The Territory of Language Has Shrunk: a conversation

2016 Number 3 - The Blue Vein

In these forty-nine poems, I declare the death of ‘I’, the death of the world of language through the soaring of the invisible things that are like voices, those bare rhythms and colours spewed out by the dying language. At such a moment, it would be alright to address myself and you in sixth person or seventh-person.


The excerpted interview first appeared in the literary journal Munhakdongnae in Summer 2016.

CHO CHAE-RYONG: This may sound strange, but I found it difficult to read your new collection, Autobiography of Death. I had a similar experience a while back when I was writing a critical essay on your poems. As I read your poems, I felt as if I were fighting with a ghost, or perhaps consoling it. I came to realize that I was in a strange state of mind only after I got sick from reading your book. Autobiography of Death consists of forty-nine poems, but it can also be seen as a single poem. Could you talk about what you were thinking and how you came to write this new work?

KIM HYESOON: The idea for Autobiography of Death came to me a long time ago. I once fainted on the subway platform after feeling very dizzy. Something floated up and looked down at my fallen body, as if I were having an out-of-body experience. At first, I wondered who she was, for I didn’t recognize her. So after this experience, I started to work on Autobiography of Death. Then, whenever terrible incidents occurred, the incidents that none of the people in South Korea could cope with, I wrote and wrote. Why does our country make us feel ashamed about the fact that we remain alive? At the end of humiliation and suffering there was death. As I received death inside poetry, I had a strange experience of death arising, a space in which language loses materiality. Then I had an experience of language repeatedly discarding the notion of ‘I’ like it was garbage, and language greeting death that endlessly returns. Perhaps because a poet passively repeats death and is therefore a being that resists the killing? I wrote down the rhythm weeping inside the hours in which death repeated itself. Poetry was waiting in the space where ‘I’ was killed – like when nothing remains after you memorize the multiplication table – six times six is thirty-six and seven times seven is forty-nine. I published selections from Autobiography of Death as stand-alone poems in various journals. As I read the published poems, each of them appeared to be craving the others like the way each number in multiplication tables craves other numbers. So last year, during my research year, I compiled the individual poems as a collection. I wrote about the forty-nine days of roaming in the world of death. I wondered whether ghosts that are dead yet alive exist collectively as one, or exist separately, individually.

CC: I would like us to talk about incident and poetry, tragedy and poetry. I would like to ask you about the way poetry documents tragedy, the way poetry gets near it, the way poetry reproduces it…. I can’t help but ask what your life was like while you were writing these forty-nine poems. You didn’t record death as something that happens to the other, but as something that happens to ‘you’… This ‘you’ is somewhat ambiguous – ‘you’ is clearly the second-person narrative point-of-view, yet I feel there is a shi resulting from the way you highlight the ‘you’.

KH: On 17 April it was the 79th anniversary of Yi Sang’s (1910–1937) death. Professor Ham Ton-kyun asked me to write a short verse about ‘children’ in reference to Yi Sang’s untitled poem ‘Poem No. 1’. That day, I felt for the first time in my body how sad and terrifying the line ‘13 children speed toward the way’ from Yi Sang’s poem was. And as I re-read Yi Sang’s book of poems, I had a strange sensation of facing Yi Sang with my entire body. After the incident * on 16 April 2014, words such as ‘child’ or ‘sea’ are yet to function as metaphors for me. The territory of language has shrunk. When this happens, the ignition point of the source poem suffers a blow. And poetry’s freedom is lost and metaphor loses its brilliance. It leads to state censorship, the corrupt system’s repression of language, the disguise of language and so forth. When you live in a society where these experiences keep repeating themselves, you will end up writing something like ‘It was a time when it was difficult to save the face of poetry’ in the preface of your book. Such incidents take language away from us, they censor and alter it. From the wounded language a new form is born, a form that can be called modern. I think modernism is a kind of form that is born from a place where language becomes a martyr. Reading Yi Sang made me think of these things. When I can’t endure the shame of being myself, when I can no longer call myself I, poetry calls in death. As I was writing Autobiography of Death, I aimed for waking the death in myself. Making myself become the first-person, second-person, third-person, or non-person in the poem that my body is immersed in so that I would lose myself – that is poetry. Poetry is a record of someone separating the I from I. Poetry endlessly separates the I from I like the way language separates the thing from the thingness – the way death does … Autobiography of Death is inside the world of parting. Through the parting from things, parting from oneself, parting from the world, I am constructing death that confronts terrible deaths. If The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a scripture that guides the ‘I’ to find the ‘I’ again a& er death, to go beyond the spell of illusion, to reach its new womb, then Autobiography of Death is a record of separating the ‘I’ from ‘I’ – the journey to the death’s interior that is so near yet far. When I peeled away ‘you’ – the death of the ‘I’ – again and again and entered it, there were only things like naked rhythms and skeletons made of smoke. The more I went inside, the more I became distant from myself. What remained were the bubbling yet cool magma, the vanished yet prickly, the pulse of the torment of not being able to discard the ‘you’, the rhythm of the vanished face of my mother. There was the ‘you’ that goes beyond death, endlessly extinguishing the ‘I’.

CC: I am thinking with my eyes closed for a brief moment. Why was the use of ‘you’ unavoidable throughout your book? This ‘you’ links the point of view of the writer as well as the reader, and simultaneously [in Korean] it is a non-honorific used to address someone younger. Isn’t ‘you’ really the collective ‘you’?... In your poems, it seems like ‘you’ simultaneously pulls up something new in a place where everything collapses….

KH: At the Paris Book Fair in March, ‘resistance’ was a key word in the seminar I participated in. But the questioner didn’t use the word ‘resistance’ at all in his questions. It seemed as if his thesis ‘to create is to resist’, ‘nation-state and poetry are antonyms’. I thought that the premise of his questions was that the method of resistance is hidden inside the methodology of imagination. But at the same time, he was curious about how my way of writing was a form of negativity. Where there is power there is resistance. We know that resistance is not outside of power, don’t we? Every time a terrible incident happens, we who have grown to be adults know in our bodies that we can’t run from power, that power has no outside, don’t we? We have shamefully stayed alive, and, submerged in the sorrow of complicity, we weep and are enraged, aren’t we? Inside the terrible incidents, we speak and write adequately enough, not realizing that each one of us has become Pontius Pilate. Despite all that, for me, poetry is a machine that doesn’t dissipate into history. For me, poetry is the machine that has to stand up infinitely, within the hours that fracture infi nitely. Inside those hours, poetry banishes me from ‘I’ and therefore triggers ‘you’ endlessly. Poetry is about the moving from ‘I’ to ‘you’. Ultimately ‘I’ passes through my language and death and discovers ‘you’, don’t you think? This is the political aspect of poetry. What I mean is that my sensations align themselves to the uniqueness of the poetry ‘you’ reside in – this practice of transforming and making the ‘I’ stand up is the ethical practice of poetry. I am an individual who is endlessly trying to free myself from the double confinement of my parasitic life inside the system of power. I think that, from ‘I’ to ‘you’, carrying out the death of the ‘I’ is the political in poetry. If I were to treat ‘you’ as subject matter the way male poets treat women as their subject matter, then ‘you’ would no longer exist in poetry. In these forty-nine poems, I declare the death of ‘I’, the death of the world of language through the soaring of the invisible things that are like voices, those bare rhythms and colours spewed out by the dying language. At such a moment, it would be alright to address myself and you in sixth person or seventh-person. At the Paris Book Fair, it occurred to me that the death of ‘I’ is about repeatedly confronting the brutal system of the nation-state, that death is about pushing my body into negativity. It’s like what poet Kim Su-yŏng referred to as ‘a mosquito’s voice’, or an echo that sounds like a ghost’s voice, an ectoplasm that’s like the body of a ghost.

* Translators note: This incident refers to the capsizing of the Sewol ferry on 16 April 16 2014 in South Korea. A group of high school students on a fi eld trip to Jeju Island were among the 304 drowned passengers. Many believe neoliberal deregulation and privatization that led to safety violations played a crucial role in the sinking of the ship, including the state’s dismal failure to rescue the passengers. The most recent findings have revealed that the ferry, which was carrying 1,228 tons above the legal limit, was also carrying 410 tons of iron bars that would have been used for the construction of the new naval base on the island. The new naval base, which serves the new US policy of Asia Pivot, has been contested by activist and residents for the past several years.

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