“Poetry Resonates”—An Interview with Youth Poet Laureate Wei-Wei Lee
July 28, 2019
Wei-Wei Lee, our 2019/20 Youth Poet Laureate, is a poet whose work pays tribute to both Taiwan and America in her writing. This summer, we sat down virtually with Wei-Wei to ask her about everything from coping with writer’s anxiety, to how place informs her creative practice, to the advice she would give youth writing today . . .
Tell us your writing origin story! How did you come to poetry? Why this genre?
I started creating stories when I was very young, playing alone – my sisters are six to seven years my senior, so I often had no playmates and had to entertain myself – but I don’t think any of them made it to paper until I was in third grade. My works then were all fiction. I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in eighth grade; some time that year, I’d managed to hunt down a copy of Karen Finneyfrock’s The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, a novel I’d been wanting to read for over two years. Celia, the protagonist, was a poet, and from that book I realized that poems didn’t necessarily have to rhyme – before, I’d never been willing to write poems because of how difficult I found rhyming. Later that same year, I wrote my first poem as part of a deal to myself: that even though I was having trouble with stories, I would create something and love it for what it was, just to write something, anything.
That first poem may have been terrible, but it was satisfying, and I began to write poetry more and more often. I think the reason why I never hated my poetry the way I sometimes hated my stories was because I wrote stories with ambitious intent to publish and thus set higher standards, whereas with poetry I simply wrote to enjoy it.
In your work, family and place are obviously significant themes that run through your poems. What sorts of subjects or ideas do you find yourself returning to in your writing? And how do you think that living in Seattle, here and now, affects your writing?
I tend to write about anything and everything. A lot of it is pure feeling – the thought that strikes you when you’re waiting for the train with your earbuds in, the way sunlight pools on my friend’s kitchen floor – but I do gravitate toward Taiwan as a subject, because my whole family is there and it’s where I grew up. It’s home for me and a big, big part of who I am.
But Seattle is also my home. It’s the first city in America I’ve lived in, so it’s my first love in many ways. I might be a tad biased, but I think it’s one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever laid eyes on, and as I mentioned before, a lot of my poetry focuses on pure feeling and imagery. Seattle has a lot to offer in that regard, especially since it looks so different from Zhongli District, Taoyuan, in Taiwan. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that they both reside on the same plane of existence! Beyond imagery, the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made here are often subjects of my poems as well. I love them so much and they serve as inspiration to me.
You read your piece to open Viet Thanh Nguyen’s event with SAL back in spring of last year. How was that experience? Was there anything about it that surprised you? Has your writing changed since then?
It changed the way I see things, especially with my own writing. Unlike with my stories, I’ve never expected much from my poetry; it keeps me from overthinking and slamming into a brick wall, so to speak. Getting to open for Viet Thanh Nguyen showed me that for once, I was apparently good at something I enjoyed doing in my own time, that other people liked it, that the things I wrote could actually go somewhere. I loved listening to Mr. Nguyen and as someone who also came from a culturally East Asian country, a lot of the things he said or jokes he made were very, very relatable, but the highlight of the evening was definitely getting to read to people who actually wanted to hear it, which was a novel experience for me.
I don’t think my writing’s changed, but I have been a little more confident about it since then (confident enough to submit to YPL this year!) and I’ve written more poems in my junior year than in sophomore year.
Do you ever face doubts or fears as a writer? If so, how do you cope?
Constantly. (It took me nearly a full year to muster the courage to submit to YPL). The bad news is I have yet to find a solid coping method, but something that works for me more often than not is to just…go easy on yourself. When I was a kid, I used to post whatever work I’d finished writing online – out in the open, for everyone to see – and now that I’m older, I can tell that it really wasn’t my best work. But I miss those days of writing without second-guessing myself so much, and I’m trying to bring back that pride.
So whatever you write – have fun with it. Write whatever you want, enjoy doing it, and that’s it! It’s yours now. Be proud of it because it’s yours.
I’m curious if there are poets whose work you find yourself returning to when you’re composing a poem. What poets or poems serve as sources of inspiration for you?
The name, the legend that is always constantly at hand, is Doug Sylver. He was my Language Arts teacher in freshman year and he’s been a mentor to me with poetry. The first time I ever read one of his poems, he’d submitted to our school literary magazine – a poem called My Name, if memory doesn’t fail me. I was a freshman then and serving as an editor (still am!), and I remembering reading it and going, Whoa. This is how I want to write, this is what I’ve been trying to do, this is the emotion and resonance I want to invoke in my poetry. I’ve had the honor of reading more of his poetry in the years that followed, and I’m still awed every single time!
If I had to name all the authors and poets that have inspired me, it’d be a fifty-page list in twelve-point font, single spaced. But Mr. Sylver is definitely at the top of that list.
If you could tell young writers anything, what would it be?
Go nuts. As we grow up, as we learn more about the world and ourselves, we tend to gather worries and insecurities, though I hope this will not be the case for you. Those worries and insecurities are hard to dismiss and they cling to my work still. While you’re young – go nuts. Enjoy yourself. Write what you love and love what you write. If you want to write something about a space whale hunting down cacti cowboys who are robbing stores of coconut pudding, do it.
As aforementioned – I’ll never be that little girl again, who wrote terrible things and loved them all the same. I’m trying to get her back, but for the coming generation of writers: you never have to let that version of you go.
Next May, you’ll be publishing your first book of poems. That’s amazing! Can you give us a sneak peek at what readers might expect to find in your new collection?
Ooh, I can’t guarantee what will make it in and what won’t – I’m going to be working with Matt and Aaron on this and I subscribe to the philosophy that anything can be improved, so we’ll see how the editing goes! Taiwan, of course, is a recurring subject for me, but I did recently realize how often I write about my friends – what can I say, they’re just amazing like that – so it’s a pretty good bet that at least a few of those poems will be included.
Fun fact: one of the poems I was originally planning to submit for YPL was about my friends! I second-guessed myself just before submission and swapped it out for another poem that I also really liked. “Sundays at Seven” is about the early morning meetings we would schedule about Mock Trial, which two of my friends and I coach together. This is the part that crawled into my head on one of those mornings, which, once written down, would grow into a full-fledged poem:
No people on the roads. We go fast
under the speed limit.
Music croons, backdrop to bickering laughter born of
the chaos of familiarity, or maybe
the familiarity of chaos.
The streetlights could look like stars.
What do you think the value of poetry is for a community or a society?
Aside from being, historically, an excellent conduit for civil rights movements, I believe the value of poetry is having your voice heard. Society is jam-packed with a full spectrum of different people and it can be difficult in that environment to speak out above the hubbub, so to speak, whether it be because you’re afraid of clashing opinions, or because people are just louder in a way, or because you, heh, simply don’t like public speaking. That’s fine! But I have two older sisters and I was always the quiet kid in class, and for me, at least, it gets frustrating when you actually do have things to say but can’t, won’t, don’t want to. Poetry provides that outlet. Poetry resonates.
What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you have any summer plans?
I co-manage a couple of student organizations: Mock Trial, Writers’ Club, The Creek (Nathan Hale’s literary magazine), so between those, schoolwork, and housework, that’s pretty much my usual schedule filled up! I also have a massive, ever-growing book list that I’m working on – I always have at least one or two books borrowed from the library and more on hold. (Sidenote: The Seattle Public Library is such a good resource and you all should use it because free. books.) I went to a leadership conference and did some college-hunting in July, but for the rest of the summer, I’m going to start bracing for senior year to make impact – college applications wait for no one and my AP classes loom ominously on the horizon, and on the days I surreptitiously ignore both, I have plans to chill with the people I love.
Thanks, Wei-Wei! We can’t wait to read your forthcoming collection.