Poetry Reading in Jeonju

Lime called me this afternoon with some news. A co-worker, Jason, and I had asked her about whether poetry readings of the sort we’re familiar with back in the West happen in Korea. She said she didn’t know of any such venues or regular readings, but said she’d keep her eyes open for us.

As part of the local traditional culture festival, there was a reading held at the top of a hill. It featured, according to Lime, some of the major voices in contemporary Korean poetry, all people from Jeollabuk-do. And before I give my honest impressions, I want to say that I know I’m talking about a very highly “staged” event, and I was grateful to Lime for the information and chance to attend and hear what it sounds like when Korean poets read their own work.

Jason left after half an hour, and consequently missed the best parts, but these parts were short and opaque to me. But one thing that was obvious from the start was that (a) music was playing a much larger role than it ever does in most poetry readings back home, (b) that this was another one of those notorious “showcase” things, where one gets only a taste of each performer, rather than any real experience of one or two great performers, (c) that people, whether out of convention or just shared response to being given a booklet containing all the poems, seemed to all think it quite normal to read along and not look at the poet in recitation more than occasionally, and (d) that this particular event was painfully overstaged and being controlled by one person.

The last point first: now, at poetry readings back home, one sits where one likes, and can relax, and just listen. At this, people were told to move forward, just as in a classroom. Then, the woman who’d urged us to move forward ran around interrupting poets just before they started reading, telling them to move to the left or right for the sake of better event-photos, and blocking peoples’ view — not to mention inflicting her camera’s stupid sound effects onto almost every poem performed. The lesson here was the same one I learned at the Sori Festival: given a chance, every artistic event in the world can be ruined by a moron with a modern camera. (And that’s not even getting around to complaining about the dipshit camera crew who TWICE tried to capture the white guys as novelties; I covered my face annoyedly the first time, so they circled around and pointed their lights straight into our faces the second time; I covered my face then, too. I hate such camera crews; they violate something sacred about art, to me. I feel an anger and annoyance probably close to how Catholics would feel if soem TV crew wandered around interrupting the High Mass. So to have a light shone directly in my face, that already turned me somewhat sour.

Point c: yes, people read along in the books. We were all seated in this lovely open space, a kind of large, open pagoda in the brisk evening air, high above the city; and people mostly stared at their books. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did seem weird to me.

Point b: Each poet read one poem. Only one. At one point, some Festival official or someone made a short speech that was longer than most of the poet’s recitations. Worse, he sang a Pansori excerpt that was much longer than any poet’s recitation. That was very annoying. I’ve been through this showcase crap before, and I know Koreans are very fond of having performance showcases where people drive X number of hours to play two songs, and only two songs. (Or three, or four, or whatever.) But these guys, some of them anyway, were interesting. I wanted to hear three or four different poems, and got a chance only to hear one. It was frustrating.

Finally, the music. Someone — someone who knows nothing about poetry, I imagine — thought that the best way to present poetry was to have the author stand in front of a kind of band of traditional Korean instruments who, as accompanists, performed flat-out weird sounding arrangements of jazz standards and Broadway tunes. This was the most disconcerting thing of all, to me: while I’m sure whoever thought this up figured it was simply adding more Korean wonderfulness to the wonderfulness of the poetry, the net effect was instead to mire the poetry, strip it of its force and of the power of the poet’s voice in recitation. In all but a couple of cases, I found it reduced the speech of the poet to sounding somewhat like the “standard radio announcer” tone that is so familiar in this country. Poetry, after all, is about words and language, about compressed meanings and delicate resonances not only between words, but between moods, feelings, and ideas. It is a language art, and aural art. To me, it was akin to complementing the work of visual artists with whorling strands of Christmas lights and then shutting the museum lights off.

Complaints aside, I have to admit that the two poets revered most highly by Lime — Kim Yongtaek, and Park Namjun — were really quite good; Park especially stood out in my mind as an excellent reader. He, more than anyone else, seemed to be doing something like I think of when I think of poetry readings: he showed up a little bit tipsy, recited his poem from memory, and then spun off a funny anecdote after he finished the poem. I think I may spend some time trying to decode the poem he read tonight, which is printed in the booklet I brought home with me.

I only wish I’d been able to convince Lime to stay and chat with the poets she admired so much. Ah well… it was an interesting experience, nonetheless. I would love to know of anything else, any other kind of poetry reading going on in Korea, just for the sake of comparison, if nothing else. Anyone know of anything?

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