Ear turned toward the emergent

Close Listening with Myung Mi Kim

Myung Mi Kim at the Kelly Writers House. Photo by Arielle Brousse.

Editorial note: Myung Mi Kim (b. 1957) is the author of Penury (2009), Commons (2002), Dura (1999), The Bounty (1996), and Under Flag (1991). She teaches in the poetics program at SUNY–Buffalo. The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded March 15, 2007, at Studio 111 at the University of Pennsylvania with the engineering assistance of Molly Braverman. Listen to the audio program here. Charles Bernstein hosted and produced the show, which includes questions and comments from Pauline Baniqued, Julie Charbonneir, Nicholas Mayer, Heather Gorn, Sarah Yeung, and Jonathan Liebembuk (as well as Adam Tabor and Damien Bright). The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price

Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, WPS1’s program of spontaneous and unedited readings and conversations, presented in collaboration with PennSound. Our guest today for the second of two programs on Close Listening is Myung Mi Kim.

Myung Mi Kim’s books of poetry include Commons, Dura, The Bounty, and Under Flag. She teaches in the Poetics Program at SUNY–Buffalo. On today’s show, which we are recording at Studio 111 on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Myung Mi Kim will be answering questions from Penn students.

Hello, Myung, welcome back. Just moments after we had you, here you are again.

Myung Mi Kim: Happy to be here again.

Bernstein: Pauline?

Pauline Baniqued: Hi. I really enjoyed reading Commons. I started to think about the process involved in writing this, so my questions are mostly related. Maybe I could just put them out there for you?

Your poetry is charged with meaning and double meaning, and open to multiple interpretations. How is this seemingly less smooth-flowing and more intellectual approach received by those in poetry, for example, in academia or by those who actually practice poetry? Do you find yourself having to decide whether certain material qualifies for poetry? Are you self-conscious about it when you write, and if so, do you sift out things to include in your poetry? How do you differentiate or judge?

Kim: What I’m hearing in that question, or at least the direction I want to take that question, is the interrogation of archive. There may be two things to consider here. One: what is material for the poem? This question is immediately conjoined with: what are the possibilities of the poem? The work or thinking through the interrogation of the archive immediately signals both the problem of what belongs in a poem, what is extra to the poem, and therefore, because of that excess, perhaps needs to be considered as belonging to the poem. For me, the question of what belongs and what doesn’t belong in some really foundational sense is a question of what has been excluded in terms of the sociohistorical index, and therefore the question of what belongs or doesn’t is one that needs to keep being opened up. There’s got to be some kind of pressure on the question of what closes down the archive, who has authority to create archive. I’m hoping that I’m at least hearing one aspect of your question. Do you want to keep going?

Baniqued: Yes. You use a lot of primary text, direct images, and lines in the poem as if taking the most objective photograph or stand towards the experience or the thought. Do you think that this is a “better” form of poetry, or a good direction towards the development of poetry? That poets remain more faithful to the experience that’s being documented, and thus write more “effective” poems? What do you say to people who may think this is BS or think of it as stripping the essence of “again” writing poetry?

Kim: Let me make sure I heard the first part of the question. When you are talking about the objective photograph — do you want to say a little more about that?

Baniqued: That was the sense that I got when I was reading these poems, probably because there weren’t as many adjectives as is common in more traditional kinds of poetry. There were just snapshots of what was there. The words were very precise.

Kim: Actually, that is a useful question to follow up the first question about material, because for me it is a question about materiality. And what you’re saying is the lack of modifiers, right? There are no adjectives, very few. That’s fascinating to me because it’s not a description for the thing. It is the thing. What is it to have perception that is unfettered from description?

Bernstein: There’s an aspect to what Pauline is asking though that’s slightly different, which is what do people think when you write stuff that is difficult to understand? People like me with a limited horizon, vocabulary, you know, who say, “What is she talking about? I don’t understand. [Laughter.] I understand the words, but I don’t understand what the words are doing. Do I have to read other poems? I mean, I open this book for the first time and it makes no sense to me.” Are you trying to write for the broad masses of the people?

Kim: I think the question here is: can the masses actually have a lot more to say about what’s scrutable and readable and intelligible than what someone else external to the broad masses has determined. In other words, who has the privilege to say “this is transparent,” “this is being rendered transparently,” “I understand this”? What’s at stake, it seems to me, in poetry or any sort of writing practice, is to keep asking under what terms and conditions do we understand legibility? Who has the authority to invest and divest in formulating what’s scrutable, what’s readable? These are questions about exclusion, inclusion, and social affiliation. What are the orders of exclusion and inclusion that get rehearsed when we consider: do I understand this? what does it mean? Is it possible to keep extending the meaning of meaning, the terms by which we understand anything at all, and especially language, because that’s what we use all the time, every day, every second? How is it possible to keep extending the terms of meaning-making and of sense-making?

Julie Charbonnier: You mentioned yesterday how each reading is different and how you would have other people come up and read your work. If you could just elaborate on that. And how would someone who doesn’t speak another language experience repercussions while reading?

Kim: Let me start with the second part of your question first, because I think it dovetails usefully with what I’ve just been saying about the demands on sense and sense-making that are politically and socially and culturally driven. When you ask about a person who doesn’t speak another language, and what kind of condition would be produced for that reader, my question in return is always whether one can produce an approximation of the condition of language again unhooked from the givens of communication and communicability and transparency. Would it be possible to suggest/evoke/amplify/proliferate different ways of being inside and listening to and activating the space that we call language, which doesn’t belong to any one language group, doesn’t belong to any one particular set of ideas about the benchmarks of language such as rhythm, syntax, intonation, inflection? Even if there were no identifiable second language, an experience of language is produced, and I think everyone has access to that.

Charbonnier: So, you think that when phrases can’t be translated, these other limits of syntax, that there are actually more resources, is what you’re saying?

Kim: I think the whole notion of untranslatability, unsayability, the unsayable remains a profound interest linguistically, culturally, and politically. That kind of immanence and the emergence implied in that state of the unsaid mobilizes a certain social force.

Nicholas Mayer: I was wondering about the influence of Romanticism on your poetry. More specifically, even though your style and your language is quite different from theirs, I was thinking of the English Romantics. I was sort of experiencing the same visual imagery of nature, the relationship of man to nature, and the effects of war on nature. I was wondering how much of Romanticism has influenced your work, and in what ways, and if you could sort of pick out one Romantic that you think has been most influential and why.

Kim: I might need to bring Charles into this a little bit. My intuitive sense of how to answer your question isn’t to talk to the question directly, but I want to mention — I don’t know if you were there last night, some of you were — but do you remember during part of the conversation where people were asking about the figure of these animals, and using animal names, and the specificity of the names of birds especially, or reptiles? There was an interesting question in the room about the animal, as not necessarily not-human, but as if, in fact, they were human. Let me begin there, and I want to bring in others of you. Charles: perhaps you could reframe that question? I can certainly go back and try to answer some particulars.

Bernstein: Well, a more traditional way of asking it would actually not be in the direction of what you’re saying. Although, of course, birds, birdsong, and bird sound is one of the oldest ways of conveying a sense of what poetry is, or the nightingale as the poet. But I think there’s another kind of question that is implicit in what Nick’s saying, which is what is your connection, if any, to the British, not US, but to the British poetry tradition of the nineteenth or eighteenth century? And I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve never asked you that.

Kim: I don’t know that it’s something I think specifically about, although that particular moment and its treatment of the lyric is something that I’m very interested in. This may be an oblique way to answer the question, but I’ve been looking at Shelley’s manuscripts lately, which I find incredibly intriguing both visually and as artifact. The tradition you’re asking about is not something I think about in a formulated way, although I can see why you are drawn to ask that question.

But before we move on, I will say, in terms of birdsong, as I mentioned briefly at the reading last night, that there are some parts of my texts I literally can not read out loud, and here it is: these are marks on a page, these are transcriptions of a birdsong. But it’s not something I can necessarily vocalize.

Bernstein: You should hear the program I did with Bob Grenier. He actually does the birdsongs. I join in for a second.

Kim: There you are. Just an idea of the figure of birdsong transcription, things that can and can not be said.

Bernstein: One way of also extending what Nick is asking has to do with the lyric nature of the poem. It’s almost as if you’re reading, let’s say, British Romantic poetry of the late 1700s. It’s almost as if this work has been, at a very small unit, blown apart and then reconfigured. You can still hear the lyric music filtering through, but more in fractal patterns than in the way they would be read in a poem by Keats or Shelley. But let me turn the mic over to Heather.

Heather Gorn: In listening to you last night and then a reading you did at Buffalo, I guess before Commons was printed officially, I was noticing a lot of differences in what you were reading and what I was reading along with in the text version. I was wondering if you would speak a little about versions of text, and when you do or don’t think something is finished. Also, you mentioned last night about conceiving of your works as one long continuum, and sort of how that might play into how you think about a finished product.

Kim: When I finish the text, in fact, that is the finished text. However, I feel that when I’m giving readings from the finished text, it’s as if the text literally re-presents itself to you. Even if you are the maker of that particular text, there’s a way in which you’re greeting it and reading it. So, the occasion of the reading creates a space in which that re-listening and re-making initiates itself, and sometimes that happens, say, before the event, that I’ll sit down and wonder, in a sense, out loud to myself, what will I be reading. In that process, something gets kicked up, something is re-initiated. Sometimes it happens in the reading itself, at the instance of the performance. I don’t think of them necessarily as revisions. I do think of them as reformulations, re-takes, re-assembling, which is a lot how I work in the first place, a kind of process of accretion and assemblage and reconfiguration. So, in a way, every time you come back to the text, the process can re-kindle itself. That’s been of some interest to me simply because it opens up the question of what is real time, what is compositional time, and what is the time of making a text. I think they are all different filtrations of what it means to produce a written text, which is not to refuse or in any way empty out the meaning of the book or the text that might come to some kind of rest. These elements are being held in a conversation with each other so that no one part, processually speaking, forecloses on any other part.

Gorn: And your reformulations, do they change according to the atmosphere or your state of mind? Because you say sometimes you craft them before, sometimes right then —

Kim: Right.

Gorn: Given a kind of dynamic in the air, or, I guess, a little bit of both?

Kim: I think a lot of it is like elaboration and re-elaboration, and sometimes it’s quite physical. There are certain things on certain days you can render, there are certain days that certain parts of text seem difficult to produce on a physiological level.

Gorn: I asked just earlier about Latin in general, and was noticing that various titles of your sections or works will be Latin-oriented, and then also in the Buffalo reading, I think you mentioned one of the working titles for Commons was Works and Days, which was obviously a less-than-slight nod to Hesiod. So, I’m just wondering if Latin is anything more than a kind of linguistic ghost, as you said, or a kind of treasure trove? Is it strictly that? Or what is your relationship with it?

Kim: It’s really amazing your timing in asking this question because the other day I thought maybe I should just learn Latin. Latin seems to be a particular kind of magnet for English. I am interested in that phenomenon. It’s the ungraspable in English that sometimes seems to be embodied in Latin. I need to keep thinking about why that is, and why my ear hears that and not, say, French roots, you know? My “listening” for/toward Latin is overlaid with having an acquaintance with something you don’t quite recognize. It’s a strangeness that becomes an acquaintance, which in turn is familiar and unfamiliar.

Gorn: It seemed a little elegiac also in your general use of it. Even with things, or later things, like Vesalius. Anyway, thanks.

Kim: Thank you.

Damien Bright: So we’ve been talking about accretion, assemblage, and reconfiguration, and all of this speaks to a certain -ism: postmodernism, poststructuralism, if you will. I mean you use various sources. We were talking about the archive and these kinds of to-ing and fro-ing between various levels of temporality. And you just said a strangeness that becomes an acquaintance, and so this almost spectral nature of language, and all of this has me thinking in a Derridean fashion, and you quote Helene Cixous’s Stigmata in the postscript, or that’s how I conceive of it, to Commons: poets as “agents for the most arduous, most dangerous cause there is: to love the other, even before being loved.” And so, I guess I was wondering about the purpose behind your writing in terms of this friendship: is it a gesture of friendship? A critical gesture, a historically critical gesture with a view to a friendship that would annul certain ills of the past, I guess? Yes.

Kim: Yes. I’ll see if I can unpack some of that. There’s a lot there, wonderfully a lot there. I think, at least I would like to hope, that writing does not identify its object. In other words, yes, I think there’s an imbrication of historical critique. At least asking how is it possible, especially in formally radical practices, to imagine form already itself as critique. And so, yes, that calls up again by implication and imbrication and complicity, historical radical practices, as a means of addressing … I don’t think you said social ills, but something with the word ill … I mean, what is that circuitry between form as critique as a kind of interrogative space, which is an action, not a decision. I don’t think aesthetics and ethical engagements rise from a decision. One is making an intervention. One is addressing an ill. One is recuperating. These are all possible modes and drives, but the practice is infinitely open. It’s not a determinable space. You don’t arrive at it. It’s the ongoing, unnameable returning to an earlier moment — the unsayable, the unspeakable, the ear turned toward the emergent, which is not about a decision to recuperate the erased, for example, however you might want to formulate that sort of impulse. Alternative ways of knowing might be a useful phrase here. How is it possible to take the resources of poetry, especially a formally radical, unpositioned, and unacculturated mode of inquiry that we attempt to name almost always awkwardly. Whatever identification we come up with — whether it’s assemblage, accretion — my instinct would be to ask: And then what? What else? How else? The work of writing and reading and thinking is the tending of the otherwise, revitalizing the interconnection between form and form-as-critique or potential for critique. Does this help? At least respond to parts of your question?

Bright: Yes, it does. And perhaps then on a more prosaic level this drive that you mentioned to relate, this almost constant conversation between form and form-as-critique, is that, and perhaps I’m being too forward here, a drive specific to you as a poet? Or do you think that is a drive that reaches beyond you as a poet, that is socially engaged, as in, how should I put my question more clearly —

Kim: No, I think you said it.

Bright: Is your vocation mandated by that drive or does it go further?

Kim: Initially, I would want to question a word like mandated, because, yes, there is a mandate. Yes, there absolutely is, I think, something at stake. No question about it. However, I think what I’m trying to perhaps pose here is this: can that space be left undetermined? Would it be possible to disengage the impulse to have art perform an equal translation or transparent rendering into the social?

Sarah Yeung: Earlier, you spoke about how some of your work was technically unreadable, like the birdsong: you can’t read that out loud. What are your thoughts on how your work translates from being read on paper to being read out loud? What do you feel is lost and what do you feel is gained? You use spaces in different ways, the hybrid characters of Korean and Roman characters, and different entities that can be read, but, I suppose, have a very different effect out loud than on paper.

Kim: It’s the question of what can be seen, heard, read, spoken, received, transmitted in relation to (in proximity to) the idea of tracking language in which mutable, roaming, fugitive connections and disconnections and ruptures also generate meaning. Dis-ease is useful to me, or the dis-abling of habituated practices of language. The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproduceable, (re)printable, carries its own charge.

Yeung: My other question is about themes in your work. In Commons, you have a lot of references to specific wartime incidents. There are many different places and times, and I was wondering why different incidents aren’t more clearly demarcated in the work, and also if there are any in particular that are of significance to you.

Kim: I think, especially in the earlier books like Under Flag, there’s very clearly a kind of matrix that holds things together, the Korean War, for example, or the militarism in Korea subsequent to the Korean War. There’s a much more clearly demarcated — and I’m using that word on purpose — clearly demarcated notion of nation: Korea, as a place, as a geographical reality, a material reality. And if you walk through the other books, it’s almost as if that particular condition begins to call forward and speak with all the other conditions of war. It’s a terrific question. I mean, what does it mean to both identify and unidentify or not locate? I’m trying to get at that conjunction between every specificity as its own, inviolable, intractably itself, and also the kind of global social-economic-political forces that produce conditions of war that are huge, not necessarily taggable to an instance. Or convert that or invert that, and say how can you understand that by — it’s not an absence, right, it’s not taking away the location. I’m trying to understand both. When you do the locating one by one, what’s produced? What are the politics of that? What’s the potential work that that can do, differently from understanding the condition of war transhistorically, transculturally?

Kim-2006-Bernstein
Myung Mi Kim in New York City in 2006. Photo by Charles Bernstein.

Yeung: All the wartime references did seem to be located in Asia, though, right?

Kim: For the most part, yes. But Commons enfolds the presence of various wars, from many parts of the globe. This might be taking your question in too different of a direction, but the question here may also be: what does it mean to document anything? How does document, to document, take place?

Bernstein: Let me extend the question that Sarah is asking. I’ll ask a question I know the answer to in part because I read other interviews with you, but talk a little about your relationship to Korea in terms of your parents, grandparents, diaspora. Have you gone back to Korea? What’s your own personal history in respect to Korea and to Korean?

Kim: In many ways, I think I’m a fairly typical, if not overtly conventional, immigrant subject.

Bernstein: Funny, you don’t look typical. [Laughter.]

Kim: Yeah, that’s what they all say. [Laughter.] I think maybe one of the things that’s behind Sarah’s question —

Bernstein: I love that I asked you an absolutely factual question and you’re hesitating more than you would with an abstract Derrida question.

Kim [talking at the same time]: The facts are so uninteresting, Charles. Post-immigrant subject. A certain mode of the post-sixties immigration of the professional class from Korea. My father was an MD. What are the facts here? I hardly know. I do know that I have a strange — talking about ghostly and spectral — I mean, that’s mostly what my relationship to Korea looks like. It is, in some sense, the most real and most constructed place I can possibly imagine. So the facts pale in relationship to that dynamic or that phenomenon. The facts are very straightforward: immigration to the US with my nuclear family —

Bernstein: What year was that and how old were you?

Kim: 1967 and I was nine. In terms of certain kinds of language propositions, I was once told by someone who works as a speech therapist that age twelve is apparently the cutoff for whether you have an enduring accent or not. So, if you look at my siblings — I’m the youngest — this bears out. The oldest sibling, maybe, has more trace of an accent. Anyway, why am I telling you this? Because you asked me for a fact. So, these are facts.

Bernstein: That’s very interesting to me. The accent, of course.

Kim: But that sense of proximity and removal … family stories … already a generation or two removed … The [family stories] are particular to me; they are particular to my mother’s experience. Yet, they are already arriving in a condition of history. They are already subjects of a history, of a [new] place and a [new] time. [So the result it that you get] the kind of collision and elision and wonderful richness, and yet absence of [the] real places, real times, which have been, in some sense [for the later generation], made by words. So, it’s both delicious to report the words that one is told, but you also realize it has a real relationship to bear, bearing with what is no longer.

Johnathan Liebembuk: I think a lot of the questions that have been posed deal with binary relationships of different things: translatability, untranslatability, one language versus another, or in relation to another, space and time even. I guess my question — I want to work from the ground up maybe — deals with one language in another, Korean, English, and even further down to the ground, the characters in each of these languages and how you use them in Commons in particular. I wanted to know what you perceive, anticipate, or hope the effect of Korean characters and Roman ones will be on readers with little or no knowledge of the Korean language, specifically the written aspect of Korean for someone not even being exposed to the poem, to the sounds the Korean characters are making. Do you expect the readers to be playful with these characters? Uneasy, and have some aversion to them? Maybe attempt to draw common features between the character and phoneme systems? And overall, what are the effects of these unfamiliar written characters on readers with no exposure to their phonetic mappings?

Kim: I love it when questions answer themselves. Your question, by including this very intriguing trio of words — aversion, play, and commonality — begins to answer the question the way that I would respond to it. In another conversation I was having today someone said, “When I encounter a text I can’t read, I just basically run away.” I believe this sense of the turning away (or aversion) is part of reading. But the turning away signals a sense of convolution or evolution or revolution. Something is happening. Something is taking place. Something is under transformation. This is where the notions of play and potential commonality come in. I can’t think of any other conjunction as generative as aversion and play.

Liebembuk: I think that makes sense and leads into me trying to tie that together. Julie also mentioned the untranslatable, and you mentioned these aversions that people may have to the untranslatable as resources for meaning.

Kim: Yes.

Liebembuk: My question centers around the very last sentence you wrote in your afterword, which I think you mentioned was a pain for you to actually write, but is very useful in a lot of ways to mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space. That alone sums up what I got from Commons very well, but my question is, specifically, do the poetic images found between languages in whatever space, be it sounded or visual, serve as a pilot light for any human prosody to arise? And I emphasize any there. In other words, in reading Commons, studying languages, and hearing stories from varied cultural backgrounds, I personally feel that a prosody emerges in the interplay of two or more languages. Is this what you were dealing with in most of your work? That is, the emergence of poetic forms and praxis from between languages, and, if so, I think this ties in with what a Sioux writer, Vine Deloria, once really hit hard in one of his books, God Is Red. It seems to challenge — and it goes back to the Romanticist question that Nick brought up — it challenges time in poetry as hegemony and brings space, poetic space, language space into focus. A Romanticist lyric-space can’t not be treated in your interplay of Korean and English, where a Myung Mi Kim poem might be set next to a Shelley poem, not because of how they relate in time, but how they relate in poetic space, and how the aversions that maybe a native Korean reader might have to a Shelley poem are different but similar than what I might have to a Myung Mi Kim poem.

Kim: Let me first respond by saying, yes, absolutely, most of my work is devoted to the emergent prosodies, poetic forms, and praxis prompted by the interplay of plural languages. The conversation that we’ve been having today, I hope, is precisely in the service of tracking and rendering the complexities of lived time and historical time, potentializing new modes of relation.

Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Myung Mi Kim. The program was recorded on March 15, 2007, at Studio 111 at the University of Pennsylvania. Close Listening is a production of WPS1.org in collaboration with PennSound. For more information on this show, visit our website. Our engineer today is Molly Braverman. This is Charles Bernstein, who keeps listening as close as he can for the almost unpronounceable sounds between the vowels.