Missoula writer Robert Lee was in his 40s when he decided to return to the University of Montana. He was an employee with the post office at the time, but after a girlfriend urged him to read a batch of his poems at an open mic event sponsored by the UM writing program, he was encouraged to get back into academia. It took him five years, attending classes while working full-time, but he succeeded, graduating in 1996 with an MFA. Lee’s focus was poetry, but it was a ribald short story that earned him his first attention. That effort led directly to his first published book — a novel — in 1997. The book is a humorous send-up of fly-fishing culture called “Guiding Elliott.” The book was re-published by Missoula’s Mountain Press in 2015.
Shortly after graduating, Lee began teaching for the Missoula Writing Collaborative. He is now in his 21st year of teaching for the local area nonprofit, an organization which places writers in “school classrooms, after-school programs, youth homes and other venues to show young people the power of words and help them find their voices as writers.” Lee has taught students of all ages, but in recent years has focused on students primarily in high school and middle school.
“I’m getting older and it’s taking more of a toll on me,” Lee says. “I still enjoy it, though; it still feeds me.”
Lee has a new book, his third, recently out on Foothills Publishing. The book, a poetry collection called “Breath,” is one of six books authored by Montana poets the New York-based publisher has released in the past year. This book is a career-spanning collection of over 60 poems. Some were written while Lee was still an MFA student, while several appear in a previous collection of poetry he published. That book, a chapbook, is called “Black Bear Holds a Hole in His Paw,” and describes his three autumns spent teaching in the remote Alaskan village of Hydaburg among the indigenous Haida people. Lee was in the village from the middle of September to the middle of October 2008-2010.
“Teaching in Hydaburg became a real life-enhancing experience,” Lee says. He describes himself as the visiting “white guy” who had to earn the respect of students living hard lives in a broken community. His ability to fend for himself went a long way toward earning their trust, he says. “By the time I was there for the third year,” Lee says, “even the dogs weren’t barking at me anymore.
The following poem is an example of the work inspired by Lee’s time in Alaska:
"I’ve Never Seen Summer in Hydaburg"
Haida poets named summer “tiny bird,”
in a language disappearing rapidly as August.
Tiny bird indeed, summer can’t long endure
in this land of giant cedars where tumultuous Raven
is rumored to have once stolen the sun, flown
with it clutched in his beak, until he let fall
bursting light into pieces forming stars
and moon, daylight, darkness, and seasons,
summer, the shortest-lived amongst rain-ravenous
cedar fronds. A tiny bird, its song
sweet as raspberries
Other poems from Hydaburg are letters to friends at home — his wife, for example, and Missoula poets Mark Gibbons and Sheryl Noethe — that are written in verse. They tell a revealing, and interesting, story of of a man reflecting on his experiences in the unfamiliar north.
Lee is known for his humor, but “Breath” also contains a strong current of darkness. These aren’t all happy poems. They contain moments of joy, but also sadness and loss. They are evidence of a life growing long, with all that comes with it. Regret. Death of loved-ones. Change neither anticipated nor asked-for (see the wonderful “Found You On Facebook”). But the work is well-organized, and as readers we are never dragged into relentless sorrow. Lee knows better than most of it that humor can be found in the grimmest of circumstances.
Reflecting on his own path as a writer, Lee says, “I tell my students that if you get a chance to read in public you don’t know what kind of good is going to come out of it.” The risk he took in taking his work to a room full of people, well before he considered himself a “real” writer, has more than paid off for him. Teaching has made Lee a better person, and a better writer, he says, and he credits being in front of students and their ability to crack open with unexpected genius for keeping his own work invigorated.
“Breath” is a glowing testament to that.