AN INTERVIEW WITH ED BOK LEE
by Bryan Thao Worra
Asian American Press - 9/30/05, Vol. XXIV:No.
AAP: What's the most difficult thing for you as a writer?
EBL: I feel like the poets, writers, and artists who inspire me most receive
the sweetest, most secret and mysterious signals from life and the universe
precisely because their antennae are battered or even broken in two. Art
secretes out of peoples flaws. The hardest thing for me to remember
about writing (and karaoke singing) is that soul is always more important
(and pleasurable) than perfection.
AAP: What are some of the standards you look
for in your own work as a poet?
EBL: Discovery, which, for me, is an amalgamation of so many disparate
human emotions, including fear and wonder. Language is a forest to truth.
In poetry, theres not enough time to leave behind breadcrumbs. Surprise.
Need. Bewilderment. Mystery, which contains all the emotions that make
me feel most alive. Flaws. Contradiction. Something so damn ugly its
a new kind of beauty. To name a few things.
AAP: You work in several other genres as well...Have
these genres influenced the poems in your book?
EBL: I love collages, in subject matter and form. Things disparate and
juxtaposed feel most true to my life and the world. Theres this
place I used to go to write in Minneapolis, part Butler Drug store, part
American diner, part Vietnamese restaurant, all co-existing in the same
one carpeted room. You could eat a bowl of pho and a slice of lemon meringue
pie, then buy some shampoo and make some photo copies, all in less than
ten footsteps. A strange collision. Old white retirees and young Southeast
Asians sitting in their own separate worlds, booth to booth, without any
sacrifice of comfort or belonging, not to mention Latinos and Blacks and
everyone else shopping. This one room was a living, breathing transition,
without any partitions. I wrote a lot of poems, stories, poelogues, and
plays thereand everything in between. It bred creativity. Of course,
eventually walls went up. A city ordinance, probably. Most people like
to eat with other people eating the same things.
AAP: How important is linguistic accessibility in relationship to linguistic
innovation in your poetry?
EBL: My goal as a writer is to explore in as simple language as possible
the most mysterious complexities of what it means to be human. In general,
linguistic innovation in poetry comes most naturally and necessarily when
the people, places and things a writer begins with are firmly grounded
in the common cultural imagination. If youre, say, European-American,
you can more easily just allude to the people, places, and things youre
writing about, and then take off into linguistic and formal experimentation
from there, because youre dealing with referents/signifiers people
are generally familiar with. The things I want to write about tend to
be less recognizable (often invisible) in America. Im trying to
make clear to myself and others the complexities of under-articulated,
under-imagined bodies and souls and consciousnesses. In America, it feels
too often like my friends and loved ones are beautiful songs uttered by
the greater society in bad, broken Klingonese or some other made-up language.
If theres any innovation in language or form in this book, its
because the complexity of my subject matter necessitated it.
AAP: The word Karaoke comes from "Karappo Okesutura", the
Japanese word meaning "empty orchestra," just as "karate"
comes from "empty hand." Mulling that over, do you see the idea
of karaoke manifesting itself throughout the entire text as a recurring
motif? Or more simply: What does karaoke mean to Ed Bok Lee?
EBL: Theres a line at the end of the books title poem about
karaoke: "Every song loves a new story." Karaoke to me, on a
spiritual level, has something to do with reincarnation and confession.
You reincarnate something of the original songwriters soul in your
own sound and image and, in doing so, double up the lives inside you for
a few minutes at a time. In Asia, you can vent your sins and frustrations
through songs of loss and heartbreak and angst in a small private room.
Theres a necessary spiritual component to this, like going to confession.
On a political level, karaoke is the ultimate manifestation of the democratization
of art. Now, anyone can be a star, at least for the time theyre
singing whether at a bar, in Asian song rooms, or home with friends. Thats
what technology and the market economy now allow. On an emotional level,
its just what my friends and I came of age doing, and still do for
fun and self-expression. The point is never to be great or perfect, but
just plain soulful. To FEEL and invite others into that experience. Its
like taking your soul on a brisk walk around the block, even if without
its leash it still probably wouldnt be brave enough to run away.
Finally, on a cultural level, karaoke is in every small and large town
across America, though most Americans dont even realize its
an Asian contribution to the mainstream culture. The book tries to recognize
all these aspects of karaoke.
AAP: What's next for you?
EBL: Im working on short stories, a longer work of fiction and,
always, poems. Im also revising a couple of plays, one of which
was commissioned by Ma-Yi Theatre, an amazing Off-Broadway theater company
in New York.
AAP: Who are some of your favorite poets who influenced this book?
EBL: The late Korean poet, Kim Sowol is someone from whom I learned a
great deal about sound and rhythm at a crucial point in my life when I
needed something that palpable to hold onto. I feel a deep connection
to Russian protest poetry and Pushkin, Lermontov, Mandelstam, Blok, Akhmatova,
Tsvetayeva. My favorite contemporary poets, though, Id never try
to write like. I love them because theyre covering terrain that
is uniquely their own, in voices that are uniquely their own. More influential,
probably, were poetic dramatistsfrom the nameless ancient Iraqi
authors of Gilgamesh to Sophocles to Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams,
Wole Soyinka, and Yukio Mishima--masters of character and atmosphere,
who rooted action so deeply in the human condition only poetry could touch
AAP: What's the most obscure reference you've made in Real Karaoke
EBL: In the book, theres a line describing my fathers hands.
He was still growing as a young man when the Korean War started, and I
think he was stunted by the physical trauma and lack of proper health
care and nutrition. But his hands somehow kept growing. So they were inordinately
large for his stature. That was hard to articulate in a single line.
AAP: Are the poems in this collection new pieces or
more familiar ones to people who've been seeing your performances in the
EBL: In the book, there are poems, prose, and, what I call poeloguespart
poem/part monologue, which Ive performed around the country. Some
people who are into spoken word poetry might recognize the poelogues.
But the poems and prose have only been published in journals and magazines
here and there, if at all.
AAP: Which of these poems do you feel would be the
best "Introduction to Ed Bok Lee" for people who are picking
up your work for the very first time?
EBL: The short story "The Man from Guangdong" is an attempt
to give some kind of articulation of a consciousness and emotional experience
I couldnt find preserved anywhere else.
AAP: Is there anything interesting going on within
Asian American poetics that readers can't find within mainstream poetics?
EBL: I was told the psyche in psychology derives
from the Greek for soul. I think there are complex consciousnesses
and psychologies that are being explored in certain circles
of Asian American poetics, in a variety of different ways, on their own
terms, using wholly their own standards of blackmarket currency. Spoken
word is one example. No more hiding someones face and uniquely-expressive
eyes behind a square white page. Poetry is just a hood ornament without
the urgency to journey somewhere that will save your life. Great live
spoken word poetry is a V-8 engine that exhilarates in a way even the
most beautiful, profound pair of shoes cant.