Coffee became my safe space. My excitement. My calmness.
Languages were gifts and opportunities to discover dreams and meaning.
And like an illusion, poetry became a present.
As a Korean American, living in Korea was a fear I never wanted to make into a reality. I could never completely become a Korean. I had never read a book in Korean or written a simple essay. How could I fit in a world where I couldn’t express my own thoughts properly?
But coffee — no words, no thoughts. Just scent and touch. I had fallen in love a long time ago with the space and atmosphere that the existence of coffee was able to bring. The gentle atmosphere it creates tends to ease the stress of the people who come near it. And I was one of those people captivated by its magic, along with Kim Soon Mi, a Korean poet and the protagonist of my translations this year.
My first encounter with Kim was through her poetry book, The Woman of Chagall, left behind at Buono Buono Coffee Roasters, the coffee shop at which I became an apprentice over a year back, with a short message to another fellow apprentice. Her poems were straightforward but intricate, and the fact that she fell in love with the same space I had come to call my second home gave me a certainty that we would get along. I wanted to meet her.
She walked in with a backpack half the size of her body, which looked even larger than it probably was against a 160-tall lady. With a lilac-colored fedora and vibrant handmade, beaded jewelry, she took the time to greet everyone wearing a soft expression and a gentle smile. And perching down on the sofa, she proceeded to pull out about five books, stacks of papers clipped together, and a collection of sparkly stickers. After a few introduction remarks, she started what would be a five-hour conversation with the question:
“What is it about my poetry?”
As a question I don’t get asked, it seemed that whatever I would say would seem cheesy and embarrassing, as if my feelings towards her poems would give away too much of my personal thoughts. Explaining to her how I was fascinated with the simple and straightforward tone in every poem; how while I couldn’t fully understand every word of each poem, I wanted to just meet the person who was able to manifest these thoughts into such an eloquent book. And as I explained my history in translation, from translating anime and manga to being a part of DoubleSpeak, she graciously found every aspect admirable and fascinating.
She wanted to record me speaking about my poetry translations of Yun Dong-ju, the poet that inspired my translation journey. But rather than me reading the poems themselves, she focused on how I talked about the poet, striking me as a unique approach to talking about poets and translations. She too had connections with another poet and academic who had previously written a book on Yun Dong-ju. And therefore,Yun Dong-ju, who was always a star I would see on occasional days, and not be able to even see on other days because he was too far and too grand, seemed to have become more familiar the more I spoke with Kim and found out about other poets.
And looking forward to the publication of our work, it’s guaranteed that not all readers will enjoy the poetry she writes, whether they read it in English or in Korean. Yet, even if people can resonate with just 1% of her words, Kim finds value in writing poetry. “What do I feel and what do I want from each poem?” Even for Kim this is unclear. But these words were actually what gave me the confidence to translate her poems and be able to feel more comfortable in translating her poems that were so personal and abundant in intense emotions.
“꿈을 생각하는 시간들이 많았다.”
“I’ve had much time to think about dreams.”
At the end of the first day we met in person, she handed me the stickers she had laid out on the table prior to our conversation. “Play with them. Stick them on whatever you want. Make designs. Create words. It’s fun, I promise.” She explained to me that these little, adhesive glitter pieces of plastic were what helped her get out of her depression. She says these stickers gave her the ability to relax, to stay excited, and to hope.
Every Saturday since we met months back, we’ve been meeting at Buono Buono. She, as my teacher in poetry, the literary world, and in life. And me, as her coffee barista teacher, teaching her how to make hand drip so that she too, may be able to bring the presence of coffee wherever she goes and to whoever she meets.
Kim has now released her second poetry book, The Woman of Terrace, in April, containing the English translations of her poetry both written by her daughter, Soo Yeon Kim, and by me. From sharing the book to people such as local jewelry shop owners, customers of our coffee shop, professors of various universities, and other fellow poets, Kim hopes to be able to extend her thoughts and feelings to more people.
I believe both Kim and I share the same hope that our readers too, can find time in their lives to think about their dreams and not be afraid to be a bit clumsy, a bit humble, a bit confused, and a bit daring. It’s not normal you see a 5-foot-8-inch twenty-four-year-old American and a five-foot, sixty-three-year-old Korean, but it was through certain aspirations that we were able to develop a connection. So thank you to poetry, to languages, and to DoubleSpeak for once again allowing me to discover warmth and hope.