A Conversation With Youngseo Lee

Youngseo Lee is nineteen and newly based in Virginia, though she is from Seoul and Arizona. A 2020 National YoungArts Finalist in Creative Nonfiction and cat lady with no cats of her own, she is the founding editor-in-chief of Pollux Journal, a literary magazine dedicated to multilinguality. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Peach Mag, perhappened mag, Kissing Dynamite Poetry, and more that you can find on youngseolee.carrd.co.


What images or themes do you find yourself veering back to in your writing? What questions (if any) is your work attempting to answer or reconcile with?

Right now, I’m interested in parsing the archetypes of love in this heteropatriarchal society that weaponizes even intimacy. In particular, I have forthcoming poems about the manic pixie dream girl and crazy girlfriend, and I expect that I’ll probably continue thinking and writing about women in the media, specifically in relation to how they navigate romance, for the near future. I never really have plans about what to write. Of course, I have vague topics I want to write about someday, but I’m afraid that writing anything that isn’t immediately urgent will just have me spewing pretty bullshit. And what’s urgent to me keeps changing as I do, too.

People joke that my brand as a writer is boys, but I’ve also had a period of time when I could not shut up about a park that my friends and I went to a few times in senior year of high school. If there’s anything that I think my work has been addressing long-term, though, it’s that we want to be loved. Or at least that I want it. Is it selfish to want to be understood completely? I’d like to think that I am writing everything I know about myself in an attempt to find what there is to be understood, that I am writing into a universe where it is a little less embarrassing to want so much for myself.


You have this wonderful habit of blending poetic and essay forms within your work. Once you have an idea for a piece, how do you decide if it would work best as a poem, essay, or something in between?

The more I think about the distinction of poetry and nonfiction, the unclearer it becomes. I have a friend who blasphemously said poems are just paragraphs with line breaks, and I was obviously a little mad about it, especially because he specifically slandered Mary Oliver in the process of making that claim, but I sat down and thought about it, and who’s to say that a paragraph isn’t a stanza of a prose poem and a novel isn’t a really wonky epic? Regardless of genre, my goal in writing is always to translate something I am feeling. I want my pieces filled with vibes. That being said, I opt for more traditional, line-broken poetry when there are pauses that I want to build into the reading experience because they are coming to me naturally in the crafting process. Otherwise, hybrid or prose (which are almost identical in my mind) can work perfectly well in delivering what I need it to.


Your work also has a wonderful focus on multilinguality. How has speaking both Korean and English affected your creative work?

I think that the power of multilinguality is the access to a wider array of emotions, or ways to articulate the lived experience. How many of your own feelings are you unaware of because you don’t have a word for it? I have articulation FOMO. Anyway, I think that my multilinguality has unintentionally given me a lot of practice for what happens in the creative process. I spend a lot of my nonliterary life explaining a thought or memory or feeling that happened in Korean, which requires a lot of wiggling between nuances. This definitely mirrors the process of translation, but I think that it also speaks to the creative work that I generate: finding ways to explain myself.


Are there any translated Korean works that you would recommend to English-speaking readers? Any other translated work?

Chogwa is a great literary magazine dedicated to comparing multiple translations of the same Korean poem! I love seeing how translators can breathe drastically different lives into the same text, and I think it’s even more fun for me as a former (and hopefully future?) contributor to see how others made similar or different choices. Outside of Chogwa, a work that has stayed with me is Ainee Jeong’s translation of Hwang Jini’s “Expectation,” which comes with a stunning author’s note. And this isn’t a translated work, but Emily Jungmin Yoon’s interview with Don Mee Choi on her translations is absolutely amazing!


Pollux Journal is such a wonderful tribute to multilingual writing! How does the editing process for translated work differ from editing work that deals primarily in a singular language?

At Pollux, in addition to what any other lit mag may seek in a submission — the mastery of language, how interesting the topic is, etc. — we also look for the role of multilinguality in our submissions. Very often, we get work that is very beautifully written but deals more with culture than language, or does not seem very intentional with its use of non-English languages. We want the multilinguality in the work we publish to feel urgent, necessary, and in conversation with its context.


How does the staff go about adjudicating translated work from a language nobody on the team is familiar with?

It’s very often that we get submissions involving languages that none or very few of our team members know! We usually rely heavily on the optional glossary/translations/notes that most of our submitters provide for context and connotation in addition to the literal translations of words themselves. In the case that we don’t have such supplementary material provided by the submitter, we lean into the experience of not being given full access to what familiarity with a certain language would allow. Submitters are often very intentional about what information they give us or not — sometimes, they seek to replicate the lack of fluency they discuss within a piece, or want the reader to do the work to access all they can in the work instead of placing the burden of explanation on the writer in a English-centered world. We figure out what we can using Google Translate, etc., but being unable to access what only language can unlock is part of the experience that we want to curate at Pollux.


What’s been your biggest challenge involved in working with Pollux? Biggest joy?

I’m very glad to say that I have not particularly had hardships with Pollux. It’s a little annoying when people send us work that is so clearly disregarding our theme of multilinguality, but other than that, I’ve mostly just been having fun. My favorite part is every issue launch and our readings: when I’m arranging the pieces and putting the issue together, themes that I hadn’t been aware of while sending acceptances emerge, and it’s so exciting seeing how surprising and diverse yet simultaneously universal our experiences with language can be. And then at the readings, the beautiful minds behind the pieces the team loved show up, and it’s so wonderful to see the people who support us and whom we want to support. Being in the same space, albeit virtual, really blows new energy into the work being read as well as to the community as a whole. I know this all is probably a little generic, but I truly appreciate the love I feel every time we host a reading.


What is the future of comparative literature within the broader literary community?

To be honest, I’m very much still only beginning to explore comparative literature, translation, etc. and the existing communities that already surround it, so I don’t want to pretend to know more than I do. But I see comparative literature mingling more into “normal” literature in the future — a lot of us simply live multilingual existences, and to remove a language from our lives would be to leave our narratives unwhole. It makes sense for our multilinguality to make its way into the literature we create as well, and I hope to see much more multilingualism appearing casually in the literature of English-dominated spaces.


What advice do you have for young creatives considering starting their own publications?

I think it’s important to ask yourself why you might start a lit mag at all. For me, the answer was that I was personally having a hard time finding multilingual work, and I wished there were archives dedicated to multilinguality. I figured that the sooner such a space was curated, the better for everybody who may be interested in the same areas, so I went ahead and talked to some friends and got Pollux up and running. You don’t have to go into a super specific niche or be groundbreaking in your ideas about your lit mag, but I think you should always be asking yourself what your priorities and motivations are, especially when you’re making a pretty decently sized commitment like running a lit mag. On a more practical note, use Markdown instead of text tools and ask for Word formats for anything that’s over a page because copy-pasting from PDFs can break your formatting. (I am speaking from too much experience of completely redoing everything that copy-pasting from PDFs ruined!)


The process of submitting work to magazines is a vulnerable one. What advice do you have for maintaining mental health within the context of the publishing world?

I used to not fully believe people when they said that editors turn back stellar work all the time for various reasons that do not reflect on the quality of the submission. I was kind of stubborn in believing that good work is good work wherever it goes. Now that I’m involved in the reading and editing processes of multiple lit mags, I understand that rejections rarely happen because pieces are just bad or even because we don’t like it. It’s incredibly common for a piece to have a note that says “This is amazing, but I’m not sure that this is what we’re going for as a magazine.” And a lot of times, we truly appreciate the language of an undoubtedly well-written piece but say no because they thematically overlap too much with work that we’ve already published or plan to publish. Editors are seeking to curate a space of work with a specific vibe or theme; their decision of whether you fit with their aesthetic is not a judgement of your quality of work. And honestly, it’s totally fine if you want to share your work through self-publishing, blogs, social media, at open mics, or just with your friends. Though they are becoming more democratized through the internet, lit mags are historically gatekeepers, and it’s okay if you aren’t interested in getting in as much as you just are about creating. And isn’t creation the part that truly matters?


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