Every day, a different exhilaration. I climbed mountains around Seoul and across on the east coast near Sokcho, poked around temples and museums, walked an average of eight miles a day, interviewed people, visited memorials. Most mornings, I’d pad across my supremely comfortable studio apartment, read, check email, and drink coffee while gingko leaves twirled to the street in front of me. Then I’d do something: visit a new friend, or a translator or expert I’d been put in touch with, or head to see one of the thirty or so things left on my ever-growing to-do list. Maybe I’d even write somewhere.
I was never bored, never overburdened, never lonely. In fact, it was one of the most stimulating and relaxed periods of my life, and it kickstarted me into writing what will be my fourth collection. I’d been in a bit of a rut creatively, if I’m honest, and being in Bucheon ended it emphatically. I read on the flight from London to Incheon, and wrote on the flight from Incheon to London, despite having to buy an extra suitcase in Bucheon just to carry home my new books.
My Bucheon project was to write a short sequence of poems (some accompanied by photographs) about – or at least inspired by – the ‘DMZ’ or Demilitarized Zone, in fact one of the most militarised zones on earth, and the last hard, anachronistic front of the Cold War. Anyone who knows my work also knows that I’m fascinated by borders and ideological impositions, real and imagined, and the wider contexts of those borders.
My co-writer in residence, the Canadian-Korean novelist Jeff Noh, was using local experience to add fidelity to a novel he was finishing. Our projects had nothing in common, other than a need to experience places local to Bucheon. That’s all your project will need, in one form or another. And you will be assisted beyond all reason or expectation: the wonderful staff at the City of Literature office, Sunmin and Seoyoung, will do everything they can to ensure you have what you need, that you’re happy, and that your project has every chance of success. They won’t look over your shoulder. And you’ll have more facilities at your disposal than you could possibly use.
I’m no serial veteran of writers’ residencies, but I’m sure most of them come with obligations. The Bucheon programme seems to get the balance just right, or at least it did for me. I was asked to read three stories and provide short commentary, to give a reading, to take part in a panel discussion, to meet with the Mayor. Several writers and translators in Bucheon and Seoul (to which Bucheon is tethered by the subway) contacted me via the City of Literature offices, and I met with them too, for lively chats. I was invited to attend a book group discussion and then summarily invited to give a short impromptu talk on poetry, but this was because I am an academic, Jeff was not thus cajoled, I had fun, and I could’ve said no if I’d wanted to. I enjoyed feeling connected to city life in this (to me) unfamiliar land, and loved every social interaction and event I took part in. Importantly, though, I had most of my time to myself. I felt neither encumbered nor disconnected.
This was all ahead of me, of course, when the call for applications landed in my inbox two years ago, and luckily I decided to open it and have a look. Unsurprisingly, the application form required me to outline my project. I’m resolutely not someone who tends to write what he sets out to write, for which reason I often shy away from accepting commissions unless they really do appeal. Moreover, I hadn’t previously had a project in mind: despite my genuine fascination with Korean history, ancient and modern, I’d previously had no imminent plans to travel there, so didn’t have any immediate ideas for a project that would require me to do so. Thinking this through took considerable time and thought, and ultimately whetted my appetite to the point of considerable hunger: by the time I’d finished my application, I felt desperate for it to succeed. Had I not been successful, I still think the process would’ve done something positive to and for me.
By comparison, the interview was simple. I’d prepared, of course, and added to my armchair knowledge of Korea a lot of information about Bucheon’s history and literary heritage. Expecting a serious grilling, I was then thrown off guard by the two lovely, intelligent, warm humans looking back at me from my screen, the aforementioned Seoyoung and Sunmin, who loved my engagement with their city and country but equally evidently wanted to get a sense of whether I shared any of their warmth: was I a real human, easy to talk to, engaging? Reader, somehow I managed to fool them into believing that I was. In any case, if you apply and reach interview, don’t forget to be yourself, and to let your passions shine through.
The 2022 Bucheon Writer in Residency programme is open for applications from writers, translators and graphic novel artists based in UNESCO Cities of Literature. The residency runs for seven weeks, for two writers, in October. More information can be found on the Bucheon UNESCO City of Literature website.
You can read in more detail about Rory’s time in Bucheon in his ‘Writer in Residence in South Korea’ articles on our blog.