What do you remember from your travels?
The sound of a pig getting killed in southern Mexico. The presence and praise of Subcommandante Marcos and his wife, Ramona, in southern Mexico, Chiapas. The flowers in Oaxaca City. The view from atop the Temple of Sun, the Great Wall of China, and the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I remember the band of amputees in Phnom Penh. The plaza pigeons in La Paz, Bolivia and how brilliantly clean the air in Cusco, Peru. The descent into Macchu Pichhu after four days of hiking in the gorgeous and unforgiving Andes Mountains. Insadong, Seoul, the food, the Korean language skirting around me like perfumed ghosts. Tiananmen Square, where the children now fly kites. The clear water off the Honduran coast. The pho in Ho Chi Minh City, playing in a pick- up soccer game in Laos. The café in Antigua, the journals I filled, the food, the music, the terrain. I think now about our own historical terrains, how simultaneously certain and uncertain they are. How full of flowers and revolution they are. How I want my world to be as whole as possible.
You were on a panel at AWP 2013 on Race in the Classroom, and you are on another panel at AWP 2014 in Seattle on Social Action and Writing. What books would you recommend to develop a poet’s political, social justice, or race consciousness?
To offer an incomplete list: Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row, Octavio Paz’s The Other Voice, Paulo Freire’s Education for Critical Consciousness, Gloria Anzaldua’s How to Tame a Wild Tongue, Frank Wu’s Yellow, Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi’s Wherever There’s a Fight, Mao Zedong’s Poems, Sherman Alexie’s First Indian on the Moon, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Roque Dalton’s The Small Hours of the Night, Lawson Inada’s Drawing the Line, Juan Felipe Herrera’s Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler, Czeslaw Miloscz’s The Year of the Hunter, Jane Jeong Trenka’s Fugitive Visions, Alice Walker’s Once, Adrienne Rich’s What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, and Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet. Start with these and remember who you are.
Why Dalton? Why Freire? Why Mao?
If you travel in their countries, you can begin to understand the historical, social, and government forces that shape any country’s language, including its poetry. In these specific countries, poets are revered and often speak for the people, and I have felt deeply moved and influenced by reading the poetry of poets like Dalton (and other Central American poets like Claribel Alegria and Ruben Dario) and the ideas of Freire, especially his ideas on culture, contribution, and the common person in light of what he calls the “elite.” Pair these ideas with the poetry of a head of state such as Mao Zedong, and you can discover where your own language, your own poetry, your sense of where politics, power, language, and freedom exist and converge.
Ok, so who did the beautiful cover art for your second book?
That beautiful mind is Joo Young Choi. Please savor her website, jooyoungchoi.org. She was born in South Korea and adopted, and received her MFA in Boston. Her work is brave and sometimes reminds me of my dreams. It was a piece of hers titled, “The Weight of Forgiveness,” and I was grateful she agreed to the honorarium and allowed her work to grace my cover. We’ve never met, but I have a lot of love for her and her work.
In 2007, your first book was published---alongside two other remarkable first books by adopted Korean Americans, Sun Yung Shin and Jennifer Kwon Dobbs. Please tell us about the close-knit community of Korean adoptee poets.
I could write for days on this, but I’ll say this---we became fast friends, and I deeply cherish their work, their vision, and their poems. Sun Yung now has a stunning second book, Rough, and Savage. In the time since our first books came out, other Korean adoptee poets have written brilliantly, such as Nicky Schildkraut, Leah Silvieus, Kelsay Myers, Kira Donnell, and Katie Leo, Rebecca Chung, to name just a few. I read with Nicky at her book launch in LA. Love her work. I was reading in St. Paul once and heard Rebecca Chung, whose work and voice I really admire. I served on the MFA thesis committee for Leah Silvieus, whose work I love. I can’t wait for the day a smart publisher signs her to a book contract.
In what MFA program was she enrolled?
The University of Miami. The one and only M. Evelina Galang directs it. I am not on their faculty but Leah requested that I serve on it, and it was approved. So I read her work with other committee members John Murillo and Maureen Seaton.
You teach in an MFA program, right?
Yes. I teach in the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, founded by my friend and one of the finest human beings (and poets) I know, Brian Turner. It’s on Lake Tahoe’s gorgeous North Shore. I am tenured at Fresno City College, my full-time job, where I have loved teaching for almost twenty years. Fresno is where I met Brian.
You’ve written about music before. What live shows do you remember most? How does music enter your poems?
The first concert I saw was the Beastie Boys in 1987. Punk band kids from Brooklyn rapping? Loved it. I also saw many early rap shows---Public Enemy, Erik B. Rakhim, Run DMC. I liked the rage and the energy, especially of Public Enemy. In the end, some of my favorite live bands are the Rolling Stones and Fugazi. I also really loved Pavement. And the festivals--Lollapolooza, Bridge Benefit concerts, Tibetan Freedom Concerts, I went to all of those. I’m too old for those now. Three days walking in the heat? Not anymore, unless it’s through the Andes Mountains. But no one does it like Fugazi. Musicality, lyricism, and tone should be inherent in a poem, so I would like to think that music is already in my poems, if I’m fortunate, so that there is no entering. There’s only allegretto, andante, caesura, anaphora, and things like that. On a specific note, my new book has moments inspired by musicians ranging from Jimi Hendrix to the Korean classical group The Ahn Trio. I can’t imagine life, or writing poetry, without music.
That’s a good note (no pun intended) on which to end.
It is. Go read some poetry, Lee.
Lee Herrick is the author of two books, Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions , 2012) and This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007). His poems have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies, including The Bloomsbury Review, ZYZZYVA, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley, 2nd edition, and Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice, among others. Born in Daejeon, South and adopted at ten months old, he lives in Fresno, California and teaches at Fresno City College and in the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.