Birth pangs of a poet

Suji Kwock Kim, who will collect the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize in Cork, talks to Colette Sheridan about her work and heritage

THE Munster Literature Centre is hosting its first Cork Spring Poetry Festival from Feb 15-18. The centre has held spring literary festivals for over 15 years at which all genres of writing were celebrated. This year’s focus on poets from eight countries is an acknowledgment of the preference for poetry by past spring literary festival audiences.

The highlight of the festival will be the reading of the poem that won the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize this year. The poem is New York-based Suji Kwock Kim’s Sonogram Song, a moving poem about the ultrasound scan of her son and his birth, against the odds.

Some 1,700 poems were entered into the competition, now in its third year. Adjudicator Pat Cotter, director of the Munster Literature Centre, says Kwock Kim’s poem won him over “by being highly imagistic and argumentative at the same time. There are very few poems which can sustain philosophical speculation amid such effective evocation of sensory perception without going awry.”

Kwock Kim, who will read her poem on Feb 18 at the Metropole Hotel, gave birth to her first and only child a year-and-a-half ago. Addressing the child, Brian, she writes: “You who might not have lived, might never have been born, like all the others,...”

Aged 40, Kwock Kim says that because she was “an older mother, the doctors called the pregnancy ‘geriatric.’ It was a high risk pregnancy because of my age and also because we had tried a few times to conceive and there had been quite a few miscarriages. But there’s this happy ending.”

Kwock Kim, born in America to Korean parents, published her first collection of poetry, Notes From the Divided Country, in 2003. The first quarter of the book is about Korea. It won several awards, including the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Poems from her forthcoming second book, Disorient, have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, The Nation and The New Republic. Her work has been reprinted in 25 anthologies and translated into nine languages. She describes herself as a slow writer. It took her 10 years to write her first book and as she works towards the publication of her second she has to balance writing with motherhood.

Having a child “places one in a different relation to mortality. As the poet, Carolyn Forché once wrote, ‘when my son was born, I became mortal.’ You not only have yourself to worry about, but also, obviously, your child. Minding a child is time consuming but my imagination has deepened. I have a greater sense of the vulnerability of not only my child, but also, of other children and creatures in the world. It really deepens my outlook. It’s a sacrifice worth making.

“I have found it difficult to write about Korea, particularly North Korea because there’s so little information about it, which is deliberate on the part of the regime there. I don’t feel that I’m a voice for the people of Korea but writing about it is inescapable for me. It’s part of who I am.”

Both Kwock Kim’s parents were born in what is now North Korea. Her father was 10 years old when the Korean War broke out. He was separated from his parents, who remained in North Korea. “My father has been trying to get in touch with them, but because of their age and everything that happened in North Korea, he’s not sure that they’re alive anymore. For such a small country, there are 11 million families that are separated. My mother wasn’t separated from her parents. They all left North Korea together, moving to South Korea. My parents came to America when they were in their 20s. In total, I have spent about two and a half years in Korea. About five years ago, I was on a research trip in North Korea. That was really wild. Initially, after the war, North Korea was far more industrialised and wealthier than South Korea. It’s very odd for a previously industrialised country to almost go back to the 18th century. I saw all these electrical wires and telephone poles but there was no electricity or power. People would strip the poles to sell the copper wire on the black market. A lot of factories are simply rusted. In the fields, you could see everybody doing things by hand. They still have oxen ploughing the fields.”

Kwock Kim’s parents used to speak to her in Korean when she was a young child. But her teacher told them to use English. As a result, Kwock Kim has to relearn Korean every time she visits the country. At an early age, she “fell in love” with the musicality of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry. “I had it in my ear before I even understood what he was saying. But I didn’t really read poetry until I was in high school. I didn’t write poetry until I was in college. I had some wonderful teachers who really brought the music in poetry alive. I completely fell for the language of Keats, Yeats, Whitman, Seamus Heaney — and Hopkins all over again. I was drawn to the music and everything else, in terms of historical exploration and questioning, came later.”

Kwock Kim doesn’t remember consciously deciding to be a poet. “It was more that I couldn’t stop myself drafting poems and reading them. Over time, I became a poet because I couldn’t stop.”

The structure of Disorient is similar to that of Notes From the Divided Country. “It’s a deepening of the themes in my first book. The first section is about family life in America. Then, instead of exploring the Korean War and the Japanese occupation of Korea, I look at the aftermath of the war, particularly in North Korea. I try to imagine what the lives of my relatives might be like. The third section of the book is, I suppose, love poems. It’s dedicated to my husband. The fourth section of the book is about landscape and nature, this time intertwined with the fates of my family, the seasons and the landscape.”

Getting published as a poet in the US is difficult, says Kwock Kim. “America is a very mercantile country. Poetry doesn’t sell so obviously, publishers are far less interested in printing it. But that gives poets a great amount of freedom. You don’t have the pressure to be commercial. There are certain fiction writers who feel they have to sell because if they don’t, they just won’t get their next book published. A poet can concentrate on writing the best poetry that he or she can make. That’s really wonderful.”

Kwock Kim, who wrote a play that was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1993, says she writes some prose.

She is looking forward to coming to Cork.

“It will be my first time in Ireland. It’s a really mystic place to me, a land that really honours poets and playwrights. I think that some of the greatest writers that have ever lived have come from Ireland. It’s such an honour to win the Gregory O’Donoghue Award. I’m thrilled beyond words.”

Sonogram Song

Out of albumen and blood, out of amniotic brine, placental sea-swell, trough, salt-spume and foam,

you came to us infinitely far, little traveler, from the other world — skull-keel and heel-hull socketed to pelvic cradle,

rib-rigging, bowsprit-spine, driftwood-bone, the ship of you scudding wave after wave of what-might-never-have-been.

Memory, stay faithful to this moment, which will never return: may I never forget when we first saw you, there on the other side,

still fish-gilled, still water-lunged, your eelgrass-hair and seahorse-skeleton floating in the sonogram screen

like a ghost from tomorrow,moth-breath quicksilver in snowy pixels, fists in sleep-twitch,

not yet alive but not not, you who were and were not,

a thunder of bloodbeats sutured in green jags on the ultrasound machine like hooves galloping from eternity to time,

feet kicking bone-creel and womb-wall, while we waited, never to waken in that world again,

the world without the shadow of your death, with no you or not-you, no is or was or might-have-been or never-were.

So may I never forget when we first saw you in your afterlife which was life,

soaked otter-pelt and swan-down crowning, face cauled in blood and mucus-mud, eyes soldered shut,

wet birth-cord rooting you from one world to the next, you who might not have lived, might never have been born, like all the others,

as we looked at every pock and crook of your skull, every clotted hair, seal-slick on your blue-black scalp,

every lash, every nail, every pore, every breath, with so much wonder that wonder is not the word.

Suji Kwock Kim

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