Poetry with Meaning, Daniel Lee

By Monica Sager

On April 13, Daniel W. K. Lee joined Dr. Nicolyn Woodcock’s Introduction to Literary Analysis Course to speak about poetry and his own work.

Woodcock’s class has started a poetry lesson and it will continue throughout the end of April. She mentioned that for a lot of the students poetry sounds daunting – not many people enjoy reading it in school these days. The type of writing holds stereotypes that often hold barriers to many.

For Lee, poetry is able to share an emotional truth in a way that other writing cannot. It goes beyond the novel or longform writing styles.

“Poetry is an oral tradition,” Lee said. “We were transmitting knowledge and ideas from the oral tradition. A very expressive poem will be able to be experienced off of the page as well.”

Woodcock said that she suggests to her students that they read with their body. 

Lee said that he reads his own poetry before publishing it into a voice memo to ensure that there is music to it. If it doesn’t sound right, Lee revises it. Or maybe he leaves it for a while, he said. One poem he mentioned was revised “organically” six years later when Lee saw it in a different light with more clarity.

Oftentimes, though, Lee said his poems start with just a line. But he enjoys the fact that poetry has forms and rhythms with rules to follow. He jots down ideas in journals to come back to.

“I think the more rules the more interesting and narrower it can be,” Lee said. “I like to know all of the rules and I want that challenge to write in the strictest sense of it…The restrictions kind of help me filter out the distractions.”

Lee started his poetry journey when he was “quite young,” he said, when he wrote poems for a girl he thought he was in love with. It was really sing songy, as he remembers, and was “one of the most embarrassing things I’ve written.”

In sixth and seventh grade, Lee wrote poems for his classmates to give to their girlfriends. He realized looking back that it was a way for him to get closer to his classmates rather than the idea of love or the girls themselves. 

“I found it was an easy way to express myself or love in a young age,” he said.

In high school, Lee became more politically aware. He started to channel this awareness and angst into poetry. It wasn’t, however, until college at NYU that he decided to focus on poetry. 

Today, Lee has been building on the impact of his debut work “Anatomy of Want.” In his first collection of poetry, Lee studied limbs, breath, tendencies, love, conditions, and deliberate actions. He weaves allusions and metaphors throughout his poem to add breadth and depth to his writing. 

In the poem that he read to the class, “Ghazal for this World,” he writes double meanings of words like White House and governments as well as uses words like prophets in contexts where he might be referring to profits. It’s a poem that could look like it means on thing on the surface but when it is looked at deeper it means another.

Looking forward, Lee would love to see his works translated in other languages. He specifically mentioned Cantonese. As a third generation refugee born in Malaysia, Lee wants to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy his writing and share the words together.

“You are still going to replicate the emotional truth of the work. I’m less interested in the literal word-for-word,” Lee said. “I want the translation to portray the same emotional status…There isn’t anything that can be truly faithful in translation.”

If the poems are translated, Lee would be able to share them with his parents, which he said he would be “extra special.”

Lee now also wants to continue to champion more marginalized writers and create a more equitable literary landscape for all. He made a call for Queer Asian American poets to collaborate with him to gain resources for those interested in poetry. It would be less about the poets themselves and more about the writing.

“I’m really excited about the idea of making something that could make an impact on the American literary landscape,” Lee said. 

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