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  • Interview with David R. McCann
  • Young-Jun Lee (bio)

This interview was conducted through emails that took place from January 11, 2014 to January 20, 2014, between Seoul and Cambridge. Professor David R. McCann has been Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University for over fifteen years. His passion for the study of Korean literature and his effort on its behalf have produced numerous essays, books, and prominent translations, which have been recognized by many prizes, grants, and fellowships, including the Cultural Order of Merit awarded by the Korean government, the Manhae Prize in Arts and Sciences, a Daesan Foundation Translation Grant, and the Korea P.E.N. Center Translation Prize. In this interview, he reflects upon the origin of his love for poetry and how he first encountered Korea, and revisits how his passion for Korean literature evolved along with the field of Korean studies in the United States from the inchoate 1960s to the blooming present.

Young-Jun Lee:

I heard you are planning to retire after this semester. How long have you studied and taught Korean literature?

David R. McCann:

There are so many different ways to answer this question. In the most basic sense, I started to study Korean [End Page 285] literature when I was teaching at Andong Agriculture and Forestry High School as a Peace Corps English teacher. I discovered a small book of translations by Kim Dong Sung of Kim Sowŏl’s poems. I thought I could work on improving my reading ability in the Korean language by reading the translation and then working on the facing-page originals. I quickly found myself memorizing Sowŏl’s poems, though, I liked them so much. And any time I had a question about a word or a phrase or the poet, anybody I asked, whether teachers at the school or people I might meet on the train, was delighted to help me out. But another answer would be that I started to study Korean literature when I entered the M.A. program at Harvard, in 1968. Professor Edward Wagner encouraged my efforts, although he was a Chosŏn historian. So I really started to study Korean literature when I returned to Korea in 1973 on a Fulbright dissertation research grant, with my wife Ann, also a former Peace Corps teacher, and our young daughter Kate. I sat in on a seminar at Korea University on the Samguk Yusa, and also a Korean literature survey class taught by Professor Chŏng Pyŏng-uk, at Seoul National University. I would meet with the graduate students in the KU seminar before class, as they had discovered I knew Japanese well enough to read for them a Japanese-language translation of the Yusa. I had frequent conversations with Professor Kim Chong-gil, at Korea University, about modern poetry. I also met a number of Korean poets and writers through Professor Paik Nak-ch’ŏng, of SNU, who invited me to join some of the post-editorial meeting gatherings of the writers and staff associated with the journal Creation and Criticism, Ch’angjak kwa Pip’yŏng.

This all has to do with learning Korean literature. I started to teach it when I went to Cornell University in 1976 as a one-year sabbatical leave replacement for Professor Karen Brazell in classical Japanese language and literature, one of the fields I had worked on in graduate school with Professor Edwin Cranston. One year’s planned journey to Ithaca, though, eventually turned to 21 years, as I added courses on Korean literature and cultural history to the [End Page 286] ones I taught. I eventually was appointed a full-time professor of Korean literature at Cornell in 1990. I moved to Harvard to become the first Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature in 1997.

I guess the short answer to the question would be 40 or 50 years, more or less.


When did you start writing poems?


I started writing poems in high school, in Miss Allen’s tenth grade English class. One of my classmates said to me one day, “Dave, you know about...


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