Magazine (September 2004)
Small Press Review
of the Tribes
Book Review (2005)
Taxi Review of Books
Summer 2005 online edition or http://www.raintaxi.com
in the blog called AtomicZebra7:
North American Review (May-August
2005, Vol. 290, Nos. 3-4) in Synecdoche: Brief Poetry Reviews, 84.
for the Camden Library Website
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
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
Review by Thaddeus Rutkowski
for Small Press Review, published by Dustbooks, P.O.
Box 100, Paradise, CA 95967, [http://www.dustbooks.com/sprinfo.htm]
By Jeffrey Ethan Lee
2004; Many Mountains Moving Press,
420 22nd Street, Boulder, CO 80302.
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:
wanted to be of the race –this
though beauty itself could be
raceless race but
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.
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....