An Interview with Li-Young Lee
Marie Jordan | May/Summer 2002
Li-Young Lee's great grandfather, Yuan Shikai served as China's first republican president from 1912 to 1916 and tried to establish himself as emperor. Lee's father, Lee Kuo Yuan, a profound and religious Christian, was a physician under the Nationalist Chinese during China's civil war. He was physician to Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Lee's parents escaped to Indonesia where Li-Young was born in 1957. His father helped found Gamaliel University, a college of religious thought, and was arrested by the Indonesian dictator Sukarno and jailed as a political prisoner. He spent more than a year tortured in prisons and finally escaped with his family to Hong Kong, then to Japan, and finally to the United States where he spent the remainder of his life ministering and preaching the Christian faith. Li-Young's first book of poetry, Rose, won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award in l987. The City in Which I Love You was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. Other honors include grants from the Illinois Arts Council, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a Writer's Award from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. His first poetry collection in 11 years, Book of My Nights, has just been released by BOA Editions.
Marie Jordan: You call your new collection of poems, Book of My Nights, a book of lullabies. Can you explain how these poems can be understood as lullabies?
Li-Young Lee: I have the feeling that a line of poetry is the articulated dying breath. We sing a lullaby to a child because he doesn't want to go to sleep. He wants to stay up. Maybe the child is afraid of sleep. So we sing to the child to tell him it's okay to go to sleep. In the same way that a child doesn't want to go to sleep, I think sometimes we deny our death. We deny that it happens.
Jordan: So the child's sleep is a metaphor for our death?
Lee: That's the way it feels to me. I was hoping that this book basically says that it's okay to die, and so the book is kind of singing us into our dying. I don't want to seem morbid, but it feels to me that the process of dying is actually dying into a greater presence. It isn't lessening, it's actually more. And we die into greater awe, greater splendor, greater terror, and greater presence.
Jordan: Did you have that theme in mind as you were writing these poems?
Lee: I think it became clear to me as I was writing them what was going on.
Jordan: When you speak of breath, how are breath and poems related?
Lee: Poems and breath are related in basically the same way that breath and utterance are related. That is, when we speak we use the outgoing breath, the exhaled breath. The exhaled breath is the dying breath, while the inhaled breath is the in-feeding breath. So all human utterance is our dying breath articulated.
Jordan: And the inhale? Do we inhale the poem with our breath?
Lee: Well, let me back up and try to answer it this way. Breathing is a wheel. It turns in and out, inhale, exhale. Now, I don't want to get too esoteric here, but I'll mention the fact that as we inhale, our bones and muscles actually get very compacted, harder. When we exhale, on the other hand, our bodies become very soft. Ancient Daoists, so I'm told, believed that upon inhalation our ego-self becomes very inflated, while during exhalation our sense of ego and body diminishes and we become more open to a deeper, bigger presence. What I find of interest, though is this: As we speak, what we mean gets disclosed in opposite ratio to the expelled breath. That is, as breath dies in exhalation while we speak, more and more of the meaning of what we're saying gets divulged. Frost calls this, the tribute of the current to the source. Was it Blake who called it proceeding by contraries? Meaning is born as the breath dies. In the case of poetry, the meaning that gets born is manifold, saying one thing but meaning many things. And in this way, a poem is a paradigm of human living. As we perish, the meaning of our lives is revealed.
Jordan: Theodore Roethke said he wanted poetry to extend consciousness as far as it can go. He said that he sought to write poems that try in their rhythms to catch the very movement of the mind itself. Do you think along the lines of Roethke, in terms of the mind?
Lee: I do. But let me say that I understand all poems to be projections. And to study those projections is to begin to understand the projector, the mind, or ground, of the projection. Let me add here that by the word mind I mean what the Chinese mean when they use the word shin. That is, mind and heart. A poem is an image of the maker, as a human being is an image of God. But a poem doesn't simply transpose being. It also proposes possibilities of being. A poem is also a proposition. It isn't just a naturalistic copy of the projector. Or maybe it is, and an integral aspect of human being is its tendency to speculate or propose certain ideal modes of being. Poems make very important propositions by their enactment of certain presences we may never envision if it weren't for the poems. Does this make sense?
Jordan: This seems especially true in Book of My Nights. In your two previous books, Rose and In The City in Which I Love You, there seems to be an underlying wrestling with self and God. Now you seem to be far more intimate with the unknown, and with God. That wrestling, like Jacob's pulling at the thigh of God, is missing. Did you feel that when writing these poems?
Lee: I felt it in my life. I think that because when I was young I deified my parents, so I projected or transferred all the god-presence onto my parents and the world around me. Part of my own evolution or development as a person is to try to recognize that presence is in my being, too. God's presence is in the cells of my body and deep in my subconscious. God's presence is not only out there in the world in trees and oceans and birds and people, but it's in me I hope. In the new poems I was more successful at that. I was more open to what somebody called, "the invasion from the inside."
Jordan: Your new poems appear at once semiotic and mimetic. They are fluid, diffused, and disseminated, yet you maintain an analysis of universal relationships. Do you see your poems as being beyond language, or metalanguage?
Lee: The thing that obsesses me is always beyond language. Language is almost an inconvenience. I have a feeling that no matter what kind of art we're practicing, at some point we become hyper-aware of our medium. If we're painting it's paint and if writing it's the language. But if we don't at some point move beyond our hyper-consciousness of language, we're stuck in the land of the medium. On that plane, only the relationships of words to other words is available, while the relationships of words to their ground, mother-silence, on the one hand, and to the concepts they name, on the other hand, gets abandoned. That would be like seeing the significance of people only in relationship to other people, in other words, only as social units. Meanwhile, their relationship to the ground of their being and to their individuality is disregarded.
Jordan: You have said that we are all guests in language and once we start speaking our language we bow to that language and bend that language to us. What do you mean when you say that we bend language to us?
Lee: The beautiful Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, said something like-the difference between prose and poetry is that in prose you use language and in poetry, you yield to language. It feels like there's this weird dialectic between us and the language. I can't tell whether we just yield to it or we bend it. Maybe both. Sometimes it feels like we're bending the language. Maybe it's a process of self-making. I can't tell.
Jordan: What, aside from language, does the poet have to work with?
Lee: It's not just language that we use to write poems. We use silence, too. In fact, I think we use language to inflect silence so we can hear it better. I suppose that's why I love Emily Dickinson. I love her the most when I don't have the feeling she's fooling around with language, but up against something she can hardly say. What we're actually seeing is the language straining to say something.
Jordan: What do you mean by inflecting silence?
Lee: Inflected silence could be explained by the way everything seems quieter after you hear a bell ring. After church bells ring everything seems more quiet. It's almost as if we're using language, but the real subject is silence. The silence is primal. I hope that after a line or stanza there's a silence imparted to the reader. That's my worry.
Jordan: Aren't there different kinds of silences?
Lee: Yes. Different colors and shades. The deepest possible silence is the silence of God. I feel a poem ultimately imparts silence. That way it's again disillusioning. It disillusions us of our own small presence in order to reveal the presence of this deeper silence-this pregnant, primal, ancient, contemporary, and imminent silence, which is God. I don't know another form of language where this is possible except in poetry.
Jordan: I see a circular form in your new poems, going toward and coming back, and the life-death tension between poles. You take risks moving from deeper to more daring levels of consciousness, including the dream-state subconsciousness. There remains a tension between poles, a day-night, child-parent, and light-darkness. You call it "miles of the sea arriv(ing) at a seed".
Lee: It feels true when I'm writing the poems.
Jordan: What do you mean by the silence being God?
Lee: Do you know the verse in the Bible that reads, "Be still and know that I am God?" That kind of stillness, and silence. I think a really good poem can impart a stillness which is God-which is also awe. I would say that disillusionment is revelation and revelation is apocalypse and every poem is apocalyptic. On the one hand we have ecliptic things that hide and on the other hand we have apocalyptic things that reveal. The writing of poetry is writing that reveals, but doesn't just reveal a personal presence, it reveals a transpersonal presence and the dualities of that presence is silence, stillness, and the saturation of presence.
Jordan: Is the appearance of birds in Book of My Nights a metaphor for transcending or taking flight from the temporal?
Lee: No. I love birds.
Jordan: You mean they're just birds, nothing else?
Lee: They're birds and everything birds can possibly mean to us. Ah, there's that thing again. To me, everything in the world is saturated with luminosity and meaning, so you could say that birds are just birds, but they're everything a bird could possibly be in billions of years of evolution. What does a bird mean to a billion year old man? All of that.
Jordan: Of the many recurrent images in this new collection, the most frequent is that of birds.
Lee: I did worry about repeating myself. Sometimes I felt I was writing the same poem over and over again.
Jordan: I'm reminded of something Galway Kinnell said-if things and creatures who live on the earth don't possess mystery, then there isn't any.
Lee: That's true!
Jordan: To carry that thought further, Rilke wrote that touching mystery requires loving the creatures that surround us and becoming one with them so they can enter us.
Lee: Is there anything that is not saturated with meaning? Even when I write about my father or mother, they are very much my father and mother. At the same time they are more. They are whatever a father and mother could possibly mean to us.
Jordan: Another of the images you use which I find arresting is that of folded clothes, folded and unfolded laundry compared to life and death, like the folding of nights and days in The City in Which I Love You. In Book of My Nights you write about lying down on folded and unfolded clothes-the life and the death.
Lee: If I look around, everything that goes on is saturated with meaning and mystery that I can't quite get my mind around. I see it and sometimes I can verbalize or find the verbal equivalent or correspondence in the world. Doing laundry is an instance. I do laundry every day, or watch my wife, kids, or my mother do it.
We're always folding or doing laundry and I come into the presence of an eternal mystery while folding clothes! I don't know why, but it feels that the world around me is saturated with another presence, mystery, and splendor all the time. It's a matter of cocking our heads the right way and seeing it. Poetic presence is there all the time, even while doing laundry.
Jordan: You've been likened to Theodore Roethke, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. Do you feel their voices echo through your own?
Lee: I read them with love so I suppose you can't help but have them influence you on some level. Isn't that the way you read, too, Marie? You can't help but take them inside you.
Jordan: You've also been compared to Rilke, especially with your first book of poems, Rose. Was he an influence in those early poems?
Lee: That is a funny thing. I hadn't read Rilke yet when I wrote those poems in Rose.
Jordan: We're told that the first poets we read will always be with us and have an indelible influence upon us. Who were the first poets you read?
Lee: I think they were the poets my parents recited in Chinese. The Chinese poems they recited gave me the sense that they were instances of the small consciousness embedded in, or residing in, a larger consciousness. Particularly the T'ang and Sung Dynasty poems they recited. These poems have that echoing feeling of a voice speaking within the context of a larger voice.
Jordan: Were there other influences?
Lee: My father taught us English by reading the King James Bible to us. He was a Christian minister. The consciousness of the Bible stays with me, the questions that kings asked of the prophets in the Old Testament, "Is there a word from the Lord?" When I come to the page to write a poem, what I'm doing is asking, "Is there a word from the Lord?" That is basically what a poem asks.
Jordan: Is this true of the poetry of the T'ang and Sung Dynasties?
Lee: There is that tradition in Chinese poetry that a poem is a model of psyche. Psyche is a model of cosmos, and so a poem is a model, or an instance of cosmos. It's a little instance of cosmic presence. The Chinese, especially the T'ang and the Sung Chinese poets, believe that the poem is an object through which to contemplate or experience cosmic presence. I happen to feel that's true.
Jordan: I understand also the classic Chinese poets' intimacy with nature and the belief that the past, having accumulated much of civilization's wisdom, is the authority to draw creativity and inspiration. How do you see your work in relation to nature?
Lee: Well, the human psyche is embedded in nature. Products of the psyche are finally projections of nature.
Jordan: I remember your saying you can't dance with your left brain. When you say that art must exercise the whole being, do you mean art in general?
Lee: The wonderful poet and teacher I studied with in Brockport, New York, Anthony Piccione, could never remind us enough times that poetry is the art form that engages both sides of the brain; therefore, any time we read a poem or study a poem we're studying the human psyche. The ideal is the human psyche well-informed of all its parts. When I say a psyche well-informed of all its parts, I mean an intellect well-informed of the body, a body informed of the intellect, and both informed of the feeling faculty, and so on. When I write a poem, I want all of me present. Poetry is the one art form that explicitly opens channels to both hemispheres of our brain. My hope is that when I write a poem my body is present in the language as well as my mind, intellect, heart, and feelings. It's about that total consciousness and total presence.
Jordan: Do you think your life as a poet began when you were a child and you began transposing letters of words and spelling them backwards, as you tell us in The Winged Seed (1995)? When did you first take pen to hand and write your first poem?
Lee: That was when I first started to learn the English language. The words seemed-and again I use the word "saturated." Words like yarn or bird or tree felt to me saturated with meaning. I think that's when I really was taken with the English language. I started writing little things to my mother.
Jordan: What kind of things?
Lee: I remember my brother and I caught a fish once, and this is the most vivid memory I have. We caught a fish and I wrote a poem. "Here is a fish. Make a nice dish." I thought it was really cool that I rhymed fish and dish. I safety-pinned it through the gill of the fish and gave it to our mother. It seemed that the word fish and the thing we gave her were one and the same.
Jordan: The painter Magritte was taken with resemblances of the real, and ridiculed representation as being the same as the word. I think of his Betrayal of Images, the painting of a pipe with the words at the bottom, Ceci n'est pas une pipe. This is not a pipe. The word and the image are not the same ...
Lee: Well, let's see. As far as I can tell, every word is a name for a concept. The word the names that concept we have of the-ness as opposed to, say, the word a or an or any or every. The word tree names our concept of a tree. Words refer to our concepts of things, not the things themselves. Words exist in the realm of concepts and ideas. Cavafy, I think it was, said that a poet is a member of the city of ideas. He said it was a great honor to be a citizen of that city. I agree. And I sometimes think that while the word tree refers to our concept of a tree, a tree itself is one of God's living ideas. Or maybe the tree itself is God's living word concretized. A living tree is one of the words of God. The universe is a poem of God. But if words name, and a tree is a living word, a tree is a living name. Name of what? What does a living tree name? A living tree is one of the names of God.
Jordan: Is there a connection here with the first chapter of the Gospel of John from the Bible, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God"?
Lee: Absolutely. The Word is Lord, that idea feels very real to me. It's not a linguistic tool, but a mode of being. Being-in-The-Word, which is Being-in-God. Being-in-God is our primordial, absolute condition, the condition of the psyche's embeddedness in Nature and Nature's embeddedness in God. Poetry is the language of that condition characterized by saturation of meaning, being, presence, and infinite potential. The mouth of that condition is poetry, saturated language that seems to me a perfect paradigm of the universe in its true, unadulterated state of being saturated with meaning, reference, and being. I'm talking in circles here.
Jordan: Let's talk about illusion and disillusion. You speak of art as a form of disillusion.
Lee: I have the sense that the world around us, the whole universe in fact, is saturated with presence: terror, wonder, splendor, and death. Sometimes we do all we can to create illusions that it's not. Art comes along and disillusions us in order to uncover this original saturated condition. That's the great thing about art, and why many people don't read poetry. I don't know if they can stand that kind of saturation of meaning and presence because with it comes not only splendor, wonder, and awe, but terror, horror, and death. You can't get one without the other and so we do everything we can to stay in the illusion.
Jordan: You have said that art directs us to uncover sacred reality. Do you mean art demands this of us?
Lee: Sacred reality is the saturation of presence in the world. Wind and trees and clouds and people and rocks and animals are all saturated with presence. At least it feels that way to me. I think the saturated condition is the sacred condition. There has always been only one subject-being.
Jordan: Your poems speak of your childhood, of fleeing China, and your family. Your 1995 family odyssey, The Winged Seed, centers on the life of your father, and as Ed Hirsch says on the jacket, it's a book of "intense. metaphysical questions. excavat(ing) and exorcis(ing) the past." You write about the secrets and mysteries you lived with for years. It was difficult and painful for your mother to discuss the events of the past and to reveal to you the truth about your lives. What does she think now of your writing your family story for others to read?
Lee: It's kind of complicated. She thinks I'm fooling around by writing poems, as if I should get a 'real' job. But I think her attitude has something to do with the fact that she doesn't speak English. The English-speaking world doesn't have much reality for her. If I say I'm writing our story in English and people who read English will read it, she doesn't seem to mind. I thought about this years ago because it was as if whatever we did in this country didn't quite count, that somehow we were not included anyway. Our vote or opinion didn't weigh as much so everything we said or did didn't matter because we weren't natives. I think she is unfazed because she thinks our story couldn't possibly interest anyone.
Jordan: Do you read your poems to her?
Lee: Once in a while I translate a poem for her. Her idea of what a poet is would be the classic Chinese poet like Laotzu or Li Po. She has such respect for them. When she gets together with her family they sit at a table and eat. One of them will start reciting some passage of Laotzu, Li Bai, Wang WÃªi, or the philosophers. When that person stops reciting in the middle of the poem, the person to the right completes the poem. They have a high regard for writing of China. My mother can't believe that I'm as serious as any of those poets, so I don't weigh in at all comparatively. Every time I translate a poem of mine for her I'm aware of the fact that it's not Li-Bai; my poems are not Du fu or Su Tong Po. The poems fall short, in my opinion, so I don't translate them very much. I'm an un-enlightened poet if I'm a poet at all.
Jordan: In China, the writing of poetry has never been thought of as a career, has it?
Lee: That's correct. My mother looks at me and says, "You're not enlightened." Those poets were enlightened.
Jordan: Do you write every day?
Lee: I have tried to do that. I have tried to put something on paper every day. It doesn't always work. My habits are erratic. I love working at the kitchen table. I have a study and sometimes I am organized. I have drafts of poems with a rock on each draft. I know what's going on at first, then within two weeks it's a mess. I am so undisciplined.
Jordan: Do you think that it's important to have discipline?
Lee: I don't know. I was raised disciplined in many ways. My meditation, for example. I thought writing was similar. There is an inner discipline to it and I always have my ear listening. I'm always asking, "Is there a word from the Lord?" Whether I'm washing dishes or taking a walk, I'm always in that asking mode, so that's its own form of discipline. My whole life is writing. I'm doing it all the time.
Jordan: What decides the form of your poems?
Lee: It's my body. I read the poem with my belly and the soles of my feet, my hips, arms, and my neck. My body encounters the poem. If I read a line, I can almost feel my body say when the next line should happen. It's a very visceral experience for me. I don't know if it translates at all into the poem, but I wouldn't know how else to do it. I don't have any theories about form or line. I'm really unschooled. I'm ashamed to say it, but I am.
Jordan: Have you ever been part of a writing workshop?
Lee: Yes, I have. I spent a year at the University of Arizona and I dropped out. I thought about studying literature at SUNY Brockport but also dropped out
Jordan: Tell me about the experience you had in a class reading Wuthering Heights aloud. That had a strong influence on you.
Lee: I had a wonderful teacher at SUNY Brockport. His name was Peter Marchant. There were about five of us students who met once a week in his office where we read Wuthering Heights. He made shepherds pie for us. We ate the shepherds pie and drank tea and he would begin reading, then pass the book around and each of us would read aloud. It was an incredible experience. It changed my world. I remember after reading the book, walking out of his office into the night air and feeling as if there were no threshold between my experience of the book and my experience of the world. The book was so present. Reading it aloud became something I took with me into the world. World was book and book was world. When we finished, we started reading D.H. Lawrence out loud and the same thing happened.
Jordan: How important is reading aloud?
Lee: When we read, we read projected presences. Some of the problems with the state of reading in the country, and the world, might stem from people not being able to read presences, not knowing how to read the presence a poem projects. On top of that they may never recognize that it's a projection they're reading. And if they never recognize that they're reading a projection, they never learn to interrogate it. Is it a whole presence that's being projected onto my mind's screen? Is it a dismembered presence? Is it hysteria that's being projected? Ignorance? Intelligence? Anger? Compassion? Love? What presence gets imparted by, say, a Dickinson poem? Or a Blake, or a Stern, or a Tsevteyeva
Jordan: If we read with our whole presence, then reading another whole presence can become that icy fusion Dickinson may have been referring to when she said, "If I feel physically
Lee: That's what Dickinson was talking about, if I understand her correctly. It does feel like the top of your head has been opened and you're somehow spacious. If that is what she means. She follows that by saying her whole body goes cold and I disagree with that.
Jordan: Do you think reading the unsayable within a work can be taught?
Lee: I have to believe it can be or I'd feel as if there was no hope in the world.
J rdan: I'd like to talk more about poems in your new book. You often use flower and fruit imagery: Am I the flower, / wide awake inside the falling fruit? from Hurry Toward Beginning and also the surprise of honey, occurring as the taste of itself within a line of a stanza: Look again / and find yourself changed / and changing, now the bewildered honey / fallen into your own hands, / now the immaculate fruit born of hunger, (Night Mirror).
Lee: I wish I could insert a little piece of butterscotch in the book.
Jordan: Recurrent images such as rooms, wind, stars, moon, trees, books, clocks and the sea echo through Book of My Nights, each tolling with complexities and paradoxes through the prevailing lyric lullaby rhythms. Are these images part of an organized plan or an intended structure?
Lee: No. Just obsession. I almost want to apologize for it. I could have written about other things, but these are the things I was obsessed about at the time. Rooms and wind and stars and clocks and sea. So I didn't plan anything at all.
Jordan: And roses. Always the roses. You love roses, don't you?
Lee: I do. I bought roses for Donna, my wife, and they're on the counter now and dying. They're the most magnificent things, even when they're dying. They just get more and more beautiful. The edges are kind of rotting and there is something so gorgeous about them.
Jordan: The image of the rose makes its appearance and moves through each of your books. For instance, it appears in Book of My Nights in the short Whitmanesque poem, Heir to All, which speaks of endings and beginnings, of going into autumn knowing its name and inheriting the unfurnished rooms inside the roses.
Lee: I think they're probably the only flower that is just as beautiful as they're dying.
Jordan: How much and do you rewrite?
Lee: I do rewrite. But revision is a process for me of uncovering. I have the feeling that when I'm writing there is my will and then there is this bigger mysterious will and the two of us are in some sort of negotiation on the page. A lot of times when I revise it's because my own will is too present in the first draft. I have to uncover the other, the deeper will. Sometimes the Big Mind doesn't make it the whole way to the page. It gets refracted or distorted.
Jordan: What was it like for you to go through the editing process of Book of My Nights?
Lee: I always have the feeling when I revise it's like unearthing. I'm uncovering. I was very lucky that my editor, Thom Ward, helped me in that process. He was a close reader. I had the feeling that he was trying to move me closer to that presence I want to achieve. Another wonderful reader for me was Anthony Piccione. If there was something wrong with a poem, it wasn't as much a process of changing a line, moving a word or adding language-he wanted me to clarify the figure. It was almost archeological. It's the kind of revision I've always done since studying with him. It's the kind of editing my editor, Thom, was moving me through as well.
Jordan: A dream editor.
Lee: He's wonderful.
Jordan: How often do you write a poem that fails? You've said at times that art is a glorious record of great failure.
Lee: I have claimed my poems to be failures when in fact, what I should do while writing a poem, is to say thank you and move on. We should be grateful when a poem visits us.
Marie Jordan is the author of the forthcoming Italian immigrant novel, I Love You Like a Tomato, to be published by St. Martins Press in July, 2003. Her book of poems, Slow Dance on Stilts, was published in June, 2001. She received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and teaches poetry and creative writing at Mira Costa College in Oceanside, CA.