Interview with Ed Bok Lee


_Ed Bok Lee attended kindergarten in Seoul, and grew up in North Dakota and Minnesota. His various writing awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota State Arts Board, SASE, and the Jerome Foundation. Lee is a former state Grand Slam Poetry champion and holds an MFA from Brown University. His first book, winner of the Many Voices Award at New Rivers Press, is_ Real Karaoke People: Poems & Prose.

*Where did the title of your book come from?*
In the book’s title poem there’s a line: “Every song loves a new story.” Song, catharsis, re-invention, and the people most in need of these things to survive, reoccur throughout the book. On a spiritual level, karaoke to me has something to do with the primal need to communally confess. In Asia, you can also vent your sins and frustrations through songs of loss in a small private karaoke room rented by the hour. Businessmen go there during their lunch hours. The point isn’t to sing perfectly, but to bare your soul. Here, there’s karaoke in bars all across America. The book attempts to manifest and preserve all this.

*How does your work as a spoken word artist influence what you write?*
I think it influences more how than what I write. Unlike haikus or sonnets, the formal constraints of a spoken word poem involve real time, a single human voice, and a live audience. It’s poetry in 3D, like a painting of one’s childhood with an actual red bicycle jutting out of the canvas, or your father’s knees. The physical body becomes part of a living, breathing text. Because spoken word is a public art form, like ancient Greek theater, and requires a live audience to engage in social concerns of the day, I might begin writing a poem in the spoken word form with something topically political, then dig in to explore how and why it’s exactly eating me up personally. But in the end, whether the poem is extroverted or introverted in the orientation of its voice, function and form, if the stars (the true what) don’t write back, you’re lost.

*How do you see your place in the world as an artist?*
It seems to me in every society there are artists, writers, storytellers, poets—who serve functions without which memory, imagination, and the ability to dream would die inside its people. I write to not forget the things that made me who I am; to preserve the beautiful complexities and contradictions that make people more human than we can sometimes bear. I can’t make shoes or treat cholera or advise on stocks. Writing is a trade that’s stuck like a scab.

*What local artists are you currently interested in?*
I’m on a visual arts kick right now, trying to learn how to see more eternally, to counteract growing up with all the flashing, fleeting, commercial images of TV and film, however much I love some of them. Locally, artists of the visual media whose visions invite me to see myself and life more slowly and deeply, with rare complexity and sophistication, are: Mali Kouanchao, Michael Hoyt, Chamindika Wanduragala, Wing Young Huie.

*What recent book or books have you been recommending to your friends?*
Sheila O’Connor’s _Where No Gods Came,_ Ben Okri’s _The Famished Road,_ David Mura’s _Angels for the Burning,_ Caryl Churchill’s _A Number,_ and a forthcoming collection of poems by Sun Yung Shin that I’ve had the great fortune to read.

*What literary trend most encourages you?*
The growing trend of international writers—from India, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, etc.—writing in English, I find hopeful in that the best, most exuberant of them stretch it to all kinds of new shapes and flavors and depths. Mongrelizations closer to the bone than any translation. They help me re-see English and its possibilities. From Nabokov’s nymphets to Okri’s “much playing, feasting, and sorrowing” to Roy’s “Margaret Kochamma told her to Stoppit. So she Stoppited” to name a few that come to mind. . . . This is how any language and people’s understanding of self in relation to the world evolves. From the front lines.

*What have you been working on lately that you’re most excited about?*
Developing a collection of short stories, as well as poems that didn’t belong in the book. In particular, one long story about a multi-generational Korean family of professional gamblers. Writing the story feels a little like the act of gambling—going head to head with, ultimately, your best and worst self, powered by hope, fear, and an addiction to exhilaration.