“In my world, poetry is how I often process the difficult and distill the beautiful.”
Poet Lee Herrick has graced us with a second collection of poems. You might remember Lee from the KBS documentary of my return to South Korea; we were a Korean Hansel and Gretel, retracing our steps to find someone who might remember our names or the first words we ever spoke.
Lee took some time out from teaching and writing to talk about poetry, dinner with Frida Kahlo and Jimi Hendrix, and singing “Desperado.”
KS: When we met in 2008, you had just published your first book, This Many Miles from Desire. I feel that as writers, we often write the same story but in different forms. What are your thoughts on this and what would you say are the themes that haunt you?
LH: 2008 was the year of major change in my life. By spending an extended period of time in Korea, for the first time since I was adopted at ten months old, life’s themes began to crystallize, and consequently, the tone and vantage point of my poems changed. In that year, many parts of my adoption surfaced and almost became overwhelming. I emerged from that year almost like a new person. Some of this time appears in Gardening Secrets of the Dead.
I agree that writers often write the same story but in different forms. So during the writing of This Many Miles from Desire (which came out in 2007), the year of 2008 and all of its changes and blessings, and the writing of Gardening Secrets of the Dead, I suppose the tone and angle of the poems have changed but the story remains the same, as it were. Core themes are grace, loss, faith, and joy.
What haunts me? The imagined face full of grace and sorrow of my birth mother and birth father. The untold stories of the dead. Certain sounds—wind through the trees, waves forming and crashing, children’s laughter. I wouldn’t say these haunt me on a daily, conscious level, but they certainly inform my poems. I also believe it is good, even necessary, to be haunted and inhabited as a writer.
KS: What do you think is the role of poetry in today’s world? And, more specifically, in your world?
LH: Poetry plays many roles in today’s world: it can be a clear and new expression of love, gratitude, or homage. The poem can focus and settle the heart in a time of chaos or difficulty. It can chronicle what is best or most difficult in the human condition, across cultures and generations. As one poet wisely reminds us, a poem can “shine a light on the little beautiful things to a world afflicted with disinterest.” Poetry shines light on my life every day.
In my world, poetry is how I often process the difficult and distill the beautiful. Whether it is a life circumstance, a sound or an image, a relationship, or the world and my place in it, the poem is the vessel that matters. In my life, poems have been a source of comfort, a source of discovery, and a source of joy.
KS: Tell us about the title of your new book, Gardening Secrets of the Dead, and how does it inform the collection of poems you’ve gathered in your latest book.
LH: There is a poem in the book called “Gardening Secrets of the Dead,” in which an imagined dead woman tells the speaker a secret involving a “chorus of little brown miracles.” Since so much of the book has to do with survival on a number of levels, it seemed like a good title for the book. I thought, if the dead could speak to us and they were concerned with our well-being while we are alive, what would they tell us? To laugh more? Forgive? See the world? See the world right in front of you? I also thought, how do we cultivate grace? How do we cultivate or garden (if you will) our own stories—those we imagine, those we live, and those that others will remember about us?
KS: Because I’m obsessed with how food and words ground us, I have to ask: What is your go-to comfort food? And did you find there were certain tastes that you were craving during this writing process?
LH: I have to admit that my go-to comfort food is ice cream–green tea or vanilla bean, with fresh fruit like my cousin’s pixie tangerines or Masumoto peaches, which are farmed near where I live. During the writing of the book, I found myself craving Korean food quite a bit. There’s something about the Korean dishes, dolsot bibimbap and chapchae, that remind me of a poem. Maybe it’s the intricacy, the arrangement, and how it all comes together so well.
If you were having a dinner party and could invite five guests, living or dead, who would you choose and what would be on the menu?
LH: This is a hard (but great) question! So much to think about. But I’ll start with Frida Kahlo. I want to ask her about her back injuries and her dreams. And color. I want to ask her about color. Pablo Neruda. I want to ask him about “The Hands of Day” and compare impressions of Machu Picchu in Peru. When I backpacked through the Andes Mountains, I carried his book with me. My birth mother. She would be found, and through the food, the strange occasion and its gravity, our language barrier would dissolve a little. My daughter. I don’t know if she would appreciate dining with Kahlo and Neruda, but I love that it would be part of her life experience. She’s also quite a reader and artist, so maybe she could show Frida one of her drawings. Lastly, Jimi Hendrix. Maybe would could coax him to play! We would eat on the deck of a secluded beach house, facing west to watch the sun go down as we ate. They might like the view from my family’s beach house south of Santa Barbara in California.
I would ask each guest what foods they love and serve something simple, perhaps grilled, like a local fish or vegetable harvested by friends or family. Fresh as possible. From their suggestions, I would shape a menu, and I would consult you (Kim Sunée) for ideas.
KS: In the poem, “Spectral Questions of the Body,” you write about your birth mother and being a child lost in Korea, going West “to become a child in America.” How do you think being an adoptee and not knowing your birth family informs your writing?
LH: I think that being an adoptee and not knowing my birth family has given my poems a sense of wonder, image, and a combination of sadness and joy–always joy. I find myself gravitating toward themes and people who understand suffering, however it manifests in their lives or their art. I also deeply value our individual journeys and how our experiences coalesce into a poem, a painting, a meal, or a song. Also, not knowing my birth family has taught me to find grace and gratitude where I can, even in the not knowing. It has also fed my imagination and my appreciation for precision, which of course helps when you’re trying to write a poem.
KS: What advice would you offer young poets?
LH: Read everything. Keep everything you write. Practice balance. Know who you are and allow for the good places you might be headed. Be humble. Practice gratitude. Travel. Listen to good music. Listen to your higher power. Eat good food. Go for long walks.
On a practical note, learn to name things. Cultivate surprise. Read 50 poems for each poem you try to write. Contextualize and accept the word “no.” Support other poets. Pay attention to (and honor) the stories, the images, the words, and the idea that will not leave you alone.
KS: What is a typical work/writing day for you?
LH: In some order, my typical work/writing day often includes some of these acts: writing or revising on a MacBook Air, teaching first and second year college students, holding office hours, reading, and parenting. Fatherhood is my greatest joy. I am up very early in the morning and will have a cup of good coffee, and I like to work before the afternoon arrives. If I must, I will work and write at night, but I have usually switched to another mode by then. I am also usually reading three or four different books or literary magazines at a time.
KS: Poets have a reputation for being so serious and brooding. Even when you and I were once persuaded to try karaoke in NYC’s K-town, you chose to sing “Desperado”…So, what do you do for fun? Aside from singing Karaoke…
LH: I’ll never live that one down. It brought down the whole room! My off-tune, pitchy wailing didn’t help! But I love singing. I love to laugh, but I guess I have a weakness for those heavy and depressing songs—Zeppelin, Janis Joplin.
I love live music—small concerts, even coffee house folk singers. I love playing with my daughter. She’s seven now, so we play soccer together, drawn and paint, and we are forming a band, at her request. I love most anything outdoors—hiking, cycling, walking, and anything that involves a body of water. I played soccer my whole life, throughout college and semi-professionally after college, so anytime I can see a live game, I’m happy. I also love having dinner gatherings with good friends. A good day trip to a nearby beach. A couple of hours browsing in a good bookstore.
KS: What’s on your playlist these days? And your reading list?
LH: I really like Radiohead, Silversun Pickups, Grandaddy, Pavement, and Bon Iver. I also like instrumental groups like The Ahn Trio and Rodrigo y Gabriela. I could list many bands I have seen live and still love, including The Rolling Stones, U2, Fugazi, and Cold War Kids. I listen to all these bands, and I’m grateful for them. I’m grateful for the sounds and the stories. As one noted philosopher wisely said, “Life without music would be a mistake.”
I am reading the new issues of The Normal School and Tin House, and I am reading Alexi Zentner’s novel Touch and the incredible poetry collections Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith and Rough, and Savage by Sun Yung Shin. I am also reading The Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Baez.
My to-read list is long: Drifting House by Krys Lee, Forgotten Country by Cathy Chung, the new books by Kim Young-ha and Kelle Groom. And there is an even longer list of books whose release dates I am excited about: Daniel Chacon’s new book of stories, Tim Z. Hernandez’s new book of poems, The Masumoto Family Cookbook.
Here are three poems from Lee’s forthcoming book, Gardening Secrets of the Dead.
And some books by Lee and authors on his current reading list: