Reading List: Gay/Poet/Korea: An Interview with Gabriel Sylvian on the Poetry of Gi Hyeong-do

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Gi Hyeong-do
Since I spend a good amount of time looking up information about gay Korea, I've come across Gabriel Sylvian's name quite a bit. Sylvian founded the Korean Gay Literature project in 2004 as a means to spark an interest in the discussion and promotion of LGBTQ literature and poetry in Korea. I stumbled across this interview conducted by Terry Jaensch and published in 2011 at Cordite Poetry Review. It is a fairly quick and interesting read that talks about the poetry of Gi Hyeong-do and his place as a queer writer in Korea. I particularly enjoyed his answer to a question about Gi's poetry being a response to not only his sexuality, but the political and social climate as well.


I think that the key to understanding Gi as a same-sex desiring poet thus lies in grasping what it was like for same-sex desiring men in pre-democratic (pre-1987) Korea, in the days before the Internet; and even more to the point, what it was like to be a Korean intellectual in that period, bearing the burden of those yearnings. In a society where no space existed to articulate such desires outside of a dank theatre, a shabby yeogwan (inn), a bus station toilet, or a dusky park, who could write such a voice directly? No one. I think what Gi’s poetry reveals is that, like Walt Whitman in nineteenth century America, he couldn’t tell the truth and neither could he lie. The result is an intensely personal poetry shot through with existential trauma. To me, Gi reads like a trauma patient. Painfully sensitive as we infer from his poems, so delicate a sensibility; yet his soul had to navigate the crudest of social conditions (from without what Koreans viewed as “acceptable”) in search of love. Gi thematized his personal illness, urban poverty, bleak family history — a broad range of depressing subject matter — but deep pain seems to come from broken relationships and loneliness.
So Gi, while a sort of innovator, was still very much a product of his time. That he referenced his sexuality at all (gay men find all the allusions) really can be viewed as a wonder. Same-sex love in the decades before the 1990s was a forbidden topic and disparaged as “namsaek” (男色) or as the foreign decadence called “gei”, neither salutary terms. “Sex” broadly meant cross-sex sexuality only. When Gi was writing, there was only one word in the Korean language, “seong” (性 ‘sex’) to cover all the current concepts of sex, gender, sexuality – and no other words were felt as needed. Postmodernisation of sex came to Korea in the 1990s, and the new extended vocabulary for sex that came with it enabled a conceptual expansion of sex to embrace a “healthy” same-sex desire. Not surprisingly, the Korean gay lib movement first materialized on college campuses among the young gay intellectuals.
So to sum up my answer, while there has always been a rumour about Gi’s homosexuality since his death, a discursive space within academia – Korea’s marginalized gay politics notwithstanding – has heretofore never existed by which to investigate the topic of Gi’s sexuality in relation to his life and art, nor has the motivation existed to create one. That’s why I chose to call the project KARMA (Ki ARt ReMApping) (‘Ki’ = McCune Reischauer Romanization system, ‘Gi’ = current Romanization system). The desired goal is to spark motivation within academe for a Korean scholarship that can come to terms with, embrace, sexual diversity; and at the same time, serve justice and homage to Gi’s spirit, with revolutionary implications for those who live in this era.
The interview in full is available at Cordite's website. Enjoy! You can also read four of Gi Hyeong-do's poems translated into English by Sylvian here