Jiye Lee’s Afteraffects is a sweeping but personal look at grieving and place. We talked about that as well as the nature of poetry on the page and tentative claims to bilingualism.
MM: So to begin, would you feel comfortable talking about centering the work on grief? At the center of Aftereffects is a tremendous loss, dealt with in a manner both clear eyed but deeply caring. How did structuring the book around that loss work? Are the poems in a chronological order, from most temporally close to that loss and then narratively moving through it? Or is there a different schema at play?
JL: A lot of the poems originated from my journal entries which I wrote at the time of my father’s unexpected passing. I believe that loss gave me a heightened sensitivity to the world around me and a rawness of emotion that enabled me to write with more care and lucidity.
I did try to keep my poems as close as I could to the timeline of losses in my life, but more than that, I loosely ordered the poems according to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. However, the poems do not necessarily follow that order completely and there are poems that break from those stages or fluctuate between those feelings. What was important for me was that my poems effused a shift in perspective and tone – a gradual move away from being centred around personal loss to the macroscopic/other forms of losses in society (though still from my point of view). In this way, I wanted the poems to follow my grieving process and reflect my emotional and mental journey rather than adhering to chronological accuracy.
I think grief is a really difficult thing to talk about and I found it a tiny bit easier to let it out on paper rather than verbally. Although I touch upon other themes, it was from the grief that all of these poems came about and it also became the glue that held all the poems together.
MM: A friend of mine once described thinking about a tragedy itself (as opposed to its aftereffects) as approaching “temporal ground zero.” Which of the poems feels for you like that temporal ground zero, that point when you’re directly confronting that loss?
JL: I think ‘Last Breath’ for me felt like that temporal ground zero. Not only does that poem contemplate a time and realm beyond human life, it also reflects the initial stages of me trying to process that loss and places me right before the explosion of pain and catastrophe to come.
MM: Last breath is also part of the confrontation with the surreality of mourning in THIS moment, the moment of the virus and the distance it forces us to remain in. How did writing poems of grief in this moment change the act of writing for you?
JL: Ah, I actually wrote these poems way before the virus, about three or four years ago. But I think what you said about that momental confrontation and the way the poem captures that leap outside our common perceptions of time and space (as grief causes many of us to lose touch with reality) does still apply to the current time we are in now. I will say though that writing poems now, in this moment of tremendous loss and having forced social distancing measures feels like an extension of that grief. Nowadays I’m thinking more about how to speak for the public rather than just my personal grief and amplifying this act of communal mourning.
MM: Well, I think as my mistake can testify to, there’s plenty in Aftereffects that also speaks to this moment of communal mourning. If you’re comfortable changing subjects, can we talk a little about the visual in your poetry, how you use the page?
JL: Yes absolutely!
MM: Some of your poems have very daring and considered use of space. I’m thinking of “The Untouched” “Rooms” and “How To Put Out A Forest Fire In June”. How do you go about mapping out what a poem should look like on the page? What are you hoping to get out of the concreteness of your poetry?
JL: Ah yes! I wish the form came to me immediately or during writing but most of the time I think about the visuals after having written everything down and redrafted a couple of times. I prioritize the way a poem looks based on the emotions I felt at the time and the mood of the event. Those poems were definitely experimental for me. It took me many drafts to get those poems to where they are now but I think ultimately, the emotional tone of these poems and their titles is what kept pushing me to play with the white space. For me, the visual aspect provides another layer of communication between me and the reader, acting as an extension of language. For each poem, I wanted to convey different things and the experimentation with space helped me greatly. With ‘How to Put out a Forest Fire in June’ I wanted to convey the disorientated nature and relentlessness of heartbreak that comes from a break-up, comparing that to segments of the News about a destructive forest fire. With ‘The Untouched’, I wanted to reflect the mood of the place I was writing about and those bold spaces really helped slow down the poem’s pace. With ‘Rooms’, I aimed to display the fragmented nature of my mind by compartmentalising each stanza to a room of its own, playing upon the bible verse in the beginning, enabling readers to have a deeper understanding or contemplation of my poems.
I hope to get the same emotions across whether that be confusion, despair, or hope to the readers and to enforce that in such a way it leaves them thinking about the poems for a while.
MM: You’re definitely getting strong results. Just as an example of this, mind walking me through the anatomy of the Untouched? You use such big bold spaces there, what went into that dynamic taking up of space?
JL: I love that word anatomy! Yes, with that poem I really wanted to capture the mood of the place, which was India. I was shocked at how busy the people and traffic were but how lethargic and chilled the animals seemed to be. What struck me even more was their sacredness. Like how a truck driver would stop to let a cow cross the road first, or goats and dogs would be lying on the grass by the streets and nobody would try to move or shoo them away. The spaces in that poem were what enabled me to heighten that sense of lethargy and almost a pause in time (India did feel to me like a place stuck in time). But I think those bold spaces also reflected my mental state. At the time I was on antidepressants which made me space out a lot or feel hazy in general. I think those gaps captured that sense of disconnect with time and reality for both me and within the setting/place of the poem.
MM: It does let you get lost in a sort of haze of words. Now that you’ve brought up India, I’d love to talk about the geographic diversity in the poems, the movement from the UK to India to Korea to Egypt. Were you trying to capture a unique feeling for each place? Or were you relying on your perspective being a unifying thread?
JL: I was brought up in England but lived in many different places along the way. I think that’s why whenever I travel or learn more about a country that I want to go to, that sense of wanderlust and attention to new surroundings inevitably appears in my poems. I wasn’t intentionally trying to capture a unique feeling for each place really. What was important for me was to capture my emotions in relation to that place and the sensory details I felt at the time (which may have unintentionally expressed a unique feeling for each place) but yes, I was relying more on my perspective as a unifying thread.
MM: So interesting how the writing comes out so true to that experience of different places, and maybe how, despite globalization, there are still some differences between places, because to me, reading, it really did feel almost as if you had a whole different style for each locale.
JL: That’s truly amazing to hear. I can only see my poems from my perspective so hearing that reaction/your response is showing me again the reader’s side of it and what it does for each person differently. That means a lot. Thank you!
MM: My pleasure. Speaking of your childhood in England and your background all over the place, can we talk about bilingualism in your work?
JL: Yes. Though the funny thing is I wouldn’t say I’m bilingual. English is my first language and Korean is my second but I wouldn’t say I’m fluent in Korean just yet. Language was always a kind of battle in my house growing up and it was only a means of communication to my parents. Now though, as a poet, I can see the richness and uniqueness of each language and do want to explore that in depth in the future. Even though I’m not fluent in writing in Korean knowing this language and coming across differences in certain words or words that exist in Korean but don’t exist in English has made me much more sensitive to my word choice in my poems. In Aftereffects, I wanted to retain some Korean words (though I did put the English translations next to them) as a way of saying this poem is speaking of and stems from my Korean side, it is a poem speaking of this culture.
MM: Well, I think the poems are bilingual, even when we the poets aren’t necessarily, if that makes sense. We bring these languages and words in and ask them to do something we expect, and then they do something wholly different.
JL: Now that you mention it I guess that even if written in English some of the poems are speaking of a different culture and bilingual in that sense!
MM: Did putting in the Korean do as you say, did it ground the poems in that cultural perspective? I’m thinking here in particular of Samchon (Uncle)
JL: Yes, with Samchon (Uncle) I put the names of his children in Korean rather than saying ‘my cousins’. I did this to heighten not only the personal aspect but also the theme of family as lineage and familial ties are really important in Korean culture. Another word I kept in Korean was ‘soju’ the word for a Korean alcohol that is most commonly consumed in Korea. But it is also a drink that causes or leads to many problematic issues as the drinking culture in Korea is so intense. Drinking together is seen as a way of networking, making connections, and almost a ritual in order to gain favour from your boss. I was very subtly referring to that aspect of the drinking culture here and though it was not as direct or clear, the poem itself addresses the issue of debt and the amount of people who suffer from debt problems in Korea. I was shocked to find that the number of suicide cases because people could not pay back their debt was very common in South Korea and has been an ongoing issue for a really long time. Although not obvious, with just those small words, I hoped in some way to navigate the reader through a culture that might be very different to theirs
MM: I think it certainly has the effect of bringing us into a more intimate connection with your narration of yourself, which of course involves those cultures and words. But if I could just close by asking about family. There’s so much of your family on the pages in Aftereffects. How do you sort out what you’re going to bring to the poems from things you might want to leave between you and them? Or do you make that distinction?
JL: I think I made that distinction to begin with but it came to me naturally rather than me making that decision in the first place. I knew right away the poems about my father would have to be personal and honest to my emotions whether those feelings be lovely and warm or heartbreaking and difficult to write about. With other family members such as my uncle or my mother and sister, I kept a certain amount of detachment from them. Other family members feature and play a part in the narrative of grief, but I did not want them to distract from the main theme/character which is my father and the bond between us. Looking back I think that was right to do as it strengthens that sense of rawness and the unflinching nature of the poems and grounds them in this personal loss.
MM: It’s a remarkable book. Okay, so I have a little tradition here as I wrap up interviews. I choose two concrete images from your work, and make you choose between them. You can explain your answer if you like, but I won’t explain my choices, okay?
JL: Haha okay. That’s great!
MM: Fresh baked bread . . . or a passport?
JL: Oh….. wow. That is so difficult. As much as I love food, especially fresh baked bread! I’m going to choose a passport. Whilst a passport might seem restrictive (there’s lots of paperwork and legal aspects to get around when it comes to travelling, or how it allows you certain benefits or disadvantages depending on the country you’re from or going to) it allows me to travel to new places and broaden my views and knowledge of the world!
MM: Good point. Plus you could always go to wherever the bread is
Jiye Lee is a British-Korean poet with a Creative Writing MA from Newcastle University. She has lived and worked in various countries, teaching English as a foreign language. Her multicultural background often influences her writing, making cultural identity one of her key elements. Other common themes of her work are family, mental health, love, and loss.
Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Literary Orphans journal, Bandit Fiction Press, and on BBC platforms. Aftereffects, her debut chapbook, will be published in March 2021 with Fly on the Wall Press.
When she’s not busy travelling or writing, you’ll find her going for walks, playing the guitar and singing really badly, or snuggled up with a book and a cup of tea.
Mordecai Martin is a writer and man about town in Philadelphia, PA. He lives with a cat, a wife, and far too many books. He blogs at http://www.mordecaimartin.net and tweets @mordecaipmartin.