A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Daniel W.K. Lee
As a follow-up to our highlight of Daniel W.K. Lee’s "Anatomy of Want" book release, The Universal Asian was able to get to know Daniel a bit more.
Can you tell me a bit more about your poem collection "Anatomy of Want"? And, what inspired you to write it?
A lot of the poems were written a while ago, and a lot of them are dedicated to a specific person that inspired the poem. What I was interested in exploring with the poems were the ideas of desire, clinging, and those dimensions of it. The poems span both light-hearted topics and more intense pieces. There are several ghazals, which is a kind of Persian form, that I fell in love with many years ago. Towards the end of the collection, there’s this piece called "Commitment" which hijacks the form of the Cosmos sex quiz. I’m interested in this kind of meta-textual dialogue between the questions and the answers.
Do you have a favourite poem that you’ve written in your collection?
I would say the ghazals are typically the ones that I worked the hardest for because the form is so demanding, especially with the economy of words. I would say "In the Dark" is one of my favourites. Even though the ghazals are against the grain of much of contemporary American poetry, I just really love them and I’m really happy to have been able to include them in the collection.
How did you get into poetry writing? Is this something you’ve always done growing up?
Yeah, I remember the first two poems I’d ever written were in fifth grade. I was probably 10 years old or so and they were saccharine love poems to a girl that I thought I was really into. But she, to use current nomenclature, friend-zoned me. So, I wrote a couple of poems about her and I was really shameless so I gave them to her, which I don’t think anyone would do at 10 years old. This was also during my pre-queer identity. When I was in junior high, which was my sixth and seventh grade, I used to write poems for my friends to give to their girlfriends. Most of those were love poems.
I was in high school when my political consciousness made me more interested in writing about what is going on in the world and addressing those things. I was certainly looking to poetry as a mode to express my dissatisfaction or desire for a more peaceful and just world. That became an anchor to me because I was interested in various kinds of arts. In fact, I initially applied to go to undergrad to become a photographer. So, I’ve always got my hands in a lot of creative buckets, but poetry seems to be the one that sticks around for the longest periods.
Is writing your full-time role or is this only a side passion that you enjoy doing?
Whenever people ask me about my job, I’d tell them my job is to make myself happy. What I do to make money is something else. It’s an office job. Writing does in a way keep me going. It’s an outlet. There are times when I oscillate between wanting and not wanting to become a creative writing teacher. Do I take this passion that I have and make it a job? That is frightening to me because I’m scared that I might become exhausted by poetry. I’m the kind of writer that gets a lot of inspiration reading other people’s work, but if I see it as something that I have to trudge through, I could also see myself losing that passion for it and not wanting to do it anymore. Currently, I’m not making money out of writing and it’s great that other people can do that, but life as a poet, financially, isn’t the kind of career that you can really live off of.
I also like to write cultural criticism pieces. When I feel very strongly about something I’ve noticed in culture, it gives me an outlet to concretise them and argue it in the public sphere. I like to opine about certain things, especially issues surrounding Asian-American representation and Asian American masculinity. These days, I’m very interested in what’s going on in Hong Kong. The cultural resistance really interests me especially because I’m part of the Chinese diaspora through generational refugee experiences, but maintain an emotional, cultural attachment to Cantonese culture. I worry about the Cantonese language and culture in the face of a more homogenised ethno-national identity from the Mainland that seeks to suppress regional languages.
Do you feel that the poems that you’ve written help inspire other people to be interested in the issues and topics that you have highlighted?
My approach intellectually is interdisciplinary. I’m not saying I’m a China or Hong Kong specialist and that I know everything, but the things I tend to write about are areas that I know a little bit more about and I hope that the things I do write about start conversations.
The Black Lives Matter movement is creating this air around socio-political discourse that demands individuals to self-investigate where they are within systems of oppression. I don’t have any expectations, but I just hope that if someone does read my work, they will see it as a platform for which they can further explore the issues and ideas surrounding racism, queerness, etc.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
When I got into a Master’s of Fine Arts programme back in New York, my parents didn’t really understand why I was willing to go into further debt for something that you don’t necessarily come out of with better job prospects. This didn’t make sense to them, and when my mom was asked by others what I was doing, she would tell them that I was studying journalism. I think for me, the biggest challenge is just being inspired because my head is just all over the place. I’m not a particularly prolific writer. However, what’s been great about now living in New Orleans is that I’ve been inspired by not just what’s been happening around COVID-19 and racial justice, but the city itself.
But, I don’t make too many expectations for myself to either write a certain number of poems or anything. I just kind of go with it. If my next book takes 10 years, then so be it. I am working on a new manuscript, though. When I got my first book published, it definitely created momentum for me to write.
What is your idea of success?
Since my job is to make myself happy, I’m focused on the things that bring me joy. I would be disappointed if I don’t write another book, but it won’t be the final measure of success. With my first book, I knew in my gut that it would get published. I just believed in my work. It took me 10 years, but I can now tick it off the bucket list. I hope the second book shows a different aspect of my writing, but again, I don’t have specific expectations. To me, ambition can be a setup for emotional letdown and unnecessary suffering. I’m more interested in putting in the right effort and see what transpires.
In my youth, I was more preoccupied with this idea of legacy and how influential I could be. But with writing and poetry, you could very well become famous after your death so sometimes it’s just outside of your control. I’m just going to continue crafting the best poems that I can, and hopefully, people will be interested in reading them.
What advice would you give to younger people who are also interested in entering the creative space or writing in particular?
I think there’s a couple of things, but first off, I would say we have to do some deprogramming especially if you come from a heavily Confucian culture where one strives for status and money at all costs, where your happiness is a non-priority.
You should also believe in your work and yourself. It’s great to have an audience for your work, but to paraphrase the drag queen Alyssa Edwards: Before you can to sell it, you gotta buy it yourself.
It’s also important to find a community, people who share your passion and will help you stay accountable. I’m inspired by other people. On one hand, while I have a laissez-faire approach to many things, I’m also very competitive. If someone is working on something and they finished it, I also want to be able to push ahead. It’s competition as inspiration rather than self-destruction.
Do something that makes you enough money, but orient yourself towards happiness. Happiness is the point of life.
You mentioned that your parents were from Vietnam and you moved around a lot. Do you ever find yourself struggling with your own identity and where you belong?
Not so much now. I do think it’s a very common struggle for Asians in the diaspora especially if they were born in Asia. We often have difficulty identifying where “home” is…nationally, but also culturally. The refugee experience that my family and I were subjected to is probably a huge reason why I am comfortable with dislocation, with crossing borders and inhabiting new cities. As background, my grandparents on both sides started off in Guangdong, China. They, then, escaped during the Japanese occupation. My parents were born and raised in Vietnam, but then the whole family during the purge of ethnic Chinese in the late '70s were eventually taken to Malaysia, which was where I was born. Then, via sponsorship, my family moved to Chicago which was where my sisters and I were raised. I would later live in New York City for 17 years, Seattle, Washington, for five and now in New Orleans. I just learned to embrace this kind of movement. My identity moves with it and it’s ever changing. It’s the Law of Impermanence, as we Buddhists call the condition where all things are subject to change.
I hope people find ways to manage or address the struggle with identity whether it be creatively, intellectually or politically, so long as they don’t fall into despair. This makes me think of Audrey Lorde, where she talks about the creative uses of difference. We often hammer inside ourselves this idea that the only way towards acceptance is homogeneity—to assimilate. But, our differences between each other can be a source of creativity and empowerment, too.
My personal mantra is: choose happiness. You have the agency at all these moments in your life to decide whether or not you are going to indulge in misery and anger, or let it go and lean toward something or someone that brings you joy. It’s not to say one can always choose happiness, but it’s great to be reminded that we have power over our lives and our condition is not solely towards helplessness.