March 12, 2013

essay "At the Edge of the Continent" (on Ko Un's visit to Los Angeles) by Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli
Ko Un, a reading from his poetry, University of California, Los Angeles, April 22, 2010
A cocktail party and reading by Ko Un at the home Hyon Chough in Los Angeles, April 22, 2010
Ko Un, a reading from his poetry, Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, April 23, 2010

In April of 2010 I had the opportunity to host the noted Korean poet Ko Un and his wife Lee Shang-Wha. After a reading at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the couple flew to Los Angeles, where I picked them up on April 21st at the Los Angeles International Airport and drove them to the JJ Grand Hotel in the vast area of the city we call Koreatown. In part because Ko does not speak English, and the hotel contains a fine Korea restaurant, I thought it would be more comfortable for them to stay in that part of the city, which is also fairly close to our house.

     Clearly they were tired by the time we reached the hotel, so we didn't speak much that evening, and I quickly checked them in and departed. The next morning, however, would begin early and include great deal of speaking and socializing.

     At 9:00 I met them at the hotel, where I had arranged a press reception in the hotel restaurant. Two different reporters from Korean newspapers were in attendance, and soon were interviewing Ko Un, snapping his photograph and sharing experiences. A woman from the Korean consulate also arrived and spoke to Ko Un and Lee Shang-Wha. My role consisted primarily of greeting the journalists and introducing them to the poet. Typical of their disinterest in international activities in their city, the Los Angeles Times sent no one, while even the event had beforehand been mentioned in the Korean papers. My cleaners told me they had read that Ko Un was in town for a reading when I mentioned his name the week before.

     Meanwhile Lee Shang-Wha, always the manager of Ko's activities, selected the poems he would be reading later in the day, and handed me copies of them in English, I having previously told her that I would be reading the poems in translation.

     Soon my companion Howard joined me and, together, we drove them to the University of California, Los Angeles, where I had arranged a reading in the Korean Department. The faculty, in turn, had planned a pleasant lunch at the Faculty Club. The professors and staff, perhaps all in a little awe of Ko Un, were somewhat uncomfortably quiet, but Howard and I peppered Ko with questions, and finally the faculty began to speak up.

     After a short tour of the Korean Department offices, they took us to a fairly large classroom in Royce Hall where the reading was to be held. Seated at a table we faced a filled room, including my wonderful intern/now typesetter, Pablo, who I'd hired for a couple of days to sell books and take photographs.

     Ko is a wonderful reader, a true spellbinder, and I tried to keep up with his obvious sense of drama and humor. We had both been given glasses of wine, so when reading one poem about a drunk, he began with a sip, so too did I, reading it in English a few minutes after. The room burst into spontaneous laughter, and Ko beamed with approval.

     The reading ended with a few questions and a gift from one woman of a Korean-style painting. We sold a substantial amount of books.

     We then drove on the Mulholland Drive to the beautiful home of businesswoman Hyon Chough, whose stunning glass house overlooks both sides of the city, south to the Stone Canyon Reservoir and, in the distance, the ocean and north to the San Fernando Valley. Before entering the house we walked the grounds, Ko standing at the very summit to look south, so close to the edge that I, who suffer some vertigo, grew frightened. "Come back, further back," I begged him, but he remained at the very edge of the cliff, almost as if he were some pioneer standing at the edge of the continent looking off into the distance. I was terrified: what if he fell? Would I be the indirect cause of his death? Fortunately, he eventually turned back, joining us in the gloriously lit house.

     Hyon and I had invited a large number of the art community, Korean friends, and several poets (including Dennis Phillips and Martin Nakell), who all dined splendidly on the dozens of different dishes of Japanese and California cuisine. We also did a reading in the vast living room, but my voice was beginning to give out, as I began to develop what would become laryngitis, so we cut it short.

    As we left the place I asked Ko and Lee what they had thought of the house. He, a Buddhist monk, quietly said, "I prefer my simple house." We all laughed.

     Having kept them very busy the day before, on Friday I allowed them the entire morning alone, during which time Ko Un, so Lee later reported, had taken a long walk, seeing much of the Korean part of the city, an area that used to be somewhat devastated, but is now almost entirely rebuilt and quite stylish, with new high-rises, apartments, and stores.

     About 4:00 we picked up the pair again, and this time took them to an excellent Japanese restaurant at the edge of Beverly Hills. The head of the Japanese Department at the Los Angeles County Museum, Rob Singer, had given me a card of the restaurant's owner and handwritten, in Japanese, a message to him. Accordingly, we were served a number of special dishes, in course after course.

     We then drove to the Korean Cultural Center near our home where the fairly large theater was packed, new chairs having been placed in front of the permanent seating. The crowd was almost entirely Korean, save a few friends of ours, again Dennis, Martin, and also Rebecca Goodman, Deborah Meadows and Thérèse Bachand. By this time I had nearly lost my voice, and it crackled when I spoke. Yet I valiantly carried on, explaining my problem to the audience, but still getting across the spirit of the poems as much as I could in English. Pablo sold hundreds of copies of both of our Ko Un titles. Others drove Ko and his wife home, and we returned tired but pleased.

     The next morning we picked up Ko Un and Shang-wha and took them, sad to see them go, to the airport. Throughout it all Ko (then 78) appeared full of energy and not in the least bit tired. By Saturday I had completely lost my voice and was coming down with a terrible cold. But what fun it had been.

Los Angeles, March 12, 2010
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2011).

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