Kris Lee’s office on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women was formerly a custodian’s closet.
While that term – and this specific room – are generally associated with terms of cleaning and upkeep, Lee is a custodian himself. A caretaker. A steward and keeper of the written word he crafts so well.
“People still come in here looking for a mop, though,” Lee, 41, said laughing.
Looking around the room, which once housed suds and sponges, chemicals and compounds, Lee has modeled a modest supply of books and bibelots in their place. There’s no window, but that’s fine. Lee makes his own portal outward putting pen to paper.
“I think at my heart I’m a poet. I try to factor that into whatever I write,” he said. “I distinctly remember the first poem I ever wrote. I was 11 years old at my grandparents’ cabin, sitting at the kitchen bar to write a letter, and instead I noticed these fruit flies that were hanging around a banana. I don’t know where the compulsion hit but I started writing this poem about fruit flies. It didn’t rhyme, it didn’t really make any sense, but my grandmother was in the front of the cabin with her quilting friends, and I always need gratification when I write something. So, I ran in there instantly and recited the whole thing. She jumped right up and said, ‘Oh, my goodness, isn’t that wonderful?’ and ushered me quickly to the kitchen where she threw out absolutely every piece of fruit or vegetable on the table. She was so embarrassed that I had just walked in there and made her friends think her kitchen was nasty. That stuck with me and writing is what I’ve stuck with the most.”
Since that day, Lee has run the gamut from writing to acting and directing in theater, but he always comes back to what he knows – and that’s exactly where he finds his motivation.
“I think we all would love a chance to re-do a conversation or an argument in passing,” he said. “You go home and think and reflect on what you should have said. I think I pull from those lessons I have learned now about what I had to teach myself from what I didn’t know then. I was a nerdy kid. I read a lot of the classics, and still do. They’re so inspiring. All these things motivated me to want to learn more to be able to write, and to do that I had to practice. I pull from the greats. Not that I’m trying to be one, but I figure if you’re going to try to write toward anything you ought to write to the best in your field.”
Writing under the name T.K. Lee, his talents have garnered him multiple awards for playwriting from organizations like the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival. Multiple plays like “Sindication,” “On How to Accommodate Marlo’s Frying Pan,” “Paper Thin,” “Good Company Had” and “Loose Hog” make up Lee’s catalogue.
“There’s a validation that comes with thinking you have something to tell about the human experience and then seeing it on its feet and watching the audience appreciate your perspective,” Lee said. “When you see it, you realize it does make sense and I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time. It’s serving its purpose in this time, in this moment. So, it’s nice to realize it was all worth it, this gamble, this investment … it wasn’t a waste. If your play does well, no one thinks about anyone but the actor. If your play doesn’t do well, they want the director. But if the play doesn’t make sense, they come after you.”
Lee’s passion for theater is closely tied with his writing.
“I was brought up by my great uncle,” he said. “He was a good man but he wasn’t really inclined to the arts. He saw that I had a love for it and one of the best things he did as a pseudo-parent for me was never saying ‘no.’ He didn’t really understand my dramatic side, but he really got involved with it. He played the piano and was really good at it, so he did have some artistic sense.”
When the Starkville Community Theatre performed “The Sound of Music” some years ago, Lee’s uncle was asked to help with the production, enlisting a 12-year-old Lee to participate as well.
“I guess that’s how I got into it, looking back,” he said. “I suppose I’ve always been slightly dramatic. I’m always in some daydream or make-believe world.”
But just watching theater isn’t good enough for Lee, who said he has a need to be involved in some facet.
“It’s not that I don’t trust or like it,” he said. “I’m just so active in it that I don’t want to sit and watch it. I want to jump up and do it. I can’t enjoy that the way other people do, but it gives me this very clear idea of what I like to write or what I want to put on the stage. I love the intimacy of writing on your own; it’s a lonely world, but I like it.”
It’s come full circle for Lee, who now teaches literature, creative writing and poetry at the W. He also has two books coming out this year – works of poetry titled “To Square a Circle” and a collection of short stories called “Red Haw.”
“They’re stories of people I knew growing up,” he said. “It’s all very rural and familiar. It’s very Flannery O’Connor meets Sherwood Anderson.”
Lee isn’t running out of stories to tell anytime soon. After living everywhere from Starkville to Europe, it’s Mississippi that holds the root directly connected to his pen.
“It’s this weird dichotomy to think that you’re sort of compelled to tell your part of your story about the world; the way you see it,” he said. “It’s a need. You have to do it. You have to purge whatever that demon is that’s chasing you. But it’s also pretentious to think that I’m an artist and you need to pay attention to the way I see the world. It’s a strange life to live through mentally sometimes. I totally appreciate using theater as a way of inspecting life and looking at it and broadening horizons in a safe environment where people can feel moved but still know it’s fictional.
“It may seem familiar, but it’s also not, so you can safely talk about it and touch on things that are affecting people. It’s an important art form in that way, in a way that I don’t think poetry or fiction or any other kind of art does really, and it comes from that script. It’s encouraging to think you might could reach someone. Whether it’s just one person or not.”