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

By and | 29 June 2011

TJ: Would you say that Gi is an anomaly in Korean literature?

GS: There is simply no other poet like Gi in Korean literature [except perhaps Choe Seung-ja, whom I’ll touch on later] and it was the raw, negative energy stemming from the totality of his experience that ultimately had a deep and lasting impact on Korean poets emerging in the 1990s. Based on the facts gleaned from his personal life, my interpretation is that the utter pessimism of Black Leaf in My Mouth (the title of his poetry collection) is squarely rooted in life in the shady Jongro underground where the yearning heart is trampled and the soul perishes in silence and in secret.

In poetic terms, this was Gi’s living death. To the world’s eyes, Gi had all the ingredients of success: a good education, a stable job, a fine brain, good looks – he is the only handsome Korean poet of the entire decade. So I ask, whence the existential anguish? Over and over I read that Gi’s colleagues couldn’t believe how negative and depressing his poetry was when they first read it. And still today, it confounds people unaware of his covert sexuality. Not too long ago, a critic and minor acquaintance of Gi’s said in a Munhak Sasang journal article that Gi’s negativity must all have been a ‘pose’, that there could be no real substance behind it. Outrageous! These men are blind to Gi’s agonies because they are blind to sexual minorities. But those agonies have a pointed resonance, I believe, for gay readers, Korean and foreign. Did you not find that so?

TJ: Yes. Having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s myself – albeit in another country and culture, pre-internet, pre the kind of technological and social access we now have to that milieu – Gi’s poems have particular resonance for me in that they are written in a language I speak. By this I do not mean the language of poetry (though it is a significant part of the appeal for me). I’m talking of a language I know experientially (that has much in common with poetry), its subjugations, codes and allusions. A language I had to speak for a good portion of my life also. This is how we survived. Reading the handful of translations available of Gi’s work, the final lines of Whitman’s ‘Among The Multitude’ are never far from my mind:

'I meant that you should discover me by so faint indirections,
And I when I meet you mean to discover you by the like in

GS: During my recent visit to Korea I came across a number of young people (with no interest in poetry) who, whenever I mentioned Gi, knew of and loved his work. What do you think it is about Gi’s work that might have particular resonance for a younger generation?

Well, I can only speak of the generation who were young in the 1990s. I don’t really know how Gi is being received by young people right now. First of all, it is important to remember that the poetry Gi published while alive did not draw the same level of public interest that it did after his death. His collected poems came out in 1989, just a few months after his demise. He passed away with his blue notebook of poems in his bag beside him. Several of his colleagues collected and arranged them as best as they could and published them using the arbitrary title Black Leaf in My Mouth, although it seems Gi was intending to call it Warning at the Station, which is far less ominous in tone.

So from the beginning, his book was known as the despairing work of a dead poet who died tragically in a theatre. As I said before, Korean critics don’t discuss the love themes, they just hash and re-hash the political elements and pore over technical/literary aspects. There are less than one hundred poems and with so many Korean poets entering the literary scene each year, interest soon ran out and Gi scholarship dwindled. But his popularity with college students remains steady. Ironically, in the 1990s, young aspiring poets would purposely hang out in Seoul theatres at night, hoping to absorb inspiration to write like their idol, unaware of the meaning of ‘theatre’ as understood by the gay community.

But back to your question. There are other reasons for Gi’s appeal besides the posthumous hype (although the hype explains much of the fervour): his lively metaphors and maxims, his sensitivity, vulnerability, his femininity, which stands, refreshingly, against the norm of what feminist critic Gweon In-suk has called ‘military masculinity’ regulating male expression since the 1960s. The greatest Gi aficionados are females of the ‘three-eight-six’ generation.

One aspect that bears mentioning is that most poetry of the 1980s, offered up in praise of the Singular Nation and the Singular People, lost sight of the realities of society’s weak and disenfranchised – that is, those fringe existences that unadulterated nationalism fails to recognize: the handicapped, those of mixed blood, homosexuals, the unemployed, non-politicos and so on. Gi wrote about these people. Many college kids in the 1990s, I think, related to Gi’s refusal to identify with the structure, his standing outside it, to that timid intellectual hiding in the poplars. In the 1980s, such a posture would have been shameful. Gi was, in a word, ahead of his time.

TJ: So beyond Gi’s sexuality, which remains invisible to most or is conjectured and kept in its place, why his popularity? What is the work’s appeal?

GS: He had a talent for creating a sense of alienation that many could relate to but not easily express themselves. I’ve just submitted a poem by another Korean poet, Choe Seung-ja, to an anthology of LGBT poems coming out this year called ‘Collective Brightness’, in which your friend Cyril Wong’s work is also represented. Choe is the other big individualist poet of the 1980s, and she also wrote same-sex poems. In harmony with Gi, the final line from that particular poem reads: ‘That I am alive is nothing but an eternal rumour.’ It’s not surprising that those treating same-sex themes constitute the most pessimistic and adamantly individualistic poetic voices of the 1980s, because as homosexuals, they experienced double, or multiple oppressions. The editor at Blackbloom said Choe’s poetry stood out from other international same-sex poets in the anthology in terms of her sheer self-hatred and negativity. I think Gi’s will, too.

TJ: You are the founder and torchbearer of the ‘Korea Gay Literature’ Project. Can you tell me a little about the history and aims of the project and your current involvement with it?

GS: The dream of the project is to become extinct as quickly as possible. The project is a transitional one involving transferring the problems and methodologies of gender and queer studies to Korean literary scholarship. Once Korean intellectuals begin to embrace the idea of same-sex literature, the goal of the project will be met.

Some limited progress is already apparent in my university’s literature department. The students now see, I think, why clinging to notions of medicalized homosexuality is harmful to minorities. The existence of sexual minorities probably had never occurred to most of them before. Probably a shock or unwanted information at first, but then, after acclimating themselves to the idea, they really do get it. That’s the tremendous power of suggestion.

I’d like to wait until the project has achieved all of its goals before I think back on my experiences getting it off the ground, but I can talk about what’s going on right now. Firstly, I’m trying to get Gi’s work and the work of other same-sex writers translated into English and other languages. A few people living in Europe and the U.S. have expressed interest in translating Gi’s work, and that is very encouraging.

Secondly, I aim to complete my dissertation on same-sex literature, criticism, and media discourses in Korea from the 1950s to the present. The project is just one small element among many developments taking place in Korea today in diverse realms such as film, drama, fashion, and various popular media. I predict that real, positive changes will begin to take place in Korean academe for LGBTs within five to ten years. That is my hope.

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