• Videos
  • English

Songs of Life and Salvation: A Conversation with Poet Kim Nam Jo

  • Provider
    LTI Korea
  • Issued Date
    VOL.27 SPRING 2015
  • Running Time


I met poet Kim Nam Jo in her study in the picturesque environs of the Eocheon Lake Farm in Hwaseong City, Gyeonggi Province. It was an invaluable opportunity to listen to the poet share insights from her long and distinguished career. Poetry was at the heart of our conversation as Kim spoke with great candor and warmth about humanity and the world.


Yoo Sungho: In a world of perpetual war and endless natural disasters, I believe it is all the more necessary that we as a generation think about literature and the arts in greater depth. First of all, what do you think is the role of literature in the current state of the world, or to put it differently, what do you personally consider to be the proper path of literature?

Kim Nam Jo: In an age when difficult surgeries are performed with the aid of robotic devices, there is no doubt that there have been drastic changes in the status of humans and the function of literature in society, but there is still a need for us to discuss the expansion of the meaning of literary truth and human nature. When I was in middle and high school during the Japanese colonial period, the Korean language, both spoken and written freely in the home, was strictly forbidden at school. Subjected to such acts of injustice, I had no choice but to think about how human dignity and human rights must be protected at all costs. In that sense, the starting point of modern Korean literature was contradiction and suffering, and a literary person should therefore set out on a lifelong journey based on truth in search of a language that enables one to retrace the agonies of the time, protect human nature and decode the true meaning of life, and ensure that the language is widely available.

Yoo: That reminds me of how Martin Heidegger referred to Fredrich Hölderlin as “a poet in a destitute time.” If I were to think about it in terms of Korean literature, I couldn’t help but wonder if in this time of destitution, now is not the right time to redefine what in fact a poet is. I would also like to ask about your world of poetry. You must have gained much insight now that you’ve been writing poetry for over 60 years, and you must have noticed how recently poetry is becoming increasingly marginalized. And yet I still believe that poetry has an aesthetic value that is not transferable. Can you tell us about your long career as a poet who continues to steadily write poems in her mother tongue?

Kim: A poet must walk a few steps ahead of other people, but also follow at the end of the line, that is, she must play both roles simultaneously. In addition, a poet must offer insight and linguistic finesse through her poetry, and must make it known, and see that it gets published on paper. For instance, the early spring scenery of February that still feels chilly can be referred to as “the young day of spring which does not even have a name.” I personally decided to pursue a literary career at a time when the use of my mother tongue was forbidden, and since then I’ve written a little over 30 collections of poems and essays.

However, this should not be the end of literature, but its beginning. It should keep its roots firmly in the soil of human nature, and bear in mind its calling to understand, embrace, and heal the wounds of human beings, and should continue on its journey, slowly and humbly, and to the farthest possible distance.

Yoo: Your poetry is literally like water from a spring that has grown deeper amid extreme pain. In that aspect, I believe one can learn a great deal from your understanding of art on a more theoretical level. In your view, what aspects of our lives should be further developed in order to experience the true value of art?

Kim: There are more urgent tasks in the twenty-first century in which we live today than ever before. For instance, despite the astonishing developments in medicine, new forms of intractable diseases are being discovered every year. In fact, in professions that provide humanitarian aid, it is demanded of them to have the wisdom to immediately pull out persons from a disaster-stricken area and save their lives, so in comparison the function of literature can only come second. However, literature can inflate the feelings of love, hope, and belief inside one’s heart, and allow one to share those feelings with others. That is, I believe it is a field that allows humans to be human and makes us aware of the full value of our existence.

Yoo: Of the many metaphors you use in your poems, those for pain have raised various thoughts in my mind. The imagery of Mary Magdalene or Sisyphus brings life to your unique sense of pain through metaphor. I wonder, does the world of your poetry flow out from these types of pain? Despite the presence of agony, your poems have advanced toward the most fundamental of values such as love and life. In the poetics of love that has continued from your early poems up to your most recent works, I wonder if love has developed within such pain.

Kim: I am aware that I frequently use the word pain in my poems and essays. However, that pain is less my own, but rather refers to the pain of the whole of humanity, and has been used as a concept that is directly proportional to the positive sides of life such as love and hope. The first level of my poems is sensitivity, and I think of sensitivity as the feelers of all things. As the depth of pain is identical to that of love, the person who loves more hurts more. In the series of poems titled “Mary Magdelene,” I wrote: “Thus for you / Even at any dawn or any night / The driving nails into hands and feet, the pain / Never stops.”A poet must excavate to the deepest depths of her sensitivity, fill it with the various circumstances of other human beings, and in the process avoid becoming tired but rather share warm words of consolation.

Yoo: People often read love and salvation as the two main themes of your poetry. And to that extent, you seem to have emphasized the ontology of love within the larger picture that you have been drawing about salvation. What is your opinion on the reading of your world of poetry based on love and salvation?

Kim: I am intimidated by the mere mention of the words love and salvation. Both in poetry and in life, love and salvation have served as supreme indicators and symbols of completion. The human condition forces us to pursue these in all aspects of life, but the process can only be painfully slow. I only try my best to proceed in the common direction in which most of us, no, all of us, desire to advance. Love and salvation are the very tasks and prayers of humanity.

Yoo: How many languages have your poems been translated into? My opinion is that translation is a major problem in making Korean poetry known to the Western world, but I do hope that your poetry retains its sense of universality and spreads out to the world through the inevitable device of translation. Can you tell us a little about your poetry in translation

Kim: My poems have been translated into English, Japanese, German, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. It is said that approximately one percent of the global population can understand the Korean language. Although I am trapped inside this lonely language, I am grateful to be able to reach different readers on the other side of the globe through translation. If my poems can somehow resonate with their hearts, that would be because the similarities of our souls have allowed us to meet as writer and reader.

Yoo: It seems Korean poetry has recently at times become too serious, and at other times too light. I truly hope that your readership accepts the years of poverty and life that you have lived through, and understands that your inner world is filled with great perseverance and repeated aspirations. In that sense, I wonder if your faith and your poetry are both acts that embrace life. Ultimately it seems that they follow a distinct structure that converges with the word “life.” Can you tell us about your thoughts on the relationship between poetry and life?

Kim: As you said, faith and poetry stem from the same root, and one ought to say that both are dedications to life along with the hope and affirmation of life, as well as the pursuit of eternity. Also, is not the purpose of poetry and life to duplicate what is real in life using the language of literature and thereby share it with others?

Yoo: How do you view the future of your poetry? I believe that your poetry has many properties that will make it into the canon of Korean literature. For instance, they are significant as poems by a woman, poems about love, and poems about faith, and in terms of the “poetics of old age,” that is, in terms of how your work continues to improve in old age. Lastly, what are your plans from now on?

Kim: I will continue the flow of what I have been doing throughout my career, but the expression “poetics of old age” makes me nervous because I’m now at the age when I am reading the last pages of the thick book that we all read in life. I wish to be a wise reader and hope to have more meaningful conversations with my increasing number of elderly friends.

Translated Books (18)

E-Book (1)

News from Abroad (5)

Audios (1)