Thinking Souls: An Interview with Ed Bok Lee

Shannon Gibney, the writer for Thinking Souls,'s monthly literary feature, interviews poet Ed Bok Lee for May. Look for a review of his book "Real Karaoke People" and come and talk in our on-line book club, any time.

Ed Bok Lee
Thinking Souls

Since New Rivers Press published Ed Bok Lee’s Real Karaoke People last year, Lee, a poet, playwright, and fiction writer, has been incredibly busy. The book, which is a collection of poetry and prose, has been generating an enormous amount of attention, both inside and outside the literary community, for its raw language, bold subject matter and beautiful imagery.

Lee is a creative writing teacher at Hamline University and Augsburg College, who also teaches in residencies in the Minneapolis Public Schools. His schedule has recently been even busier, as he has been reading in a variety of venues around the metro, and fielding interviews at many publications (including this one).

Real Karaoke People was a Minnesota Book Award finalist, and is now in its third printing. Please pick up a copy before May 8, to participate in an online book discussion in the Thinking Souls forum.

SG: How did the book come to you? Did it come in pieces? Did you know when you were writing each individual piece that you were going to assemble it into a book?

EBL: No, I had no idea that it was going to be a book. I was writing plays and fiction mainly, and I was writing poems on the side. I went and got my MFA in fiction and playwriting, actually [at Brown University]. The only poetry workshop I’ve ever taken was at the Loft, for a few weeks. I had to drop out because it was the same night as slam night.

But other than that, I never had submitted any of the poems to any kind of workshop, or very many journals. I just was writing these poems, just kind of to remain sane, and then I would read them at open mics, slam venues. And then I put them all together, and I saw there was a contest at New Rivers Press. And I thought, “Well, I should just see what I have.” And I put them all into a manuscript in a very short period of time. I thought, “Wow, there’s a lot of play here and themes that I didn’t see, that I’ve been developing piecemeal.”

So, I put them together, and rearranged them in collage fashion, to kind of maximize what I thought they were saying, as a whole, in a way that I thought that they couldn’t say singularly. I think that’s the beauty of a collection of work. Hopefully, it’s like a symphony – they all begin to sing in a way that the sum is greater than their parts.

SG: It’s interesting to me that you started out in a very different vein than where you’re at right now. Can you talk about the process of navigating these different genres, and how you came to each genre? And how do you think of yourself as a writer?

EBL: I think of myself first and foremost as a poet. I’ve always prided myself, even in the plays and the fiction, in trying to reach… I feel that poetry is the highest form of consciousness.

SG: Why do you say that?

EBL: It’s sort of what Aristotle said, that metaphor is the ultimate sign of intelligence and understanding. Can animals speak? Well, actually, giraffes can speak. They’ve found that animals can communicate with each other – birds, bees. But can they communicate in metaphor?

I’ve found that the most enduring works, at least that live in me out there in the world of poetry, drama, plays, and creative art – even visual art, and so on and so forth, into film and music – is metaphoric. So I feel like those are the works that I aspire to create. Poetry is sort of the purest form of achieving that state of consciousness. That’s why I write – to achieve that heightened state of experiential consciousness.

SG: Do you feel like you’re using different parts of your brain when you’re writing in different genres?

EBL: Yeah. In drama and in fiction, it’s largely about relationships of the characters to one another, or to the place – the political regime, to the given society. I feel like there’s a place for that in poetry, but poetry can be more of a state of being that I think can exist in a very associative, very dreamlike place, where you don’t have to do setting, character development, and all those things.

Maybe poetry is when people go to pray, or if they go to the Wailing Wall, or if they go to a cathedral, or whatever. Maybe poetry is closest to that place, metaphorically speaking. And fiction and drama are different places in the society. I don’t know where they would be – maybe sometimes the street corner? Sometimes a park, or a dinner conversation. That’s what it feels like to me.

I think novels and plays can talk about ideas, and what’s going on in the society. There’s a place for that in narrative art. But poetry for me is attempting to eschew and transcend all those things, the daily way we speak, and actually enact a different level of consciousness.

But to get back to your question, do I write with a different part of my brain, I think I do. I think in poetry, it’s must faster, and much more associative and dreamlike than where I’m writing in the narrative form.

SG: It’s also interesting to me that you write your poetry down, and then you also perform it orally. Those are two very different forms to present your work.

EBL: At this point, for me, I look at the performance poetry kind of like a separate form of poetry, likened to a physicalized sonnet, or a physicalized haiku. In a haiku, you have strictures – five/seven/five syllables. And in a sonnet you have a metrical scheme, and in a gazal, so on and so forth, you have these rules, words that you have to place at the end of certain sentences.

The way I see the poems I perform, especially in the slam venue, is that you have a given amount of time – in a slam, you have three minutes. So it’s more of a temporal structure, or stricture. And then you have the audience’s attention span, which is limited. You have your body, which is this extra vocabulary of punctuation that you can use. It’s in three or possibly four dimensions, versus what you can do on the page alone. And you only have one shot to get what you want across.

The orientation of voice in a performance poem, those voices tend to be more extroverted. Whereas, a lot of poems I’ve written are more introverted and introspective. The voice is going inward. It might not even be my voice, or even a human voice. So I tend to perform the more extroverted voices that are human voices.
Even if it’s the voice of someone who’s passed away. In the book, there’s a poem that’s in the voice of Edward Song Lee, who was killed in the L.A. Riots. And I don’t really choose it. It starts to come out in a voice that is either introverted or extroverted, as I said.

SG: Do you find that people interact with your work differently, depending on what format they encounter it?

EBL: I think it’s something like a film that has once been a book. If you go see the film first, this is the definitive version in your imagination. And then if you read the book, you’re going to see these actors in the role, you’re going to hear their voices. That’s why I think it’s an interesting, strange, and probably necessary thing, in terms of bringing more people to the book.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing across the board though, because I think that the act of reading is participating with the text. You’re using your imagination, and you’re filling in a lot of silences and blanks with your own experience. And everyone has a different relationship to a word. When I say, “Summers in July,” that’s going to mean something different to us here, versus someone in Alaska, versus someone in California. Or when I say something like, “Spring regeneration,” what does that really mean to someone whose spent their whole life in California? So I hate the idea that I’m imprinting, I’m stamping my experience of that word on everyone’s forehead as they’re sitting in the audience.

SG: Why do you call the book “Real Karaoke People”?

EBL: I struggled with that a lot, because that poem came out of me at a time when I was reading a lot publicly, and performing poetry at open mics. And I wrote it, and I put it away, because I was really…basically, embarrassed of it, of the fact that there’s this poem that has karaoke in it, and it actually has singing in it.
A lot of poems, you have to work very hard, revise and revise and revise, and then they’re finally, somewhat finished. This poem I was trying to revise and revise and revise, but it wouldn’t. It just kept shifting back into shape; it was like Silly Putty that was no longer putty.

So I finally let it be. After I first wrote it, I put it away, and I shelved it. And one day, I was at a poetry slam and I wanted to read something new, and I happened to have it. I pulled it out and I read it, and it felt just like singing karaoke – it felt great. And people seemed to really, really love it.

So, it ended up in my book. I didn’t want it as the title, because I felt that people wouldn’t take the book seriously if there was karaoke in the title. But then, as I was putting the poems together, and really looking at what the book was saying, and at the themes and at the images, and the meaning of the book, I realized that the book is about catharsis, and reinvention of self, and also, largely depicting the lives of people who fly under the radar – the voiceless. Not just immigrants, but refugees, prepubescents, migrants, criminals, degenerates – people who don’t normally tend to have a voice in the mainstream society. And if you go to many karaoke bars across the state and country, these are the types of people you’ll find.

Finally, there’s a spiritual component to karaoke, especially in Asia: Korea, Japan, China. There, karaoke takes place in this room that you rent by the hour, and you sing with friends, or alone, or with your family. Businessmen will go during their lunch hours and loosen their ties.

When I do go back to Korea for family gatherings and occasions, we always end up at the end of the night at these karaoke bars. In these private room karaokes, you have these people in their 60s, and I have my little nephews five years old, in the same room, singing songs from many different generations. And I see it almost as it as going to confessional, in a way. You just belt. You just wail in this little room, and again, some people go alone. So there’s spiritual, cathartic, release to it.

And on a political level, I began to think, “Well, you know, karaoke is one of the most democratic art forms I can think of, aside from spoken word.” Anyone can go up there, on a spoken word, open mic event, and read their poem. Anyone can get up there at a karaoke bar and sing, for free. I think there’s something beautiful about that.

It’s not so much about being perfect, or the quality. It’s more about the necessity to give a voice to the voiceless, public forum to speak your mind. And I think that’s one of the things that a lot of people in control of the arts don’t quite see or appreciate – the democratic value of the open mic, or of karaoke and other forms – and therefore, criticize it for not being “good art.”

I think we’re at a place in 2006, where things have democratized so much, for better or worse, that art also needs democratizing. Perhaps there can be room for art that isn’t as polished, but is saying something more vital than those rarified forms of art that have been polished, almost burnished to the point of nonexistence – they’re just wisps of meaning.

SG: I feel like you’re fascinated by voice. And there’s this sort of wistfulness about the work too, which reflects this spiritual center that you’re talking about, the ultimately unknowable nature of human experience. But at the same time, I feel that the way to get through that is these very visceral and raw descriptions of inner-city life.

EBL: When I was 17, I was really struggling for a voice, a face, an identity that I wasn’t seeing in the mainstream media. I wasn’t even really reading it in books that – and I had only really just started reading at that point, books that I was choosing anyway, versus books that were assigned to me in class, which I really wasn’t reading.

In retrospect now, I see that at that time, I was really trying to find my place in the world. I felt that I was going to fall into a track that was not of my choosing, and I had seen that before, especially among Asian immigrants and their children. Like my cousins, going either to med school or engineering, and not really questioning these tracks that they were being forced into.

SG: Did you feel like you always were questioning those tracks, or do you feel like you came to a point where you started questioning?

EBL: I feel that there was an impasse inside me, and I really just needed to run away from my life and everything I knew. And this is where it’s taken me. I’m sure it’s a track in and of itself, but it feels…Especially when I see my cousins and family members, when I see them, especially now, people who stayed the course and who have kept those tracks, some of them have told me, “This is not the profession I would choose again, but this is the one I’m in. This is the life I’m living.”

To an extent, we’re all going to have regrets. But at this point, knock on wood, I don’t regret having run away.

SG: I’m interested in how the book’s themes and content came to you.

EBL: It’s stories about my family and friends told through poems and prose, sort of to preserve that we are here – how we came here, what we do here, and where we’re going from here. I felt like those stories weren’t out in the culture. There were no voices that were cohering for me in my soul, so I went out seeking them. And when I couldn’t find them out there, I went to over two dozen states in search of them, in Canada and Mexico, eventually to Korea.

I realized that if I’m not going to write down these stories, it will be as if they never existed.

SG: So you see yourself almost as a witness, a scribe?

EBL: In the book there’s a lot of preservation of things in Minneapolis, or in the places where I’ve lived. I wasn’t conscious of it while I was writing – I was just writing each individual poem, trying to achieve that moment when you’re one with the material. And when I see them in the book form, I see that there’s a lot of places that I’ve been. South Minneapolis, New York, Colorado, around the country.

We live, and we sort of smear ourselves over all of the people who we love, and the places we love. And then we disappear; we’re gone. I feel that this book is an attempt to document that – whatever that substance was that was smeared on all these people and places.

SG: Do you think of yourself as a Korean American writer?

EBL: What I’m doing, intentionally, is trying to participate in this thing we call Asian America, this Asian American culture, which is influenced by my parents and the way that they brought me up, their philosophies and their religious beliefs, their culture – everything from the food to the song to the art form.

I believe that a given culture has a given orientation of the soul. And you can hear it in a culture’s music. It’s live, it’s right in front of you, it’s all around you. I really believe that when I hear a culture – whether it’s Irish or African or English or Hawaiian – when I hear the traditional songs coming out of people, I definitely sense that there are differences of the soul. So in that way, I feel alive with some sort of Asian, and more Asian American sensibilities. I have no idea how to try and quantify those things, but I feel it.

It’s sort of drenching the country when I go back to Korea – especially the countryside. It’s tied to the land, it’s tied to the history. It’s a history, in Korea, of oppression, of colonization, and of survival. I feel, like it or not, that that ethos or whatever you want to call it, is infused in my work.

In a way, I feel like a conduit, at best. In that moment of writing a poem, when everything is working as it should, I feel like a conduit between something going on in another realm. It might be something like the past, history, or something beyond memory. Voices. It’s in the realm of intuition…and it’s mysterious. And that’s when I feel like I’m at my best in writing. Versus that I have things to say that I want to communicate. If that were the case, then I think I would do journalism, or write essays.

I think I’m in love with the unspeakable, the inarticulable. You’re always coming up against this invisible wall, and putting a cup to it, trying to hear what’s going on the other side. You’re always trying to transcribe those things.

To hear Ed Bok Lee speak about and read his work, check out Radio mnartists.

Please join your peers from around the state in a conversation about Real Karaoke People on the mnartists book club forum, beginning on May 8. Check back before than for a review of the book.

For more information on Ed Bok Lee, visit his website at

Readings in May by Ed Bok Lee:

May 6, Loose-Leaf Poetry Series: Out on a Limb Reading Series (Heid Erdrich,
Ed Bok Lee, Cindra Halm, Ayme Almendarez) 6 PM at Audubon Coffee, 2852 NE
Johnson St., Minneapolis., MN (612.781.0427)

May 12, *Treasure Hill Tea & Photo Gallery, featuring Ed Bok Lee, co-sponsored by the Taipei Culture Bureau (*as recently covered in NY Times and Disocvery
Channel’s Lonely Planet) – Taipei, Taiwan, 7:30 pm

May 20, PB&J, featuring Ed Bok Lee, @ Stereo Club, Seoul, South Korea, 7:30 pm

Shannon Gibney

Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a young adult novel that won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Young Peoples’ Literature. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where she teaches critical and creative writing, journalism, and African Diasporic topics. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, her critically-acclaimed new novel, Dream Country, is about more than five …   read more