A Poet of the Night Whose Muses Have 9 Lives
Most nights, Hwang In-suk pushes a shopping cart up and down the steep alleys of her Seoul neighborhood, trailed by stray cats that emerge from shadows to greet her under glowing streetlamps and convenience store marquees.
Her neighbors tend to think of Ms. Hwang, 64, merely as someone who feeds cats in the street. Only a few know that she is a celebrated poet whose work explores loneliness and impermanence in the South Korean capital.
Her decades of writing span a time in which South Korea has cycled through a dizzying number of identities, including those of a country ruled by repressive military dictatorships, a fledgling democracy and, most recently, an economic power and international cultural juggernaut.
Ms. Hwang said her nocturnal cat-feeding routine allows her to quietly observe not only cats, her favorite muses, but also her changing neighborhood and the underclass of a megacity that is increasingly known for its flashy exterior.
“I’ve found worlds that I wouldn’t have found if I had not been feeding cats at night,” she said in a near whisper on a recent walk through her neighborhood, Haebangchon. The streets were mostly silent except for the occasional car, taxi or delivery truck.
In addition to cats and other subjects, Ms. Hwang’s poetry documents the milieu of convenience store clerks, street sweepers and other late-night workers. “I don’t even know his face as we meet only in the dark,” she writes of a newspaper deliveryman in a recent poem called “Don’t Know Where You Live”:
Haebangchon, or Liberation Village, lies near Seoul’s central train station and what was once the main U.S. military base in the country. The neighborhood was carved out of a hillside forest after the end of World War II, when Korea emerged from Japanese colonial rule.
Many of the people who settled there were North Korean refugees who arrived during or after the Korean War, said Pil Ho Kim, an expert on South Korean cultural history at Ohio State, whose father grew up in the neighborhood after fleeing the North.
In the decades after the war, South Korea experienced dramatic upheavals, including rapid industrialization, a presidential assassination and a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. So did Haebangchon, a place initially known as a “moon village,” a term for urban slums built on hillsides.
In the 1970s, South Korean economic migrants helped turn Haebangchon into a hub for small-scale garment factories. It later grew more residential and less working class, and began to attract young artists. Many artists’ studios were in turn displaced by cafes as the gentrification continued, said Cha Kyoung-hee, 38, who has owned a bookstore in the neighborhood since 2015.
Ms. Hwang, who grew up nearby and settled in Haebangchon in the 1980s, has been quietly observing the details of these changes ever since with a keen eye. She settled on a career in poetry after studying creative writing at a Seoul arts institute and made her debut with a poem, “I’ll Be Reborn as a Cat,” that won a 1984 award for emerging South Korean writers. It was the first of many national literary prizes that she would win over the years.
She said her poetry partly reflects her conviction that Seoul is a place where the rich and poor live in separate worlds, and the downtrodden are victims of cutthroat competition.
“They were not willing to cheat others to advance themselves in this society,” she said during a recent walk, her breath escaping in tiny clouds as she rounded a bend of a dark, hillside alley. The lights of skyscrapers blinked in the city below.
Her poems tend to fuse details of her corner of Seoul, a city of about 10 million people, with the emotions of their wry, melancholic speakers. One describes Haebangchon’s roads as leading “always uphill/like my life.”
But Ms. Hwang is perhaps best known for poems that make wistful, whimsical observations about cats, and the humans who struggle to understand them. She said about one-fifth of her oeuvre has been cat-related.
For the last 16 or so years, Ms. Hwang has been feeding cats almost every night, usually out of recycled instant-rice containers. Each cat has a designated dining spot — under a parked car, say, or among a restaurant’s garbage bins. Some approach her in the manner of a familiar old friend, meowing as they rub against her legs. Others need to be coaxed out of hiding places with a soft psst.
Ms. Hwang said her cat-feeding routine started when a single stray began turning up, hungry, outside her apartment. Some of the dozens of cats she now cares for have names; most she just calls “pretty.”
“I do this because the cats are waiting for me, and no one else is willing to do it,” she said flatly. “It’s a duty.”
But her affectionate manner with the cats — and her many poems about their quirks and personalities — suggest her relationship with them is more than perfunctory.
Anne M. Rashid, a professor of English literature who translated some of Ms. Hwang’s work with a late colleague, Chae-Pyong Song, said she was particularly fond of this passage from the poem “Ran, My Former Cat”:
Throughout the poem, which ends with the cat disappearing “to a place where you couldn’t invite me,” the speaker wishes to hold or touch her muse but knows it’s not possible, said Professor Rashid, who teaches literature at Carlow University in Pittsburgh.
“They have a bond, regardless, in their solitariness,” she added.
When Ms. Cha hosted Ms. Hwang for a reading at her bookstore last year, the audience was unusually diverse for such an event, and included former residents of the neighborhood who missed it and wanted to hear descriptions of its earlier incarnations. Some cried when they heard her poems read aloud.
Ms. Hwang said she shares a cramped apartment with two ailing, rescued strays, one of them named Lauren after the Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall. She does not own a cellphone and has never earned a living through anything other than poetry.
“She’s not the type of person who tells people who she is,” said Yang Jung-ok, 60, who owns a restaurant in Haebangchon and has known Ms. Hwang for years.
Ms. Yang said she has long admired her soft-spoken neighbor for spending so much of her limited income on food for stray cats. But she only learned of Ms. Hwang’s poetry from a journalist who accompanied her to the restaurant and mentioned in passing that she was an eminent poet.
During the recent walk, Ms. Hwang seemed surprised that a reporter would be interested in her work, and declined an invitation to recite a poem of her choice. “I can’t say which one would bring a reader joy,” she said, shortly before midnight.
The humans in her poems also tend to keep low profiles. In “Above the Roofs,” the speaker marvels at how the energy within cats’ bodies sends them soaring in the air to a “vast territory” above rooftops. Then — in a delicate, almost catlike way — she places herself in their midst.
Youmi Kim contributed reporting.