Li-Young Lee isn't what you'd expect of a scholarly and highly successful poet. Having admired his poems for years, I was a bit taken aback when the award-winning Chicago poet said he would be 'deeply honored' to do an interview. During the entire process, Lee was humble and gracious, often embarrassed by my flattery, and discounting himself at every turn. But what struck me the most, and what often distracted me during the length of the conversation, was his unmistakable voice. Soft and mysterious, he speaks words with the same reverence that he writes them, which made for an unforgettable experience.
Li-Young Lee comes from Jakarta, Indonesia, born in 1957 to Chinese parents. His father spent a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno's jail before escaping with his family in 1959, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau and Japan before immigrating to the United States. Lee's extensive educational background includes study at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona and the State University of New York. He's held teaching positions at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa.
In 1986, Lee published his first book of poetry, The Rose, followed in 1990 by The City in Which I Love You, which received the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. Numerous journals have published his work, which has also garnered many literary awards, including The Lannan Foundation Literary Award, The American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award. His most recent works include Book of My Nights and the poetic memoir The Winged Seed. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Donna, and their two children.
— Carolyn Alterio
Carolyn Alterio: In an earlier interview, you mentioned that you were striving for a sense of silence in your poems. From your earlier poems to your newer work, I see how you've pared down language and shortened the lines, which leads the way to a more meditative reading. In what other ways are you trying to attain this silence?
Li-Young Lee: I don't know if I'm trying to attain it, ... but lately I've been thinking that poetry just by its nature is a double-medium. In prose, you might just be using language to do something. But in poetry just by nature, we're using language as silence. And in a way the silence is a medium, and if we know how to work with that medium, it would be the same thing as negative space in a painting. We're using inner-spaciousness and silence.
Haiku is a great example of that. The medium in Haiku is silence. We're using words in order to uncover the deep, resonating interior, and that's what meditations have been trying to do for years. Meditators have been trying to make us relinquish our attachments, because our attachments clog things. ... If we let go, we see how spacious and expansive our lives really are. To me that's what poetry does.
I think Emily Dickinson ... understood that silence was part of her medium. My sense is that in the West, that hasn't always been the case. I think in the West they are suspicious of silence. For instance, as beautiful a poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is, he's really noisy, and he loves the noise of poetry. And in a way, his version of the sacred, his version of the experience of God is really noisy, which is okay, except that it seems to me he has forgotten about this other medium, the negative part.
Carolyn Alterio: Emily Dickinson also was one of the first to really use dashes as a literary device to send off her lines. That's always made her poems seem expansive to me.
Li-Young Lee: Yes. And then she has the silence that surrounds a really resonate image. That's the mystery to me, when you give the reader a really profound resonating image, and it creates a kind of spaciousness in that reader's heart and mind. I think for instance of Wallace Stevens' "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." You could almost call that poem "13 Silences," because each of those images are so resonant that ... it cuts off the chatter in your head. ... Each of those views of looking at a blackbird is like a view of Fuji. I think Emily Dickinson does that a lot in her poems. It's like the silence after the bell. You hit the bell so perfectly, but the air in your head and your heart afterwards is more still and quiet than it was before.
Carolyn Alterio: I see your earlier poems as geared toward the themes of memory and forgetting. In other interviews, I've heard you say that the poems of remembrance were necessary in getting you to the point you're at now. Is there any sense that you've gotten it all down in terms of your past? Where do you go from there?
Look at the birds. Even flying
out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open
at either end of day.
The work of wings
was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.
by Li-Young Lee
Li-Young Lee: The kind of remembering I'm trying to achieve is a memory of my own source. Ultimately, I don't locate my own source in a personal history. What I'm trying to do in my poems is remember the transpersonal context; the greater, even cosmic context within which my personal history is embedded. So when I'm working through the personal material what I'm trying to do is remember even past that. I guess it's a religious enterprise for me. In the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, too, God keeps saying, 'Remember, Remember ...' Some of it is remembering the personal history, but a lot of it is remembering the human residing in the God term. And that seems to me more important, that makes poetry more yogic or religious.
Carolyn Alterio: Is there any connection between your need to define night, all that it encompasses, including the metaphor of death, and your own struggles with insomnia? I heard you say in an interview that Book of My Nights was trying to act as a lullaby for a child who didn't want to sleep, thereby denying his own death. And here you are with the inability to sleep, but the ability to reflect and write exquisitely upon it. Was the experience of composing these poems therapeutic for you?
Li-Young Lee: It was. I know that might be offensive to some people, but I feel it was a very psycho-therapeutic experience. The term 'night' – I'm not sure what it means, life or death. Somehow the word 'night' means inescapable escape at the same time it means freedom. It's always double for me, in that all the associations of that word bring out that place in me where the meeting of opposites happens. And I do think that the practice of poetry is a way to find a path of negotiation between all of our opposing tendencies – good and bad, the demonic and the angelic, the spiritual and the material – to find exactly that center and suffer right there all of the contradictions of our human nature. ... The way I go about that is I pick a term that seems to me mysterious.
Carolyn Alterio: A lot of interviewers have focused on the poems about your father, and I've heard you mention that 'father' has evolved from a paternal reference to a more spiritual one. You also said that words are saturated for you, making the word not one father, but every father. Is this an effect of filling the role of a father yourself in life, coming to some universal understanding? How has this changed your poems?
Li-Young Lee: I had the sense, even before I became a father, that when I was writing about my father I was writing not just about my historical father, but some sort of father imago. And I think when I became a father it was challenging for me because I had to remember that probably in my son's mind, 'father imago' and me ... were somehow conflated, and I needed to be very careful with what I said and did. I needed to act as much as possible out of a condition of being totally present. It was important to me that their relationship to their father image, their idea to what a father was, stayed intact and powerful to them, and that I didn't sabotage that because I wasn't on the job or something.
There's nothing I can't find under there.
Voices in the tree, the missing pages
of the sea.
Everything but sleep.
And night is a river bridging
the speaking and the listening banks,
a fortress, undefended and inviolate.
There's nothing that won't fit under it:
fountains clogged with mud and leaves,
the houses of my childhood.
And night begins when my mother's fingers
let go of the thread
they've been tying and untying
to touch toward our fraying story's hem.
Night is the shadow of my father's hands
setting the clock for resurrection.
Or is it the clock unraveled, the numbers flown?
There's nothing that hasn't found home there:
discarded wings, lost shoes, a broken alphabet.
Everything but sleep. And night begins
with the first beheading
of the jasmine, its captive fragrance
rid at last of burial clothes.
by Li-Young Lee
I've always had a sense that as beings we all refer to something bigger. My own father seemed larger than life – he had all these historical experiences that made him larger than life. It was easy for me to conflate some sort of transpersonal father and him. Everything feels so saturated with presence. Everything feels so present and full of being. Somehow poetry is the only condition of language that can account for that, the poetry that I love to read, anyway. I know there are other poems that love to drain words of their referential capacity, but that seems to me like a bankrupt proposition; everything is so saturated and an instance of the totality of causes.
Carolyn Alterio: I've seen and been intrigued by some of the collaborations you've done with Li-Lin Lee. How does your process change when working with a visual artist?
Li-Young Lee: Those pieces are our discussions. Sometimes he starts with an image, and I write on it, or sometimes I write a poem, and he paints on it. Very haphazard. I don't think we've done anything we're both been pleased with. It feels like groping around, although we have a lot of fun doing it. On one hand it doesn't look finished, and on another it doesn't look as risky as it actually feels when we're doing it. It's a lot of emotional risks for us to do that sort of thing. When we're done with it, I look at the piece and I'm not sure how it comes off.
Carolyn Alterio: We talked about art, but what other things influence you? For example, you traveled around a great deal as a child and your poems reflect that. Do you find your current environment to be present in your writing?
Li-Young Lee: Yes, very much so. I try to create a safe environment with the people I live with, my wife, my sons, my brothers and sisters. That probably comes out in my writing, at least I think so. Safety is a big issue for me. I keep wondering how poetry either contributes to or jeopardizes security in the world. And I can't help but believe that it's one of the criteria of good poetry to create a sense of security for a culture. Even if it sometimes seems outlawish, like Walt Whitman openly celebrating sex. But I think ultimately that leads to greater safety, and I think that [in our] culture ... sometimes there isn't much security or safety. There's maybe a lot of rigidity, but that's not necessary safe for the soul to grow and thrive in. So I wonder about the possibility of poetry in the fate of the body, whether or not poetry can contribute to the safety and security in a culture.
Carolyn Alterio: You've taught at several universities in Chicago and Iowa. What was your experience with teaching? Did it have a positive affect on your writing?
Li-Young Lee: You know it probably did, but I don't know what I'm doing. You can't just go into a classroom and say 'I grope in the dark.' There's nothing to teach if you say that, so that was the hardest part for me with teaching, trying to formalize in words [for] what I just grope. ... It was probably good for me, but I think teaching is like sainthood. It's a service of deep, deep significance, and I guess I'm just not cut out for it. I guess I don't have a saint in me. I'm ashamed to admit that – I wish I could say I wanted to go out and do this. But reproducing consciousness, that's no small thing! And that's what you're doing, I guess. Or you're at least a mid-wife to the birth of other people's consciousness.
Carolyn Alterio: What was your most rewarding experience as a student? What was the least?
Li-Young Lee: My most rewarding experience was the one-on-one I spent with the teachers and just being with other poets. Suddenly you meet a bunch of people who are as crazy as you are, who are thinking about the same things you're thinking about. That was rewarding. But I was a terrible student, just so undisciplined. I'm just so ashamed of it, I keep wanting to go back and get my master's. I've given up on that dream lately, but for years I felt like such a failure.
Carolyn Alterio: Particularly from the foreword he wrote for you, I've noticed that you gained a lot of support from Gerald Stern. Do you feel it's important for poets to seek that sort of mentorship from other poets they admire?
Li-Young Lee: I think it depends on the mentor. I think in the case of Gerald Stern, because he was so generous and giving towards me, that it was very important for me. ... His example of a person in the world was very important for me because I thought, boy, you can be a full-grown man and still be filled with madness and joy and lust and craziness and spontaneity. ... My father was an example of another kind of man: deeply introverted, unpredictable, scary sometimes, brilliant... Gerry was kind of like the happy opposite. And I know Gerry had the melancholic side to him, but getting to know Gerry Stern is [knowing that] ecstasy is possible. He's an ecstatic human being, sometimes scarily so. That was very important to me and continues to be very important to me.
The wonderful thing about Gerry Stern as a mentor, when he was looking at my poems, he wouldn't just tell me to change a line or something ... I felt like he was seeing the poem as a natural extension of my psyche. So he would always address my heart and my mind. He would always try to point to the ground of the poem. I knew that the work I had to do was not only to work harder on the poem ... I knew that I needed to think about my life more. That was important.
Carolyn Alterio: What type of readers would you define the perfect critic to be? How would they approach your work? What would they take away from it?
Li-Young Lee: For me, when I'm reading a poem, my first and second reading of the poem is totally non-critical. The critic is one person in the pantheon of our complete personhood: We have the critic, the ecstatic, the wise man ... When I'm reading the poem, I think everyone has to be present, so I don't hear from the critic until later. I would wish the same thing for my own work, that when someone listens they would just listen openly and with goodwill. The criticism could come in later. When I'm reading, I'm reading with my toes, my knees, and the hair on the back of my neck ... I'm reading with my whole body, my whole person, and my experience is very profound and deep. It won't be until later that I go back and try to take apart what I experienced. But if immediately it's tasteless, and there's no perfume to the reading, I just turn the page.
Carolyn Alterio: You've garnered as much respect for your reading presence as you have for your writing. Do you find public readings to be another creative outlet, a way of connecting to your readers?
Li-Young Lee: Yeah, it is. That seems kind of interesting to me, Carolyn. I sometimes wish I could read behind a screen so that my personal presence wouldn't obscure what I'm doing. I do find the voice to be the proving ground. The page is one proving ground, and the voice is the second proving ground for the validity of the poem. I do see the importance of reading well, or finding the right tone of voice or the right attitude to bring the poem over ... I don't think I'm particularly good at it, but I see that it is its own art form.
A lot of poets I've talked to say, 'I don't like to give readings,' but I feel like that's a diminishment of their work. I think [a poem] has another life in the voice. It's not any greater than the life on the page, but it's different. I do think that all art is tri-axial. It's not just about me and God, that would be dual in nature. I think it's about me, God and the person that overhears the conversation – that's the audience. ... I think that in a lot of poetry slams it's dual in nature; that is, that it's the poet and the audience, they're trying to whip up the audience into a frenzy. But they forget they're missing this third term. That is the 'Angel' if you're Rilke, or the 'Master' if you're Emily Dickinson, or the 'Duende' if you're Lorca. There's a third party involved, a transcendent party. So I think the reading of the poem, publicly, is a way of enacting all three parties. I think you can treat readings as just an opportunity to show off, but I don't think that's very fruitful.
So I feel if any of one of those three parties is missing, for me, the experience isn't complete. Even when I read a poem on a page, my sense is my experience has to be triune in nature, that I feel the presence of the poet, the poet is imbedded in something greater than his own consciousness, and then me, the listener. I somehow become in heightened awareness of this three party system, even though I'm reading in silence. But when I feel a poem fails, then it's missing one of these parties.
Carolyn Alterio: And are there also instances when the poet forgets the audience?
Li-Young Lee: Yes! The thing about the God term is that once you concentrate on God, because God does reside in every listener, it becomes three by nature. Once you're talking to God, or of God, you're talking to the deepest listener in every human being. So it naturally calls to a human being. It's like Rilke saying 'Poetry is the deep speaking to the deep.' It's my deep speaking to your deep. My problem is when people write a poem, and it isn't transcendent, it's their own personal system. Then it's between them and the system, and it's not transcendent, but totally personal. If we're dialoguing with some transcendence, then automatically we're in conversation with a human being's deepest nature, and it becomes triaxial.
Carolyn Alterio: Can you name a poem you've written that embodies this triaxial system, or give another example perhaps?
Li-Young Lee: Oh, I've never written anything like that. Poems that other people have written include an incredible poem by Emily Dickinson that begins "I'm Afraid to Own a Body." Robert Frost's "West Running Brook" reaches moments, whole stanzas just full of this triaxial thing going on.
Carolyn Alterio: I've read that your memoir The Winged Seed was a deliberate attempt to rid yourself of the 'editorial voice,' the voice that critiques your poems before you even have a chance to compose them. What was the most rewarding aspect of this experiment? Were you surprised by the result?
Li-Young Lee: To be honest, and I hope this doesn't undermine any authority I might have, but I have not reread that book because I'm terrified of what I'll find. ... I'm afraid I won't like what I find because the approach there was something very different, totally un-revised. I went through that phase in every writer's life where you think 'first thought, best thought.' You jot it down, and however it turns out, all the mistakes and all the sawdust lying around, you don't have to brush it off or blow off the sawdust. You just present it the way it came out. And that's the way it feels to me. It's unconstructed and thrown together and written without anything in mind. A lot of it was just stream of consciousness, and a lot of it was experimenting. I just thought 'how many times can I say a single word and still have it make sense?' Things like that. I actually am planning to sit down one day and re-read it and even re-write it. It's like a giant draft, so I don't know what to make of it.
Carolyn Alterio: How do you handle revisions in general? Do you feel you need this time apart from the poem to be ready for it?
Li-Young Lee: Yes, I do think you need the time apart from the poem. I guess the question is when we revise, what are we revising toward? And for me the paradigm is always my psyche, my soul. The closer I can get the poem to my soul, the truer it seems. That would mean, of course, that I would need to have a clear relationship or experience with my own soul so that I can represent it somehow. So a lot of the work for me is keeping that relationship alive, and nurturing that relationship with my soul.
Carolyn Alterio: What is the relationship, for you, between poetry and memoir? Is there any crossover of material, even though it's treated differently?
"Memoir is a way to work through personal material in order to get to something beyond the personal."
Li-Young Lee: For me, poetry is the thing, and I don't know what everything else is. My sense is that poetry is the deepest and highest form of yoga that we can practice. Yoga in Sanskrit means yoke or link or connection. And the exact equivalent in Latin is religion, where we get religious and religion. So I do feel that poetry is a form of yoga, the highest form of religion. Because when we're working on a poem, we're connecting, or linking or yoking ourselves to our most complete nature, which is God. So my sense is writing poetry or making art is yogic in that it links us to our complete presence.
I think for the most part, we're not completely present. We inhabit somehow a narrow bandwidth of our personhood. Poetry speaks from a condition of total personhood. So it's the fullest speech we can accomplish. Memoir is a way to work through personal material in order to get to something beyond the personal, something that is the ground of the personal. ... My own sense is that when I'm trying to trace some sort of lineage, when I'm trying to account for my own person, it's not enough for me to locate my personal origin in a historical path. I have to somehow discover the absolute origin of reality itself. My personal origin is linked to the origin of reality.
Carolyn Alterio: Who did you grow up reading, and who is it you tend to read now?
Li-Young Lee: Well, I grew up reading Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, John Logan, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, James Wright, Hayden Carruth, John Ashberry, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov. I started reading those people in college. Younger than that I was reading The Child's Garden of Virtue. Not much of a reading life other than the bible. My parents were always reciting Chinese poetry.
Carolyn Alterio: Do you have any kind of discipline for when you write? Do you write every day?
Li-Young Lee: I'm scribbling stuff down every day, all day long. I can't tell if that means I'm very disciplined because I'm doing it 24-hours a day, or does that mean I'm undisciplined because I do it anytime, anywhere because I can't stop. I don't know. I feel like I'm sleepwalking all day long, waiting to hear from God. There's a part of me that always has my ear pressed to the door, or at God's heart trying to hear something.