For poets Kim Ki-Taek and Fay Chiang, poetry is a way to cope with the vicissitudes of life, writes K. SRILATA.
T houghtfully put together and flawlessly organised by the Literature Translation Institute of Seoul, the Seoul International Writers Festival is a biennial event and brings together poets and fiction writers from across the world. As a participant at the 2012 edition, I had the pleasure of meeting two remarkable poets: Kim Ki-Taek from Korea and Chinese-American poet Fay Chiang.
In Korea, poetry is not relegated to the margins the way it is in other parts of the world. In fact, the poetry sessions at the festival were among the best attended. As Kim Ki-Taek explained to me, this has partly to do with the rapid pace of “development” and the pressures that invariably accompany it. Poetry has become a way of coping, often the only way. Kim Ki -Taek himself, as I learnt, worked insanely long hours at his job and the only time he had left to write poems was during his commute home. And yet, he persisted, going on to publish several collections of poetry and winning some of Korea’s most important literary awards, including the Midang Literary prize.
In his poem ‘Face’ (translated from Korean by Brother Anthony of Taize), Kim Ki-Taek describes a brief moment in the life of a tired office worker who is sitting at his desk with his face buried in his hands. In a surreal transcendence of an otherwise ordinary moment, the speaker becomes aware of his face, “stuck to the skull’s shell”, forming expressions. The skull is watching the face, “the face that blooms briefly then fades”. When the face finally comes to, the speaker, recovering his eyes, begins to “focus on the figures in the document”. ‘Face’ makes one think about the brief, un-policed spaces that spring up from within a tired, dead bureaucratic environment. A poet of daily life, Kim Ki-Taek functions as a quiet fly on the wall observer, a recorder of the moment. In an e-mail interview, he says: “I became a poet after winning the New Year literary contest of Hankook Daily Newspaper in 1989. I was 32 years old then. In Korea, the literary contest is a crucial route to becoming a professional poet. I had been writing poetry since the age of 20. The reason I turned to poetry is that all I needed was paper and pencil. That was easier than anything else for me. I was a poor man. When I graduated from high school, I had to work in a factory. After three years of factory work, I made enough money to go to college. I was very shy and had difficulty communicating with others. Poetry was attractive to me because, in my imagination, I could meet many people without my shyness getting in the way. Poetry also opened out a better second life that I could enter through my imagination.”
One of Kim Ki-Taek’s most striking poems is ‘Eating a Live Octopus’ in which death becomes a live octopus thrashing about on a plate. Macabre, even gruesome at times, the poem is really a comment on how violence marks bodies.
Fay Chiang, my other Seoul festival poetry friend, has been a poet, visual artist, community and cultural activist in New York’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side for the past 42 years. At the Basement Workshop (the first Asian American non-profit multidisciplinary cultural organization in NYC and the east coast), she began as a volunteer for the Yellow Pearl project and Bridge Magazine and moved on to coordinate and develop Amerasia Creative Arts in 1973 and became its executive director from 1974 to 1986.
Fay has endured and survived many things from multiple cancers to personal losses. Her poems, like those of Kim Ki-Taek’s, are testimony to the power of endurance. Her creative life literally feeds off the pain she has endured and survived. On the page, her poems are arranged with a certain artistic meticulousness. Many of the poems in her collection, 7 Continents 9 Lives, are prose poems, culled from journal entries written on the go. Poems that have momentarily escaped from the prison of a busy and more than full working life. Very non-ivory tower. And I like them for that. In an e-mail interview, Fay says: “My earliest recollection of wanting to write poetry was in fourth grade. I tried my best to write a poem. This is in Queens, New York City, when the community was comprised mainly of Irish, Italian and Jewish American families who were professional and middle-class. We were one of three Chinese-American families and my parents ran the hand laundry, where we lived in a back room. There was much racism directed at my three siblings and me when we first moved into the neighbourhood. Mrs. Spencer, my fourth grade teacher, read my poem in front of the class and mocked me. ‘You write poetry? You can’t write poetry!’ ”
Fay’s poem ‘Monologue’, structured as a series of questions about her identity as a coloured person, touches on this experience: “Who was I, told by my fourth grade, who laughed at me when I said I was trying to write a poem, and said in front of all my classmates, ‘You’ll never write poetry! How can you write poetry?’”
That Fay speaks in a voice that is direct and immediate is largely a function of the audience she is reaching out to: “immigrant, working class and not highly educated, but who were open to learning and new experiences”. In fact, it is this embedded sense of a very different audience that is perhaps the key to understanding her work. Equally important is Fay’s understanding of art as deeply transformative, an art that is for everybody.
What is it about the work of these very different poets that speaks to each other? The sense that their poems are momentary pauses performed on the go, raw poems pulsating with life like a small wild animal.