Poet Hyeon Taek-Hun Sings about the Sorrow of Jeju

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Headline: A talk on a dolphin, a record, and the April 3rd Incident: ‘Sorrow is the source of my poems.’

Interview with a culture designer – Poet Hyeon Taek-hun

Culture reporter: Kim Eun-jeong


Q I heard you are a Jeju native. How is your local identity related to your writing?
A A few years ago, I took a tour of many different places in Jeju with a painter who was visiting from the mainland Korea on a business trip. The painter said, “I can never paint anything in this beautiful place.” Surprised at an unexpected claim, I asked him the reason. This is the answer I got from him. “What good is it to have paintings in front of this breathtaking landscape.” I was very impressed by his expression. That is exactly what Jeju is like. A line of words about beautiful scenery seem as if they’d have potential for a poem. But this only makes unnatural prose, I believe. However well you can elaborate your prose with words? Could it be as good as nature? Of course, I grew into a poet watching the scenery of Jeju in my early years. But recently, I am trying not to think of it. If possible, I refrain myself from sighing about the splendid beauty of Jeju’s natural environment. Nonetheless, the topographic characteristics of the island of Jeju, as well as its history and culture, affect my songs greatly.

Q What you have just said suggests that the environment of Jeju did have an influence on your career as a writer, but not necessarily in a positive way. That is different from what I expected. Could you tell us more about it?
A One of my most favorite local scenic spots is the lighthouse on Sarabong Oreum. I felt solitude for the first time of my life sitting on a cliff near the lighthouse. Later, I used to visit the site when feeling depressed. The sorrowful source of my works may originate from that experience. The primary landscape I picture includes the mandarin orange farm and my childhood home in Hwabuk 2-dong and the lighthouse on Sarabong. Ironically, sorrow gives me great power to write poems. Jeju may seem beautiful on its surface, but inside it lays tragedy. When thinking of the double-sidedness, I come to sing beautiful lines with hidden sorrow.

Q Your second book of poems is titled the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin. What does a dolphin mean in your poets? Please tell us about the book.
A My first collection was titled ‘The Earth Disk.’ It is based on the memory of my deceased uncle who was my mother’s youngest brother. I got my sensitivity from him. The Earth turns round and round just as a disk turns round and round on the turntable. The works in my first book are to soothe the circulative sorrow with music. As I said, it sang about my childhood memories and the source of my sorrow. My second book describes my hometown in general. The Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin is a dolphin breed that swims around the island of Jeju.

Q Oh, that dolphin! I have seen it a few times. So, you like that specific dolphin.
A My grandparents on my mom’s side lived in Hyeopjae Village. On the beach with a view of the nearby islet of Biyangdo, for the first time in my life, I saw the dolphin surging above the sea surface. Growing up, I could never forget the marvelous moment. I later studied the history of Jeju, and tried to write some poems singing about the sorrowful history of Jeju. But it was not very successful. Some said, laughing, that I titled my book ‘Nambang Keun Dolgorae (a Korean term for the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin) because I enjoy wearing ‘nambang (a Korean term for a shirt).’

Q You won the first April 3rd Peach Literature Award for Poetry, didn’t you? I apologize for my late congratulations. Please tell us about your award-winning work, Goneul-Dong. I’d like to take this interview as a chance to enjoy your poem. Hearing your recital, I will dive into your mind.
A I don’t know if I deserve that great of a compliment. There have been years of effort to conduct research and create artworks on the April 3rd Incident. I feel like my humble portion of effort was just added to their great achievements. What I did first to prepare for my work on the tragic historical event was to visit Goneul-dong. I was born and raised in Hwabuk-dong, and Goneul-dong is a lost village in my hometown. The eldest sister of my father and her husband were killed during the April 3rd massacre. But I became a late-learner of the historic tragedy. I was one of the kids playing on the coast of Hwabuk, but never knew the village behind it tells us such a sorrowful history. To write the song, I visited the historic site, walked by it, and took a seat in some place. I tried to listen carefully to the voices of the victimized spirits. As I received the award in just a few years after I wrote it, I felt a lot of pressure later. Now I even have a feeling that I am responsible for this issue. Hopefully, those of you who pass through the street of 18-gil will remember ‘Goneul-dong’.