Idle or Charged: An Interview with Soeun Seo and Jake Levine – Asymptote Blog

Kim Min Jeong’s Beautiful and Useless, translated by Soeun Seo and Jake Levine, was recently released in the US as part of Black Ocean’s Moon Country Korean Poetry Series. The title poem ends with a rocky thud: “I guess love is / when we put our heads together / to figure out how to use this rock.” These lines highlight some key dynamics in this thrillingly wide-ranging collection. There’s the shrugging boldness of “I guess love is”; the way “this rock” reverberates both to the poem’s main subject—a stone that is variously like “two crab legs emptied of meat,” a “snowman’s torso,” an egg, a phallic emblem of “dull manliness”—as well as to the shared stone of two skulls coming together. It’s also a fitting metaphor for the translators’ conversational methods. As Seo and Levine discuss in this interview, this edition of Beautiful and Useless emerged from a lively process reflective of the poems’ own flights among smells and literature and “banal birdsong”, comedy and ambient dialogue.

In a recent interview with the translators, Kim Min Jeong described contemporary Korean poetry as “fragments fragmenting and fragmenting and fragmenting” away from set ideas of order, so that “all the stars in space shine every which way.” Beautiful and Useless is similarly resplendent. Its translators—recent recipients, with Hedgie Choi, of the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for their co-translation of Kim Yideum’s Hysteria (Action Books, 2019)—emailed with me about resisting transactional metaphors for translation, the value of serious play, and idiom and attitude in Kim Min Jeong’s poetry.

Zach Savich (ZS): I know your process can include a lot of joking around. How did that playfulness contribute to this project?

Soeun Seo (SS): In an essay in Korean Literature Now, Kim Hyesoon describes Kim Min Jeong’s language as “the language of young girls prattling at the back of a bus, the language of married women gathered in a yard, all worked up to slander someone.” I think chatter, idle or charged, is a key part of KMJ’s poetry. That’s what makes her poems so organic, inviting, warm, intimate, fun. As Kim Hyesoon writes in the same essay, “Kim Min Jeong’s poetry stands at the paradoxical point where the poetic attitude of being unself-conscious about the genre of poetry becomes what is poetic instead.” Translating with Jake feels a lot like shooting shit and chilling. When we catch up or chat, we’re cracking jokes constantly, and when we get to work, we don’t exactly switch gears. We bring our playful attitude straight into work, which is especially easy with Kim Min Jeong’s poems, and ideas we first present as jokes work their way into the poem.

This happened for one of my favorite poems in the book, “Mass Shipment of Spring Greens.” We were dealing with the pun on 냉 naeng, a homonym for shepherd’s purse—a common ingredient for Korean food—and vaginal discharge. There was no way we were going to make this work in English. It was so clear that we would have to give up a direct way of translating this pun, so, already having given up on it, I jokingly said “pussyjuice.” Jake fucking loved it. It was very funny. But after discussing a few more non-viable options, “pussyjuice” seemed much more so. Considering shepherd’s purse, mugwort, wormwood are real names for edible plants, “pussyjuice” is a believable plant name. Like the poem says, “If you say it, you name it.” So we made up a plant name. We chose to include the Korean spelling and the definition of shepherd’s purse to make it clear what the pun is in Korean, but I think having the word “pussyjuice” in there really brings the original poem’s casual /sexual tension to life.

Jake Levine (JL): The decision to include the Hangeul 냉 in the poem and the idea to go with the word “pussyjuice” were magical moments. I like Ricoeur’s idea of thinking about translation as an invitation to invite the foreign into your house, and we ended up with “pussyjuice” for the English but we also invited the Hangeul, 냉, into the English poem (I think Soeun and I literally spent like ten hours working out this pun—between text messages, and chatting, and going over and over it to feel it out). Process in translation is often boiled down into the language of transaction and economy, but I think it is more like an ecology. We need space and time and laughs and cries and lots of feelings. This includes a lot of unconscious activity. Even when we’re talking and hanging and doing things that seem to have no relationship to translating poems, we are translating poems.

ZS: Could you discuss this book in the context of recent Korean poetry?

SS: Back in 2016 or so, I had just started reading KMJ and brought it up very excitedly to another Korean poet. His response immediately deflated me: “I don’t know if you can call that poetry.” Jake’s talked often enough in other interviews about political poetry and nature poetry—the two pillars of the “classic” modern Korean canon. The subjects are conspicuously “important,” whatever that means, and the tone is serious, aiming to inspire profound awe. I think KMJ is highly self-aware of this tradition and it comes up a lot in her poetry. In particular, I want to point to the line in “A Poetry Study”: “promise not to write poetry that’s like On that majestic green field the pine stands ever green.” That’s the kind of poetry the deflating poet wishes he could write—one stamped with gravity and legitimacy, calling on big archetypes and big abstractions. But KMJ rejects the notion that gravity and levity can’t coexist. She insists that levity accompany gravity, that we recognize the grand within the trivial, and she uses the everyday/personal to access the historical/political/world, speaking to how these are actually inseparable. In this poem about getting so shitfaced with a respected poet that she can’t even put her shoes on, she addresses where her poetics stands in the literary tradition of Korea. She chooses to be unself-conscious, though she is self-aware.

JL:  After the IMF crisis, Kim Min Jeong was part of a new generation of poets called the Miraepa or “Future Wave” that transpired in the early 2000s. She also debuted around that time, and really pushed poetry in a new direction as not only a poet, but a publisher. The Miraepa generation, insofar as they have anything in common other than debuting around the same time, was less interested in continuing any one tradition, and moved in all kinds of individual and unique directions. These poets challenged not only traditional ideas of what a poem is, what a poem looks like, but what a poem can talk about. However, there was no determined aesthetic vision, statement, or theory to define the movement. You can read poems by Kim Haengsook and Kim Min Jeong, Lee Young-ju, Yiwon, Ha Jaeyoun, or Kim Yi-deum—who are all women active in the scene around the same time, and their work is all very distinct and working in all kinds of different ways. One of the many criticisms of this democratization of aesthetics is that poetry became too complex, too layered with difficulty, too obscure, too multi-directional. Traditionalists thought that this diluted the parameters and purpose of poetry, that it risked becoming banal, mixing too much with low-brow forms of culture borrowed from other arts and genres. (For readers who are interested in positioning Kim Min Jeong’s work, you can read her talk about herself and this topic more in an interview Soeun and I did with her.)

So, traditionally, a lot of poetry and poets are associated with a very serious, very intellectual kind of attitude; a way of countering that position is by writing poems about everyday experience, and having a kind of ironic and self-aware attitude. Kim Min Jeong has been a pioneer in establishing such a voice, incorporating the poetry of the everyday, but also experimenting with language and form in her work. So, because of the lightness, the difficulty of her poetry appears effortless.

What I think that Kim Hyesoon quote Soeun mentioned indicates is that Kim Min Jeong’s poems perform language in a way in which designations or symbolic associations break down in unexpected and funny ways. On the surface her poems seem like they are about snot and sex and soup and seasonal vegetables, but the way they perform, you can read them as destabilizing the structure of meaning and hierarchy. And in that way, they challenge how language is used as a tool of domination, power, consumption. Another good example from the book is the poem “At the Start of Spring They’re for Sure Senegalese.” Not only does this poem improvise and change directions and subjects on a dime, the jargon used in the poem is striking: scientific language about cutlassfish, the national anthem of Senegal, a conversation between the ex-president of South Korea and Leopold Sendar Senghor, parrots, Chinese characters, the New Village Movement, French! Everything can be in the poem and everything can be the poem!

ZS: That poem ends: “I was eating cutlass when I found out / that actually, parrots are the real deal. People eat that shit up.” Its final phrase has a lot of idiomatic attitude. Could you tell us more about translating idiom and tone in this work?

JL: Kim Min Jeong’s poetry incorporates a lot of wit, slang, punning, and is super quick and sharp, and as much as that is related to her language, it is also about attitude. I think Soeun is a good reader of attitudes; I credit Soeun in finding the translation voice in this project (if that is like a thing one finds? Creates?). I hear Soeun’s voice very clearly in the delivery. They have a sense of what the tone and attitude should be. With this kind of poetry, which is so performative, so personal, it is good to have or come up with a solid idea of the speaker. Kim Min Jeong is my nuna—or older sister. She looks out for me and gives me life advice and buys me all kinds of foods. She is also very powerful. When you know someone closely, you get a good sense for the feeling of not only what they say, but how they say it, their way with language. You also feel responsible for how they are represented. If you have a nuna who is as powerful and loving as Kim Min Jeong, you don’t want to disappoint. So that familiarity is also an anxiety, but a kind of motivational anxiety to do a good job (accompanied by great fear!).

SS: What is also important is that Min Jeong is a whole personality and it’s really fun to tap into her and kind of play her, like voice acting. Yes, I easily identified her voice and identified with it, but it was easy to do that because Min Jeong herself is so easily identifiable. If you saw her at a reading, or if you heard her talk with the people she loves, like Jake, you’d never forget her. You’d know precisely who she is, or at least the way she presents herself, and her poetry is closely aligned with that. I’m realizing—as I answer this question—that role-playing was a big part of this translation. Of course, Min Jeong is not a fictional character, but the voice she’s developed for her poetry can be read as one.

ZS: This book is part of Black Ocean’s Moon Country series, which you, Jake, edit. The series focuses on “Korean poetry by mid-career and up-and-coming poets who debuted after the IMF crisis.” What are your goals for the series? 

JL: The elevator speech is that the Moon Country series aims to show the dynamism and innovation of contemporary Korean poetry, to expand and deepen the conversation people are having about it, to open up new channels of how Americans perceive and interact with the Korean peninsula and South Korean culture. But the speech I give myself in the mirror is more like this: translated literature often gets ghettoized by historical or social or political circumstances or by market forces. Artists and books have to be branded to be sold. Or their work is attached to some kind of gimmick or reduced to political theatre. Not always, but in particular, this is true for postcolonial and subaltern literatures. A lot of that is because translated literature in English—especially from Asian and African languages—is looked at as a kind of body of knowledge. Like if you read poetry from Korea, you will learn something about the peninsula so you can say you understand it better? Learn how to dominate it? In my personal experience, I find the opposite to be true. When I read something I love, usually it results in the expectations or ideas I had about those time periods or authors or history or languages or reality getting broken. I love things I can’t wrap my head around, can’t fully understand. I experience them fully, so I can’t possess it, can’t get it, because it can’t be got.

I think we’re really lucky to be living in a time where there are so many great translators working on contemporary Korean literature, doing the difficult job of bringing over these amazing texts into their English (after)lives. In the immediate future at Black Ocean, we are publishing the English translation debuts of Moon Bo Young (Pillar of Books, translated by Hedgie Choi) and Lee Young-ju (Cold Candies: Selected Poems translated by Jae Kim).

The title of the series “Moon Country” comes from the Kim Soo-young poem “달나라의 장난 Moon Country Make-believe” that he wrote around the time of the armistice to the Korean war. It’s one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. “Moon Country” refers to a kind of make-believe country that little kids travel to in their imagination, and also the war-torn country, bombed and napalmed into a hellishly charred-moonscape. This poem is very much rooted in its historical situation, but also it creates multitudes through its radical use of language. Elsewhere, Kim Soo-young writes about how poetry begins with the entirety of the body. All poetry is situated in politics, history, and ideology, but poetry also can transcend those ideas. Experience is more than the monolithic ideas it is often boiled down to. The language invites the reader to step into the poem, to embody it, to experience it, become enmeshed. It itself is a living, breathing thing. And to be with something, to experience something, means sharing space. That’s why poetry in translation is uniquely imbued with the power to challenge and transcend linguistic and national boundaries; it exists in space multiplied and simultaneous. So if you allow yourself to be moved, a translated poem can grasp and bewitch you. It can crush you and it can change you. It can point to redemptive, utopian, and messianic possibilities, and it can leave you desolate. Art is liberatory, liberating, and liberation itself—that a book makes the journey to find you is proof, especially in a cynical time. Without even knowing that I had needed them, I count myself lucky that so many books have found me. My hope is that other people can experience some of that magic with the Moon Country series.

Jake Levine is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Keimyung University. He has authored, co-authored, translated, or co-translated over a dozen books. He serves as the series editor for the Moon Country Korean Poetry Series at Black Ocean.

Soeun Seo is a poet and translator from South Korea and a current fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. Their poems and translations have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Circumference, Korean Literature Now, Asymptote, and elsewhere. They co-translated Kim Yideum’s Hysteria (Action Books, 2019) and Kim Min Jeong’s Beautiful and Useless (Black Ocean, 2020).

Zach Savich is the author of eight books of poetry and prose. He is an associate professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

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