Gay/Poet/Korea: An Interview with Gabriel Sylvian on the Poetry of Gi Hyeong-do

By and | 29 June 2011

TJ: Is this changing at all?

GS: It is now, but Gi was writing, after all, on the cusp of a newly-democratizing Korea before the onset of 1990s liberalism and queer politics. These facts, along with the fact that he died in a notorious gay sex venue. (And we all know that nobody gets caught the first time!) Then, there is his poetry.

TJ: … which is as much a product of his sexuality, as it is the political and social climate within which it was written?

GS: I think that the key to understanding Gi as a same-sex desiring poet thus lies in grasping what it was like for same-sex desiring men in pre-democratic (pre-1987) Korea, in the days before the Internet; and even more to the point, what it was like to be a Korean intellectual in that period, bearing the burden of those yearnings. In a society where no space existed to articulate such desires outside of a dank theatre, a shabby yeogwan (inn), a bus station toilet, or a dusky park, who could write such a voice directly? No one. I think what Gi’s poetry reveals is that, like Walt Whitman in nineteenth century America, he couldn’t tell the truth and neither could he lie. The result is an intensely personal poetry shot through with existential trauma. To me, Gi reads like a trauma patient. Painfully sensitive as we infer from his poems, so delicate a sensibility; yet his soul had to navigate the crudest of social conditions (from without what Koreans viewed as ‘acceptable’) in search of love. Gi thematized his personal illness, urban poverty, bleak family history — a broad range of depressing subject matter — but deep pain seems to come from broken relationships and loneliness.

So Gi, while a sort of innovator, was still very much a product of his time. That he referenced his sexuality at all (gay men find all the allusions) really can be viewed as a wonder. Same-sex love in the decades before the 1990s was a forbidden topic and disparaged as ‘namsaek’ (男色) or as the foreign decadence called ‘gei’, neither salutary terms. ‘Sex’ broadly meant cross-sex sexuality only. When Gi was writing, there was only one word in the Korean language, ‘seong’ (性 ‘sex’) to cover all the current concepts of sex, gender, sexuality – and no other words were felt as needed. Postmodernisation of sex came to Korea in the 1990s, and the new extended vocabulary for sex that came with it enabled a conceptual expansion of sex to embrace a ‘healthy’ same-sex desire. Not surprisingly, the Korean gay lib movement first materialized on college campuses among the young gay intellectuals.

So to sum up my answer, while there has always been a rumour about Gi’s homosexuality since his death, a discursive space within academia – Korea’s marginalized gay politics notwithstanding – has heretofore never existed by which to investigate the topic of Gi’s sexuality in relation to his life and art, nor has the motivation existed to create one. That’s why I chose to call the project KARMA (Ki ARt ReMApping) (‘Ki’ = McCune Reischauer Romanization system, ‘Gi’ = current Romanization system). The desired goal is to spark motivation within academe for a Korean scholarship that can come to terms with, embrace, sexual diversity; and at the same time, serve justice and homage to Gi’s spirit, with revolutionary implications for those who live in this era.

TJ: Can you tell me a bit about the translation process? Are there areas of difficulty when translating from Korean into English that are particular to the Korean language?

GS: Well, Gi’s poetry is not easy to recreate in a foreign language. Putting his verses into English has called for revision after revision after revision. Because his poems are so intensely personal, knowing the facts of his life is important, as well as the major events, tropes, even visual panoramas of Korea in the 80s. On the technical side, the poet’s non-use of punctuation marks complicates smooth line breaks and phrasings in the corresponding translations.

He’ll also make things tougher by packing a line with a string of complex metaphors, like his poem ‘Discharged Soldier’; or cleverly wed opposing concepts, resulting in unexpected but striking correlatives (Gi, by the way, draws deeply from the well of Eliot’s fin de siecle mood), little tricks which don’t always lend themselves to seamless translation. Stylistic idiosyncrasies that make the translator reach for the aspirin bottle. Another difficulty lies in maintaining the stamina to stay in his world for extended periods of time. With so much gloom to face on every page, I would have to take long breaks.

TJ: It seems, to my mind, that a significant part of the translation process, in this particular instance, might have been to shine a light on a homosexual subtext in the poems, something you’ve already touched on. But what in Gi’s poems characterises such a subtext? How are these same-sex themes manifested in the work?

GS: Remapping Ki is, and has been from the beginning, part of a broader project to carry out what I told the Commission I was going to try to do – namely, get the ball rolling in terms of making Korean Gay Literature a social reality, one of the strategies being to first internationalize it, then bring it back home to roost.

In that connection, I liked one of Yoko Tawada’s remarks in the paper she delivered at the Seoul International Forum for Literature last week. Tawada noted that sometimes, after a literary work has been forgotten for a time to readers of its original language, it can gain a new life in a completely different cultural area through translation, and then make a comeback in its country of origin. She observed, ‘Sometimes when people come home after a long journey, their faces look different’. That’s the idea: for Gi to reappear to Koreans with a more multihued countenance than the one he now shows, a face so far concealed by what has seemed a pointless death, , a face that has finally emerged from that theatre balcony. A face with perhaps new meaning for life.

TJ: And for Koreans too?

GS: I’ve often thought that a full-on discussion of sexuality in his literature could effect a reversal, could bring new meaning to the portentous line that has intrigued so many people, ‘Until my pristine death is confirmed, I will not exist’. The circumstances of Gi’s death are far from what most would call ‘pristine’, or even human in the traditional Confucian view. And that’s part of the interpretive problem, according to the LGBT perspective. Koreans still don’t have a lens with which to view gay people except as murky shadows, liminal existences. This is apparent in most same-sex themed novels and plays produced here since the 1990s until very recently.

TJ: It’s been suggested that Gi ‘chose’ his death. What’s your response to this?

GS: Of course, the notion circulated by some critics that Gi ‘chose’ his death is ridiculous. That shows their ignorance, their contempt for the gay community. I think some gay men would prefer to die in a cheap sex theatre than in a public society that condemns or ignores him. But anyway, haven’t many of the saints suffered ‘horrible’ deaths? It might be my Catholic upbringing (laughs) but I think we should raise Gi up to something much more worthy of his life and experiences and, if possible, say something powerful about Korea’s LGBTs and their history, in the process. Gi is naturally part of the project’s agenda. Why shouldn’t he be?

But back to your question about how same-sex themes are manifested in the poetry. As you might expect, it is not always as simple as making a list of related elements, ad hoc, and setting them against the unrelated elements. Rather, it is a gestalt: everything converges, bleeds together to form a composite picture.

TJ: But even within this composite picture, as with Whitman’s poetry, there must be some markers?

GS: I guess the problem of locating same-sex themes in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass presents LGBT critics with similar challenges. Matters aren’t so ‘cut and dried’ (to extend the metaphor) for critiquing Gi’s poetry compared to, say, C.P. Cavafy or Thom Gunn. Can we refer to a ‘gay aesthetic’, or a universal ‘gay episteme’? If pressed to show examples today, I would say the gay subtexts in Gi’s poems are marked by the absence of a female love object, as mentioned before, the ‘friend’ being the addressee of the poet’s hopes and passions. The passivity of the subject in his intimate relations; implied or stated. The rigid narcissism. An exaggerated fear of physical aging (Dorian Gray, eternal bane to gay men) and an old age leaving the subject lonely and bitter. Fear, and some might say castration anxiety, in respect to his overbearing mother, coupled with a mournful yet intimate identification with his sickly, ineffectual father.

This point resonated with me deeply. One can even read, I believe, a subtly incestuous dynamic between father and son. But again, it’s not so much the individual themes themselves but their distillation into a general worldview. I agree with David McCann that it is Gi’s point of view that sets him apart from his contemporaries. But it’s also fair to ask what social maladies may have conditioned that uniqueness, that way of seeing and singing the world that appears so differently from everyone else.

Yes, the shadowy world of Seoul’s streets and alleyways was occupied by everyone; but let’s also look at the oblique and not-so oblique references to sexual encounters, the secretive broken relationships, a life spent chasing uselessly after desire…. growing old, spiritually, before one’s time. Not only the sharp social and political critiques that ally him with his contemporaries – what uniqueness lies there? – but his cloaked despair, his muted resentment …

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