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‘Corean Music’ Part 3: The Autobiographical Account of The Diabolical Music of Translation and Kitsch
Every immigrant knows that it’s impossible to translate.
Every immigrant knows that it’s impossible not to.
I started translating long before I became an immigrant. I grew up in the English/American cultural empire (which of course coincides with the military-economic empire of US, as recent studies of CIA involvement with the global spread of Abstract Expressionism shows). I watched Little House on the Prairie, I watched Hitchcock, I listened to English-language pop music. Maybe I first became interested in poetry when in fourth grade I was trying to make sense of why Depeche Mode sang “Everything counts to Roger Moore.” It had something to do with James Bond, the Cold War and buying-selling stuff—or what I might now call Capitalism. (Unfortunately, I later learned that the line was really “Everything counts in large amounts.” Which is of course also about capitalism.)
But translation became more necessary when I came to the US as a 13-year-old. Like the “diabolical” “Corean” music that prompted Savage-Landor to want to murder the musicians and kill the instruments, my strange gothic euro-style of appearance elicited an amazing amount of violence on the very first day that I stepped into my new school in suburban Minneapolis. My excessive style elicited violence, but my tasteless style was also a kind of violence against the kids in that school. In other words: Those students and I were all involved in the deformation zone of translation.
It was an abusive translation project.
It was catastrophic translation.
I haven’t recovered yet.
I haven’t recovered from the violence and I haven’t recovered from the beauty of being drowned in a foreign language, a language full of strange and alluring words like “faggot” and “weirdo.” A violent language that came with shoves and fists. I learned then (if I didn’t know it already) that art is powerful, art is violent.
My early friends were “druggies” and “losers.” I love the language of the drug scene. I love how once you walk into that scene, every word can be a potential code word for drugs or paraphernalia. The drug scene is ambient!
I remember trying to translate Swedish culture to my American friends. For example, I would try to explain to them music like this:
My tears have painted over the whole town
and my heart is a sidewalk
I’ve been an amusement park and a churchyard
I’ve waited for 2000 years
He comes from the skies on an atom-bomb day
And he rode an electric white swan
Teenage Jesus, you’re coming, aren’t you, you’re coming
To me it was poetic, to me it told me something about buying-selling stuff, to me it felt like the cold war. To my American friends, it was silly and over-poetic. To them it was a bad copy, a version of the real thing. Which is always American. That’s when I learned an important lesson: The immigrant is kitsch.
But also: Poetry is kitsch.
I wrote a lot of poetry and I read widely (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Surrealism, Genet, Plath, Ginsberg, etc.). I wrote all the time. Until I got to college. I loved college but I also learned about taste. I learned that my poetry was tasteless. From the quietist workshop I took I learned that I was “Romantic” because I used “too many metaphors,” that I didn’t “earn the images,” that my I wasn’t authentic. I.e. kitsch. We did read language poets in that class. I went out and read more by and about them. And from that reading I learned: I was too “Romantic” because I used an “I,” because I used metaphors, because I was interested in fascination and absorption, not distance and critique.
I stopped writing poetry because I was kitsch. I lacked taste, and poetry was all about having taste. Knowing when to say when. As Daniel Tiffany argues in Silver Planet, his forthcoming book on kitsch, kitsch is mostly not about a lack but about an excess: “excessive beauty.” It’s about not knowing when to stop. I would add, that kitsch brings the violent immersion of art. Art is kitsch in part when it’s so much that you cannot stand back and maintain your critical distance.
But some things brought me back to poetry. I read Vasko Popa in translation, I read Clayton Eshleman’s translations of the late work of Antonin Artaud. A girlfriend who worked for an interior decorating magazine told me that she had seen photos of an artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose canvases of disassembled and re-assembled bodies reminded her of my poems. She showed me the letters from insane people she had collected at work (“Dear Mr. Randolph Hearts, I want to be president of the United States! I just smashes a mosquito!”). Most importantly, I came across the work of the young Swedish poet Aase Berg in a Swedish journal and that immediately inspired me:
In the Guinea Pig Cave
There lay the guinea pigs. There lay the guinea pigs and they waited with blood around their mouths like my sister. There lay the guinea pigs and they smelled bad in the cave. There lay my sister and she swelled and ached and throbbed. There lay the guinea pigs and they ached all over and their legs stuck straight up like beetles and they looked depraved and were blue under their eyes as from months of debauchery. My sister puked calmly and indifferently: it ran slowly out of her slack mouth without her moving a single nerve. And the cave was warm as teats and full of autumn leaves and beneath the soil lay the arm of a mannequin. There lay the guinea pigs and ached and were made of dough. There lay the guinea pigs beside the knives that would slice them up like loaves. And my sister with lips of blueberries, soil and mush. In the distance, the siren bleated inhumanly. That is where the guinea pigs lay and waited with blood around their mouths and contorted bodies. They waited. And I was tired in my whole stomach from meat dough and guinea pig loaf and I knew that they would revenge on me.
It turned out she was a young poet who had been a member of the radical avant-garde group the Surrealist Group of Stockholm but had gone on to publish a book, Hos Rådjur. My grandmother sent me a copy. Here was the poetic merged with the trashy, performative and fascinating, a poetry that merged Surrealism and sci-fi, Poe and Plath, Lovecraft and Novalis, B-movies and the poetic, horror and childhood, folklore and hallucinations. In her early essay (written with Mattias Forshage), Berg writes:
The ulterior times: raging and unintelligable, but still remarkably banal and predictable. Surrealism in the ulterior times unreasonable, compromising, conspiratory, confused, singleminded, bloodthirsty. Meet it by the lemures or on the blood stained back streets or in the parks that still are ugly!
The lesson of this part of the story: Translation may not be possible, but it can be impossible in the sense of creating alternative spaces. Impossible spaces. Spaces that are not supposed to exist. You can translate paintings, Swedish poems, weird letters into poetry in order to create a lineage outside of the official lineages. Translation can make a space for you when the Poetry world has told you don’t belong. Translation is “diabolical.”
So I translated Berg’s poems because I wanted to show them to my friends. Most of my friends loved them, so I translated some more and some more. In the meantime, Berg went from a provocative cult poet to one of the most celebrated and important young poets in Sweden. I got together a manuscript of poems selected from her four first books and asked some US presses if they wanted to publish them. “Too much,” they all replied in unison. I had thought for sure that every press would want to publish a book by an important international poet who wrote poetry so different from what the US poetry presses were publishing. No dice. Her difference was too “diabolical.” I wrote to a famous poet and translation activist, hoping she would help me. “These poems are too gross,” she wrote back. Berg’s poems were “too much”; they had an “excessive beauty.” They did not deserve to be published.
However, at the same time, several journals like Conduit, Typo, and Double Room published poems from the collection and a lot of people wrote me emails asking for more. Apparently, some people were fascinated by the diabolical music. Just not the people publishing books.
This is when Joyelle McSweeney and I started Action Books, a press we dedicated to to publishing both American poets that had been deemed unpublishable and works in translation. This was a natural fit because the problem with the poets we started publishing was that they had indeed veered from the official canons of American poetry (whether “quietist” or “experimental”) and were reading too much poetry from other countries, or drawing on artistic influences outside of poetry (fashion, pop music, horror movies, etc.). We wanted to create a conversation about poetry that went beyond the censorious “too much,” that instead of shutting down such poetry would explore it.
Soon after publishing Aase Berg’s selected poems (Remainland) as well as books by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, we came upon some poems by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choice. We were blown away and badgered Don Mee into translating a whole book of KH’s work. And then another book. (The third one is forthcoming this spring).
CONSERVATISM OF THE RATS OF SEOUL
By Kim Hyesoon
translated by Don Mee Choi
Daddy and Mommy lay us down one by one
Many of us are born– as many as Mommy’s nipples
Mommy licks out eyes with her tongue softer than white bread,
licks with all her might, with darkness, darkness is cozy
Daddy who herds a fish head home also brings with him scary news
You can hear the footsteps far away, the wailing dire truck
Mommy’s nipples harden
Mommy blocks the rat hole with her entire body,
our ears as well
A hairy leg enters our room It’s him He thrashes his body around,
bam bam, shaking the house, but only the leg enters,
toenails rip Mommy’s eyes, ears,
the foot in a leather shoe stomps on Mommy’s skirt
Mommy isn’t breathing
He pokes around, back and forth
as many times as the minute hand of the night
You can hear the snarl all night long
He wails, pounding his head against the wall
Mommy is like a corpse and Daddy is nowhere to be seen
All night long, crushed against the house,
a hairy mouth tries to get in
By morning all is quiet– he must have left
Mommy finally gets up and breaths
Mommy bites and kills each one of us
for giving off a suspicious scent from last night’s terror
She kills us then eats out intestines,
grinds her teeth against a wall
then digs out our eyeballs to eat
then there is no one
as always, only Daddy and Mommy are left
It looks as if Mommy is expecting another litter
Kim Hyesoon’s fable gets at a similar abject space as Berg’s poem. Here is a kind of horror-movie as political fable, gothic tale merged with striking poetry, a space of “ambience violence” where everybody might eat everybody else. It’s a poetry that not only acknowledges the violent immersion of art, but engages with it.
As James Pate wrote in a recent post about poetry that is fascinated by the image (and specifically the cinematic image): “… because they are books of action and event, they don’t allow us to lounge about on a clean, conceptual hillside, above the muck and dirt and sweat. They plunge us into it.”
I can’t imagine a better example of a poet whose work runs counter to the prevailing aesthetic of what Stephen Burt has (astutely) described as the “The New Thing”: “distrust of unaided (or unchecked) imagination—of lamps without mirrors, imagination without constraint,” a poetics propelled in large part by the anti-kitsch dismissal of all things “candy” or excessive or “skittery,” a poetics of moderation and taste.
In difference to that aesthetic (the rhetoric of which covers a lot of different poetry currently being written and being written about), Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is performative, affecting, strange and fascinating. It is anachronistic rather than “innovative” and “progressive,” damaged rather than healthy. In difference to “things,” this is a grotesque poetics of violence and ghosts.
Yes, poems are ways of saying you clearly remember the day of your death and your tomb. When I am writing poetry, I relive my days when a woman inside me dies many times. My body is full of graves. A sepulcher is dug up, and a young girl comes out of it with her dusty hands in tears. A lady who is a young girl and an old girl at the same time feels the presence of the young girl. I feel that the 15-year-old me and the 50-year-old me come out of the sepulcher through an illegal excavation. Time is not a straight line, but just a flat hell, like a desert. I am a tomb robber who is robbing my own tomb. Things from my tomb are exhibited under the radiant sun. Every time it happens I feel crude.
Again, a lot of folks seem to like Kim Hyesoon’s poems. She’s been reviewed tons of places on the Internet and around the world. Her poems have been or are being translated into multiple languages, and she’s gotten invited to give readings around the world, including France, Australia, and at a special reading dedicated to the opening of the London Olympics (together with Seamus Heaney and Wole Soyinka).
Clearly not everybody hates translation.
So who does hate translation?
It seems most publishers do—including the small, independent and experimental presses, very few of which publish any translations. And certainly a lot of the print journals, which tend to be more prestigious than web publications. And big-name Critics, especially the scholarly kind. Why? Because venturing into translation means letting go of the illusion of “mastery,” the illusion that poetry is a “field” (with different little squares for different kinds of poetry—here experimental, here slam, etc.) that you can master. This anxiety is infinitely amplified in academia: How do we know that this translation is correct? How do we know that this poet is worth reading? Is this poet famous enough? Did you make this poet up (I’m always accused of that)?
Translation exacerbates the problem of “too much” contemporary poetry: not only are there more poets when you include poetry from the rest of the world, there are also too many poems, too many versions of too many poems, creating too many (hyrid, interbred, inbred) lineages and canons. It is not surprising that it’s exactly the people who have defined themselves as “masters,” as keepers of Taste, would be as anxious about foreign writers, foreign languages infecting the standards, as they are about the aesthetic of “fascination and horror.”
Translation infects their masterable fields with excess they cannot spit out.