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Interview with Poet Yi Won: A Time for Diving In

by Ahn Miok Translated by Seth Chandler December 6, 2023

Yi Won

Yi Won debuted in the pages of Segye-ui Munhak in 1992. Her poetry collections include When They Ruled the Earth, A Thousand Moons Rising Over the River of Yahoo!, The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, The History of an Impossible Page, Let Love be Born, and I Am My Affectionate Zebra. She has received the 2005 Contemporary Poetics Prize, the 2002 Contemporary Poetry Award, and 2018 Hyeongpyeong Literary Award. She works as a professor of creative writing at Seoul Institute of the Arts.

To begin, I know you’re fond of inanimate objects. Things like mannequins and robots, but also a camel plushie, a figurine of a little girl on a motorcycle, a Pinocchio doll with a broken nose. You’ve said that taking care of objectswiping down the camel’s eyes, finding a wall for Pinocchio to lean ongives you time to think differently about what life is as well. I’m curious what inanimate objects you’ve recently been spending time with and taking care of, and what thoughts you’re thinking through them.

 

I want to start by saying I’m excited about this conversation. I know I’ll enjoy it. I’ve always felt we shared a certain inner closeness. I’m curious to find out what we’ll talk about, in this place where the personal and literary intersect. I imagine your questions will feel like gifts, each one a mirror that shows me some angle of myself I can’t see. Perhaps among those faces I don’t know I’ll find one I’ve been wanting to visit. The past few years I’ve had a lot of questions, both personal and poetic, which often make me stop and pause, so this conversation feels all the more valuable.

        I do like inanimate objects. The moments I spend with them are bright and refreshing. My body and spirit grow quiet and clear. I still spend my time with those few objects you mentioned, each looking after one another. And I’m still captivated by objects, but I don’t keep as many by my side. Maybe you could say I’ve become more careful. Something else I’m keeping nearby these days is a bird. It’s made of linen in grayscale. It has no eyes or beak or wingsor no, maybe it’s hiding its eyes and beak, legs and wings. It has no concrete shape, which makes it seem even more like a bird to me. Even in the dark, it’s a bird. In the light, it’s a bird. With the bare minimum, there’s no need for more. This linen bird helps calm me.



I think your fascination with inanimate objects can be seen in your poetry as well. It’s not just how your poetic imagination manifests in your first collection, When They Ruled the Earth, through mannequins, plastic bags, rice cookers, plugs, and PCsand later through motorcycles, TVs, sneakers, toilets, and so onbut also in the way you toss up new forms of sensation and thought. I was always surprised by how things that weren’t typically treated as ‘poetic’ objects could become such natural poetry. In your second collection, A Thousand Moons Rising Over the River of Yahoo!, the speaker no longer only writes about inanimate objects, but also speaks as them, finding a cyborg voice. In the voice of the cyborg, there are glimpses of an existential inevitabilityit couldn’t not speak. In your opinion, what makes something ‘poetic,’ and what are some poetic objects you’ve been thinking about recently?



I once wrote, “If we love what we can never know, will it become beauty?” I think poetry is active in and of itself. It’s not so much through my own efforts as through the efforts of this unknowable domain called poetry. When I find myself participating together in this unknowable sensation, that feels poetic. I’m partial to that unknowingness. When I write a sentence I wasn’t expecting, within that sentence I can feel a connection to this world, something like the reason I was put in this world. That moment of mystery is probably why I keep writing poetry.

       In other words, it’s not so much that I find any particular object poetic as that I let my captivation lead me. In the past I placed more focus on the object I was concentrated on, but I’ve found myself moving gradually toward scenes rather than objects. Scenes from everyday life that you might commonly pass by without noticing. I found a desire to reveal, in a minimal way, the coincidence and inevitability within such scenes. If I’ve had any persistent direction, it’s been an interest in people and the things surrounding them. Especially at points when change is noticeable. I like the collision of disparate things existing together, something you might call contradiction. I think I want to reveal how contradiction is not a boundary, but a form of coexistence. Of course, when it comes to coexistence, I want to maintain a geometrical attitude, like the camera eye, rather than the psychological perspective.


Tell me about roots. There are many moments in your poetry where you mention roots. The roots that appear as a motif in your first and second collections seem to continue later in images of the ankle and foot. I’m curious how you started writing about roots, and whether the thoughts and sensations you had about roots have changed as you write them in your poetry.



When I was in my teens, I experienced the deaths of several family members in a row. It was so strange how they were just gone in a single moment, without a trace. At that time I had the realization that a person is not a tree. It was afraid of experience rather than abstract concepts, so after that I grew up rummaging through roots, real and symbolic. This had a big effect on my way of life. The fact that I had no roots made me feel anxious and afraid, and I had to invent a way to survive as a rootless being. I was anxiety-inducing to be rootless, but wasn’t I also that much freer? If I could have, not the gravity of rootedness, but the zero-gravity of rootlessness, couldn’t I soar upward weightlessly? If I could just love that momentary enchantment, then I wouldn’t lose my courage. These are the kinds of ideas I made for myself. The foot is an ambivalent body part. Our feet hold us up on the ground, but they can also move freely as they desire, and jump up into the air. When I write poetry, my feet leave the ground and take on the freedom of weightlessness. In reality, I struggled with the thought that my feet were often too far off the ground. In that sense, the foot and ankle are a place of both love and hate for me.

       I feel no matter how beautiful the scene out a window is, people have a hard time looking at the same scenery constantly. Maybe it’s because people have feet and not roots. Isn’t that the reason we have feet? To go set foot in some unfamiliar place? I ask myself these questions often. Courage is very important to me. Like just going and sitting down at a new, blank page with nothing on it. From my perspective, that’s when I like poetry, and life as well.



You’ve often referred to yourself as a ‘momentist.’ As an attitude toward life, the saying ‘seize the moment’ has given me a lot of courage too. A ‘moment’ is a point at which there is a break in time, a point at which there is a cliff, a breaking-free. Your attitude towards life as a momentist appears in your poems in a variety of ways. In “Voices”, from The History of an Impossible Page, your fourth collection, the images of stone, light, wall, and so on feel to me like desperate voices created by a moment of time. I can feel a force that isn’t trapped or stuck but breaking free and expanding. Tell me more about writing poetry as a momentist.



Since it was the one who defined myself that way, it feels like I do always have to be a momentist. I actually do think in very short units of time. Maybe a month at the longest. It’s hard to think in longer time spans because it feels so heavy. Being a momentist is a kind of incantation for me. A moment is exactly the point at which a unit of time comes into existence, so it must be useless, devoid of any purpose. What I like is that zero point, which might be a kind of liberation. A moment is something so intense and yet empty, so it is enchanting.

       That’s why I try to live my life as a momentist. Poetry is also structured by moments of sensation. A moment can be expressed as a single second. Within that second, like a line to its core, is the first, the least. The point at which the single second is spoken. That which doesn’t go away even when everything else does. In other words, the original form. I think that, within the moment of a second, there is a minimuma leastthat brings the moment forth. I like to discover that place. I think that’s why people sometimes say I write in a very unfeeling way. I’m starting to realize these moments I meet are eternity. I think about the realization that the very largest thing can be held within the very smallest, so a moment feels like a vortex, and a first feels like the eye of a typhoon.





When I read the poem “Shadows,” I thought about the things that produce a deep sense of solitude. Solitary moments when we are left by ourselves. Whenever I read your poems, it feels like I often stop on the words shadow, air, and solitude. They are present yet absent, opened but closed. The words “sinews of shadows” make us think of the shadow like a body. And we discover a contradictory aspectempty yet fullto the motif of empty air in lines like “stairs made from the solitude of the air” (“Apple Store”). You’ve also written several linked poems about solitude, but with aspects other than loneliness or silence. What sort of thoughts or stories have you had while writing about shadows, air, and solitude?



I’ve been consistently interested in air, in the sense of a kind of visual emptiness. Air as the space that brings stairs and roofs into existence. I want to keep discovering that empty air. It’s because I want to have more experiences with it as something concrete, rather than abstract. Shadows and solitude share this same context. They’ve both gradually come to have a sort of corporeality, rather than remaining at the emotional level.

       Because the concrete is not conceptual, but something with an actual form, I kept finding myself moving toward, not thinking those things, but becoming them. Becoming is a kind of experience, so although I was moving toward a different space, it was also my own. It was a shared space that was created. And then I just ended up staying there for much longer. Even after everyone else had gone back, I remained, and I returned again afterwards as well. I found myself hesitating in that space where I remained. It was actually a bit scary to learn the solitude of the final remaining place. Still, I think the place of poetry is that last remaining person, the one who returns to that empty place even after everyone else has gone back a long time ago. If you focus on the sinews of solitude, I think you won’t lose the dancing body.



In the afterword to your fifth collection, Let Love Be Born, critic Park Sangsoo mentions that we “must give some time to considering child-like naivete as one force that has led [your poetry] to this point.” I agree that naivete is important to your poetry. I think it arises from an attitude of refusing to let life make you solemn, of struggling to maintain a condition of not knowing, of being unfamiliar. And that’s actually why it’s so hard to maintain naivete. Why are your poems oriented toward naivete, and how do you break through at times when you can’t hold on to being naive?



I’ve spent lots of time with the phrase “no birth, no death” (불생불멸). In this space of neither emergence nor dissipation, it’s written that this is the same as naivete or innocence. Maybe that’s the foundation. Maybe that’s why I love naivete, why I’m always trying to find it within and without. Naivete is a space without distinctions, and the deepest of places. It’s not looking on, but diving in. It’s a space everyone experiences, so its time is the present. With weight, we can’t dive in or experience, and distinctions form. The space of altruism narrows, and the space of selfishness expands. To lose naivete is to lose the foundation, but the foundation never goes away, so it can’t be lost. I’m inclined to believe naivete is the foundation beneath every place.

       If I’m not naive when I write, then I can’t awaken poetry or life, so when I’m not naive, I just walk a lot. After a while everything disappears, and all that’s left within me is a small, teary-eyed child. Things get simpler once I’ve met that inner child again. When things get simpler, I end up going to places I’ve never been before. If I change my outlook, then the world and my thoughts about it change too. I like that unfamiliar curiosity. I never have to go as far as I’d expect to get to all sorts of places I’ve never been.



Of all your books of poetry, Let Love Be Born is the collection that reveals the most emotion. I’ve always thought your poetry focuses more on the discovery of sensory detail than on psychological aspects, but it occurs to me that you’ve gone through a period when your emotions couldn’t help but come out. Your poetry inevitably deals with the subject of death. You’ve said that experiencing deaths close to you, both personally and socially, has left many graves within your body. What were the images of death you perceived close by as you wrote Let Love Be Born? And how did you use poetry to get through that time?


You know how you sometimes search yourself on the internet? Once by coincidence, I came across a blog where a reader had written, “Yi Won feels a sense of vitality in death.” It felt like a revelation. I mean, it meant that I was centered on death. If I think back on it, my life did always have death at its center at that time. I mentioned that I became a material momentist after losing several family members in my teens. And even as an adult, the deaths of people close to me, as well as those in society, shook me terribly. In a sense, I was experiencing death and changing it, and I felt a close relationship to death. Sometimes I wonder if it’s my responsibility not to let death be death, and to live death instead. As more graves are lain within my body, and looking after them becomes part of my life, I realize that when I write poetry, the pencil of death and the dead themselves have written many sentences. And when that feeling comes over me, I have the ethical thought that perhaps I haven’t failed to fulfill my responsibilities.

       The communal tragedy of the Sewol ferry disaster1)  had a big effect on my poetry. Let Love Be Born is composed of the poems I wrote during that time. I never liked to write poems that prioritize the human perspective, so I rarely allow the intrusion of the first person, but this time was like a whirlwind that swept over without a moment to think about method. I felt myself entering and speaking in the first person before I knew what was happening. It was also a time of hopelessness about what poetry could actually do. I leaned a lot on the poetry of my fellow poets, who had taught me, guided me, and written alongside me, and I came to believe in the possibility of raising our voices in chorus. In that collection there’s the line, “When I press my two hands together, how is it that you come to cry?” I had a realization that this is what prayer is. If I press my two hands together, a space forms for you to cry. If there are many innocent hands, a desperate light rises from the community. I came to believe in the possibilities of innocent hands even amid pain and suffering.


You write in your prose collection The Smallest Discovery that you’d like to write the poetry of a machinemudang (shaman): “If it’s conflicting, then it’s conflicting. If it’s too different, then it’s too different. If it clashes, then it clashes. This is the type of poetry I wanted to write. I felt this desire to create a place for the machinemudang through poetry.” When I read those lines, I thought it suited you very well. The machinemudang seems to touch on your attitude of carrying through all the points of possible contradiction. Are you still interested in writing machinemudang poems?


It’s a point I’d like to reach as a poet and a phrase that I still hold in my heart. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been timid, but as the time I’ve lived accumulates, I find I’m struggling with more and more fears. I have to confess that I’ve grown a contemplative perspective, so I tend to wander and shy away from things and to be afraid and lose vitality. But to look without exaggeration, to be reinvigorated, is still the place I want to reach.



I’d also like to ask you about poetry translation. Your poems have been translated into many languages, including English, German, Japanese, Arabic, and Dutch. The language of poetry doesn’t really line up logicallyit’s closer to illogic. I imagine that in the translation process you’ve felt the difficulty of making adjustments, as well as points of freedom in donning an unfamiliar language. What has it been like to have your poems translated?



I think that the process of translation is both extremely difficult and beautiful. After all, the language changes, but it’s the same living thing within. That experience is special to me too. I’ve worked on just a few poems up to an entire collection. I’ve usually communicated with the translators over email. Sometimes we’d send a few dozen emails, sometimes a few hundred. In order to find just the right word they examine everything down to the veins, looking into Korean culture and even into me personally. Almost like a surgeon operating on what’s inside my head. And the process becomes a mirror for me to look into my mind as well. An English translation of The World’s Lightest Motorcycle that came out in the United States actually won the LTI Korea Translation Award last year. It was translated by E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello. Marci came to Seoul to receive the award and we got to spend some personal time together too. It was interesting because it felt like the kind of connection you have with an old friend.

       A while ago at an international poetry festival, I took part in a translation workshop for my poems over several days. Several poets from different countries asked me all these questions in person and translated my poetry into their native languages. On the last day there was a reading in which we alternated, with me reading the Korean poetry first, followed by the translation. I remember finding it interesting that the translations could touch me with this vibrant, wriggling feeling even though I couldn’t speak the languages. I was so surprised when someone in the audience from another country came up to me at the end of the workshop and said, “Now I share a part of your spirit.” Searching for something in common in other languages feels like an impressive endeavor for the people of this Earth to engage in. A very impressive dance that crosses national borders.



When I read your recent poems “Small People Community” and “Friendly Gathering,” I thought about the moments when people meet each other. These poems left me with a feeling that they were at once carrying the possibility of communityeven with just two people, even in silence, even if they don’t actually meet at allas well as its impossibility. In the same vein, I was struck by the “world of Everyone” in the poem “Shared Kitchen.” The line “Until the feet leave those slippers, this is the shared kitchen,” gave me a physical experience of a new way of thinking about sharedness. Tell me more about your thoughts on meetings between people, and on community.



I don’t think there’s any more continuous, living way of learning than meeting. Meeting spreads outward in concentric circles from you and I, to us, to the country, to Earth. We ask the biggest questions and stroll across boundaries and try to make our bodies as small as possible. I think we’re in a time of many rapid, tumultuous changes, both in society and in the world. In times of tumult we’re very quick to judge and categorize for the sake of a new order. If society’s role is to create a superficial order, what can poetry do? I ask myself those kinds of questions often. Rather than looking for quick definitions, I think you have to try to very delicately approach the places where you can hear the big crashing sounds. I feel there’s something sinking away, something we must save, in acts of judgment and definition. Might poetry be in the direction of this saving? To do so, you must become even smaller and more delicate. This is my kind of self-inquiry and self-answer. When you become smaller, you approach things in more detail, and you can see what’s blatant too, so it might seem a bit coarse. But if you approach with a naive mind, in the direction of saving, then might that place be the possibility of community? Like a spark that we kindle together.





I’ve always felt your poetry was somewhat similar to painting. But while the more recent poems we’re discussing maintain that detailed accuracy of scene, they also feel cinematic in their progression, like the movement of a camera. Was there something that brought about this change?



I’m still a visualist who likes writing poems in descriptive form. If something feels cinematic about my recent poems, it’s probably because I’m trying out a somewhat different poetic language. Before, I structured poems in a painterly way, like a single canvas, but now I’m leaning toward structuring them as a scene. The painterly method offers a high level of tension, while a scene can rest within the flow of time.

       Can poetry be made from tepidity? Can poetry be written with an unoppressive method? Can I become a tepid hand? Can I endure this anxiety? Nature is tepid, so is it anxious too? Do trees grow through the force of anxiety? There’s no drama to minimal construction. Every element is removed and only tepidity remains. That’s what makes it avant-garde. Tepidly/minimallyare these two in opposition? Are they a match? If language lets go of language, does the minimal emerge? Will language remove the unnecessary elements from abstraction all on its own? Then will the minimal naturally remain as the minimal? If you don’t let poetic sensations, poetic leaps, and poetic intention lead, then the prosaic inserts itself, but can this prosaicness maintain nature’s tension? Can it become the inevitability of coincidence? These are the questions I’m asking. Some days I call it impossible and some days I call it possible. My recent poems are a result of this rummaging. These days I want to lose. I don’t want to be steadfast.



In the poems “Biosphere” and “Rare Earth Equation,” we get a glimpse of your recent interests. Of course, we can also find extensions of your earlier poetic thought, in the sense of dismantling or overthrowing the idea of human superiority on Earth, in certain phrases: “of the mind [that] things would look a lot better if people shrank a bit, somehow or other,” “What’s superior is what’s vaporized,” “The grass grows all around when no one’s looking,” and so on. Still your view of the ecosphere itself seems to appear more prominently here. Does this touch on your recent interests?



I used to lean much more heavily into the human world, but now I’ve come to see the world that was there before as well, in a way that’s less stiff and has a more natural rhythm. I think it took a long time before I could see difference in one place. It’s one thing to take difference and coexistence apart and see them separately, but it’s another to see them together as one scene. It becomes easier to see disparate aspects, and easier to see difference. It’s easier to see how things are separate and together at once. Come to think of it, I guess there’s a natural shift from the poem “Unexpected Earth,” in which I was trying to discover an unexpected earth, to my curiosity about the equation in “Rare Earth Equation.” I’ll have to walk a bit further before I know, but I want to turn on my ecosphere like a little light. I want to record it. It’s still in process, but I feel like there’s no doubt that, whether physical or figurative, poetry and the Earth are on the side of small things.



While I listened to each of your answers, I strangely felt a fluttering urge to write some poems myself. I suppose your thoughts and energy for poetry must have rubbed off on me. I’d like to hear more, but unfortunately I think this will have to be my final question. What is the most daring thing you’d like to try today as part of your everyday life?



Poet Miok, after talking with you I also have an urge to write poetry, coming to me in the bright image of a rabbit. At first it was only a long pair of ears. When I take a walk, there’s a place where I turn around every day. I’d like to not turn around, and to go on walking aimlessly in that direction. What if it gets too dark? What if solitude closes in? What if I don’t have the energy to make it back? No, I’m not going to worry about any of that. I want to walk with the confident steps of a little soldier boy.



Translated by Seth Chandler



 



 



KOREAN WORKS MENTIONED:

When They Ruled the Earth (Moonji, 1996)

그들이 지구를 지배했을 때(문학과지성사, 1996)

A Thousand Moons Rising Over the River of Yahoo! (Moonji, 2001)

야후!의 강물에 천 개의 달이 뜬다(문학과지성사, 2001)

The World’s Lightest Motorcycle (tr. E. J. Koh, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Zephyr Press, 2021)

세상에서 가장 가벼운 오토바이(문학과지성사, 2007)

“Voices,” “Shadows,” The History of an Impossible Page (Moonji, 2012)

그림자들, 목소리들, 불가능한 종이의 역사(문학과지성사, 2012)

“Apple Store,” Let Love Be Born (Moonji, 2017)

애플 스토어, 사랑은 탄생하라(문학과지성사, 2017)

“MachineMudang (1),” The Smallest Discovery (Minumsa, 2017)

기계-무당 (1), 최소의 발견, (민음사, 2017)

“Friendly Gathering,” (Siindongne, Aug. 2019)

친목 모임(시인동네 20198월호, 2019)

“Shared Kitchen” (Webzine Gongsisa, June. 2020)

공용 키친(웹진 공정한시인의사회 20206월호)

“Small People Community,” (Literature and Society vol. 134, 2021)

작은 사람 공동체, (문학과사회 2021년 여름호, 2021)

“Biosphere,” “Rare Earth Equation,” (Webzine View vol. 57, 2022)

생물권, 희귀한 지구 방정식, (웹진 비유 20229월호, 2022)




1) The sinking of the MV Sewol, in which 304 peopledied or went missing, most of them Korean high school students on their way toJeju Island for a class field trip.—Ed.


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