English Poet Rory Waterman stayed in Bucheon UNESCO City of Literature between 8 October –23 November 2020. We would like to share Rory's Note to Bucheon.
I have always found borders fascinating, and I intend to develop my next poetry collection around a central sequence, contemplating the result of the implementation of borders on the consciences of people, in broad as well as local contexts. Despite my love of travelling and writing about the people and places I encounter on my travels, which is central especially to my second collection Sarajevo Roses (2017), I have only applied for one writers’ residency previously, and that was in Scotland in 2012. I generally find it very hard to know what I am going to write about in advance, so applying for residencies tends not to appeal to me. However, I have always wanted to do this project, and to visit Korea, so the opportunity seemed too good to miss. I can wholeheartedly say that it has been.
Much of my time has been spent walking the streets of Bucheon. A Russian writer once said to me that it is possible to tell he is Russian because he needs to walk in order to think, and if that is true then perhaps I am a little bit ‘Russian’ too. I have found the city intensely motivating, full of sights and sounds and smells that are not familiar at home. I have taken the approach that if I see something I do not know, I will investigate it, or if I hear something that I find intriguing, I will ask about it. After over a month of doing just that, I remain equally excited every time I step out of the door. I have found the people welcoming, and very receptive to my awkward foreigner’s attempts to say things in Korean and to ask them questions. But my favourite place in the city is probably Wonmisan, from where I have watched Bucheon transform into a wholly Korean dazzle of sparkles and neon fuzz, and from where I looked down at landmarks in a city that has quickly come to feel like a home away from home. I also enjoyed climbing Gyeyangsan, over in Bupyeong – up past the huge hill fort to the mountain’s windy summit, from where it is possible to see Seoul glinting in one direction, Incheon and the islands in the other, Bupyeong and Bucheon below on their shared plain, and the distant, dark hills of North Korea down the Han River estuary.
Unfortunately, due to COVID and political impediments, some of the trips I had hoped to make to the DMZ were not available, most notably my planned visit to the Joint Security Area near Panmunjom. However, I did make four superb visits to different locations in the DMZ (including to three of the eight observatories), with some very knowledgeable guides. One of these, to Imjingak, Dorasan and the Third Tunnel, was planned by Jung Seo-young and Lee Sunmin, my principal hosts at Bucheon UNESCO City of Literature, who accompanied my fellow writer in residence Jeff Noh and I. I also attended several locations important to my research, such as Abai Island in Sokcho, the Sokcho Displaced Civilians Folk Village, Seodaemun Prison, the site of the Incheon Landings, the War Memorial of Korea, and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History. I have also made contact with several groups that work with North Korean defectors. These experiences are feeding into my writing for the project, which will continue when I return to England.
I have also done a lot of other sightseeing and exploring, of course. For example, I have spent considerable time in Seoul, soaking up the atmosphere in one of the greatest megacities on earth. And I visited Soraksan National Park. From one mountain top, I could again see into North Korea, but most of my time in that area was spent hiking some of the most beautiful mountains in East Asia.
I have found the facilities in Bucheon to be extremely impressive: my office in Sangdong, the Wonmi library, the offices of the City of Literature, the several superb small museums, and the markets. This is a wonderful literary city, with its own special identity and feel, great bookshops, and visible pride in its literary heritage, in countless monuments to poets and novelists. And the attention to detail from my hosts at Bucheon UNESCO City of Literature makes this residency exceptional. My cosy apartment near Central Park feels like home, and has everything a writer needs, including a big table, a comfy bed (!), and even a terrace with chairs on it, from where I have watched the beautiful yellow fan-shaped autumn leaves on the ginkgo trees – almost unknown at home – fall off until all of them have gone. Returning to Bucheon after three nights in Sokcho felt like coming home. I will miss it. I will also miss the people I have met, most of all Sunmin and Seo-young and the other wonderful staff of the City of Literature, including the director You Seong-jun. They have been extremely welcoming, kind and enjoyable to spend time with. Most of my time has been my own, which is of course very important to a writer in residence, though I have also had wonderful public experiences connected to the residency, such as:
My recorded conversation about writing and publishing during the pandemic, with Jeff, Alex Lee of Milkwood literary agency and Jang In-hyung of Toum Books at Yong Books.
My reading at Café Cally, where I was interviewed by two exceptionally impressive young writers and educators, Lucia and Duke, and my work was translated by Professor Jung.
The meeting Jeff Noh and I had with the Mayor of Bucheon, Jang Deog-cheon, at which he kindly gave us both commemorative plaques.
The balance between residential duties and personal time has been perfect for me: I have felt at once plugged in to the city, and free to write. No writer in residence could be happier, and I am full of gratitude. I am also very grateful to Woo Hyeong-sook, a translator of Korean poetry, who gave me a lot of very useful books and was kind enough to translate one of my poems into Korean for a magazine, and Alex Lee of Milkwood, who has been inspiring. Towards the end of my residency, I joined her book club group and spoke about the English war poet Keith Douglas.
The things and places I have experienced, and the deeper thinking I do, often take considerable time to percolate through to my poetry. This is to say that I expect much – and maybe most – of my writing about Bucheon and Korea is likely to be ahead of me, and that to some extent it will always influence my thinking and writing. However, here is some of the writing I have done during my weeks here:
A five-part poem sequence about the Korean border and DMZ in the context of world borders and limitations on freedom. This is tentatively titled ‘Tongil’, though that might change. It is also possible that the sequence will grow to include more sections. Three of the poems describe observatories I visited in the DMZ, at Dorasan, Odusan and Goseong.
Three poems reflecting on home and my personal life, set in different parts of Bucheon. I believe that distance can allow perspective, and Bucheon has helped me to rediscover that perspective in my writing.
Six blog posts about my time in Korea for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. Most of these relate to my project, and consider my impressions on the impacts of the Korean border, and two are specifically about Bucheon.
Two reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, an interview with the Scottish poet and editor Gerry Cambridge for the British literary magazine PN Review, and 4000 words of an introduction I am writing for an anthology on poetry and pandemics, which is partially concerned with my experiences in Korea. These are not specifically connected to the residency, but I was grateful to have the time to write them. Again, distance allowed perspective.
A short introductory essay on three short stories by Bucheon writers.
I have also taken a lot of photographs with my handy portable bridge camera and zoom lens. My intention is to publish a pamphlet of poems about my experiences here, and that will include monochrome photographs. I also intend to include the poems I have written in Bucheon in my fourth poetry collection, which will be published in about three years’ time. By then, I will not be surprised if other poems inspired by this residency have been added, or if I have made a return visit.