updated 20 Oct. 2008

 

 

home | Reviews | An Author Interview

 

 

Reviews:

Polyphony Magazine (September 2004)

 

Small Press Review

 

Gathering of the Tribes

 

American Book Review (2005)

 

Rain Taxi Review of Books Summer 2005 online edition or http://www.raintaxi.com

 

Review in the blog called AtomicZebra7:

http://atomiczebra7.blogspot.com/2006/11/lipstick-smeared-sledgehammer.html

 

North American Review (May-August 2005, Vol. 290, Nos. 3-4) in Synecdoche: Brief Poetry Reviews, 84.

 

 

 

Author interview

for the Camden Library Website

Visit http://arts.camden.lib.nj.us/poetsweb8.htm

 

Therese Halscheid: Jeffrey, you used to teach at Camden County College, NJ—before moving to Colorado to teach creative writing at the University of Northern Colorado. Tell us about your move, perhaps why you moved, and how your Doctorate may have changed your life's course.

Jeffrey Lee: I did teach at Camden County for a year on a tenure track. (I still have some great friends there, in fact.) Then there was a visiting year-long job at F & M, and then there were five years at the Community College of Philadelphia, where I also still have some great friends and where I had tenure.

The Ph.D. in literature from NYU made all these jobs possible, and it was great to learn that a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. (I knew a lot of Ph.D.s who knew nothing worthwhile, as well as many who did. Or let me put it this way—if you went into a doctoral program knowing nothing worthwhile, your odds of coming out exactly the same way were better than you’d think. If you went in already knowing something about life and literature, then it was possible to really do worthwhile thinking. I still believe that some of my research may make a useful contribution to the way people read some things, someday.

But a happier learning process for me began in the MFA program, also at NYU, where I studied with Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Cornelius Eady, and Shahid Ali from 1998-2000. That expanded my abilities to hear what many other kinds of poets were doing because the various styles were no longer abstract scrawls in mysterious journals with no context. Then I could talk to the creators of various aesthetics and understand where they were coming from, so I was able to write works that resonated in more ways and directions than before. That MFA and the first Tupelo Press Prize for literary fiction, awarded in 2001, made the University of Northern Colorado job possible.

Why did I leave Philadelphia, where I was born, and which I love more than any other city on earth? The job looked better than where I was, and it seemed like a great opportunity that I’d always have regrets about if I did not go. People with tenure at Community College of Philadelphia almost never leave. I had some compelling reasons to go, though.

If you want to read my first impressions of Greeley, Colorado, I actually published a humorous “Letter from Greeley, CO” (feature) in Drexel Online Journal (Nov. 2003).

 

 

Therese Halscheid: Your chapbook, The Sylf, includes many poems which are written in two columns—a left and right column—as if two voices are speaking, as if they are in dialogue, and also as if those two voices work together as one. Tell us about the shape of those poems.

Jeffrey Lee: I have thought about this question a great deal because people keep asking about these poems. There is even an essay about these available through my faculty website (www.unco.edu/poetry/jeffrey.lee and follow the link for the invisible sister web page). The essay begins this way:

Sharon Olds asked me once what was behind my two-voiced lyric form in which the dual columns are each a lyric alone but a greater whole when combined. The short answer was that it was a way of recording moments of spontaneous communion between people and other moments of great shared emotion. The parallel voices in these dialogic lyrics are like the left and right hands on the piano—their harmony can only be completely appreciated if you hear each voice independently before you play them against each other. But once you do hear their harmony fully, it is a much more profound experience.

 


Therese Halscheid: In your new book of poems, invisible sister, you have the Iris series. Tell us something about the Iris poems—what prompted the series, how the invisible sister Iris came to be, and allow us to learn of this female persona.

Jeffrey Lee: If the central theme is suicide and redemption, then I have been trying to write this poem for fifteen years before it finally came out this way.

How it began: I was actually very sick with a bad cold in December 1998 during the Clinton impeachment hearings, which I listened to on the radio. The outrageous hypocrisy of the hearings threw me back to the strange and violent time when as children every night we could see dead soldiers on TV on the news. We all heard stories about the war; our older siblings were getting stoned or waiting to get drafted etc. That’s how I wrote the prologue to the book, “peace valley elementary school during the vietnam war,” which kicked off a new direction for me into memories of childhood in the mostly redneck suburbs of Bucks County.

Then the invisible sister series picked up the threads of race and sexual violence that I saw and felt all around me too. But it was not until September1999 during a train ride home from NYC back to Philly that the invisible sister coalesced as a figure who would grow up in the 60s and resonate with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison, incidentally, taught at NYU for a while. I was also encouraged to explore really hard questions by Sharon Olds and Cornelius Eady at NYU, and by poet friends like Amylia Wentworth, and by many other friends in the Asian Arts Initiative of Philadelphia.

The invisible sister also incorporated some traits of an ex who was a go-go dancer who I couldn't write about any other way. As she evolved as a character, though, I realized I could give her parts of my own life story that I was never able to get at in any other work. This was a kind of a “break through” for me because I am a suicide survivor just like Iris, and the possibilities of redemption and forgiveness mean a great deal to me. Much was at stake for me at an intimate level in these poems. So I carefully constructed some rules for myself so that I could feel responsible (and even answerable) for the realities I was creating: the incidents had to be things that I either saw firsthand or experienced myself or heard of through someone who was very close to me. Perhaps I am closer to her story than you would believe.

But if I were to spell out every single thing that happened to me or someone close to me and then to say exactly how this or that etc. became woven into this line or that scene, I don’t know, it might wreck the whole thing for people. Or perhaps that kind of information would be useful someday to a hypothetical ideal reader.

I have to say that I think we (as a culture) tend to dwell too heavily on blaming and erasing suicides in our culture. I think that is just one more symptom of the crazed rage for revenge we collectively suffer. It’s our massive denial and fear of chaos at work when we punish people for being in pain, over and over, even after they die. So there is a moral here—about not being trapped in the cycles of pain, guilt and blame. In the end it is about forgiveness, the idea that redemption is possible if only we will let ourselves hear that voice. Even after suicide, one can be whole again, and one can even be forgiven, sometimes, and love in a real sense can return.

 

 

Therese Halscheid: Tell us something about poem 3 in the Iris series. The rain certainly feels like physical rain but also moves, in ways, beyond physicality. Will you then share the poem with us

Jeffrey Lee: If you mean, “Iris’ painter hears the rain music return,” I’ve made a demo studio recording of this poem with a very talented young actress, Alyssa Carpenter, and people can hear it if they go to the audio file link in the invisible sister web page.

This was actually the last poem in the book manuscript to be written. I thought it was a good idea to give Mick, the artist/lover/friend of Iris, an actual presence in the series. I wrote this during a very hot, dry northern Colorado summer thanks to some inordinate suffering inflicted on me by someone who shall remain nameless here. So, to address your comment about the rain, yes, it is more than physical rain.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Review by Thaddeus Rutkowski for Small Press Review, published by Dustbooks, P.O. Box 100, Paradise, CA 95967, [http://www.dustbooks.com/sprinfo.htm]

invisible sister
By Jeffrey Ethan Lee
2004; Many Mountains Moving Press,
420 22nd Street, Boulder, CO 80302.
$11.95

 

In his poetry, Jeffrey Ethan Lee gives order to a series of instinctive associations through a conscious command of language. By this method, he creates a pointillist picture of American life as lived by someone who is not an ordinary American.

In the first part of invisible sister, called “Prologues,” Lee offers a graceful account of thorny childhood experience, beginning with a tour of an elementary school. Here, we are reminded of behavior that too often is ignored or kept hidden: cruelty to animals, meanness toward sexually aware girls, mockery of short people. Yet, the speaker finds someone he can communicate with, even appreciate:

the 2nd grade girl only I would like
because I couldn’t see her “cooties,”
and she couldn’t see my color

As the prologues come to a close, the speaker travels through a dream of debasement (at the hands of a cop), eventually rising Dante-like to a sort of peak, where he (the speaker) experiences a vision of pure light, a feeling of euphoria, an image of paradise.
The second part of the book consists of the long poem “invisible sister.” This is the heart of the work, and while it is challenging in its complexity, it will reward any reader who has ever struggled for communion with another person. Several segments are written in a form that Lee calls the “dialogic lyric”--essentially a conversational verse form. The two sides of the conversation are placed next to each other on the page, so it is possible to read one statement at a time, or to read across both statements to arrive at a new, mingled speech. The effect is eerie, yet powerful:

            [his side]                                                 [her side]
            she wanted to be of the race                         –this poisoned place
            of beauty                                                          I know it’s
            as though beauty itself could be                  heaven to him—
            a raceless race                                         but what if

Like the first part, the second ends in an upward movement, but this time the action is more earthly. And the focus has shifted to the invisible sister herself, who emerges from her own journey reborn, without shame, with an “ember light” in her eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


from American Book Review

The Art of the Invisible

...the title poem [is] a tour de force of persona and plot as a brother watches his sister careen out of control. “invisible sister” does indeed set up a dialogue of great tension—its sprawling formal voices and the dual (and dueling) columns challenge the notion of Asians as an “invisible” minority. Iris, the invisible sister, serves not only as witness to her own experience but becomes a sort of every-girl when she is coaxed into a barn by her white friend....

The book is full of dualities: life/death, dream life/waking life, female/male, Asian/non-Asian. Poem parts... are repeated and recast. A poem fragment appears as one voice and is immediately consumed and duplicated into a poem fragment with two voices. invisible sister itself suggests multiple readings and serves not only as a book of poetry but as a blueprint, sheet music, a play waiting to be built or performed. In this way, Jeffrey Ethan Lee has done a great service to performance poetry. His careful line breaks, as well as his deft use of white space and text, suggest a deliberate and thoughtful architecture that belies a common complaint that so much of performance poetry does not hold up on the page.

The voice of the brother in this poem is in service to the sister’s—Iris is the one with the story to tell; she is the one with the drama. And yet the quiet dignity of the male voice holds his own even when:

I was so lost in her
my I.D. cards could have been
waterfalling around me....

[T]here is much to be admired in all of Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s poetic personas and voices....

—Denise Duhamel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 
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