Kim Hyesoon was one of the first women in South Korea to be published in a literary journal when her work appeared in Munhak kwa jisong (Literature and Intellect) in 1979. She is one of the most important contemporary poets of South Korea. In her experimental work she explores women’s multiple and simultaneous existence as grandmothers, mothers, and daughters in the context of Korea’s highly patriarchal society. She has won numerous literary prizes and was the first woman to receive the coveted Midang (2006) and Kim Su-yong (1998) awards named after two major contemporary poets. She lives in Seoul and teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
SJ Fowler: In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
Kim Hyesoon: Poetry is language but it also lies outside the realm of language. Poetry is written in the mother tongue and yet it transcends the mother tongue. I wish to witness poetry making use of its diverse sounds through the throat of each mother tongue in Poetry Parnassus. Each language of the nation will become the dialect of the region through Poetry Parnassus. Without either an official language or marginal ones.
SJF: Your poetry has a remarkable quality, even in English translation, to reflect the fragility of life, of the body, of living. Is this at the heart of your work?
KH: Whenever I wish to deconstruct the established order, straight lines, hierarchy or standard barometers of the world, I take apart first, my language, my body and then my life... (If my poetry maintains a remarkable quality in translation, then I have to turn the honor to the translator, Don Mee Choi, for her work.)
SJF: You also seem to produce an unusual degree of synthesis with Buddhist conceptions without ever being declarative. Do you view yourself as part of the Buddhist poetical tradition?
KH: Not every Asian country is steeped in Buddhist tradition. I was rather raised in a Christian environment. I think Buddhism is more than a religion, it is first a process of discipline, and Buddha is one who has gained wisdom rather than being a god. In my poetry, I enjoy making fun of Buddha. Male poets like to speak as if they have reached transcendence after they have undergone a long period of writing poetry. That is why I like making fun of anyone who says he has reached transcendence..
SJF: You teach creative writing in Korea I believe. How does this profession, a teacher of the craft of writing, allow you to reflect on your own poetry?
KH: Teaching poetry is my profession. However, writing poetry does not guarantee a living. There is a wide gap between the work of my students and my own process of poetry writing. In a sense, I may be teaching ghost students in a ghost school. Every hour in class, I discuss "what is poetry?" with my students, incessantly. I am continuing with this task of asking this question whose answer changes every time, every day.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation and its poetic culture. How do you feel about that idea?
KH: Every poet, each one of them from a country is that country and that government. They are nobody's representative. I am a poet from the nation called, "The poet, Kim Hyesoon."
SJF: And what are your feelings about reading before an audience in London and visiting the city in order to share your work?
KH: I expect that the impressions of London as a location will become part of my body of poetry.
SJF: The parnassian ideal that really centres Poetry Parnassus reaches back to the Poetry International festival held in London in 1967 which sought to address notions of free speech, community and peace through the art form of poetry. Do you believe this tradition needs to be maintained in 2012?
KH: Poetry is almost useless. It has no utility. That is why it can point out the problems of what we call useful things. Poetry is able to target what is useful by being useless. It takes its aim at useful things such as politics, economy, society, food, arms, and competition.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.