Visiting the country of poetry festivals
by Dragon Hall writer in residence Jeongrye Choi

Korean poet Jeongrye Choi was one of our first writers in residence in the newly refurbished cottage at Dragon Hall. She stayed with us from late August to November 2018, with the generous support of the Arts Council of Korea. We’re now able to share her diary (translated by Mattho Mandersloot), which gives a vivid picture of Jeongrye’s three-month stay in the UK.

24 August, 2018

Norwich Airport is very small, about the size of an average shopping mall. The officer at border control, however, was quite intimidating. What’s your occupation? she asked me. I’m a writer. Purpose of travel? I’m here to present my poetry and take part in poetry festivals and I’m planning to work on translations. Where are you staying? I’m staying in Dragon Hall. If you say you’re a writer, what is it you write? I write poetry. So you’re staying in Dragon Hall, right? She seemed really suspicious of that piece of information. You’re staying in a building from the 15th century, is it? Yes, they told me I’m the first actual guest since it got refurbished. Show me your invitation letter, then. I did have an official invitation in an email somewhere, but at the time my inbox wouldn’t load. The airport wifi didn’t work. Who organised this trip for you? Arts Council Korea did. Was this woman born with such a contemptuous look on her face, or was it her job that made it so? Well, show me one of your books, then. She’s really asking a lot now, isn’t she. [Editor’s note: We now advise visiting writers and translators to print off their letter of invitation in advance and to make sure they have a copy of their book in their hand luggage!] I got a book from my carry-on, which happened to be in Korean. Do you have a return ticket? Yes, here it is. I also have English translations of my books in my suitcase. Alright, follow me then. When we got to the luggage belt, my suitcase was the only piece left, proudly continuing to circle its orbit. So your books are in there, yeah? Indeed, do you need me to open it up? No problem. So that big green suitcase is yours, yeah? It is. Next time, print out your emails before you fly. Has she gone mad? I got cross and my English got tangled up. Who on earth goes around printing their emails before they fly? In America, when I wrote down ‘writer’ as my occupation at border control, I only got smiles in return. But I guess they made a mistake letting me off so easily. I’ve never had this before. Maybe I should have put ‘tourism’ as my purpose of travel instead? The woman finally stamped my passport and as I came out to arrivals, I was met by Kate, her face full of worry, as she had been waiting for me and hadn’t expected me to take that long. Because it was late, she said I was welcome to sleep at her house the first night and she would bring me to Dragon Hall tomorrow. Kate’s husband drove us to their house: an astonishingly beautiful, 150-year-old parsonage that was remodelled and decorated in an old-fashioned style. Tasteful tea cups, wooden dishes, stylish kitchen utensils hanging off the wall: the interior was like a dream. Sitting at their kitchen table by candlelight and sipping from the apple cider and wine they had offered me, I felt the exhaustion from my 14-hour flight and the humiliation from the border control episode wash away.

11 September, 2018

Yesterday I attended a reading here in Norwich organised by the Café Writers. They gather once a month and for every edition two poets are invited to take centre stage and read a selection of their work, whilst other poets in attendance are allowed a few minutes each to read a poem or two as well. At Kate’s suggestion, I went along and read two poems. The main invitee of the night was Caroline Bird. She gave a spectacular performance and her voice brimmed with energy, keeping me spellbound. Every poet needs to know their theatrics, but Caroline was really stealing the show, reciting her poetry off by heart. Something else struck me: during the break midway, they sold poetry books for 10 pounds each and money changed hands right there on the spot; the entrance fee was 2 pounds and drinks had to be paid for as well. All this was so different from the way we run events in Korea, I was perplexed. And another thing struck me too: one of the book covers had ‘shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize’ written all over it. In other words, it didn’t win. If a Korean poet were shortlisted for some prize, even though they might be proud of the nomination, they would shy away from having it written so conspicuously on the cover. All of these things combined made me wonder if most Korean poets are actually just snobs.

17 September, 2018

A pun on the name of the host city, the genre fiction festival ‘Noirwich’ brought together 15 crime writers who, in blocks of three, gave presentations about their work, each session lasting an hour and a half. The programme ran from 10am until 9.30pm, with the grand finale taking the form of a murder mystery musical. I made a point of attending every single event on the programme and could hardly stand on my feet towards the end. They talked about murder tales and ghost stories and offered workshops in creating suspense that you can cut with a knife, in designing a good plot – how to begin and how to end a book – and so forth. After sitting still for 12 hours straight, save a few food breaks, I felt like my eyeballs were on the verge of popping out of their sockets. My eyes were so tired I was seeing double. These people are amazing, but they live in a strange country, I thought to myself. It would have been better, had they invited a Korean crime writer in my stead. But at the end of the day, I did consider including a ghost story or a murder tale in my next poem; would that work?

19 September, 2018

“I’m not a political poet nor am I a nationalist; I am not the kind of writer to imbue my poetry with personal ideology. Nonetheless, everyone I meet in this country asks me if I’m from North or South-Korea. Indeed, as you may know, Korea is divided, with barbed wire running across the demarcation line. It was this barbed wire that I had in mind when I wrote Barbed Wire in a Stream.”

After these introductory remarks, I read my poem. The audience clapped after every one of the five poems I read in total and, to my surprise, they laughed at my jokes too. The general atmosphere in the room was completely at odds with that of poetry readings in Korea, but it only helped my poetry to come across better. Besides, a poet who had come to my reading called George Szirtes, posted the following words of praise online, of which I felt wholly undeserving and reading which I nearly lost my balance, so overjoyed was I:

“Jeongrye’s English is perfectly good so she could read some of the English text herself and introduce it too. Her poems are beautiful, delicate and darting but underlined with an apprehension of the instability of things. They have, it is said, a surreal air but I don’t think it is so much surrealism in the straight or programmatic sense, more a juxtaposition between the apparently ordinary and the associative leaps that constitute a consciousness. She read a couple from Instances (we had brought the book so we could follow the words and get the ‘stereo’ effect of hearing and reading at the same time) but also from another book, Green Apples, of which about half consists of prose poems. As with those in verse a normality is established but something cuts across it. Prose makes it all the more dreamlike because the logical and syntactical expectations of prose render the entrance of the poetic all the stranger”

21 September, 2018

It is impossible to have a good day every day of your life. This morning, as I was washing my hair in the shower and rubbing my body with soap, I turned the water off briefly, just to be frugal. When I turned it back on, the shower head started spluttering air. What was I to do now, all covered in soap. No matter how much I turned the tap, no water came out and it clearly wasn’t a matter of patience. And that on an early morning. In lack of other options, I walked to the kitchen, grabbed a saucepan and filled it in the sink. Even so, I could barely wash off the lather of soap. Blegh, now I have to write an email in English to report this. ‘Urgent!’ seemed a little overdone as a subject line, so I stuck ‘A little’ in front of it and asked for a plumber to come at their earliest convenience. He came almost immediately and fixed whatever was broken. Problem solved.

4 October, 2018

National Poetry Day Translation Summit. The Future of Poetry Translation: Pathways and Practices

Today I went to the University of London to take part in a symposium along with other poets, translators, representatives of cultural institutions, publishers and whoever else was interested, all of whom came together to discuss the future of poetry translation. It was a series of workshops, panels, readings, and networking opportunities, with the purpose of sharing ideas and collectively raising the profile of translation. My participation in this event was thanks to Kate Griffin, who had started planning my stay a few months before I even arrived in the UK. First Kate was on a panel herself, then a few poets behind the Trio Project talked about poetry translation issues and read some of their poems, after which it was my turn to read a poem too. Originally Kate and I had agreed that she would go to London the day before and I would follow on the day itself, but when I said I was worried about travelling by myself in a strange country, we decided to meet at the station in Norwich and catch a train together. After we arrived in London and took the tube, Kate brought me to a hotel, which looked quite expensive, and she went to stay with a friend of hers, having to take the tube again towards an area quite far from the city centre. I realised that Kate had given up her hotel room for me and felt a mixture of guilt and gratitude.

In between two of my poems, I looked around the audience to find Kate showing me her thumbs, which had a very encouraging effect. Out of all the poems I read, people liked my prose poem Spirit Museum most; something I hadn’t seen coming. In Korea this poem barely got any attention, but apparently people really loved it here. One audience member said they discovered some kind of allegory hidden underneath the rather ordinary words that the poem consisted of. I was grateful that they didn’t find such a lengthy poem boring or stopped listening. After the event, the convenor, Fiona Sampson, even came up to me saying she would like to work together some time and it seemed like she meant it, so I felt a rush of joy.

6 October, 2018

“This is a story. This is a song.” These lyrics emerged from Norwich Cathedral during mass. They reminded me of a line from a hymn we used to sing when I was in middle school, which was a mission school. “This is my vow, this is my hymn, as long as I live I will…” I couldn’t think of the exact title, but that hymn rose to the top of my mind and just like all those years ago I sang along at the top of my voice. Soon after, I got tongue-tied as I realised the original words must be “This is a story. This is a song.” It was baffling to think that someone had given ‘story’ the tainted translation of ‘vow’. Story! Such a simple word, but quite profound at the same time, harking back to the origins of literature and beyond. They call the wine you drink during mass the blood of Christ, though I couldn’t help but think ‘this is actually some great wine’. All for the sake of pretence believers like me, perhaps. Excuse me, father, would you mind pouring me another? I kept that joke to myself, unsure whether it would be considered a sacrilege to ask. After receiving Communion and taking no more than a few sips of wine, I went home and on my way it suddenly started raining. Since I hadn’t brought an umbrella, I got soaked in cold water and ran the rest of the way.

23 October, 2018

Yesterday I had my last reading of my stay, which took place at SOAS. Time seemed to fly as I read 8 poems and discussed the translation issues presented by each. Afterwards I had dinner with Dr Grace Koh, who teaches at SOAS, and we chatted until half 12 at the pub in my hotel. When I woke up in the morning, I felt like going for some sightseeing, given that I was in London anyway, so I hopped on one of those open top buses. But because it was so cold, I only stayed on for half of its route and ended up catching a train back to Norwich instead. It was raining when I got off. Had winter finally come? Because it was weekend, Dragon Hall was completely deserted. The cottage attached to it, or glued to it, I should say, like an accessory, had a glass ceiling built into the roof. The sound of rain shattering against the glass was overwhelmingly loud and from time to time I heard bouts of hail too. As I sat there listening, I was afraid and felt like the whole universe was watching me from above. What should I do to fight the cold? I had something to eat.

Winchester Poetry Festival

On my way to Winchester Poetry Festival, I found out at Waterloo station that my train was delayed by an hour or so. I couldn’t understand how such a severe disruption could arise without any prior notice in a ‘developed country’ like the UK. My Airbnb host in Winchester had offered to come and pick me up from the station, so I got worried that I wouldn’t be there to meet her at the time we arranged. The wifi connection at the station was flimsy, so my phone wasn’t much use and going through my notes I couldn’t find my host’s phone number either. I wanted to continue searching everywhere I could, but I even managed to forget my email password. Really? Why now? Yesterday, at a poetry translation workshop in London where Kate suggested I read some work, I got entranced by the audience’s compliments, stayed out for dinner with them and had great conversations over a few drinks, only barely managing to catch the last train back to Norwich and arriving back home at 1am. This morning I was in a rush from the get-go, trying not to miss my train to Liverpool Street, and had to leave the house without printing the contact details of my Airbnb. Because the route to Winchester involved several changes from train to tube and back to another train again, I wasn’t very keen on making the journey alone, given how bad I am with directions. But rumour had it that Winchester was the most wonderful poetry festival in all of the UK, so I really wanted to go. Trying to find a way to get there, I ended up travelling together with Jamie Osborn, a young translator who I first met when he came to one of my readings and who was also happened to be going to Winchester, as a volunteer. Having met him a few times since, I found out that apart from translating German poetry, he also writes poetry of his own and so I felt we knew each other well enough to make the journey together. Winchester is a city with a long history to the southwest of London, the biggest city in South Hampshire. We had to take a train for two hours from Norwich to London Liverpool Street, then the tube to Waterloo and from there a train to Winchester. But at Waterloo we found a throng of people pacing up and down in front of the departures board, willing it to show from which platform the train would depart. As soon as it did, they rushed to the platform en masse in order to be the first to get on board and I ended up having nowhere to sit. I didn’t even have enough space to stand, really. In the jam-packed aisle, I took out my laptop and managed to find the contact details I was looking for, but of course I no longer had service on my phone and at this point I also started sweating from top to toe. I feared I might smell, standing shoulder to shoulder with the other passengers. I had myself to blame for relying on my phone too much and not making a note of the phone number before rushing out, but when we got off the train in Winchester, my host greeted me with a big smile on her face. I kept repeating I was so sorry, but she said delays like these are absolutely normal in the UK, so she had anticipated it. She put my luggage in the boot of her car as if it was her sole responsibility to take care of it and said she was happy to take Jamie too, and all his stuff, even though he was staying somewhere else. She dropped him off first and then brought me to a place I can only describe as a perfect accommodation: chalk white bed linen, a delicate dove-grey carpet, a stunning garden and kitchen. She worked as a gardener during the day and rented out the second floor of this house belonging to her mother, whom she wanted to look after anyway as she lived by herself. She said she was interested in poetry too. All the normal hotels in Winchester were fully booked and the other kinds of accommodation were quite expensive, so I booked this Airbnb simply because it was much more affordable, but in hindsight it was a lucky find.

I dropped off my luggage and left for the festival venue straight away. The first reading was by a poet called Ian McMillan, arguably one of the greatest poetry performers alive today. It was so crowded, there were hardly enough seats. The audience started laughing before Ian had even begun reading his poetry. But personally I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. I had no idea why everyone was laughing, as for some reason I couldn’t make any sense of his English. Was I too tired? Was it his peculiar accent? Or was he using funny words that I wasn’t familiar with? I tried my best to listen closely, but I couldn’t make out a thing. The audience laughed in unison and clapped their hands as one, so I felt like I came from a different planet. Without understanding the context, I managed to remember a single sentence: “My great great great great great grandfather is so old.” Either way, I left with the impression that he had given a hilarious performance. It was getting really dark as I started walking towards my Airbnb and I didn’t recognise any of the roads; I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I kept making lefts and rights, but for a long time didn’t run into anyone I could ask for directions. When I arrived at an open field, I saw a building in the distance that looked like a gym, so I went over hoping to find someone to talk to. In fact, I had no energy whatsoever to walk all the way back and asked if they could just order me a cab. I had had my fair share of travelling and getting lost for today. Perhaps because I then went to bed without eating anything at all, I dreamt that I got a terrible scolding from my parents, both of whom have passed away. My sleep was disrupted and half-awake I got a cramp in my calf, so I jumped and sat up straight. Every little muscle was twitching. I nearly cried and although the twitching slowly subsided, I couldn’t get back to sleep however much I tried.

7 October, 2018

As opposed to yesterday’s puzzling reading, today I was able to follow Pascale Petit’s reading quite easily. Her collection Mama Amazonica talks about her mother falling ill, which reminded me how my own mother passed away and I couldn’t hold back my tears. Dear me, someone else’s poetry was making me cry; that had never happened before. Given I was at a poetry festival, it was only logical that I was sensitive. The readings followed one after the other, with no time to eat in between. The entrance fee was 11 pounds to start with and after every reading they sold poetry books for 20-30 pounds each, so if you went to all the readings – four to five per day for three days straight – you were bound to go bankrupt. It made sense that a poetry lover like Jamie, who may not have much to spend, would volunteer here. It’s the only way to be exempt from the entrance fee. If you want to attend a festival like this, you need to be fully prepared to go broke. Besides, they don’t leave you any time to eat. Everyone is expected to fend for themselves and bring something from home or buy something beforehand or be content with the coffee and snacks sold in the lobby. It wouldn’t surprise me if people got sick. Still, I was cheerful for being able to keep up with the readings today. As Nikola Madzirov, a descendant from Macedonian refugees, read his poetry, a photograph of a 5-year-old Kurdish child lying dead on the ground on a beach in Turkey, came to my mind. I remembered the red t-shirt he was wearing, his stiff body completely motionless; he seemed to be no one’s. It struck me that everyone in the room, including myself, had once embarked on a journey in search of a place to call home. None of us have completed that journey, for none of us actually own a home or a nationality. It was a similar experience to when I lost my way yesterday and wandered around asking where I was. Someone in the audience sniffled and I, too, let myself go for a second. The woman sat next to me stroked my hand and I immediately felt better. I have translated the following poem by Nikola Madzirov into Korean.

I Don’t Know

Distant are all the houses I am dreaming of,
distant is the voice of my mother
calling me for dinner, but I run toward the fields of wheat.

We are distant like a ball that misses the goal
and goes toward the sky, we are alive
like a thermometer that is precise only when
we look at it.

The distant reality every day questions me
like an unknown traveler who wakes me up in the
middle of the journey
saying Is this the right bus?,
and I answer Yes, but I mean I don’t know,
I don’t know the cities of your grandparents
who want to leave behind all discovered diseases
and cures made of patience.

I dream of a house on the hill of our longings,
to watch how the waves of the sea draw
the cardiogram of our falls and loves,
how people believe so as not to sink
and step so as not to be forgotten.

Distant are all the huts where we hid from the storm
and from the pain of the does dying in front of the eyes of the hunters
who were more lonely than hungry.

The distant moment every day asks me
Is this the window? Is this the life? and I say
Yes, but I mean I don’t know, I don’t know if
birds will begin to speak, without uttering A sky.

4 November, 2018

George Szirtes, his wife and I decided that we would share a ride to the poetry festival of Aldeburgh, a coastal town in Suffolk. I have recently become fascinated by George’s poetry and translated about 10 of his poems. The faint sunlight, betraying a transition from fall to winter, cast a beautiful shimmer on the endlessly outstretched fields. You are quite lucky to live in such a beautiful country, I said, and they answered they had gotten used to it and had forgotten how beautiful it was; but it made them happy to now see it again through my eyes. By the shore in Aldeburgh stood a small building that looked like an observation deck. At the bottom of it, an information board encouraged visitors to go up the spiralling staircase, enjoy the view and write a haiku. For some reason westerners really like haikus, but it is easier said than done fitting the English language into a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Still, most people who had come to the festival went up one after the other, put their haikus in a giant wooden box and came down again. George seemed to give his all to his haiku before putting it in the box and I followed suit. I wished I could’ve stayed the full three days and take part in all the interesting events the organisers had put together, but I wouldn’t know how to get home. I was only able to take part in Sasha Dugdale’s talk and the one about George’s translations. It was dark on the way back. George’s wife Clarissa was behind the wheel, manoeuvring the car along dark roads in between the fields and I was sat in the back, staring at the flickering of the stars, when suddenly she shouted ‘Ah, a fox!’. Apparently a fox had crossed the road just in front of the car. I was hoping it would show itself again, for me to see it too, but it didn’t.

A few days later I had lunch with George and his wife to say goodbye before I left. I was thinking a lot about the fox that we had seen on our way back from Aldeburgh the week before. One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I got out of bed and scribbled something about the fox on a card, which I gave to George at our lunch: “I want to write about the fox that I never got the chance to see. As we made our way through the darkness, I was staring at the stars floating high above the fields. I simply can’t get that fox out of my head. If the fox had come back, I would have written a poem about it, concealing the strangeness of my foreign tongue and the unintended crudeness of my words.” By chance, George and Clarissa had also brought me a present, namely a poem about and a drawing of the fox. I was surprised and immensely happy. It was the first time in my life that someone had addressed a poem to me, so I was dumbfounded, as if struck by lightning, when he gave it to me.

The Sky Fox

For Jeongrye Choi
By George Szirtes

The sleek red foxes of the sky have learned to ride on clouds
And spend the scarlet sunset hours hunting in great crowds,
And when they spot a pair of wings they leap through the damp air
Condemning birds to lead fraught lives of terror and despair.
But poets see the foxes in their headlights as they drive
And that is why birds tend to die while most poets survive.

Choi JeongryeJeongrye Choi was born in a city near Seoul. She studied Korean poetry at Korea University and received her PhD from the same school. She participated in the IWP (International Writing Program) as a poet at University of Iowa in 2006 and stayed one year at University of California in Berkeley as a visiting writer in 2009. Her poems were appeared in Free VerseIowa Review, Text Journal, World Literature Today and various Japanese literary magazines. An English-language collection, ‘Instances’ (which she co-translated with Wayne de Fremery and Brenda Hillman) has been published. She is currently teaching as a lecturer at Korea University.

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