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Found in translation: Fargo-born poet Ed Bok Lee links karaoke, immigrant experience

Since his debut book of poetry "Real Karaoke People" came out a week ago, Fargo-born Ed Bok Lee has heard from more than a few readers dubious about his title theme.

Since his debut book of poetry "Real Karaoke People" came out a week ago, Fargo-born Ed Bok Lee has heard from more than a few readers dubious about his title theme.

"Karaoke? Isn't that kind of cheesy?" some questioned. "Who goes to that? That's the losers and wannabes."

Lee, however, is unabashed about his fascination with the low-brow genre, which in more than one way informs his outspoken collection, published by Minnesota State University Moorhead's New Rivers Press.

For one thing, dabbling in karaoke served as extended training in vanquishing perfectionism and shaped Lee's expressive, liberated style as a performance poet. He'll unleash that style in a reading Friday night at Moorhead's Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center as part of the New Rivers Press Literary Festival.

But also, those the mainstream brands as losers and wannabes - the immigrants, minorities and any manner of outcasts with whom he shared the stage at karaoke joints across the country - populate the pages of his book and reclaim their dignity.


Caught between his first-generation Korean American family and the overwhelmingly white North Dakota host culture, Lee used to share some of the skepticism about karaoke.

At reunions and gatherings, members of his extended family took turns singing after dinner, and he somewhat reluctantly obliged and joined in this Asian exercise in familial bonding.

That was certainly not a pastime his white schoolmates related to.

"To my American friends, it was cheesy," he says about karaoke. Plus, back then as now, he had little confidence in his vocal prowess.

The tension between family expectation and his desire to piece himself together out of the cultural jigsaw puzzle escalated after his high school graduation. He took a sharp detour from the Asian American youngster's route largely calcified into stereotype: sailing through college and landing a high-paying job.

Sail through college Lee did: He attended the University of Minnesota for a day, and then embarked on a road trip financed by odd jobs and high school savings. The two-year trip whisked him to most of the 50 states, where in bars and smoky pool rooms, he came to revise his take on karaoke.

He discovered the attraction for those on society's fringes to this most democratic - and forgiving - form of artistic self-expression.

Behind the microphone, the marginalized heard their voices transformed, from a hardly audible whisper on the social radar to a full-throated bellow.


"When they get up on stage, they can just belt and they are the center of attention for three minutes at a time," he says.

After the road trip, Lee went back to school, eventually earning a master's degree in creative writing from Rhode Island's prestigious Brown University. These days, he's splitting his time between a south Minneapolis neighborhood and New York City, where he is set to produce his own play, "Whorled."

But the acquaintances from his old minimum-wage dive days linger in his book's unflinching, yet warm, snapshots of people on the down and out: the homeless U.S. Army veteran who conjures Lee's veteran grandfather, who in his final years paid visits to city pigeons clutching a TV remote; Lee's refugee neighbors in Minneapolis; and of course, his "real karaoke people," who sing to forget their age, class or race.

Lee's poems race from one continent to another, from one generation to the next, connecting the dots between the Korean War, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and Lee's childhood days in Fargo. They latch onto glimpses of the U.S. immigrant experience with hungry precision.

It was this cosmopolitan feel and the less-than-squeamish immersion into the messiness of the minority experience that caught the eye of New Rivers Press senior editor Al Davis.

"He's very much in touch with the everyday, gritty world," Davis says about Lee. "He's developed a good ear for how people sound in real life."

Davis sees karaoke as a metaphor for the negotiation marking the migrant's journey into the mainstream: Just as the karaoke performers try to do their own thing yet stick to the original tune, immigrants look for a distinct voice within the boundaries of the host culture.

For Lee, karaoke not only provided a gallery of vivid characters, but also taught him something about how to tell their stories.


"To sing karaoke, you don't have to have a good voice," says Lee. "All you have to have is a soul that needs to speak and a little guts to get up there."

Whether writing or performing his work on stage, he strives to let emotion, rather than the quest for perfection, guide his tone.

"It feels really good to be able to bare your soul," he says about karaoke and poetry. "It's healthy for you. It's cathartic."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

If you go

What: New Rivers Press Literary Festival

When: Today through Saturday

Where: MSUM Library Porch, Barnes & Noble, Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center and Zandbroz Variety


Information: All events are free and open to the public. (218) 477-2235

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