We’re continuing with our National Poetry Month interviews, and excited about today’s featured poet, the amazing Sueyeun Juliette Lee ! Stay tuned for more featured poets all month long.
1) Do you think poetry is still important, relevant, and vibrant in today’s culture?
We are beleaguered with a simultaneous excess and poverty of meaning that plays upon our feelings when it comes to the language that fills our daily lives. For example, I was always struck by the “threat level” alerts that were announced by Homeland Security and frequently published by major news outlets–like a weather report forecasting the state of our fear. Those alerts were simultaneously completely impoverished of nuance and content (Blue–> Guarded: General Risk of Terrorist Attacks) and overflowing with affective meaning: Be alarmed. Be guarded. Be afraid. The threat is out there but unidentified, vague, everywhere.
That kind of language (which is just an extreme example–there are hundreds and hundreds that swarm past us on a daily basis) really is a perversion of poetry, which can offer up an entire universe of feelings in highly condensed, meaning-rich statements. What is a poem but vectors of nuance? So, IMO, poetry is totally important, relevant, and necessary–especially since so many of its tools are being exploited for overtly ideological and problematic purposes. To write and read a poem is to potentially shake loose the drapes over the machinery, to assist in sensitizing new reading and mindfulness habits that can allow us to see otherwise or through.
Poetry’s relevance doesn’t mean it has to be a culturally dominant art form, though. And I’m okay with that. You don’t have to be big to make a contribution. Even small waves have their perfect integrity. They move forward and resonate. And that is how weather is made.
Those who take on poetry as their primary means for engaging the world are choosing to take on this central conundrum of sign, affect, and perception that shapes the consensual reality we inhabit. That doesn’t mean that poetry in itself is radical, challenging, or fundamentally liberating–there’s a ton of problematic poetry out there. But it’s a tool, a vital work space and discussion, a continual possibility if we choose it to be.
2) What makes you want to write poetry?
I’m one of those oddballs who are simply wired for it. It’s the primary way I make sense of things. I think, I feel, I express, I strive to communicate. As do we all–but I somehow feel licensed to it.
3) Tell us about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and thinker.
I highly respect John Milton. It’s maybe not so en vogue to profess my adoration of him, but he blew my mind. He’s so virtuosic, such a deeply considered writer. He was a philosopher who wrote in the most lush, pregnant verse. He was also socially engaged: he cared about the world he lived in, he spoke up.
4) Tell us about one lesser-known poet who you’d like more people to know about.
A few years ago, through my chapbook series, Corollary Press, I published Malaysian poet Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé. A strong concept shapes his projects, but there’s a delightful joyousness in his writing. The collection I published, When Dada Rewrote Koans, is a mashup of an ancient Chinese poetic motif (encapsulated in Da-Ren, or “The Great Man”), Dada aesthetics, and pop culture.
Figure Drawing Class
There is a fat nude model in the front of the room. He has hairy breasts. Reclined on a toga covering a Le Corbusier chair, he has outstretched legs. “Your lines are too bulbous,” Da-Ren tells the archivist who has smashed his charcoal against the canvas to explode a tit like the runt of a New England pig. There’s a bushy tail to pin on too like the squirrel outside, a Utah prairie dog, chomping on a granola bar and spitting out the chocolate chips. Da-Ren is ready to smack the archivist on his back with his kyosaku but the fat man is fidgeting, straining not to swat, to kill the mosquito on his thigh. “Until now, no one had ever seen cellulite on a man,” the cellist quips matter-of-factly. “This is summer heat,” the archivist says to the onlookers gathering behind him. The fat man firmly believes he was St. Jerome in a past life, beating his breast with a stone, rolling over like a cave lion into more over-stuffed positions. The turbo fan is turned on, drying the acrylics so much faster into their own poses.
I find him a great blend of philosophical and playful. He’s also a visual artist, which I think is pretty clear from his work.
5) How do you feel about poetry in the age of social media?
I like it. It’s a new thing. The world is always full of new things. One can’t resist them, but must find ways to move into them. I wonder at the way that illuminated reading surfaces—such as all these screens we constantly stare at—are transforming our attention, developing other pathways in our minds at the expense of others. Poetry can find ways to explore and exploit this, to help us inhabit it differently, I suspect.
6) Share with us one of your recent poems and tell us a little bit about its context.
Well, there’s the work I publish, which I feel like is trying to contribute to a broader discussion I care a lot about–of language, dislocation, history, power–and there’s poetry I write that I don’t publish, which is personal, very emotional, and written to the name we all say to ourselves when we are alone.
I’ll share a latter one. I’m basically taking all my clothes off by doing this. I’m trying to not have skin anymore. To be intimate every day with everyone. I’m entering a new chapter of my life, called “YOLO.” Hahaha!
I really can’t say much about the poem, since I feel like its emotional context is so clearly grief. The details of our sorrows—those are trivial. But the fact of pain—that’s always the same.
Why myself among ruins
I don’t speak in images
I used to understand my body
did I touch hers once
was it cold and factual
five months ago
did her name fall through me
did I drop to the ground
an unremitting knowledge
what time has passed
no turns of the earth
the city streams ambiently
I feel an immense guilt for arriving
it perfumes us thickly
my hands cut through it
clasp me to its narrow chest
I don’t understand sensations
what happened Juliette
where did you go
where on earth have you been making your bed
you erased the word home inside of you
was it written in citrus on a page
did you set fire to it with that hungry match
bathe under starlight in sacred pools
starlight of thorns
cling to it
ancestral starlight of distances
does the difference you are making
Sueyeun Juliette Lee is a writer, scholar, editor, and teacher. Her third book of poems, Solar Maximum, is forthcoming from Futurepoem Books in 2015. She teaches creative writing classes at the University of the Arts and at Richard Stockton College, and is helping to coordinate the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival. She also edits Corollary Press, a chapbook series devoted to multi-ethnic innovative writing. She is a 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts for Literature, and will be traveling to Norway and Iceland for arts residencies next year. You can find out more at her website, silentbroadcast.com.