1. Having been born in the year of the 1988 Olympics and now having turned 30 years old, it seems like you’re at a really uncertain age. Though, of course, things aren’t perfect now, we think of the ‘88 Olympics as the symbolic time when the democracy in South Korea got started. It’s also the time that Korea started to get more international recognition. In that respect, there would be many common denominators with the generation born after the ‘88 Olympics. But at the same time, it is also the last generation to attend elementary school as “gukchoding”1 and pay tuition for middle school. In conclusion, I would say it feels like your generation ambiguously spans between the current and the older generations. So I’m curious how you, as someone born in 1988, perceive the lives of young people and the current times in which we live. Also, if these phases of the times are reflected in your works, how so?
Lee Hye-mi: When I say that I was born in 1988, most people think of the Seoul Olympics. Another interesting thing is that my Chinese Zodiac sign is the dragon, so most people tend to remember me well because being the “dragon of 88” leaves quite an impression. However, I do think that all generations think that their generation is the boundary and a transitional period between times. There isn’t an age that isn’t subject to change, and everyone is in the middle of transcending various times and ages.
If we disregard the bigger things in the world and just focus on my personal experience, being an “early-born” (Koreans born before March could enroll in school a year earlier than their peers by law. This law was abolished in 2009) and getting into school earlier than most children my age was the biggest turning point in my life. I wasn’t able to get along with my peers, so I spent a lot of time reading in my house, which led me to write, become a writer, and reach this point in my life…It makes me feel odd; it’s almost eerie. If “early-born” wasn’t a concept that existed, wouldn’t I have gone down a completely different path?
I think that all my poems and writing reflect my time and generation. If you think about it, generational theory might be something that is chronologically backward, a meaningless nomenclature. I’m not acutely aware of my generation or the time in which I write, but all the texts that I make have the shadow of my chronological background cast on them.
2. Your friends who don’t write literature are managing ordinary life as thirty-year-olds. I’m curious as to what kind of differences you feel between yourself, managing life as a thirty-year-old novelist, and your friends.
The biggest difference is that I don’t have to go through the ordeal of going to work every day. Of course, I do go to work, but I’m not a part of a rigid group-oriented society, so I have a lot more freedom when it comes to time. We all know how exhausted one’s soul gets, and how one gets tainted by darkness by the monotony of getting up in the early morning and going to work every single day. I don’t know how long this lifestyle of mine is going to continue, but I want to continue living without giving up the calming effect a leisurely weekday morning has on one’s soul.
3. Bodies and physical contacts have a strong presence throughout your poems. I wonder where in the linguistic sphere, which is systematized in our inner worlds, these carnal and intimate entities are located. Also, how do their positions influence your poetry?
I don’t think the language of body and mind are significantly different. Quite the contrary, the language of the mind likewise influences one’s body, to a great extent. And I always think about contact when I think about relationship. Even if it’s not through our bodies, human minds make contact through a conversation. In “Unexpected Vanilla,” a poem that is also the title of my second anthology, there’s a line that goes, “That slight touch…which shapes each other.” This line was inspired by Sartre. A human being cannot confirm one’s existence on one’s own but rather confirm it through other people’s existence and having contact with it. In other words, the matters of relationship or language become manifest only through contact, collision, and dynamism. Whether it is contact through language, the body, or an inner world, I think this network of interaction inevitably becomes manifest to us.
4. In your poem, excretions that are “sticky,” “dirty,” or “unsanitary” like “blood” and “wet dream” often appear. And these “abjects” engage with things that are conventionally considered beautiful and fresh like “sweetness,” “flower,” and “tropical fruits.” I find the points where these entities meet interesting, so I want to hear your thoughts behind them.
I think it’s my habit to make beautiful and unpleasant things collide and observe a rift upon them. “Taint flower” or “shining scars” would be an example. I also encourage myself to think this way in order to keep myself from automatizing the flow of thoughts. Similarly, I train myself to connect unrealistic things and situations like in “hot ice” or “melting footsteps.” Now that I’m thinking about it, these trivial habits that are more like wordplay have been helpful in crafting poems.
5. What will your next poems’ venture be like?
My second poetry collection was released last year, so I think the next step is a prose collection or an interview collection. I promised myself that I would do something different after my second poetry collection. I hope that I can greet you all with a different, interesting book. Thank you for your time.
Read Lee Hye-mi’s
“Unexpected Vanilla” and four poems here