Ruth Williams interviews Kim Hyesoon January 1, 2012
“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.”
To read the interview, please go to Guernica Mag.