Jinwoo Lee

Our Stories

The Daniel Guggenheim School has a wealth of knowledge, talent, and resilience in the faculty and staff we had the good sense to hire. Half the time, however, we only know that our colleagues do their assigned jobs well - which is really not the whole picture. In this new feature, Our Stories, we'll take a closer look at the lives of our fellow workers, with an eye toward telling the story that goes untold during the hustle and bustle of our busy workdays.

"Joy Is Too Small a Word"

AE Academic Program Coordinator, Jinwoo Lee


There was something about engineering that attracted Jinwoo Lee to Georgia Tech 12 years ago.
It just wasn’t what he – or anyone else – anticipated.

“I like the problem-solving aspect of engineering, the fact that you are pulling together all of your resources to meet a need, to improve things,” says Lee, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech in 2011.

A Poem Begetting House. In this essay and series of photographs, published in the February issue of Ordinary, a Korean lifestyle magazine, Jinwoo Lee explored cafes as environments where unfamiliar ideas, people, and sights mesh into poems. See more of Jinwoo's work at www.poethwon.com

“I just wanted to use that same philosophy of engineering for something more directly involving human emotions, not mechanical entities.”

Turns out, that something was art. Writing. Photography. Design.

“Even when I was an undergrad – doing research, classwork, and I was serving as the president of the ASME chapter at Tech– I was writing at least two hours a day, whenever I had free time. ‘Joy’ is too small a word to describe what it was like. I had to force myself to stop because [otherwise] I wouldn’t,” he said.

“By the time I was in graduate school, I realized that there was a difference between me and other [ME] students. It wasn’t grades. I could do the work, but it did not bring me any joy. When they worked really hard on a project, they were happy. They enjoyed what they’d finished. I just felt drained.”

Three semesters into his graduate program, Lee decided that had to change.  

“I had just come back from Korea, where I’d been arguing with my father [mechanical engineering professor Jong Chan Lee] about this for 10 days. I think we both thought I was going to continue graduate school when I got on the plane to come back to the States. We’d convinced me that I should get a Ph.D., that things would change…But after sitting through my first lecture, I felt suffocated. I knew I had to leave.”

Lee wanted his departure to be clean, so he did not tell his parents until it was too late to re-enroll.

“At the time, my father was very disappointed and upset with me. He understands me better now.”

So does the world.

Not long after leaving graduate school, a Korean literary journal Literature and Consciousness honored Jinwoo Lee with its annual new artist recognition award, a title that catapulted him to the public's eye as an up-and-coming writer. In the short term, this meant ten of his poems received high praise from a respected cadre of Korean poets; five were immediately published in the journal.

In the long run, the award signaled his official debut as a Korean poet, a designation that validated his writing talents in Korea in much the same way as a PE license validates an engineer's technical skills in the United States.

Exploring Distance. This photograph, taken on the Nile River in Egypt, is one of several included in DISTANCE, a solo exhibit at Octane, an Atlanta art space, that was held in 2015. "I was exploring distances between me and my old self, me and what I once treasured, me and bygone emotions." See more of Jinwoo's work at www.poethwon.com

Now, instead of soliciting audiences for his work, Jinwoo Lee was fielding requests for poems, for interviews, for readings. The pay wasn’t overwhelming - he received just $1,000 for the publication of those five poems - and it still isn't.  Average pay for a poem is between $50 and $100 - and he only receives around 10 percent of the profits from the two books he's published. But the validation was - and is - crucial.

“I know that there are many who gave up writing poems because they did't think they'd ever be selected to debut,” Lee says.  “To have other poets recognize my work as having a certain level of originality and completeness was important at the time.”

Lee’s parents were happy for their son, but not entirely convinced that poetry was a practical career choice. They had a lot of talks about that. They probably always will – after all, parents worry. Jinwoo accepts that part, but he also suspects they understand his decision on a deeper level.

“The way that they have lived their own lives, in their own values, my parents have taught me to persist. It led me to think about how I’d respond at the end of my life if I was called upon [by God] to account for what I did.That's the way they live. I asked myself when making the decision: would I have regrets? And if I wasted those years studying engineering, what is most important now? ”

Lee's first two poetry compilations, "You Are the Only Sentence I Can’t Abandon” and “Let’s Not Be Too Desperate”

Since leaving school, Lee has maintained a writing schedule that leaves no room for regret. When he wasn't working a day job, he'd rise at 7 a.m., and split his time between reading and writing for most of the day, taking breaks only to edit photos.

“I would go to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning, and really, I didn’t want to sleep if there was a chance I could work on a piece.”

When he started working for a Korean publishing company, KOA, he continued writing until the wee hours of the morning. He even wrote during his lunch breaks.

“One of the people I worked with asked me why, after a full day of reading and writing at work, I also wrote at night and during lunch. I told him 'It’s not work for me. It’s a joy.’”

That discipline - and that joy - have not diminished. These days, Lee works diligently as the AE School's academic program coordinator by day, dedicating his off-hours to writing and photography. He's found that photography speaks a language that is translated more easily in the United States -- he's had a few shows - but he remains equally committed to poetry. In 2016, Lee published his first solo volume of poetry in Korea: "You Are the Only Sentence I Can’t Abandon” is a collection that reflects a broad spectrum of lessons he’s learned about life and love.

“It’s a sentence without an object,” he says.

His second book, “Let’s Not Be Too Desperate” (2018) focuses in on a subject that has come into sharper focus since he turned 30: his status as an immigrant.

“When I came to the U.S. I was 19. Being so young, I was able to absorb a lot of the cultural context of America. I was not homesick or nostalgic.  In fact, the majority of the time, over the last 14 years, I’ve felt that Korea was my second home, and that the U.S. is my first home,” he said.

He loosened his hold on that perspective after he debuted in 2014.

More Distances. This photo of tourists in Beijing, China is also a part of the DISTANCE exhibit. "I thought the absence of space in between each tourist signifies the distance witnessed in this era." See more of Jinwoo's work at www.poethwon.com

“Day to day, I still have both worlds in me. On some days, I won’t even think about Korea. I am here, and that’s fine. But then there are moments where I realize ‘Oh you’re in the States, 14 hours away from anyone like you.”

That’s 14 hours away from bookstores he adores, where he could thumb through books in his native language – and where patrons could easily access Lee’s works and attend recitations, as they were originally written and spoken. It’s 14 hours away from familiar food, slang, and… culture.

“That you can communicate with people in another language and have an extensive vocabulary in that language, well, that doesn’t mean you have the precise words for what you are thinking, for things you are feeling that are uniquely, well, Korean.”

Plumbing those feelings and giving them accurate expression in his poetry has been a huge challenge for Lee. Imprecision makes him visibly uncomfortable. It would be easy for readers to be caught in a binary judgment of his immigrant experiences -- to see them as good or bad. In fact, he sees them as both.

And neither.

“There is a sense of distance that is not just physical or geographical. It’s distance from familiarity,” he said. “In this [volume of poetry] I am saying that the U.S. can be my home, and it feels like it at times. But there are also times when I look around and realize it cannot be. This creates a sort of sadness that can’t be overcome. And if that sadness comes back to you, again and again, it can be painful, creating a sense of absence. The only way I know to handle it is to express it, through writing. If I did not let it out of me, this feeling would become a hole.”

It's an inner turmoil that you'll never see on Lee's face, which is, by turns, pensive and content. He long ago accepted his role as the curator of thoughts, not their arbiter. When he writes - or photographs - he focuses entirely on capturing images that will encourage his audiences to shake up their perspectives. The writing, itself, calms him.

“I think it was beneficial that I felt this way when I wrote, because it led me to the identity I have as an artist writing about my experience as an immigrant," he said. 

"And I’ve heard from others who've read my work-- people who are living abroad -- that they have felt the same way, that it is difficult to be deeply understood by someone when you are not in your own country, using your own language. It's not a shout-out-loud pain. It's the type of pain you don't notice until one day, you see you've lost a precise piece of yourself. You stare at it because, you realize, you had gradually become numb to it."

The only relief comes from expressing it.
As a one-time engineering student, Lee is only too happy to give that a try.

The following is Jinwoo Lee's own translation of a poem that appears in his latest collection, "Let's Not Be Too Desperate"
See more of Jinwoo's work at www.poethwon.com



    This is this.

    Sounded similar to that. Mind pronounces what it cannot catch, repeatedly. Words can be beautiful when not visible. They can be recorded when not visible. A boy runs into a person for the first time in a foreign land. People who speak fast speak too fast for him.

    I want to go home.

    The boy recalls the frigid winter at home. The boy, absent in the languages, tries a natural look of I am okay. The days I am okay, I am are quite natural.

    Talking to yourself?

    He of whose languages slip him speaks to himself. Blaming I never treated us right. I is the only one, who can embrace you here. Some days are better left distorted. Subjects and objects switch the tags. I am abstractly placed. There stands no one where no sentences lie.

    You are not one of us.

    Teacher, why do people smile abstractly in the bus? Are faces really bodies of moods? Some days we have no faces with the same body.

    This sentence is not a sentence.

    It is valid here. It is valid back then. It is valid in this poem. Some days am I a misplaced grammar. Not fathomable in any countries. This is this, That is that, vanished by order-less people. Words cannot be beautiful when not visible. Words cannot be recorded when not visible,