Saturday, April 9, 2011

Two Poets (on my visit to South Korea)


After my rescue from the city of Incheon in South Korea, the very first thing I did was to meet with members of the steering committee for the 2010 World Writer's Festival in the Hotel Seoul KyoYuk MunHwa Hoekwan. I don't believe the entire committee was there, but there were four or five individuals, Kim Hye-won, Park Duk-kyu, Lee Si-young, Kim Soo-bok, and Hae Yi-soo (my rescuer) among them.

I was asked to sign some documents, and paid, in the traditional way—in American dollars—the amount promised for the lecture I was asked to present.

My inability to remember names is quite notorious among my friends, with whom in conversation I sometimes must make two or three associations before anyone comprehends of whom I speaking. In Korea, because of the popularity of the names Kim, Lee, and Park, it was even more difficult to remember the names of those who were entertaining us. Moreover, other than Hae Yi-so, few of our hosts spoke English, and, accordingly, conversations were held through my wonderful translator. Fortunately, I would whisper to her, from time to time, to tell me to whom I was speaking, and by the third day, I finally was able to develop relationships that involved their individual identities.

The two poets of the committee, Kim Soo-bok and Lee Si-young, particularly interested me. I encountered Kim's poetry in the festival catalogue, where just a few lines fascinated me: The sea surging at the the tip of your toes, from the tip of your toes, to your knees, from the knees, to the thighs, to the stomach, to the heart, and as you breathe, hearing your, your, your free breathing, we cross your meandering stream, bearing our shadows on our heads. I asked my translator to check the original to see if the repetitions I so loved, and felt were so appropriate in this breathless action of the poem, were in the Korean as well, fearing it might have been only a typo in the English. Yes, she assured, they were there!

Upon a break in sessions, I asked my Ko Un translator, Brother Anthony, whether there had been any other English language translations of Kim's poetry. He had translated some others, he assured me, but not many. "However," he continued, "I have translated a substantial amount of Mr. Lee's poetry in my Cornell East Asian Series book, Variations: Three Korean Poems. The next morning he brought me a copy of that book, and I read several of Mr. Lee's poems, which also seemed excellent, although perhaps a bit more conventional or, at least, traditionally Korean in tone and subject matter. But there were wonderful narrative moments in the work, particularly in poems such as "Chong-im," about a young girl of his youth, now long vanished. I could see the possibility of publishing small books by both poets, particularly if I could get some aid from the Korean Translation Foundation. That afternoon I mentioned my idea to them. Both poets beamed with excitement.

It was about that time that the relationship between me and the poets began to alter, as they became more and more attentive to me. I had asked if I might be able to stay on after the Festival in Seoul for two days to better see the city. But they explained that I would have to pay for my expenses—which I had offered to do—and find my own hotel, since the one in which I was staying was only for special groups and events such as the Festival. Accordingly, I had asked my translator to help find a hotel, and she had done so, in the Cheonggyecheon district. The price seemed right, and the hotel, when I looked it up seemed pleasant. But at our last big dinner, both poets decided that I would be unhappy there, and arranged for me and a couple of others who were extending their visits to stay at a Artist's retreat, Seoul Art Space, at a much more isolated distance from the areas that I wanted to visit. Yet, since the offer meant that we would not be paying, I could hardly turn it down.

Soon after, Mr. Lee suggested that we go on a tour of the city the following day, and Mr. Kim invited me to a Southern island where he and his wife had a condominium in the woods. In Korea, as in many Asian countries, it is considered rude to leave guests alone for long periods of time, but I had to pass on their graciousness, explaining to Mr. Lee that I love walking around cities, discovering things for myself as I alternate between wandering and resting in cafes and bars. I told Mr. Kim that I truly appreciated his offer, but would never forgive myself if I returned home without seeing any of the city in which I had stayed.

Mr. Lee later introduced me to his girlfriend, who spoke English, and explained that she would love to be my guide the following morning. Again, I had to defer.

The Art Space location, although quite lovely, was quite distant from the shopping areas I had planned to visit, and far more rustic than would have been any hotel. I had to take a long taxi ride to the Itaweon district of Seoul, enjoying, as I mention elsewhere in these South Korean memories, the day, all to myself.

But on the last day, both poets again insisted on touring me through Jongno and elsewhere via auto, Kim's daughter serving as translator. There was no way I could possibly reject their offer. They took me to a wonderful Chinese lunch, and Mr. Kim drove me the long distance to the airport—kindnesses that, although truly heart-felt—seemed somewhat more forthcoming, so it appeared to me, because of my role as a potential publisher. In any event, I was truly appreciative. And my friendship with both poets will hopefully continue in the years to come.

In February 2011 I met with Mr. Kim in my own city of Los Angeles, and had a very enjoyable lunch with him, his wife, and a friend of theirs in Koreatown.

Los Angeles, March 9, 2011

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