“With grief, I can feel how everything is connected in the world”: A Conversation with Janice Lee

Janice Lee

Janice Lee’s writing has been described as “experimental,” “innovative,” “elemental,” “spellbinding,” and “revelatory.” I have taken writing workshops from her at Corporeal Writing, and the same could be said about her teaching style. Her courses involve guided meditations, communion with nature, generative writing prompts, and good old-fashioned craft talks. The Portland-based, Korean-American writer, teacher, spiritual scholar, and shamanic healer is the author of Separation Anxiety, a poetry collection out this August, and the novel Imagine a Death from last year, as well as five other books. 

Stylistically, the two books couldn’t be more different. Imagine a Death’s long, involved sentences invoke a trance-like response in the reader, while Separation Anxiety’s seventy-six poems speak in short phrases punctuated by pauses. Thematically, the books tread across a familiar thematic landscape particular to Lee, one marked by grief, trauma, hauntings, and the interwovenness of all things, a concept in her Buddhist practice.

I spoke to Janice Lee (no relation) this summer in Portland, Oregon, about her connection to the Korean language, the concept of nunchi, how the deaths of her parents and dogs infuse her work, and the concept of grief as an open state of being. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Margaret Juhae Lee: The first thing I wanted to ask you, as a Korean American myself who can read a little bit of Korean, is about the Korean words at the beginning of Separation Anxiety. I wonder how they influenced the whole collection of poems. I’m especially interested in the connections between words such as 귀 (ear) and 귀신 (ghost), and 눈 (eye) and 눈치 (intuition / tact / awareness). 

Janice Lee: Both sets of words are related to ghosts and hauntings. The concept of 눈치 (nunchi), or intuition, is as well. All of those things are related. I started with the word nunchi, a word that I learned from my mother. I didn’t know the definition for a very long time.… I just gathered that nunchi seemed to be about survival, and it seemed to have something to do with common sense. And when my mom would use it, she would often talk about certain female friends of mine. “Oh, this person, they have a lot of nunchi, or that friend of yours doesn’t have any.” It was an insult. According to my mom, it was more important for females to have nunchi than for males. I gathered that it was about trying to guess how people are going to perceive you and about how to act. It feels like a kind of social intuition, like an awareness. I’ve also seen nunchi translated as “tact.” There’s so many ways people define it. It also actually feels close to telepathy. It is about being in a space and feeling what’s going on. You ask yourself, “Okay, who’s here? What emotions are they feeling? Who’s friendly?” 

That’s so interesting. Those Korean words really guided me in your poems. They work like a mini-epigraph.

I was hoping that even people who can’t read Korean would at least look at the words and recognize that the same characters are present in these other words. I didn’t want to explain it. 

Have you always written poetry? Or is it a reaction to writing Imagine a Death, since it was made up of such enormous sentences? 

Yes, to both questions. I’ve always written all sorts of things. My earliest works didn’t necessarily fit easily into a genre—a lot of the work that I was doing in my early twenties was in between prose and poetry. I think, for various reasons, they got labeled as prose, as fiction. I have always written in poetic modes, and I’ve always read poetry. I’ve always been attentive to language in that way. But this is the first book that is labeled as poetry. It’s also the book that has the most pieces that look like poetry. 

The poems were a kind of rehabilitative act after my novel, because writing it was so exhausting. It took so much out of me. I love sentences, but it was also really exhausting to be in those sentences. I didn’t even want to want to write at all for a while afterwards.

These poems just started to come out at the beginning of the pandemic. They started as things I was jotting down, playing around with language. And then suddenly, I realized that I might be writing a collection of poetry. 

Tell me more about your process in writing these poems or if there was even a discernable process in writing them.

The process was all over the place. Some of the poems were written after meditations or journeys, and some of them started as phrases or words that would come to me. A lot of the poems were about anticipating my first dog Bennie’s death. He passed away during the course of the book. And some of the poems were written after he died. Then my second dog, Maggie, also got sick. A lot of the poems are also anticipating her death. It’s not always clear, when you are reading the poems, which dog I’m talking about. And that’s fine. I don’t need the reader to know which dog it was, just that there is the anticipation of grief and also grief. 

All the poems in Separation Anxiety seem to be in conversation with each other—they build upon each other and the space between them feels very porous to me. Was that your intention?

It just happened that way. But thank you for saying that. Maybe it’s because I wrote them in such a contracted period of time. I didn’t go in with an intention. 

Over what period of time did you write them?

I would say maybe about a year and a half. Time is weird. Because of the pandemic, it’s hard for me to figure out how much time passes in between things.

The pandemic was like a black hole, a weird time disruption.

Did that happen six months ago or two years ago? I don’t know. That’s why I’m being hesitant with the time. I want to say about a year and a half. Something like that. The first half of the pandemic. I can remember that Benny passed away right before the pandemic started in January 2020. Maggie passed away a year later. Then my dad passed away in between that time as well. Grieving also fucks with time.

I am curious about your relationship with the Korean language. How much Korean did you grow up with? How much you feel like that language infuses your writing now? Or the sensibility of it? Or even on a sentence level, do you see any connections?

I have an interesting relationship to Korean. My parents spoke Korean to me, so my understanding of Korean is pretty good. But I was encouraged to speak English, which I think is pretty common for a lot of immigrant families. I can feel and understand the Korean in my bones, but I couldn’t really speak it. 

It wasn’t until both my parents were older when I started feeling sad that I didn’t know more Korean. If I wanted to read something that wasn’t translated yet, I couldn’t really read it. It would take me forever to look up all the words. My mom’s English was pretty good. So, she was fine. But when my dad was in the hospital last year, I was translating for him, but it wasn’t that great. I was speaking basically Konglish to him, but he could understand me better than he could understand the doctors. It’s been in the last couple of years that I’ve been more intentionally practicing my Korean and educating myself. It’s why I started watching K-dramas. When I listen to Korean, I can feel it, even if I don’t understand all the words. Korean is weirdly in my body. But when I try to speak it, there’s a strange feeling of the words getting stuck in my mouth. I know what it’s supposed to feel like. It’s this very strange feeling of that word existing somewhere in my body. 

Do you feel like that comes out in your poetry?

I think it does a little bit in these poems. It’ll probably continue to affect my writing more in the future now that I’m being so intentional about learning and trying to practice Korean on my own. Some thoughts are coming out in Korean. I talk to my dog in Korean, and sometimes she has no idea what’s going on. But she’s pretty telepathic and intuitive. Whatever language I am speaking, she would be okay. Language is interesting, because it’s more than just the language in the words.

I feel both at home in Korean, and not, because I can’t speak it fluently. It’s a strange feeling. Whereas with Spanish, I learned it in school and I’m pretty good with it. But it doesn’t feel like it settled on my body. If people are speaking Spanish, I have to pay a lot of attention. But with Korean my comprehension is great. Can I respond to you in Korean? I don’t know. 

I feel like the themes of grief and the interconnectedness between different realms are apparent in all your work

I think you’re right. Many of the same themes have emerged in my work. Particularly grief. There’s been a lot of grief in my life. I was pretty young when I experienced my first death in the family. I think I was six when my grandfather died. Years later, I found out that he didn’t die of natural causes—he had killed himself. He was my dad’s father from North Korea. There were a lot of struggles that he didn’t share with his family. My uncle, who was my dad’s younger brother, also passed away very young. There seemed to be people dying quite often, and I realized that that wasn’t normal for people my age.

When I got to college, I met all these people who had never experienced anybody dying before. One of my early writing teachers said something to me after her mother had passed away. She said when you have experienced grief, you are drawn to other people who’ve experienced grief. It’s not because of a sadness. It’s more a different understanding of the world. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what she meant. But I knew she was right. I could feel it. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t until later when I started writing that I started exploring these things. I still didn’t know that I was writing about grief. I don’t think I knew until I wrote the book about my mother dying. I realized I hadn’t had the chance to grieve because I had been so occupied with my dad’s health. 

I also realized that I didn’t know how to grieve. No one had taught me how. We didn’t have rituals where we cried together as a family, even Korean rituals that I know about now. They were hinted at, or maybe we would sometimes do them, but there were none that we did every year. Sometimes we’d go to my aunt’s house to do jesa, ancestor rituals. I didn’t even know what it was. It wasn’t part of my life. 

As I slowly was doing more work on my own, and finding spiritual practices and support, I started to recognize that grief was something that has been part of my life. It’s something that made me who I am. I think it slowly became an intentional interest., But for a long time, I didn’t know that that’s what I was writing about. It’s all there in my early work, but I thought I was writing about other things. 

How do you feel grief in your body?

It’s different at different times. Sometimes it feels heavy, but not like I’m carrying physical rocks. Heavy like there’s a weight on my chest and it’s hard to breathe. It’s an internal feeling, not external. It feels like you are at a high altitude and it’s hard to breathe. I get altitude sickness easily. Maybe there’s a relationship there. Other times it feels incredibly sad, but also open. Devastating and emotional but open. Embedded in that deep intensity is clarity. I feel like I can see the world. 

I get that feeling from your poems. Connectivity and movement in a circular way. There’s the one line I love about the sky and ocean: “The sky is a reflection of the ocean, not the other way around.” Circularity, inversion. That’s what I feel.

When I was listening to you say that, I thought about how there’s a difference between being depressed and feeling grief. They might overlap, but at least for me, when I am in a heavy depression, everything feels closed off. But with grief, I can feel how everything is connected in the world, like I’m on a mushroom trip. It’s still sad but open. I feel sensitive and I can receive everything. More open, not closed off. It’s a state of being that I can’t help. 

I attended a talk by Lidia Yuknavitch, the author of Thrust and founder of Corporeal Writing, and she spoke about polyvocal texts, and I thought, That term describes your work as well. She had us all stand up and yell in intervals and directed us like a choir. 

Several students have said, “You and Lydia say the same things.” We think similarly. I don’t use that term, but I do think about multiplicity, assemblage, how things are connected. From a Buddhist point of view, I think about interbeing or interwovenness. If I go into the forest, I can hear the birds and crunching of the leaves. It’s about the sound of the whole forest, not isolating the sounds. Isolating takes away the context. There’s no single cause of sounds.

I understand why you titled you book Separation Anxiety, but I wonder if it used in an ironic way as well, especially considering your interest in interwovenness?

[Laughs.] Maybe it was. Separation Anxiety was the placeholder title and then just stayed over time. I think probably for the same reason. Separation anxiety with pets, dogs, relationships – these are common ways of thinking about it. What is having anxiety about separation? And what actually is separation? Separation only exists if we believe things can be separate. And what is separation? A construct. 


Margaret Juhae Lee is the author of Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History, forthcoming from Melville House in 2024. She received a Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Korean Studies Fellowship from the Korea Foundation in support of her book. She was an editor at The Nation magazine and has published articles in The Nation, Newsday, Elle, ARTnews, The Rumpus and Ploughshares. She lives in Oakland with her family and Brownie, a rescue dog from Korea.