The following interview with Karen An-hwei Lee was conducted in 2014 by Clare Hogan as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.
Your work often incorporates Christian themes, such as your “Prayer” and “Psalms” series in Phyla of Joy. You also have spoken in previous interviews about incorporating aspects of your Chinese heritage in your work. How do you balance both in your work?
I often use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term “intersectionality” when social categories like race, gender, class, age, or religion aren’t neatly compartmentalized, but rather, enmeshed in hybrid complexities. For instance, my matrilineal heritage is Presbyterian while women in my godfamily are African American Pentecostals who grew up with Asian Americans and now work among Latinos.
To this end, reflecting a diverse background, my poems address a range of topics. “Fire on Angel Island,” which first appeared in the journal Your Impossible Voice, is dedicated to the Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
Fire on Angel Island
for the Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island
Waiting for a word on our incarceration,
we carve the cells, first brushing our grief,
then bleeding our injury with knives.
When white officials plaster over the words,
we carve the flesh of our walls again, then leave
their weathering to time exposed to the bone.
Mailing a letter is out of the question
with surveillance. Besides, who knows
whether it will arrive?
Barred access to freedom, we send hope
to our overseas families in the spirit
of ash to ash.
One who interprets dreams says, my soul
is no longer incarcerated here. It flies back
to my loved ones who welcome me at the river.
Another says, one day, this prison will catch fire.
Everything will burn. Our misery
will depart in exile from Gold Mountain,
yet it returns to share with you, reader:
In fact, Angel Island did burn in our lifetime.
The women’s barracks, destroyed by fire.
In light of gold’s irony, I write this
as an offering to their flames, in memory:
This island is a domain of real angels
and sagebrush, not xenophobia.
It burns with a vengeance
mixed with the toxic ash of exclusion.
“On Hierophany,” on the other hand, is theological in considering the moment “when the divine realm manifests—or the word intrudes— / into our quotidian realm.” The poem originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Poetry and begins with the line, “One example of hierophany is the apparition of angels.” In its explorations of language, the poem whimsically pairs two words not commonly seen together in everyday life, hierophany and hernia. It was inspired by a friend who, as I attest below, dared me “to use the word hernia in a poem.”
One example of hierophany is the apparition of angels.
This is a new word I overheard this morning. It occurs
when the divine realm manifests—or the word intrudes—
into our quotidian realm. The natural one, an untidy
fleshliness of the ordinary. Or the sacred and profane
is another way to say this. I asked whether it is a hernia,
and the answer was, no. A herniated condition is viscera
on viscera—a disc, organs, the skin or nerves. Besides,
such a comparison would be profane. A figure of speech
already exists, I said, in a hieratic silence of cursive
writing long ago dead. Not long ago, those two phrases
dwelled in separate worlds. I dare you to use the word
hernia in a poem, said a friend. So I not only used
the word, I invited God into language. Or God existed
before language, while God is also the word. Remember,
all theophanies are forms of hierophany. However,
the converse is not always true—not all hierophanies
are theophanies—or God visible in our world.
One could say, I suppose, “Fire on Angel Island” and “On Hierophany” are about completely different subjects. The first one is referentially historical, somber in tone, grounded in specific events which occurred on Angel Island: the incarceration of Chinese immigrants, the carving of their poems into walls, and the fires which broke out on the island over time. The second poem, “On Hierophany,” asks theological questions about the sacred, God, and language in a whimsical manner. How do the poems relate to each other in my oeuvre, holistically?
The figure of angels, I suppose, and exile.
Children occasionally appear as characters in your poems, such as “Invocation” in Phyla of Joy, and in various sections throughout In Medias Res. Often they are asking questions or receiving instruction from another character in the poem. What does this add to your work?
I don’t have any of my own, but I love children. And though I’m in my forties, my inner child is still alive: a girl who rode her bicycle to flute lessons; scribbled turquoise ink in a floral cloth-bound journal; read origami books, dictionaries, cookbooks, and encyclopedias; a girl who’d wake in the dark hours, turn on a light, and open a book.
We can learn a lot from a child’s ways of seeing: a votive flame, a newly minted coin, a sea bird over sand, rained-on peonies in a loved one’s hands, a brick of salt rime on a rugged coast, sagebrush blowing silver in red dust, everything seen for the first time. In my avocation as a poet, the freshness of sensory impressions—even language itself as a site of value and pleasure—is integral to ars poetica, the art of poetry, derived from the Greek word, poiesis, “to make.”
“Invocation” from Phyla of Joy, which originally appeared in Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom’s journal Melusine: Woman of the 21st Century and was reprinted by Verse Daily, illuminates a four-year-old girl’s thoughts in a sequence of metaphors comparing her juvenile body to what it is not, invoking a sort of via negativa yet not about God. As the poem unfolds, she ages to fourteen years. “Invocation” indirectly critiques a lyric convention of depicting the female body as a landscape to be possessed, conquered, deflowered, harvested, domesticated, carved into music instruments, et cetera.
My body isn’t shaped like a violin, said the girl.
Curve in my hip isn’t deep enough, profundo.
One blue world, my curve vanishes.
You aren’t a violin, said her mother.
Curve of my body holds no water.
No invisible meridians, the hours, divide it.
My body isn’t a cup for a pear blossom, said the girl.
My hips hold neither fruit nor rain. Succo dolce.
You are not a pear blossom, said her mother.
You are not a cup to drink.
My body isn’t a pomegranate or bell, said the girl.
I am not studded with crimson seeds or a clapper.
Your body is neither flora, fauna, nor brass.
You are not a mountain range. Our voices,
ringing as one, are not the boat-laden rivers.
We are neither rain nor snow. Speak. I am
my mother’s daughter, four summers old.
I am a strong girl, fourteen summers.
Who is my father? Where is this man
to invoke a girl’s image of noon?
Now a woman of forty years opens this letter
without the pressure of metaphors
invoking paternal shadows,
absent figures of speech, veritas.
You recently published the scholarly book Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations. How does this book relate to the work your poetry does on the same subject?
I decided to write Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora because scholarship on transnationalism and Anglophone writers of Asian heritage has focused primarily on diasporic Asian literary production on American soil. This book extends those lines of inquiry by including Anglophone Asian writers in America and abroad, examining their oeuvre within contexts of transnationalism via the dual lenses of translation and translingual migration.
I hope readers will gain new perspectives on metaphysical issues salient in the history of translation studies, such as a classic desire for transparency, or Walter Benjamin’s notion of translation as a form of “afterlife,” infused with a look at identity politics deployed in actual and figurative translations. I’d suggest further explorations of Asian Anglophone literatures—including poetry, prose, and hybrid genres—at the intersections of global feminisms, too.
In sum, my scholarly book is about the poetics of Asian Anglophone prose explored through identity politics and translation theories. As my study crosses various disciplines—postcolonial literature, Asian diasporic literature, women’s studies, and translation—for my critical analysis, I focus on the politics and poetics of Asian Anglophone prose. Likewise, poems in my own collections engage a wide range of subjects related to social justice, translation studies, and women’s spirituality, albeit in a creative rather than critical mode. For example, here’s a recent poem of mine that appeared in the journal Phoebe:
The Rogue Translation
Bird is niao in the original Mandarin.
Un oiseau avec la bicyclette jaune—
The word oiseau is French for bird.
Translation: A bird with a yellow bicycle.
An untethered wild bird, a rogue translation
flaps its wings, resists capture, flies off the page.
Translation: There is no yellow bicycle here—
A free bird in the wilderness, a rogue translation
with wings escapes from paper.
As you can see, the word “rogue” is repeated a few times as the poem alludes to omissions, embellishments, and misalignments produced by what I call a “rogue” translation, animated by the figure of a “wild bird” or “bird in the wilderness.” These semantic shifts highlight the translator’s challenges in rendering a culturally dynamic yet literal equivalence between the original and the translation. As translation is an aesthetic and socio-political mode of communication, a reader could readily extrapolate how such issues of cultural translation and representation are relevant to identity politics in Asian Anglophone prose.
In a previous interview, you said, “Poetry is also a natural vehicle for [synesthesia] . . . vowels are warm colors and consonants are cool colors, yielding rich tones, shades, intensities in form of musical perfume.” However, a blind woman appears throughout all of your collections, usually emerging in meditative moments in your poems—such as “Sweet Glossolalia” and “At the Garden of Divinity.” What might this woman represent about the relationship in your poems between imagery and meditation?
The world is sort of a text, one of radiant surfaces. The blind woman “reads” her inhabited spaces through familiar objects she touches. Similarly, people who experience changes in their ability to navigate the world may experience divine grace in unique ways once taken for granted. The woman resists the label of blindness. She actually perceives a lot of things intuitively, spiritually, and through other senses: gravity, hunger, intuition, and so forth.
Embodying vision in diverse senses, she exists in stark tension to her name, which is no name at all, but rather, a mode of anonymity which, perhaps, gives her an archetypal air. In “Prayer of a Xuerou Apiary,” which first appeared in Iodine Poetry Journal as “Prayer of an Apiary,” the blind woman prays while lying on the floor. The prayer brightens with humming words, the gold bees exploding out of scented flesh. Xuerou translates literally as “blood-flesh.”
Prayer of a Xuerou Apiary
In the blind woman’s body,
thousands of gold bees arise
from their summer hive.
Bees burst out of scented flesh.
A word in my first language
is xuerou, blood-flesh.
Her spirit is a hive of words,
xuerou burned to air
while she prays,
lying on the floor.
The woman prays in the long silences—literal blindness, other times, figurative shadows—between miracles. In the Old Testament, through the prophet Isaiah, the Spirit of God describes the coming Messiah who will bestow “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” The blind woman embraces a scriptural promise in the next poem, “Sweet Glossolalia,” excerpted from Phyla of Joy. It first appeared in Crab Orchard Review.
Bravura of light, one apostrophe.
Red flowers or commas in a square.
A blind woman types out letters twice,
costs a quarter per page yet too light.
Intraocular eye pressures are low.
Tuesday is lost outside a subway,
topographical map for the sightless.
Sun is a brown rose in a mineral spring,
rust-hued fossil of antediluvian tears,
myrrh burned in a true global flood.
Musical wind path for the blind. Madeira,
Brazilian river in paired confluence, tan blue
or amber-colored wine, nothing with tears.
She remembers typing out letters, honey
with a magnifying glass. Hot at two o’clock.
Potted tea sun. With scissors cut nopalitos
raining at the sink, thin as new hat pins
or tin silence on the wet cutting board.
Noon darkness salting a woman’s eye.
Window shades. Eclipse for autumn.
White arms and leaf blindness, a typhoon.
Occasionally, dreams are inaccurate reports.
I open a letter. Open quietly, she says.
Tongues of flame, sweet glossolalia
of prophecies float on known languages.
You have a forthcoming collection of poems, Erythropoiesis. Please tell us a little bit about this book and, if you would like, a poem in it that you feel typifies the collection.
My book-length prose poem sequence, Erythropoiesis, explores the poetry-prose distinction while focusing on the body as a place where the medical meets the miraculous, using physiology as a metaphor for the genesis of poetic language.
Erythropoiesis explores my relationship to Asia through blood heritage and the word as flesh, incorporating material from a histology atlas and a Chinese lexicon in the book’s poetic study of textual maps and textual bodies.
Years ago, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts generously provided resources for me to research classical Chinese theories of poetry and aesthetics as the book developed towards completion. Here’s a fragment which appeared in Quiddity International Literary Journal a few years ago.
[“Invocation,” ”Prayer of a Xuerou Apiary,” and “Sweet Glossolalia” from Phyla of Joy, published by Tupelo Press, copyright 2012 Karen An-hwei Lee. Used with permission.]
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of four poetry collections, including Rose is a Verb: Neo-Georgics, Phyla of Joy, Ardor, and In Medias Res, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award. She is also the author of two avant-garde science fiction novels, Sonata in K and The Maze of Transparencies. Her book of criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations, was published as part of the Cambria World Sinophone Series. Her volume of Song Dynasty translations, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose by Li Qingzhao, is the first in English to collect Li’s poetry & prose in a single volume. Currently, Lee is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois.