Monika Lee began writing poems at a very young age, about seven, and has always loved poetry. Her parents, both poetry-lovers, were immensely encouraging, and their added encouragement resultedin young Monika winning a couple of poetry contests when she was a child. So poetry has been a lifelong fascination. But publishing and giving readings are not second nature for her, as writing poems has always been an intensely private experience for her. And yet, she does want to create good poems and to improve as a poet, to share something of beauty and meaning with others. Publishing and readings have helped in that process of improvement.
Monika grew up in West Flamborough village, went to high school in Dundas, spent a summer in Vancouver, and then lived in Toronto, Aix-en-Provence, and Marseille before coming to the London area where she has lived the majority of her adult life so far.
Lee is currently an associate professor at Brescia University College where she teaches literature and creative writing. She earned her PhD in English at UWO and held a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell. She graduated from the Humber College School of Writing with distinction in 2007. Lee has had a book of poems published, called gravity loves the body, also a poetry chapbook, slender threads, and a book of literary criticism. She lives in the village of Lobo with her husband, Brian, and her two daughter, Anna and Natasha.
Our interview with Lee follows her poems below.
Four Poems by Monika Lee
All four poems were published in Monika Lee's book, gravity loves the body (South Western Ontario Poetry Press, 2008). Previously, “listen” was published by Dalhousie Review, and “the woman with the empty bowl” by Antigonish Review.
How every pause is filled with under-notes,
Clear, silver, icy, keen awakening tones
Which pierce the sense and live within the soul” (P.B. Shelley)
pauses are fuller
Lethe is replete
a lost mandoline or flute
we have known
the space was our time:
the past which is always here
the here which is only the past.
play on your flute, the silences
between the tones –
those feelings that were lost
but still dwell in the small crevices
each of those spaces is
my daughter, sister, lover
and they are openings, breaths,
between the words and sounds.
the woman with the empty bowl
she has an empty bowl
made of wood and lacquer;
she sits waiting by the door
marked with the number zero in white paint
and she knows something
you do not yet know,
nor perhaps ever shall:
that the bowl cannot contain things put in it,
and the door will remain a door
whether opened or shut,
that the number could be any other
and would still signify none,
that hands are empty bowls
even as they clasp.
Home from work
The thing to do
is to pick up the mail,
sort the bills,
recycle the waste.
The thing to do
is to turn up the furnace,
since the walls and the windows
of an old house bleed heat.
The thing to do
is to keep my coat on,
so the scratch, scratch
in my throat goes away.
The thing to do
is to feed the cat
before I trip and fall
on her shiny coat, thickened
from time alone
in this old, cold house,
and so she keeps it on,
as we should do.
The thing to do
is to make a cup of tea,
to warm the scratch, scratch
of the throat, the cat and the window
tearing at the escaping minutes
which tick on the cold, mantle clock.
The thing to do
is not to think,
but scratch the throat of
the window with the mail,
cat mewing in the minutes
Not to think of years passing,
parents newly dead or
passing into the cold, cold
scratching at the window,
recycling the waste;
we ought to bury them
because i love you
i eat apples instead of berries.
because i need you
i give our books away.
because i have you
i startle the neighbours with weeping.
because i'm near you
i go to distant lands.
because i trust you
i fear that you will leave me.
because i fear you,
i know that you remain.
because i know you,
i paint your face in colours.
because i touch you,
i sing your body white.
because i want you,
i serve food in clay dishes.
because i envy you,
i watch the setting sun.
because i hold you,
the night is never long.
Interview with Monika Lee
(Interview by Kevin Heslop for London Open Mic Poetry Night)
H: If the idea of identity limited to a 'Whitmanian' or 'Dickinsonian' predisposition, which is to say a sprawling or reclusive style, strikes you as fair, with which do you most identify? How does this predisposition affect your work? Your experience of the world? Your obligation, should you feel an obligation, to your reader?
L: That is a hard question to answer. Can I identify equally with both? I am introverted on personality tests, but I act extroverted. My poetic style might be called a structured expressivism. My husband, Brian, who teaches American Literature, says "definitely Dickinsonian".
H: What feeling, thought, realization etc. do you wish to impart to your reader? Which techniques do you favour in the achievement of this(these) end(s)?
L: I don't think much about potential readers when I'm writing. In my case, doing so would stop the writing process. I think about the poem itself, its shape, its flavour, its beauty, its feeling, its harmony, its impact, the words, the lines, the meaning -- things like that. I treat the unwritten poem as you might a shy person who has to be urged into your presence. Or, the poet is a gardener who has a garden at the back of her property behind the main house. Some people will occasionally see that garden, and it's gratifying if they admire it, but while gardening, she thinks about the soil, the spacing, the light, the colours, and the textures of the plants. After I've written the poem and especially if I'm submitting it for publication, I think a little more about an ideal reader, and about whether I've done anything wrong for that reader. Revision ensues.
H: How does poetry relate to the human condition? What can one person communicate from her solitude to that of another through poetry?
L: What poetry conveys about the human condition is limitless. I think poetry may be our single greatest resource about the truths of human experience. A poem does more than express the human condition. It transmutes some aspect of life into an actual felt and lived experience. Any art (painting, sculpture, music, film, dance, other forms of literature) can create such an experience, but nothing does it as introspectively as poetry.
H: Sketch, if you would, your process of composition. Solitude, café, red wine? Is it spontaneous?
L: Often I write outside and usually at home. Everything has to be perfectly quiet. I may read some poem or poems before I write. I compose a first draft in my journal. I wait and listen to internal sounds. There might be a poem already in my imagination before I start and there might not be. If not, I scramble around with words. Then I keep writing until something resembling a poem starts to happen. Sometimes a real poem, a genuine poem, doesn't happen at all in that jumble of thoughts, and I throw out the evidence. If there is a poem, however, later I will come back to it and revise it.
H: Do you recall a poem or poet you discovered and altered your sense of what poetry could be?
L: Most poets I've read have altered my sense of what poetry could be. Blake, Shelley and Yeats have perhaps most profoundly re-shaped me and my way of seeing the world, but each poem I read seems to change the possibilities of what a poem is or can do.
H: Can the writing of poetry be taught? Is there a difference between craft and art?
L: I think that writing poetry can be taught to receptive students, but that there has to be an interest in poetry and some kind of basic aptitude (as in music). Otherwise, there is not much point. My creative writing students do beautifully with the mandatory poetry assignment, and there are always a couple there who have never written a poem before. Certainly, craft and art mean two different things, craft referring more to the process and art more to the result, but I don't think craft and art are separate or that they can be separated.
H: A question in which I have a personal interest at the moment, how does or can a formal education enrich or hinder poetic expression?
L: I think the answer to that question is probably very individual for different people who have had different experiences with their writing and their education. A degree in English literature, for example, inspires many people to begin writing poetry. They would not write poetry at all if they weren't reading and studying it already. A great many of the poets whom I admire do have a formal education, but others, Blake, for instance, were entirely self taught. The best education for writing is reading, and that kind of education can be obtained formally or informally. For many people, it is easier to undertake such an education formally.
H: What are you working on presently, or what are any goals or desires do you wish to pursue?
L: I'm working on a poetry manuscript for what I hope will be a book. I'm currently writing an essay on Alice Munro for The Windsor Review. I have a lot of other plans for things to write, but with a demanding career and a family, my writing time is limited.
H: In “listen”, I noticed a sparsity and the essential element of jazz music- silence. Giving the pauses. Their due. Also, a comfortability with silence, a camaraderie with pause which for an anxious twenty-one year old seems nearly unfathomable. How does silence, pause, breath, affect your poetry, poetry generally and what can listening teach one about experience? Do silences come across more powerfully off the page or during recitation?
L: I really like the notion of a "camaraderie with pause". Silence is important. I think that most meaning resides in silence -- in the spaces, pauses and gaps between, before, and after words – both in poetry and in life generally. I am in love with silence. Ask my family, and they will regale you with hilarious and embarrassing anecdotes about the lengths to which I have gone to find or create quiet.
H: In “the woman with the empty bowl”, there seems to be a genial, more or less reconciled rather than resigned, relationship with emptiness. What can this tell us of your sense or view of spirituality or acts of creation - ostensibly or actually essentially empty - and how this affects your work?
L: I’m glad you read the poem that way. Emptiness is not nothingness. The paradox of desire is always that it cannot achieve its ends. The empty hands and the empty bowls in this poem are, in one way, a metaphor for desire, and all acts of creation could be read as enactments of desire.
H: “Home from work” seems an unsettling resolve against or frustration with or resentment of capitalism and domestic life and the infamous ‘to do’ list. In your opinion, is a modern, westernized human experience missing some thing or things? If so, what? And what is the thing to do to reconcile with this absent element and ensuing perturbation?
L: I’m far from thinking that the poet’s intention controls the meaning of a poem, but I have quite a different interpretation. The repetitiveness about "the thing to do" comes from the speaker’s situation, which can only be read backwards into the poem after the ending. She recently lost parents, and she is trying to fill her mind with necessary tasks, to remember what she has to do, to remember to do it, and to make sense of the doing. I was definitely aiming for an ominous feeling, not so much politically or as any kind of social commentary, certainly not as resentment, but rather a feeling of the encroachment of death and grief into her mental space, an encroachment which no amount of "ordinariness" or "thinking" can defeat. The cat, the tea, the house, and the chores would normally provide comfort or refuge. However, the speaker does not succeed in comforting herself, because the uncanny and the irrational are there despite her efforts to push them back. The images in this poem are slightly gothic, they connote death, and there is a slight nod to Lockwood’s nightmare inWuthering Heights. The speaker’s thoughts unravel because death is more potent. The final two lines suggest the irony of her fantasy of insulating herself from the reality of death and a pathos which the poem dramatizes.
H: “because”, tersely, seems a commentary on the necessity of sacrifice in the interest of human relationships. What, if anything, can this sense of sacrifice tell us about an artist’s responsibility, should said responsibility exist, to create, to contort in the interest of art? Or, for you, are acts of creation more organic?
L: "because" attempts to express a lot of paradoxes about being in a love relationship. I see "because" as a poem about being in love and the mixture of joy and sorrow which arises. Organic metaphors for poetry certainly have their appeal. Like P.B. Shelley, I think that poetry aims for something "above and beyond consciousness", and that the poet doesn’t particularly control either the poem or its effects. I’m not sure how to fit responsibility into such a conception. Responsibility may be the wax in the wings of Icarus. Or it may be what Icarus left behind on the ground while he was flying.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: June 4th, the first Wednesday of the month.
LIVE MUSIC: Pianist Sharon Bee will open the event at 6:30. She will also perform a special piece she co-created with Monica Lee, who wrote the lyrics, immediately after Lee's reading. She will also perform during the intermission and at the end of the event.
THE FEATURED POET: Monika Lee will open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, 15 open mic poets will read for about 1.5 hours, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt!