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Li-Young Lee Overview

born: 1957
born in: Jakarta
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In the unceasing rush of the modern world, everything conspires to prevent meditation, awareness, or faith in anything greater than the day's events. Much of contemporary poetry reflects the confusion of accelerated lives: Language poetry presents us with our dislocated selves,... [more]

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Interview Spring 2006

Mhyana: I can’t think of another poet whose writing is as inextricably linked to his parents and upbringing as yours is. Your parents are absolutely immortalized and mythologized in your poems. We Americans have often been accused of disowning the past in order to affirm the present, as if the past has had no influence on us. European and Asian cultures, however, are more careful to respect their ancestors and influences. Do you think this is why, given your Asian roots, you are more intent upon remembering and giving tribute to your parents than most American writers are? Lee: Jalina, I understand my work to be the same as other poets: to manifest in language the original condition of the archetype of The Speaker, that One who participates in world-creating and world-destroying utterance. Within my limited scope, I understand any poem’s primordial condition to be: poem is made in the image of the psyche that made it; psyche manifests in the image of its maker, call it Nature for simplicity’s sake (that is, psyche exists as an image and aspect of the matrix from which it emerged); Nature is embedded in Cosmos; and Cosmos in turn exists as the image and manifestation of that further ground from which it emerged. These concentric circles of ever-widening groundedness aren’t necessarily the ostensible subject of any poem, but this condition of ever more deeply embedded contexts can be heard in the ringing, the depth, the echoing that poems impart to our souls. Now the challenge for me, therefore, has been to uncover the transpersonal significances of my personal biography, especially in view of so many political, sociological, and historical forces undermining any sense of the value or worth of my own being. My mother’s family suffered persecution for being aristocracy, my father’s family for being not of that class. Later, they suffered for being Communist, then Nationalist. Even later, in Indonesia, they were persecuted for being Chinese, and then for being Christian. Finally, our coming to the U.S. meant being Asians living in a country at war with an Asian country. As far as I was concerned, without a spiritual context, I would all too easily fall into one of two kinds of bankruptcies: the self-image of the victim, the sufferer, the persecuted, or the self-image of the American Dream-achiever, a victim of another sort, tyrannized by materialism and the illusions of materiality. Does this make sense, Jalina? Anyway, I sensed, even in early childhood, an infinitely receding background to my life, a thread reaching through my heritage and beyond it. Like threading the eye of a needle, or several eyes of several needles, in fact, that line up beginning with my heart, running through my parents’ hearts, and on toward God’s own oceanic frequency. Or like Odysseus shooting his arrow through the lined up axe heads. This isn’t just my ambition, Jalina, but what I assume, judging by the poets I love to read, to be the mission of poetry in general. Mhyana: Now that you’ve written at length about your experiences as a child, and your memories of your father, are you interested in turning your attention to writing about your own children, and your experience as a father? How do you feel about bringing your living family into the public domain through publishing – is it a violation of their privacy, or a celebration of your love and entanglement? Lee: Poems about my family are, I hope, recognitions and celebration and acknowledgement of our participation in deep connectedness and belonging. “Love and entanglement,” you say so beautifully. Mhyana: Have you been able to read your poems to your mother in Chinese, and if so, what poem do you think was her favorite, and why? Lee: I have not ever had the courage to read any poem to my mother. She has asked others to translate them for her (my sister, say, or an aunt who is bilingual), but never in front of me. She has on occasion asked me, to my surprise and embarrassment, about particular poems. I usually respond, out of some habit, with something like, “Who knows what I meant, it’s all gibberish anyway. I was just fooling around.” Now that I’m thinking about it because I’m trying to answer your question, I sense there is something insufficient about my response to her, something hidden about the way I go about writing poems, at least in regards to my mother. Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that a poem is a “kind of divination”, a mirror of who you are on any particular day. What this leads to is collections of poems that are as disparate and complex as our moods – a wild eclecticism that seems to be more and more frowned upon in book contests. Seeing as “first book” contests are the main avenue to publication for new writers, is it inevitable that these fresh voices will be tailored, snipped, and homogenized to better their chances of being chosen by judges who seem to be favoring more thematic manuscripts? Do you encourage this, or do you think that a collection is more human for its diversity of tone, subject, and feeling? Lee: I’m going to make the presumption that your questions are a form of statement, and I’ll say: I’m with you. Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that the sort of poets you’re drawn to at poetry readings are the ones with extraordinary “inner richness” or sense of universal wholeness - poets who are able to reveal you to yourself, rather than revealing themselves to you. What is it about a poet that conveys this richness to you the most - their words, voice, carriage, magnetism? Would it be possible for a person to read another poet’s work and still get that feeling across, or is it limited to the poem’s creator? What if a poet’s words were revelatory on paper, but the poet stuttered and hacked his or her way through the reading? Would that feeling of connection still be there for you? Lee: I guess I think that reading poetry out loud is an art form all by itself. It is its own medium and, as such, has its own laws and possibilities, different from silent reading to oneself. Some poets write good poems and also channel poems out loud very well. Some poets are better at one or the other. Channeling poems out loud (giving poetry readings), for me anyway, enacts a kind of service not entirely unlike the service poems provide. That is, if successful, a poetry reading can create the zikr or zakhor, that remembrance of our primordial condition of embeddedness in God-head, which certain ancient poetic communities practiced. Mhyana: Speaking of that, I’m familiar with your theory of the “dying breath” (that our bodies are strengthened and revitalized by the incoming breath and conversely weakened by the outgoing, or dying, breath). In order to speak, we must speak upon exhalation – the dying breath. You’ve said that poetry involves this dying breath, because it is meant to be spoken. It is a verbal art-form, and when spoken aloud, the poem becomes one with your body, it becomes more real. But I have to ask you, what about people who are socially phobic, or people who, for whatever reason, are averse to reading their work aloud? Does the dying breath come into play when a poem is read silently? Lee: The dying breath absolutely comes into play when we read in silence, since the breathing we usually call breathing (respiration) is only the most obvious kind of breath exchange known to us, others including exchanges on such deep levels that the only word some ancient practitioners could think of to describe it was dialogue. Dialogue itself is a kind of breathing, in-going and out-going proceeding not only in words and the breath that carries them, but also soul exchanging with soul. The breathing that goes on in reading, even in silence, the in-coming and going-out-to-meet, is enacted on the physical realm in our respiration. Perception itself is recognized in ancient yogic traditions as breathing, obeying much of the same laws. Breathing itself is perception. I hope I make sense. None of these ideas are original to me. And they’re not just ideas, but experiences we have every day, consciously or not. Shy people who write great poems should never feel compelled to have to read them out loud. Those who feel called to read poems out loud probably should not refuse. Remember all the stories about prophets refusing their call and bringing bad luck to everyone around? But then, the same could be said about people who are not called but who belabor us with drivel. Am I being mean?


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