Celebrating over 30 years as an arts organization.

The Center hosts readings, workshops, lectures, and publishes a variety of poetry publications. SPC is located in the R25 Arts Complex located on the corner of R & 25th Streets in midtown Sacramento.

Sacramento Poetry Center memberships support a variety of local poetry programs, publications, readings, and events. Members receive a free subscription to Tule Review and Poetry Now. Please send your check for $30 or more to SPC, 1719 25th St., Sacramento, CA 95816. Fixed incomes are $15.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Dorianne Laux

On Tough Girls, Vulnerable Men

and the Art of the List Poem

An Interview by Lisa Anne Jones

The dead tree rubs its fallen body/against the living, building/its dead music . . .

--from "Cello"

Pushcart Prize winning poet Dorianne Laux is known for her clear and passionate poems on sexual love, family relations, and the everyday lives of American workers. While most of the poems in her latest book, Facts about the Moon (2006), are her trademark lucid narratives, some are more lyrical, often employing cosmic facts and nature metaphors to speak to human struggle, as in the excerpt above, from a poem that sings about grief and beauty in the wake of 9/11.

Formerly a resident of Oregon, Laux recently moved with her poet husband, Joseph Millar, to teach at North Carolina State University, but continues to spend time in the west, as an instructor at Pacific University's Low Residency MFA Program and at Esalen, in Big Sur. She has three prior collections, is the co-editor of the very popular Poet's Companion and has received NEA grants and a Guggenheim fellowship. We conducted this interview through e-mail.

In "The Lost" you write about men and their bodies in a manner that seems to take them out of mythology and the realm of romance or danger. Men become very real, vulnerable and lovable as a group. What other poets do this? Sharon Olds is known for her fresh writing about sexuality and men, but this poem has a different feeling than her writing.

My real father was virtually unknown to me. My stepfather was a violent sexual and sociopathic predator. Growing up, I did not have a good view of men. They were either too far away or too close for comfort. So I set out to find out about them, like a scientist, collecting them like specimens and putting them under my microscope, often sleeping with them as a way toward trying to know them. I watched them closely (I had seen my fathers only from the corner of my eye) to try to figure out who they were and how they got their power. But like a scientist who thinks she's going to reach one outcome and discovers another I was surprised by their vulnerability and complex beauty. And like a scientist, there was a coldness to my gaze; when my experiment had run its course and I was done, I cruelly moved on. Christopher's accident made me shockingly aware of how real these men were, and my heart broke open for them all. This poem is that flood.

Sharon Olds opened up this territory and I'm grateful to her for clearing the path. The early work of Carolyn Forche was also a great inspiration. But yes, the tenderness of men, that's something that interests me. I saw a show on PBS the other night (I watch far too much television) and it was about a scientist who studied a group of monkeys for years. One day the river became flooded with some microorganism that poisoned the fish and many of them died. The scientist had become quite fond of them and was devastated. But as he continued to watch the group he found that it was the Alpha monkeys that had died, the ones who clawed their way to the shore and batted away the weaker others. This left the group with the females and the more passive males. When the babies were born the passive males taught the feisty teenage male monkeys to be kind to the smaller children and females, how to groom and share food. In one generation they went from a war-like group to a thriving peace loving tribe. I've been blessed to know so many tender, loving men, and the young men coming up now that I've had the privilege to know are funny, smart and gentle, not the warlords and C.S.I. serial murderers movies and video games try to push down our throats. I want to show off the loveliness of those other, less often seen men in my poems.

You recently released a chapbook, Superman. Did I hear that theme will be carried over into a new book that will focus less on pop icons and more on men?

The pop icon poems will be included in The Book of Men as many of those iconic figures, like Superman, happen to be men: The Beatles, Mick Jagger, The Oxy Clean guy. Though the women are there, too, as always, making a stand.

In "Moon in the Window," from your book Facts about the Moon, you say "I never wondered. I read," and then, "It took me years to grow a heart." This is such a striking phrase in that context, perhaps because we are prone to imagine a poet being born to wonder and a girl to love, but reading doesn't equal wonder here, the girl reads "dark signs" and the heart develops later.

Girls are tough little creatures. When I was a child, reading was a dead serious endeavor. There was so much about human beings here on earth I didn't understand. I didn't want to wonder, I wanted to know. I left children's books behind fairly early for adult novels my mother brought home and kept in nooks around the house, War and Peace, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as well as biology, psychology and philosophy textbooks from her studies in nursing. Through my reading, I came to know the fullness of human beings, their physical and mental vulnerability, their cruelty to one another, their small acts of kindness, and as this knowledge grew, so did my heart.

Do you have any special advice for writing and revising list poems? You seem to have quite a few of these. What draws you to them?

I love lists. Sometimes I'll be walking along and notice a piece of paper on the sidewalk or left on a bus stop bench, and often it's a list—groceries, school supplies, hardware store, a list of medications or things to do, people to call. It's always so compelling. The stranger who made the list comes alive to me: oranges, cornmeal, screwdriver. Is the screwdriver a tool, or the drink to be made from the oranges? What's broken? What's come loose? What's something sweet, gritty and in need of tightening? A list, even as short and simple as this one, intimates worlds.

When I write a list poem it usually begins as a meditation on an idea, but explored directly through the objects of the world. Fear, poverty: l try to see these ideas take a form, shift from form to form.

Once you begin a list poem and it catches fire, there's almost no stopping it. In revision, I look for ways that the list can be trimmed of any dry brush, or shift the objects around to see if one can feed into another, if one can open another up. And of course I'm looking for music: glissando, fortissimo, crescendo. I think of Whitman, of course, but more of the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, whose poems "Going to Lvov" and "Franz Shubert: A Press Conference" were great models and inspiration for me. They are essentially praise poems, whereas I've taken a bit of a different tack in my poems "Fear" and "Gold". I don't praise the color gold, but rather see it as the color of poverty, and fear rather than wonder colors the world of childhood. I have another short list poem called Ode to Gray, the most cliche-maligned of colors! It needed a poem to stand up for it.

I appreciate the way "Vacation Sex" and "Kissing Again" convey both the heat and the tempered reality of sex in a mature relationship. I see the broader theme of mid-life relationships and aging more and more in poetry. Am I right to think it is a recent change? I suppose it is an issue of the baby boomers moving into this life-stage and a consequent shift in the legitimacy of revealing the secrets of aging.

Yes, we have more poets writing from the middle and late years of life than at any other time in our history. It's astounding. Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, Ruth Stone, Gerald Stern, Adrienne Rich, and before she died at 74, Denise Levertov and Stanley Kunitz at the ripe old age of 100! Imagine if Keats, who died in his mid 20's, had lived as long. Emily Dickinson died at 55. That's young now. Sylvia Plath died at 30, Anne Sexton at 35. How would their work have changed had they lived into old age? Age tempers the passions as it intensifies the spirit and focus. Every touch, every kiss is a gift when the shadows of death and loss and infirmity are encroaching in seeable increments. We stand in a diminishing pool of light, and the poem knows this.

Describe a poet that you believe hasn't yet gotten quite the recognition they deserve. I am forcing you to choose one, so you can tell me a little bit about what you admire in the poet's work.

No poet has gotten enough recognition. . . . I like the work of Frank X. Gaspar, a poet who has won an award for each book he's written, but still does not have a publisher. His poems appear here and there and he does have a devoted following. Born in Provincetown, he's lived in L.A. most of his life and teaches at Long Beach City College. His poems often take place in his backyard where he simply begins musing after a meal or a trip to the store or on a book he's just read. The poems are fluid, easy and intimate, often posing a question or a series of questions, slightly wry, somewhat worried, but always open hearted and utterly gorgeous. Field Guide to the Heavens is a lovely book. His latest is called Night of a Thousand Blossoms and is out from Alice James Books.

Lisa Anne Jones (L. A. Jones) is the Interview Editor for Poetry Now, a participant of the Napa Valley Writers Conference 2009, a member of the Squaw Valley Writer's Community, and the recent co-editor of The Squaw Valley Review 2008, with poems by Dean Young and local Sacramento poets, such as Theresa McCourt and Joseph Atkins--just released and available at Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Find her poetry and publications at http://www.alchemyofbirds.blogspot.com/ where you'll find information about a Squaw Valley Community of Writers reading on December 14, 2009, at SPC.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Moor's Lushly Lucid,

Muscular Jazz:

An Interview by Lisa Jones

For six days we purify metal,

sleepwalking through sulfur clouds.

A few pennies forged with every muscled

clang of pig iron and rust. Friday's

whistle, our Pavlovian call to bedlam.

Come Saturday , we hang our checks

on new shoes, silk ties, gold chains.

Scrub iron ore from our fingers,

. . . tug our hats down until our faces

are curved horizons with brown, felt

suns rising askew.

--excerpt from "Nomads" in Tap Root

Sacramento's own Indigo Moor has just been announced as this years winner of the nationally recognized Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize, for his second book of poetry, Through the Stonecutter's Window. We also know Moor as the former vice president of the Sacramento Poetry Center and author of, Tap Root, a collection of poems published in 2006 by Main Street Rag's Editor's Select Poetry Series. Natasha Tretheway and Jane Hirshfield described Tap Root as a consequential work that elegizes the south and explores the pull of both personal and collective history across place and time. His second collection of poetry, Through the Stone Cutter's Window expands to broader subjects, from "dialogues with the visual arts to the natural world and the poet's dreams and nightmares."

Born in 1964, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and imprinted by New Orleans and Cambridge, Moor currently resides in Rancho Cordova, California. He is enrolled in the low-residency Stonecoast MFA program for the University of Southern Maine. He also teaches writing workshops, writes fiction and plays, and is an IC physical design engineer. His work has appeared in Poetry Now and various anthologies and journals including: Xavier Review and LA Review. He has been awarded the 2005 Vesle Fenstermaker Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and a number of other awards and fellowships (see www.Indigomoor.com).

. . .

Jones: How did you come to writing and reading poetry?

Moor: As a child, I wrote a little poetry, a few short stories, probably no more than most children with active imagination and time on their hands. But I also painted, played a little clarinet (very briefly). Mostly I was seeking a form of expression that would fit me, serve me in a fashion. As an adult, writing became the art form that . . . obeyed me, gave me the best opportunity to say what I wanted how I wanted. Don't get me wrong, it takes a lot of work. There's no such thing as mastering writing. It's more than a labor of love, it's more of an armed truce: if you stop learning, stop reading, stop studying, it destroys you artistically, makes you predictable. I enjoy the learning. The more I learn, the more I grow. It's exciting.

Jones: "Nomads" is one of my favorite poems in the book. Can you tell me more about the making of that poem and its importance to you.

Moor: I lived with a stepfather in Pennsylvania for a while. He and all his friends worked six days a week with one day off. The ritualistic nature of their Saturday nights always fascinated me, how different they were from their daytime personas. Much of the poem is what I recall from what they would say to each other as they sat in the living room listening to music and having a few drinks to "get tight" as they would say. Of course, the words meant little to me as a child, but I stored them away, pieced then together as I got older.

Jones: You've been a part of Cave Canem for a while and were recently honored by them. What is Cave Canem like compared to other writing fellowship experiences? How has it influenced your writing?

Moor: Actually, the influence that Cave Canem has had is probably different from what most would expect. By nature, Cave Canem is not ethnocentric, concentrating on the works of African-Americans. In fact, the fellowship is dedicated to removing the boundaries and restrictions too often placed upon the work of African Americans: you should write about this; your work should have this type of imagery; your work should consist primarily of a strong oral tradition. As importantly, it is the high expectations of the fellowship that impress me. Cave Canem has influenced my writing by providing what many young poets lack: examples of people who look like them writing as they please at a very high level. I would say that my second book, Through the Stonecutter's Window, where I explore everything from Renaissance artwork to lynching, from opera to cunnilingus, is a direct result of the expansive, freeing nature of the fellowship.

Jones: What made Italo Calvino an important influence for you?

Moor: I have a friend by the name of Eva Ng. There is a poem in Stonecutter about her. She was the first to tell me about Invisible Cities, in which an aging Kublai Khan receives the reports from Marco Polo about the various cities in the Khan's decaying empire. Told in a series of 55 short prose pieces, the episodic novel is the beginning of the genre known as magical realism. My background in literature and entertainment is eclectic to say the least and Invisible Cities gave me permission to write in the fashion my brain was already leaning towards, uninhibited, blurring the line between fantasy, fiction, and reality, only mindful of the objective, the truth of the moment.

Jones: I am also very interested in learning some of the answers to the questions you post on your website to describe your workshops (expressing without emoting, representing history/culture--being true to the story vs. the actual events, etc.).

Moor: Wow. Tall order in a short space. Let's see. When it comes to writing many of us start from a very emotional place, often an event or series of events we want to explore. The problem with emotional subjects is the desire to gush over the page, to tell more than show. There is a harnessing process that must occur to create art from pain, substance from ache and need. With history and culture, the difficulty is making art from dry facts or issues that we are too close to. Being close to events often entails more happening in our heads than on the page. These two workshop are often taught in tandem.

Jones: Could you tell me more about the poem "Seasonal Affective Disorder?"

Moor: "Seasonal Affective Disorder" was a very ambitious undertaking for me at the time. Traci Gourdine once said, and I paraphrase "We are poets because we look deeper; we see what other's don't, exposing the depths of even a mundane event." I wanted to illuminate one of these mundane events and write about the underlying procedure, the make-up of the seeing itself, from end to beginning, presenting a timeline from effect to cause, working backwards. I chose a memory from my days in Cambridge, MA. The poem starts with the observance of leaves falling from a tree, and my having the sense that I had just witnessed the moment summer turns to fall. The leaves falling made me shudder and I realized I was experiencing a sense of violence, foreboding, as if the end of summer was also signaling the end of tranquility, peace, and innocence. Obviously, far too strong an emotion to be attributed to this singular moment. It did not take long to dredge up the image the falling leaves had awakened in me. In Seasonal, I work from present to past, North to South, and parataxis to hypotaxis, simple to complex, in three stanzas. In the end we see that a very violent event has spawned the image, the emotional content of the observance. The poem moves forward only along the axis of the disease as it parallels the change in weather. People who suffer from SADs are clouded and depressed in winter and awake, alert in spring and summer. The revelations in the poem move from light to dark. It was a difficult poem to actualize as I wanted. I am happy with the results.

Jones: You have such a gift for sound, structure and scene and Hirshfield's praise for you, "muscular, concentrating phrase" is very apt. I wonder which strengths came first for you in your development as a writer and in your current writing process-- the sound (assonance/rhyme/rhythm) or the story/characters?

Moor: From as far back as I can remember as a writer cadence and muscular language have been my allies. I believe this cadence was informed by an amalgamation of natural, intrinsic components of my upbringing in the south. The combination of landscape, southern Baptist preachers, southern idioms, and a slew of other input have shaped my rhythm, my imagery. Not to the degree they are now of course--a framework that served as foundation for my own voice, as it is. Learning to use this cadence and rhythm in poetry have been instrumental to my growth as a poet. As importantly, learning when not to use them.

Jones: What did you learn from working with Hirshfield?

Moor: I spoke of two things earlier: the difference between parataxis and hypotaxis and also my need to know when not to use the cadence of my past. Naturally, my syntax and rhythm were long, flowing, thick with imagery, complex. What I learned from Jane was the interspersing of short, powerful statements. It reinvented my work, making possible different forms of expression and opening my eyes to the idea of trying different styles.

Jones: What poet do you admire that you think has not been adequately recognized?

Moor: The addendum to that question is "for the level or stage the poet writes on." Yusef Komunyakaa, for all his accomplishments including the Pulitzer, is still not the household name he should be. Kwame Dawes is the quintessential writer, having excelled at every form of literary expression and many visual and musical ones. Regie Gibson, a self-made poet who, like Patricia Smith, has mastered both stage and page equally.

Lisa Anne Jones is a staff interviewer for Poetry Now, a participant of the Napa Valley Writers Conference 2009, and, as a member of the Squaw Valley Writer's Community, the recent co-editor of The Squaw Valley Review 2008, with poems by Dean Young and local Sacramento poets, such as Theresa McCourt and Joseph Atkins--just released and available at http://www.squawvalleywriters.org/poetry_anthology.html. Find her poetry and publications at http://www.alchemyofbirds.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Friday, July 03, 2009

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Lisa Jones interviews Li-Young Lee

The accomplished Li-Young Lee is a quintessential lyric poet with a passion for metaphysical contemplation and introspection. He is known both for the lush immediacy of his writing and for his engaging articulation of a legacy of racism and exile. Lee's family settled in the U.S. when he was seven. His Chinese parents were forced to travel through several countries with him and his siblings, during which time his father (a deeply religious Christian and former physician to Mao Tse-Tung) experienced and escaped from torture and imprisonment.

Lee's latest book, Behind My Eyes (2008, Norton), continues to memorialize his family relations, but is more so an excavation of the soul, that is both sensuous and simple, and resonant with the power of negative capacity.  He has published four other books and won numerous grants and awards (including an NEA and a Guggenheim)

Li-Young Lee has two grown children and lives with his wife in Chicago, Illinois.  He occasionally teaches at various universities around the country, most recently, in the MFA program, for Texas State University-San Marcos.  He also worked for many years in a factory.  

I contacted Lee shortly before attending his reading on April 28, at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.  He had a beautiful reading voice and came across much as he does when speaking to him informally:  thoughtful, honest, humble and charming.  Lee read many poems from his latest book and quite a few more recent ones.   He explained that it has always been his mission to write the great love poem, that it took him 30 years, studying spiritual and philosophical traditions regarding the subject of love and compassion, to be able to write "Virtues of the Boring Husband" (a popular poem from Behind My Eyes).  It is based on a long marriage and personal journey, but was mostly written in one sitting.  Still he remarked that he may not be finished writing that poem.

I interviewed him on the phone, days before the reading, wherein he pondered deep philosophical questions with solemnity and humor.  

Note:  These excerpts are mostly in order as discussed, but somewhat arranged by subject. Readers of the print version of this interview that appeared in Poetry Now, may wish to skip the duplicative middle section that begins and ends with "***."

Jones:  You admire Emily Dickinson and said once in an interview that to write like her you need to change?  What kind of changes were you speaking of?

Lee:  My sense is that the importance she saw in speech grew, the longer she wrote.  Her engagement with language and meaning was at a very deep level, more and more intimate and serious . . . evolved.  It seems like an enlightened mind.  

I don't know anything about her life and I don't care to actually.  Because the mind in her poems is a proposition.  I don't need proof that it exists as an accomplished past.  I can accept that it is a model for the future.  She might not live up to it, that's fine.  It is believable to me as a human proposition to live at that level of engagement.

I would suggest that the relationship she accomplished in her work is finally a deep, deep, deep profound love, which she discovered about the nature of the relationship with words.  The nature of language is relationship.  What I fell in love with was the voice of that lover.  The one who came to the page with serious intentions about the relationship that was being mediated by those words.

. . .

Jones: Do you see yourself as having changed in your writing, when you compare this book to your previous books?

Lee:  I hope it has gotten real simple, even simpler.  I hope the lines have more levels of relationship, not only sounds, information, visual, sonic, erotic, intellectual feeling.  I want all of it, but I want it as simple as possible.

Jones:  I suppose that would be both a spiritual trusting that that is better and an aesthetic?

Lee:  I would guess it would exhibit itself aesthetically, but spiritually speaking . . . I think poetry should be a demonstration of some kind of other knowledge. 

Jones:  Are there other poets that helped you move in that direction?

Lee:  Whatever changes I've gone through have come out of my aspiring to something.  I have noticed that the last of Rilke--his French poems--they're so simple, so profound, so casual, but deeply significant.   They are plentiful, not cramped, but rigorous.  He accomplishes a great, great, great feat of mind.  It is that kind of simplicity that he accomplished, late in his life, near death, in a language that wasn't his original language.  I don't know, something about that seems so wonderful.

. . .

Jones:  These poems "Mother Deluxe," "Self Help for Fellow Refugees," and "Immigrant Blues" . . . . I think are remarkable in that they tell something of your unique story, but they cut across social group membership too. You bring up themes of alienation, thinking vs. living, the way our parent's struggles and our projections live inside us.  Could you tell me more about this idea that thinking and solitude become a coping strategy for someone with your particular [immigrant] history?  You say in a poem that [these strategies] though they help you survive, somehow at some point they keep you from living.

. . . I guess that that is part of it . . . but that is just one side of the coin.  . . . I guess I meant it.

But I might be wrong!   (laughing)  I should say at either the beginning or the end of the poem  "I could be wrong."   I mean it.  I am not sure.  I am just trying to understand my own . . . 

Yeah, I feel as if I have not begun . . . my life.  I feel kind of trapped at about two years old (laughs).  That's how I feel and I realize how inappropriate that is, so I have modes to hide or shield that fact, but for me that is where the work comes from too.  It has to include the knowledge there, which precedes conscious knowledge.

. . .

Jones: I really like these three connected poems with apples in them. . . there's this theme in it.  There's an opposition between these first two poems.  With the father poem it's a world of words, more ethereal in my mind.  Then the last poem, those closing lines about both mourning what is lost and being relieved at the freedom from it.  Is there something about the mother part of the poem you could help me understand?

Lee: That one is like the apple as the favorite.  Poetry is favored language and my experience of my mother is that I was her favorite, but it meant this huge burden (laughs).  And I think it is the same burden of poetry.  Poetry is the kind of favored language.  It makes the claim that it is at least half divine.  If not complete, at least half.

That claim of the divine, it packs more meaning, more being, more presence.   The ancients use to say that there are places on the earth with more presence--maybe caves and then they would put a temple on those places.  They recognized in plays, poems or songs, that there was more presence in that language than in other forms of language.

Saturation of presence is one of the criteria in divine speech and I think poetry aspires to divine speech.

It is an absolutely ridiculous and really dangerous (laughs) proposition.  

Jones:  Dangerous because . . .

Lee:  Well God it unleashes all kinds of crazy inflations and mis-identifications.  You don't know what is yours and what's God's, what's deaths, what's not.  There are these exchanges being made--I think with poetry the words relate to each other on more levels.  For me, that would be a definition.  

. . .

Jones:  So those two apple poems, we were talking about, get at two heavy kinds of maybe beautiful, problematic challenges and then the third poem is about--you fall from the tree, you become what you will be and maybe . . . differentiate somehow, maybe?

Lee:  Yeah.  One hopes.  I don't know.  You know, these poems are all provisional.  For now.  This is just true for now.


Lee:  The overriding fiction of all great lyric poetry is speaking right before your death, that death created an urgency, an intensity that led to a kind of sorting of words.  You sort words more frugally in a poem than you would in fiction.  I don't think that sorting of words is just for beauty.  It comes out as beauty, but I think the pressure of that sorting comes from this over-riding fiction that it is a spontaneous utterance right before your death. You can't even do it.  So it takes years to actually do that, to speak from a kind of experience of complete knowing.

Jones: I haven't actually experienced much loss from death.  Do you think that if someone doesn't see death in their work, do you think maybe their just not conscious yet, of how death is shaping their lives?

Lee: My sense is that one doesn't have to have experienced it. I think if you never experienced it--if everyone you have known is still alive, I still think that when you come to the page and you imagine this fiction and imagine it completely, that can lead you to a language and a knowledge about yourself--I think it is fruitful knowledge. It is self-knowledge.

Jones: So it is really knowledge of our own mortality (more than death itself) that is profoundly urging us to write.

Lee: Yes and to solve that problem. I think death is a problem. It is still a problem for me. I'm not at peace yet. (laughs)

. . . .  I think death is the subject of all lyric poetry . . . . I'll tell you why I feel that it is about death, because a poem is the exhaled breath figured upon, variegated, filigreed, pocked and built and made up. We breath in in silence and the outgoing breath is the dying breath. So all poems are basically a song for the dying breath. Whatever you are talking about, what you are actually doing is ransoming the dying breath to make it worthy of keeping. Otherwise it is not a feeding breath. The meaning of poetry is actually a feeding breath, but the actual breath is outgoing for the human being doing it--there's an opposite thing going on there.

The most extreme case is the increase in divinity is experienced as a decrease in the vitality of the mortal being. So it is a kind of death. There's a kind of a death of the ego that is experienced before the death of the body and I think the ego mind is the mind that attaches to the body, that attaches to the fear of the extinction of the body.

The Chinese say you shave that ego way back so that there's more and more divinity in your life, but that sounds--that's religious stuff! But I do think you can't escape it! You can't escape the religious dimension of human beings and I think it can't be abandoned in art, because that's the source. I can't locate the ultimate word--the verdict. I don't trust human beings enough to locate the final word . . . the pronouncement, the great story, the meaning, the all narrative, the mother narrative. I can't leave that up to human beings. I don't trust human beings.

. . .

Jones: You talk about how poetry comes from some "anonymous center"

Lee: Right. I got that from Rilke.

Jones: Does that faith ever falter--that that's in you to be discovered? Do you always know that that is there and it is just a question of whether you will access it?

Lee: You know when it does falter, I climb my way back. I reread . . .You look up current information in books in, let's say quantum physics, and then you realize "Oh, O.K. it is still a mystery. Their still looking at their own mind." Every time they notice--when they look at a field of photons or whatever--their still coming to the conclusion "Oh, what we see is our own mind." So then you just start back up and you realize at the highest levels of thought--in all the great sciences, in all the great arts that have gone before us, all the great philosophers, all the great fiction writers--it's there all the time. You don't need a lack of faith. All you have to do is swear to live at the quantum level--of reality, which is a scientific fact. If you even swear to do that, that's religious. That whole quantum stuff is religious. It is not of this realm.

Because we know that in the quantum realm there's no cause and effect, for instance. They just discovered that, so they can't figure out what does that mean, because it looks like cause and effect is all there is in the realm of space and time, but their doing all these experiments with that super collider . . . but what are they talking about! And there's some shaman in Indonesia that I visited and she said "No, there's no cause and effect. Those are little powers. There are more powerful powers that aren't cause and effect." She said they are older-- I'm just saying that this is the whole context.

Jones: It sounds like you just look at the world, engage with it and the mysteries you confront--it just makes it obvious that there is something else.

Lee: Yeah. You know when Einstein viewed quantum behavior of light photons--he called it "spooky action at a distance"

Jones: (laughs)

Lee: That is cool right? Spooky action at a distance.

Lisa:  My son is studying dark matter.  And I don't know everything you are saying about quantum physics, but I do know a little about what you are talking about because--dark matter!  Wow!

Lee:  So there you go, that would be part of the context.  That's like a little faith kit.  All you have to do is consult the sciences and put it all together and then you realize "oh, I'm just being wayward or lazy or whatever.  Go take a break!"

. . .

Jones: You have said that the very composition of a poem can change the world.

Lee: . . . The order proposed in a lyric poem is closer to quantum order (without cause and effect), closer to synchronistic order--everything happening simultaneously on different levels. So the order proposed in a lyric poem--that has to line up with everything we know.

When that happens, that's when you get a great lyric poem. It is worth a whole lifetime's work. Sometimes it is worth a whole life time's work.


Jones:  [In response to your statement that death is the subject of all lyric poetry] I'm trying to think of a poem that isn't so obviously about death, but really is about death. 

Lee:  Let's talk about a poem called "Dying Stupid" that is one of my great fears, dying stupid (laughs).  I'm trying to know if language is a way to knowledge or does knowledge precede language.  Do you have to have the knowledge first or is talking about it a way to access knowledge?

. . . 

Jones:  What was it like to be Gerald Stern's student?

Lee:  That was my [teaching] paradigm.  He kind of alchemized everybody.  There was a feeling walking to his class.  It was Fall.  It was Pitzburg.  It was an evening class and you had a poem you were going to present.  He was going to talk to you about it, in front of other poets.  They were going to take your inner life seriously and nobody was going to make fun of your heart.  

There was the great Gerald Stern, the guy who had written all those great psalms. You opened his book and you just heard the voice of the lover.  That was it. That is what lyric poetry is for me.  It is very narrow for me.  If the voice of the lover isn't there, I'll read through it if I have to, but if it is there, that's all I care about.  

That was what you heard when you heard him and he taught you how to do it better in the poem.  He would suggest ways that would help you deepen the way you look at yourself and think of yourself.  The path and the time and civilization.  It was a blessing to be with Gerry Stern, but he's a rare guy.  His energy seemed boundless. 

. . .

Jones:  You have been described as accessible and your writing can be, but it is very intellectual and evocative, so that I think the reader sometimes has to do a little work.

Lee:  I don't want the reader to do any work.

Jones:  You don't.

Lee:  No.  I don't want the reader to do anything. (Laughs)

Jones:  Well, it's not necessarily work, because you can just take it in on an intuitive, emotional level and get great pleasure from it, but I think there's more to be found in rereading.

Lee:  But the reasons for rereading are very important to me.  There are certain reasons that prompt people to reread that don't prompt me to reread.  I feel if I have heard something beautiful, true, stirring . . . That's the whole problem of poetry.  What is worthy of remembering?  The Iliad, the Bible--what acts are worth remembering?

When I write, that is a big issue--what's worth remembering, what's worth revisiting, rereading.

. . .

Jones:  I see people talking about a blending of the different camps of poetry (experimental postmodern poetry, your poetry which seems very different from that, etc.) and maybe something hybrid moving forward and I wondered if you had any thoughts on that?

Lee:  I do think that relevant work is always going to be the work that is synthesizing everything, as much of the key things as possible.  In other words, I do believe that a poet writing now, writes in a context of: quantum physics, astronomy, the developments in the telescope that are mind boggling--like what we can see, the level of musical genius playing now (cellists, other soloists), whatever we've accomplished in martial warfare, all of the famine of the earth, all of the people that are actually trying to do well and being loving, that whole context is the context of a poem.

Given that, one would need to break down what would be the key pieces of knowledge, the books you would need to read, the experiences you would need to actually have to have witnessed in person, to know that as much as possible, and then to speak (laughs).  

. . .

Note:  Li-Young Lee is also featured in a documentary, Poetry of Resilience and there is a book of interviews with him, Breaking the Alabaster Jar, which clarify in greater depth, Lee's ideas about the "outgoing/dying breath" of poetry.  

Lisa Anne Jones is a staff interviewer for Poetry Now and is looking forward to a week at the Napa Writer's Conference this July.  A member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she is currently editing their annual Review, due out in July, 2009.  Learn more about her publications and how to reach her at http://www.alchemyofbirds.blogspot.com/