“Accessing a Limitless Vein of Words”: Ruth Williams Interviews Jeongrye Choi

by on Jan.09, 2013

“Accessing a Limitless Vein of Words”: An Interview with Jeongrye Choi
By Ruth Williams

In her essay, “My Language and Its Moments,” which concludes Instances (Parlor Press, 2011), South Korean poet Jeongrye Choi explains that her writing proceeds from a deep sense of responsibility: “Someone gave me life and I should answer. Now that I am alive and have a memory and can feel things deeply, I have to answer the questions of who I am, and where I am. So I write.” In her attempt to construct these answers, Jeongrye exposes the way our perceptions of the world are blurred by image and memory, rendering our existence both present and ghostly. Accordingly, Brenda Hillman, who worked with Wayne De Fremery and Jeongrye herself on translating the poems in Instances, describes Jeongrye’s work as displaying a “commitment to the strangeness of the everyday.”
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Jeongrye Choi has published numerous books of poetry and essays in her native South Korea, winning several major literary awards for her work, including the Korean Modern Literature Award; Instances is the first collection of her poetry to be published in English. Jeongrye has spent time in the U.S. as a participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkley. She holds a Ph.D. in Korean Modern Poetry from Korea University, and currently teaches at Korea National University of Art in Seoul. A brief excerpt of poems from Instances can be found at Strong Voices: Korean Women Poets.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jeongrye in Seoul. Not only did she kindly give me some delicious homemade kimchi and pickled sesame leaves, she also warmly agreed to discuss her work, the translation process, and Korean poetry. This interview was conducted via email in January 2012 with translation provided by S.B. and Claire Kyung Jin.
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Though you studied literature and poetry when you were young, you gave it up for a time, only to return to it decades later. What was it that compelled you to return to writing poetry and studying literature?

Before I went to college, when I was very little, I definitely had a passion for writing novels. In part, my interest in literature stemmed from the fact that I have an aunt who bears the scars of Korean history—that is the Korean War and the division of North and South Korea. During the Korean War, her husband was beaten to death because he was a communist—if he was actually a communist—and, her brother-in-law infiltrated the South as a spy of the newly established North Korean regime. My beautiful aunt’s life was ruined after she was imprisoned and tortured for ten years because of these things. When I was little, I used to say that one day I would write a novel about her sorrowful life. I guess those words that I spoke then, later made me interested in literature. So, with a vague idea, I decided to register in the Korean literature department at my university; however, I could not learn what I wanted to learn in the so-called department of Korean literature. The only thing I learned in university was that literature is terrifying. Literature seemed like an enormous ideology and I thought that if I made a career of it, I would need to throw away my life. Making a living by writing seemed far from living a so-called happy life, in a secular sense, so I ran away from literature in horror.

The 1970s, while I was in college, was the gloomiest period of Korean history— socially, politically, and also, personally. To make a living out of writing meant that one had to brace oneself for an unhappy life. I believed that only brave and heroic people could write poetry, not an ordinary person like me. However, while I was working as a teacher of Korean literature after college, one of my colleagues told me that her husband wrote poems. I was quite shocked. It was the first time I realized that the ordinary and practical people around me could also write poetry.

Upon graduation, I got a job, got married, and gave birth. I found that my decision not to pursue a literary career and, instead, to lead an ordinary life did not bring me much happiness. The way I perceived the world also changed when I got married and raised children. Then, I had to strive to enter into the concrete world. I realized that one cannot be happy automatically just because he or she refuses to write literature. So, I decided to abandon the stupid idea of avoiding literature. I thought, though poetry doesn’t bring me great things, I’m none the happier if I avoid it. Going through those times, I began to aspire to write poems. That is why I was so late to publish. It was not easy to belatedly restart writing and much time had to be spent for me to have a proper debut in Korean literary circles.

Since many American readers are unfamiliar with Korean culture and literature, can you tell us a little about the role poets and poetry play in South Korea? How has the role of poets and poetry in Korea changed over time?

During the Joseon Dynasty [1392-1897], poetry played a social role by making people’s lives more relaxed and enriching. Though there was no such profession called “a poet,” all scholars were supposed to write poems. The state examination used to recruit government officials based on the capability of candidates to compose good poems. Poetry was also an important tool by which one made himself/herself heard in political debate. The poems Hayeo-ga(하여가) and Dansim-ga(단심가) are good examples of how powerful families in the Joseon Dynasty exchanged their political views. When Western civilization was introduced along with the modernization movement, traditional Korean society was agitated. As intellectuals who shared the concerns of the state, poets voiced different views and were at the forefront of Western literary importation. They played a pivotal role in social and cultural change at this time. Especially going through the national crisis of war and division, Korean poetry gathered its true power, as poets such as Kim Soo-young(김수영) got popular. People believed that poetry could change reality. However, as we evolved into the present time when capitalism rules, it was inevitable that the status of poets has contracted drastically. Kim Young-seung(김영승) and Han Min Bok (함민복) showed explicitly that poets will inevitably suffer from poverty. Their poems were appreciated by the public for their spirit of resistance to the capitalist system. On the other hand, poets have emerged who find comfort in writing about nostalgia for rural life, which has already been destroyed. Also, there are quite a few poets who do not speak directly of resistance but still dream of another world and live in it. I guess that I belong to the last group.

Similarly, what is the tradition of women’s poetry in Korea like? How do you see your poetry as responding to or departing from traditional Korean poetry in general, and Korean women’s poetry, in particular?

It is very difficult to categorize the genealogy and tradition of the women’s poetry in Korea. It is the same with men’s poetry. Not only did I read poems written by women, but also those by men. The latter were greatly influential to me. Poets in the 1930s when Western modernism was introduced to Korean literature and all the other poets such as Kim Soo-young(김수영) and Seo Jung-ju(서정주) who preceded me influenced a lot of my poems. I also liked poets whose poetry spurred explosive energy in the 1970s and 80s such as Lee Sung-bok(이성복) and Choi Seung-ja(최승자).

On the other hand, in my childhood, I was fascinated by foreign novels such as Gone with the Wind and The Great Gatsby, so I believe that the works of writers from different countries also affected me in various ways. However, I don’t know exactly how those external elements are mixed and concretely expressed in my works. After reading my collection Instances, American poet Matthew Dickman pointed out that he could find in my work some DNA similar to American poets such as James Schuyler, Bob Kaufman, Anne Sexton, and Dorothea Lasky. However, I only read the translated version of Anne Sexton’s poems. I never heard of nor read the work of the other three American writers. Still, I think that in today’s world, no matter where we live, numerous thoughts and ideas that we have are afloat in the air and interact continuously with each other.

In the essay “My Language and Its Moments” that concludes Instances, you talk about how your sense of nation, both its history and its language, impacts your relation to writing. You draw the conclusion that part of what compels you to write is your desire to remember the pain not only of your own life, but also of South Korea. Can you elaborate on the way you view your poetry as connected to your national identity?

That essay was published in Iowa during the International Writing Program. I did not usually think much about my country, nor my mother tongue before. However, during my stay in Iowa, writers and executive members of the program looked at me not as a simple individual but as a Korean poet who could represent her country. I involuntarily had to make some statements that are representative of my country. Somehow, I was made to think more deeply about myself as a Korean by being placed in front of numerous foreign writers.

Also, it was the first time that I stayed in a foreign, English-speaking country. For the first time in my life, I had to introduce myself in English. It was agonizing to speak in a foreign language, unable to use the mother tongue with which I can deliver delicate messages and speak freely. Suddenly, I felt like an imbecile and became mute whenever I had to speak. I wanted to communicate in a delicate and refined way, but I spoke in vain, through a language I couldn’t master. This experience made me think deeply about my identity and language. I realized I couldn’t help but talk not only about my agony, but also the pains that my country had to suffer. I came to understand that I can only feel the pain of my country and others through the pains that I suffer. If I didn’t suffer, how would I ever understand pains of others? Is it not because of the painful experiences that we go through that we can understand and share those of others?

You speak so eloquently in your essay about the difficulty of communication for a Korean speaker attempting to reach an English-speaking audience, noting that your mother tongue is not one that is considered valuable in the world-at-large. Given that you worked collaboratively with Brenda Hillman and Wayne De Fremery to translate the poems in Instances from Korean to English, how did this experience impact your relationship to your poetry as well as both English and Korean?

Even though I had difficulty understanding and speaking English during my stay in America, I found it very surprising and amusing to discuss my poems. In a sense, they turned from my personal expression into simple literary texts to be analyzed. Looking at my poems written in a foreign language, I felt like an innocent child who looks at an object for the first time. When we speak our mother tongue, we encounter the meaning of certain words or of their combinations, but we tend to ignore them. However, written in a foreign language, every word and expression becomes fresh, so much so that we are not even aware whether it is cliché or not. Besides, we can understand an object more truly when we free ourselves from the conventional thinking that we’re likely to have when we speak our mother tongue.

One day when I worked with Brenda Hillman on the translation of one of my poems, an interesting incident happened. In my poem “숲(Forest)”, there is a phrase “마침내 모든 아름다운 나무에 닿게도 하니?( Does it finally arrive at all the ultimate trees?)” Trying to translate it into English, Brenda asked many questions in order to avoid the words “beautiful trees.”We searched hour after hour in the thesaurus for a word that we could all agree on. To Brenda “beautiful trees” was too cliché, but it seemed to me to still be close to my original meaning. This experience can also be true in translating English texts into Korean. In other words, it is difficult to find the Korean words that are equivalent to certain English expressions and make them delicately correspond.

Translation teaches us how to confront and deal with the strangeness of language. Writing poems requires the same attitude. When we try to speak and understand a foreign language, we need to place ourselves in the position of others. In the same way, writing poems is also putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. To confront these words that I don’t know is like being alone in a vast field. Understanding words one by one and putting them into my own vocabulary was a very pleasant experience because it offered an infinite source to my poetry as if I was accessing a limitless vein of words in that field.

As I read them, your poems constantly move between a daily reality and a metaphysical reality, pushing me to see the two as interwoven. It seems that so often we allow ourselves to be consumed by the everyday, but I feel your poems break through this accrued dullness by pointing to the strangeness of life, thereby creating a space in which I’m forced to question my experience. Is it your sense that poetry is a genre that especially allows for this kind of metaphysical questioning? What is it about these “big” questions—the nature of time, existence, memory, love, etc.—that draws you to consider them in your poetry?

I believe that we all have metaphysical questions, but sometimes we can’t find the right tool for expressing them or sometimes we just can’t be bothered to express them. When I was a child, I heard adults jokingly ask, “What is life?” “What is love?” “How should we live?” etc., whenever they were exhausted. Are these mumblings peculiar to Korean people? Would people from other countries not ask something similar? Even if I’m not a poet and work as a fruit vendor or a bank teller, I would still ask questions about time, existence, memory, and love like “Do I live right?” and “Why can’t love be conveyed properly?” etc. Pursuing something in another world while living in current reality, or showing the present world and at the same time speaking of the world beyond -which some refer to as allegory- this is poetry.

Your poetry is full of striking and surreal images; indeed, in her preface to Instances, Brenda Hillman says these images serve not so much as description, but as “enactments” of a sort, turning the poet’s vision into reality. In your opinion, what is the source of the poetic image’s power?

Most people consider language to be a tool for delivering thoughts. However, I heard that there are some people who think of language as an image and I think I’m among them. I don’t know how I’m inclined to think of language in this way. When I was young and reading novels, I was fascinated by the descriptions of certain scenes and of the actions of characters. I kept reading the same descriptions over and over, so much so that I couldn’t even finish the book. That’s why I hardly remember the stories of novels that I read. Certain images attract me more than the narrative and I find it easier and more comfortable to see the world in this way.

The past—both that of Korea as well as your own personal past—seem to intrude on the present moment in many of your poems, so that the speaker encounters the past in the present moment, so to speak. In “My Language and Its Moments,” you say you feel you reach your “real existence” in memories, that memory is the way you “understand the world and others.” How do memories of the past help you navigate the present? Why is the mining of memory so central to your poetry?

I feel like I don’t know very well how to get along with people. I don’t know the ways to be loved by others; namely, I don’t have good, developed social skills. Therefore, I have more memories of being hurt rather than happy ones of being loved. I don’t easily forget unhappy memories, so they linger in my mind for quite a long time. Small pieces of those memories are scattered inside of my heart and sometimes they abruptly bulge out. Those memories, the records of past scars, are at the center of my existence. When I think about them, they seem to be the basis upon which I understand my present existence. It can be true of other people, too. Isn’t the memory of past experience where we find the criteria upon which to judge our present and future?

In “An Arrow Lying on the Road” you write these lines: “I write that I’ll follow the white arrow bending left. / That hope behaves outrageously / so, every day, chased by it, I go a little further.” I love the way you subvert our expectations in this poem; where we expect that the speaker would chase after hope, here hope chases after us. How is the act of writing like allowing hope to chase after you?

Hope is a force that moves us but also deserts us. We always move forward, hoping to rise above, but at the same time we cannot deny that we know we will all perish one day. Death ends all life and proves that nothing is worthwhile in the face of it. Thus, it is not like we bring hope everywhere, but rather we are dragged by it and deserted in the end.

In the poem “And Blinks” you describe the wilting of a peony, remarking upon this image “when it was or what it signified, / I don’t know.” I like that so often in your poems you admit to being confused, to not knowing where you’re at, what time it is, or what the images you’re describing signify. It seems you’re writing against our human tendency to want to know everything, always. In your poems, though, I don’t get the sense that this lack of knowledge is necessarily upsetting; can you talk about this confusion and why it seems so central to the emotional world of your poetry?

Literature is to assign linguistic order after attempting to give new meanings to the things we hardly knew before. At the same time, I believe it reveals the fact that even though we say we know something, we don’t know it very well or we don’t know it at all. I believe it is one of the tasks of poetry to make us recognize that we don’t know what we think we know or that we know it incorrectly, and to make us rethink the matter.

Ruth Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. In 2011-2012, she was a Fulbright scholar in Seoul, South Korea.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Johannes Göransson

    I love that Brenda Hillman helped bring this excellent book into the world, but I have to say that the anecdote about the “beautiful trees” is worth its weight in gold. This is a big issue I think to consider in terms of translation. Sometimes the “difficulty” or “foreigness” of translated texts are not that they contort the English language, sometimes it’s that it seems too simple, not to dense. But it’s just as disconcerting!

    Johannes