[This interview originally appeared on Kickaction.ca]
Sueyeun Juliette Lee is a poet, publisher, and literature educator who is currently based in Philadelphia. I was first introduced her by May-lee Chai, and fell first in love with her words (you can listen to her reading some of her poems here) and her publishing house that publishes beautiful chapbooks. In our conversation, Lee told me all about the authors she’s published, her liminal sense of belonging as a Korean American, as well as her favourite women of colour writers.
Can you describe your writing style in 3 words?
Inquisitive. Spacious. On.
Whose poetry has influenced your own?
A friend introduced me to Myung Mi Kim’s work when I started to take poetry seriously, in an “I think I might be an artist” kind of way. When I sat down with Under Flag, my head just blew up. POETRY CAN DO THIS! I remember screaming to myself inside. I felt so *addressed* by her. We’re both Korean Americans, and I had never read a book that included me–that spoke the story of my family–so well. She so poignantly captures the devastation of war. It’s a horrible legacy to have inside one’s bloodstream. Sadly, too many of us share this fact. For me at the time, this family history lay like a dark bruise on my spirit. And Kim’s work hurt me, pushed on that bruise, but also made the old blood well up to the surface to be expunged. To breathe. To speak. Her writing changed my life. She helped me touch something I didn’t have the capacity to allow myself to consider at the time.
Reading Mei Mei Berssenbrugge’s book Empathy almost made me give up writing. I remember thinking–THIS IS IT. She has done exactly what I had wished to do and so much better than I could have ever done it. It was immense. I was so moved and so personally devastated at the same time. But I kept going somehow. And in some ways, it was a GOOD thing for me to be so humbled by someone else’s work. It forced me to move in other directions, to explore other possibilities.
Among my peers, I feel myself in the spiritual company of writers such as Cara Benson, Brenda Iijima, Douglas Kearney, Craig Santos Perez, and Tisa Bryant.
When I was younger, I was obsessed with John Donne, Shakespeare, and Milton. Seriously. I can still recite some of their poetry by heart. They have such an intensity and inventiveness about their work that stands up to the test of time.
Can you tell me a little bit about your publishing house, Corollary Press?
Corollary Press is a chapbook series devoted to multi-ethnic, innovative writing. I’ve released 10 titles so far. All the books are hand-sewn, in small editions of 150, many of them with letter-pressed covers, and all of them are quite beautiful!
I’ve published some amazing work. It’s delirious to me that I get to put out books like Jai Arun Ravine’s This is January, or Brandon Shimoda’s Lake M. These are amazing writers, people who are truly in pursuit of the unsayable in their work–and they capture SOMETHING so alive, rich, and vital! It’s challenging writing that I feel makes me a more vibrant and engaged spirit for having read it. Truly. So, Corollary is the way I can help share this work with the world. It is my humble (but necessary!) intervention into our social psyches, a way of making us pause and re-consider history, beauty, relationships, landscape, memory, being, etc.
It’s important for me to promote and support innovative ethnic writing because I hate to see reductive cliches continue to circulate about Asian-ness or black-ness or “differences” generally. My authors are bad “representatives” because they challenge and question these types, they complicate the texture of ethnic identity and being. It is precisely their “badness” that I love!
You’ve written a lot of poems about Korea – both the North Korean conflict, as well as the precarious position of South Korea. How does your identity as a Korean-American influence your position on Korea, as well as poetry?
Because my parents grew up during the Korean War, they didn’t like to talk about their childhoods. There are lots of very sad stories from that period in their lives. Being orphaned, losing family members, being hungry, terrified, ill, lost, uncertain. They had good reason to not want to speak of those things with their young children. They were also very focused on making sure that me and my siblings could succeed here. They didn’t push us to speak Korean or keep Korean holidays or traditions, like Chuseok or saebeh. This is not to say that we were totally assimilated. I always KNEW I was Korean, but WHAT that meant was rather fuzzy to me.
As I got older, I became more interested in this heritage. WHAT does it mean to be Korean? Well, I can never know that because I’m Korean American. But what does it mean to be Korean American? That was an intensely complicated question for me. And a lot of my earlier writing was about trying to figure this out. What it meant to me to have an ethnic heritage, to be living in a neo-colonial metropole, to have these questions and to have imperfect access to the tools that might help me answer them–well, that query became the basis of my poetry practice. So, poetry to me is an investigative means through which I can create some shadow of understanding. And my understanding is always changing, so the poetry does, too.
I have a great fondness for Korea. It’s a mythic place for me. An Elsewhere. It’s a dark star in the sky, my stomach up in the clouds. I long for it, I’ll never have it, I love it, I don’t know it. Korea is alive and transforming just as I am alive and transforming. It’s a landscape, an ethos, a culture, an economy, a history, many histories. You can see why I return to it so regularly in my writing.
Who are some great women of colour authors you would recommend to Kickaction readers?
THERE ARE SO MANY! Aside from the ones I named earlier–Wang Ping, Duriel Harris, Prageeta Sharma, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Tamiko Beyer, Kimiko Hahn, Sawako Nakayasu, Evie Shockley, Cathy Park Hong, Barbara
Jane Reyes, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Le Thi Diem Thuy, May-lee Chai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Divya Victor, Lynn Xu, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Tonya Foster…
You can find more of Lee’s work and words on her blog.