A meeting with Brother Anthony

LKL talks to Brother Anthony on poetry, tea, temple stays and romanisation

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Me2008BizHeraldOn the twelfth floor of an anonymous building in the Sincheon area of Seoul there’s an overcrowded study. From a cassette player in the corner wafts the soothing sounds of kayageum and daegeum sanjo. Books line every available inch of wall space, and more: a free standing bookcase takes care of the overflow, forming a narrow corridor giving access to the computer printer. A small cabinet contains tea-making equipment, beside which is a small stool for the tea master. There’s room for only three wooden chairs. A variety of teas balance precariously on the available shelf space. The latest edition of the Oxford alumni magazine is on a side table.

This is the study of An Sonjae: emeritus professor of English Literature at Sogang University; member of the Taizé community; translator of Korean poetry; lover of Korean tea; Cornishman; and better known as Brother Anthony.

I was in touch with Brother Anthony a couple of years ago to assist with the Korean input into a book of verse about Che Guevara. I was pleased to see that the publishers had kept their word and sent him a couple of free copies of the finished volume. Last time I was in Seoul I had tried to visit him, but he was out of town – coincidentally at the same time as Ko Un, one of the poets included in the volume, was in London. This time we had managed to connect.

Ko Un’s poetry reading at the Cultural Centre in February last year was very well-attended. Among the distinguished members of the audience was UK poet laureate Andrew Motion. Ko was interested in the rumour that the salary for this prestigious post was paid in wine. “That’s what they say, but I’ve never had any” Motion had sighed.

Ko Un: Songs for Tomorrow
Ko Un: Songs for Tomorrow

Brother Anthony’s translation of some of Ko’s poems came out in late 2008 on Green Integer: Songs for tomorrow. Another volume is forthcoming, though if it takes as long to come to light as the last one we will have to wait till late 2010. The upcoming volume is Himalaya. Ko wrote the poems after a trip to Tibet in 1997. It was nearly his last journey. Walking at over 7,000 metres above sea level without any medication or oxygen, he suffered temporary damage to his brain. Probably compounding the problem was the fact that Ko had been walking at this altitude with only one lung: the other had been destroyed by tuberculosis many years previously. Mixing fantasy and reality, earlier in his life Ko had invented an older sister who had died of TB. It was a story that was widely believed, and now the fiction had come back to haunt him.

“You don’t know a publisher, do you?” Brother Anthony asks, half despairingly. It’s very difficult to find anyone willing to publish Korean literature in translation, but Brother Anthony is passionate about it. But he will only go so far. One publisher asked him if he could revise and simplify an earlier translation. “But the language is meant to be complicated. The original is complicated”. It was one commission he turned down.

Brother Anthony arrived in Korea on May 7 1980 at the invitation of Cardinal Kim. “Just days before the Kwangju uprising” he reminisced, and proceeded to reel off a list of significant dates in the Korean historical calendar: 5.18 (Kwangju, 1980), 3.1 (the March the First Independence movement, 1919), 4.19 (the student protests which finally unseated Syngman Rhee, 1960)… Through his long immersion in Korean culture, Brother Anthony has all the facts at his fingertips, and he is a valuable asset to the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, of which he is a council member. Something of a Korean national treasure, last year he was awarded the Ok-gwan (jade crown) Order of Merit for Culture (Munhwa Hunjang) by the Korean government.

Way of tea coverIt’s time to brew the tea. He reaches for his book The Korean Way of Tea (Seoul Selection, 2007) and points to a picture of the very bush which provided the leaves for the tea we were about to drink, outside a small hanok in the Jirisan area. He goes there every year, and last year took a small tour group to experience the rigours and pleasures of the tea production process. Although the group stayed in a temple, it wasn’t as disciplined as an officially organised temple-stay programme. “I didn’t make them get up for early morning chanting” he said, though the whole party (except him) did in fact rise for 3:30am – and then went back to bed. And then the group would roll their sleeves up picking, sorting and drying the tea leaves.

There’s an implied criticism there about how Koreans present their culture, in its widest sense, to foreigners, perhaps needing to consider more what foreigners might be looking for, what foreigners might be thinking. Maybe some are looking for the full monastic deal in a temple stay programme – up before the lark to sweep the temple courtyard; maybe others are looking for something less rigorous.

Another example: the Romanization scheme introduced in 2000 was brought in with little discussion with the main users (the foreigners). Like many academics (and many people in the street), Brother Anthony is easily provoked on the subject of transliteration. “Y-E-O-U-I-D-O. How are you meant to pronounce that? G-E-O-J-E island. Is that ‘Jōj’?”. The Committee on National Competitiveness has recognised the controversy caused by the current system, and Brother Anthony is feeding in to the current informal review, though to change the system after only ten years would surely lead to lead to further confusion.

And like many people interested in the less accessible aspects of Korean culture, he thinks a better job could be done both in explaining it and in publicising events. I tell him about the Korea House performance I had been to the previous evening – a high quality taster to make people hunger for a more extended presentation of the various art forms such as pansori and salpuri. I asked where you could experience the version for grown-ups as opposed to the version for novices. “They sometimes put on more extended performances, but they don’t tell anyone,” sighs Anthony, referring to the commission in charge of Intangible Cultural Properties. A familiar complaint when it comes to publicity for events. Things are getting better in London now, but there is always room for more explanation and discussion on the history and significance of the art form.

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We’re now on our third cup of tea. The best Korean teas are incredibly expensive. Good hand-made teas are produced in such small quantities that there is simply not enough to put into the commercial system: you have to purchase at source. The supply may run out, too. The very high price of certain ‘famous’ teas may be over inflated, but the entire process is so labour-intensive that there is no profit margin at all unless you charge 70,000 Won or more for 100 grs of the first-flush teas, and 30-40,000 for later teas. In London, reasonable quality tea is available from Postcard Teas (near Bond Street) and East Teas (Borough market).

With luck, Brother Anthony will be in London in August next year: the Korean Cultural Centre have asked if he would be interested in giving a talking on Korean tea. For those who have yet to savour the complexities of flavour in a good Korean tea, that will be a treat worth waiting for.

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