Imagine a city with no streets but networks of amputated limbs. An officious city of criminal investigations and inquests whose soul is a square of cheap, grey carpet and a water dispenser. The tinkle of pachinko, the sudden sirens of attack. Those women with the hand bills, so stubborn and intent upon their mission, invading the bodyspace of the factory workers like an influenza. Sheets of steel carried by a dozen men at a time towards the railhead. Rain in bursts of noise upon their heads. Somewhere there is a map of the city's improvements but no one I speak with has seen it. Wheelchair-bound ladies protest at the new constructions rising up around them in terrifying spirals. No-one is allowed to see them. Behind their riot shields, the policemen are only boys. Some of them wear white sneakers, as if they have been called in from basketball practice. Sleeping street people curled up like scraps of paper on the subway stairs, trusting that the spirits will protect their small change, their street salaries. Mandarin peels in the gutters. Sewer smells that hit the face like a nervous pigeon, the frightful proximity of disease. A hollow city, stained with sad skirmishes and pickled fistfights. Gouged-out eyes that speak. Tables hoarded under orange shelters. Old men dancing in parks for citizens, while other citizens peer out at the sky like lost kittens in bamboo. Squeals. Drums. Discarded cloths, blood-stained. News of another separatist attack filters through stale cups of coffee, cigarette butts neatly stacked like bullets. A simulated odyssey through virtual historical battles gains popularity in the parlours. No one speaks of it; these things require no advertisements. Beware the reconstituted cutlets of crumbed meat: that way annihilation lies. Pull back the tarpaulin to reveal today's wares— a rack of twisted and burnt squid, dried suckers and flattened jerky. Remove hospital identification barcode. Shoulder arms.
City of burnt grass and black limousines. City of nudes and spider lilies, where the grass stands up even though it is on fire, whistling a harvest tune. By the railway lines, entropy rules: jagged weeds and mystery melons scramble for space, riddling the rails, disguising the sleepers with their fantastic tendrils. Like a smoker's signal, brave and futile. Trains slice these ribbons into tendons, timetabling history, scattering seeds, accelerating some abstract chaos. Trampled soccer balls like snakeskin or leather on the shining road. Dressed as inspectors, we climb the stainless steel stairs, pass the plastic clinic and the coffee mall, then enter the machine room. Here, the rumble of traffic is merely a shiver in your bowels, barely shaking the keys. Predicting story arcs is what it's all about. Prisoners, good deeds and friendships betrayed. The studios will be eating out of our hands. Privately, we model alternate scenarios: the prisoner escapes; the can of boiled beef falls from the adjutant's hand; a friendship is consummated in a bloody latrine scene. Here, the streets are viewed as if through the screenshots of an amateur photographer: the perspectives slightly skewed, casting one's eye off balance. Jets scramble overhead, but no one notices. The flags of a thousand federations burst into the blue sky, unfurling like false spring! The sound of trickling water consumes bus drivers and cart pullers alike. Insanity is okay, although mistakes are sometimes made. Usually, these thoughts disappear. Slowly, a city comes to know itself by the bend of a river, the argument of a steel canal. Behind us, mountains; ahead, cartwheels of conversation, opening.
One of the highlights of my recent three month residency in Seoul was my meeting with poet Ko Un (above), considered one of Korea’s most famous and public poets. Having read many of his poems and autobiographical writings (and even written a poem for him) I was keen to make a connection with him and to further my understanding of Korean poetry and history.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.
We met on a windy autumn morning at a subway station close by Seoul National University, from whence we were whisked to the campus grounds courtesy of one of Ko Un’s graduate students. The meeting was facilitated by Professor An Sonjae of Sogang University, who had been my supervisor during my time as a teacher there in 2005.
An Sonjae (known in English as Brother Anthony) is a translator and academic a lot about modern Korea, having lived there for almost thirty years. I had in fact interviewed him several weeks earlier – you can read the transcript of that meeting on the Cordite site.
Our meeting/interview with Ko Un lasted for just over an hour, during which time I had the chance to ask him many questions about his life, his poetics and his personal philosophy. One quote that sticks out from the interview is the following, on the subject of the ‘Zero’:
The following article by Rio-born poet and writer extraordinaire Patricia Bárbara first appeared in Portuguese in the Brazilian contemporary arts weblog Supergiba. Patricia very kindly translated the text into English for me, and so without further ado …
The first trip, in 2005, brought the impact of such a different and reserved culture, with all its obstacles and wonders. And we cannot even say that’s a shock between occident and the orient because David is Australian. And exactly because of this he combines two interesting information affected in its origin at the same time English and eastern.
A talented writer, he is both free of severity and sophisticated. Originally a poet, David believes to be a regular third millennium person, using his words, his thoughts and feelings as a way to insert himself into the contemporary context.
“There was a time”, he says, when writers had the mission of heralding the meaning of life; they had to come up with a conclusion and spread the word to everybody. Clearly that’s not what we live nowadays”. Sometime after, when talking about his book We Will Disappear, David contradicts himself – and he is the first one to notice, immediately – when he says that in the book maybe the most important are the poems about life and death, trying to bring meaning to things that make no sense. However, this so called contradiction is an imperative part of David’s talent and production. Born in 72, he was a teenager over the 80’s, and he brings with him all the doubts, the quest, the philosophical clashes that belong to the decade.
The poet Jill Jones said: “All along Prater pitches a dark destabilising line then subverts it with an explosion of pure lyric joy. Formally inventive whilst also dropping beats of pop media jargon and all the transitory idioms we live in, this is a new language for all tomorrow’s aching parties.”
David came to Korea once again for the exercise of difference. Decided to write a novel, to fly along, he remember a place different and complicated, where it would be demanding to write something different even if complicated, using the environment happenings as inspiration.
Five days ago David Prater returned to Amsterdam, where he lives. He left carrying with him the first draft of Steam, a novel. He left behind so many memories and a friendship solidly built. And when I asked what he thinks about how visual arts use the words in their work, he said: “look at this”.