Although my middle-school students embroidered “suljangi” on my denim jacket near my name, I didn’t drink a wide range of sul (alcohol) all that much during my Peace Corps days on Jeju Island. Soju gave me headaches, and Johnny Walker Black (which the average Korean male would kill for back then) could turn me into such a mindless monster that I had to swear it off.
And beer, domestic or imported, made me sleepy. I remember that there was a tea room/beer hall located not all that far from the Peace Corps Korea headquarters building in Seoul. This may have been one of the pioneer “themed” Korean beer halls in Korea. The theme was “cowboy.” Why? It seemed that nearly all Korean men of drinking age by 1973 were big fans of that Hollywood blockbuster “The Magnificent Seven” (released 1960). This film made its rounds to packed crowds in Korean theaters located from Chunchon to Moseulpo – then returned to these same theaters again, and again, and again, for decades. Two macho male actors in that film were especially idolized by Korean men. One of them was Charles Bronson (see my JWW essays featuring Charles from May 7 and May 14). The other was Yul Brynner.
There were no themed beer halls on Jeju Island during my Peace Corps years there in 1973-1974. Instead, makgeolli was both my favorite alcoholic beverage and my muse.
So, while I cannot claim to have been the suljangi that my denim jacket now advertises, I did enjoy my makgeolli. I had the habit of writing poetry while in my cups. Or should I say “bowls”? I preferred my makgeolli served fresh and poured cold into large stainless steel bowls – even in the dead of winter. “Shaken, not stirred!” I liked to shout out to the owner of my favorite pork ribs and eel joint when I walked in out of the late afternoon sun to make my way to my favorite table. It was a ritual. “Assud-ri [assuredly] mista bond!” she would shout back on her way to the makgeolli bin. I was a Peace Corps English-language teacher just doing my job.
Along with my big cold bowls of makgeolli, I would often have five or six items to broil at my table over the red-hot glow of yeontan (charcoal) cylinder. There I would sit and think and write, long into the night. Some of my favorite munchies were nakji (small octopus), k’omjangeo (eel), muneo (large octopus) and badaoi (sea cucumber):
Mornings following my poetry binges, I would gather up the verse that was legible and arrange it into a special folder that had four divisions, one each for: “one-bowl-down poems;” “two-bowl-down poems;” “three-bowl-down poems;” and “four-bowl-down poems.” Here follows my criteria for these categories along with an example from each category:
A one-bowl-down poem inspired by the makgeolli muse is nine-times-out-of-10 good enough to publish. Unfailingly, the buzz from the bowl is that powerful and inspiring. My rule is to trust the makgeolli muse entirely. You must show this category of poem to no one. They may try to talk you out of publishing it. They may break your luck:
Its black pot dashing.
White Deer from
Its cauldron peeping.
Two-bowls-down poems qualify as “crafty” and “clever” verse, but serious poets might judge them to be “inferior,” “romantic twaddle,” “crass,” and so on. Serious poets are Fredos. They will break your heart. On the other hand S. Freud, on reading one of your two-bowl-poems, might just toss his hat into the air and shout “Aha!” Whatever: this category of verse tends to teem with double entendres and experimental tropes:
To enjoy the slimy tangle where her
Flooded harvests teem and sway,
I would venture down to where the
goes to hunt and play
A three-bowls-down poem is the rusty key that opens up doors to dim lit rooms inside your brain that you normally want to keep closed. If there are any skeletons in your closet they will avail the opportunity, wander out, roam about, and rattle their bones. This category of poems can grow dark but its spawn is rarely outright depressing. This verse will gush with wistful thinking, sink into black humor, and strive too hard to convey tragi-comic insight. Most three-bowl-down poems end up being clever-by-half:
a duck and bunny basket pendulum
swings home from the five-day market.
the duck’s neck droops around the ground.
She searches out a place to put her feet
to waddle on her way.
The bunny, blacker still,
not bunny-wise denies
one hop might clear that basket’s side.
Instead it tries to hide –
inside the basket!
I see his future fly
and watch him die.
A four-bowls-down poem is a poem you think you wrote during your Peace Corps tour in Korea but fail to recognize anymore. You run across it in your attic 40 years after the creative moment. You read it over, rest then read it again. “It’s not me babe” you lie to yourself. You shake your head. Finally you mutter aloud to yourself: “Whoever wrote this poem should have been medicated or incarcerated.” Later in the day you take it out back, light up the BBQ, and incinerate it.
Near the Sanjicheon Stream Footbridge
I’ve heard the scrape of club feet draggin’
across old sidewalks sewer- saggin’.
I’ve seen tired sun-stroked ponies falter
while jerked about ‘twixt cart and halter.
I ate a fish served up so raw
Its gills gasped yet behind its maw.
Then slipped upon some putrid jelly
not long emerged from some dog’s belly.
When you’ve written a poem this bad it is way past time to call it a day. You stumble back to your ondol bang (a room with a traditional Korean heating system in the floor), reach for the Bacchus-D™ and hit the hay.