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AN INTERVIEW WITH ED BOK LEE


by Bryan Thao Worra


Asian American Press - 9/30/05, Vol. XXIV:No. 39


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, there’s 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 it’s 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. There’s 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 there—and 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 you’re, say, European-American, you can more easily just allude to the people, places, and things you’re writing about, and then take off into linguistic and formal experimentation from there, because you’re 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. I’m 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 there’s any innovation in language or form in this book, it’s 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: There’s a line at the end of the book’s 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 songwriter’s 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. There’s 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 they’re singing whether at a bar, in Asian song rooms, or home with friends. That’s what technology and the market economy now allow. On an emotional level, it’s 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. It’s like taking your soul on a brisk walk around the block, even if without its leash it still probably wouldn’t be brave enough to run away. Finally, on a cultural level, karaoke is in every small and large town across America, though most Americans don’t even realize it’s an Asian contribution to the mainstream culture. The book tries to recognize all these aspects of karaoke.

AAP: What's next for you?

EBL: I’m working on short stories, a longer work of fiction and, always, poems. I’m 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, I’d never try to write like. I love them because they’re covering terrain that is uniquely their own, in voices that are uniquely their own. More influential, probably, were poetic dramatists—from 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 it.

AAP: What's the most obscure reference you've made in Real Karaoke People?

EBL: In the book, there’s a line describing my father’s 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 past?

EBL: In the book, there are poems, prose, and, what I call ‘poelogues’—part poem/part monologue, which I’ve 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 couldn’t 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 someone’s 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 can’t.

photo 1 (left to right on top banner) by David Huang
Photo 2 by Charissa Uemura
photo/artwork 4 and 5 by Michael Hoyt
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