This Wednesday, poet Ed Bok Lee will be sharing work he's created as a resident at the American Swedish Institute through Coffee House Press's Writers and Readers Library Residency Program. For the residency, Bok Lee mined the archives of the museum in search of spontaneous poems in letters and diary entries from over 100 years ago. At the exhibition, titled "The Metatranslation Project," the original entries and Lee's poems will be on display in the Benson Gallery.
We talked with Bok Lee about the project, and he shared some of his thoughts about the "spiritual substance" he was trying to capture.
Photo courtesy Jay D. Peterson
What have you been up to at the American Swedish Institute?
Ed Bok Lee: So Coffee House Press approached me and said, "Do you want to do a residency at the American Swedish Institute?" I was like, "Uh, I have no idea what it is. I've seen it, but I've never been in it." So they said, "Why don't you meet with the artistic director and the librarian?" So I met with Scott Pollock, the artistic director. He gave me a tour. It was really beautiful, and we had lunch. The food is awesome at Fika.
I got a sense of the space. I think my experience in site-specific theater kind of kicked in. I looked at the space, and looked through the archive. They took me down into the bowels of the 1904 mansion, where there's more storage. It's like a medieval dungeon down there; it's all stone. There's also a boiler room, and then I saw all of the archives. I was like "Okay, I think I know what I want to do."
Photo courtesy Coffee House Press
What is the project called?
I called it the Metatranslation Project. Because I don't know Swedish. I only know one word of Swedish, still, willfully. And I only know that word because it's on the back of my Lunds grocery bag: Takk (thank you).
The librarian there is fluent in Swedish. She did a lot of the assisting, and then helped me find and locate letters and diaries by Swedish immigrants from 150 years ago. I was going through those, and looking for spontaneous poems.
The poems were the gold nuggets I was looking for. I took those, and just based on the appearance -- the quality of the paper, the yellow paper, the penmanship, the color of ink (there was this beautiful violet-colored ink that I'd never seen before in one of the journals) -- I metatranslated it without knowing Swedish.
Can you give an example?
There was one poem that appeared, and the first three words were "Ja Stakar Hon." So, for instance, I metatranslated "Ja" as it reminded me of the Hebrew Yaweh, which is God. "Stakar" became stacks. And "hon" in Korean is this particular deep kind of sorrow or sadness. And so I translated "Ja Stakard Hon" into "God stacks his sadness." And then I continued the line: "God stacks his sadness. Sadness is the cathedral of men." I approached lines like that.
These journals and letters had not been opened in a 100 years. I wanted to honor and celebrate that most private art making impulse that these people had. There would be writing on what they did that day or what they had to buy, and then all of a sudden it was like -- boom! -- there's a poem that they couldn't help but write.
What kind of poems were they?
I have no idea, because I don't know the literal translations. So I have no idea what they say. People at the Swedish Institute asked me if I wanted to know, and I said no. I'm not translating the literal; I'm translating the private most art making impulse to create a poem that I believe every human being has. By the time we all die, at some point after the death of a loved one or the birth of a loved one or when something happens to you that you have no other mode of expression for in common daily language for, you shift into higher mode, the lyrical mode of consciousness which gives birth to the poem -- whether you like to or not. Sort of like how everyone I know has sung in the car or in the shower. I know everyone has written a poem or a poetic line, even if they wake up in the middle of night and jot down a dream.
Photo courtesy Coffee House Press
Are you an immigrant yourself?
I'm second generation. I was born in U.S., went back when I was very young, and then returned in grade school. My mother is from what is now North Korea, my father is from South Korea -- he passed away. When I was little, I remember there would be letters they'd write home back to the homeland in Korean. I remember I couldn't read at that time, so I'd just look at the script. It just looked so alien and beautiful. I've always been interested in handwriting and handwriting analysis and typography and paper, and the smell of paper and ink.
So when I'm communing with these found text objects in Swedish, I'm thinking about themes of migration, longing, nostalgia. I'm kind of imagining the state of being for these people who are now long gone. You see their script, or where they've had to cross something out. Just the remnants. I'm calling these found text objects. These poems in the found text objects are a spiritual substance. I'm working almost like a three-dimensional artist. I'm working with the three-dimensional substance. Not the meaning in the language, but the actual intention of the writing act itself as a form of expression.
For the event on Wednesday, in addition to you reading, there will be a debut of five one-minute films. Can you say something about those commissions?
When I was thinking of and really trying to commune with found text objects, I didn't want anything that had been published for 100 years. This is why the organization exists. These people who are long gone built it and created it. It's because of them that the art can now be shown. I wanted to honor and celebrate that art-making impulse.
I was thinking about what Minneapolis and St. Paul are going to look like in 150 years. I started thinking of migration, nostalgia, longing, and homesickness. I chose five artists from the community who I think have very different but interesting takes on immigration, migration, and ideas of home. For the same reason that the original writers of these Swedish poems were by no means professional poets, and I am by no means a professional translator of Swedish, I didn't want the five commissioned artists to be filmmakers. I wanted them to be half in the dark working with filmmaking and video. I feel like a lot of art these days focuses so much on form that content falls by the wayside. Or a lot of art focuses on content without any interesting formal innovation.
I feel like there's a third element that people forget: spiritual substance. I'm trying to meditate on the intentions of the laypeople writing in Swedish even when they probably spoke English. That intention -- that spiritual substance -- is what led to the films. The films would not exist if these people out of deep necessity- created these poems that they maybe never read again themselves. That's what this whole project is about.
IF YOU GO:
"The Metatranslation Project" Ed Bok Lee project discussion and reception 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; reception at 5:30 p.m.
The evening will also include five one-minute films by Xavier Tavera, Mike Hoyt, Janaki Ranpura, Allison Bolah and Natasha Pestich, based on the metatranslation poems.