The beginning is like utter darkness. I never realized that treading the path of a writer for 44 years would bring so much agony.

One day a middle-school student, who used to walk 4 km to and from school every day, picked up a poetry book lying by the wayside on the way home when the sun was about to set. He stayed up all night reading it and first had the dream of becoming a poet. He was a moth trapped in a web.

His dream began to come true after the war had devastated so many things. More than half the mountains and fields were reduced to ashes and cities lay in ruins in the 1950s. For those who survived, there was no future. Everyone started from scratch and makeshifts huts sprung up everywhere. A cold wind seemed to be blowing at all times. I was a 25 year-old poet.

What I had back then was poor sensitivity with no real command of the language. Inspiration was a vague idea. I was nothing but a lost child, or an orphan, who had never entered the world of poetry or the realm of the writer.

That gray-hued world was a place that I found impossible to turn my back on as a boy with only one wish - the dream of becoming a poet.
My experience as a child had been bleak, for I spent my young days in a country that was colonized by another country.

When I entered elementary school after quitting the private school where I studied Chinese classics, the Korean language class had been abolished and replaced with Japanese. It was not only in school but also at home that we were forced to use Japanese not Korean.

Prior to entering elementary school, I learned how to read Korean from one of the servants at my home, in addition to the Chinese that I learned at the private school. I read Korean novels forbidden to children, such as Youth that Finds no Place to Turn To and I still remember the last train station at Donamjeong depicted in that novel, and the gray gloves that the main character of the novel bought at Hwasin Department Store in Seoul.

During the early days of imperialism, Japan implemented a policy of depriving Joseon of its sovereignty and physical resources, leaving the language as a matter of self-regulation. However, it must have been later realized that once a country loses its sovereignty, a narrative fills the gap and this narrative and culture may become the force behind the recovery of the lost sovereignty.

When defining a people, one naturally asks whether they have a language of their own. So the Korean language and writing-system were identified as heritages that the cruel Japanese colonial rule found necessary to purge.
Implemented along with the policy of abolishing the Korean language was one transforming Korean names into Japanese ones. At the core of the Japanese colonial policy for Korea was this changing of Korean names into Japanese ones. My name when I was a first grader at elementary school was Dakkabayai Doraske.

In the history of Korean literature, Chinese has long been used along with Korean. Until Joseon lost its sovereignty to Japan, it was the tradition of Korean literature to write poems in Chinese and songs in Korean. So Korea’s native songs and folk songs from the middle ages onward were not poetry in the literary sense but poetry in the form of music.

That tradition was lost once Korea was put under colonial rule.

The literature written during the colonial period and in the wake of liberation in 1945 came to feel old-fashioned after all that Korea endured through the Korean War. The modernism of the 1930s sounded very domineering, whereas the rhythms of modern poetry reminded one of a native literature that was naturally born in Korea. The modernism of the 1950s represented the emotions and solitary feelings of urban dwellers but failed to attain mature literary perfection.

The formulation of an independent response to modern times, when a people finds itself oppressed by another in a colonial situation, depends on a consistent representation of oneself and a discovery on one’s own identity. Another tragic consequence of the Korean War was the division of the country.

After the war, literature needed a new start, as had been the case for the people who first started to live as cave dwellers. What seemed most attractive in those days was the concept of zero. However, literature cannot be divided by time. No matter how new a start may be, it is likely to have its roots in the past and to be destined to flow into the future. That is why we say that the poetry of today is not totally isolated from the folk songs of the Yellow River Valley before the birth of Christ or the epic poems of Homer.

However there was no special opportunity for me to fully experience the world of literature. After Korea was liberated from the Japanese rule, our Korean language and literature found their rightful place back in my happiness. Other than that, I knew nothing about the ancient song called Jeongeupsa, or about Yi Je-Hyeon, Kim So-wol, or Yi Sang.
In a nutshell, I never belonged to any group of people who studied the poetry of ancient times or the middle ages in universities. When I realized that poets are people who enjoy unbridled freedom, being liberated from all the shackles and yokes of academic tradition, I found that I was not a student learning Korean literature but a poet.

Awakening comes through the hardships that one goes through while writing poetry. It never comes previous to writing poetry based on experience that was really mine. I hope that the experience that I mention here is synonymous with imagination.

I am a poet, as I have exploited part of our language all through my life. This fact brings not only hope but also often despair. Language can be the desperation of language itself.

My poetry is a flow. That flow may dash against the shore or create rhythms with the help of darkness or light. So my poems are echoes. In an interview with the New York Times in the late 1980s, I said that poetry was the “music of history”. When I said that, I put more emphasis on the music than the history.

We may be able to understand the inner sense of literature better if we study it on the basis of not what we read but what we hear. So it should be emphasized that a poem as a text is just a code that can be brought to life when it is represented in sound or voice. Perhaps reverberation is what vibrates in the history of poetry.

Notwithstanding what I believe, my echoes sometimes rely on the automatic technique of laissez faire or supernaturalism or some accident like the blurring touch of a Chinese ink painting. I once wrote some verses in a fixed form in Chinese characters. They were Chinese quatrains with seven character lines.
I have never written fixed-form odes other than these. And I have never applied the principle of order to the outer form of a poem. If a poem is a way of thinking represented in imagery, it must be a system in itself. However, my poetry even shuns certain rules of inner rhythms and rather my poems dash towards their collapse.

I am a rebellious child, hostile to all the fixed poetic forms found in old Chinese poetry, which tended to have all kinds of rules and regulations regarding the writing of poems, like the governing system of a ruler. A poet exists all alone in the life system of a poem.

Now I can no longer trust such paths as my poems have taken. Free verses demand even more freedom. Now that verses have been freed of all form, what was previously not regarded as a poem in the traditional sense can be now called a poem.

This turns a poem into a living creature that cannot be defined by anybody and can be defined by anyone. For instance, who today would contradict someone who insists that the death of codes brings life to a poem, as in the case of the different numbers on freight trains waiting in line at Daejeon Station, whose numbers are no longer a code but a poem.

It is in this context that I reject the recent trend of interpreting a poem as text. There is no such thing as a poem that can simply be seen as a text. No poem can stay on a desk or an Internet screen. Poems do not exist in material anthologies.

The universe and space, the imensities of time are the stage for poems. Even a very short love song or elegy is a poem of the universe. That explains why poems should faithfully fulfill their public obligations to the world.

Empathy goes beyond the one-dimensional space between humans. This is why I sometimes feel contempt for the expression of personal emotions, which has been quite a popular trend found in Korean poems since ancients days. A narrator in a poem should not be the poet himself who grumbles for the sake of it. Rather the poet should be a shaman who can build a bridge between the spirits of different people.

That is why I say that poets are adventurers who depict the maximum of the universe with the minimum of words. However, that does not mean that we can ask a poet to derive the material for a poem from empty space. A poet should be able to draw material from experiences in the circumstances surrounding himself and project it according to the requirements of the situations of the world.

The narrator in a poem can sometimes be a group of people or a representative narrator but personal matters cannot be fully separated from public ones and public matters should not stand in the way of personal affairs. A poem can truly be a poem when personal matters overlap with public ones.

I still have memories of those days before I entered the world of literature. If I had not taken the path of becoming a writer, those memories would have remained nothing but fragmented moments of the past.

I saw a fire when I was about five years old. In the strong wind at midnight, the farmhouse where I was born and the bamboo forest behind it were all ablaze. The efforts made by the village folks to extinguish the fire by carrying water in baskets were in vain. I saw my parents’ house reduced to ashes. This fire and the resulting ruins created a remarkable space in my consciousness.

Quite often in my mind, the ruins found in every corner across the Korean peninsula after the Korean War, that I witnessed as a teenager, overlapped with the ruins of my house. A person’s memory does not stay merely within the person. Rather it is organically linked with disasters in history and the childhood experience is combined with the mental traumas that come later and then it is internalized in the mental world of a poet.

There is another memory that I have. It was also when I was about five years old. I was being carried on the back of my aunt. It was at night. Even though most of the villagers were farmers, they continued to suffer from hunger after supplying the rice they harvested to the landowners and the government offices. It was the same when they reaped the barley in summer.

Corn grown in Manchuria was rationed and most of it was rotten. People were busy gathering seaweed on the tidal flats to add to the porridge they made from ground corn. My mother went to the shores of the Man-gyeonng River early in the morning in order to gather the seaweed. It took almost the entire day to fill half a bamboo basket, as there were so many women gathering the plant. I waited for my mother in the darkness at night when she came back late. I was hungry, tied on the back of my aunt.
It was then that I saw the stars for the first time. The vista of space came into the eyes of a child. To me those stars looked like fruit hung in the sky. I threw a tantrum and begged my aunt to pick them for me. That first error, mistaking the stars for something to eat, was the starting point when I became a poet who would later sing to the stars.

I have long hidden that memory deep inside myself. It was a kind of shameful memory that I did not want to share with anyone.

There were some changes introduced to the world of my literature in the 1970s. Before then, no political or social issues found space inside the poetic nihilism in which I was trapped. But I finally realized that literature could never be separated from reality. I glimpsed a sorrowful portrait of myself as someone who was proving loyal to the established regime by totally isolating myself from it and making my escape from reality. I found myself asking questions like what literature could do for hungry children and the existence of any meaning for literature when it is faced with dictatorship. I was confident that the bitter experience of mistaking stars for fruits was something that I needed to sing in a poem. I was also confident that I would experience an enchanted sublimation when food and dreams are united by the stars.

Without those days in the 1970s, my world of literature would have been a dark night with an owl hooting blood-thirsty cries in one corner of a valley, but with no trace of blood. The illusion of purity and the doctrine of participation are two important paradoxical indices that demonstrate their power of new life only when they go beyond themselves.

So my literary world is a symphony of two worlds-that of reality and another place lying beyond it. Participation became another wilderness for me.

I have a poor memory of my family. It is so poor that I had no choice but to reshape the world of my family and hometown in my imagination. The series of mishaps that Maxim Gorki had in his childhood is something more than imagination, but my childhood was so poor that it desperately needed imagination. Fiction reconstructs facts.

I had none of the older or younger sisters that almost all the people in my generation had. The sorrow that I felt from not having a sister led me to create an imaginary older sister in my late teenage years. Facades are created by strong desires and wishes and there should be some chemical reaction that can generate a truth, one which is more than just a simple truth.
Facades evolve. An abnormal or pathological state of mind with a strong envy for people sick in bed transformed me into a sick boy in a faked world even when in reality I maintained at least the minimal state of health despite the fragile physique that I had. To me, patients looked like people who were suffering the illness of the world on behalf of the others.

Pulmonary tuberculosis was the disease that could meet the expectations that I had as a young man with literary interests. I was interested in diseases like pulmonary tuberculosis, and not the stomach problems that people living in out-of-the-way mountain villages commonly suffer from. I imagined the coughing sound coming from the wards in a sanatorium at night.

This gave rise to a fable, which formed the basis of my literary world. In the fable, I had a beautiful older sister. She took care of me when I suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. When I was cured of the disease, she was infected and died of it. With bitter and painful feelings of guilt and yearning for her, I carried the box containing her ashes away with me and buried it in the western sea at night, and then went up into mountain retreat.
This imaginary scenario evolved into something more than a hypothesis; it become a theorem not only to other people but even to me. Nobody thought it was fake.

Since I informed the world of this fact, there have arisen some theories interpreting the poetry in my early days in terms of a “sister complex.”

Later, in the early 1990s, when I had my first medical check-up, I found that one of my lungs was fossilized due to developments related to pulmonary tuberculosis. Until then I had had no symptom of the disease that I felt myself. There was neither coughing nor expectoration of blood. Despite heavy drinking and the habit of smoking more than two packs a day, I was relatively healthy and sound except for some stomach problems.
I experienced literary identification when it was revealed that I really had suffered from the pulmonary tuberculosis that I desperately wanted.

As I realized that images and imaginations are not faces reflected in a mirror but a way to explore reality, I was fascinated that facts and reality could be born as new facts in life through imagery. Perhaps in the consciousness and awareness of every human, there lies a power of imagination that could fill all the underworld and heaven

I do not mean to say that every partof my work started from such a make-believe. But I should admit that it was the power of such faking that enabled me to endure romantic nihilism, non-existence, denial of reality, anti-reality and other forms of ersatz sentiment in the early days of my literary career.

Literature does not impose monotonous values on a writer. I should rather say that any literature complacent in its own place, with no worries about fire or no possibility of change is not literature. The path of my literary world is not in only one direction. An encounter with an event at the outset of 1970 led me to a path totally different from the one that I had been taking up to that time. The path was very perilous.
It was a milestone marking another start for me. For a full ten years until then, I was mired in severe insomnia that I found it impossible to escape from. Those poems that I wrote while drunken at night tended to be overly exaggerated and I would be greatly disillusioned when I read them the following day. I was able to fall asleep after consuming three to four bottles of Soju in the early days of my insomnia but even that did not help as time went by.

After I managed to fall asleep around five o’clock in the morning, I was soon overwhelmed by tempestuous dreams and then I found my soul engaged in the turbid streams of life before eight in the morning.
Mugyo-dong was my favorite place. The strong liquor and spicy red octopus dishes that I had before the midnight curfew numbed my stomach.

But I failed to find a shelter in the liquor houses or inns in the allies of the city. I used to mock the empty green fields depicted in the Old Testament. I was much more comfortable when I was among the crowd of drunken men who gathered at the fluorescent-lit saloons filled with cigarette smoke. They seemed to consume and abuse their life for no purpose.

In not a few of those days, I found myself stuck overnight in a bar due to the curfew. Then I would spend the entire night lying on a table in the saloon, despite signs of strong displeasure from the owner of the saloon.

I used to find dirty waste-paper under the table. One day there were pages of a newspaper among the waste scattered on the cement floor, with some ballpoint pens. One of the articles caught my straying eyes. It was a short article about a worker who had committed suicide by setting fire to himself.
I had by then tried to commit suicide on four occasions, all in vain. I made very thorough preparations for my fourth attempt. I had 100 sleeping pills that somebody had gathered by buying some every day at different pharmacies after presenting an ID card. I took all the pills at once and then laid down deep in a valley in Bukhan Mountain, which happened to be designated as a security area where spies were often found. So in that area of the mountain civil defense drills were conducted regularly. I was discovered, covered in snow, by a Civil Defense Corpsman and came under investigation as a suspected spy dispatched from North Korea. I was in a coma since I had taken the 100 sleeping pills with soju. Right before they were about to classify me as an unidentified person who had died by the roadside, the chief of the investigation team ordered that I be transferred to an emergency center at a hospital in Jeongreung. After stomach pumping and other treatment, I awoke 30 hours later. When friends of mine stopped by to see me, I joked that my hands were the hands of a messenger from the land of the dead.

Such an experience led me to have an interest in the suicides that worker had committed. The interest led me to see the reality in which laborers were forced to live in, the poor working environment in the 1970s and beyond that to the contradictions of society in a divided country.
I came one step closer to a world, which was very different from the one that I had lived in until then. Or I would rather say that for the first time in my life I started to exist in the real world after living away from it for so many years.

I shyly joined other writers who were actively participating in protests against the regime of the military dictator, firmly standing up against those who tried to remain in power for an unlimited term by amending the Constitution. Once entered into this landscape, I dedicated everything that I had to it like a horse set free from a rein.
With this change in my “class status”, came a great happiness and the insomnia that put me in hell every night for the past 10 years disappeared.

However, my poems did not change overnight. The poet was running faster than his poetry. The poetry ran behind the poet, always short of breath. This is the period called “after nihilism”.

Not only in the literary circles but also inside and outside of Korea, I was a man who required special monitoring. I was on a list of people involved in the democratic movement in opposition to the ruling government in Korea and regarded as a dissident overseas. I sometime felt that I had nothing to do with the literary world. Actually the literary world back then was government-controlled and agreed to the amendment of the Constitution that would allow the then dictator to stay in power forever. In a word, it was part of the established system and it had no critical view of society as it was. I got closer to the group who resisted the government and they consisted of pastors, priests, professors kicked out of school, dismissed journalists, political leaders of the opposition, university students expelled from school or banned from returning to school after serving sentences in prison. They became like family members.
Twenty years of such movements led to the uprising in June 1987. During the uprising, I was in the frontline of the street demonstrations and agitated the public as co-representative of the People’s Movement.

It was in the early 1990s, once a civilian government had replaced the military governments controlled by three successive army generals, that I first received a passport allowing me to go abroad. Right before that, I received a pardon as a prisoner of conscience.

Literature seems to be in tension with reality or history and reality requires literature to live up to certain conditions at all times. I wandered around too much in my literature, overwhelmed with an excess of emotions until I was given the mission to control them and divert them for the benefit of the people, public and society in the pursuit of freedom and equality. In other words, I was born with romanticism, which is missed when realism is acquired later and I tried to overcome both.
In that interactive process, the demand to overcome the division of the country and social contradictions passes through the long pathway of confrontation to finally reach the point of dreaming mutual supplementation and becoming one. There we can see the spirit of a high-level liberation of the spirit, that known in Buddhism as Hwa-yen.

However, when it comes to literature I did not seek an answer. If literature dreams of some fruit or result in the form of some perfect wisdom and other similar things, it may mean that it is already dead.
Meanwhile, the life within myself rejects any reconciliation or unclear compromise. The solemn gesture of looking back to past days is the most ridiculous thing that I can imagine. I have some regrets but I do not want to surround myself with the compassion of others. Rather I believe that the power of the contradiction given to me seems to support my life and destiny. That is why I have always been both this and that.
Literature starts there and ends there. Metaphor makes me historic and artistic. And then the corpse of the metaphor soon disappears. If my literature by any chance serves a certain political reality or ideology as a supporting infrastructure, I should fight against it. That is why I am truly free only when I am in literature, often ignoring so many potholes outside literature. Society provides the stage on which I live my life but at the same time it is an association that consumes my existence as its cells.

Freedom is expressed in a variety of different forms. My pen has moved to cover not only poetry, fiction, criticism, prose. I once wrote seven different serial stories in daily, weekly and monthly publications.

What speed I made! How dazzling the deserted, quiet life was that came after such speed!
Since the 1970s I was in desperate need of history. It was perhaps because I had never been actually involved in the world of history consciously ever since Korea was liberated from colonial rule but at the same time I was in need of feeling the history that would help me to overcome reality when it reigned over me with violence and force.

This is why literature and history were one body, not two different and separate concepts. From the fundamental perspective, the description of history is nothing but literature itself. The scope of literature covers almost everything. It cannot be confined within a single unique definition.
Standing in the corner of our history, I cannot reject imagination. It is sometimes very esthetic or is represented as an exclusive sentiment against reality. Perhaps literature is allegorical of the shape created by such sentiment. In this regard, I am occasionally drawn to Homer more than Maha Kassapa.
In an attempt to achieve the best form of literature through epics and lyrical echoes, I walked like one of the crabs on a tidal flat at the ebb tide.

My passion is non-Confucian or rather anti-Joseon Dynasty. In this respect, the face of Heo Gyun, author of the story of Hong Gil-dong, seems to overlap with mine. For the sake of the literature and life that I long for, the past is beautiful material but never stained by absolutism. The fallacy that Aristotle left, by saying that there is no ancestor for the living creature, pleases me.

I recognize the start of a myth but cannot claim any knowledge of the start of history or the ancestor system. I love the world of gods but I think an Absolute Being make humans too subordinate. The fact that Emerson was isolated when he insisted on the way god was created by humans makes me feel some sympathy with him.

I have nothing to do with the founder of a Buddhist sect or Confucian government officials. I do not need a teacher. I sometimes think of the solitary enlightenment attained by a pratyeka buddha. I am on the path of being a monk with no teacher.
I cannot help choosing to become an orphan moving away from the past surrounded by doctrines, revivalists, authority and mystery. In other words, I would like to destroy the apprenticeship that makes me subordinate to the past.

The literature of a new era is not one that has simply descended from the past but is one that is currently newly born rooted in the soil of the past. Truth held by a friend is much closer to the real truth than the truth held by a teacher. A poem just born out of nowhere, not a poem suppressed with the yoke of tradition, whispers with another poem just born. This literature, a chorus creatively maintaining the horizontal relationship is what I dream of.

I hope my literature will wander around and not stay in one place. The Nirvana that I dream of is a Nirvana without any permanency. It is a dream with no leftovers.

The present is a flash, a moment moving from the unlimited past to the indefinite future.
I sometimes see my former lives. In so many former lives of mine, I could not resist becoming a poet as in my present life. There were days that I was less tattered than I am today. There was someone weeping amidst the glow of the setting sun. Was it I? At midnight when snow falls silently unnoticed by anyone, he was enduring the reverberation of the heart not being able to fall asleep. Was it I?
It is midday. There is a man who has fallen on the ground and he has told so many lies. Somewhere in the corner under the sun, there is a motherless boy growing taller day by day. There is a woman with no homeland, her hair blowing in the wind.

The darkness of the mama bear who gave birth to a baby while sleeping in winter and the brightness of the old ascetic who was blinded by the light from the white snow of the Himalayas were all a game of pain.

I helped the stars shine far away as a wild animal, ameba or a ghost. The stars lessened my pain shining above in the sky.

My lives persisted in relation with so many things.

I wanted to become a poet. And I became a poet.
I cling to my name as a poet because I committed so many sins by wasting time in my present life and former ones. Being a poet is a punishment of life imprisonment rather than a choice that I made.
Both when I was 18 years old and now, poetry is my Polaris. When someone says that I was destined to be a poet, I long not to finish my life as a poet. In other words, I wish I could be a poem at the end of the poet. A poem. not a poet!