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“Helium Rebels”: An Interview with Karen An-hwei Lee

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award.  Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Her poems, "A Resistance Song of Zeppelins for Julio" and "Youngest Filament in the Universe," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about how something as a small as a poem can fill something as large as the earth, the way everything and everyone is connected through poetry, and balloons.

Throughout the poem, “A Resistance Song of Zeppelins for Julio,” we follow the path of these balloons that are released into the sky. The poem seems to focus on smaller balloons, but the title hints at something much larger—Zeppelins. Was the piece inspired by the Zeppelin races, or did the creation of this poem develop out of something else?

A small thingsuch as a poemcan float over the world into people’s hearts, while such a light thing such as a scentlike the odor of duriancan seem thick and heavy as it occupies a room. By exploring zeppelins, weather balloons, and diving bells, the poem explores questions about scale and lightness.  It also indirectly asks, how much space can a poem occupy in the world?

This piece starts out focusing on a group of men and women in exile releasing what we can imagine as hundreds of balloons, all filled or connected with poetry. As the poem continues we see the way in which one by one balloons fall behind and are separated from the group, “As the balloons pop, syllables in nebulae of gas / drift over onlookers who read aloud the words / until they sail out of sight, puffing smoke-rings,” and “The balloons take poems wherever they go, / dropping at the mercy of hail or lightening.” We finally reach the end and the narrator claims their presence in the piece stating, “My name / in the light is / Soledad”. Why this sudden shift to this perspective of the narrator? Are they supposed to be understood as a balloon, or a poem released from one of the balloons?

Yes, the narrator and the balloon merge in the same way collective awareness in grassroots movements (“occupy”) may consist of aggregated individual experiences, similar to the phenomenon of recognizing a face among faces. In doing so, we join a circle of readers who experience the same poem, each in a unique waythis is a form of communion wherein we exchange intimacies, collectively or in solitude, by participating symbolically and semantically in an imagined community.

The diction in this piece twisted the way readers of the poem saw things. You described the balloons and the world in such new and exciting ways. I saw this most in these lines, “syllables in nebulae of gas / drift over onlookers,” “Some balloons even scan dactylic hexameter,” and “When we open our windows, air molecules / wander from a malodorous, fleshy durian.” This diction added such potency to the voice of the narrator, it feels as though we can hear the narrator telling us the story of these balloons as they travel the world. Do you find that diction can add a powerful spin to the strength of the voice of the narrator?

Absolutely.  Poetry, by nature, is recognized partly through its economy of language. Our word choices can powerfully influence a poem’s valences and vehicles, including the voice of a narrator.

Have you read anything recently that you think has influenced your writing? If not what have you read recently that you think was really amazing?

I’m reading the Old and New Testaments in parallel translations, plus a range of poetry and prose:  Khairani Barokka’s Rope, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, Ching-In Chen’s Recombinant, Linda Dove’s This Too, Camille T. Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, Luisa A. Igloria’s Haori, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, Adrian Matejka’s Map to the Stars, Paisley Rekdal’s Imaginary Vessels, Natasha Sajé’s Vivarium, Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, Cole Swensen’s On Walking On, and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water and Salt.  I’m also reading Francine du Plessix Gray’s biography of the French philosopher, Simone Weil, whose writings on gravity, grace, and the mysticism of labor continue to fascinate me.

Do you have any new writing projects that you are dying to tell the world about?

I’d love share my collected translations of the Song Dynasty woman poet, Li Qingzhao, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao, now available from Singing Bone Press.  This is the first English-language translation of Li’s collected poems (ci, set to tune of popular songs in her day) and prose.  It includes her essay on war, exile, and the transitory nature of material things.  Li’s voice is unique in that she sets aside imperial formalitiesin style and contentin a lyrical, passionate voice whose immediacy appeals to contemporary readers.  

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