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Interview with Kim So Yeon: Continuing until We Become Our Outsides

by Lee Jenny Translated by Anton Hur June 3, 2024

I still remember when I read your first collection, Reach the Extreme. I could feel the true, earnest love in those raw lines rife with determination, which made me check to see how old you were as they had filled me with awe. When I read the last line of that collection, “I hope I never get invited anywhere in this world, that my name does not remain after my death, that I may never be too close to the goings-on of the world, its everything, life, not-life, or suffering or desire or love, or what pierces me, that I should brush past them, my life and yours,” I knew I was going to read every poem and piece of prose of yours. A long time after that, when I became a poet myself and invited you to give a talk, I remembered that first collection again, and while poets become who we are through writing poetry, you made me realize you were already a poet before you ever wrote poetry. I’m now wondering what experience or thought first brought you to write poetry.

 

I remember when we met for the first time in my studio in Ilsan and you talked about my first collection. Whenever I hear about Reach the Extreme, I don’t think of it as mine anymore, I think of it as the work of the person I used to be. That much time has passed, and that’s also the way creative works age, I think. I’m very thankful for your response.

      In the beginning, I just liked to read poetry. During high school—between 1983 and 1987—I felt like my joy of reading deepened when I read poetry. It was also an age when new voices like Kim Hyesoon, Choi Seungja, Kim Jeong-hwan, and Lee Seong-Bok were bursting onto the scene. I liked how you weren’t supposed to understand everything immediately. That there was a prickly kind of vagueness, not just the foggy kind, and I liked that prickliness.

      Then I began writing poetry, and you can say I started writing it because I liked reading it, but I did have a real moment one afternoon when I very deliberately decided to become a poet. I’ve said it in many interviews. It was back in 1987 during the June Uprising. I was in college, and I happened to be at a protest. The participants of the protest were divided into two groups in the process of selecting its leadership, and reconciliation looked impossible. It all looked like petty political squabbles to me. I still remember sitting in a corner and being jostled every which way and coming close to bursting. I just got up and went home. I walked a distance that would normally take an hour by bus, and I craved a life where I didn’t have to step on anyone, and that’s where I decided to escape into poetry. I often feel this desire to escape. I think I make a lot of effort to sublimate my desire for escape into an ability to do so. I call it “escape,” but it’s more of an attempt to move in a direction where I feel more alive, a vector toward the margins, with the addition of a literary attitude.

 

So you became a poet, published your first collection, and took another ten years to publish your next. The Fatigue of the Stars Drags Behind It the Night felt very different from your first collection. Why did this collection take so long?

 

I experienced the Asian Financial Crisis in my mid-thirties, which was when I truly realized the life of a poet is economically precarious. That precariousness felt like freedom to me, that if that was the case, then I could do whatever I wanted. I founded a small children’s library in Ilsan where I lived and spent many happy years circulating children’s books with the people who lived in my neighborhood. It was a great joy to run a small, experimental community project at the local level. Maybe I escaped to a more fun place than poetry writing. I don’t think I even kept track of time that much. It was my happiest time, in a way.

 

Let’s talk about your latest collection, Catalyzing Night. In the title poem, I lingered for a long time over the lines, “Sometimes I unleash into now / memories from the future” and “time shall protect me / How wonderful / that some things only need time.” They made me think of Reach the Extreme. This connects to my first question, but the poems seem to look into the past, present, and future all at the same time, a gaze that seems to have already lived through an entire life. It’s like through this gaze, the lines come to you and then to me; they have this subsequent warmth to them that soothes the pains of life, and I could feel this empathetic desire for things to go well for others. I was wondering where you got this attitude, this ability to see time as several, simultaneously felt layers, and this sense of good cheer through firm resolve.

 

When I wrote Catalyzing Night, I immersed myself with the sensibility of a lone beast. As if I were standing all alone on a very small stage with the audience right up in front of me, like some border zone. The border is where that tension between inside and outside meets a sense of being vividly alive. I tried to write poems like an outfielder stretching out their arm to catch a baseball. The Yongsan disaster, the high-altitude protest of the fired Ssangyong Motors workers, the Sewol disaster, the MeToo movement, the Itaewon disaster . . . What made our society cohere wasn’t so much a sense of solidarity but a sense of mutual crisis. The things that arc toward me, that arc away from me . . . The constant repetitions of arrivals and departures. These endless arcs create layers, and that’s what implicates us into mutual crisis. Our bodies are like this, but poetry also has this ability to capture all of those contradictions. I want poetry to help me maintain this ability, and I want to write that kind of poetry. I try not to do more than that, and I’m glad you seem to have recognized this.

 

I can sense your particular brand of honesty in your answer. There’s also a sense of balance that you have, a warmth that’s not too hot, an intimacy that’s not too close, a sort of just-right distance.

 

It probably has to do with the positionality of that lone beast I mentioned. Centrifugal and centripetal forces are two forces that are engrained in my very body, I think.

 

I love all of your poetry, but I especially love “Morning of Visible Dust” in your collection A Mathematician’s Morning. Maybe it’s because I turned it into a song at a reading I did with you a few years ago, but every day, when light pierces a dark room, I sing this poem in my mind. There’s a moment in reading your poetry when the quotidian hours and spaces suddenly undulate with the force of epiphany. When I read those lines, I place my own gaze on those uncannily captured moments. I was wondering what your thoughts were on writing poetry using quotidian language using quotidian settings, the writing of poetry as a quotidian pursuit.

 

There are moments when you look back on your daily life as a poet, and in that moment, something is spent. Like time drops away from that moment or I shed myself or the roof of the place I’m at flies away. You could call those moments the moments when poems find you. They are extremely idiosyncratic and limited moments, so much so you want to document them in words. The lightness of concentration in the writing of those moments make them sound like song, which is why I suppose you turned it into a song. I hum that song on occasion myself. If you give me the chords, I can practice it on my guitar. (Laughs.)

 

What a fun idea, us two sitting side by side with our guitars and singing that song someday. Many of your readers love your prose work as much as your poetry. It’s been fifteen years since your first prose collection, Mind Dictionary, was published but it’s still being reprinted. Your essay collection Biting Molars is all about your family and the times you had to grit your teeth in endurance. Personally, I feel like I’ve slipped into another body when I’m writing prose. Do you feel a difference between writing poetry and prose, and do you capture things differently depending on genre of form?

 

I like to practice for writing the kind of poems I want to write. I consider the poems in The Fatigue of the Stars Drags Behind It the Night and To i as resulting from such practice. Prose collections are a kind of practice. A documentation of the practice process and the scene of practice. Maybe I’m practicing too much. But I want to keep practicing, and I like thinking about practice, and . . . Well, that’s the way it is.

 

Your mention of documenting the process of practice and the scene of practice makes me think of a poem I wrote titled “Practicing Speech: Etude of the South.” “I felt a handspan of freedom in the mention of an etude . . . / Etudes make you. Etudes pull you.” I think I have a lot in common with you in terms of how we deal with life and think about poetry. Nowadays, poets come from all walks of life and publish on the same page regardless of their literary legitimacy and whatnot. It’s a very vibrant time. And there’s something different in this era of poetry, like publishing on the web or poetry as performance or publishing completely different versions of poems for performances. There’s such a diversity of poetry reading and writing and performing now. You’ve long published your own magazine, Text, that went against the mainstream and didn’t care whether a poet debuted “properly” or not. You were instead more interested in introducing and publishing good poetry, continuously questioning the establishment. I was wondering if you could expand on these new literary attempts and the direction you might be going in.

 

If I could have forty-eight hours a day instead of twenty-four, I could easily fill them with all kinds of activities other than poetry writing. I have so many ideas, and I’m always ready to try one of them out. I think Korean literature, like everything else in this country, is strictly regulated in its communication and distribution. I want our platforms to be as open as our voices are diverse. That an ecosystem is healthy only when many different species co-exist has always been my belief. Like the pine mushrooms in Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, something you can discover in an unexpected corner even in our capitalist system. The usual things everyone wants, but something I am trying to embody and manifest. I want there to be many ways of living as a poet, and I was able to realize many of these ways because whenever I talked about them, a compatriot would appear and lend me their strength to the cause.

      I always want myself to be placed outside of something. There are times when I get wrapped up with or roped into something and I find myself on the inside, which is when I try to find a way to escape again. I think I always made my attempts at new things when I felt this desire for the outside rankle me.

 

You mentioned escaping from the inside to the outside. I wonder if your literary lectures are also a method of escape? You’ve done many lectures and creative writing workshops over the years. Many of your former students have debuted as poets. There’s a line in Oh Gyuwon’s “Francis Kafka” that goes, “Sitting down with a crazy student of mine who wants to study poetry.” There’s satisfaction in teaching, but there must be frustrations and difficulties as well.

 

In my workshops as an instructor, I tend to emphasize one thing. To be braver. To leave behind the poetic speaker that’s been educated into us by the literary establishment, to attempt new ways of doing language. At a workshop I finished last week, we used “persona” as a keyword. I wanted my students to discover a persona that would allow them to write braver. Sure, what I meant by “braver” could be “better” or “more confident” or “more sensitive,” but it could also easily be “worse” or “more monstrous” or “more incorrigible” or “more damaged” or “crazier.” The only place where such qualities can be encouraged is a poetry workshop. It’s basically a community of people who want to go crazy. How could I not like doing these workshops?

 

There’s something in the voices of 
To i and Catalyzing Night. This speaker named lowercase i has a human body and is a letter at the same time. In the book before this one, you have beings that are referred to as ghosts, which reminds me of something Kim Hyesoon said in Women Who Do Poetry: “Would anything be left of women’s poetry if we got rid of all the ghosts? Should we not listen to the haunting ghosts, should we not reposition their places of haunting? To tell a woman poet to stop being a ghost, this admonishment that comes to us from outside the poem, is like being told to stop mourning.” She’s basically saying that a poet is someone who listens to untethered voices, who embraces the traces and makes them clear again. Through your speaker i, I can feel your embrace of others without pitying them, your determination to hold the past, present, and future in one place, to listen again to old voices and try to rediscover them. I hope you can tell us more about the gaze of the poet that looks through time, or this endless embrace of the disembodied, screaming presences.

 

I want to talk often of the political aspects of poetry, and I learned a lot about how politics work in poetry through Kim Hyesoon. I learned how a sense of reality, when focused only on societal reality, can actually become warped into lies, and I feel that Kim Hyesoon has continuously shown how societal violence internalized in a poet’s physical body, especially a woman poet’s body, can manifest on a level different from reality when translated into language. There is a voice, in other words, that reality can’t capture. And this voice is rightfully part of reality. There’s one sensibility that hasn’t changed with me since my twenties when I wrote Reach the Extreme, and that’s the sense of having gone past the end as opposed to the end not having come yet. I wrote the following line in “Before Buying Food” in Catalyzing Night:
 “Whenever I get to the end, there is no end / I keep going past the end / The end can only but disappear / When I imagine something called ‘the end’ it is but an assumption, something that only seems to exist but doesn’t / innocent and pretty like playing house.” I think it’s a sense of the infinite. But instead of the infinite, I think of it as having gone past the end. This is the real fact beyond the world I perceive, something like a ball I’ve been playing with that bounces off into the tall grass and becomes hidden out of sight. I might even go as far as to say that imaging that escape arc from the ball’s point of view is training for a sense of endless care, but . . .

 

Your words remind me of how there are voices our reality has overlooked, that to make into language the very specific interior of those voices, to question our learned assumptions about the world and traverse its boundaries is to live as a true poet. And that the fundamental reason behind writing poetry is to be irreverent of facts and things and the world we accept as truths without thinking, as well as our calcified grammar.

      A moment engraved in my memory is how we had a reading at the Pak Kyongni Memorial Institute and there was a break so we sat in the forest behind the building, side by side without talking to each other. Maybe it was because I’d normally always considered you guileless and innocent like a child, but in that moment you looked as if you’d lived several lives. We are of the age when we’re becoming more aware of aging, in both the physical and mental sense. This may herald a shift in poetry writing as well, but I wonder how you get such will and determination to continue going about your work.

 

I labored as a caretaker for my mother in her final years and did much research into sickness narratives. There are so many pressures surrounding health in our society, and my focus was on that. It didn’t seem like there being many sick people was the problem so much as this fantasy of “health” that was so pervasive. When you focus for the sake of writing poetry, it’s like poetry itself is some backyard teeming with all sorts of life. On rare occasions, I install a door into the wall surrounding this backyard and invite people to enter it, which is what publishing my books is like for me. My work, then, is a backyard full of things I planted and some I haven’t, otherwise just growing there on their own accord without any need for me to define what is meaningful about it. I think this inviting people in to that modest little plot, that unassuming attitude—it is, in itself, a talent of sorts. If I didn’t have that attitude, I don’t think I could have successfully undertaken the role of poet, which is why I keep trying. To have a guileless attitude and a willingness to accept failure. Not that I don’t constantly hesitate between the two.

 

For over three decades since your debut, you’ve been producing political lines in both verse and prose as you soldier on with your forceful writing. Regarding your edition of the children’s book La Luna di Kiev, you’ve spoken of how different people in different circumstances are all connected, socially and psychologically, by virtue of being under the same moon. And that we write poetry to expand outside of ourselves. Where are you headed to with your lines, with your writing?

 

What I’ve always stared at in the face since my first collection is fear. I don’t even want to call it fear—I want to look behind its head, inside its grasp, into each and every one of the crevasses of its fingerprints. I’m always imagining how the soul living inside fear can turn into beauty, how I would stand by it as it does.

 

Translated by Anton Hur

 

      KOREAN WORKS MENTIONED:

•   Reach the Extreme (Moonji Publishing, 1996) 1

    『극에 달하다』 (문학과지성사, 1996)

•   The Fatigue of the Stars Drags Behind It the Night (Minumsa, 2006) 2

    『빛들의 피곤이 밤을 끌어당긴다』 (민음사, 2006)

•   “Catalyzing Night,” “Before Buying Food,” Catalyzing Night (Moonji Publishing, 2023)

    「촉진하는 밤」, 「식량을 거래하기에 앞서」, 『촉진하는 밤』 (문학과지성사, 2023)

•   “Morning of Visible Dust,” A Mathematician’s Morning
    (Moonji Publishing, 2013)

    「먼지가 보이는 아침」, 『수학자의 아침』 (문학과지성사, 2013)

•   Mind Dictionary (Maumsanchaek, 2008) 3

    『마음사전』 (마음산책, 2008)

•   Biting Molars (Maumsanchaek, 2022) 4

    『어금니 깨물기』 (마음산책, 2022)

•   “To i,” To i (Achimdal Books, 2018)

    「i에게」, 『i에게』 (아침달, 2018)

•   “Practicing Speech: Etude of the South,” 
     And Thus They Were Scrawled (Moonji Publishing, 2019) 5

    「발화 연습 문장_남방의 연습곡」, 『그리하여 흘려 쓴 것들』 (문학과지성사, 2019)

•   “Francis Kafka,” Oh Gyuwon's Perspective
     (Knowledge Making Knowledge, 2012)

    「프란츠 카프카」, 『오규원 시선』 (지식을만드는지식, 2012)

•   Women Who Do Poetry (Moonji Publishing, 2017)

    『여성, 시하다』 (문학과지성사, 2017)

 

Lee Jenny debuted through the Kyunghyang Daily News New Writer’s Contest in 1993. She has published the poetry collections, Probably Africa, Because We Don’t Know Ourselves, And Thus They Were Scrawled and Non-Existent Lines Are Beautiful, and a prose collection, Dawn and Music. She was selected as the winner of the 2011 Pyunwoon Literary Award, the 2016 Kim Hyeon Literary Trophy, and the 2021 Hyundae Munhak Literary Award.

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