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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"
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/
Tracie's Kitchen String Band at the MCLAF -- SPC President Bob Stanley and his band, Tracie's Kitchen, entertained visitors of the Children's Multicultural Literary Arts Festival in a celebration of 30 years of SPC.
Children having fun at one of the many booth activities offered at the MCLAF. Various Children's groups and arts organizations had tables. Also there, a creative balloon artist, a theater group, storytellers, poets, musicians, performers - including Capoiera and Hula dancers.