In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Ed Bok Lee
Tell us about your fiction piece “The Ferryman” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
This short story about a group of Asian American friends (from all different cultural and ethnic backgrounds) is one of a dozen or so that I’ve had for some time. They are interlinked stories, so the characters do reappear throughout the collection. I put the stories away several years back because, at the time, no one – the editors and publishers I showed them to, at least – seemed interested in these people and their lives. But more to your question, it’s not always clear where something comes from. I do remember I was bartending and working in a homeless shelter around the time I first started working on them. And bars and shelters and halfway houses factor into a number of the stories.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
The possibility of being transported and changed molecularly always excites me. Every new book I pick up has the possibility of doing that. As I’ve noted elsewhere, sometimes, if things aren’t going well with the writing, I’ll start reading a book that I truly admire and also can’t get into. After reading for a while, my mind gets pitched into the perfect state for a new creative act. My mind feels cleansed. I suspect this is connected to my fundamental reverence for books, which at some irrational level I feel are all sacred. Someone was, at some level, having a sacred conversation with themselves, or, more precisely, trying to resolve a quarrel deep within and employing sacred methods in the creation of this book. And so, when I’m reading a book I truly admire but never manages to capture me, the world just feels slightly off. I go into a mode of needing to make what I’m doing on my own page work, to try to get things back into some sort of alignment. So even the books that I can’t get into are sometimes incredibly useful.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Librarians and used book store clerks leading up to the time I started writing were very important. But on a deeper level, reconnecting with my past was also seminal. My father’s mother, my halmoni, was a poet. At a time when I was first learning to form sentences in Korea, she looked after me. In part because of the old style of Korean that she spoke in, and also because she was a strange person and spoke of strange things, everything about her was weird and mysterious and miraculous to me. She had many shamanistic beliefs. This was the 1970s in South Korea, under the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. The government was rounding up poets and writers and intellectuals, imprisoning and beating some of them to the point of brain damage. My grandmother wrote deeply personal poems. But her written Korean was fairly unformed. Korean wasn’t really taught back then, especially to girls. Years later, when I began studying, then translating Korean poetry, all these personal and social memories started to come back: Tanks and military personnel stationed, due to the ever-impending threat of another invasion from North Korea. Enforced curfew under martial law throughout Seoul and the nation. All the symbolism and paraphernalia and infrastructure that go along with Western colonialism and imperialism of a much poorer nation, all began coming back or blooming, as if from seeds that had first been planted wordlessly in me as a kid.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I write poems, stories, plays, essays, and have worked on public literary arts projects, such as transforming a 100-car municipal parking lot in Lanesboro, MN into a “Poetry Parking Lot.” In general, I think if you try to live your life as artfully (and that will mean different things to different people) as you can, things just sort of flow out of you. And if they don’t flow, yet you’re trying your best to be as true to who you are as you can, they sort of begin to secrete as if from fractures or leaks. And those secretions begin to transform everything good for art in your life, while also warding off all that is bad for art in your life. This isn’t always what the individual wants, or thinks they want. But it’s what the art wants. Some people put up a really good fight their whole lives, though. I think what I’m talking about is: giving over to something and not caring what form it takes, not operating from any socially conditioned notions or expectations.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
In prose, what it means to be human; in poetry, what it means not to be.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
A wildfire. . . or else a damp, barely smoldering something with too much noxious gasoline thrown uselessly onto it.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
Now that I’m coming off of a bunch of travel and other things related to my most recent book of poetry, Mitochondrial Night, I’m writing more: poems, and I’m almost finished with a somewhat experimental novel.
Ed Bok Lee is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Mitochondrial Night (Coffee House Press, 2019). Honors for his work include an American Book Award, Minnesota Book Award, Asian American Literary Award (Members’ Choice), and a PEN/Open Book Award. He also works as an artist and translator, and for two decades has taught in programs for youth and the incarcerated. You can learn more about Ed’s work at his website.