also came to grotesque language in the patriarchal culture under the dictatorship. The body that was broken into pieces is a sick body. I put the disease of this world and my sick body together. The grotesque in my poems is the motion I use to put myself and the grotesque world together. So the miserable images I use in my poems are the same as the letters I send into the miserable world.
I went to an international poetry festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands recently. I heard one poet saying that poets are healthy people and poets talk to the world through their health. When I heard them saying that, I wondered who judges which one is healthy or not? In my opinion, poets talk through the symptoms of disease. These symptoms of disease are predictions, screams, and songs.
Guernica: Can you give an example of the way poets speak through the symptoms of disease?
Kim Hyesoon: I went to a candlelight demonstration against the government. [This type of demonstration became popular in Korea during the 2008 protests against beef exports from the United States.] I felt like the lid of my body was open there. Although my throat was clogged, I felt my voice was being heard outside myself, out of nowhere. I could say that I was possessed not by a demon but by the voice of many of the people there. I wrote down how I felt when I got home. Not long after that, a murderer with a weak-looking face committed several serial murders of women. When I hear of these incidents, I think and dream of the victims. Then, in May, former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun killed himself. [He committed suicide by jumping from a cliff near his home, amid bribery allegations that had tarnished the legacy of his 2003–2008 presidency.] I wrote down how I felt when I heard of it.
The body of poetry is nothing but energy, waves, rhythm.
Those corpses and I are different people, but we are woven out of the same cloth in the same period. It is like you open a manhole cover on each person’s head and find sewage spewing out. I used to go deep into this sewage, taking myself as a hostage. When I am inside, I wonder what can be more grotesque than the world and myself. The time of Seoul and time of myself are mixed up, and they flow together in step. So time passes. I wake up in the morning and have breakfast, go to work (at the Seoul Arts Institute), drive and move incessantly, not knowing why I have to live like this, and without the intention of what I will do in my life. From that day, I have thought the thing that controls my movement is an empty thing, an architecture built of holes. I do not know what I want to do; the holes know. My holes that are spread out in the sewage do something before I do it. In the end, the holes and sewage are me; the holes and sewage are the subject that leads the storyline of the poem, hiding in a poem.
Guernica: The human body is very much present in your poems. The body of women, the monstrous sick body, the mother’s body, the vomiting body—your poems are flooded with visceral images. Why is the body so important to your poetry?
Kim Hyesoon: We have certain rules for traditional lyric poetry in Korea. I twist my body, confused by what to say and how to act, facing these rules. Confronting traditional lyricism, I speak with a bare body. In order to speak with a bare body without the tattoos of culture on it, ironically, you need a new way of speaking.
There is a specific kind of day when I feel like writing poems. My senses become really sharp, and my whole body reacts to the mother of absence. This day is when I feel as if I am drowning into the abandonment of death. Then, the rhythm of my bare body is the same as my mother tongue. It is in this rhythm where I find sanctity, that I can return to my mother who is everywhere in the universe. Rhythm is a priority above everything else. Energy moves with a flow. The body of poetry is nothing but energy, waves, rhythm. Rhythm gets us naked and exposes our selves completely. Poems are a dance of language that comes out when my body taps into the rhythm of language. Alienation between the content and form happens frequently in my poems because I obstinately carry on dismantling my body, an act you can also call “dismantling delusion.” I think that after I dismantle my female body, I can finally dismantle established lyric poems.
Guernica: When I read your poetry, I am stuck by the sense that your images and words enact a movement of exposure. What is revealed in my mind is a kind of underbelly—the ugly consequences of oppression that those in power might seek to suppress. Do you feel your work is an exposure of sorts?
Kim Hyesoon: Yes, poems are ways of saying you clearly remember the day of your death and your tomb. When I am writing poetry, I relive my days when a woman inside me dies many times. My body is full of graves. A sepulcher is dug up, and a young girl comes out of it with her dusty hands in tears. A lady who is a young girl and an old girl at the same time feels the presence of the young girl. I feel that the 15-year-old me and the 50-year-old me come out of the sepulcher through an illegal excavation. Time is not a straight line, but just a flat hell, like a desert. I am a tomb robber who is robbing my own tomb. Things from my tomb are exhibited under the radiant sun. Every time it happens I feel crude.
Guernica: How do you feel your feminism intersects with your poetry? Is one served by the other?
Kim Hyesoon: I have been involved in a feminist group called Another Culture. I used to take elementary students to a camp and conduct group sessions in women’s studies with fellow scholars, and published the results of these studies in a magazine. Also, I published critical comments about women’s poetry in Korea and researched women’s mythologies. I do not know whether these works helped my poetry. Specifically, I think the self who writes poetry is different from the self who makes a claim about abolishing the wage differences between men and women. Since the boundary of the world of poetry is fluid, the language in it is also fluid. Hence, the language that is outside of the poetry world, namely the language that is not the language of poetry, cannot go into the poetry world.
The language of poetry is not stuck in place. Nothing can own language. Similarly with feminism. I think, however, the genre of poetry itself is very feminine and motherly. Once, I compared poetry to mothers in my book called To Write as a Woman, because my mother is someone who captures me in her body and gave birth to me out of her desire but washed her hands of me after giving birth to me as a poet. My mom does not exist anymore, and I cannot see my mother in myself. To me, the word “mother” is the synonym for the words “parting” or “separation” or ”farewell.” Mother is a synonym for abandonment and death. Comparing this synonym to water, it is like poured-out water. I call it mother, the identity that I cannot identify. Mother does not exist, like water that has given life to a flower and then disappeared. Mothers live somewhere after giving birth to us. Our mothers who have gone are buried in our bodies. It can be said that we were born with dead mothers in our body.
Guernica: What is the current state of feminism in Korea?
Kim Hyesoon: Currently, Korean feminism is on the brink of death. Korea has a less clear boundary between popular literature and serious literature than in other countries. I feel that feminism is abandoned like a product that was a craze in the past. Korean feminism has been swept away by popular culture. It became a sort of old-fashioned trend or a joke. So if you propose there is a feminism problem in Korea, somebody would point out that you are bringing up antiquated issues. No one acknowledges that discrimination against women is still widespread. It seems Korean women are enjoying a passive and fragile status, intoxicated by appearance. Not only feminism, but any serious discourse ends up being swept away by popular culture in Korea. People get swallowed up by soap operas or comedy shows. My country is one of the worst countries when it comes to opportunity for women in social activities and employment. To my disgust, in certain communities in Korea, you cannot even imagine how severe sex discrimination is.
Guernica: How about Korean women’s poetry?
Kim Hyesoon: The Korean poetry world is divided into two groups at the moment. One group is following the stereotypical traditional grammar of Korean poetry. The other group is endeavoring to find a new grammar of poetry. In my opinion, you cannot call a poem female just because it is written by a woman. Nevertheless, I think attempts to find femininity in female bodies, life, and thinking, attempts to find a way for women to speak, will improve widely in Korea.
To contact Guernica or Kim Hyesoon, please write here.