Invisible Walls: Poetry as a Doorway to Intercultural Understanding

By , , , and | 13 May 2024

Hidden Shadows, acrylic on canvas, 162x130cm, 2018. © Yvonne Boag, 2018. Used with permission.

Acknowledgement of Country

We acknowledge the Kaurna people, First Nations owners and custodians of the lands on which the Australian side of our project was managed. We also acknowledge the First Nations owners of the lands on which the Australian poets participating in our project live and write. These include those of the Bidjigal and Dharug people, the Ngunnawal people, the Ngambri people, and the Wurundjeri people of the Woi Wurrung language group and the wider Kulin nation. Sovereignty was never ceded. This always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

Invisible Walls: poetry as a door?

In his short philosophical treatise, Hyperculture (2022), Byung-Chul Han traces definitions of the word ‘culture’ back to original emergences; Han draws our attention to the possibility that, from the outset,
civilisation has been defined by its others, that the arrival of foreigners on distant horizons caused and constituted ancient Greek culture (Hyperculture 2). Thereafter, a collectivising set of similar selves became visibly and tacitly self-evident. By these means, Han speculates, culturality is historically a ‘song of the soul that creates happiness’ (Hyperculture 5), though this tuning is to remain boundaried, an exclusive jouissance.

The selection of poems we offer here is written by poets participating in a two-year intercultural exchange program between Korean and Australian poets. Each participant was assigned a partner, and each then entered into dialogue via a series of live-interpreted Zoom meetings. These conversations were expertly mediated by the program’s interpreter, Mookil Choi, whose nuanced understanding of not only linguistic subtleties but also poetry enabled exchanges between paired poets to flow, meaningful relations thereafter forged across the multiform divides our project sought to bridge.

When considering such projects, and the works produced, well may we ask: ‘what precisely is it that has been exchanged?’ Thinking beyond the logic of the marketplace (time qua labour swapped for commodities), what is it that has taken place between the paired poets we invited online into interpreted conversations? From the outset, we understood that cultural differences can act in the manner of walls and that, perchance, from the sealed-in lexicons of respective participants’ worlds, it may well be the cadent rhythms (of goodwill, emerging understanding, perhaps even camaraderie) that have rippled through these conversations. But we have never simply assumed that poets can in fact talk to (or indeed sing with) each other in generative, inter-cultural ways. As Peter Boyle asserts in a poem appearing in this suite, ‘every thought has its own melody / and some melodies land flat’.
In turning tunefully toward one another, then, issues start at the level of language (where else?). To a
Korean-speaking cultural producer, a ‘person’ is a 사람 (sa’ram); the synonym, human, is 인간 (in’gan). Of course, beneath Hangeul are inscribed older orders of etymological complexity: taking the Korean language back into the Hanja script (ubiquitous until King Sejong’s invention of Hangeul in 1443 AD), 인간 is rendered as 人間 (rénjiān), a confabulation of ‘human’ and ‘between’. As Han asserts, here are linguistic materials that enculturate their human speakers as inherently relational, shifting, and fluid (Hyperculture 54).

Compare this to the Latin humanus, deriving from (dh)ghomon – ‘an earthling, or earthly being’, cognate to dhghem, or ‘earth’. The 인간-alities of motile entities attempting conversation with the dhghem-ologies of fixed selves? Perhaps these etymological manoeuvres make visible some of those walls we were always bound to bump into. How to speak meaningfully with each other when the languages we speak and sing from so clearly designate epistemological difference?

In a project reflection, one participant, Jake Levine, issues this challenge to their partner (Naarm/Melbourne-based poet Dominic Symes), thereby asking if such conversations are indeed possible: ‘poetry: take it or leave it’. The fact that we have fielded such hope-filled responses from our poets is a matter of joyous affirmation; in taking up the challenge to engage, these creative producers have refused to let their constitutional differences foreclose the possibility of listening, closely, to calls that have warranted a humanising response.

Of course, from the syntactical to the inter-personal, poetry undertakes the labour of figuring language so as to create renewed conditions for connection (from the syntactical to the inter-personal). Another project participant, Sin Yong-Mok, asks in his reflection: ‘which topics should poetry deal with, and how?’ This seems a reasonable question in response to conversations that have taken place between speakers who are not only culturally specified, but also figured theoretically differently. If the term ‘exchange’ derives from the Latin excambiare (‘out’ + barter’) for one speaker, but entails 교환 (gyo’hwan; from the Hanja 交換,jiāohuàn; 交 as socialisation, 換 as swapping) for the other, then it remains impressive indeed that these poets have remained so willing to sing into the intransigent, exigent gulfs between them.

It goes without saying that Korea and Australia have experienced vastly different historical performances of sovereignty, and therefore the lyrics of those who would sing toward happiness possess deeply diverging themes, styles, and forms. The dimensions (indeed, the depths) of the Australian archive are incomparable to the Korean canon; yet, despite these foundational differences, histories show us that creative responses to power relations are, equally and cross-culturally, another dimension of the work poets perform. As participant Ha Jaeyoun noted in conversation with Barrina South: ‘it saddens me that old civilisation historical themes such as development/undevelopment, colonisation/transplantation, civilisation/illiteracy, and invasion/self-reliance still hold true for us.’ Perhaps it is from such sadnesses that poetry and its poets are spurred to find ways to sing toward the possibility of happiness.

The poems collected here take on a range of experimental, image-driven lyrics. Inside trees, unknown seas, failing marriages, ruinous colonies, marts at the end of time, the poems in this anthology are indeed singing, if not toward happiness, then at least out of or away from indifference. Tellingly, there are plausible connections between the terms ‘translation’ and ‘change’ (qua exchange); while the former entails carrying over, the later involves substituting one thing for another. Perhaps, then, we need to change the analogue; perhaps these poets have bartered a door in exchange for a bridge, across which they have experimentally socialised. Or perhaps instead each text here acts in the manner of a bridge, built in hope of traversing an abyss.

In his earlier text, In the Swarm (2017), Byung-Chul Han worries at the impact of screen-based information over-consumption as a driving force toward indifference, disengagement, and indeed narcissism; specifically, he wonders whether the future, arriving now, is a place where ‘the masses are falling apart into crowds of individuals’ (65). Whether speaking as an 인간 / 人間, or as a humanus / dhghem, or someone else altogether, the following may well be poems by which to bridge our differences. As participant Ko Hyeong-ryeol put it: ‘I just want [our responses to each other’s poetry] to be a language that is interpreted, explored, and loved between the walls of the past and the future. Unless we enter into the full openings […] this world is just a place surrounded by walls.’ Dwelling in – and indeed impelled by – different kinds of possibility, and despite significant challenges, each poem here is a hinged linguistic space that proffers the hope of myriad human connections.

‘Invisible Walls’ is funded by the Australia-Korea Foundation, with support from the University of South Australia and Sogang University. We gratefully acknowledge Jake Levine and Soohyun Yang, the translators of this anthology’s Korean language poems.

Works cited

Han, Byung-Chul. In the Swarm. Translated by Erik Butler, The MIT Press, 2017.
———. Hyperculture: Culture and Globalisation. Translated by Daniel Steuer, Polity Press, 2022.

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