“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”
Ed Bok Lee – the 2020 Hal Prize poetry judge, an award-winning poet and Metropolitan State University professor – uses this quote by Novalis to explain why he started to write poetry. When I think about this quote, it also explains why people read poetry, especially in times like these when reason often goes against our desires and wishes.
In honor of April as National Poetry Month, here’s a Q&A with Lee as he answers questions about where, how and why he writes poetry and what its place is in a chaotic world.
Can you tell me a little about yourself? In particular, where you’re from and what you do.
I write poetry and have three books, most recently Mitochondrial Night, which was published last spring.
I grew up in South Korea, and mostly North Dakota in the U.S., and was raised by family members whose faiths and world views were deeply influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and shamanism. My mother is originally a refugee from what is now North Korea; my father was raised during the Japanese colonial period and Korean War in what is now South Korea.
I also write stories, plays, essays, and have translated poetry and stories from South Korea and Kazakhstan. I live with my daughter in Minneapolis.
Why did you choose poetry as a form of expression?
There’s a great quote by Novalis: “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” I started journaling when I was 17, while I was slowly making my way to California from North Dakota and working temp labor jobs in between.
I didn’t have a language for what I was feeling, thinking, experiencing. I didn’t know it at the time, but in starting to write poetry, I was trying to create an inner vocabulary through which to see and understand myself, as well as the lives of my family members, ancestors, history.
It felt like the culture and society hadn’t provided me with a way to adequately understand any of these things, let alone my small place within them. At some level I think I understood that if I didn’t at least try to develop a new inner vocabulary and set of philosophical lenses, brutalizing things would happen.
What are some of the common themes in your work, and why are they important to you?
The themes have changed from book to book. My first book of poems, Real Karaoke People, was concerned with exploring tired notions of immigration, otherness and Asian Americans as perpetual guests in this land.
My second book of poems, Whorled, explored what it means to be a global citizen alive at a time when culture, race, history, class and religion have all been juxtaposed and pushed to their limits of modern understanding and traditional articulation.
My third book of poems, Mitochondrial Night, is an attempt to explore the refugee and immigrant status of all seeds, stars, cells and ancestors. Where do any of us really come from, in both genetic and cosmic terms, and where are we going? Is cellular consciousness really wiser than us? Who is the “us” – in terms of race, nationality, gender, species – that we most fundamentally seek to preserve?
I love what Czesław Miłosz wrote: “Language is the only homeland.” If there’s any truth to it, then poetry is the oldest, most beautiful and generous, and “real” house of worship on our collective Earth that I know of.
Every time I look into my mixed-race daughter’s eyes to try to get a glimpse of the future, I’m reminded of this, and that the forces forever writing and revising every single cell in our bodies – in sometimes harmonious, sometimes conflicting, sometimes revolutionary ways – feel exactly like poetry.
Your poems in Mitochondrial Night show a range of structures. How do you go about choosing the structure of your poems?
I like Bruce Lee’s martial-arts objective: “Style of no style.” I guess I try to go for a more organic kind of thing, line by line. I studied Russian formalism in the Ph.D. program in Slavic languages and literature at Berkeley, and I love formal structures in poetry. But for me they can often have very seductive, compelling trappings.
What piece of writing has most influenced your work?
I’m rereading Camus’ The Plague at a time right now when the coronavirus is literally in the air everywhere in the world and there’s a “stay at home” emergency in my city as with a lot of places.
In general, I feel influenced by a wide variety of bits and pieces and layers of existentialism across a broad range of writers’ and artists’ works. And I don’t just mean French or European existentialism, but Korean, Chinese, Slavic, African, Jewish, Muslim, Coptic, Native American and many other traditions, even if they’re not typically thought of as existential works. The Kallevalah and [Yasujirō] Ozu’s films I’m also revisiting right now.
What is your writing space like?
I write all over – anywhere – but from my desk, I can see a drug store, a liquor store, a Starbucks and a flower shop. In the past week or so, with the onset of the pandemic, it’s honestly been pretty grim – as in glimpses of the apocalypse – except for the flower shop. A few days ago I got some hydrangeas. They help contextualize things.
What’s your writing routine? Do you write every day?
I write in spurts because that’s what my life allows right now. But something seems to seep out in language onto the page every day, however little or a lot. Right now I’m collecting that language – fragments, lines and sentences – like snake venom.
You’re a poet, playwright, teacher and visual-arts collaborator. What’s a project you’re most proud of and why?
I think you always have to feel most enthusiastic about what you’re working on at the moment. Yesterday I finished a poem, and because it took a lot of psychic energy, I’d say I’m most proud of that because with every poem or piece that feels finished, it seems to me that it was harder to write than the last one.
The world is in an unsettled state right now. What’s the place of poetry in this world?
Poetry reminds us of the importance of wisdom. If things, as some predict, could get really, really bad during this pandemic, actions rooted in wisdom are what will ultimately save us.
To give one example, right now, amid all the uncertainty and suffering, there are a lot of acts of racism and hostility being directed at people of Asian descent all over the world. There’s nothing creative, compassionate, innovative or life-affirming about that. In fact, it’s the exact opposite: destructive, callous, reductive and deadening like the virus itself.
Poetry – when it’s “true” in the way that, say, fresh, wild, unadulterated spring water is “true” – unconfuses confusion and unhurts hurt without the lie of an immediate cure.
To read about the 2020 Hal Prize or to submit works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry or photography, go to www.thehalprize.com. Also check out the Feb. 26 episode of the Door County Pulse Podcast, available at doorcountypulse.com/podcast-introducing-the-8142-review.