2012 American Book Award-winner
2012 Minnesota Book Award-winner

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"There is a nomadic beauty to Ed Bok Lee's Whorled, which pusles with raw politcal anger and vital lyricism."

—Kathryn Savage, The Guardian (UK)

"I'd like to suggest Whorled by Ed Bok Lee. It's a necessary reminder that love, too, needs to learn. It is a beautiful memory of our hurt, collective and individual, at the barrels of guns and in the words we spew, of America and the world's long journey to each other, the falling apart so we can be together....There is wisdom in these pages. The poems not only identify the hurting, they arrive at a deeper understanding, fuel the hope of healing."

—Kao Kalia Yang, in "What Writers of Color Say We All Should Read Now," in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 16, 2016

[T]he impressive, at moments superlative, craftsmanship of Whorled, among other things, illuminates the innocence and blush of Lee's earlier work. . .There is a wizened insight and well-wrought precision of form in the movement from the exhortative in Real Karaoke People to the meditateive in Whorled. Lee's deftness pulls structure and measure from that recursive, inwardly spiraling, compulsive-obsessive poetic desire. . .If in Real Karaoke People, Lee observes and marks the divine in the detritus of an urban landscape, in Whorled, he has become the interpreter of that divine, attending to the rise and fall of kingdoms, and language, in the everyday."
--Greg Choy, in the International Examiner, April 11, 2015



"Whorled enters fearlessly into the chaos of our social, cultural, political, and familial milieu, always with an eye toward finding the beauty among the hard truths of our situations—and fighting for them."
Rain Taxi Review of Books



"Ed Bok Lee, the real topic of this review, is heartbroken about America. . His poems are alternately devastating and grandstanding, word-drunk and built for speed. . .[T]here are three kinds of poems in this book. The first works as a kind of gong Lee clangs, setting off resonances he later picks up at higher volume. 'There is another other/in the other of every/Another,' goes the opening poem, 'All Love Is Immigrant.' It's a beautiful poem charged with a breathtaking idea. 'Whorled' is a book that believes love is like a superior kind of capital: It's a force that flows into new markets, sensing absences, and fills them, whether it's a debased kind of space or an ennobling one. A second kind of poem Lee writes is a documentary riff. . . These longer, shaggier poems are Lee's best and worst. They burn with the refractory power of memory and regret. . . Like August Kleinzahler, one gets the impression Lee has spent a fair bit of time in such squalid places, because he renders the hard-luck figures he counters there with incantatory clarity. One can feel Lee trying to reconcile this merciless America with the beautiful one of its dream. The final kind of poem 'Whorled' contains is the ambitous sort, one that asks the same question Wallace Stevens did so many years ago. How do you bridge the gap between America and its dream? 'If in America,' Lee's impassioned, deeply troubling poem, is the result. . . "

—John Freeman, Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 17, 2011

" Whorled is on fire with the poetry of the future, written with a wild passion and a furious grace. . . ”  —Dorianne Laux


“These poems are filled with 'a certain historical color of light.' They're funny, slyly political, and gorgeous. Working with a variety of forms and modes, Ed Bok Lee rocks my socks off. I love this book.” —Sherman Alexie  


“Lee’s exceptional Whorled is . . . a jolting gaze focused on today’s 21st-century global citizen, uprooted and unleashed. . . . Like his 2005 debut Real Karaoke People, Lee again provides searing ‘oh-my-gawd’-moments that will rip through your soul.”
BookDragon (Smithsonian Institute, Asian Pacific American Program)


"Lee writes frequently and without irony about love and friendship—but it is not indulgent or salvific. Even at his mooniest, Lee is more than a Matthew Arnold, a figure who cannot help but take the cacophony of the world as a personal insult. If the modern world is a problem, it’s a fascinating one, both despite and because of its crimes, both large and small, and Lee does this truth better than justice. . . .”
Ray McDaniel, The Constant Critic


“Ed Bok Lee‘s worldview is capacious. His poems seek out startlingly insightful perspectives and stories across the globe and on our very doorsteps. At times unexpectedly, his poems help us see the familiar in new ways and the unfamiliar in profoundly identifiable ways.”
Kartika Review



2007 National Bestseller in Poetry

2006 PEN Open Book Award

2006 Asian American Literary Award (Members' Choice)

Many Voices Prize from New Rivers Press

Real Karaoke People









"[Real Karaoke People] contains...searing honesty [and] tenderness...The vitality of the country, its capacity to absorb the rich and the strange is nowhere clearer."

San Francisco Chronicle

"A potent voice for young immigrants and their second- and third-generation peers, poet Ed Bok Lee[’s]...galloping imagination…describes what it's like to be part of a global generation. His experiments with prose/poetry blending are bold and unself-conscious..."
Minneapolis Star Tribune


"Prose and poems of our global and transitory America."Providence Journal (Reviewers' List: TOP FIVE BOOKS of 2005)

Publisher: New Rivers Press
ISBN: 0-89823-226-0 CUSA / 9780898232257 / Paperback, 101 pp. / $13.95 / First Printing: October 2005 / Third Printing: March 2006

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"Few books wrest new wisdom from old frontiers as well....[Lee] collapses decades of US-Asian history into the bullet-fire, bomb-blast rhythm of war. He tunnels through collective memory, depicting the 1945 mass migration of Koreans southward to Seoul through his family’s voyage. In so doing, he yokes the experience of veterans and families in all forgotten wars together in an eloquent elegy.... At the same time, humor reels in lines spanning from ironic to slapstick—the range of Lee’s chosen landscapes, conceptual and physical, will take readers around and inside several worlds. At home and homeless in pop-cultured, urban settings and high-cultured, ethereal ones, the narrator gathers on his journey touchstones born of fire and water. Revealing through them landmarks on an intimate, global map, Ed Bok Lee shows us that Real Karaoke People live and travel everywhere."

Boxcar Poetry Review

"Real Karaoke People takes the rich immigrant experience of our urban centers and gives it both a quiet grace and the energy of hip-hop....reinvigorating the Whitmanian tradition for the twenty first century—one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory."

David Mura, author of Turning Japanese

"Entering [Lee's] debut not unlike walking into a strange new neighborhood, where sights and sounds smack you across the face....Lyric but not excessive, wry without being glib, these [poems] make a strong impression and then reward with rereading...."

John Freeman, President of the National Book Critics Circle
, Salt Lake City Weekly

"Real Karaoke People shines a spotlight on…immigrants, pre-pubescent adolescents, an ex-porn star…outcasts, dreamers and pretenders—people longing to take on a new identity."

St. Paul Pioneer Press

"'Oh my gawd: 'the secret to life in america' will rip through your soul..."

AsianWeek, New and Notable Books

"What a beautifully complex, contradictory, and insistently compelling world Ed Bok Lee gives us... this is a book that opens up new possibilities for American poetry."

Jim Moore, author of Lightning at Dinner

"The narrator is unforgetable—as well as his characters..."

Diane Glancy, author of The Cold-and-Hunger Dance

"This is poetry at its richest…the ordinary turned all its tenderness, its bitterness, its energy, its bareness. [Lee's] words are perceptive and haunting, the stories are heartfelt - the collection will make your soul sing..."

ImaginAsian TV (New York)

"Lee’s riffing mastery of form and imagery is nothing short of breath-taking—he weaves together hip hop, prose poem...prayer, lyricism..."

Minnesota Literature

More Reviews *** Readings/Events *** Press


A dramatic literary debut, Real Karaoke People juxtaposes tradition, politics and pop culture to bridge generations and continents in a way both heart-rending and real. From a Buddhist temple on a Korean mountain top, to Sex World in downtown Minneapolis, to the smoldering L.A. Riots, far beyond to a tornado touching down on a reservation in Northern Minnesota, Ed Bok Lee’s PEN Open Book Award-winning poems and stories usher the reader through a cultural kaleidoscope of karaoke rooms, churches, dog fights, movie houses, Asian night clubs, immigrant kitchens and small-time Midwestern wrestling rings, all the while scrutinizing conceptions of race, class and history. At once nostalgic, critical and revelatory, Real Karaoke People offers a provocative portrayal of an America at war with change and loss, hope and the living colors of desire.


"[S]tores that stay with you long after you’ve put the book down…about how language ties us to each other in the most devastating ways, and about how it always carries the weight of both personal and collective history….Lee is not hemmed in by narrow definitions of voice. He finds voice in everything – even in the spiritual, the indescribable….This very open approach to voice, coupled with the book’s subject matter may be why Real Karaoke People feels so epic…Lee mixes the rawness of South Minneapolis street life with the brutal imaginings of parents and grandparents living through the Korean war, sometimes all in one stanza. Reading these poems and prose, you feel as if the history of an entire generation… is pouring out in front of your eyes…"

—Thinking Souls: On-line Literary Series and Monthly Book Club

"I had forgotten how much I enjoy reading poetry until I picked up Ed Bok Lee's Real Karaoke People...Rich in metaphor, Lee combines post-modern flair with ethnic images so vibrantly you might think the book is illustrated [and] writes phrases of such magnitude, the reader is forced to pause and reflect: 'A strange lust, this life./Everywhere beautiful souls/bathing in grief... [A] concise picture of the New American experience."

Minneapolis Observer

"With Ed Bok Lee, a singular hand is at work, crafting stark brilliance that’s rich in cultural authenticity and immediate in its universal appeal…he has refreshingly strange ideas about structure, underscoring tight, melancholy lyricism with unorthodox spacing and punctuation. You have to love writers like that, folk like Frank Chin, Sonja Sanchez, Amiri Baraka…they do a kind of Miles Davis on you, knowing the rules of the craft so well they can break the over one knee…"

Insight News

"Ed Bok Lee follows the exuberant tradition of poets like Whitman and Ginsberg, those who sing wildly for tribe and culture and self. These poems take us great distances, down the long frozen road from Seoul, across the fractured landscapes of the DMZ of Korea and the L.A. riots, to the hot summer porches of South Minneapolis. ‘A poem,’ he writes, ‘should talk about gods, race, flowers and class as if they/possessed equal mass.' He has brought forth poems that ‘sing from the center’ of their being, that improvise before our amazed eyes."

—Debra Marquart, author of The Horizontal World

"Just when Lee's collection convinces his reader about the unhappy lives of his subjects, he rises and sings a song....And readers can't help but smile, because even if poetry were invented to make you despair or invented to jolt you awake, then poetry is life, and all our despairing, expiring lives are poetry."


"Lee's debut is a strong and deeply involved collection of poems marked with a selection of prose in the vein of Sherman Alexie....Real Karaoke People is a success in the techniques of poetry as well as simply a joy to read aloud....Lee mangages to reinvent the wheel...."

The Corresponder

"[A] charming sentimentalism in which memories, even vomit on the streets of Seoul, feel like a vacation…PBR is a secret recipe ingredient, and a dying dad still worries about getting the oil changed in his wife's car…[T]he characters—caught singing in front of a karaoke screen, are real and surreal, ugly neck veins and all."

City Pages, A-List Recommendation

"In both happy stories and sad, [Lee’s] voice evokes the loss of a people who have left their home. In these observances, there is a commonality with other people of split cultures, a world he articulates with often painful precision. His words hint of a history untold, of a people cut off, their lives reduced to fragments…visitors on the planet, finding joy in a place and time, making peace with their surroundings."

Korean Quarterly

"Lee’s riffing mastery of form and imagery is nothing short of breath-taking—he weaves together hip hop, prose poem, diatribe, prayer, lyricism....and other styles into a whole…giv[ing] insightful, meticulously crafted voice to a series of viewpoints that transcend and transform any remaining stale ideas about the concerns of immigrant or first generation literature. Lee’s…vision brings together the landscapes of Korea, the 1992 L.A. Riots, multi-ethnic urban Minnesota, and the uncharted regions of new identities into one glorious, polyglot design that is infinitely profound, infinitely multifaceted, and arrestingly familiar."

Minnesota Literature

"Ed Bok Lee is an exciting new American writer. His layered collection, Real Karaoke People, chronicles a tumultuous journey through time and space that's never chronological or linear—an intensely emotional and intellectual journey around decades and oceans to glimpse America's continual becoming—A master of word, music, image, and character creation, Lee invokes Greek drama, slam poetry, Japanese haiku, Native American storytelling, Shakespearean sonnets, MTV, and African griots in his beautiful 'poelogues.'"

Elaine H. Kim, University of California at Berkeley/author of Asian-American
Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context

"These poems come in rapid fire from a world at war with change and loss, forgetfulness and memory. Ed Bok Lee's words hit like pellets. He delivers amazing lines: "we learn to navigate by drowning." Lee is a truth teller of the immigrant experience in our vast and diverging demography. He brings the world right up in our face. The narrator is unforgettable—as well as his characters such as the man who looks for a wife "with oceanic lungs who can blow life into the spirit he's lost." Lee brings knowledge of what it is like to settle in the current New America, updating the European immigrant experience of the last century—providing a latter to the earlier America. There is voltage in these hard lessons—these secrets on how to survive. Lee's words are his navigational devices. He speaks with profound energy in this first collection [of poems and prose]— A fire burns here."

—Diane Glancy, author of The Cold-and-Hunger Dance

"What a beautifully complex, contradictory, and insistently compelling world Ed Bok Lee gives us in Real Karaoke People. This is a book that takes as its jumping off place the idea that the "global soul" is not a literary invention, but a vision and a sustaining home: as real as a hot summer's day in South Minneapolis or a cold winter's day in Seoul in 1945. These poems move surely through many different realities, thanks to compelling narratives and a lyric grace which both inspires and challenges: this is a book that opens up new possibilities for American poetry."

—Jim Moore, author of Lightning at Dinner

"Stories, nightmares, fables, myths, tall tales, legends, family secrets... Ed Bok Lee will break your heart and sew up back up again with his piercing words… I felt like a changed woman... Real Karaoke People will make you want to break into song."

—Ishle Yi Park, author of The Temperature of This Water/Poet Laureate of Queens, New York

"Ed Bok Lee's Real Karaoke People is one of the most engaging, troubling, and rewarding collections [of poems and prose] I have read in quite some time. There is no place this poet's eye does not enter, no darkness it doesn't look into, no light it doesn't absorb. I follow the people in his poems down Midwestern streets, I watch them wrestle, love, dance, fall down drunk, get up. Real karaoke people sing "in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, English, Korean, Indonesian, Vietnamese." Ultimately they sing the language of poetry, the language of us all."

—Pablo Medina, author of Points of Balance/Puntos de apoyo

"Entering Ed Bok Lee's debut not unlike walking into a strange new neighborhood, where sights and sounds smack you across the face. "Ey, what is that smell," begins one poem, "skulking through the city this summer,/ snapping at my dreams like a headless/ duck on hooks." Lyric but not excessive, wry without being glib, these are very companionable poems, the sort that make a strong impression and then reward with rereading. The best draw from memory. In "A Fable of Fruit," a meditation on the mentality of "us and them," Lee...finds a world of meaning in an old dusty tomato once handed to him by a Korean green grocer. "Kimchi" swirls around and around his childhood kitchen, before switching off like a television set. Proust had his madeleines; Lee apparently had cabbage. It's about time we had our vegetables."

Salt Lake City Weekly

"Real Karaoke People takes the rich immigrant experience of our urban centers and gives it both a quiet grace and the energy of hip-hop. "What feeds your soul?" the poet asks, and answers with the pungent smells of Asian cooking, off-key voices of karaoke, and a "girl's wicked drawl that first crackled through a KFC late-night drive-thru speaker." Here are delicate lyrics and verbal tours de force, side-splitting 'poelogues' and plangent voices that tear away the screens of indifference and cliché—reinvigorating the Whitmanian tradition for the twenty first century—one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory."

—David Mura, author of Turning Japanese


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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