Between Empires: the reissue

Like the poems in The Happy Farang, the pieces that make up the two parts of Between Empires—namely, Peace Falls and Forever Wende—are predominantly about the travelling experience. In fact, pretty much every series of poems I’ve ever written is about travelling. Seems I’m not much good at (or interested in) anything else.

Anyway, here we are in 2012, and I’m knee-deep in some kind of sentimental journey whereby I’m going back through all of my old writings, looking for affirmation. But affirmation of what? The fact that I was actually writing? Or travelling? Or writing about travelling? Gaaaah!

Reading these poems again is a slightly awkward experience for me, although I’m hoping that others don’t feel that way. I get the feeling that there’s something missing in the lines, perhaps a result of the fact that they were composed by hand (i.e., hand-written) and then typed up in a word processing programme. But there’s something else missing, and I’m not even quite sure what it is.

I guess a lot of travel writing has to grapple with a sense of being out of time, or place. These poems certainly don’t ‘belong’ in the context in which they’re now being presented to the world. They’re a bit like the poem ‘Thomas Pynchon and the Art of Anonymity Maintenance’, which I wrote while in Thailand, and which appears in The Happy Farang, but which has nothing to do with either Thailand or travelling.

During my travels in 2002, I was on a train heading from NYC to Buffalo, when I saw this guy sitting across from me, who I will swear to this day was Thomas Pynchon himself. I tried to engage him in conversation, but to the end he swore his name was Jerry. Perhaps the spirit haunting the poems in Between Empires is also called Jerry. Perhaps he never existed.

In any case, it would be another three years before I wrote about Pynchon again. But that is the subject of another blog post. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these poems for what they are: brief excerpts from an itinerary long since forgotten; random thoughts from a diary never kept.

Download volumes I and II of Between Empires: Peace Falls and Forever Wende.

Steam (Redux)

I’ve now completed the complete first draft of ‘Steam’, a story which may one day become a novel. Steam started out as a sequel to ‘Smoke’, a much shorter story about a woman living in Neo-Melbourne.

In the original draft, each part of Steam hyperlinks to a section of Smoke, and although the connections between the stories become more tenuous as Steam progresses, the intention has always been to join these stories at some point, either by using alternating narrative voices or some other technique (perhaps italics).

As Steam progresses, the sections get longer and longer. I’m not really sure why this happened—perhaps it just took me a while to warm up. In any case, what seemed like appropriately manageable and readable text chunklets in the early sections pretty soon became much longer (and perhaps less easy to read) superchunks.

I’m also not sure, in hindsight, whether it was wise to pursue this ‘prose poem’ style in the story. By the time I wrote the final section, it was all just pure Kerouac flow, whereas with some intermediate sections I made the effort of inserting paragraph breaks and more recognisable dialogue markings, as in a more conventional story.

I suspect that the second draft will require a lot of this kind of editing, to make the text more readable and well-paced.

That being said, as each section of the story was written in a single burst, it does almost seem appropriate to present the work in its present form. The only difficulty I had writing the story in this way was that when it came to dialogue, where I used italics, it was hard to write two statements one after the other. I always had to insert a ‘he said’ or another descriptor when one character stopped talking, before moving on to what the next character said. Also, as the thoughts of main character in the story are also italicized, it does get a bit confusing at times.

This could also be said about the plot or narrative of the story as a whole. As Duck-young himself recognises in the story, the plot is full of gaping holes, and there are several characters who are introduced but who are not very well developed. Obviously I could just put this down to the need to paint in broad brush strokes when writing the first draft. However, I also recognise that a bit of planning might not have gone astray.

Nevertheless one of the greatest joys of writing, for me anyway, is sitting down and creating a narrative or plot line in real time. I could never have imagined where the story might end up – indeed, the ending of the story is still very confused and rushed, and needs a lot of work. Still, it was a great experience to just go where the story lead me, even if it meant following ridiculous and improbable hunches, or trying to write a synopsis for a non-existent film.

I was aided in these efforts by some very useful books, courtesy of the Korea Language Translation Institute here in Seoul, who have very generously made their library available to me. I would like to be able to claim that everything in this story is made up but, unfortunately, it is not. Much of the story is inspired by writings on Korea past and present, and is of course also informed by the people and places I have come to know during my time here.

In particular I have been inspired by both the owners and patrons of Mania Street, the real-life inspiration for the bar Shesa Maniac in the story. Perhaps one day, if the story is ever translated into Korean, some of these people will recognise themselves in it. I am a little nervous about such an eventuality, mostly because I have taken great liberties with reality in the story.

Then again, that’s fiction. It’s been a huge challenge for me to write fiction again, after so many years pursuing poetry. One thing I was not prepared for was the immensely draining experience of writing prose, even in 1,000 word chunks. It’s also been a bit of an eye-opener in terms of the difficulties prose writers must experience in attempting to represent the passing of time on the page. The majority of the story happens over a period of just one day, and I was constantly amazed at much effort it took to even make my characters walk down the street, or engage in a conversation.

Now that the first draft is complete, I think I’ll just take a little rest, and think about where to go next. I’d welcome any comments or suggestions on the draft. I look forward to improving it and hopefully, one day, presenting the story as a finished whole.

No! Sleep! Till Gangnam!

By this time tomorrow I’ll be winging my way to South Korea via Helsinki, touching down at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and hoping that the BBC’s weather forecast for Friday—fine and sunny, 30C—turns out to be accurate and long-lasting.

Otherwise, I’m afraid that my hoju body will not be able to cope with the stifling humidity, sheets of bucketing rain and all-out urban mayhem that is Seoul in late summer.

Sure, the typhoon season’s just about over but something tells me I’ll be in for a wild summer storm or two before the weather starts to settle down in September.

By then I’ll hopefully be well settled down myself. I’ve already secured an apartment for my three month residency, and it’s in a good location (I hope) in Banpo-dong on the south side of the Han River.

It’s very close to Gangnam and the KLTI (or, as I’ll refer to it from now on, ‘The Institute’) in Samseung.

While I’m still not exactly sure what I’ll be doing at The Institute, I’m certain it will involve lots of reading, even more writing and a healthy dose of conversation.

More than that I am not prepared to say.

Tomorrow is always another first day.

Seoul Redux, Asialink and PC Bangs 2.0

In the northern summer of 2005, I caught a plane from Frankfurt to Seoul to undertake an Asialink residency at Sogang University. This summer, I’ll be doing it all again, only this time my host for the residency will be the Korea Language Translation Institute (KLTI) in Gangnam.

I’m really looking forward to returning to Seoul. The four months I spent there in 2005 were really beneficial in terms of the amount of writing I got done, as well as the rewarding (if challenging) experience I gained while teaching in the Korean educational system.

This time around I’ll be doing something completely different, namely assisting the KLTI with the editing of English translations of Korean texts. And if that sounds like a bit of a tongue twister, you’re probably saying it right. I mean doin ir rong.

The KLTI is located in Gangnam, on the other side of the Han from Sogang University and Insadong, the touristic part of Seoul where I lived in a hostel for the duration of my stay in 2005. I’m hoping this time around to find somewhere in Hongdae or even closer to Gangnam itself …

The Seoul metro system, which I caught every day to and from Sogang University, is fast, cheap and reliable. It’s a great buzz to ride the metro at peak hour, and to see the fantastic cross-section of Korean society travelling together, slowly waking up. In that sense it doesn’t really matter where I’m staying anyway.

Seoul is of course a networked city in several other important respects. The city boasts one of the highest rates of broadband internet usage in the world; while at street level this excess of connectivity flows through the PC Bangs and via roaming mobile broadband networks. The flow of people and ideas.

In 2005 I spent a lot of my time in PC Bangs, probably too much time. I’m not sure whether I want to spend up to four or five hours each day writing in these places like I did then. I wrote about thirty poems (a selection of which were later published as Morgenland) and forty prose poems in PC Bangs.

I also took a lot of photos of PC Bangs signage and logos, of which the example above is possibly the most exuberant.

Since then a few of the poems, and several of the prose ‘Imaginary Cities’ have been published in various journals. In another respect however, these pieces now seem more like first drafts than anything else – dense, over-expressive, abstracted, occasionally unintelligible.

I’m looking forward to finding ways of building upon the ideas expressed in these early pieces, and it might be fun to see how many of the original PC Bangs I can re-discover – just as long as there’s a cold beer waiting for me in some shady beerhof afterwards.

Till next time, annyeung.