Poet Of The Week

Lee Herrick

     September 9–15, 2019

Lee Herrick is the author of three books of poems: Scar and Flower, Gardening Secrets of the Dead and This Many Miles from Desire. His poems appear widely in literary magazines, textbooks and anthologies, including Columbia Poetry Review, Poetry, Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice and Here: Poems for the Planet (with an introduction by the Dalai Lama). He is coeditor of The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (Orison Books, forthcoming 2020). Born in Daejeon, Korea, and adopted to the United States, he served as Fresno Poet Laureate (2015–2017) and teaches at Fresno City College and the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College. On Sunday, September 15, Herrick will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at Ba’sik in Williamsburg with E. J. Evans and Julia Knobloch.

Anechoic

 

George Foy stayed in the anechoic chamber

for 45 minutes and nearly went mad.

He could hear the blood rushing in

his veins and began to wonder if he was

hallucinating. He had been to a monastery,

an American Indian sweat lodge,

and a nickel mine two kilometers underground.

In the anechoic chamber, the floor’s design

eliminates the sound of footsteps.

NASA trains astronauts in anechoic chambers

to cope with the silence of space.

Without echo, in the quietest place on earth,

what else can we hold onto? What replaces sound

in concert with what you see? The human voice,

the timber when a person says kamsahamnida

or yes, please, or fuerte, is 25 to 35 decibels.

Hearing damage can start around 115 decibels.

Metallica, front row, possible damage

albeit possible love. The Who, 126 decibels.

A Boeing jet, 165 decibels. The whale, low rumble

frequency and all, 188 decibels, can be heard

for hundreds of miles underwater.

I once walked around inside a whale heart,

which is the size of a small car. The sound

was like Brian Doyle’s heart that gave out

at 60 after he wrote my favorite essay

about the joyas voladoras and the humming

bird heart, the whale heart, and the human

heart. Glass can break at 163 decibels.

Hearing is the last sense to leave us.

Some say that upon death, our vision,

our taste, our touch, and our smell

might leave us, but some have been

pronounced dead and by all indication

are, but they can hear. In this moment,

when the doctor pronounces the time

or when the handgun pumps once more,

what light arrives? What sounds, the angels?

The Ultrasonic Weapon is used for crowd

control or to combat riots—as too many

humans gathered in one place for a unified

purpose can threaten the state. The state

permits gatherings if the flag waves. Sound

can be weaponized or made into art.

It can kill. It can heal a wound. It is

a navigation device and can help determine

if the woman has a second heart inside of her

now, the beating heart of a baby on the ultrasound,

a boy or a girl, making a new music in the body

of another body, a chorus, a concert, a hush.

 

—From Scar and Flower, Word Poetry, 2019.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“Anechoic” began about five years ago upon learning that I have misophonia, a hearing condition which results in severe reactions to certain sounds. I wanted to explore our relationships with sound: rock concerts, airplanes, breaking glass, complete and utter silence. How music can be weaponized. Why we need sound or vibration to make sense of the world and our place in it. Of course, I also worked at the word and syntax level, and if I remember correctly, this poem took around ten drafts.

What are you working on right now?

I’m writing new poems, and I’m working on a memoir. I might read an excerpt or two at the reading on September 15. I am also coediting an anthology titled The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit, forthcoming from Orison Books in Spring 2020.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me involves good food, good music and some noticeable human kindness. No racism. It definitely involves my wife and daughter, maybe near a body of water or laughing together at home.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

Fresno, California, is home. I have lived here for twenty-three years, since 1997 when I accepted a tenure-track position in the English department at Fresno City College. I love Fresno—the poets, the diversity, the proximity to mountains and ocean, the grit, the work ethic, the no-nonsense ethic. It’s changing in good ways. The air is cleaner, there are more food options, I’d like to think there’s less violence, and Fresno County voted blue in the last presidential election, at last. I could try to compare it to Danville (in the East Bay), where I lived when I was adopted, but Danville is much smaller, cooler weather, and more affluent. I love them both, but they’re vastly different places.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I have been to Brooklyn several times, probably just for a week or so at a time. I distinctly remember walking the Brooklyn Bridge, breakfast on a sidewalk patio near DUMBO, Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn library, McNally Jackson, walking with my daughter through some neighborhoods near Prospect Park, our stay in Crown Heights, the energy and velocity, the diversity. There are other areas I want to see. I felt the history and the understandable pride, too.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

Poetry community means friendship, laughter, support, encouragement, inspiration, shared or similar aesthetics, politics and purpose. It’s invaluable. It can be just a handful of people. It can also be non-local, as in a global community or a community bound by ideology and poetics, beyond location. I have several communities: Kundiman, Sierra Nevada College, Fresno City College, Korean adoptee poets, Asian American poets, Fresno. I am fortunate and grateful for a strong poetry community in Fresno, where I live. Its poets support each other, and I’ve been lucky to have poetry friends here. To name a handful: Juan Felipe Herrera, Brynn Saito, Mai Der Vang, Marisol Baca, David Campos, Connie Hales and Juan Luis Guzmán, among many others. Others whom I count among community are Fresno poets who no longer live here but return often, including friends Joseph Rios, Tim Z. Hernandez and Brian Turner. And of course, the late Philip Levine was a big influence. I lived down the street from him for many years.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Whitman, of course. In graduate school, I devoured Leaves of Grass over and over and was influenced by its scope, its vision, and its boldness. Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses is one of my favorite books. And Phil Levine, although I count him as a Fresno poet first (being biased and from Fresno), had genuine love for Brooklyn and lived here, so he resonates with me in this way, too.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My first poetry mentor was Andrés Montoya, the first poet I met when I moved to Fresno in 1997. He was larger than life, outspoken, and a true poet. He died at age 31 before his first book was published, although it won an American Book Award posthumously. I learned about work ethic and about the intersections of poetry, people and politics. I learned about the fine line between life and death, and how the poem informs and needs both. He taught me about conviction in the poem. There have been others, but Andrés was probably the most influential. I didn’t study in an MFA program (I did an MA in classical rhetoric), so my poetry mentors were more informal.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I could list many, but two that moved me immensely are Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz (published earlier this year by Alice James Books), who passed away recently and whose brilliant, transformative book was written while she knew she was dying from cancer. Another is HoodWitch (Acre Books, October 2019), the debut book of poems from the one and only Faylita Hicks. This is electric, soulful, feminist, necessary reading.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary, Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses.

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?

I read several books from various genres at the same time. I’m currently reading several books of poems, two novels, and I’m always reading political science and political history. I plan out my readings in advance, but I always leave myself open and flexible, depending on the audience and the occasion. I strongly prefer physical books. Digital texts and books on tablets have their benefits, I’m sure, but I have never read a book on a screen. I need to feel and turn the physical page. I’m a big note-taker.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’ve wanted and tried to write an entire book of poems on one theme or idea. I tried to write a book of poems about water, and Scar and Flower began as a book of poems about sound and hearing. But I couldn’t sustain it, or my attention was drawn somewhere else, and I follow those ideas where they lead me.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I like to write outside—in a park, on a beach, in a plaza. Some countries have such great plazas, you almost have to write in them.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The Beastie Boys were my first concert in 1987, and I want to pay homage to MCA and visit Adam Yauch Park (formerly Palmetto Playground) when I visit next. I love the walking area along the East River where you can see the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan. I can’t remember the name of it, but I loved being there. I also love Prospect Park, the Brooklyn library and McNally Jackson because I love parks, libraries and bookstores almost more than any other places, and these are gorgeous, imaginative, inspiring places.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the immigrant’s accent,

And what I find graceful you find in a brown woman’s voice,

For every joyful sound inside of me as good vibrates inside of you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because our manager’s crazy, he always smokes dust, he’s got his own room at the back of the bus, because Adam, because Big Daddy Kane, Señor Love Daddy, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Because Bernie, Jordan, and Eddie. Because the magnetic pull of a national poem runs through it. Because Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. Because Tina, Kimiko, and Marianne Moore. Because I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. Because the summer grass.