As part of our new “Fellows Friday” web feature, we focus on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges. This week, we speak to 2013 Pew Fellow and poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee, publisher at Corollary Press and author of Underground National (Factory School Press, 2010), That Gorgeous Feeling (Coconut Books, 2008), and Solar Maximum, forthcoming from Futurepoem Press.
When did you know you were going to be an artist?
I used to be quite religious, and at a prayer meeting in college a friend suddenly stopped and said, “You’re going to be a famous poet one day.” I wasn’t actually writing anything at the time. The peculiarity of my religious years is that I’d “given up” writing because it seemed egotistical to me at the time. But I remember thinking, “That’s strange.”
The moment that did it for me, though—that really showed me the power of what poetry could do and when I found myself saying yes—was when I read Myung Mi Kim’s Under Flag, published by Kelsey Street Press. It’s a very small book, but it changed my life. A classmate pointed it out to me because I am ethnically Korean and he figured I’d like to read another Korean-American poet. I wasn’t sure what I was going to encounter—I’m a bit allergic to things that hyper-perform certain cultural traumas—but the writing was so gestural, haunting, spacious. I had never read anything like it. My mind reconfigured into a new space that could hold and transmit light differently. It sounds cliché, but I immediately felt that I wanted to do that for someone else in the world, too. To surprise and startle them into the mysterious bigger thing inside that they didn’t know they had.
What music are you listening to?
Right now I happen to be listening to some traditional flute music. Specifically, I’m listening to solo 단소 performances. The 단소 (danso) is a small flute that you hold vertically, blowing across a notch on the top lip of the instrument. It has a very bright, woody, living tone that I enjoy. My eldest cousin in Korea sent this CD to me of 박영배 (Pak Young Bae) playing. Korean flute music has such a beautiful emotional clarity to it. It moves in a rhythm that feels like wind pouring through the sky. It takes leaps and sustains. Like thought. Attention. A human ardor.
Some of my friends are musicians, and I’ve always marveled at the way music can so radically affect people across cultures through their bodies. About three years ago, I started playing my cello again, hoping that I could access some of this wonderful universal language of sound and life. What I discovered is that my many years of training had transformed the cello into an instrument of discipline rather than exploration and curiosity. That’s when I decided that I wanted to go rogue and teach myself how to play a wind instrument. First, I picked up a red trumpet. Friends told me it was very challenging to make a sound on a trumpet without training. At a reading, I once played an enormous WAIL on it! But because of the intensity of the trumpet, I decided I wanted to explore an instrument that had been alive. One made of wood. That’s how I became interested in bamboo flutes. I teach myself, I play meditationally, and I listen to them.
How does residing in this region contribute to your artistic practice?
Well, Philadelphia is an amazing city for poets. The amount, quality, and diversity of work being produced here is staggering. And there are so many writers here that I haven’t even intersected with yet! The community I do move [around] in is like a big family. My life feels decadently wonderful when I’m at the pub having a few pints, talking about poetry and sharing ideas. How often can one talk about the philosopher Malabou, intimacy in language, and the jellyfish as a possible model for emotional being? Very seldom, that’s for sure.
There’s such an abundance of creativity in Philadelphia, of vibrant minds and amazing conversations. One of my closest friends, Michele Kishita, is an incredible painter, and through her, I’ve learned to pay more attention to the contemporary painting scene. Philadelphia also has an astounding dance community, which I was first introduced to though my former roommate, Liza Henty-Clark, one of the founders of the Mascher Space Cooperative, a dance space near my home. Seeing dance there and at The Fidget has been mind-blowing for me; likewise with theater and music. How spoiled am I that Pig Iron Theatre Company is based in the city? I really want to take a workshop with them. Their piece Chekhov Lizardbrain haunts me, and I saw it years and years ago.
What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?
I’d run a rabbit rescue or be a travel agent. Is that silly? I love critters, and rabbits in particular have a special place in my heart. I’m also an amazing travel coordinator. I love a bargain, and I love imagining different places and possibilities, making them come true.
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