Rain That Washes Away the Pretty Surface of Things: An Interview with Jen Sookfong Lee

Yesterday You Had The Best of Intentions - Jen Sookfong Lee
A glass of water, tepid and undrunk, in the bedroom air.
A body beside you whose movements are so small
and so slow you cannot measure them.
Muddy, thick hours spent listening to the night pass.

This is the long rolling of time, that liquid dim
that breaks over the neighbours’ rooftops and leaks
through a crack in those curtains you have never hemmed.
The broken lamp beside the garage buzzing, a raccoon

walking upside down, claws tapping and tapping
on the gutter it clings to. You squint, the continued
watch in the night. The black hurts your eyes.
Do you know what you’re watching for?

There are secrets, indecent and jagged like a stranger’s teeth
biting the thin line of your clavicle. You could whisper
them now and he would not hear you. But no.
You should wait. Nighttime lulls. That soft, enabling dark.

Outside, the first chickadee sings.
You have twenty minutes, maybe thirty,
before the sky lifts, burning, and kills
what you have been staring at all night long.

(Wolsak & Wynn, 2021).
Reprinted with permission.

After writing eight books of fiction and non-fiction, Jen Sookfong Lee published her first poetry book, The Shadow List, this April from Wolsak & Wynn’s Buckrider Books imprint. Lee’s books include The Conjoined, nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, Gentlemen of the Shade, and Chinese New Year. She was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby.

Rob Taylor: In "Yesterday, You Had the Best of Intentions" you write about a black that "hurts your eyes", and also the "soft, enabling dark." Blackness and darkness pervade The Shadow List right from the title, and are often cast in even parts sinister and comforting. The poet Jim Harrison once wrote "I think that night's our balance, our counterweight," and I wonder if that might resonate with you in some way. What lives in the dark of your poems that wouldn't survive in the light of day?   

Jen Sookfong Lee: I always think of these poems as being secrets, the ugly thoughts and unspoken desires we give space to in our heads when we are awake in the night. I learned very young that good Chinese girls didn’t ever allow those wants to be spoken, and it was only alone, when everyone else was asleep, that I let my brain circle around the thoughts that I felt were shameful. In a way, The Shadow List is a tribute to those moments when sex or drama or visceral things were what your body ached for, even if they were never allowed to see the light of day.

RT: Perhaps in keeping with that need to have a separate, shadowed place to think through the “unspeakable”, The Shadow List is entirely written in the second person, and that "you" often feels very much like biographical you, biographical Jen Sookfong Lee. But of course it is "you", not "I", and that distance opens up alternate possibilities. In the poem "Third Person Intimate", you write "You are used to writing novels, / to placing a human in the middle / of a slowly unwinding nighttime dilemma" and it’s hard to know for certain if this is Jen speaking or another character you’ve plunked in a nighttime dilemma. Why did you make the decision to write your debut poetry collection in the second person?

JSL: Oh well, Rob, the second person voice is, in many ways, a disguised first-person narrator. Of course! I am mainly a fiction writer, and I had been very used to obscuring aspects of myself in my fiction behind the words and actions of my characters. When I started writing these poems, after three novels, I was so utterly uncomfortable writing about myself explicitly, that I used the second person to push this narrator away from myself. She isn’t always me, and I am not always her, but I also don’t really like separating her from me. There doesn’t seem to be any point in enforcing a division, meaning that there are times that I may have done or said what she does, but does it matter? As drafts of these poems have been written and rewritten, that division seems irrelevant. She exists on the page, and inside of me, but she isn’t by any stretch representative of the holistic me. 

RT: In recent years, you've moved from exclusively publishing fiction, to publishing non-fiction and now poetry. How has that journey impacted your thinking around personae?

JSL: The non-fiction books I had written before these poems were mostly educational books for children, and memoir was still something that I only flirted with. Since then, of course, I have written a memoir in essays, titled Superfan, that’s scheduled for publication in 2022, and I think The Shadow List was a really necessary conduit from Distant Novelist Jen to Let Me Show You My Secrets Memoirist Jen.

RT: Poetry is usually thought of as the gateway drug to fiction. You’re doing everything backwards, Jen! Let’s talk that journey of yours through genres. What brought you finally (at book #9!) to writing poetry? Were you just sick of getting royalties?

JSL: I am never sick of royalties! But no one writes poetry for the money! I started my MFA in 1998 with a poetry thesis, which is something no one knows about me. Back then, I never wanted to write prose and had no intentions of writing a novel. However, as it turns out, Creative Writing programs in the 1990s were not the most welcoming place for women of colour, or anyone with a marginalized identity that was under-represented in publishing. The workshops were a difficult space for me to be in, and I dropped out after one semester, returned to Vancouver, and didn’t write another poem for 15 years. I had lost all of my poetic confidence. In the years since, my novels were successful enough that I began to think I could try again, and so I did, with some very bad poems to begin with, but eventually I stumbled upon the voice that I use throughout The Shadow List, and a collection began to take shape.

RT: What has poetry allowed you to explore that you couldn't access in other genres?

JSL: Poetry has always been, for me, an exploration into voice. Who is this person speaking? What do they need to say? What are the places and people around them that can be used as narrative tools in this moment they have a reader’s attention? It’s a luxury to be able to focus so specifically on voice in this manner, as this was never something I could do in a novel. Novels are too long, too messy, and subject to a million different rules of internal logic. My speaker is, here, just herself.

RT: I’m sorry you had those bad experiences in your Creative Writing program, but I’m glad you eventually found your way back to poetry. Did certain people encourage your return to the genre, and to “poetic confidence”? I assume the people the book is dedicated to—"Andrea, Carolyn and Carrie”—had some hand in it (at one point it's suggested that "Carrie" told the speaker "the world needs your poems"). What role did they play, and were there others (friends or writers whose books you read) who spurred you in this new direction?  

JSL: I think the first person who saw any of these poems was my poet friend Shawn Krause, whose encouragement gave me just enough confidence to explore the directions this collection could go. The Carrie I refer to is the author Carrie Mac, who has been reading my poems since 1995—and that is no exaggeration! When I had finished writing The Better Mother, she had said to me, “Yeah, your novels are good, but where are your poems, Jen? That’s what I want to read.” Her words nagged at me for years, until I was finally in a place where I felt I could have fun with poetry again. I also think that so many of my friends write poetry that I finally felt like I could see a place in my career where poetry could live—something I hadn’t ever really considered while I was running on the hamster wheel of producing novels.

RT: That one or two voices can make all the difference, eh? I’m glad you heard them. Speaking of these poets you’re surrounded by, in 2017 you joined poets Jordan Abel and Canisia Lubrin on Buckrider Books' newly-formed editorial advisory board (Buckrider, an imprint of Wolsak & Wynn, is run by yet another poet, Paul Vermeersch). We all know, now, of the poet-osmosis that took over, leading you to publishing The Shadow List with Buckrider. What drew you to the press and allowed you to make it a "home" in these ways?

JSL: Buckrider is one of my homes! I like that. What I think is consistent with the books that Buckrider publishes is that they play with form and content and push at the boundaries of what readers expect. I like to think that no one has really expected me to write poetry at all, and especially poems that meditate on vanishing twins or bad dates or freezing to death in your own home. I am usually a very reliable person and I felt that Buckrider would understand my need to write the opposite of that.

RT: While Buckrider is your new poetry home, you’re settling into new digs editorially, having just been hired as an acquisition editor with ECW Press, which also published your most recent novel, The Conjoined. You’ll be looking at fiction and non-fiction manuscripts (no poetry, eh? I guess ECW is trying to turn a profit or something). You’ve spoken with Quill & Quire about the types of manuscripts you’re hoping to find, so I won’t trouble you with that question again. But I am curious what effect all this editing has had on your own writing. Do you find the process of reading/editing others manuscripts influences what you produce?

JSL: For sure! I learn a lot about writing from the authors I edit, who all have strengths much different from mine. I find that I am more willing to take a literary risk now than ever before, as I’m really motivated by the fearless and magpie ways other writers tackle book manuscripts. The first novel I ever edited was The Death Scene Artist by Andrew Wilmot, which is part screenplay, part horror novel, part literary fiction. I remember thinking as I was charting all its component parts, Wait. You can mash all that stuff up together?

RT: Ha! That’s wonderful. Those risks feel more possible at a small press like ECW or Wolsak & Wynn than at the big houses. You've spoken publicly before about the benefits of small presses v. the bigger houses. What can a small press offer you that a large press might not? 

JSL: I started my career with a big press, arguably the biggest possible press, and I think it was useful for me to begin that way. You know, like teaching a child to swim by throwing them into the deep end. There was no faster method for me to learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of publishing. By the time I came to ECW with The Conjoined, I had a really clear idea of the book I was writing, the way I wanted it to be marketed, and how much editorial and promotional support I needed. The great thing with a small press is that there are no rules, as long as the ideas are good and you’re not spending huge rolls of cash. But I wouldn’t have been able to articulate a clear vision with a first book.
RT: The Shadow List features poems on writing about people with whom you’ve dated ("The White Lie"), and also the reverse: being written about ("When You Read His Poems”). These poems circle around questions of permission and deception. Do you have any tips for writers about how to navigate this issue? Just don't date writers?

JSL: Maybe I should write a dating advice column for people who date writers! My experience is limited to only two, but both of them were poets, so essentially, my advice is this: expect to be written about and in turn you can also write about them. That’s it. It’s a free-for-all. And I’m not sorry about it.

RT: You co-edited (with Stacey May Fowles) the anthology Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Stories of Life after Sexual Assault (Greystone Books, 2019), and themes of trauma and recovery run through The Shadow List. In the poem "Chiaroscuro," in response to the question "How do you get through trauma like this?," you write, "You just do. You have no choice. / What a bullshit answer that is."

Could you talk a little about "getting through" - what you've learned from other women and what you'd like to pass on to readers who are in need of advice? Are there any non-bullshit answers, and does writing or reading play a part in any of them?

JSL: I’ve had the great privilege of being in counselling for most of my life, and if I have learned anything about managing trauma, it’s that everyone has different ways of distracting themselves, finding reasons to get through a day, or confronting their core issues. For me, writing is not therapy, it’s work, even if I write about personal experience. Mostly, I talk a lot, too much probably, about my feelings, about the reasons I react in ways that I’m not proud of. The desire to live with my mental health as a priority and to be a more engaged parent has everything to do with raising my child so that he can have a more literate relationship with his emotions about painful things. But that’s just me.

RT: That definitely comes through in The Shadow Lists. Another consistent presence in the book is Vancouver: visions of the city are grafted on to many of the book’s personal narratives. "For This, You Need a Map," for instance, features sour cherries, tankers, rivers and bridges, nurse logs of Belcarra and Anmore, the cliffs, the waves...

From one life-long Vancouverite to another, how do you think the city has shaped your writing and, more broadly, your outlook on life?

JSL: Vancouver and its surrounding areas have profoundly affected me and my writing, perhaps more than any other theme in my books. There are many reasons for that: the borders of mountain and ocean, urban spaces versus suburban sprawl, intersecting communities, the rain (so much rain!).

Vancouver renews itself constantly, with new condo towers and restaurants and migrations, but the history constantly bubbles up to the surface, impacting the contemporary. We are a port city, where vice has always been and will continue to be an industry all on its own. We have always been a place where people come to be at the end of the world, when the rest of it has become too much. And no matter how hard developers build on old neighbourhoods, the descendants of those razed communities are still alive, still remembering. All of this is a structure that my poems, and my prose, mimic—circularity, past timelines imposing on the current day, rain that washes away the pretty surface of things.

RT: That’s fascinating—how the circularity of the city provides a structure for your poems. I see that in them, for sure.

JSL: I have a hard time letting go of the past, which I think is the main thing Vancouver has instilled in me. What do you mean not everyone wants to revisit their childhoods to wring out every last trauma and inciting incident? Come on! It’s my best party trick!

RT: Ha! One piece of pure childlike joy that shines through in The Shadow List is your love of dogs. The book features a very loving poem for your dog, Molly ("She was fast or she was still and nothing in between... It was, and is, only now"), and in your acknowledgments you thank your dog, Rosie, for "lovingly reminding me that writing isn't everything." I get the feeling that dogs may have taught you more than books ever have. Is that true? Why should every writer have a dog?

JSL: Oh, my life would be very incomplete without dogs. I work at home, alone, and have done so for many years, and the act of caring for a dog and taking it outside means that my brain is at rest and the dog is free to act and react, without forethought. This feels like a small vacation every single day. Not everything is connected by a narrative thread or thematic symbols. Dogs embody this chaos in the most charming way possible. All writers need something to remind themselves that their navel gazing is not always productive. Get a dog, everyone!


The next best companion to a dog is a copy of The Shadow List, which you can pick up at your local bookstore, or via the Wolsak & Wynn website or, if you must, from Amazon.

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