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Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women

Editor: Don Mee Choi
Author: , ,
Translated by:
Publisher: , 2006
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From the publisher’s website:

Anxiety of Words is the first anthology of Korean women’s poetry that challenges one of Korea’s most enduring literary traditions: that “yoryu” (female) poetry must be gentle and subservient. By using innovative language, and vividly depicting women’s lives and struggles within an often repressive society, these three contemporary poets defiantly insist that poetry can be part of social change—indeed, that it must be. Ch’oe Sung-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yon-ju have written unforgettable poems that now, thanks to Don Mee Choi’s translations, are available to English-speaking readers for the first time. With a lengthy introduction on the history of women’s poetry in Korea, and biographical notes on the three poets, this volume is an eye-opening exploration for any reader interested in Korea, poetry, and contemporary women’s literature.

Ch’oe Sung-ja (b. 1952) is one of the most highly regarded contemporary women poets of South Korea. Ch’oe studied German literature at Korea University at a time when there were only two hundred women enrolled in the entire university. She began writing poetry while in college and became the first woman editor of Korea University’s literary journal. In 1979, Ch’oe became the first woman poet to be published in a literary journal, Literature and Intellect. Ch’oe’s poetry, which violated the criteria of decorum that had been long imposed on women poets, caused a stir in South Korea’s predominantly male literary establishment. Ch’oe is part of the new wave of feminist poets of Korea to merge after the early pioneering women poets of the 1920s and 30s, who explored and gave voice to women’s lives under the oppressive patriarchy. Ch’oe published four collections of poetry between 1981 and 1993. In 1994, she participated in the Iowa International Writers’ Program. She now works as a literary translator in Seoul, and is translating a collection of short stories by J.D. Salinger.

Kim Hyesoon‘s (b. 1955) poetry first appeared in Literature and Intellect, the same journal in which Ch’oe’s work also made its debut. Kim majored in Korean literature for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She is a member of Another Culture, an organization which emerged in the 1980s and has played a critical role in feminist literary research and publication, including the development of women’s studies in South Korea. Kim teaches creative writing and Korean poetry at Seoul College of Arts. In 2001, Kim received the So-wol Poetry Award. Her book of poetry, Seoul, My Upanishad (Munhak kwa jisongsa, 1994) was awarded the Kim Su-yong Contemporary Poetry Award in 2000. Kim is the first woman to receive this coveted award. In her work she explores women’s multiple and simultaneous existence as grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and lovers. Kim Hyesoon has published seven collections of poetry; her most recent publication is a collection of critical essays about women and writing.

Yi Yon-ju made her literary debut in a journal called World of Writers (1991). The same year, Yi’s first book of poetry, A Night Market Where There Are Prostitutes, was published by Sekyesa, a well-known literary press in South Korea. Yi’s second collection of poems was published in 1993 after her death. According to the renowned feminist critic Kim Chong-nan, Yi’s poetry has a critical place in the poetry of the 1980s. Yi depicts in her poetry women who live on the fringes of South Korean society, marginalized by the rapid industrialization of the 1970s and 80s, which, in part, was made possible by the exploitation of young women from poor rural areas. Not much is known about Yi’s life. According to her brother, Yi Yong-ju, the night Yi committed suicide she had asked him not to reveal anything about her life except for her date and place of birth.


Don Mee Choi is a translator and scholar of Korean literature. Her literary focus is on the exploration of the cultural, historical, and political roles of contemporary Korean women’s poetry and the critical examination of literary translation in the context of South Korea’s post-coloniality. She currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

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