Bethany Lee: ‘The more I wrote poetry, the more it formed me’

The Yamhill County poet and Quaker minister talks about her two books, hospice work, and the connection between poetry and science

It was hard to shake the feeling, as my interview with Lafayette poet Bethany Lee approached, that the list of questions I had for her was a bit unwieldy. I’d first reached out to her a year ago to talk about what was then her only collection of poetry, The Breath Between: An Invitation to Mystery and Joy. But now she had another: Etude for Belonging: Poems for Practicing Courage and Hope.

On top of that, Lee’s creativity and artistic life is informed by the fact that she is a Quaker minister who plays the harp for hospice patients and is also a choral accompanist. I knew that she and her husband, Bryan, and two then-middle-school-aged daughters had taken a year for an extraordinary sailing adventure to Mexico and back. Which, I was excited to learn during our conversation, will be the topic of her next book.

In other words, there was a lot to talk about.

Lee was born in Portland and raised in Canby, one of four children whose father was a pastor and mother was a piano teacher. Educated with a mix of public, private, and home-school, she studied music and health care in college, initially planning a nursing career. After a stint in Alaska and the sailing trip in 2013-14, the family settled in Yamhill County. With her daughters in high school, Lee headed back to the classroom herself, where she was certified as a therapeutic musician.

Although she draws inspiration for her work from the totality of life, she’s been drawn over the years to the poetry of Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Kim Stafford, whom she met in a poetry workshop.

 Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“I have never taken a poetry class,” Bethany Lee says. “Looking back, that’s really true of other parts of my life: learning by practice. Putting our sailboat in the water and just start sailing, you know?” Photo by: Bee Joy España
“I have never taken a poetry class,” Bethany Lee says. “Looking back, that’s really true of other parts of my life: learning by practice. Putting our sailboat in the water and just start sailing, you know?” Photo by: Bee Joy España

 How did you first encounter poetry, as a reader and then as a poet?

Lee: There are probably multiple answers to that question. I know that I fell in love with a piece of poetry from Patch Adams. There’s a piece of Pablo Neruda poetry he quotes that’s just breathtaking. About that time — I was probably in my early 20s — I had no idea how to find what I liked in poetry, so I started picking up anthologies, because you’d find two or three poets whose books you’d want to find in used bookstores.

And you found some?

Yeah, absolutely. I read some really lovely anthologies by Roger Housden, he writes a series like Ten Poems to Open Your Heart. He writes a short essay with each poem, and I felt I was getting the best of what a college poetry class could be, where nobody was telling me exactly how to analyze it or what to think. But if there was background from the author’s life or maybe a metaphor that was more subtle than I might have gotten on the first read — I had some help with it, and I really enjoyed that.

Were you taking poetry in college?

I have never taken a poetry class. I have taken a lot of workshops. Looking back, that’s really true of other parts of my life: learning by practice. Putting our sailboat in the water and just start sailing, you know?

Were you writing poetry before your sailing trip?

Yes. Probably the biggest reason I started writing poetry was because I felt really drawn, when my kids were young, to go to a writing workshop once or twice a month in Portland. It was one of those things where I really didn’t know why — I didn’t plan to write a book, I didn’t really have a personal writing practice — but it just felt like something, as a mom whose life was a lot about her kids, it was like, “I’m going to go do this thing!” My husband was super supportive: “You don’t have to know why, it doesn’t have to be something big, you can just do this!” The workshop had us writing 7-minute or maybe 10-minute prompts. Well, you can only write a poem in that amount of time, and that was about the only time I’d write. So things started coming in that form, but the more I wrote poetry, the more it formed me. In poetry there’s so much room for mystery and for the reader to have their own experience with it. 

There’s definitely a mystery to it, the relationship between the art and the artist and then the poet and the reader.

There is. When I first was writing, I was only writing in a group, and there’s something very powerful about those moments where everyone is scritching away, you know? Everyone in the room has come here to do this one thing. It helps drop your anxiety about what else is going on in your day.

How did your first collection, The Breath Between, come about?

I spoke with the publisher from Fernwood, and I had about half a collection, and he really liked what he saw and said, “I’d really like to publish your work, but I’m gonna need 50.” And I had, in maybe 10 years of writing here and there, pulled together maybe 20 or 25. But I could tell a new thing was starting to open for me, and I just decided I was going to figure out a way to make that happen. We make the path by walking.

Was this person from Fernwood someone from the workshop?

No, he’s someone I’ve known for a long time.  I was trying to be careful, asking professional advice without crossing a personal boundary, you know. “I’m not asking you to publish, but I’m asking you as a publisher, what do you think about this?” He was super encouraging. So I came home and needed to figure out how to write alone, which I really hadn’t done. I spent an awful lot of hours trying to find my way into the place that feels like where poetry comes from, without the help of a workshop.

Both of your collections are structured like a piece of music. How does a collection of poems turn into something like that?

The first book, I hadn’t considered sections. I was going through it one last time, and it started separating into chunks. Without even moving things around, I realized I’d been organizing poems in a musical order. With “andante,” which is a walking speed. “Allegro” is always happy and quick and fast, and “largo” is slow and sad. So I was like, “Is it too late? There are sections here!” This time [for Etude], I knew there would probably be sections.

An etude, Lee says, is a piece written to help a musician practice a hard skill in a real-life situation. The title poem of her most recent collection, she says, came out of difficult time when “I had been thinking quite a bit about how pain and trauma make it difficult for us to feel a sense of belonging, even in places where we are absolutely welcomed and do have connections.” Photo by: Bee Joy España
An etude, Lee says, is a piece written to help a musician practice a hard skill in a real-life situation. The title poem of her most recent collection, she says, came out of difficult time when “I had been thinking quite a bit about how pain and trauma make it difficult for us to feel a sense of belonging, even in places where we are absolutely welcomed and do have connections.” Photo by: Kesia Lee

The subtitle is “Poems for practicing courage and hope.” You finished this before the pandemic, right?

I’ve never known an era that didn’t need courage and hope, and yet it does feel very timely.

For those not familiar with musical terms, what is an etude?

I grew up playing the piano, and instrumentalists play scales and other exercises. An etude blends the world of actual music with an exercise. It’s a piece that’s written to help the musician practice a hard skill in basically a real-life situation. I had been coming out of a really difficult personal time, and I had been thinking quite a bit about how pain and trauma make it difficult for us to feel a sense of belonging, even in places where we are absolutely welcomed and do have connections.

“Etude for Belonging” is the title of one of the poems.

This was one of the very few poems where I had a title first. I thought, “What if I wrote an etude, a piece where I could practice belonging, to remind myself that I do belong in this world with these people.” I can’t imagine I’m the only one who needs this. It’s basically at the core of everything I write, especially the ones that maybe sound the most pastoral, where the voice is a “wise” voice. It’s always because I needed to hear that. It’s never like, “I’ve got this figured out and now I’m going to teach you how to do it.” 

In both collections, you find ways to explore the physical world, the world of science, but also the mystical, more spiritual world, and how the two come together. 

I’ve heard it said that you should write what you hope to come across. I love science. I was a music and nursing major in college and have always loved anatomy and astronomy. But I probably love lazy science, because I mostly just want to marvel at it. One of my favorite pieces of writing is a Richard Feynman lecture on physics where he talks about things we don’t know yet, and things that science, at least at that point, didn’t have an explanation for. Science isn’t about what we already know. So for me, that’s where science and poetry come together. Because poetry is so much about wonder.

Kim Stafford says in Etude’s introduction that you “live at the boundary between great beauty and the dark.” What do you think he meant by that?

We were going around introducing ourselves, and I mentioned that I had just finished this program for hospice, and he was really fascinated by that. So we talked quite a bit about that. That would be my guess.

Rilke has a line in his “First Elegy” where he writes, “…for beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror….” In your poem Even If, you write, “There may be a loss so great / I know not how to envision it.” But then you go on to say, “But this I know / This I choose to remember / Despite / amidst / even, unimaginably, because / there will be joy.” It almost sounds like the flip side of what Rilke wrote, like saying, “For terror is nothing but the beginning of joy.”

That’s exactly right. It’s sometimes hard to talk about. My middle name is Joy, so I have thought a lot over the years about the idea of joy. I tend to be pretty optimistic. I worried when I was younger that people would think I was shallow or Pollyanna. The bright side is easy for me to see, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced grief. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet came my way at one point, his words about “sorrow cuts a channel for the joy to run through and the deeper your sorrow, the deeper your joy.” It’s the idea that if we aren’t willing to open ourselves up to the full human experience, we miss out. It shortens our spectrum of emotion on both ends. We have to keep practicing the courage to hold the grief and the joy, because they so often come in the same moment.

Bethany Lee says when she plays harp for hospice patients, “watching them come to rest because of music that I’m offering -- it’s pretty powerful and amazing to see.” Photo by: Bee Joy España
Lee says when she plays harp for hospice patients, “watching them come to rest because of music that I’m offering — it’s pretty powerful and amazing to see.” Photo by: Bee Joy España

I would think that also informs your hospice work, playing the harp.

Yes.

I think about the question, “What is art for?” frequently, and I’d imagine playing a harp with a hospice patient answers that question in an extraordinary way.

It does feel very gratifying to know that you have been able to be present with someone and their family. I’ve played for people in all different stages. We’ve learned all of the neuroscience behind [music], but to see it happen, watching them come to rest because of music that I’m offering — it’s pretty powerful and amazing to see.

That leads me to ask about your poem Confession, where you write: “I’m not sure I should tell you / that I’m still afraid to die…” Those lines are incredible, but for them to come from a Quaker minister is breathtaking.

Like I’m supposed to have it all together? Like I’m someone who tells others that it’s going to be OK?

Right.

If you work in hospice and you’ve done enough of your own spiritual work, your community looks to you to minister in hard times. I have spent an awful lot of my life thinking about and walking people through grief and hard times, and yeah! How can I be human and not have at least some wondering about, “What’s that like?” The “after” I’m maybe not so worried about, but the process doesn’t sound like fun. And it can go a lot of different ways. I think it’s really important to say, this is the Big Scary for all of us. We do a lot of really unhealthy things because we’re not willing to flat out say, “Yeah, I’m afraid to die, too.” How about if we not pretend that’s not true and see if we don’t live a little bit kinder.

Many of your poems allude to “the mystery.” Is that the mystery, the not knowing?

Sometimes when I say “mystery,” it gets close to what I think about the idea of God or the Divine. And sometimes it just means something I don’t know. There’s a mystery beyond what we can understand, and we want to try to pin it down and talk about it and experience it together. A room with a dying patient is filled with mystery. No one can miss it.

When you write a poem, do you think in terms of writing to or for anyone?

I love this question! In the moment, if I’m thinking too much about a reader, it interrupts the process a little. But like I said before, I’m pretty externally motivated. If I never thought anyone was going to read it or hear it, I wouldn’t feel the prompting to put anything down. I think it’s partly my minister’s heart coming through. For years, I have created space for people to connect with mystery, whether that’s in a church service or in a hospital room. Now it’s starting to happen in outdoor concerts I’m doing. It’s been so fun to see people enter the same space, even when it’s a lawn with a bottle of wine and a picnic. It’s still like, let’s go someplace interesting together. Let’s go someplace real together. People are really open to that.

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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