The Korean feminist poet talks undermining patriarchy, the Korean literary world’s #MeToo, and why the material is more honest than matters of the soul
February 21, 2019
In 2015, the Korean version of #MeToo exploded into what some have called the first popular feminist movement in Korea. Many prominent writers in positions of power have been asked to address their mistreatment of women, including the poet Ko Un, whose name has long been floated as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. To say that there was no feminism in Korea before #MeToo is a an erasure of the rich history of women’s agitation and rebellion against Japanese colonialism, American neo-colonialism, and Korean patriarchy. In literature, contemporary Korean women’s poetry has always been adjacent to and separate from male dominated national literature. Korean women poets have developed a unique and imaginative style of language that is filled with sonic dissonance, dirty language, and linguistic play. Because they are marginalized both in the field of literature and in society in general, these women write in a style that is more experimental and radical than their male counterparts. As the poet Kim Hyesoon and her translator Don Mee Choi have argued, the imaginative ways in which women pervert, dissect, and distort poetic language is how they undermine patriarchy. Perhaps the most blunt poet working in this tradition is the poet Kim Yideum.
Kim Yideum is the author of five books of poetry, including Cheer Up, Femme Fatale which was translated into English by Jiyoon Lee, Johannes Goransson and Don Mee Choi and published by Action Books in 2015. English translations of her newest collection of poetry Hysteria (translated by Jake Levine, Soeun Seo, and Hedgie Choi) and her novel Blood Sisters (translated by Jiyoon Lee) will be out with Action Books and Deep Vellum this spring. On a Saturday morning last March, Soeun Seo and Jake Levine met with Kim Yideum in her new book cafe, Cafe Yideum in Ilsan, a satellite city of Seoul. The following is a conversation they had about her work, what it means to be a feminist poet, the history of women’s poetry in Korea, and the larger feminist movement in Korean society. An audio recording of the interview was transcribed and translated from the Korean into English by Hedgie Choi, with later edits and revisions made by Jake and Soeun.
Why did you start Cafe Yideum?
There are maybe two reasons. I got a PhD and for eighteen years I worked as an adjunct lecturer. I was like a grasshopper, jumping from one place to another, hop, hop, hop. It was difficult, and I wanted to settle down. That’s how I was feeling when I came up here to Ilsan. My aunt lives around here. So I thought, let’s make a book cafe! And then maybe I’ll become rich. I won’t have to lecture to students at a university and bow to all the professors and beg them to let me teach every semester. I will be the owner of a cafe and I’ll be able to feed myself.
I guess the second reason I opened this shop is that I hate the literary communities (mundan) in Korea. A mundan gets together and publishes and has parties. It’s cliquey and they show off to one another. I hate that. I want to become a guerilla. I want to show them I can be fine on my own! So I see this as a kind of movement, a revolution. I am like a guerilla or a partisan, that’s how I see my life here in Ilsan.
The weird thing is, reporters keep taking interest in this book café. They call me and they want to interview me. And on the news too, or on portal sites like Naver or Daum—there are so many articles about this book café. It’s so strange!
Why do you think that’s strange?
Because reporters may interview famous professors or poets who have gotten big prizes, but when I put out a poetry collection, there is no reaction. Then I start a book café and now I get calls and visits and people come and take pictures of the events we have here. So recently I said to them, you all like writing fun, gossipy stories, but you don’t want to write about a poet putting out a poetry collection? I told them to screw themselves, that I don’t want to do an interview.
You’ve always been interested in feminism in literature. You even wrote your PhD thesis on it. What are things like for women writers in Korea? For instance, even in my university, the faculty for creative writing is mostly men despite the fact that most of the students are women…
That’s the reality of Korea. I also teach poetry workshop to second-years at the Hanyang Women’s University. I close up the café on Mondays and I go teach for six hours there. At the Hanyang Women’s University most of the faculty are men. Even though it’s a women’s university!
Why is that?
It’s a problem with Korea’s social structure. The further up the ladder you go, the more men there are. Those who are a part of the women’s movement say we need to have a 1:1 ratio of women and men, but most Koreans think men are superior, because it’s a patriarchal society. So no matter where you go, the top dog is a man.
As for women poets in Korea… well, I don’t know. It has always been people with money and power who make magazines and books. There’s a big book called The History of Korean Literature, and all the editors for that book are men, so all the poems in that book were ones written by men. That was the way things were for a long time. And then in the 1980s there was more of an awareness of women’s issues in Korea. There was an emergence of female poets—more of them debuted and published really good work. Among them are poets like Kim Hyesoon and Choi Seung Ja. That’s what my thesis was on.
They were among the first generation of women who wrote from a feminist identity. I was really interested in them, so I studied them. Even now, women’s issues and the question of what it means to be a woman poet are things that are on my mind when I write. Every day I’m fighting, fighting against the man. Of course I don’t fight in an obvious way. I fight in a forgiving kind of way, but I am still fighting. And I’m fighting the problems we have in the literature community, in the mundan. I feel really bad for myself sometimes, it’s really tiring.
Tell us about “Country Whore,” your poem about kisaeng (a woman entertainer). To me it is kind of like the Kim Yideum poetry manifesto.
“Country Whore” is about my thoughts, my internal struggles about the concept of tradition. Jinju is my hometown. My father always said that we are from a seonbi lineage where everyone is a yangban (ruling class) or a scholar. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true… Koreans have a family book called a jokbo where it lists your family names and occupations, so you can see that so-and-so was a high rank official during the Chosun Dynasty and so on. But I still think there are people who were omitted from the book. People whose lives we don’t know anything about. In Jinju, there were a lot of baekjeong.
What’s a baekjeong?
In Jinju there were a lot of yangban and therefore also a lot of kisaeng. And the yangban were not vegetarians, they wanted to eat delicious beef. So the baekjeong—what are they called in English? They kill cows. And pigs. And skin them and make them into meat.
Yes, that’s a baekjeong, and there were a lot of them because the yangban wanted fresh meat.
And yangban and kisaeng?
Yeah, so the yangban are a part of the upper class and the kisaeng and baekjeong are lower-class. The lower class is called cheonmin. They were abused. They weren’t treated like people. They were treated like dogs and cows. They were sold like slaves. So given this context, this history, I wanted to say that the lives of cheonmin, the lives of kisaeng and baekjeong are also precious and valuable.
So if kisaeng were in your family they were excluded from the family history?
Yes. Kisaeng made magazines. They wrote poems. They are part of a long history of women poets in Korea. American readers have only heard of geishas, but not kisaeng. Now we have these poems that have been discovered, poems by old and famous kisaeng like Hwang Jin. I don’t think modern poets and kisaeng are so closely related. But if they share something in common, it’s that kisaeng also needed to write well, sing well, draw well, and have a lot of training to be high-class kisaeng.
Coming back to your poetry, the voice in your poems is very performative. The speaker often uses a persona or borrowed identity. Not just like in the poem where you become a kisaeng from the Chosun dynasty, but also modern celebrities. Like in the poem “Dress Rehearsal.”
Yes. That poem is about Kim Yuna, the skater. People were saying that Kim Yuna’s natural state was when she was wearing no make-up, when she was not skating, but I don’t think that’s right. I think when Kim Yuna is performing for a contest she becomes 100% Kim Yuna.
People talk about “inner beauty,” as if what’s inside is what counts, but I think the skin, what’s exposed, is very important. The material, the physical, it is more honest than matters of the soul for me. I mean Marxists emphasize things, what can be seen, phenomena rather than souls and ideology. When I was writing that poem, the people around me were talking as though there is something really deep underneath the surface of our lives, but what a person does and says, where a person is, who that person meets, that could be all there is to a person’s life. Those were my thoughts when I wrote that poem.
Is this the reason your poems are so accessible. Because the meaning is on the surface?
Do you know the movie Perfume?
Yes. About the man who murders all those women?
Yes, about the murderer. There’s another book written by the author of Perfume, Patrick Süskind, called Depth Wish. The story is that there was a woman who published a book and the critics said there was no depth, no secret meaning that reveals itself. So the woman commits suicide.
People talk about the mystery of the clandestine, a secret under the veil of similes and metaphors and literary devices like that, but to be honest, I don’t like these things. It feels like dressing up just to look good. Ribbons and bows. But, like I say in my poem, there is no me inside me. And this table, this table we can see right here—a table is a table. If we cut it open, is there a diamond inside? Is it hiding a secret treasure? No. Humans talk as if there is something grand in all things. But I don’t believe that. I don’t like things that are so ideological. There are people who say things like “There are so many things to say, too much to say, so I’d rather stay silent.” I find that cowardly! Don’t be silent. What do you want to say?
In your most recent book Hysteria, are you referencing the Freudian hysteria?
The word hysteria comes from “womb.” Of course there’s also the Freudian meaning, and the symptoms of “hysteria.” In my poems I write about women’s issues and the pathologies that form around women’s bodies.
In my poem “Hysteria” I got on the subway, and a man kept poking me. I was just standing there. So I said “What are you doing?” and he said “I didn’t touch you. It’s just crowded in here.” So I screamed, “AHHHHH.” And people were like “That woman’s crazy.” So I wrote my feelings into a poem. But if I write only about sexual harassment on the subway, it’s dull, so I wrote it like it was an allegory. Our society is running along like a subway and people are trying to get on, smashing each other, packing into the train—that people have a desire to be an insider.
When I write, I write a lot of things at once. There are a lot of sounds. So the poem might be complicated, and that’s also included in the idea of hysteria. In Korea, when someone is raped, that person might go mad or commit suicide. In Gangnam Station a man stabbed and killed a woman he didn’t know just because she was a woman, because he hated women. I write poems as a way to survive in this kind of society that makes you crazy, that creates a nervous breakdown in the womb. People were like “The title of your new book is Hysteria? And the title of your other book was Cheer Up, Femme Fatale?” They ask me why the titles of my books are so weird, but I can’t help it. I can’t write these soft poems about spring love. I like dirty poems.
There are a lot of poets in Korea who write with their heads—they’ve got high IQs. But I write with my body. The things I experienced, the things I’ve hurt over. Not always things I experienced personally, but things I hear about from friends or on the news. So the body is often featured. After I’ve ached for them in my body, I write. When I write because my heart is beating and I’m aching, aching in a way that forces me to write, everything feels better. And I write much faster that way too. For days I ache and then I think, “Okay, let’s do this.”
I remember talking to you a few years ago about how the Benjaminian concept of aura is important in your poems, something you play with. Like in your poem Aori More Than Aura. Can you talk about that?
Aura is a vague concept. It’s not something you can touch, not something that’s around you. I think it’s about matter vs non-matter, ideology and feeling. Like the issue with Korean unification—we have to unify Korea, we have to follow the Sunshine Policy—these symbols that have been made up by words, I don’t think they are important. Aori is a green apple. This green apple being sold by an old woman in the poem, it’s much more important than all these symbols. To a beggar or a homeless person, it’s more important to give them a piece of bread than it is to tell them “You should be happy, God loves you.” In this dream I had I bought some Aori apples and I went to North Korea. I talk about North Korea because even though people talk about concepts and ideas and the president’s aura, I want to talk about the apple that an old woman sells. That’s what I was trying to say. But in my poem, if you look closely, I talk about big issues too. But I don’t talk about them in a big way. So critics here never catch on. Some of my poems scream feminism, and others don’t. But I’m a feminist down to the bone, even though I don’t necessarily write that way. I just hope someone catches on, that’s all.
Even so, my dad hates my poems so much. When we have relatives over, he hides my poetry collection, so they can’t see. “When are you going to write beautiful poems?” “Well, dad, what does beautiful mean?” “Like poems by Yun Dong-ju. ‘A clear conscience free of a speck / may I hold to heaven to the end of my days.’ Poems like that, lyrical poems.” My dad knows poetry, he’s studied a lot. “For one chrysanthemum to bloom / a nightingale has cried / since spring.” And then I tell him “You think the bird cried so that the flower would bloom? The bird was crying because it was hungry! What are you talking about!” These are the poems he wants me to write, and from his perspective, I’m just so hopeless.
I remember seeing you read in America and how the audience was sort of shocked. Is there any way you want to frame your work for an American audience?
Writing in Korea is not like writing in America or France or some big country like that. Writing poems in Korea as a woman is a kind of resistance. It requires courage. Maybe it’s weird to call it a fight, but to put it boldly, it is a struggle. If you write pretty, intellectual poems, everyone likes you. But if you write poems like me, you get reactions like “What the hell is this?”
Actually, I have a story about “Country Whore.” You know Chung Eun-gwi from the Foreign Language University? So Chung Eun-gwi, Brother Anthony, and I went to a big conference. I read the poem “Country Whore” there. And a male poet there yelled at me while I was reading. He said he wanted the mic. He said “What is this, is this even a poem? It’s dirty.” He just went fucking batshit. Chung Eun-gwi and Brother Anthony and I were on the stage, but the man was someone in the audience. He screamed, “Poems should be beautiful, you can’t write about kisaeng in a poem!” People were staring. He was speaking into a wireless mic and he was walking forward towards me and I thought he was going to hit me. He had lasers coming out of his eyes. So I thought, this is the reality of Korea. If I write poems like the ones in Hysteria, Korean men will be angry and they will hate me. It was so scary, but at the same time I thought, “Okay, if that’s my fate, then I’ll take it.” I don’t know if Americans will understand. This was the winter of 2017 at an event held by the International Pen Club. I’d never experienced anything like that before. For me, writing poetry is a kind of strike, something that takes courage, a challenge I take on even though I know I’ll be criticized for it.
What was the reaction when you first published Hysteria?
In 2015 and 2016, feminism emerged as a social movement, but feminism within literature—this is complicated to explain—feminism within poems is a bit different. It’s a matter of language usage and methodology. Julia Kristeva said that there was a language of women’s poetry, that it’s something that overflows, something that is illogical. It’s true. But the poetry of women in Korea in the 2000’s tends to be quite neat, logical, grand.
To give a rough explanation, Hysteria came out in 2014. It was a pregame or roadmap that came immediately before the social movement of Korean feminism. So it could’ve been a kind of spark, according to some people, but can we say that for certain? Sure, it could’ve been a spark, but it wasn’t the start or cause of the feminist movement.
Before the #MeToo movement, you posted on Facebook about sexual harassment and violence in certain fields.
It was around 2016. The whole mundan system was rotten. I was thinking whether or not I should blow the whistle. We know how it is, but we can’t always talk openly about these things. Someone from KBS PD Notebook contacted me. They asked if I could talk on TV about the problems in the Korean mundan. I was really conflicted, and I asked some of my colleagues for advice, and they said “Don’t do that, what are you even going to say on TV?” So I hesitated, to be honest.
But even now, I’m not someone who wants to change things through tackling some explosive issue. Rather, I want to go step by step, starting with the small things. Take the people who come here. This cafe we are sitting in, I want to create this space where instead of going to the karaoke, people can come here and do readings. Instead of getting drunk and loud, people can have a conversation with their friends, maybe read a book. I want to change the way literature happens, change the mechanism of big publishing companies.
 Famous lyric poet from the early 20th century.
 Chung Eun-gwi and Brother Anthony are both distinguished translators of Korean poetry.