“With filthy things”
Guernica: In an interview with Don Mee Choi, you said, “To live as a woman poet in Korea means to occupy a marginal place, a mere ‘spice’ within a world of poetry constructed by men.” Is it merely tradition that pushes women poets to the margins in Korean culture?
Kim Hyesoon: When I became a poet, the Korean literary world expected women poets to sing passively of love. Naturally, this was not written anywhere, but this rule existed nonetheless. Consequently, I received plenty of serious criticism. Korean male poets did not let me in their groups. Nor could I find my role model among Korean women poets. I did not have any teacher, seniors, or coworkers. My tough and grotesque images were thrown on the roads and were stepped on by my critics, and I was talked about with scorn. I felt regret that readers only seemed to like something they were accustomed to. I gradually realized that speaking as an outsider is the most authentic voice for a poet. Poets who have one hundred thousand or one million readers [as many South Korean poets do] might not be a real, authentic poet. Now, I can see that many young poets have adapted my poetry’s style of speaking.
Guernica: In the same interview, you told Ms. Choi you believed poetry is an especially powerful tool for Korean women. Why?
Kim Hyesoon: I think that solely through a language of poetry that has schizophrenia can women force the father language down from power. It is only possible with poetry to find a new Korean word or coin new Korean words. What other things can stand against it when it is a language that is a prison of discrimination for women? The language of poetry is on the margins, and it is passive, feminine, and dirty. Poetry is something that disturbs the mainstream with minor things and it is something that breaks down active discrimination with passive things, and it can break down something that polishes the filthy things with filthy things. I think it is difficult to disturb the common usage of Korean that is bent to the perspective of a male-oriented society. Korean society is based on both a politics and history that have been disguised as a solid society of solid male poems, a solid written language, fixed rules of how to write literature, and a narrative language.
Guernica: Your poetry is grotesque, asserting a kind of violent ugliness that disrupts the poem’s surface, seemingly offering an open challenge to those who might assert that women must write only about “pretty” things. What draws you to this?
Kim Hyesoon: We carve on our body what society teaches us and continue this task, not knowing the identity they force us to have. This identity is carved on our faces and our skins. Not knowing our bodies have become “the paper made of human meat,” we stuff our bodies and make them a theater where cultural symbols or suppressed symbols play. It is not possible to explain women’s poetry until you sympathize with how women painfully go through the experience of having these tattoos carved on their bodies. At this point, women’s language is the butcher’s language who sells his or her body. It is grotesque and miserable. Female poets can finally step into the world of language after crossing this river of the grotesque; the words cannot gush out of their mouths until they cross the river of screams where you witness death like everyday affairs.