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Near the end of Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s latest book of poetry, Aerial Concave Without Cloud, she asks two questions from which, it seems, the rest of the collection springs. “I began my inquiry into light, simply: can I decipher a … capacity to translate and speak the light with my living human body? And by doing so, can I relinquish the intensities of an inherited orphan grief?” she writes. This search—for transformation, for relief—unfurls throughout her writing as an ambitious, challenging meditation on language, atmosphere, and the way we make meaning of sensation.
The Denver-based poet generated most of the book’s material while traveling through Scandinavia, during residencies at art centers and museums in the region. But it’s like no travelog you’ve read before; in its pages, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard meets British poets and contemporary American essayists, the language of old scientific papers abrades modern self-improvement jargon, and a traditional Korean dance is figured upon Norwegian fjords.
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Ahead of the book’s release last week, we chatted with Lee, who also does antiracism consulting work for environmental organizations across the West, about her creative process.
5280: Literally and figuratively, the collection is full of light. How did you arrive at light as the book’s central motif?
Lee: My interest in light is both emergent and longstanding. I began thinking concretely about it about a decade ago. The interest came out of the fact that I’m a U.S. citizen who’s really interested in exploring the Korean diaspora. Both of my parents are immigrants and war survivors; my father’s an orphan. They’re reticent about their time in Korea—they don’t always want to speak about it, partially because of trauma. So my study is trying to educate myself about Korean cultural practices and Korean history.
The way a lot of millennials find things is internet searches. And it just struck me at some point, that I was having the material experience of, like, searching for something, and having information literally radiated into my face from the screen. And the fact that Korea is one of the most wired nation-states on the entire planet, with the highest Wi-Fi speeds, was not aligned with my understanding of the country as I grew up. So this realization—that I’m learning about the history of this modernized, tech-y country via light—got me interested in light as a medium, as informational.
As I was entering early midlife, in my 30s, I also started to notice lapses in my recollection of the day. When you find yourself in a routine, it’s quite hard to maintain focus and presence. To combat that, I started taking up a practice of skywatching. So, when I was, like, on the subway platform, I would make sure to observe the sky and the things passing through it. That made me highly attentive to, say, the way cloud formations change over a day and the ways light interplays on a cloud’s surface. As I became more invested in this, I recognized, Oh, this isn’t incidental; this is the core of how I’m understanding the world. And I want to seek out particular experiences of light to magnify the interests I have in history, in perception, in place.
What’s an example of how your travels in Scandinavia informed your book?
My father is an orphan, and I’ve written tangentially about it before. The way I was raised has led me to, at times, feel culturally orphaned, like there’s a broken line between Korean identity and my life now.
I was in Iceland during the winter, and I got to tour an ice cave as a group tourist package. We were in a cave that was under something like six stories of glacial ice, and the quality of the ice was a deep blue. I remember looking at that and having a profound mental image come to mind of myself housed deep in the ice, kneeling. I felt like that was an orphan projection of myself. Like I was uncovering something that had been lost that was still mine. It’s hard to describe, but that’s an image I return to in the book.
The poems in the first half of the collection don’t have much in the way of narrative or traditional lyricism—they’re quite avant-garde. And then the poems in the latter half become a bit more grounded in story and plot and biography. How did you arrive at this structure?
I’ve always been interested in experimentation. Especially being Asian-American, I’m suspicious of traditional lyric forms that center a certain kind of subjective voice. That’s been kind of worked over to death in broader culture. When I was starting off as a poet, I was much more suspicious of, skeptical of, hesitant about creating a very clear distinctive speaker, which can lead to boxes around an ethnic identity, boxes around what my production can look like as an artist. I’ve always appreciated work that goes beyond genre, that welds, that cleaves, that spills.
There is more traditional lyric work in the collection: short, painterly, with a voice, with a mood, with a tone. And then there are also parts that are essayistic, almost like journaling. My previous books have tended toward a 30,000-foot view of things, but I’ve been examining that for myself: What is my hesitation toward writing from my own standpoint, my own body?
For people who haven’t read much experimental poetry, do you have advice for how to approach this work?
Approach it with the framework of discovery, with as few expectations as possible. I love going to movies without watching trailers. I like not even knowing what genre a movie is. I just buy a random ticket and show up.
Poetry is not just what’s on the page; it’s an orientation to the world, a sensibility, a feeling. So I want to invite people to relax their expectations, let them go. Kind of the way I’d encourage people to think about their approach to love. When we enter into a connection with someone and we have firm expectations of how that person should behave or who they should be, it’s hard to arrive into what is really there, who is truly before you, and how you can engage with them authentically. A book of experimental writing invites that same openness.
(Read more: A Book Lover’s Guide to Colorado)