Broken Asides with Emma Lee


When did you first feel like a writer?

As a young child I used to build houses from plastic bricks and create stories about who I imagined lived there. Then progressed to writing them down. In my early teens, poems were added to the mix. So it’s hard to pin down exactly when I first felt like a writer, but at some point in my childhood.

What’s the most interesting thing that has inspired your writing and what was the result?

Back in 2015 during the refugee crises, someone I know suggested creating a poetry anthology to raise funds for refugees. I volunteered to get involved as a co-editor (along with Kathleen Bell and Siobhan Logan) and I set up the crowdfunder so sufficient funds were raised to cover printing and distribution costs. Five Leaves agreed to publish and work for free to get the book published. I also organised some readings to help promote it, including one at the Poetry Cafe in London, gave out some postcards with poems from the anthology at Leicester Railway Station and, aware that the original anthology only featured poems in English, came up with the idea for Journeys in Translation, a blog and event where people translated some of the poems into different languages. I did some of the German translations. My poems from the anthology formed the basis for my fourth collection “The Significance of a Dress”. One project I was particularly proud to be involved in was Arachne Press’s “What Meets the Eye”, an anthology of deaf and hard of hearing poets where the poems which had submitted in BSL were translated into English and poems submitted in English were interpreted and videos available at Arachne Press. I didn’t have the confidence to video myself interpreting my own poem but DL Williams did a fabulous job.

Paint us a picture: what does your writing process look like? Do you write in coffee shops at night or only on an old type-writer?

I have a writing desk, a small, antique fall-front desk big enough for a notebook and laptop, where, theoretically the writing happens. In reality there is no process. I write in the gaps, before meetings, arriving early, lunch, before work, after work, in the parent taxi, in cafes, at a desk, in my car, libraries, with whatever’s to hand: paper notebook, notes app on phone, computer… One key part of the process is reading aloud what I’ve written: that’s how you pick up repetitions, awkward phrases and the rhythm and pace of what you’ve written.

Describe your ideal reader: who would your work speak to?

Someone compassionate who appreciates that women are complete, complex human beings and not cyphers or stereotypes. I do keep returning to themes of migration and domestic violence, but there are also poems about music, figure skating and ramen.

Who’s an author you’ve changed your mind about and why?

This was a struggle to answer. When I started submitting poems, I mentioned I did music reviews so I didn’t sound like a complete newbie, and one editor asked if I’d thought about reviewing books. So I began reviewing as I began to get poems accepted and both poetry and reviewing have run in parallel ever since. A reviewer has preferences (there’s a reason why fans of romcoms don’t review high fantasy), but also has to be aware of those preferences. It is possible for a book not to strike a chord with the reviewer but the reviewer can still appreciate the skill and craft in the writing and make it clear who the target audience for the book is so the target audience can still find it. A reviewer not liking a book is not a bad review. The big advantage of reviewing is that you’re often reading books you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to read so you’re exposed to a wider variety of work. I still read widely for pleasure – reviewing every book I read would turn reading into chore, which I don’t want to do – so am usually aware of a writer’s work, because e.g. I’ve read individual poems or stories in magazines, before I read their books. To answer, I’m going to have to go back to teenage years and say I didn’t get on with Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” when I first read it – it seemed too much like self-indulgent surface gloss. But then I read “Franny and Zooey” and got a better picture of Salinger’s intent. Re-reading “Catcher in the Rye” after reading “Franny and Zooey” made me appreciate the multi-layers underneath the surface gloss. I’ve never had that happen with another writer.

If you could interview any other writer/artist, who would it be and why?

Would love to be able to interview Patricia Smith and talk about “Incendiary Art” and her “Blood-Dazzler” poems in particular. She is a fabulous reader of her own work and generous towards other writers. If I’m allowed a second, I’d like to chat with Anton Hur (translator of Chang Bora’s “Cursed Bunny” and Baek Sehee’s “I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki”) about the process of literary translation, which has intrigued me ever since I was involved in Journeys in Translation, translating English poems into German. I also review works in translation, particularly when I was reviews editor at The Blue Nib which also published poetry in translation, and always name the translator. I think it’s also to do with watching films with subtitles and you can at least guarantee a foreign film will be subtitled, but how well do they convey the script? He also has great taste. Usually, a translator’s name is about the quality of translation, but when I see his name associated with a book, it goes on my to read list.

What motivates you to keep writing?

I haven’t worked out how to stop. There always seems to be one more poem or one more story to write.

How do you deal with writer’s block or being overwhelmed by the writing process?

I think writer’s block either means you’ve hit a dead end in a story and need to unpick a couple of scenes to get back on track, or you need a break. We can’t be creative 100% of the time and writers need to re-charge. I go and do something else, typically embroidery, or read or listen to music or watch a movie. I know I can trust inspiration will return when I have something I need to write.

Where would you like to see yourself in a decade? A creative writing teacher? As a best-seller?

I’d love to see poetry on the bestseller lists! I don’t enjoy teaching. I guess I’ll be doing more of the same but hopefully with a couple more books with my name on the cover.

What has your work taught you about yourself?

That I place a huge value on stories, not only for the stories themselves, but who gets to tell them, whose voices we hear and the voices that don’t get heard. Maya Angelou talked about there being no greater pain than an untold story inside you and that struck a huge chord. It can take a great deal of bravery to speak, but it also takes someone who can listen. If you silence or disbelieve a survivor, you continue the harm. I think that’s also where the interest in translation comes from with questions about how faithful the translator is to the original work and whether we miss out on stories because we don’t know the original language.

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