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.
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’:
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.
& later I realised I was halfway through my journey waiting for a phone call (but I couldn't remember my own name. waking up to the sound of drilling wearing a t-shirt backwards I heard the dogs bark outside (artists drank soju & looked at leaves as if they were maps & the traffic was silent & to meet travellers who might be gone by nightfall, oh! wash- ing piling up in my room without seeing stars when I didn't need a candle without a breeze from the sea & showering under a cold hose. passing the ajumma out the front of her seafood restaurant (that took my breath away smiling at the girls holding hands at the markets. green revenue stamps from the immigration department layered like a thinking plate of kim chi & about my faraway family (or an overwhelming grief as humid as bowls of bubbling soup. then the phone call made it all different. where old men sit in the park on newspapers listening to the trills of old ladies at sweet stalls. in which season is it now on the verge of turning. when my wallet bulged in my pocket, staring at holes in the bottom of empty soju glasses, watching as Koreans dreamed on the subways or standing in line. catching pigeons with a net I eat dinner alone in a city where everyone eats together, pore over hangul script crossing roads & counting seconds as the lights change wasted checking emails with a mosquito and a ceiling fan buzzing in my ears fished for hope in streams step- ping over puddles of spittle in the street. I no longer recall Australian radio stations. those were really days drinking coffee cold from a can land of caffeine calm
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.