Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s poetry is searing. In an earlier review about her new collection, Solar Maximum, I wrote: “The poetry drips in the twilight of loss, a decimating emotional scourge that echoes in the fringes of language and physics. Lee’s words are a type of prose fusion that spans both the macroscopic and microscopic, a lyrical orbit that describes the planes of a fiery apocalypse.” I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview.
Entropy: On your website, you wrote: “I was filled with a great sense of turbulence and concern about our collective human future. I started to wonder what humanity might become–the spiritual essence of our humanity–in the wake of a massive disaster.” Can you talk more about the origins of your collection, Solar Maximum, and how it came to be?
SJL: For a long long time, I’ve been concerned with our relationship to the technologies we create; in the past, I centered more on abstracted technologies that have radical impacts on us–like the nation-state, which was my central theme when I wrote Underground National. The nation is an invisible technology, but it radically shapes the way we imagine ourselves (citizen/alien, patriot/terrorist), and directly affects our mobility and possibilities.
While I was doing this work, I also started thinking about other technological forms that are more visible to us, like consumer electronics. I first wrote the small collection Mental Commitment Robots–which now appears as a section of Solar Maximum–over ten years ago. I started it in 2005. The seed was when I read about a robotic stuffed animal–called a mental commitment robot–that was meant to help stimulate friendships/intimacy between humans. I read that and I thought, WHAT ARE WE BECOMING. It wasn’t a question that had good or bad assumptions around it…it was a genuine query.
I think it’s a fairly common argument to say that certain types of technologies are “dumbing us down” or limiting our “real” world engagements. What these kinds of statements point to–and what feels true to me–is that we’re not separable from the tools we create; they invariably shape how we organize ourselves, understand each other, and even experience the world. Where I maybe differ from most folks who worry about technology’s impact on us is that I don’t have some “ideal” notion of our humanity that I imagine as being corrupted by our tools. I don’t see much differentiation between us and our technologies–we make them, and they likewise shape us. So when I wrote about feeling “turbulence and concern” about our collective future when it came to Solar Maximum, I think those words really captured my sentiments perfectly: I can’t say I’m terrified of our future, but I am also not cheering over the direction(s) we’re headed in. I’m ambivalent, alert, amplified, attuned to it, in awe and anxiety, but mostly striving to be aware.
I think the sense of a massive disaster came from a couple different arenas. We’d had several environmental calamities–like the BP Gulf Oil Spill and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami–that were inflecting my thoughts. Especially as someone who had lived briefly in New Orleans, I found the level of the environmental fallout from the oil spill heart breaking, as was the horrifying footage of entire communities in Japan being completely wiped away–not to mention the immense threat of Fukushima’s nuclear collapse. I felt we were on a collective verge.
What I wanted to do in Solar Maximum was to explicitly think about our futures and trajectories under a disaster light. The technological aspect is there, but it’s kind of generalized throughout the poems. I didn’t want this to be a speculative text that was invested in a kind of techno-porn, which many works can be. I’m more centered on the human. I wanted the technological question to be atmospheric, diffuse but permeating. My overall notion was probably a bit post-humanist–but one that doesn’t imagine a “post” human, frankly… one that tries to open up space for a more capacious sense of what “human” might come to mean–what it is always on the way to meaning.
Lastly, I am very invested in thinking about light as a medium of transformation. Part of this was tied to the way I was becoming increasingly photo-sensitive in certain light environments. I get bad headaches in shopping malls, and I was (maybe a bit neurotically) convinced it was due to the lighting in those spaces. I was also having sleep problems related to computer use… I had started researching about blue-light blockers and learned more about how we are affected in low-light environments, like caves and space ships. My research confirmed for me a very elemental truth about the way we function as a species–we are light-inflected creatures. There are other threads to this, which I’ve described in other interviews, but it all brought me to a basic fact of the human narrative. For example, at some point many human histories included sun worship. We are integral with the sun.
And so, in Solar Maximum, I started to think quite seriously about our relationship to the sun, to its light…. it’s been an investigation that has led me in many directions! I spent about 4 months out of the last year and a half in the sub-arctic regions of Norway and Iceland during the summer and winter in order to experience intense shifts in daylight firsthand. My video work explores those climates and lights quite directly.
Entropy: In an earlier interview with Entropy, in response to the question of whether poetry is still relevant, you called poetry a “vector of nuance.” What were some nuances you pursued in Solar Maximum? The vectors?
SJL: I find this really funny–that I used that phrase. I stand by it, but I’d probably say it a little differently now.
The nuance central to Solar Maximum I was hoping to explore was one of human psyches. What are we being transformed into? How might the occasion of a monstrous light bring these even more to the fore? I tried to imagine impossible scenarios–like being an adolescent at the very end–a KNOWN end–of human life. That was the premise for my piece “What the heart longs for when it only knows heat.” How does a youth even make sense of this??? What is meaningful to a person in that situation?
The things that make up the central architecture for self understanding aren’t just histories, I feel, but also desires, and how do you desire when there is nothing but the end… It’s perhaps a quirk of my imagination that the youth I envisioned was an activist… but protesting what? Seeking to change what? There’s an unusual nihilism I discovered there that is dreamy, or wishful. And maybe that’s the heartbreaking nuance I uncovered for myself. That we can’t help but dream, regardless our fate.
As for the vector statement–I wanted to highlight poetry as an animate endeavor. It moves, it goes. From and towards, and in a multitude. I love that about poetry.
Entropy: Your quote at the beginning of the Mental Commitment Robots section from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology talks about the emotional bond between robots and humans. Can you talk about why you chose that as the theme and how it connects with hammerhead sharks?
SJL: My brain can fire in odd ways… but several years ago, after reading a short article about mental commitment robots and how they were designed to facilitate intimacy between human participants, I was concerned! I thought a lot about “daily life,” whatever that might mean in my first world context, and how potentially so very little of it includes intimate/meaningful social contact with other human beings. Are we now at a stage of our social development as a species where we require these sorts of tools–a cute robot baby seal, for instance–to foster communication between ourselves?
Rather than just being alarmed, though, I decided to take it as a given that we’ve transformed and that we couldn’t rely on our older strategies and tools for being together or even being ourselves. I wondered aloud to myself, is being this sort of human enough? Maybe we’ve created an environment in which we no longer can operate as humans in the way that being human used to be meaningful.
That’s how I arrived at wanting to create work that strives to embrace and explore a broader spectrum of our “humanity”… of being willing to invoke animality and alternative modes of consciousness to participate in the way we encounter the world … to also not shrink back from the technological interventions we can make into ourselves as a way of facilitating a broader spectrum for consciousness and being. Now I really do sound like a post-humanist! HAHA.
Let me be clear–I LOVE OUR HUMANITY. I in no way want us to “exit” it or “progress” (I cringe at that word) from it. I am simply convinced that we haven’t fully accomplished our humanity as a species–that there are habits and tools that we’ve created that in fact enforce a limit on us–that limit our ability to empathize, imagine, experience…Those tools/habits/technologies are things like racialized thinking, for example, or an us vs nature imagination (as though we were outside or separate from the environment)…
So, that’s how sharks started appearing in that first piece of “Mental Commitment Robots.” I felt licensed with this desire to broaden my imagination–I felt licensed to try and take on a predatory consciousness, to relish in what that might be like. What excited me about sharks is the fact that as sea-dwelling creatures, they are completely integrated into their environment in ways that we are blind to for ourselves. They move sinuously with the current, they barely seem to sleep, they are colored like aquatic reflections…. they become a kind of animate oceanic-ness to me. A sea consciousness with teeth.
I was full with these sentiments when I first sat to write back then. And the first thought that came to me was “I am a hammerhead shark. I make no sound.” I don’t think I can express how alien it felt to me, to imagine being a creature that makes no sound. A mute voraciousness. It’s uncanny. But a door was opened for me. I walked through it. Then the rest simply followed.
I cannot ever know the shark and its consciousness, and that invigorated me. Could I conjure this complete alterity into myself through language? I tried. I tried very hard.
Ultimately, I think I failed to accomplish this goal, but the effort itself–that is the success. I want to try and I want to not know what might come of the trying.
Entropy: What would the soundtrack of Solar Maximum consist of?
SJL: Peter, this is an impossible question!!!!!! I love it!!!
These things swim into me:
the frequency of our immune system
the swish of blood and digestive fluids moving through us
the whine of my refrigerator
the strange quiet of being underwater, the low tones of it
the rustling of aspen leaves at mid-day
the rubbing of the sheets as I climbed into my mother’s bed as a child, the delight of nestling against her warm stomach and limbs
the sound of my breath in a snowfall
Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up three miles from the CIA. A former Pew Fellow in the Arts, her books include That Gorgeous Feeling (Coconut), Underground National (Factory School), and Solar Maximum (Futurepoem) as well as numerous chapbooks. She founded Corollary Press, a chapbook series dedicated to innovative multiethnic writing, and writes reviews for The Constant Critic, a project of Fence Books. Her critical essays explore Asian American contemporary poetics as well as the imaginations of spaces. She has held arts residencies in poetry, dance, and video art in Hafnarborg (Iceland), Kunstnarhuset Messen (Norway), and UCross Foundation (Wyoming). She works as the Events Manager for The Gathering Place, Denver’s only daytime dropin center for women, children, and trans individuals who are experiencing poverty or homelessness. You can find her at silentbroadcast.com.