Of Mothers & Mother Tongues: Interview with Ed Bok Lee

Our resident Print Translation Editor Megan Sungyoon chats with Ed Bok Lee, author of Mitochondrial Night (Coffee House Press, 2019) about family, Korean history, and language as a form of resistance and exploration.

How did you come up with the title Mitochondrial Night?

Billions of years ago, a simple, free-living organism, a bacterium, entered into or was engulfed by a larger, more complex cell with its own DNA. Rather than being digested or destroyed, the smaller organism was “domesticated,” and to this day retains its own separate DNA. From that odd union of “major” and “minor” types of DNA, molecular biologists believe humans and many other forms of life, like plants and other species evolved. In fact, had that odd union not occurred, humans as we know ourselves wouldn’t exist. In short, we’re heterogeneous to the core. These different types of DNA that we all carry (e.g., the DNA in our mitochondria, the “power factories” of our cells, being inherited solely from our mothers ad infinitum) seemed like an apt, centralizing metaphor for the book, which is dedicated to my mother (and all energy and life).

Among other things, the poems are exploring what it means to be a migrant, a refugee, an immigrant by looking at certain commonalities not only between all humans, throughout history, but also commonalities between all seeds, stars, cells, and ancestors. Historical trauma, epigenetic implications, post-human, and astro-biological scenarios and concerns factor heavily into the book, as well. Though we now know what mitochondria are, and from where they likely come from (i.e., fusions with “alien” organisms), we’re still completely in the dark as to what we’re still evolving into. It does feel like we’re in the beginning stages of an unprecedented, evolutionary leap, given how much our lives interface daily with science and technology. But does or can the spirit, the soul, evolve, as well? This is one of several main questions or themes in the book—all, hopefully, in the least technical or sciencey ways possible.

You dedicated this book to your mother, in Korean. You’re also a translator of Korean poetry. What/how is your relationship to the Korean language as your mother tongue, with an emphasis on the word “mother?”

I do translate Korean poetry into English, mostly co-translate. I’m not confident enough with my knowledge of Korean and the culture and nuances to translate alone, save for some short poems. As I’ve noted elsewhere, in order to translate a poem, you have to recreate the poem into a newly unique literary object. This new creation has to exist in a different language, rhythm, and cultural and often literary frame of reference, while, of course, retaining the core integrity of the original. It’s a nearly impossible task. But, fortunately, that is where poetry shines bright: in articulating the inarticulable. But, yes, English is my native tongue, which I have some complicated feelings about. For instance, years ago, while living in Seoul, I briefly taught English. It was a psychically painful experience—to be an agent of Western neocolonialism in Korea. Reflecting on that experience, I decided to use my knowledge of English and whatever abilities in poetry that I have, in order to translate Korean poetry; and not just poetry from the Koreas, but, for a time, ethnic Korean literature from Central Asian Korean writers writing in Russian. I’ll grant that there is something mothery to these urges.

Throughout my reading of the book, I was so touched by how Mitochondrial Night narrates the inherited trauma intertwined with colonization, patriarchy, and immigration history. Could you share how you’ve come to find inspiration, and also a bit about your writing process?

This means a lot of me, coming from a native South Korean female poet such as yourself. I think much of that can get lost on Western readers who only passingly know the colorful and complicated history of Korea. As I’ve noted many times before, poetry is so important and vital in Korea and other nations that have historically been surrounded by larger geopolitical powers. As Czeslaw Milosz wrote: “Language is the only homeland.” In order to kill the soul of a people, you first take away their language. The Japanese knew and attempted this when they occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. My father was a schoolboy then. Poetry is the art form closest to language, without which the people’s collective soul has no body. A dispossessed people may have music without language, but that music without lyrics is akin to a spirit without a body. I find great inspiration from so many different kinds of poetry and music. A great song’s spirit can enter into and mingle with, even fortify your own. A great poem’s spirit/soul/body/mind can do that, as well, but, because it does also have a “body,” it can sometimes do even more.  

Within the book’s matrilineal frame, the speaker recursively contemplates the father figures’ and his own masculinity and fatherhood in relation to societal and political violence. Could you speak about your experience of becoming a father and how it affected your writing?

My grandmother, who helped raise me for part of my childhood in Korea, was a poet. Partly because of the old style of Korean that she spoke, partly because she was a strange person and spoke of strange things, and in part, because I was too young and didn’t always understand what she was saying, everything about her was a kind of poem. This was the 1970s in South Korea, during the dictatorship of Park Jung-hee. During this time, the government rounded up its opposition, including poets and writers, who were then imprisoned, beaten, even killed.  Of course, I was too young to understand all this. But I distinctly recall the zeitgeist. My grandmother didn’t write political poetry, per se, and received little in the way of a formal education. But I do remember some of the conversations that the adults had, the enforced curfew under martial law, seeing tanks and armed soldiers— the symbolism and paraphernalia and infrastructure that accompany Western colonialism and imperialism of a much poorer nation. For much of its entire history, the history of Korea and its people has been, yes, that of political, cultural, economic, religious subjugation— but one, also, of enduring resistance; as a whole, the language— linguistically speaking, a “language isolate”— is a kind of living testament to this: a kind of long poem of resistance and ingenuity.

Photo Credit: Ed Bok Lee at Many Voices 2009 by the ALA The American Library Association via Flickr.com under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Now that I am a father of a daughter who is approaching the age I was when I lived in Korea, I’m seeing the world through her eyes and simultaneously re-remembering the world as it was when I was her age. In terms of poetry, for me every human being is drawn to poetry at an instinctual level, because when you’re young, everything in the world, every sound and image, and sensory detail, is new and mysterious and just beyond comprehension. That is, the world and everything in it feels like a poem. I believe we never truly lose this. We may convince ourselves that we finally now comprehend the world in a rational way as adults, but when old, on our deathbeds, we return to that original state in which the world is a complete mystery. Poetry is all about attempting to uncover the radically obvious, which life so often distracts, blinds us from.

To my understanding, you speak at least three languages. What impacts does being a polyglot have on your poetry? Do you ever write poems in languages other than English?

With the exception of one poem in Korean that was published many years ago, I write only in English. My Korean and Russian have never been good enough to write poetry in, and over the years have only continued to degrade. English, which seems, in general, to be evolving at a faster rate than ever because of transmigration and media and technology, is my native tongue. That’s plenty.

Mitochondrial Night, rich with details and references in and of itself, prompts me to imagine the individual poems in relation to different genres of art. When you’re not reading poetry, what do you like to read, watch, listen to?

Everything. Isn’t that, say, what the internet is: everything all at once? Seriously, beyond too many books and bands and forms of art and journalism and other media to name, I spend a lot of time hovering just beyond the radically obvious, waiting patiently for glimpses.

If you could send a copy of Mitochondrial Night to anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

My late father, who passed away before he’d read anything I’d written.

Could you give a word of advice for younger poets?

Poetry comes from the deepest, most intrinsic place within. Don’t believe anything you haven’t experienced and felt deeply for yourself. Think for yourself. Observe and attempt to commune with the radically obvious. Think for yourself. Be kind (but only for the sheer pleasure of being kind), and always try to be the most open-minded person you can imagine. Think for yourself. Do and say at least one successfully foolish thing a day from the deepest place of your convictions. You might fail at being authentically foolish, over and over. Don’t give up. Forgive, think, and assess everything and everyone for yourself. In his darkest hour, the King seeks counsel not from the Wiseman, Statesman, Historian, Philosopher, Scientist, or Poet, but from the Fool.

Photo Credit: Ed Bok Lee by the ALA The American Library Association via Flickr.com under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

About the author

Megan Sungyoon is an MFA candidate in Poetry and Literary Translation at Columbia University. Sungyoon writes, reads, and makes stuff in Korean and English, mostly in New York for now.

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