A poet of the night whose muses have 9 lives

WhatsApp Image 2023-05-20 at 11.41.44
The poet Hwang In-suk in Seoul, Feb. 23, 2023. The South Korean writer feeds stray cats on late-night walks and the routine informs her poems about loneliness and impermanence. (NYTimes)
Most nights, Hwang In-suk pushes a shopping cart up and down the steep alleys of her Seoul neighborhood, trailed by stray cats that emerge from shadows to greet her under glowing streetlamps and convenience store marquees.اضافة اعلان

Her neighbors tend to think of Hwang, 64, merely as someone who feeds cats in the street.

Only a few know that she is a celebrated poet whose work explores loneliness and impermanence in the South Korean capital.

Her decades of writing span a time in which South Korea has cycled through a dizzying number of identities, including those of a country ruled by repressive military dictatorships, a fledgling democracy, and, most recently, an economic power and international cultural juggernaut.

Cats: Her favorite musesHwang said her nocturnal cat-feeding routine allows her to quietly observe not only cats, her favorite muses, but also her changing neighborhood and the underclass of a megacity that is increasingly known for its flashy exterior.

“I’ve found worlds that I wouldn’t have found if I had not been feeding cats at night,” she said in a near whisper on a recent walk through her neighborhood, Haebangchon. The streets were mostly silent except for the occasional car, taxi or delivery truck.

In addition to cats and other subjects, Hwang’s poetry documents the milieu of convenience store clerks, street sweepers and other late-night workers. “I don’t even know his face as we meet only in the dark,” she writes of a newspaper deliveryman in a recent poem called “Don’t Know Where You Live”:

He wouldn’t know my face either but
How come he recognizes me so well
We live at night

Haebangchon, or Liberation Village, lies near Seoul’s central train station and what was once the main US military base in the country. The neighborhood was carved out of a hillside forest after the end of World War II, when Korea emerged from Japanese colonial rule.

Many of the people who settled there were North Korean refugees who arrived during or after the Korean War, said Pil Ho Kim, an expert on South Korean cultural history at Ohio State, whose father grew up in the neighborhood after fleeing the North.

In the decades after the war, South Korea experienced dramatic upheavals, including rapid industrialization, a presidential assassination and a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. So did Haebangchon, a place initially known as a “moon village,” a term for urban slums built on hillsides.

In the 1970s, South Korean economic migrants helped turn Haebangchon into a hub for small-scale garment factories.

It later grew more residential and less working class, and began to attract young artists.

Many artists’ studios were in turn displaced by cafes as the gentrification continued, said Cha Kyoung-hee, 38, who has owned a bookstore in the neighborhood since 2015.

Hwang, who grew up nearby and settled in Haebangchon in the 1980s, has been quietly observing the details of these changes ever since with a keen eye.

She settled on a career in poetry after studying creative writing at a Seoul arts institute and made her debut with a poem, “I’ll Be Reborn as a Cat,” that won a 1984 award for emerging South Korean writers.

 It was the first of many national literary prizes that she would win over the years.

She said her poetry partly reflects her conviction that Seoul is a place where the rich and poor live in separate worlds, and the downtrodden are victims of cutthroat competition.

“They were not willing to cheat others to advance themselves in this society,” she said during a recent walk, her breath escaping in tiny clouds as she rounded a bend of a dark, hillside alley. The lights of skyscrapers blinked in the city below.

Her poems tend to fuse details of her corner of Seoul, a city of about 10 million people, with the emotions of their wry, melancholic speakers. One describes Haebangchon’s roads as leading “always uphill/like my life.”

A family of cats eats food provided by the poet Hwang In-suk, in Seoul, Feb. 23, 2023. “I’ve found worlds that I wouldn’t have found if I had not been feeding cats at night,” said the Seoul-based poet. 

But Hwang is perhaps best known for poems that make wistful, whimsical observations about cats, and the humans who struggle to understand them. She said about one-fifth of her oeuvre has been cat-related.

Anne M. Rashid, a professor of English literature who translated some of Hwang’s work with a late colleague, Chae-Pyong Song, said she was particularly fond of this passage from the poem “Ran, My Former Cat”:

I didn’t know where you came from.
Always all of a sudden
you appeared
at a time when nobody was around
at a time when time belonged to nobody,
hanging about the roof of a rented house
as if from inside my heart,
as if from the edge of the moon
with a small half-cry,
you appeared.

Throughout the poem, which ends with the cat disappearing “to a place where you couldn’t invite me,” the speaker wishes to hold or touch her muse but knows it’s not possible, said Rashid, who teaches literature at Carlow University in Pittsburgh.

“They have a bond, regardless, in their solitariness,” she added.

When Cha hosted Hwang for a reading at her bookstore last year, the audience was unusually diverse for such an event, and included former residents of the neighborhood who missed it and wanted to hear descriptions of its earlier incarnations. Some cried when they heard her poems read aloud.

During the recent walk, Hwang seemed surprised that a reporter would be interested in her work, and declined an invitation to recite a poem of her choice. “I can’t say which one would bring a reader joy,” she said, shortly before midnight.

The humans in her poems also tend to keep low profiles. In “Above the Roofs,” the speaker marvels at how the energy within cats’ bodies sends them soaring in the air to a “vast territory” above rooftops. Then — in a delicate, almost catlike way — she places herself in their midst.

In this city where back alleys have disappeared,
on the back alleys above the roofs,
on these alleys above, so to speak,
gently I place my breath.

Read more Lifestyle
Jordan News