Karen An-hwei Lee

Karen Lee

What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press, 2014)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? 

An array of favorites: I love Base Pairs by Maria Melendez Kelson (Swan Scythe 2001), In Exchange for a Homeland by Yosefa Raz (Swan Scythe 2004), Paradise Hunger by Henry Leung (Swan Scythe 2012), Periodicity by Iris Law (Finishing Line 2013), Neither Prayer, Nor Bird by Devon Miller-Duggan (Finishing Line 2013), Fried Fish and Breast Milk by Nicole Borello (dancing girl press 2013), The Garden Room by Joy Katz (Tupelo 2006), Kiss the Stranger by Kristy Odelius and Timothy Yu (Corollary Press 2012), and June by Lynne Xu (Corollary Press 2006, edited by the poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee).

Not only are these marvelous collections, they’re all dynamo chapbooks of exquisite design, inside and out – satin bookmark ribbons in Finishing Line’s chapbooks, Juliette’s hand-stitched classical Asian book-binding for Corollary’s chapbooks, and high-quality production standards – whether saddle-stitched or perfect-bound. Swan Scythe, launched by Sandra McPherson in 2000, brought out my first chapbook, God’s One Hundred Promises.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook?  What do you remember about writing it?

The title poem, “What the Sea Earns for a Living,” is the longest and oldest in the collection. When I started composing it, I’d recently moved to southern California, only several miles inland from the coast, and I wanted to learn Spanish. I’d buy fruit, fish, and tea at el mercadillo and write phrases in my notebook: filete de mojarra (tilapia fillet), limon amarillo (yellow lemon), leche (milk), piloncillo (brown sugar), siete azahares (seven blossoms – a nighttime tea). I’d listen to conversations at la peluquería, the hair salon. I visited apostolic Spanish-speaking congregations.

Years later, in a Literature of Witness seminar and a World Literature survey, I taught bilingual translations of Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and The Guerrilla Poems of El Salvador translated by Claribel Alegría. I hosted a weekly “Mesa de Comunicación” in the campus dining commons so students in our Spanish Minor could enjoy conversational practice and teach me Spanish phrases, too.

This long poem, “What the Sea Earns for a Living,” started as a list of Spanish and English words, images, and observations, eventually focusing on sea glass, finally ending as a meditation on the fracturing of life and its potential for healing and salvation. The poem has ten sections total; here’s an excerpt.

What the Sea Earns for a Living
música de cristal del mar

I am the anonymous prayer of sea foam
__________la espuma del mar
weightless as fire, as prophecy
ingravidez como profecía, como el fuego

as a wave’s azure prayer, as the breath
of the shipwrecked adrift in a night’s frost-patina –
como la oración de una ola azul
__________sustancial como el aliento

de los náufragos flotantes en la noche
de la patina esmerilada.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Quaci Press is highly collaborative. The Founder and Editor, Nicole Borello, invited my thoughts at every stage of the cover design. We looked at various images until I was happy with everything –  the fine details of font choice and the shade of aquamarine or teal for the cover. The graphic designer Anna Borello’s beautiful image of x-rayed flowers conveyed the botanical motifs and aquatic translucency I aspired to create through words.

While proofing the galleys, Nicole was graciously author-inclusive and responsive to my comments. Her husband, the filmmaker Bruno Borello, swiftly typeset the manuscript using the exact order of contents and font I requested. Lorena Borello, a professor of Spanish and Italian at the University of San Francisco, kindly offered constructive and thorough editing of my Spanish.  The extended Borello family is phenomenally talented!

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

The usual recommendation to include works published in journals is helpful, as this can indicate a potential (or developing) readership enhanced by an author’s dedication to circulating her poetry. Even more vital to the book, regardless of publication history, the collected poems should display range in technique yet resonate as a whole, unfolding harmoniously in a conceptual and stylistic framework out of governing images, motifs, or “heart questions.”

On a side note, I should mention that apart from “Letter to Nopales Hearts in the Santa Ana Winds” (Cactus Heart), “Happiness Machine I”(The Collagist), “Love and a Yellow Bicycle,” (Prose Poem Project) and the Nahuatl poems from Nahualliandoing Dos: An Anthology in Nahuatl, Español and English, edited by Anisa Onofre (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012), most of the material in What the Sea Earns for a Living did not appear in literary journals.

Thanks to Nicole’s intrepid vision at Quaci Press, these code-switching poems about brushfire winds, blighted orange groves, and broken windshield glass in the sea not only received the blessing of a daring, risk-taking editor, their genesis or rebirth as a chapbook serendipitously provided a sister to my first chapbook, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002).

Although they are quite different – prose vs. stanzas, for one – the two sister-chapbooks trace at least a decade of my life immersed in the weather and cultural rhythms of southern California, often in hyperbolic contrast to my girlhood in small-town New England, free of smog, earthquakes, brushfires, or foul traffic patterns. On a shelf where I keep my books, these two beloved chapbooks sit side by side.

Which poem is the “black sheep” in your collection and why? 

“Elegy to the Lost Figues” is the only line-unit palindrome (also known as a mirror-hinge poem) in What the Sea Earns for a Living. Whenever I write poems in this form, I repeat the same lines in reverse from mid-poem to the end. In “Elegy to the Lost Figues,” however, I intentionally omitted the final line, which would’ve echoed the first: “Sing our black mission figs.”

It’s the only line-unit palindrome poem where I’ve ever done this. Other line-unit palindromes in Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012) dutifully repeat all their lines in reverse order — none missing — with variations only in punctuation. Omitting the final line heightens a sense of absence, formally and atmospherically, in this elegy to the figs.

If you could re-title your chapbook, what would the new title be?

“Anna Karenina Sells Pears at the Train Station,” the first poem in the chapbook, was the working title of the manuscript. Gradually, I realized it was potentially misleading: readers might think all the poems would be about Anna Karenina, for example, or Tolstoy allusions, or pears.

Anna Karenina Sells Pears at the Train Station

On East Santa Ana Boulevard,
__________________________a woman
in a feathered cap and black satin bustle,
pendant at her throat, even gloves —
sells pears.
___________________Rust-hued, mottled green,
__________apple-pears, red-skinned ones, chartreuse
with uncored calyxes.

_____________________Anna Karenina, why?
Eye dark as a mustard seed, a petite woman
_______in a waltz – I hum. Quarter notes
sing pears, pears, pears
_______over wavering magnolias at the door.
Anna Karenina,
why do you sell pears at our train station?

There are as many loves
_____________as there are hearts
Hay tantos amores con hay corazones.

Stay away from the track,
la pista, la pista, since I know no Russian.

See the pears worth saving.
Las peras, orchard of your labor,
this late
_______solstice of Santa Ana.

What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?

Yes, I’d say this chapbook amplifies those motifs, or distills and re-focuses them. Even though my other collections may not use as much Spanish or Nahuatl, they speak in other tongues: Mandarin Chinese, French, and a brief foray into German in a sequence of poems on Kafka. I believe the feminist and spiritual motifs of women’s journeys in What the Sea Earns for a Living, uttered in a fractured yet flowing language of interiority, reflect an inclination in my writing, at least, for this season.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

This year, I’ve read a botanical monograph, devotional books, the headline news, spiritual autobiographies, a lyric novella, parallel new translations of New Testament epistles, and glossy cookbooks.

When I was a girl, I loved reading the dictionary and learning new words, and I still enjoy collecting words from diverse modes of written expression.

Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook?

To be honest, I had no intention of writing this chapbook. It’s a surprise. I store my loose poems, both unpublished (“homeless”) and published (“housed”), in folders. Over time, I noticed a certain strain of code-switching poetry in the “homeless” folders, i.e. Nahuatl, Spanish, and at times, even Portuguese – the latter inspired by a capoeira café in Berkeley. For reasons I may only surmise, these bilingual and trilingual poems tended to remain homeless for years.

Woman Scream International Poetry Festival posted a call for submissions for Quaci Press, a new indie feminist micropress launched by Nicole Borello, a poet herself, in the San Francisco Bay Area. (According to Nicole, the word “quaci,” pronounced kwatchee, means “kicks” in Italian.) Excited by her vision for the press, I gathered my poems into a chapbook.

What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

Love for language and linguistic play, I suppose, dwells at the heart of everything I do. Although I enjoy my daily avocation, which requires engaging lots of energetic people on a daily basis, I was a very shy girl, and books were my dearest friends. I wrote copiously in journals and read voraciously, even an antiquated set of 1960 World Book Encyclopedias left by the previous owners of our house, and pocket-sized Sixties editions of poetry.

Underpinning the words themselves, God’s wellspring of love in this earthbound journey inspires me to write: in this way, the poems are spaces for reflection, praise, or supplication, and other times, trials of silence and waiting in storms, hence the epigraph to the chapbook:

The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes
because we know sometimes ships are wrecked by it.
______Simone Weil, Waiting for God


Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award. Lee has also written two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria, 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.


Poetry Foundation: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/karen-an-hwei-lee

Poets & Writers: www.pw.org/content/karen_anhwei_lee


Elegy of the Lost Figues

Sing our black mission figs,
______in the sting of winter —

Burial north of zone six —
______colder than burned fig-cakes

____________left on the stove.
Who rules in the orchard?
_______Who sleeps

____________in this altitudinal dark?
An irony — Esperanza. Springs. Eternal

in this altitudinal dark.
______Who sleeps?

______Who rules in the orchard
___________left on the stove,
colder than burned fig-cakes?

Burial north of zone six
______in the sting of winter —


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