IT HAS only been a short fifteen years since poet Shin Yong-mok has started publishing his works, but he is nonetheless a recognized and praised professional in his field. This is probably because he is full of confidence and spirit; he strives without hesitation to find and spread the truth within the world. Shin writes with a strong belief that we all have the right to know the truth, and he believes poetry is the road to the truth. Let us find out how he uses poetry to discover the truth.
The Yonsei Annals: When and what inspired you to become a poet?
Shin: I was a middle school third grader when the Korean Teachers & Educational Worker’s Union was first established. Because of the Union, many of my teachers were forced to resign. Some criticized, and some defended the retired teachers. As a student stuck in the middle, I did not know which side to take. It was then I first realized what I had been learning and studying could all be “lies.” I chose “writing” as my method of following the truth after contemplating deeper about what is true and what is not in the world we live in. I personally believe arts and literature are closer to reality than science. Sure if you ask the question, “Why does spring come?” scientifically speaking, it is right to answer “It is because the Earth tilts 15 degrees, causing a temperature and seasonal change.” However, that might not be “true” to me. To me, spring comes because of my longing for my first love, and it might come to you for another personal reason. Literature, especially poetry always tells the truth, and I thought it was my responsibility to write and pass on what I feel, what I think is the “truth” to the audience.
Annals: Poetry and literature are not very popular these days. What kind of hardships did you encounter working as a poet, and how did you overcome such hardships?
Shin: Yes, it is true that literature is not a preferred field in the current society. Poets do not make a lot of money and for that, some may consider them to be detrimental in this capitalistic economy. It may even prevent you from going out with a girl (laughs). However, I never really considered this a problem. It is fine for literature to be alienated and I think that this is literature’s fate. Art becoming popular and commercialized is what I consider a problem. Once a poem or novel becomes widely read, new risks arise for the writer to compromise with the mass and change his writing style to what the public expects. This popular appeal will pollute and spoil the “truth” of literature. It has already been about fifteen years since I have started writing and if I considered money and fame as important factors of life, I would have become a slave of money, never making it this far. I take pride in my job. No, it is not a lucrative job but it is one of the only jobs that prove we are living people with blood flowing in our veins among the many that live like components of majestic machines. Literature smells like humans and poetry tells the truth. That is all that matters to me.
Annals: Could you please describe your style of writing?
Shin: The current trend seems to be “consolation.” Even if the writer is writing of pain and agony, the conclusion seems to be: “Things may be harsh, but you may find beauty within!” I do not write to sympathize. Instead, I write about pain as realistically and sensitively as I can and to do so, I base many figurative forms to the five senses for a better description. I think it is important to help the readers face the harsh reality, as literature must always speak the truth. This, I believe, will let them live a better life than just telling them good days will come someday without any sense of responsibility. As you would have already figured, many of my topics are of hardships and pains because hurt and pained people “smell” like humans the most, just like how cut grass smell like grass the most.
Annals: Please give us a brief explanation of your latest collection of poems, “A City of Any Day.”
Shin: On one peaceful night, I was awoken from sleep at dawn. I opened and gazed out the windows through which I saw a night view of the city. I saw lights glimmering through the dawn fog, and the lights felt like the remaining embers from burnt heaps of ashes. Just as so, the city felt like ruins. It seemed to me as if humans were ruining the cities we are living in. Cities felt like a gigantic ground of ruins, a tool that would burn and destruct every value of life. As so, it felt as if our lives that sprout from the cities were also ruined. Poems from my poetry book “A City of Any Day” are of my impressions on cities. I wished to talk about the capitalistic society that has developed through alienating lives.
Annals: “Winds” and “Bones” are one of the most used words in your poetry. What are your thoughts on these words?
Shin: I like to sit and stare outside from time to time. Whenever I do so, I can see the wind passing by, shaking branches and tilting blades of grass along the way. There is something special about the winds to me. I like to think our bodily forms are a stage that exists between the winds. We might have been the wind before birth, before we were made, before we were planned, and later become the wind after death. Our skins and blood may decompose and our current form may shatter and disappear; but our spirit will remain as the wind. What currently exists in the universe has existed ever since the Big Bang and will continue to exist till the end of the universe. Just as so, the solitude and sadness we feel will also not disappear until this universe does. All of our sorrow and pain can be stored in the form of the wind, and in order to describe the flow of the winds in a more understandable way, I have written in one of my poems that it is as if the wind “moves with bones.” Bones are a metaphor that I like to use. Bones are what hold my body together till the very end, therefore are forms that prove my materialistic existence. Winds are the bones of our soul, as it proves pain, sorrow, and longing exists somewhere in the universe. “Winds” and “Bones” are just metaphors that I like to use from time to time.
Annals: What other works do you do other than writing poetry?
Shin: I teach poetry in several universities including Korea University, Dongduk Women’s University and Chosun University. I am nothing special; I do not have a lot of things that I excel at except a very small scope of reading and writing poetry. I think it is worthwhile to share with young students what I am good at. I also find great pleasure sharing perspectives and thoughts about the world through poetry. I feel like poetry ties the world together, and I teach my students how poetry does so. Moreover, I used to be a panel member on a radio channel at EBS, as well as work in a publishing company from time to time to plan and gather collections of poems to publish. I also try to raise my voice and act in social issues. If literature is a road that takes us closer to the truth, I think it is reasonable for me, as a poet who writes literature, to act to find the truth.
Annals: Do you have any advice you would like to give to Yonsei students?
Shin: Students nowadays seem to live with some kind of a mortgage; they are pressured to sacrifice their present pleasure for a “better future.” Specs, grades and money seem to be all that matter, but I would like to advise students to live the way they would like to. Do not give up your today for tomorrow, but live your today to the fullest. As so, do not forsake your present for your unknown future. Live and enjoy your life by doing whatever you would like to do. Not having a dream is not a problem either. Just dream whatever you want to dream for the day and dream of doing whatever you would like to do, day by day; that, will take you somewhere. However, there is one small request I have for the students - do not ignore the nearest absurdities. All big absurdities start as small ones, and an accumulation of such irrationalities will easily lead to a breakdown of society.