An Introduction to Jaewon Che and Jenny Jisun Kim by Tiffany Troy with Translator’s Note by Jenny Jisun Kim

I am pleased to present this selection of poems from How do u want me (working title) by Jaewon Che, translated from the Korean by Jenny Jisum Kim for Tupelo Quarterly. Che’s poems look at contemporary life in South Korea through the vantage point of a cicada, a veneer through which the speaker processes grief and daily living. There is a deep sadness in the speaker’s voice, as when they “tripped“ after “you let your dripping gut-deep eyes slip out /and meet my watery eyes” or when the speaker makes it home through the “communal hell” of a bus that “swallows people one by one” at 1 AM. When they return home, it is an “Empty writing kind of night” and we behold the emotional resonances that are evoked.

Translator’s Note by Jenny Jisun Kim

This selection of poetry is from Jaewon Che’s 2021 debut collection,나랑 하고 시픈게 뭐에여? (Working English title: How do u want me?)

Jaewon Che is a Korean poet, translator, and visual artist. With a background in physics and painting, Che only began to write poetry in 2018. Che explains that their initial attraction to physics lay in the belief that “numbers don’t lie” (another translation of the original quote would be “[Numbers] don’t speak with a forked tongue”). After concluding that math is yet another system dealing with signifiers and that miring in equations will not satisfy their desire to capture meaning, Che turned to poetry.

나랑 하고 시픈게 뭐에여? shows how Che considers language as both revealing and obscuring. In a way, the book is a collection of Che’s attempts to grapple with language or expose an arbitrariness by virtue of its own loopholes. The playful incorporation of contemporary Korean culture, such as slang, puns, K-pop idols, and movie references, posed a formidable challenge in translating the work to English. The book begins with a section of lyric poems, titled with one or two-syllable words, hailing the cicada as a motif. This section ends with “FULL VOLUME,” a poem where the speaker encounters their greatest fear—stepping on a fallen bug—which triggers a swap between their own body and the cicada’s. The following poems are spoken from an arbitrary human/non-human subject; Che essentially turns cries into words and words into cries. In the next sections, the arbitrary speaker ascribes words and “meaning” to subjects that are unspeakable, both epistemically (non-human, abstract, or even non-existent minds) and ethically (marginalized bodies, sexual desire, and death drive).

What drew me to translate this collection is Che’s humor in dealing with uncertainty, whether linguistic, epistemic, or existential. I loved seeing the compassion for cicadas evolve into an anxiety about humanness, which then culminates in a deep skepticism of subjectivity itself. Spanning three-liner lyric poems to seemingly autobiographical prose poems, Che spins their observations into abject, sappy, and often miserably hilarious abstractions.

Jaewon Che is a translator, editor, and writer. They started writing about art in Hyperallergic in 2018. Their poetry collection How do u want me? (working title of 나랑 하고시픈게 뭐에여?) (Minumsa, 2021) won the 40th Kim Soo-young Literary Award. Their work can also be found in Asymptote Journal, chogwa, Modern Poetry in Translation, Littor, Literature & Society, Jaeum And Moeum, Munhakdongne, and Hyundae Munhak among others.

Jenny Jisun Kim is a translator and visual artist. She is an MFA candidate in painting at the Milton Avery School of the Arts. She completed the ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship in Korean Poetry with Jaewon Che’s How do u want me? (working title) in 2023, and won the Charm Agency Emerging Translator Award for Dolki Min’s “Settled and Solid” in 2022. She has translated selected poems by Kim Liyoun, and her work has appeared in chogwa.