Yi Won, born in 1968, grew up in Seoul, where she studied literature and obtained her doctorate with a thesis on the modernistic Korean poet Oh Kyu-Won. Her poetry first appeared in magazines in 1922; in 2002 she received the annual award from the Korean journal Modern Poetry. She currently works as a part-time university lecturer. Among the visual artists she most admires are George Segal and Francis Bacon.
The Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad once wrote that in Korea the sixteenth and twenty-second centuries go hand in hand. And indeed, the title of Yi Won’s second collection, A Thousand Moons Are Floating in the Yahoo River!, published in 2001, is a word-play on The Moon, Reflected in a Thousand Rivers, a classic Korean text dating from the fifteenth century, a biography of Buddha written by King Sejong. The title of Yi Won’s first collection from 1996, When They Ruled the Earth, recalls a distant past while playing on the title of a Korean gangsta-rap hit. By and large, in Yi Won’s poetry the modern world of commerce and wall sockets goes hand in hand with ancient buddhist lore. She likens the Internet to a desert, not, however, as a symbol of utter desolation: the Chinese Mogao caves she mentions in her poem ‘I click, therefore I am’, which are situated close to a desert on the Silk Route, contain over a thousand Buddha statues. The Silk Route, which features in another poem, this time in the guise of a metropolitan thoroughfare, was the route travelled by Boddhidharma when he brought Buddhism to China and, eventually, Korea. Thus modern technology turns out to be a journey past caves holding images of the Buddha, places to lose one’s self in. In all this, however, she keeps a critical distance, finding it, a she says in her first collection, ‘like my house, strange’. Yi Won’s poetry, a space between embracing and rejecting, will thrive on that distance.
[Yi Won took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 2004. This text was written on that occasion.]