Soje: Dear readers and listeners of Modern Poetry in Translation, hello hello! My name is Soje, and I’ve had the great pleasure of serving as the 2020 MPT Writer in Residence. I’m a writer, a translator, and also the maker of chogwa, a quarterly zine that features one Korean poem and multiple English translations per issue.
Somehow, with one miracle leading to another, we’ve reached the fifth issue – an entire year – of chogwa, and I thought this would be the perfect time to try something new, which is actually to return to something old. As I explain in the pamphlet, I asked previous contributors to revisit their translations – not to necessarily revise or ‘correct’ them, but to see what happens when we make space for our lingering attachments. The results completely blew me away, and I’m very grateful for the ten translators for revisiting chogwa and themselves.
Jaewon Che is one of the ten translators in this issue, and she also provided the cover art titled deodeumdeodeum. She and I actually met through the very first issue of chogwa, and you’ll hear all about that, or at least some part of our story, in this podcast episode.
First, Jaewon will read her artist’s statement written in both Korean and English, then our conversation will begin, followed by poetry readings from Hoyoung, Helen HY Kim, Seth Chandler, Victoria Caudle, and Dahyun Kim. Thank you for reading and listening! Enjoy.
eye meets tongue eye touches skin
to trace to stutter to touch
to bang body against a wall
축축한 뿌리 축축한 뿌리
바스러져 깨진 조각 위
무심히 무사히 누억누억 넘어
씻어 벗은 눈끝 뻗어
더듬더듬 더듬 더듬더듬 더듬
Soje: Hi Jaewon, this is Soje. Thank you for agreeing to exchange some voice notes with me to talk about chogwa issue 5. I want to introduce you as a multi-hyphenate: a painter, a poet, a translator, a baker. And you reminded me earlier that you also studied physics in college! Physics! So how would you describe yourself? Is there a particular activity that comes first for you?
Jaewon: Hello Soje, thank you for having me. I’m so excited to do this. And nervous. Without getting too much into psychoanalysis, I have been interested in finding a language, whether that be a human language, a visual one, a physical one, by which I mean things that are in between, like an invisible, interacting field, to tell my story and how I see the world.
I was a slightly emo kid, and I specifically attributed the misery to the failure of human language, the impossibility of being able to communicate with one another. So I wanted to run away and study physics, which I thought was devoid of confusion or accidents. It was clean, absolute, outside the human realm.
But then I realized that things are actually even more messy. What I thought was a dot was actually a cloud – nothing is fixed. You know how in school we learned that electrons orbit around a nucleus? In fact, it looks more like a cloudy, windy, stormy night sky, where electrons are like lightnings. You have no idea where they are until they happen. They’re everywhere and nowhere. They’re like multi-limb packages of energy and light.
So this kind of turned me to painting trying to visualize what is essentially invisible. Then I came to Korea three years ago. I started to read more Korean poems, and I realized that poetry is something that allows language to reach its maximum, that amorphous state that can turn into all different forms. The incredible thing about poetry or literature is that despite the limitations of human perception or knowledge, it allows us to understand more than we know and to love more than we can understand.
Soje: I started responding to some of the things you mentioned, but I think we should just have a phone call after this podcast. Your mind goes in a gazillion different ways that I can never predict, which is why it’s so exciting to talk with you. And little emo Jaewon! I had a similar fear of speaking and sort of permanence in general, a fear that lingers to this day and makes this podcast a little funny. I love, love your cloud metaphor because clouds and confusion and messiness and life! That’s all very relatable to me.
Anyway, let’s try to rewind a year, if possible. How did you find chogwa, and what prompted you to send in your translation? Because I can’t emphasize enough how chogwa just used to be like, a blank Twitter account asking for translations.
Jaewon: So I was on Twitter – I have been on Twitter for the past 12, 13 years, and I’d never once tweeted. I was just following people and reading things. And I never really used it for reasons related to what I was talking to you earlier about the fear of communication and the inevitability of miscommunication.
I don’t know how I found it, but I found the first tweet of chogwa, and I read the poem, Jin Eun-Young’s ‘Dalpaengi,’ and I immediately thought of Amy Sillman’s painting, Me & Ugly Mountain, which is a painting of a small person on the bottom left corner, dragging this large mountain-looking, amorphous, bubble-wrapped mountain of just jumbled things inside, across a snowy plain. The keywords in the poem were 달팽이 (dalpaengi, snail) and 짐 (jim, load) and 달 (dal, moon) for me. At that time I wasn’t sure, but I just had the urge that I just wanted to do it, I had to do it.
I especially was taken by the name of this magazine, chogwa, or excess, which I felt like it was me. [laughs] Or something that I’ve always struggled with, both personally and work-wise. And also, I thought it was such an important and necessary thing for poems to be treated this way. I mean, I didn’t expect that it’s going to turn out to be so wonderful and so life-changing. But yeah, I think the idea of excess really captures how language does function, which is superposition and interference and something that is not and will never be fixed.
Soje: So it remains a mystery how you came across chogwa! [laughs] I really wonder who was the mutual who served as a bridge between us. I guess that’s for the historians to piece together. Just kidding. The world is ending.
But yes, I remember your message very well, with the Amy Sillman painting. I’d already commissioned my friend Kahn Ryu for the cover – which I didn’t tell anyone at the time – so I was especially surprised that you thought to send me a visual companion as well. This is exactly why I asked you to be the cover artist for our one-year anniversary issue, themed revisitation. It just seemed right, you know, to come full circle like this.
So what was it like to contribute both the cover art and a revised translation for this issue? Even your artist’s statement for deodeumdeodeum is formatted like a poem or really is a poem. I’m curious as to what it was like to prepare all of that for a single issue.
Jaewon: I wish we both live to see the historians uncover this mystery. [laughs] It was such an honor to do the cover of the fifth issue of chogwa. I was very intrigued by this issue, which was revisitation, and I remember us having a small discussion about what it means to revisit a poem or to revise one. I guess I was curious about what you meant by revisitation because, you know, does it mean to just go over technical things, maybe take different routes than the one that I took before? Or is it more conceptual, like a bird revisiting or fish returning to where it was born, the place where it was once an egg.
And I think that’s kind of how I approached it, when I was revisiting the poem that I translated, kind of returning, re-turning, to the place that you came from as a changed person. Especially in the context of chogwa, where multiple people translated a single work and our understanding of the work has been unimaginably expanded through this process.
I think this view is also influenced by the poem that I was revisiting, in kind of the idea of cyclical returning or being reborn as a changed person, like over and over. And both the initial translation as well as the revisitation was kind of a continuum as opposed to two separate incidents.
For the cover of chogwa I painted the antennae of a snail, and I was very taken at that time by the fact that it’s called 더듬이 (deodeumi) in Korean from the word from the verb 더듬다 (deodeumda). Antenna is more about the concept of receiving, reception, but I thought 더듬다 had more of a reaching out in the dark with your hands, like almost with your eyes closed, to see something without being able to see. It literally in Korean means to reach out with your hands, to stretch out, to feel things, to trace something or to recall or even to stutter. And also to grope, which takes a little bit of a more sinister turn. But that’s what happens when you are reaching out in the dark. You cannot fully understand what you’re doing. And you have to rely on the tools that are not made for seeing such as your skin, I don’t know, your tongue, your limbs, your gut, so it’s a bit of an inside-out thing. And it’s really cool to see snails go around, and they touch things with their bare skin, eye, 더듬이 thing and then they retract almost immediately and then they stretch back. So I thought it had something to do with kind of going to places that you’re not familiar with.
So I guess to summarize, the artist statement I think I was trying to refer to our conversation about the nature of revisitation, which is to trace back, to return as a new soul, to break free but still carrying all the bits. And that you keep reaching. Like 더듬더듬 더듬, 더듬더듬 더듬.
Soje: OK, your explanation of your painting deodeumdeodeum and the statement itself are incredible. You’re right that the word ‘to grope’ – one of the possible definitions of 더듬다 – carries a negative connotation relating to sexual assault, though I feel like 더듬다 is much more benign. Like someone fumbling for the light switch in the dark.
And the fact that this verb also means ‘to stutter’ in Korean is interesting. The stuttering in the act of reaching out to others, the awkwardness in feeling something out and being unsure of yourself, or even the Anglophone idiom of ‘putting my feelers out,’ you know – that describes my past year exactly. Maybe I was the snail all along? [laughs] I had no idea who was out there, what you were all doing, and yet I decided to try for whatever reason. And I stuttered a lot. And I felt a lot. Luckily so many of you responded and taught me invaluable lessons about translation and poetry. That’s what keeps me going despite the fear and embarrassment of it all, of public existence.
I’m also really taken with how the antennae bring us back to the snail in Jin Eun-Young’s poem from the first issue, so thank you again, Jaewon. It’s a really thoughtful work of art you’ve created for all of us.
Jaewon: Wow, thank you so much for such a sweet and sensitive response. What you said about stutter, putting your feelers out – I’m actually surprised to know that you have felt that way when you first started it – that kind of awkwardness, reaching out to others. But you do it regardless, in spite of, that feeling of awkwardness or inadequacy, which I think is what makes someone a good editor, writer, person.
Yeah, 더듬다 is such a packed word. Especially I think in Korean because it’s also used to say to trace back. You know, 기억을 더듬다? So it is about revisiting or to recall, reminisce, to trace back. But it’s also going in the complete opposite direction of going into a unknown territory with your eyes blinded. So yeah, I think that is what writing is, poetry is. What we’re all trying to do. And grope, yes, it can refer to unambiguous criminal acts, but it also originally means to take something almost without knowing what it is. It’s kind of like a leap of faith. And it reminded me of the last sentence in Jin Eun-Young’s poem: ‘How much do I have to bleed in order for us, me, it, to rise in peace.’
Soje: Ah yes, 기억을 더듬다. That’s a really important usage of the verb as well. To search around the dark archive of your past. 더듬다.
Is there anything else you’d like to share? Any new or upcoming projects you’re working on? Any snack recommendations?
Jaewon: Bread and butter sounds good. I look forward to reading your translation of Catcalling. I’m currently putting together a collection of poems, which I’ve been working on for the past year and a half. A lot of them are about cicadas. [laughs] I really look forward to this new issue and for many new issues of chogwa to come. Thank you so much for being such a patient interviewer and to have inspired all of us to 더듬더듬 forward!
Soje: Thank you for the recommendation for bread and butter. And poems! I’m very much looking forward to reading your new poems. Thank you for this wonderful conversation, Jaewon. Bye!
And now, five contributors of chogwa issue 5 will read their revisited poem.
[Readings by Hoyoung, Helen HY Kim, Seth Chandler, Victoria Caudle, and Dahyun Kim]
Victoria: I’m always anxious when I first translate a poem. I know that every line placement and every word choice has been thought out so deliberately by the poet that I find myself holding back, worried about getting it wrong or not catching everything the source text has to offer. Participating in chogwa, where multiple interpretation of the same poem are presented side by side, I feel as if a safety net has been strung under my high-wire poetic balancing act, giving me the freedom to experiment without the pressure of knowing I’ve got only one shot at bringing the truth of the work across to the readers.
Dahyun: I think it’s fascinating how even though you’ve read your translation of the poem numerous times, it still manages to sound different when you read it out loud and when you listen to your own voice saying it. For example, for this, ‘Food Undeserved,’ when I saw it on paper my main concern was that it felt too guilt-laden, it felt too desperate, but after listening to myself say it out loud numerous times, I think it regained some of the warmth I think is in the original text and I thought was lacking in my own translation. And honestly, saying ‘a piss-poor poet who partakes in food undeserved’ is just kind of fun. So thanks.
Soje: And that’s a wrap for the chogwa on MPT podcast episode! Bye listeners! Thank you for having us.