February 21–27, 2022
Ed Bok Lee is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Mitochondrial Night (Coffee House Press, 2019). He is the recipient of an American Book Award, Asian American Literary Award (Members’ Choice), Minnesota Book Award and PEN/Open Book Award. Lee attended kindergarten in Seoul and college on and between both US coasts and abroad. Recent works include the essay “Pandemic Love” in We Are Meant to Rise (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), and Smiling in an Old Photograph: Poems by Kim Ki-taek (OHM Editions, 2022), which he cotranslated. Lee holds an MFA from Brown University and teaches part-time in fine arts at Metro State University in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. On Thursday, February 24, he will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series via Zoom along with Jennifer Huang and Darrel Alejandro Holnes.
“A ritual must be passed through with the whole body…”
Stop, says Seonsengnim, my drum
teacher in Seoul, tapping my wrist
with his yeolchae stick, not hard
as when I was a boy in Mapo
and my tae kwon do instructor bruised
with nunchucks my supinated palms
for fighting at school.
Remember, your drum
is a horse you’re galloping … Now, loosen up, and start again.
Seonsengnim is white haired,
formerly homeless, until a troupe
of much younger drummers found him
in his fifty-eighth year sleeping in a park
and taught him seoljanggu—its ancient
cadences for thirty centuries, which now
he teaches enthusiasts for a pittance. I observe
he crashes in this, their jerry-rigged
drumming studio in Edae, on the linoleum
beside a portable gas burner he places
a copper kettle atop as a makeshift humidifier.
He sips barley tea until the sun goes down
and a soju bottle comes out. Here, drink this
to oil the soul warm.
He has one student, me,
and a lazy eye, a weak gray mustache, and little education.
Soju, it helps you understand your horse. His father,
an infantryman, froze to death during the war,
and his mother disappeared when he was six, maybe escaped
or was kidnapped back to the North.
Now just another old man
with no friends and a childlike smile you see
wandering the streets of Seoul.
All right, that’s enough for today, my horse is tired.
On Friday mornings he drum-dances solo
at orphanages and elderly centers: a cantering
dervish on horsehide and deerskin heads
stretched over hourglass-
shaped paulownia wood; the deep
and simultaneous staccato rhythms long and intricate
enough to harken the Neolithic.
Drum patterns I keep forgetting
when I pound as if tracking animals
on a damp trail through mountain mist.
Drifting off each night five subway stops away,
I strain to memorize the patterns, tapping out long
segments against my thighs in my jachwi room, rented
usually by the week for test preparation.
There is coarse mothball bedding; a communal
shower that whines and sprays only ice water; and a flickering
fluorescent tube over a study carrel
in what can only be described as a cell.
Law exams. College entrance exams. Medical school
exams. Police exams. Realtor exams. The occupants
sigh and groan and fart through the walls,
stretch stiff limbs in the halls,
are generally testy in this stressed-
out land, highest suicide rate in the developed world.
You, city where my earliest memories surge
into tanks cracking asphalt, sirens, martial
law over bullhorns, protests
and tear gas each week on my way to kindergarten.
A South Korean military dictator who imprisoned and beat
poets like drums
until brain damaged into honorary jobs
in the propaganda department.
Seoul. You history of mortars
and rockets like monstrous shovels
exhuming ancestral bones.
I have returned
to renovate my heart with a million
precolonial kidak strokes and pulsating googoongs.
Stored up all my belongings
in Brooklyn, sold my rusted Mercury,
and arrived to beat whatever I need
out of both you and me,
twelve hours a day. Sometimes
we skip meals and time-trot on, lost
in the dna-yoke of powerful tempos.
the studio’s professional crew comes
and together we all rub knees
a collective history reanimating
the guttural chants of priests
and rice farmers. Themes and variations
long ago invented to help defeat the stooping
tedium of seedlings in unpredictable fields;
so the backbone doesn’t crack and seep
like the milky broth of oxtails and noodles
some nights we go around the corner to slurp
together, this old man and me, in sweat-soaked shirts.
He will die in six years.
He will wheeze through a cancerous lung,
his one good eye gone fishy dim.
But, I hear, he sat and drummed till the end.
Often I go for months
without thinking of him; that winter
into spring; those few cherry blossom
branches quicker to bloom
for their proximity to a train line.
The walls where I live now
are all too thin, so, when I must, I drive
to my office in Saint Paul at night to thunder shit out.
When the way won’t come.
And the dead shapes shine.
and think of the old, galloping Korean
who, one night over dried squid and beer,
confided he didn’t play for the small
studio’s leaky roof over his head.
He preferred bridges. Did not play
for the heat, tea, and ramen. Understood
the troupe’s leaders only assigned him the random
hobbyists passing through. He knew
he began the art way too late.
And that his hands would sometimes shake.
And he took too many smoke breaks.
He played, he claimed, for other
reasons: spiritual but not
as prayer like all the churches
that ever fed and took him in
waited for him to do. Not for repentance
or supplication or sublime escape
he explained, in the tradition
so the ancestors won’t be so lonely.
Because the spirits need us
more than we need them.
And for hours
they’ll listen to anyone.
—From Mitochondrial Night, Coffee House Press, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was writing a lot of lyric poems and then this thing started banging on me from the inside to get out. It’s about a difficult time in my life when I packed everything up and went to study Korean drumming with an old drummer in Seoul. From the US, I went back to where I’d left when I was six years old. The poem also mentions Brooklyn, so I thought it might be appropriate to share it here.
What are you working on right now?
Listening, mostly. The transistor somewhere inside my body that spits out notions in language has been very active. I’m just getting things down, and will seek to make sense of things later. This is how some longer pieces of mine have formed. So maybe a collection of long poems or essays. I’m not sure yet, and I guess that feels richer than knowing at this point. I want to advocate for this transitional period of unknowing (or delayed gratification) as one of the more unsung and intense joys of the writing process.
What’s a good day for you?
When a jjigae (Korean stew) I’ve made tastes good in some newly earthy, poetic way. I always wing it, with whatever ingredients happen to be on hand and my mood, just eyeballing things. I end up experimenting a lot. The good thing is that if I make enough and hit it right, this kind of good day extends into a few more days and/or into other people’s bellies.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I live in Minneapolis, but have lived in parts of Brooklyn on a few different occasions, such as when I was teaching poetry at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, or doing a year-long residency at the New York Theatre Workshop. But Park Slope is my second home. My sister and her family have lived there for almost two decades, and until the pandemic, I would regularly stay with them. After grad school, I lived in Williamsburg, not far from Peter Luger Steak House, in an old Jewish neighborhood where, walking around as one of the few non-Jewish inhabitants, I felt like a ghost … an Asian ghost lost in an old-world town where every sign is in Hebrew and all the wig shops and other storefronts ring with antiquity.
In Park Slope, I’ve watched my nephews go from diapers to elementary to middle and high school. I like the microchip-like density of ideas, food, art, books, people. And yet there can also be something very sleepy about the place, which is when I romantically like to think that I can really feel the whole history of Brooklyn in the air. In relation to Park Slope, sometimes the, let’s say, craft capitalism on Fifth and Seventh and beyond can start to get pretty baroque. But we live in a time when there is also great art and power in the density of a microchip.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I don’t know about defining, but this comes first to mind. Once I was sitting in a café on Fifth in Park Slope, reading, when I looked up and at that same instant my old roommate from freshman year in college was passing by. He was from Wisconsin. Our eyes met after a decade and a half. We weren’t close in college, and had not kept in touch. I remember that he played volleyball and was in a fraternity. We caught up a bit that night, and I learned that he’d been living in Park Slope for over a decade and now was a rabbi. A few more years passed, and I ran into him again on Seventh, and now he was a private investigator.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
There are so many, but I’ve probably been reading Martín Espada and Walt Whitman the longest. Their constancy and commitment to what they care about, come what may, is powerful.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My mother recalls the first poem I wrote when I was four or five years old, and later gave me my first book of poems, a collection by Kim Sowol, a Korean poet who died in 1934 during the Japanese occupation of Korea. So I have to begin with her. She studied literature in Korea and, though by the time I came around and we were living in America she was always working multiple jobs and didn’t have time to read much for pleasure, just knowing how important poetry and literature are to her makes it feel all the more important to me. And I’ve been talking about poetry and life for years with David Mura, the sansei poet, memoirist, novelist, playwright, literary scholar, cultural critic, etc. He’s in the same big league of caring and constancy as Espada and Whitman. We have just enough differences of opinions and tastes that it allows for a kind of friction that keeps this long-lasting friendship evolving.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished The World’s Lightest Motorcycle by Yi Won, a South Korean poet (translated by the poets E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello). We all recently did a talk about translation and South Korean poetry, and I love how in the book, each poem feels like a testament to what Yi Won herself described during the talk as “the poet as sculptor.”
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
In this way I feel like a literary amputee with phantom limb syndrome: In 1993 as an undergrad (and two years later in 1995 as a grad student in a PhD program in Slavic Languages and Literatures), I received grants to travel to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to research specifically whether racism existed in the (then, newly) former Soviet Union. While there, I gathered a few dozen books and magazines by writers of the Korean diaspora (Koryo Saram) who by then were living in collective farms from the time Stalin exiled them in 1937 from the far east of Russia to the middle of the uninhabited steppe in Central Asia (along with other ethnic minorities, like Jews, Volga Germans, Tatars, etc.). Knowing Russian, I translated some of the writings of these hundreds of thousands of Koryo Saram. The living writers by that generation mainly only wrote in Russian, such as the fantasy/science fiction writer Anatoly Kim. But over the years of hauling the books and documents around the world, living in a different city or country almost every single year for over a decade, I very unthoughtfully allowed the box containing these texts and photographs to get drenched. Pretty much all of those texts got moldy and destroyed. It’s painful to recount here now. In an ideal world, I would be able to go back and retrace my steps to recover and translate more of those works and oral histories I took down, into English, to tell those stories. Sadly, at this point, it feels like my Russian was also in that box that got monsooned on.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
Usually, when I come across a book that I think I may like, I’ll read the first page, and if that engages me, I’ll jump forward and read one random page in the middle of the book. If I’m still engaged, I’ll buy the book. If not, I’ll put it down. There is no logic to my reading life. I strongly prefer physical books and think writing marginalia is right up there with savoring a soulful jjigae’s broth or buttercream frosting.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I just try to listen to whatever the poem itself wants to become. Maybe that’s why my work is all over the place formally and stylistically. I’ve been telling myself for so long, for decades, that having no allegiance to any one style or any formal project or preconceived agenda before each poem is done is the closest I can personally come to an uncolonized mode of creation. As Diderot wrote, “Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.” Like a good jjigae has elements of whimsy and barbarism.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
For a long time it was neighborhood bars, only because they were open later than cafés, and I was writing late at night after work, but that started to get problematic, so now I stick to writing at home. And if I’m in a bar, I’m not writing or reading.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I will always love balling at JJ Byrne Playground, even if my nephew can now pretty much dunk on me.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the soil in everyone,
And what I saw two cars do on the highway today reminds me that your sirens have never had anything to do with seasons or time
For every shattered aquarium, window, screen protector, mirror, camera’s flashcube I’ve ever seen now suddenly feels to me as good as every unexplored alley within your oldest city.
Because dreams uninterested in heaven, hell or purgatory have to make out with other sexy minds somewhere.