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Interview with Ra Heeduk: Poetry at the End of the World

by Lee Da Hee Translated by Soeun Seo June 7, 2023

Ra Heeduk

Ra Heeduk made her literary debut in 1989 after winning the JoongAng New Writer’s Award for her poem, “To the Roots.” She is currently a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Seoul National University of Science and Technology. Ra is the recipient of many literary awards in Korea, including the Kim Su-Young Literary Award, the Hyundae Munhak Literary Award, the Sowol Poetry Prize, the Baek Seok Prize for Literature, and the Daesan Literary Award. Ra has published the poetry collections To the Roots, The Words Stained the Leaves, It’s Not That Far From Here, What is Darkening, Scale & Stairs, Wild Apple, The Time Horses Return, FileName: Lyric Poetry, Possibilist, as well as the essay collections Where Does Purple Come From, A Plate of Poems, Outside Civilization, A Half-Bucket of Water, Remember Those Lights, Stepping towards Arrival, and Wrinkles of Art.

Dear Ra Heeduk,

 

I’m writing to you from the small studio apartment I recently moved into, leaving my parents’ care. When I was given the opportunity to interview you, I was delighted. I pulled out your books of poems and essays from my bookshelf and laid them out on the floor. I went through them from the latest to the earliest as if I were on a time machine. I was overjoyed at my discoveries—it was like locking eyes with you at various stages of your life.Here are a few questions I prepared to the best of my ability. I hope to visit you soon.

 

Sincerely,

Lee Da Hee


It’s been a long while since you moved from Gwangju to Seoul. When I think back to your office at your previous university, I remember the towers of paper with paintings and teacups in every corner. Whenever I had a chance to visit your office, I used to peruse your bookshelves, commit some titles to memory,and later buy the same books for myself. You were always very busy and sometimes exhausted, but you still looked around at your “paper towers” with interest. Have there been any changes to your daily routine since you moved? Or are there any routines you try to keep despite the change in your environment?

 

I lived in Gwangju for eighteen long years while I taught creative writing at Chosun University. I’m thankful for the joyful times I shared with my excellent colleagues and passionate students of literature like yourself. I found a job and moved to Seoul for personal reasons and, yes, it was difficult adapting to an unfamiliar environment, but now I’ve found a good rhythm in my daily life. I can’t help the ever-growing piles of books at my home and office, but I did get rid of my “paper towers,” as you call them. I’m trying to simplify my life. I don’t drive in Seoul, so I’ve been walking more. I take a lot of strolls, and I enjoy riding the bus and the subway where I can get glimpses of people’s lives up close.

 



I imagine you have many identities—as a professor, a mother, a daughter, a friend. However, as long as I’ve known you, I’ve seen you most of all as a student, studying the world constantly. Your curiosity has never waned all this time. Where does that curiosity come from? What are you currently most passionate about? 

 

Ever since I came to Seoul, I’ve been going to a lot of exhibitions and shows. I’ve also been attending lectures and seminars on topics other than literature. Half the week,I’m a professor, and the other half, I’m a student of other fields. I especially enjoy being intellectually inspired by researchers and artists who are younger than me. I admit I am childlike in that I do have a curiosity and an adventurous spirit about unfamiliar things. It must be why I keep finding myself in unusual or dangerous situations in my everyday life as well as my travels. I’m a bit lacking in literary talent, but I make up for it by being welcoming and inquisitive about new things. That’s probably how I lasted thirty-five years as a poet. In the past few years, I’ve been interested in books and movies with a documentary structure. I like books by authors like Svetlana Alexievich, Rebecca Solnit, and George Orwell, and movies by directors like Agnès Varda, Patricio Guzmán, and Kazuhiro Soda.

The older I get, the more I think that I shouldn’t rely only on my internal feelings and thoughts. I should connect them with reality by looking outward and learn to communicate those connections effectively. Naturally, in my most recent book, Possibilist, I adopt techniques from documentaries, including point of view. Breaking free from the limitations of time and space, I acquired a critical awareness about the reality of the whole Earth.

 

There’s a striking scene at the start of the movie The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos: a close-up of a beating heart in a split-open body that slowly zooms in. As long as it’s alive, a heartbeats unconditionally and solely for its owner. It does not beat for anyone else, not even for a blood relative. Possibilist is like a scarlet heart, except, strangely, it not only beats for the owner but also looks outward. It’s a kind of heart that beats even though it has been separated from its owner. Do you think poetry is leading you toward something like that? If you had chosen a different medium, such as painting, music, or film, do you think your art would still be in a similar vein?

 

When I was picking out the color for the cover of Possibilist, I told the publisher, “Make it the color of dead blood.” It was because I thought of my recent poems as a documentation of the world full of death and suffering. They hold the liquids of sadness—blood, sweat, and tears. Now that I think about it, your description of that color as “a scarlet heart” is interesting. Poetry does throb on its own like a “heart that beats even [when] it has been separated from its owner.” A poet is one who learns that music by heart and sings it. I’ve suffered from arrhythmia since I was young. When I have an attack, my heart thrashes regardless of my will. Even if a poet doesn’t have arrhythmia, their heart is always overworked compared to other organs because a poet’s responsibility is to feel the pain of the world deeply, to take it into their own heart. Recently, my attacks have been less frequent, which is a relief because it means I’m healthier, but at the same time I wonder if my heart’s grown less sensitive. I don’t think my art would have been very different had I chosen a different medium.

 

About a year ago, I saw a couple on the subway giving each other a quick peck over their masks. It was a very COVID-19 kind of sight. “Easter Sunday” is set during the pandemic. You wrote that humans were like grains swept up in the wings of an angel. I thought the word “independence” in the fourth stanza applied not only to bacteria but also to humans, who believed that they were“independent” up until then. The line “To get something, you have to throw something away” gave me pause. We had to give up many things due to COVID-19, but are there things we gained thanks to the curious balance of the world?

 

If it wasn’t for COVID-19, would we have had the chance to ponder bacteria and viruses so often and so seriously? I think COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to step out of our human-centric focus and reflect on the myriad lives surrounding us and how they are connected, to pause the torrent of civilization and look back on our way of life. The factories stopped, the flow of money slowed, and movement and consumption declined. With that, fine dust diminished substantially too. They say the Himalayas, which had been shrouded in smog, became clearly visible. But I’m worried because, as soon as the pandemic subsided, fine dust levels surged again. Long before I wrote “Easter Sunday,” I wrote a poem called “From One Amoeba to Another.” As a poet, I don’t think the simple lives of protozoans and parasites like bacteria, viruses, amoeba, and other creatures invisible to the human eye are inferior. I think they’re remarkable beings who possess the wisdom of coexistence and immortality. Viruses gave up their independence and became omnipresent. On the other hand, humans called obstinacy and selfishness “independence” or “individuality” and became engrossed in propagating only ourselves. The pandemic was the event that sent this myth of hubris tumbling down in one fell swoop.

 

This is a personal question, but I believe many artists are curious about this. When I try to type the word “mask” into a poem, I sense a certain resistance. I worry that it would be like when you’re immersed in an old movie or a show, but as soon as a character whips out a flip phone, it distracts you, takes you out of that world. I guess I could call it anxiety about my representation of contemporary life eventually coming across as irrelevant. Your poems present their topics and objects in their correct contexts, but they don’t fall into the trap of such an anxiety. Will you share your thoughts on this?

 

Poetry is generally regarded as an emotional and subjective medium, but to heighten its emotional delivery, you actually need to distance yourself from your own emotions. Instead of writing barefaced, if you put on the mask of a speaker, take on a persona, it allows for objectivity and dramatic effect. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion,” as T. S. Eliot wrote. Using an objective correlative to convey thoughts and emotions allows for a richer and more accurate delivery. It’s difficult to know precisely what you mean when you say that my poems “present their topics and objects in their correct contexts, but they don’t fall into the trap of such an anxiety,” but I imagine it’s a characteristic borne of distancing myself from my self. On the other hand, when I discuss other people or things, I try to minimize the distance between us. I can’t become them, but I need the “tenderness” as described by Olga Tokarczuk in The Tender Narrator. She explained that “tenderness is the most modest form of love,” that it “personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed.” It’s the act of putting aside my own voice as the observer or speaker and attentively waiting for the voice of other beings to ring out from within the text. Many poems in Possibilist are about other people’s experiences rather than my own, and they often take on the voice of the poetic object instead of my voice as the first-person observer. I didn’t want to talk about them. I listened carefully for them to speak directly for themselves. A poet is a good listener before they are a speaker.

 

When I read “Glaciers’ Funeral,” I realized how deeply humans inhabit the delusion that nature is irrelevant to them. The 225 small, black squares in the poem can be read as ice floes or as the dead bodies of war. The part that is most intriguing to me is: “We came from that vanishing, vanishing chunk of ice./ Drifting far away from the ice skirt and living in the city of fire, we / maybe awakened by the scream of a glacier cracking.” I interpret this part to mean that even if we are born in a city and will die in a city, ancient humans have lived by coping with nature, or by going along with nature, and because we area part of nature, we come from chunks of ice. I would like to hear about the specific context of these lines as well as your intentions.

 

I’ve read books and watched films about polar regions, but I’ve never seen an ice floe firsthand.But one time, I woke from a dream, startled by the sound of a giant glacier splitting. It was more of an aural experience than a visual one and, even afterward, I would hear that sound like a scream in my ears. Each time, it rang out as if it ruptured my heart. Then, I read an article about “glacier funerals” in the news. Like environmental activists holding funerals for glaciers, I’m holding a funeral through this poem. I likened the death of glaciers brought on by humans’ fossil fuel civilization to “the battle of fire and ice.” The squares spread out on the page are a visualization of ice floating like “the bodies of the dead in the war.” As I spoke the names of the glaciers one by one, I realized that they’re not some grand Mother Nature that exists far away, but that “We came from that vanishing, vanishing chunk of ice.” The Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi played “Elegy for the Arctic” on a grand piano set up between the ice floes. Even as he played the elegy, you could hear glaciers thunder as they broke down. That’s the music of today, including the thunder.

 



“Water’s Borderline” makes it clear that wars deliberately started by humans aren’t the only wars being fought. The changing of maritime boundaries is another war that is a drain on humans. The phrase “day after day” is in the last line of both “Glaciers’ Funeral” and “Water’s Borderline”: “but also the funeral for glaciers day after day” and “Day after day, a new water line is drawn on the map.” The moment I arrive at the phrase “day after day” I feel like my time becomes synced in real time to the glaciers’ and the time when borders of water change. A disquieting tremor runs through me as if I’d been handed the same stopwatch as nature. What’s the time left on your stopwatch? Where are you running toward?

 

We don’t witness it, but the harsh reality is, every day, glaciers break off and climate refugees wander in search of water for survival. The main culprits of the climate crisis are in wealthy countries in the northern hemisphere, but the victims of climate crisis who have lost their homes are in poorer countries in the southern hemisphere.As freshwater flows north, tropical and subtropical regions dry up. Borders used to be drawn according to the political system of nations, but today, new,invisible borders are being drawn according to climate and environmental changes.

Artists are approaching the topic of glaciers from many angles. The installation art piece Ice Watch (2015) by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing is one of them. In an effort to raise awareness about the climate crisis, the artists brought twelve pieces of glacial ice from Iceland to Place du Panthéon in Paris. It was meant to be an opportunity to touch glaciers and watch them melt in the heart of the city and to reflect on climate change in the North Pole without going all the way there. But I wonder if it was truly necessary to spend so much money to ship and display those ice blocks just to raise awareness that the Earth is growing hotter. I wrote “Ice Watch” with such criticism in mind. To me, those glacier pieces looked like “twelve yetis dragged to the city.” The worst part was how the audience treated the ice. To them, they were nothing more than toys or a novel spectacle. These momentary performances can’t slow or reverse the climate crisis. What’s important is to change the lifestyle of each individual. As you wrote, Da Hee, the moment someone arrives at the phrase “day after day,” they should feel their time becoming “synced to the time of glaciers and to the borders of water change,” feel “a disquieting tremor” run through them as if they were “handed the same stopwatch as nature,” and become inspired to change their lifestyle.

 

Reading “How Far the Rose Came From,” I felt that, regarding the few days that roses are in our hands after they’ve left a long trail of carbon footprints, to call that the “nature of twenty roses” shows how limited humans are in our view of nature. If we are to change our ways, this is where we have to start. I sense a similar sorrow in “Milk Cows”—exploitation hides even in a cup of milk we drink in the morning and someone, somewhere, is counting the dollars. The use of simple sentences to concisely deliver accurate facts is striking. The sentences reveal the processes that we think we know but don’t know, that we want to continue ignoring. These unpoetic sentences have the great effect of making me recognize the cycle that wrings out life.

 

Whether it’s a bouquet of roses or a cup of milk, we need to look past the smooth surface of a product’s representation and retrace the process by which it is produced and distributed. Even the floricultural industry, with its short circulation period, leaves a large carbon footprint across continents. The livestock industry, too, traps animals in mechanized cages and endlessly exploits them, emitting large amounts of carbon in the process. It’s impossible to amass wealth in a capitalist society without such oppression and exploitation of nature and people. So, I wrote “How Far the Rose Came From” and “Milk Cows” as dryly as possible with matter-of-fact sentences for satirical effect.

We must break the “cycle [that] wrings out life.” That’s true, but I don’t really have the answer to the “how,” either. I just think about it all the time. I don’t think poetry is supposed to present solutions or carry enlightening statements. I think poetry’s role is to raise awareness of problems that are hard to notice. In these poems, I don’t propose a solution, I just remind the reader of the countless traces and connections embedded in a product. In today’s world where the boundary between the natural and the artificial is blurred, I would also like to raise these questions: “What is nature? And is nature natural?”

 

Toward the end of “A Black Leaf,” there are the striking images of mutated animals and overgrown plants in Chernobyl. The images in this poem feel like the chilling embodiment of a lesson we’ve refused to learn. I also think that it reflects a shift in the trajectory of your poetry from a botanical imagination to an animal one.

 

I think so, too. My poetry’s imagination, or sensibility, has gradually transformed from botanical to animal. My early poems almost never featured animals. Then, insects and herbivores started to appear, and in my most recent works, like Filename: Lyric Poetry and Possibilist, there are carnivores. I commented on this in the author’s note to Filename: Lyric Poetry “Fangs and claws passed by, scratching my life. In myself, too, there arose words with fangs and claws. What to do with these bleeding words?” As the world harms and scars me,I learn to fight back, but in the process, I think my poetry and language grow darker and more cynical.

“A Black Leaf” is about Chernobyl, where everyone—plants, animals, and humans alike—all suffered a catastrophe verging on extinction. It was eerie to learn that the name “Chernobyl” means “black leaf,” as if it were a prophecy for the disaster. As I read up on the event, the ecological changes and current state of the area stood out to me. I reflected on not only the destructive capacity of nuclear power but also the way we respond to a catastrophe. The tour package of Chernobyl, a part of so-called “dark tourism,” troubled me. Human consumption even targets catastrophes.

 

We talked a bit about a few poems in Possibilist, so now let’s talk about your newer poems. “Blood and Oil” reminded me of your debut poem, “To the Roots.” It gives a full view of the long distance between the Ra Heeduk in 1991 who wrote of drawing bright blood to let love pass by and the current one who asks herself if there is anyone who hasn’t drunk from “this juice of death” we draw ceaselessly from the ground. If you were to meet your 1991 self, what would you two talk about?

 

The climate crisis is a serious problem, but so is the danger of war. How many innocent lives are taken between national borders that are redrawn daily? We’re becoming desensitized to the war in Ukraine, but its effects are felt in our daily lives, from oil prices to gas prices. My focus in “Blood and Oil” is the fact that petroleum, the blood that fuels contemporary civilization, and human blood are both carbon compounds that contain porphyrin. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, the former Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons of Venezuela, called petroleum “the devil’s excrement.” I call it “this juice of death” because it’s a fossil fuel resulting from dead organisms. Petroleum and gas are symbols that encompass capitalism, civilization, religion, war, and more.

Your reading of the poem makes me think that what began as pure love and conscientiousness of life in my debut To the Roots has now become a fighter suffering on the Anthropocene’s mudslinging field of war. Dirt, the speaker of “To the Roots,” is an important touchstone to measuring the change in my poetics. As time has passed, the dirt in my poetry became less of an abundant Mother Earth. Rather, it has grown dry and barren. This internal sterilization perfectly overlaps with the process in which the Earth has been exploited and polluted. The world is deeply ill. It’s no longer possible for me to write beautiful and romantic lyric poetry. If “1990s me” and “2020s me” met, I’m sure they’d be very different, but they’d completely understand the change and they’d console and support each other.

 

My recent talking point is that humans cannot be alone and cannot not be alone. When I read “A Spider Starfish” (referring to brittle stars, the echinoderms closely related to starfish), I was intensely fascinated by this creature. I think this poem will come to mind whenever I face another loss. When I think myself deeper and deeper into a hole, I wonder if what I truly want is something like this: “Even if my arm is ripped off / My body is regenerated, exhaling light instead of moans.” Will you talk more about brittle stars? The poem also reminds me of Kim Su-Young and Descartes. I’d like to know your thoughts on that.

 

Last summer, I took a lecture series called History Entangled in Life by biologist Jeon Bang-Wook. I was more intrigued by the organisms in his examples than the theoretical parts. The brittle star, an echinoderm, was one of them. It has five long, thin arms that easily regenerate when cut off. It has neither eyes nor brain, but it feels and thinks with its entire body. The poem “A Spider Starfish” is a variation on its way of life, taking on Descartes’s principle of “Cogito, ergo sum.” The irregular crisscross structure of the poem is a visual representation of a brittle star’s movement and method of reproduction.

You were probably reminded of Kim Su-Young because of the words “with my whole body.” Kim Su-Young said, “Poetry is written not with the brain, nor with the heart, but with the whole body.” Now, I want to learn the dynamic quality of the entire body not from Kim Su-Young, but from brittle stars, a non-human entity, something that I’ve been interested in writing about. I wrote nine books of poetry about humans, so it won’t hurt to write at least one about non-humans that surround us. I would never be able to escape my human point of view, even if I write about non-humans, but it’s a good incentive to let go of my human-centric gaze for a bit.

In high school, I quit the literature club to join the biology club. I was very interested in biological phenomena, and enjoyed observation and experimentation since I was young. I probably would’ve become a biologist if I hadn’t become a poet. “We are made of star-stuff,” as Carl Sagan said, and the boundary between life and non-life is blurry, and all life is entangled with one another. Nor are our bodies singular—we are symbiotic with the countless bacteria that live in our bodies. My talking point these days is the symbiosis and entanglement within the community of “I.”

 



“A Mushroom at the End of the World” draws an image in my mind of damp, dirt-laden pine mushrooms before they’re collected. All I see in real life are neatly packaged pine mushrooms for sale, though. When I imagine glaciers,echinoderms, and pine mushrooms, this tension inside me starts to dwindle. That’s when I realize that I’m addicted to myself. I think I have to let go of this addiction to walk deeper into a forest farther away. Poetry can be subjective, and it can depend on taste, but sometimes it can be precise in raising issues. As a writer, is there anything you consider to be your responsibility, your duty?

 

As I wrote in a footnote, “A Mushroom at the End of the World” is the title of a book by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. Tsing analyzed the system and flow of capitalism through pine mushroom harvesting and distribution. I found a mushroom that sprouted in a flowerpot I left on the balcony during the rainy season. I looked at the white spores that had spread out on the dirt and imagined the mushroom popping off its spores like fireworks in the garden at night. Mushrooms reproduce asexually through spores, and their spawn reach into the ground and, entangled with rotten tree roots, moss, and insects, play a vital role in the underground ecosystem. That kind of symbiosis seems to be fading in human society because, as you said, we can’t escape the state of being addicted to ourselves. Before we head deeper into a more distant forest,we must first turn our gaze from ourselves to others. Then, the pain of others and the state of the world will come into view. In that way, a writer is one who suffers the world’s pain and sadness and translates it into language.

 

Last question. “End of the World” is within the world but implies a space outside of the world as well. If words were possible at the end of the world,they must be poetry. Do any phrases come to mind at the end of this interview?Personally, I feel like I’ve become an unknown organism that has traveled to the end of the world and become human again. But the end of the world? What an outlandish dream.

 

When Tsing says that the mushroom is at the end of the world, it’s a metaphor. The end is the most desolate, unstable, and exasperating place. Likewise, those who harvest mushrooms are the poor not protected by law. I think poetry belongs at the end of the world as well. It stands precariously close to the end and imagines the world beyond the end, the outside. My soon-to-be-published book of poetics is titled Outside Civilization. Our lives and consciousnesses won’t ever be free of civilization and capitalism but I chose this title to promise that I’ll step forward with my gaze turned toward the outside of civilization. “End of the World” reminds me of a poem I wrote a long time ago called “End of Land.” The end of the land isn’t a dead end but a new boundary where land and sea meet, and a poet is one who constantly lives out that boundary. Maybe I predicted this fate of the poet as a twenty-year-old, standing on the southernmost beach of Korea, the end of land. I would like to end this conversation with the closing lines of that poem. Thank you for your intimate questions and conversation.

 

I wasn’t searching for

the end of land but I’m standing on it.

But it’s strange

that this precariousness is damp with beauty,

that the end of land is always damp,

that, just to see it,

I’ll end up here again and again.

 

Translated by Soeun Seo

 

 

Korean Works Mentioned:

•   “To the Roots,” To the Roots (Changbi, 1991)

     「뿌리에게」, 『뿌리에게』 (창비, 1991)

•   “End of Land,” The Words Stained the Leaves(Changbi, 1994)

    「땅 끝」, 『그 말이 잎을 물들였다』 (창비, 1994)

•   “From One Amoeba to Another,” The Time Horses Return (Moonji, 2014)

    「한 아메바가 다른 아메바를」, 『말들이 돌아오는 시간』(문학과지성사, 2014)

•   Filename: Lyric Poetry (Changbi, 2018)

    『파일명 서정시』 (창비, 2018)

•  “Easter Sunday,” “Glaciers’ Funeral,” “How Far the Rose Came From,” “Milk Cows,” “A Black Leaf,” Possibilist (Munhakdongne, 2021)

    「어떤 부활절」, 「빙하 장례식」, 「장미는 얼마나 멀리서 왔는지」, 「젖소들」, 「검은 잎사귀」, 『가능주의자』 (문학동네,2021)

•   “Water’s Borderline,” (Sangjinghag-yeonguso,Aug. 2022)

    「물의 국경선」, (상징학연구소 2022년 가을호, 2022)

•   “Ice Watch,” (Sangjinghag-yeonguso, Aug.2022)

    「얼음 시계」, (상징학연구소 2022년 가을호, 2022)

•   “A Spider Starfish,” (Position, vol. 38,2022)

    「거미불가사리」, (포지션 38, 2022)

•   “A Mushroom at the End of the World,” (Position,vol. 38, 2022)

    「세상 끝의 버섯」, (포지션 38, 2022)

•   “Blood and Oil,” (The Quarterly Changbi,2023)

     「피와 석유」, (창작과비평 199, 2023)

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