I first learned about Yoo Heekyung and his work in 2019 through a literary translation workshop I participated in during my final year in the Literary Arts MFA program at Brown University. Sawako Nakayasu taught the workshop, and she asked the poet and translator Don Mee Choi if she had any recommendations for Korean poets to translate. Don Mee recommended a younger South Korean poet named Yoo Heekyung. I found his poetic lineage and practice intriguing. Yoo had studied with poet Kim Hyesoon at Seoul Institute of the Arts, and, in addition to his poetry, wrote comedic plays as a member of a theater collective and ran a poetry book store and project series called wit n cynical.
In preparing to translate Yoo’s work, I read, watched, and listened to conversations and interviews with him. I was deeply moved by his work to create a more accessible, everyday poetry culture with wit n cynical.
I ultimately chose to translate poems from Yoo’s first poetry collection, Today’s Morning Vocabulary [Oneul achim daneo], because the title spoke to me. What is a vocabulary? Does each morning have its own vocabulary, its own language? Today’s Morning Vocabulary chronicles contemporary life in a minor key where loneliness and existential ghosts thread the pieces. These poems create a small lit corner for readers to feel and mourn daily sorrows in awkwardness, with compassion and resolve, as novitiates to life’s emergent feelings.
I felt a deep personal connection between Yoo’s exploration of these daily sorrows and my own experiences with both languages: Korean and English. I grew up speaking Korean with my family and within a large Korean enclave in the metro-Atlanta area, but I don't often use Korean outside of my immediate family. And as I grew up learning English in school, I was often asked to serve as a translator for my family between the two languages, a task that could be taxing and traumatic.
So, for most of my life, learning and working in Korean and English has never been truly elective. In college, I took Korean language electives because I feared that I would lose touch with my family if I didn’t continue with Korean coursework. Keeping up with my Korean was less about expanding what was possible and more about managing lonesomeness.
In one interview, Yoo shares that he hopes to remind people that everyone is alone in the world, and how that’s okay because we’re all alone together. According to Yoo, if you read a book of poems and come away with one or two lines you enjoyed, that’s enough. I found his thoughts on poetry to be so refreshing and freeing. I wanted to play and spend time in the neighborhood of his poetry.
I had the chance to continue the work I started in the translation workshop through the ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship Program with support from LTI Korea. I worked with Joyelle McSweeney, my translation mentor, and it was wonderful to explore the overcast, yet playful, world of Yoo’s first poetry collection and to learn and grow as a translator and poet.
In this particular piece, how it goes, I was struck by the image of the men licking their own names. A night out made unfamiliar, strange, and mysterious.
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