In the Field: Conversations with our Contributors — Ed Bok Lee
In The Field is a series devoted to highlighting the writing life and artistic process of our contributors.
- Tell us about your poem in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
One of my first cassette tapes ever was Purple Rain. I listened to it so much on my headphones that the tape finally one day snapped from wear. I was devastated. “Will of a Prince” was just a visceral response to hearing the news that Prince died (and without a will).
2. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Leaving home at 17 (with my life savings from working part-time jobs since I was 14), in my old Mercury with the vague goal of seeing as much of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico as I could. This was before cell phones, internet, GPS, etc. I had a Rand McNally atlas of North America and a sleeping bag and tent. Mainly, I wanted to get as far away from North Dakota as possible. Along the way, I started jotting down random thoughts and observations, which began to naturally take on the form of poems. I was super frugal and so my savings lasted a couple of years, and then I’d work at temp labor agencies that paid at the end of the day, and other jobs wherever I was, but I still always had a lot of free time on my hands. I’d visit used book stores during this time. Usually there was an overabundance of dog-eared Russian novels for a quarter or fifty cents. I didn’t pay attention to much in high school, but went through all the Russian books I could get my hands on, then got into other kinds of classic and modern literature from other countries (Japanese, French, Latin American, etc.), finally ending up with the newer, more contemporary American literature, because it was the most expensive. In retrospect, some of the used book store workers who’d recommend things were like nerdy angels. Since then, I’ve always preferred buying used books. The more worn, the more trustworthy, I feel.
- How has writing shaped your life?
In the Bhagavad Gita, it says: “You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.”
This is an ideal, of course, for saints and angels. But, in a way, all art-making endeavors, or anything you really care about, is like farming. . . It feels good to see things grow, develop, from deep, inner seedness, which then blooms and then, if everything works out, goes out into the world so that people can perhaps partake in the fruits of your labor of love. I like to think it’s the quality and specificity of love in the fruit of your labors that really nourishes another person’s own inner seedness at the deepest level, whether it’s a poem or building or meal or song or painting or child or, equally possibly, even a business report. Along the way, if you do your work, you get to taste and be sustained by the very source of this aliveness and love on multiple levels while you’re however briefly in contact with it as the “creator” of it.
So writing helps keep things in perspective. And, for the record, unlike is articulated in the Bhagavad Gita, I do think it’s perfectly fine to pilfer from the orchard of your labors for survival. Or, at least for an artist, it’s only natural. I suspect this urge to eat the fruits of your own labor has something to do with what the writer Thomas Moore noted: “Soul is to be found in the vicinity of taboo.”
But it’s not just human artists. You get a feeling that mulberries and grapes in decline on the vine themselves want birds to get drunk on their own private experience of fermentation.
All artmaking can be addictive like this. For a poet, a poem is a “fix”. . . but a fix from the mind’s, and body’s, and sense’s shallower addiction to society’s drab, corrupt construction of the world and cosmos. And so, at some point, to survive spiritually as an artist, to manifest the full integrity of your art, you just have to give yourself over to the art, as in love.
- What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
Lately, and from that period I mentioned earlier, almost anything by Yukio Mishima. Earlier this spring, I spent a few days writing about the Armory Show at the International Fair of New Art in New York (31 nations’ artwork represented). It’s overwhelming, two giant hangers that once housed war equipment, now crammed with art in little stalls like a super high end flea market. I was able to take my time wandering around, spending time with the pieces; all speaking in their very different languages and dialects and attitudes and tones and styles and forms. Much of Mishima’s work is like the very few pieces of art that I experienced as having the deepest stores of power. I don’t find it the most formally interesting, it’s not flashy or fashionable like most of the art work at the Armory Show is, by necessity and design; but it does inject something uniquely vital into your core.
- What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I have a new collection of poems that’s forthcoming in March (2019), called Mitochondrial Night (Coffee House Press). That and other poems and stories.