This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview with Don Mee Choi is her translation of Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008).
H. L. Hix: The speaker in “Face” speculates that “Maybe I am the hostage of an absent being” (70). I suspect it’s always misleading to seize on one moment in a poem and seek in it some “message” about the whole poem or collection, but is there some meaningful sense in which one might take this as a characterization of the state all the poems resist, a figure for the “blackened space” your introduction identifies as the space in which all Koreans, but especially Korean women, live? Given the neocolonial relationship you note, in what ways would you expect American readers to find in the poems similarities with their own experience, and in what ways would you expect them to find contrasts to their own experience?
Don Mee Choi: I think it might be best for me to begin by saying something about Kim Hyesoon’s hell. I often think of Kim Hyesoon’s poems being played out on a theatrical stage that has no regards for the conventions of linear narrative time. There is no before or after hell. All is hell. Each poem may be a single miniature stage platform that piles up like “teeth with teeth, fingernails with fingernails.” Kim’s hell is rooted in the Korean shaman narrative, The Abandoned [paridegi], in which a daughter is abandoned for being a daughter—the seventh daughter to be born in a row. Paridegi goes on a journey to the realm of death and returns to her place of origin to save her dying parents and becomes a spirit that guides the dead to another realm. Kim’s feminist reading of this narrative is that Paridegi’s realm of death is not an oppressed space but a counter-patriarchal space where a woman can redefine herself. In this realm, “a woman is darkness, is empty, and she does not abide to the law of ownership.” According to Kim, Paridegi’s hell is a “black mirror.” And Kim Hyesoon’s hell extends from this black mirror, remaining counter-patriarchal, possessing nothing, reflecting and resisting “Mr. Military Officers with black ink.” Hence, “the darkness inside Seoul’s intestine is dense.” Forever empty, Kim’s stage platforms stack up and shatter with the weight of emptiness the controlled, militarized borders inside and outside of us. In Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) time never really moves beyond the time of the atom bomb explosion because the image of the clock persists throughout the film. This is how we know the black rain is still falling inside the survivors. And this is why translation must persist to remind us of the hell within and outside of the U.S. empire. Whether we are here in the U.S. or there in South Korea or in-between, we can also find something outstandingly white in Kim’s poetry: “White mother. White cough. White sigh. White breasts…. White snow is falling. Young white woman’s white smile…. White sea. White needle. White snow fills up…. Hell of tenderness.”
HH: Kim’s poems are populated by animals: rats especially, but also chickens, horses, foxes, and others. You talk in your introduction about “surviving hell” as a point of commonality that allows rats to stand in as the poet’s alter ego. There are other ways to depict hell (e.g. with angels and demons in another world, as, say, Milton does in Paradise Lost). Why is Kim’s choice of animals instructive?
DMC: I think Kim Hyesoon’s animals are instructive because they are given allegorical roles like the roles many animals have in Korean fables. According to many stories I have heard as a child, a hundred-year-old fox can turn into a human or in some cases a fox that devours one hundred humans (some aim for human livers) can transform into a woman. These fox-women often trick children and seduce men in order to consume them. Men often encounter them in the darkness of the night, during their travels away from the safety of their home village. The fox-women stand for evil women who are not fit to be dutiful wives, the fear of falling into danger, violence, and ingestion. In “Father is Heavy, What Do I Do?” a woman poet plays the role of a fox and “devour[s] one hundred fathers/ and become a father.” And “Father became a father because he’d killed father, his father’s father.” The margin consumes the center and becomes the center. Kim Hyesoon’s rats feast on human babies, adorable white rabbits, and also one another and become rats again. In “Seoul’s Dinner” Seoul, a non-animal, is given the functions of consumption and excretion: “Pigs enter. The pigs oink and suck on Seoul’s lips…. Seoul, which is simultaneously a mouth and an anus.” Everything in its landscape enters and exits Seoul. Hence Seoul is always in the flux of becoming itself. I thought one of the most fantastic scenes in Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleship (1961) is when several thugs involved in raising pigs in Yokosuka, a GI town where US naval ships are stationed, are eating a cooked pig. This pig had previously consumed the body of a man the thugs killed and disposed of at the pig farm. So when Imamura says he wanted to show the “power of pigs” in the film by releasing hundreds of pigs into the GI streets of Yokosuka, the pigs become powerful pigs, filling every alley, crushing everything in their way, and the thugs who have eaten the pigs are pigs, and the prostituted women who prepare pigs for their Japanese male customers and GIs and eat pigs are also pigs. Yokosuka becomes a pig town. Kim’s and Imamura’s animals both instruct us how to subvert the order of power.
HH: “Why Can’t We” ends, “… why do we go near [Buddha] and bow on our knees till they are raw and look once into his eyes then return home with our downcast faces?” Is there a form of attention readers of the translations might seek in order register the “two different realities” you note in your introduction without merely returning home with downcast faces?
DMC: August 11, 2009, I interpreted for a woman at a shelter, downstairs from where I work. She came from South Korea four months ago. She stayed in Los Angeles for two months and when she could no longer pay her $350 rent, she took a bus up to Seattle and has been living on the street. She is not certain if she has ever been arrested. She remembers that she shouted something loud on the street in Los Angeles and was approached by a police officer. She is not certain if that means she was arrested. She is surrounded by people who are given orders to stalk her by someone hiding in the darkness. Whenever she decides to do something, the people who follow orders prevent her from doing what she wants to do. They have no basic knowledge about being human. She feels they may be bad people, capable of doing something harmful. Her parents are deceased and her siblings have their own families and lives. She has worked in factories. She is divorced. She would like to enroll at a school to study ESL. She would like to know if she can really start studying English from September 16th. As a translator of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry, I am preoccupied with home—my first home, South Korea—and things that are dislocated from home. I think of translation as a process of constant displacement, a set of linguistic signs displaced by another. And this displacement takes place under a specific historical condition, sometimes acting out the orders from the darkness. I like to think that my translation takes orders from Kim Hyesoon’s hell that defies neocolonial orders. My hope is that the displaced poetic or narrative identity manages to persist in its dislocation, translating itself out of the orders of darkness alone, or with assistance from the translator who must also translate herself. August 13, 2009, I found her at the lunchroom of the shelter. Spaghetti and garlic bread. She is very troubled by the people who follow her. She told them they were worthless beings, yet they didn’t react at all. She didn’t understand how they could be so indifferent to such a remark. She repeated, “Worthless beings? Worthless beings?” When translation fails, that is when we take orders from the darkness, displaced identities easily become worthless beings.
Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting, (Action Books, 2010). She received a Whiting Writers Award in 2011. Her most recent translation titles include: Princess Abandoned (Tinfish, 2012) and All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011).