In an interview published by Asian American Writer’s Workshop, poet Kim Min Jeong tries to describe her peculiar style of poetry: “I mean… my poetry, it’s not beautiful. I’m sure I can come first at an ugly contest but I can’t win a beauty contest. I am confident I can make things ugly the best.” I’m drawn to her idea of an “ugly contest.” After all, evaluating beauty is easy, second-nature even. But how does one evaluate the “best” ugliness? By how compellingly ugly it is? By how long you can’t look away? By how you see yourself reflected in it? If the poems in Beautiful and Useless are as ugly as Jeong says, why do I find them so readable and fun, even beautiful?
In interviews and in her poems, Jeong is very matter-of-fact. To use an abused aphorism, she “tells it like it is,” no posturing, no bullshit; she’s the kind of person to call herself a “bitch” before anyone else can, and in fact does so in a couple poems. So when she says she can make ugly poems, she’s not being self-deprecating or modest (which really aren’t her style). She’s flexing. The poems in Beautiful and Useless, her third book and first in English, are fittingly “ugly” in that they’re irreverent, awkward, and brash, but balanced with a charming swagger and a bit of tenderness. They feature vulgar puns and pissing contests and farts and swears and hookups, blended with sweet moments and darkly funny lines, the profane meeting the sacred. “Holy shit,” goes one poem harvested from SMS messages, “We live in a world where we can get prayer bells and straw cutters on eBay.”
What I’m trying to say is, Jeong loves to break all the hoity-toity poetry rules of what to say and how to say it, and she gets away with it by prioritizing empathy, rich language, and unexpectedly humorous undertones. By traditional standards, her poetry is unorthodox; for a woman writer, especially so, a contrast that may be sharper in the literary world of South Korea. There, Jeong is known as a founding figure of the punkish Miraepa school, an early-2000’s movement which saw young poets disrupting the dominant modes of Korean literature and its conservative, stuffy traditionalism. In interviews and poems, Jeong contrasts herself with her mainstream literary contemporaries, defiantly proud of her informal path as a poet-editor and fiercely outspoken about the way universities teach women writers. In a very real way, her poetry feels like a mere tributary to the broader anti-establishment ethos running through her being.
Even to my American eyes, ruined by garish novelty, her poems surprise me with their edginess and strange logic. In one poem, we overhear two cab drivers’ crude exchange (“Don’t beat your missus in broad daylight,” “Don’t jack your dick off”), but Jeong doesn’t go for easy shock or patronizing condemnation. She aptly signals their “deficiencies” but then trails off, telling us that the Jumong company cabs are her favorite, that “King Jumong must have had wet dreams/ like everybody else.” It ends with the speaker “lending [her] ear to the sound of a cabbie scratching his balls/ but only for a moment and no more than necessary.” And then another punchline, ripped right off the “gothic font” of the cabbie’s business card: “We believe in the sanctity of one-time encounters.”
It’s hard to say what a poem like this is “about” in any solitary, concrete sense. It tugs on certain threads–gross patriarchy, the false face of capitalism–but ends up going in weirder directions than you’d expect. Some poets might start with the crass encounter and then build and extrapolate a broader political narrative from it, but Jeong isn’t really interested in sketching treatises. Her politics aren’t precisely polemical, they’re a current: “What’s the use of leafleting / unless the letters say DOWN WITH THE GOVERNMENT / in the sky in giant font?” I find this bravado refreshing, even brave.
Reading Kim Min Jeong in translation is, I’ve surmised, less than ideal; she’s known in her native tongue for sharp wordplay, off-kilter diction, and rapid deployment of puns. The translators, Soeun Seo and Jake Levine, have made a valiant effort in bringing her chaotic, mischievous energy to English. For example, in “Mass Shipment of Spring Greens (First Day of Summer on the Lunar Calendar)” the grocery shopping speaker wonders, “Why is Pussyjuice 냉 and Shepherd’s Purse 냉 a homonym?” And instantly we understand what’s going on, the joke structured as such, while being hooked by the casual and unexpected “pussyjuice.” The pun doesn’t have to translate 1-to-1 for the observation, and the rest of the poem upon which it pivots, to work. This poem (which you can read at Granta) really exhibits Jeong’s strengths: wordplay, casual tone with a carefully considered structure, a twist at the end. To effectively translate something so rooted in wordplay and tone of voice is a triumph.
Some of Jeong’s best poems are about couples, but she’s more interested in analyzing a petty argument than a romantic embrace. “Hearts are weird,” begins the poem “Deathbed (Grain in Ear on the Lunar Calendar),” then a bit later: “Don’t call me Cherry./ You think I like being called Cherry/ because your cat’s name is Cherry?/ It’s cherry season, so you think I’m cheap too?” But this line of questioning gives way to something sweetly lewd: “Like always, I give in./ Your fingers, white and lean/ a sex toy/ expensive as dick.” Hearts are weird, aren’t they? Oscillating between annoyance and horniness, crumbling from one emotion to the next. Jeong loves these turbulences and describes them like gossip. They can tell us more than the sappiest sonnet.
In the afore-quoted interview, Jeong is asked to address a hypothetical American audience new to Korean poems. “That’s hard. I’ve never thought about what Americans should think of Korean poetry,” she says. “It’s good to be a divided country, it’s good to be in a country where the danger of war is always there.” Her poetry is a poetry of friction: friction between the sacred and profane, the reader and the ugly poem, the woman and her lover, the self and its worst instincts. Jeong isn’t trying to solve these confrontations; their existence is a foregone conclusion, embedded in her human experience. But maybe if we look at them the right way, something beautiful can be gleaned.
August Smith is a poet, publisher, musician, and game dev living in Austin, TX. You can find links to his work, including more poetry book reviews, here: http://august.mostlymidwest.com/.