Rebecca Evans: I read that the anthology, Here: Poems for the Planet (March 2019, Copper Canyon Press) (Elizabeth J. Coleman), which includes your work, has a forward written by the Dalai Lama, tell me about that!
Lee Herrick: My poem “A Thousand Saxophones: A Poem for the Living and the Dead,” is part of the anthology. I wrote this piece following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The disaster moved me, and I felt inspired to work those images into words: impoverished neighborhoods, people on their roofs, bodies floating. Copper Canyon Press saw this poem, and here we are. I am thrilled to be a contributor to this new work. What I first thought, regarding the Dalai Lama’s forward, is how surreal this is. My work placed among an amazing man who has changed the world. I’ve had the privilege of my poems published alongside Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, and it’s extremely humbling. Then I ground myself. I do not allow these experiences to impact me too much so that I can stay pure to my writing.
RE: You teach English and Poetry at Fresno City College, along with Poetry at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program. How do you balance your personal creative space with the demands of instruction?
LH: Even before “balancing” creative space, I’m most mindful regarding family. Family first. This is my value system. Time with my daughter is paramount, being present for her. I try to be present when I teach as well, as my students are important to me. Balancing my writing is about remembering my writing practice – remembering what works for me. When I feel a poem or that little agitation, there is very little that will prevent me from writing it. I now know my rhythms well enough to recognize when something speaks to me. I honor that, move in that direction.
Another aspect to balance is saying no. I’m able to decline because I know my limits and I know my needs. I need to stay somewhat healthy. That matters as it impacts not just my writing, but my life. In addition to teaching, I edit and publish. I write letters of recommendations and blurbs. I’m grateful that I have a writing life.
RE: You moved to Fresno over 20 years ago and I’ve heard you talk about this place, how you pull inspiration from the richness of its uniqueness and the blend of culture and ideas. Can you tell me more about how place plays a role in your work, especially this one place you’ve chosen to live, grow, and give back?
LH: Fresno is a medium-size city with a mix between urban and rural. There is a “downtown,” but it is largely agricultural, largely immigrant. We have one of the highest Hmong American populations in the US. It’s around 40% Latinx. Fresno is working-class and gritty, rich with texture.
I’ve traveled to almost 25 countries and I’ve found Fresno as diverse as any place I’ve visited. Yet it is a city of extremes, a city of wealth encrusted in poverty. To me, the culture here feels much like a kaleidoscope and that range of humanity excites me.
Summers reach over 110 degrees, and the people here push through heat, push past discomfort. They know what it means to work. I’ve absorbed this work ethic, which I first learned from my father. You put your head down and plow through it. I don’t separate the arts from labor. Labor. Beauty. Discovery.
RE: Your birthplace, your culture, your identity is woven throughout your work and I wondered if you could talk about how your experience, adopted as an infant by an American couple, found its way into your art? Or did you find art as a way to explore your experiences?
LH: Well, if I’m mystic about this, I want to say that art or the imagination is already a part of every person before they enter the world. I was adopted at ten months by a white couple, and for many years, I didn’t think of my adoption much. Very common amongst adoptees. America has a way of wanting to assimilate everyone down to one idea. One root.
Now, I’m more integrated as a whole person, inclusive of my adopted Korean self. It is always there and if the poem calls that out, I feel comfortable allowing it into my work. It is available, at “the ready,” and I find it has a way of sprinkling itself in.
One of the great surprises of poetry is when a poem takes on a life of its own. This is the best feeling. The poem takes over the poet. My identity is simply a part of that.
Adoption has offered me a heightened sense of race and difference and nuance. And being raised in a white family, I’m able to see people and the questions I grew up with about myself and the world. This gives me a true interest in individual experiences. This definitely relates to Scar and Flower, which deals with gun violence, trauma, and how we manage it. In fact, the first half of the book is about mass shootings, like Orlando. One of my main preoccupations as a poet is trauma and how people survive it, the way they navigate life after it, sometimes, incredibly, with grace.
RE: Can you speak to the different processes that each of your three books has taken? Is there a similar thread to the way you’ve pulled a book together or has each one been an individual method? Has the third book become something that has grown from earlier roots in your earlier work?
LH: Honestly, each book has been different. Think of a band who has recorded three or four albums, each one a completely unique experience because, over time, everything changes: studio, producer, sound.
My first book was written mostly in South America, Central America, and Asia. I had spent eight to nine years out of the country for two to three months every summer. So the concept and theme of travel was common throughout my first book. This Many Miles from Desire was about discovery, and about moving away from physical desire, the idea of simplicity in life. I was sorting through my cultural identity and had only returned to Korea briefly.
Gardening Secrets of the Dead feels different because I sensed I needed to do something different. Gardening was published in late 2012, and, by then, I had been through a significant relationship shift. I had also become a father, which offered a wonderful and meaningful impact on me with regards to certainty. It is a much darker book because of this. It is much more certain of itself, and I’m more comfortable with that darkness.
This third book, Scar and Flower, feels different yet again. This is my first overtly political book. I’ve always been involved with politics, economy, military, and history. My passion and long-standing interests in social justice merged with the events in the world. I found myself writing about guns and mass shootings, along with poems about my daughter, and walks along the beach. At some point, I realized, this is about balance. It was also about trauma, how people regulate the impact of life-altering events. How they navigate through and, eventually, reach the other side.
RE: Did you find turning points, the arc in your own writing life, from the start of your first book to the completion of your third?
LH: A huge event that impacted my life and my writing was returning to Korea and searching for my birth family. Of course, becoming a father has completely shaped me. This is my greatest joy, but it has also forced me to think about audience and the longevity of a poem, to ask questions. If my daughter read this in twenty years, what effect would it have on her?
Travel became another pivotal point. I feel that people and places around the world have stayed with me, they enter my poems: a woman in a market in Guatemala, or playing soccer with the young kids on the banks of a river in Laos.
Not finding my birth parents nudged me into making peace within myself, sort of a forgiveness of Korea, of the adoption. Adoption is traumatic. 2008, when I did an extensive birth family search, was one of the most difficult years of my life, but through this fire emerged the most liberating and most important years of my life.
RE: I once asked you, which of your books would you recommend for me, a writer working on memoir, and you suggested Gardening Secrets of the Dead, snapshots of history fused together. Can you tell me your thoughts of nonfiction writers studying, not just this book, but poetry?
LH: I think any writer in any genre will benefit on and off the page from reading other genres, just like a bass player will benefit experimenting with other instruments. It is critical to read across genre, read widely, not just recent published pieces, but those works that have stood the test of time. Read and study across religions, cultures, and belief systems. I can’t imagine a serious writer not wanting to read other genres. Great musicians will readily name the musicians out of their genre that they love. I read fiction and nonfiction, though poetry is my main reading. Reading across genre study provides surprise, keeping us fresh and allowing us to change up our own norms, experiment.
I recommended Gardening Secrets of the Dead for you because of its movement and its questions for the dead. The main question pursued is, if the dead could speak to us, what would they say? And also, if we could hear them, how would we respond? A memoirist is often concerned with this, the dead, or perhaps their past.
RE: How do you use research in your writing? Formal? Your personal interior? Interviews?
LH: I’m a big researcher, but not in a formal way. And my research typically won’t make its way into a poem. There’s a poem in Gardening Secrets that includes some research about Leo Tolstoy’s death and others involved research about Korean border politics. Where I’m rabid on research is through interviews. I’m insane about this. I’ve listened to thousands of hours of interviews of actors, musicians, writers, comedians. I simply love interview as an art form, such as James Lipton or literary interviews. I’m not sure if that makes its way into my poems, but I love reading about creative lives. Every night, I listen to some type of interview, the methods people us to process their lives. I’m a huge sports fan as well, and my curiosity is drawn to people working through things, tough things. Overcoming obstacles.
RE: Can you share your writing process?
LH: I have so many ways to answer this. I’m very auditory. Many of my poems begin with sound. A wave. A bird. Something someone says. An echo. A vibration. I write either on a legal pad or on my laptop. I write into the direction of that moment or that idea or that sound. I’m big into revision and allow my poems to simmer for a while. My wife, Lisa, is my first and best reader. She has great instincts, and she cares about me, about my poem. My first book, I wrote a lot outdoors because I was traveling. I wrote in a notebook. Less pragmatically, I’m a bit of a dreamer, and so my imagination still has a place in poetry. Basically, I’ll write anywhere on anything.
RE: Your work is not limited to the writing-poetry-academic circuit; you heavily participate in human rights, a voice for adoptees, and more. Can you speak to how these events, maybe even world events, influence your art? Do you feel a responsibility, as an artist, to help bring truth to the surface through your work?
LH: I care and am moved as a person. I don’t feel like I have to write towards some global or some political event. It is more that I am saddened or angered by an event. Alice Walker once said, “Poetry is a place for leftover love and leftover anger.”
The world is joyful and beautiful but hideous at times, too. I recently wrote a poem about a Korean adoptee, Phillip Clay, who was raised in America and never became a citizen. He was deported back to Korea over a misdemeanor. I wrote a poem for his memorial service after he committed suicide.
One of the great blessings of my writing life is to have connected with other Korean adoptees around the world. I’ve met people who read my work, tell me what my writing has meant to them. This surpasses all accolades and prizes. I’ve written about and supported a number of social justice efforts over the years, and I’m also working to establish a Social Justice Center at Fresno City College.
RE: Can you share a few insights into who has influenced your writing the most?
LH: Li-Young Lee, Juan Felipe Herrera, Alice Walker, Brian Turner, Sun Yung Shin, Larry Levis, and my mom who was an artist, to name a few.
RE: Can you talk about where, for you, a poem begins, that small ignited fire you’ve spoke of in workshops?
LH: I have this belief that writers, those who write seriously, have some experience in their life that altered their course, often under the age of ten, often traumatic or very difficult. I call that the writer’s fire. It is always there. Given that, then almost anything can spark from it. Fires can jump. It can be sparked by another little spark. For the writer that is in-tune with this, knows what this fire is, their potential for writing is almost always there because it sparks from anything. It fuels their writing.
My adoption is my large fire, and my smaller sparks circle around race, death, mother figures, trauma.
RE: Did any of your work surprise you?
LH: When I’m lucky, and the poems are good, they should surprise me. The good ones. The fun ones. Sometimes, you’re surprised over a number of years. Hopefully there’s enough rigor and a little magic and a little lyric. One poem, “Fire,” does something different for me every time I read it. It surprises me every time.
I try not to think of a poem as “done” once published. We can listen to our favorite songs countless times, but we always discover something new each time. Great art should do that.
RE: What advice do you have for a student of the narrative or literary arts?
LH: Read voraciously.
One must read across genre, across time, and read multiple works by an author if available. Humility and development. Cultivate thick skin and the ability to be humble. Learn. Love revision. Don’t take things personally. Make room for criticism.
Take care of your lives and yourselves. Self-care is critical. Take care of your families.
Honor whatever strange, weird direction writing might take you. Don’t over-censor.
Travel. Explore. Get messy. Get lost. Have some faith. Or find some faith. Find your tribe, by gender, experience, aesthetic. I’m a part of several tribes. This is helpful.
I don’t mean to sound remorse, but remember death — whatever that means to you —and let it fuel you.
Word Poetry Press
Lee Herrick is the author of three books of poems: Scar and Flower (Word Poetry Press, January 2019), Gardening Secrets of the Dead, and This Many Miles from Desire. His poems appear widely in literary magazines, textbooks, anthologies, including Columbia Poetry Review, The Poetry Foundation, Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice and Here: Poems for the Planet (with an introduction by the Dalai Lama, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in March 2019). With Leah Silvieus, he is co-editor of The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (forthcoming in Spring 2020 by Orison Books). Born in South Korea and adopted to the United States, he served as Fresno Poet Laureate (2015-2017) and teaches at Fresno City College and the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.
Rebecca Evans served eight years in the United States Air Force, and is a decorated Gulf War veteran. She’s hosted and co-produced Our Voice and Idaho Living television shows, advocating personal stories, and now mentors teens in the juvenile system. She held the title of Mrs. Idaho International and earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Boise State University, minoring in Psychology, and was honored with the BSU “Women Making History in Idaho.” Winner of the 2018 Cunningham short fiction story award, she was also a finalist for december Magazine’s 2018 Curt Johnson Prose Award and has made the short list as semi-finalist for American Short Fiction’s Short Story Contest. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Tiferet Journal, Fiction Southeast, Gravel Literary Magazine, Scribes Valley Publishing’s Take a Mind Trip (Anthology), Willow Down Books’ Our World, Your Place (Anthology), and is forthcoming in War, Literature & the Arts, among others. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves on the editorial staff of the Sierra Nevada Review. She lives in Idaho with her three sons.
Lee Herrick Photo Credit: Curtis Messer