Interview with Aaron Lee

In the beginning of Coastlands we read about a man who journeys to the mountains after being entranced by its view. While journeying he falls into meditative contemplation about his life and its many tragedies, all seemingly rooted to the loss of his mother. He returns with the mountains’ “brilliant and ruthless beauty” in him. We can’t help but wonder—he had spent the time meditating on the saddest things, and yet he came away with beauty?

Reading Coastlands can often feel like journeying into those gutted mountains. Themes of separation, longing, and journeying feature strongly throughout the book. Figures of myths and legends—like Prometheus, Radin Mas Ayu, and Samson’s Delilah—are brought down to earth and stand before us, human and hurting. There is both the cosmic and the earthly in Aaron Lee’s poetry. Life slows down. Every joy and terror is contemplated and one can understand why even the saddest things can be beautiful once we’ve journeyed within ourselves.

We speak to Aaron Lee about Coastlands and his art of writing.

How does it feel like to be back writing poetry after a hiatus?

Reading, thinking, reflecting and writing has been part of my life for many years. Sometimes weeks and months go by without my having written a poem, but I am always trying to make sense of life through self-expression. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes I let it go. But the putting together of this book Coastlands that charts my recent journey as a pilgrim poet, has been exciting and wonderful. I realised that I can be content to let words catch up with life, not the other way around. I am after all, not in charge of writing my life.

In what ways has your writing changed?

Good question. After I put this collection together, I did ask myself the same question. In terms of “voice”, I don’t think it has changed too much. My writing voice continues to be personal and lyrical.

Perhaps my instinct has been honed further, through reading good poetry written by both Singapore and international poets. I am more content with what I leave unsaid. Perhaps I trust my readers more!

How different would this collection be if you had written it earlier?

Coastlands could not have been written even a year earlier than 2014. It was only in the last three to four years that I was introduced to Hawaii (via my wife Namiko, who was on a journey of her own, to become a student of Hawaiian arts and culture). Through many visits and meeting some wonderful Hawaiians, the idea of this unique place as a “spiritual home” grew on me.

There are a lot of place poems in Coastlands. What was your favourite place to write about?

Looking back, I do see my first poetry collection as being essentially about my childhood in Malaysia, and my second book as being about my adopted city Singapore.Coastlands contains about my understanding of who I am because of these places. And it also contains some poems about or inspired by Hawaii, a special place that has become very dear to both Namiko and I.

What were some difficulties faced while writing this collection?

I did have a dilemma whether to include several very deeply personal poems about personal loss and failure. But I eventually decided to put some of them in the book—my journey would not have been properly characterised without them.

How does your relationship with Namiko affect your work?

Namiko is my soulmate and the most inspiring person I know. She is a painter and dancer, not a writer. But I rely on her artistic sensibilities without reservation. Having said that, I generally do not show her drafts of my poems, only what I consider to be final versions. And she leads the way for me in terms of diligence and trusting the process.

Coastlands is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.