Poetry News

Sueyeun Juliette Lee's Building of Her Own 'Korea'

By Harriet Staff


At Arcade, Brian Reed takes up Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s poem "Korea" and the problem of geography as it appears for the study of contemporary Asian American writers--with attention to particular "'cartographies' that only become visible when one approaches Asian American literature ec-centrically, without prejudging what constitutes a centered position for viewing, speaking, or knowing."

What distinguishes Sueyeun Juliette Lee's "Korea"—what made me nearly jump out of my seat when I first read it—is her abiilty to dramatize her struggle, as a diasporic writer, to make her own place in the world both using and abusing the global flows of information that characterize the contemporary digital media ecology.

Lee's poem, Reed notes, "appears alphabetically between 'Knuckle Tattoos' and 'Korean Cinema' in a book titled Encyclopedia Vol. 2 F-K, which was published in 2010 and edited by Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, and Kate Schatz."

A year later, Lee's "Korea" appeared under a slightly longer title, "Korea, What Is," in her second collection of poetry, Underground National, but its original publication in Encyclopedia Vol. 2 F-K reveals something crucial about this poem's purpose: it was conceived as a poetic intervention into the genre of the reference work. Lee imagines a reader who wants to learn basic facts and information about Korea, and she provides that curious reader with the sort of text that she would want to find in the reference section of a library, namely, the tale of a Korean American woman finding herself by becoming a poet.

Lee's "Korea" begins with a satellite photo of the Korean peninsula taken at night. Afterwards come prose paragraphs, short factual catalogs, and brief passages of free verse. One will find, too, first-person recollection; staccato lyrical passages; and unattributed quotations. Many sentences are incomplete. Its proximate model may be the poetry and literary criticism of Susan Howe, especially as represented in books such as The Birth-mark (1993), Pierce-Arrow (1999), and The Midnight (2003). There one will also encounter altered found text, borrowed images, and snippets of original verse, all arranged paratactically so as to pursue in a free-associative fashion particular themes and questions. The most important precedent for "Korea," however, is surely Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee (1982). Like Cha—an author she has studied and written about—Lee is searching out, reshaping, and supplementing historical and pedagogical documents in an effort to think through her position as a diasporic subject, someone for whom "Korea" does and does not signify home.

Read more at Arcade.

Originally Published: July 31st, 2015