Definitely NOT safe for work: Kim Hyesoon continued

Having decided not to reproduce the poem that everyone in my poetry class hated on this blog, I’ve now changed my mind.

I’ve been worrying that it’s actually not fair on my tutor and the rest of the class, not to put it out there so everyone can judge for themselves. If it costs me some subscribers, so be it. (I know, so noble.)

But I’m not going to start with the poem that disgusted everyone. This will give my more sensitive readers a chance to look away now. I also don’t think it would be fair to Kim Hyesoon.

Not that Kim Hyesoon needs me. She’s doing very nicely thank you, which says a lot for South Korea, in my opinion.

In her collection ALL THE GARBAGE OF THE WORLD UNITE! (Action Books 2011) it says: ‘KIM, HYESOON is one of the most important contemporary poets of South Korea. She lives in Seoul and teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.’ There follows a long list of prizes and publications.

The first poem I heard her read was Seoul, Kora. (Kora refers to a loop of prostrations around the sacred mountain, Mt. Kailash, in Tibet.) It’s the poem I actually wanted to read to the class, but I took the wrong book. It’s too long to quote in full and that might infringe her copyright anyway, so here’s a little bit.

… The mountain looks at me with its wet eyes
It trembles as I stroke its neck
The mountain gets dragged away with a rope around its neck
The mountain gets locked up behind bars. It’s beaten. It’s kicked.
It dies. …

Hyesoon does a lot of things with the mountain in this poem. She really flings it about, turns it into wild animals, makes it perform prostrations. A mountain! She does anything and everything. It’s so free. I find it beautiful and exciting. You don’t really get a sense of it in this tiny extract. It’s made a huge impact on me and on my writing.

Here’s the beginning of A SUBLIME KITCHEN (Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, Small Press Distribution, 2008) which I nearly read in class:

                                                They came to eat the moon again
The women ate the moon and their bellies grew each month
They squeezed breast-milk into the moon,
Added the refreshing scent of mint to the roasted moon

I was discussing how I came to choose the poem that I read to the class with a friend at the weekend. this night is not my favourite poem of Kim Hyesoon’s. I don’t even like it that much. I did think about reading something less challenging, like the one immediately above, but then I worried that that wouldn’t make clear what it is that I enjoy about Kim Hyesoon’s poetry.

Put simply, she doesn’t care if you don’t like it. In a time when many women’s lives, and especially our bodies, are still dominated by the need to conform to cultural pressures controlled by the patriarchy, this is intoxicating for me.

As my friend pointed out, though. I should probably have read a poem that I really liked, rather than one selected to make a point. Someone’s learned a little lesson here.

******* WARNING KLAXON  *******

Please don’t read any further if you’re of a sensitive disposition.  The next poem I’m going to quote from is about abortion, I think. Here’s a bit of RED SCISSORS WOMAN (ALL THE GARBAGE OF THE WORLD UNITE! Action Books 2011).

But the swollen scissor blades are like fat dark clouds
What did she cut screaming with her raised blades
Blood scented dusk flooding out from between her legs

I know that some people will find this horrifying, revolting, offensive. I can see that it is all those things. It gives me butterflies in my stomach.

I know that I am lucky to live in relative freedom. But every day I see or hear of incidents which demonstrate how policed we are as women, especially women with children. I heard of one woman recently who broke some social rules and has been excluded from a group of friends as a result, the door slammed shut in her face just like that. Several others have suffered through their children’s social lives.

And it’s not just about my extended circle of acquaintance, who risk nothing more than social penalties for perceived misbehaviour. What about the women who are stoned for adultery when they’re raped? Or even just routinely denied full equality with men in their lives. It all makes me heartsore. It makes me fearful.

My response to this work goes beyond politics though. It goes beyond my limited literary critical faculties. I just find it exciting. I want to read it. I don’t know why exactly.

Here then is a bit of the poem I read out in class. I know it’s deeply distasteful. For me, that’s the point, the joy of it. Not just wanting to stupidly shock people, but to assert that a woman (a human) should be able to say anything she wants without fear.When I read Kim Hyesoon’s poetry I feel constantly open-mouthed. I ask myself, did she really just write that?

And I like that. I feel swept up in it and borne along. I don’t know where it will take me.

Here’s the first few lines of this night (Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, Small Press Distribution, 2008):

A rat
devours a sleeping white rabbit
Dark blood spills out of the rabbit cage
A rat devours a piglet that has fallen into a pot of porridge
(now, chunks of freshly grilled flesh inside a vagina,
babies that shiver from their first contact with air,
fattened chunks of flesh,
tasty, warm chunks that bleed when ripped into)

This is what I read to the poetry class.

Now you understand.

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11 comments on “Definitely NOT safe for work: Kim Hyesoon continued
  1. Glad you did – read your last post at the weekend and was wondering how to search for them. Thanks!

  2. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Love to have your take on them Bridget, as a teacher of creative writing.

  3. Nikki Fine says:

    Interesting, and yes, shocking. I would have been less surprised if it was written in a time of war – breeding soldiers – or if she was from North Korea, though obviously that is based purely on this small extract. Also, I read it to myself and then aloud, and I can see that it is stronger aloud – it would be interesting to know what your group made of it if they only saw it on the page. But gross? nimho.

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      Well, that’s two of us :-). I think she’s partly reacting to a culture which is highly prescriptive about how women should be. There’s even a special word for women’s poetry in Korea I think and it’s all about submissiveness. So she’s kicking over the traces to an extent, clearly. And this is how it is for her.

      • What would I have done if you were in my class and you read this aloud? It would depend on the nature of the class and I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop out, but basically I’d expect and encourage a certain intellectual rigour from university students and would be more sensitive to the sensibilities of students I didn’t know well on an intro course in adult education. However, in both instances I would use the poem to ask are there no-go areas for a writer? How do we deal with that issue in class? Should we have rules about flagging up sensitive material (in our own writing and that created by published poets) before it’s read aloud? And what about the author’s intention? How much does that matter?
        To be honest I might shelve the debate until later in the term (but indicate when it will be) to allow students to think about it & that would also give me the chance to drip feed other work into the classes for comparison. (Sharon Olds perhaps writing about the way dry semen cracks between your finger tips after making love….that’s off the top of my head…Enda O’Brien writing about child being brutally raped by her father in Down by The River…).
        If you were in my class you’d give me extra work! I’d probably find myself re-writing some of my lesson plans after week one but frankly that’s one of the reasons I teach creative writing. I’m a writer and I like mixing with other writers and sharing ideas. My tutor on my MA course was Lavina Greenlaw and I remember seeking her advice about supporting myself as a writer – 2 options open to me were freelance journalism or teaching creative writing and she encouraged me down the latter route, saying that she never came out of a classroom without having learned something from students and she was absolutely right.
        (By the way did you get my mssage about the next big thing and are you going to do it?)

  4. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Wow thanks Bridget. That’s comprehensive. I think you make a very good point. It was the first class and my poor tutor had no way to judge the tolerance of the group, even if she had liked the poem. The incident did raise the issue and I think she was grateful for that. As I think I said in the post or a comment this should prevent other students bringing in detailed reports of their love lives or personal medical complaints.

    I did get a DM on twitter about the next best thing but I never click on links on DMs as it’s so virusy … what is the next big thing?

    • Didn’t realise that DMs are so dodgy – thanks for the tip. Basically I was just sending my email address as I couldn’t find a way to contact you here (or am I missing something…?) to invite you to take part in this women’s writing blogfest… Anyway pop over to my blog & all will be clear!!!

  5. Pseu says:

    Personally I can’t find anything to like in the poem sections you have shown: I’m not concerned about the language and the images as such, but I find their apparent randomness and disjunction very difficult – as they seem to serve no purpose, except perhaps to shock …

    for example here,
    “A rat devours a piglet that has fallen into a pot of porridge
    (now, chunks of freshly grilled flesh inside a vagina,” –

    ….so that I can’t follow a train of thought, and therefore I can’t get anything out of the poem. I know this may be a shortfall in my intellect, and that some poems require a lot of studying for me to have a deeper understanding. I’m simply left not knowing where to start.

    Thank you for putting them up though. It has been an interesting comment thread.

  6. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Great to have your input here Sarah. Thanks so much for taking the time. We all process the world around us differently, and I’m thankful for that. Cathy xx

  7. adam strauss says:

    I find your posts on this issue impressively un-skewed towards defense, and to clearly care about the feelings of others, which strikes me as wonderful. “Legs” and “Blades,” acoustically, strikes me as terrific. I hope this post leads to more discussion of the relations between free expression and limits; I tend to believe even radical radicals have limits, and really limits fascinate me: I’m not sure one can maximally “transgress” if one doesn’t think about limits; I’m tempted to say being forthcoming about limits may be radical. Maybe I’m stating I’m interested in honest un-scrimmed discussions of fear, of looking at what radicalisms are deemed irksome but not criminal/pahtological, and which ones are deemed iredeemably wrong.

  8. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks so much for your comment. What an interesting point about limits. I think I assumed, wrongly, that poetry entitles me to total freedom, that it’s built into the definition. I assumed, again wrongly and a bit stupidly, that therefore a poetry class meant anything would be up for debate, any text could be brought in and discussed.

    Although I think that’s a defensible position, it’s not very perceptive about human social relations! I think that probably the first class in a new course is a moment for less challenging texts. Exploring something so difficult would be more rewarding probably when people know each other enough to trust each other.

    I think I was very lucky with my classmates who were quite tolerant. Although they didn’t want to hear any more, they expressed it politely and showed concern for my feelings. I was and am very grateful to them.

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Cathy x

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