Poet Interview: Esther Lee

This week’s featured poet is a “friend of a friend,” whom I look forward to knowing better. Becoming familiar with her poetic aesthetic these past couple of weeks has been a joy and I am eager to promote her work among my readers. While it’s never possible to truly sum up a poet’s work, Lee’s poems are admirably pithy, wry, and honest – concerned with the things in life and history that are difficult to contemplate. Waste no time acquiring her book “Spit” –  I personally recommend it.

Here is a sample poem and interview with Esther Lee followed by an author bio and information about the book, “Spit.”

Dear ____________est,

I sleep between fits of awake. When luck outruns the
running out, call me, the horrible habit. It’s not our
fault, I scream. At four years old, wearing my mother’s
clogs, my sister balances a tray, on it a cup of lemonade.
She steps like a small elephant clamoring over burning
tires. Glass carpeting the floor connotes the fallen
church, welts my throat for forgiveness. What matters
matters me the least. My sister’s pawing hands hand our
bed-ridden father his antidote and next thing I know
we’re smiling vulgarly. These the days when I mistook
daffodils for tulips and tulips for one-armed men in
gardens, their missing arms the evidence of my betrayal.



1. Tell me a little about your relationship with poetry and how it developed.

I studied visual art as an undergrad, starting with 2-D work (painting, pastels, etc.) but eventually became more interested in installations, performance, and video (albeit, crudely done). I seemed to be attracted to ‘dangerous’ materials like resin, insulation, dead fish, dead bees. The ephemeral and the stinky, the toxic. I’m guessing this may be in part because of my upbringing. My parents once managed a small fish market in Maryland so the smell of crabs and fish surrounded me–in my father’s van, in my parents’ clothes. I learned to have a sick and tender response to those smells but also I was interested in how those ephemeral materials could change a space or performance with their sensory insistence. Those visual art pieces often incorporated language–either overtly with text in a video, or with an audio clip from the media, painted text on the canvas, etc. A mentor at that time encouraged me to seriously pursue writing and film. I’d shelved that advice until after I’d graduated and traveled to Korea. There, I was learning Korean but simultaneously felt this unreasonable fear of losing English, as if I could not have both. I began to dream in Korean and in a desperate attempt to hold onto my English, I started writing.

2. Often poets and writers are involved in a number of creative projects beyond writing. Tell me about some other ways you express your creativity.

Along with visual art, I guess another avenue was definitely music. I’d met this blues singer, Charles Atkins, who let me bother him on a regular basis. He helped me to shape my voice for singing, teaching me songs, always encouraging. He helped me to feel more confident on stage, to letting go while singing. Because of him, I started to sing in various music bands. And that love of music and appreciating how it shares qualities with poetry is still there.

3. In what ways do you contribute to and become involved with the poetic, or creative, community?

Kundiman, the retreat for Asian American writers, has been one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had as a writer. The other folks there–fellows, faculty, staff–are completely supportive during and after the retreat. I’ve never been part of such a chosen family of writers who genuinely lift each other up again and again. A true community like this thrives by cultivating this kind of generous energy and I hope that I contribute back to these communities that have so enriched my life. A priority for me has been to contribute back to marginalized communities. Sometimes that’s taken the form of managing literary magazines that promote writers from more marginalized communities, such as inmates, writers of color, LBTQ artists. As a teacher of creative writing, I hope that I can help my students recognize the value of diversity in all its forms (aesthetic, philosophical, authorial, etc.) and notice connections in the most unlikely places.

4. How do you balance the many demands of life with the demands of writing poetry?

I probably don’t. I’m writing regularly for a minute, then prepping for teaching, sulking about not exercising or whatever, but somehow the writing happens. It doesn’t necessarily happen in the most ideal way, which for me would be getting up and having tea, then writing all day with intermittent breaks of playing banjo and reading. Right now, that’s not my reality, but I am still interested in at least half of what I’ve started, so that’s a good sign.

5. What are projects are you working on now?

The main project I’m working on is a novel based on my mother’s childhood during the Korean War and her adulthood as an immigrant in Florida amid times of racial tension and anti-Asian sentiments. The novel explores the intergenerational nature of trauma—my mother’s early loss of her own mother and coping in war-torn Korea as a girl—and how one person’s experience invariably affects the lives of loved ones, in this case, my father, sister, and myself. It’ll incorporate elements of non-fiction, poetry, maps, and photographs too.

Esther Lee currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah and is pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Utah (Literature/Creative Writing Program). She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University and served as Editor-in-Chief for Indiana Review. She has been awarded the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize and 2009 Utah Writer’s Contest Award; twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, as well as nominated for a Ruth Lilly Fellowship.

Her first poetry collection, Spit, was published this year and was selected for the Elixir Press Poetry Prize, and her chapbook, The Blank Missives, was published by Trafficker Press in 2007. Her poems and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Verse Daily, Salt Hill, Good Foot, Swink, Cream City Review, New Orleans Review, Hyphen, Columbia Poetry Review, Born Magazine, and elsewhere.

Kevin Young calls Spit, Lee’s debut full-length book of poetry, “filled with bravado and brilliance” which makes “profound use of hollering across the ‘rusted hollows.’”

Purchase a copy  at Small Press Distributors

Visit Esther’s new website at: http://estherleewriter.com/news.html

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