By Megan Perry
Adored and admired poet and teacher, Carol Lem, died of cancer February 11, leaving her mark on East Los Angeles College and in the Los Angeles literary world.
She was a petite woman who stood approximately five feet tall, but her power and influence were gigantic. “I always admired that somebody who was not at all physically intimidating carried her weight and got her way out there,” said Joan Gurfield, English professor.
Lem, a Chinese-American born in the 1950s, always had a passion for English and writing even as a child.
“I write to know I’m not alone,” said Lem in her poem “Why Write?” Lem was an English professor for more than 30 years at ELAC and was the adviser for the literary publication that the English Department publishes each year, the Milestone.
The Milestone was her pride and joy, and she was very passionate about the students at ELAC who would submit poems, short stories and critiques for publication. English Instructor Susan Suntree said that Lem was devoted to the Milestone and kept it alive.
Without her, the Milestone could have been done years ago. In a Campus News article from 1986, Lem said that the purpose of publishing the Milestone every year was to keep literary writing alive on campus, and that English is not only grammar and composition, but also a part of American culture.
She taught literature and creative writing classes at ELAC. She felt that the creative writing contests she held “makes writing come alive and generates enthusiasm,” said Lem in 1979.
Lem ran her creative writing classes like a workshop where students could be part of the lesson and not just be sitting around in a lecture. Lem tried to make her classes equal by having the students actively participate in the instruction. Setting up her classes in such a way reinforced the students to share and teach their perspectives of writing.
Her students, throughout the generations, liked the way she ran her classes, and always had positive comments about her.
Suntree said Lem was “all-in-all devoted to teaching and she approached it philosophically.” Suntree said that Lem showed leadership as a teacher. By the time Suntree came to ELAC, Lem had already many years of experience and was a fully-developed, committed teacher. She always carefully organized her classes, which was just in her nature, but it didn’t make her stiff.
She retired from ELAC in 2009. She lived in Sierra Madre during the last few years of her life, and in Temple City for 26 years before that on “noisy Temple City Boulevard,” as she stated in her Milestone 2004 editorial.
Gurfield said that Lem was “a person who was always concerned with the students and what was best for them, which I think is really the mark of a great teacher.” Lem went for training with the Berkeley writing project to help her grow and expand her teaching skills.
Lem has said that teachers tend to forget what education is unless they become students again. Gurfield said Lem personally inspired her through her profound concern for the students.
“Even though she had taught here for many, many years—almost 30 years—she was always looking for new ways to get to students, looking for new ways to teach things, and excited about doing that. I found that very inspiring,” said Gurfield.
Lem felt that teachers needed to get involved in studies. “Education gives you imagination and perspective for living,” said Lem.
While at ELAC, Lem made and inspired friends along her journey of writing and teaching. One of Gurfield’s favorite memories of Lem was when they would meet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fridays late in the afternoon and spent the evening at the jazz concerts that would occasionally take place there. Gurfield said they would go see an exhibit and then enjoy a nice dinner together with a glass of wine and watch the jazz.
Suntree also knew Lem on a more personal level. Suntree said she would visit Lem at her house and they would discuss the life of the mind and the spirit. Lem was into chance and metaphysics, so when Suntree would visit, Lem would cast the rune stones and see what fortune the stones held.
Rune stones are used as a system of divination, decision making and communication. They would then discuss the meanings of the stones over a cup of tea or a glass of wine.
Lem not only cared about her school and tried to get as many people involved in and enthused about a subject she loved, but also students and teachers alike considered her a mentor. “She was a wonderful mentor for me and for many other teachers here,” said Gurfield.
Lem showed others that the students were the important ones. “She was an inspiration to me,” said Suntree, and she “influenced my teaching of writing.” Lem’s fused organizational skills and process-orientated writing techniques fascinated Suntree, since she admits to not being anywhere near as organized as Lem was. Lem was not only well-known among students and teachers on campus, but with authors in the literary world as well.
She was a poet.
She began writing poetry in the 1960’s, along with learning to play the shakuhachi, a Japanese, end-blown flute that was typically made of bamboo. Playing the shakuhachi was one form of the ways Lem chose to meditate, along with the rune stones and I-Ching divination. Rejection was never really a problem for Lem, because she took the rejection as a lesson and kept moving forward.
Suntree said that Lem had an admiring system of sending poems to be published, of which she still has notes on. Through the trials and tribulations, Lem would pursue her dream and kept sending out her poems.
She has written eight books and had her poetry published in a number of literary magazines, such as the California Quarterly, Harbinger, Poetry L/A, Best of the Decade 1997 – 2007, Writers at Work and many more. She also can be heard reading selected poems from Shadow on the Plum on her C.D., Shadow of the Bamboo.
Christopher Buckley, author of numerous books and publications, winner of four Pushcart Prizes and Creative Writing professor at the University of California, Riverside, described the poems in her most recent book Gathering the Pieces as “remarkable for their quiet insight and humility, for their keen attention to and transformation of the small details of a life.”
Gary Soto, author of 11 poetry collections for adults and a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award, reviewed one of her books of poetry in 2002 entitled Shadow of the Plum.
Soto wrote, “I know Carol Lem, a much-loved instructor at East Los Angeles College. She has invited me numerous times to campus, and she and I have put our heads together to try to make her students—my students, indirectly—readers and, thus, wiser and more fulfilled people,” in his review for Speechless magazine.
Jim Elledge, editor of The Illinois Review, nominated her poem, “Didn’t They Tell You Stories?” for the Pushcart Prize.
Soto said that in the poem “Don’t They Tell You Stories?” he believes “Carol is saying that the life of writing is, well, up there, in that sky a poet sometimes touches and pulls down onto the page. She is telling this student, her other students, her future students who will walk at her side, that the art of writing is life and—”
Always pushing through the struggles, Lem made it her dream to leave her mark on the world. Lem was an interesting person who did her best to make her words matter, and wouldn’t give up trying. Suntree summed up the impact Lem had on her life and the lives of most of the people closest to her through a poem from Lem’s Shadow of the Plum entitled “Remember.”
“Remember who you are even if it’s who you expected. Remember you are the moon’s story now even if you can’t remember it. It’s all you have, this silence, this language you are creating for yourself. Remember.”