Power of the pen called on to revive storied poet’s tavernChun Sang-byeong, one of Korea’s most loved contemporary poets and the author of “Gwicheon (Return to Heaven),” used to tell his acquaintances that his only true loves in life were literature and liquor. He was a regular customer at a small bar, called the Poet’s School in the middle of Insadong, north central Seoul, where poets liked to gather.
He would stop by the saloon at 11 a.m. every day, order a big bottle of beer, pour a glass for himself and give the rest to the owner.
“You have to drink all of that before I finish my cigarette,” he would belligerently holler at the owner. If barkeep did not, he was doomed for a whack on the head from the poet, who apparently enjoyed the joke.
But Mr. Chun never ordered more than a bottle of beer, for his wife had prohibited him from drinking more than he should. Nonetheless, he died at age 63 of liver failure in 1993.
“This story is already two decades old,” said Chung Dong-yong, a 44-year-old poet and the former owner of the Poet’s School, which shut down last year. “I treasure the times I shared with so many great poets at the place. I am getting ready to open the tavern again.”
The bar opened in 1984 on the second floor of an old building in Insadong. Mr. Chung named the place “Poet's School,” and he was called the “principal” by fellow poets. Until he had to shut the place last June, the watering hole was a favorite place for the poets to hang out for more than 20 years.
“I still have the sculpture that poet Ham Min-bok left here,” he said. “Even when we were selling everything to make money, I never imagined once throwing out that precious gift.”
Mr. Ham was a promising young poet who unfortunately lived in a run-down, 100,000 won ($96) a-month room. When he won the “Young Poet’s Award,” a renowned literary award from the Culture Ministry, he was more interested in receiving the 500,000 won prize money than the fame.
But it was during the Asian financial crisis, and the Korean government was short of cash. The ministry told him he could instead have a sculpture, which was supposed to cost “more than the prize money.”
Mr. Ham cursed, saying a sack of rice would be more useful.
Instead of going back to his shack on Gwanghwa island, he went to the Poet’s School, where he found comfort. He gave the sculpture to Mr. Chung and spent the rest of the night there drinking.
“Like I have said, I have nothing now but the 20 years I spent with the poets,” Mr. Chung said. He said business was good until the landlord started asking for much higher rent. Mr. Chung’s partner, who was also invested in the bar, also decided to close the Poet’s School.
Mr. Chung said he then worked wherever he could to earn more money. He said his jobs included working as a daily laborer at building construction sites. When a reporter met him recently, he was looking older. He said he found another way to make money to reopen the saloon.
“This time I am going to publish a book of poems written by hundreds of poets who remember the heyday of the Poet’s School,” he said.
On a handwritten letter he sent to hundreds of poets asking for contributions, he started by writing, “The Poet’s School has been shut down.”
“There is no manuscript fee,” Mr. Chung wrote. “You’ll be rewarded only with the book when it is published. The Poet’s School will have the copyright of all poems sent to me.”
Despite the contract, Mr. Chung has already collected more than 100 poems so far. Writers have sent personal messages encouraging Mr. Chung to cheer up.
Mr. Chung hopes the collection will be published by October.
For those who want to either contribute a poem or donate, Mr. Chung lives in Halla Vivaldi Building 11, Room 401 in Jori county, Paju, Gyeonggi province.
by Son Min-ho