John McBryde: Do you look at the role of the poet as a kind of guide for the rest of us? We hear from other poets that have been here, or sense from them, that [poets are] out on the bow of the boat leading us somewhere we need to go.
Li-Young Lee: Yeah, it has something to do with the poet’s relationship to their daemon [Definition: “An attendant power or spirit; a supernatural being of Greek mythology intermediate between gods and men.” Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1989]. When they enact [this], the listener gets to witness an enhancement, a fulfillment of the complete human inheritance; and by enacting that, a poet does a completely daemonized poetry, because the voice in the poems is both my temporal, personal voice and I hope, if it’s successful at all, that it’s an eternal voice, a voice that’s deeper than just my rational, evaluating self.
JM: Is a good poem something you’ve done well or something left over because you’ve done well? In other words, the process of creating the poem or getting to that place, is that more important then the poem?
LL: I think the opus, the ultimate work is not a poem; it’s not a book of poems. It’s the self that gets made by making that poem. I think the art is evidence of the work done. It’s evidence of the type of rigor or vision or depth that one tries to live in order to make the work. I think the real work is self knowledge and the poem is evidence of that. YEats, said we make ourselves as we make the poem.
I noticed today at lunch that my head was going around and around like an electron around this poem that I started yesterday evening, and suddenly something happened and I solved the puzzle. It dawned on me, that process of posing myself as a problem that I can’t quite solve and trying to solve it, solve it, solve it, feels like, Oh I understand myself and I understand that I got stuck because I was obsessing about certain aspects and I didn’t see the open quality of things. I have to teach myself about keeping my mind open. Now the poem that will come out of that, hopefully, will have a life of its own and will be a gift to other people. I feel really happy that I solved it, like, Wow I didn’t see the openings there. All I saw was this sealed thing and I couldn’t find my way back into it. So I’m working on my own psyche all the time.
JM: Have you ever noticed that these moments come to you unforced when you’re otherwise engaged, or when you’re making yourself concentrate on it?
LL: I feel like I’m on the job twenty-four hours a day, even when I’m coming out of sleep. This morning I was lying there and I could tell my mind was trying to remember what I dream and was already reaching forward to the poem I wanted to work on. I feel like my whole attitude is listening. I feel like a giant ear sometimes.
Harbour Winn: As you travel, what do you hope people who hear you, who interact with you, will remember or will have experienced with you?
LL: My wish would be that people will somehow feel the richness of their own solitude, their own inner life, their own connection to feeling and depth and meaning, and maybe as an afterthought think, “Oh, Li-Young helped me think about that.” I worry that people will think, “He’s a good writer.” That to me feels dead-end or bankrupt because there’s no future in that. But if the person walks away and thinks, “Wow, life is really rich and multilayered and manifold in significance, and by the way I went to a poetry reading” – I wish that my work could introduce people to the richness of their own interior.
HW: I feel like when I hear you, it’s like I’m hearing you pray.
LL: Well thank you, I do think poetry is a form of prayer for me, a form of contemplation. To my mind poetry is one of the supreme yogas. It is the practice of a particular kind of presence, I’ll call it poetic presence. That’s the greatest service that a poem can do. It can impart to a listener or reader a sense of that depth of presence, being present to language and silence and meaning and inhabiting that kind of liminal space where meaning gets born. That kind of presence you can take out into the world.
I practiced meditation all my life and early on, my father, who was our teacher, said, “You can’t just practice in your room. You have to take it out into the world and your whole life has to become a mediation.” I feel the same way about poetry. I don’t think poetry is “when you’re done writing, you’re done.” I feel whatever you learn from writing that poem you should take out into the world, you should inhabit that presence all the time. I think that helps you be more present as you live.
HW: I’m sure this is a [subject you get asked about] all the time: your father and your relationship with your father. As I read your poetry, your memoir, I have this sense that simultaneously you’re celebrating and also trying to exorcize your father. You have two sons. With the power of your father and what your relationship with him was and is, how do you hope you are for your sons? How do you hope you will be for them when they’re your age.
LL: My father was such a complicated individual. He was capable of great love and joy and at the same time was kind of scary to be around sometimes. He probably needed therapy after his experience in prison and other things. Somebody recently read the memoir and said to me, “I’m a psychotherapist and I deal with people like your father all the time. They need help. They’re the walking wounded. They’ve been torn from their culture, they’ve been terrorized.” She said, “I have a feeling your father never had any therapy.” I don’t know what I think about therapy, but it was like a gift when she said that to me. He wasn’t just occasionally scary to be around, there was some psychological damage maybe.
My wish for the kids is that they know how deeply I love them. Through all my own confused fathering and everything else, I just hope they know how deeply I love them. They’ve said things to my wife that have sometimes scared me like, “Baba’s kind of a scary guy.” And I’ve thought, Why am I a scary guy? What did I do when I was scary? I just thought I had to be careful. I wasn’t always sure my father loved me; sometimes I knew, sometimes I didn’t. So I talk to my sons a lot, I call them all the time on the road. I think we have a good relationship.
HW: I suppose a lot of who you are today us your father and how you and he used to relate, and I wonder what might be the way your sons in twenty years will be thinking of you and becoming who they are.
LL: Yeah, I wonder too and I worry. You know my father was so scary sometimes that he would clear his throat and everyone would stop. If everything was quiet we’d move along. When I was little, to teach us English he would have us read the King James Bible. I remember sitting on his chair on a bunch of books and he would open the big Bible [with] a rotten cover. We would start reading and he would take butterscotch candies and crack them on the table. As we read he would pop the pieces in our mouths. He called that “sweet learning.” And it was really sweet when I think about how loving it was. But I also remember sitting there being just terrified to make a mistake.
I raised my children doing the meditation my father taught me. I know in class there is probably a lot more pressure on them than the other students. They used to fall asleep when they were little and I could hear them snoring. I never did what my father did. My father would tap us with a stick and we’d have to wake up. I would just let them sleep, pet their heads and things.
Elaine Smokewood: You talked about silence in Emily Dickinson’s poetry and in your own poetry. Do you think of poetry as the art of silence?
LL: I do, but not just silence as a kind of not saying anything. I have this sense that there’s a silence of fullness or the silence of a full heart. Can one impart that to a reader? Of course it would mean one experiences that first. I think poetry is a double medium, that one medium is language and you’re trying to get that right and to say it clearly. On the other hand, you are trying to inflect the silence, punctuate it. There are different kinds of silences, even silences that extend back to childhood. There are more ancient silences that predate childhood. I sense that in Gerard Manley Hopkins, the silences that emerge out of his work are older than him. And certainly in Dickinson it’s that prehistoric silence. I would call it something like the silence of the ground of ourselves. It’s beyond personal history. I think if a poem can impart that, then that is just amazing.
There are a lot of silences that I experienced in childhood and sometimes I can get to there, but I can’t get past it. In a weird way, poetry is a form of remembrance in the deepest way. Like in the Bible, the word zkr, “to remember,” occurs again and again. I think poetry is a way to remember, but not just a personal past or our childhood. It’s a way to remember our own embeddedness in God. If a poem can give us a feeling of that by talking about flowers or a tree or your father, if the poem at some deep level is allowing us to experience that embeddedness then I think that is the most a poem can do.
JM: I want to say initially that I am spelling the word illusive with an “i.” Do you think there is such a thing as the perfect poem, or is it ultimately illusive? Does even the best poem just point the way toward the perfect poem?
LL: I really do have the sense that the cosmos is the great poem. It’s both made of materiality and something that’s immaterial, deeper; and that phenomenon, that beingness kind of floats. If we look at our physical bodies at three billion cells a minute, that amazes me! As we speak they are dying and being reborn. That’s true about trees and everything. Physicists tell us it’s all vibration-it looks solid and still, but it’s mostly space and atoms vibrating. I want to write from that place where the cell has just dies and the next one is coming into being.
The poem is a model of psyche. Psyche is embedded in cosmos, is a model of cosmos; so the poem is a little model of cosmos. It just seems to me reflection after reflection, whatever the psyche makes, it can’t help but make. I feel there has only been one subject in all of human history: human perception, because we really can’t and don’t know. For instance, when Democritus said everything is made of atoms, he didn’t have a microscope, it was his intuition. So where did that come from? It must have come from his psyche. The atomic model of the universe has worked up until now, but the most radical physicists are saying it’s an incomplete model. Now we need another model, another projection from psyche.
It seems to me that ninety percent of the models we have of the universe are models of psyche. We really don’t know what the universe is. For instance, if I say, “I saw a beautiful sunrise this morning,” there are some people who might look at that sunrise and say, “I don’t see what you’re seeing.” If I say, “That’s beautiful,” then it’s very likely I’m projecting something inside onto the world. I think, in fact, that’s part of our job, that we’re put on the planet to create value like that. But it’s not just the ego projecting. Ultimately, I hope that ego understands that it’s embedded in nature and nature is embedded in God. If that whole model gets projected, then what we see is God.
JM: Well the ultimate point is the cosmos, and any poems that you write or any other poet writers, or any works of art that are of a poetic nature, some are more accurate than others but they all are pointing the way. Your frustration is that you won’t be able to write the perfect poem.
JM: And maybe the more you get into poetry the more you realize that, and the more frustrating it gets.
LL: Yes. You know Frost said the poem is the great symbol of the human will braving alien entanglements. I love that. That means the poem is a little paradigm of human life. But for me it’s even deeper than that. Ultimately it’s like the laws that govern a poem are the laws that govern psyche—like probability and randomness, repetition, a sense of time and return. The poem enacts return. It goes out, goes back to silence, then begins again. A blank page is a symbol for pure potentiality. At that point you can write anything. But the minute you start writing you begin to differentiate this poem from every other possible poem. One the one hand, the poem begins to close down its possibilities. On the other hand, just by the nature of verse you keep returning to pure potentiality and going out. I haven’t thought that through, but that seems like reincarnation or all those other properties or laws of return. We’re enacting the breath itself.
I really do think that the laws that govern a poem [are] not literary devices. For instance, I don’t think a metaphor is a literary device. I think it is the marriage, the resolution of two incompatible psychic elements. We marry them alchemically and that’s a metaphor. When you say the words duck and Li-Young and you say, “Li-Young waddled into the room,” you’re actually marrying two seemingly incompatible elements. Then you see me differently. You say, “Yeah, he’s like a duck.” It isn’t a literary device, it’s a different way to see the world. It’s psychically changes you I think.
ES: Is writing a poem an embodiment of spirit? It is embodying spirit?
LL: Yes, it’s enacting the spirit on the page. It’s like a giant chess game. At the risk of over simplification, if you write the first line, that’s your first move; but you’re playing against yourself, or death, or God. You write the first line and the next move you make is the second line. Or you write the first stanza and the next move is the second stanza. You’re trying to make moves that keep the dance, the game in play. You try to keep it open and at the same time you try to resolve things. What makes a poem interesting is irresolution and tension and jeopardy, so you want to keep the poem in play, in tension, in jeopardy and at the same time give just enough closure and resolution so that it’s satisfying.
ES: Do you have a sense of the poem’s body, or the poem having a body?
LL: I do, very much. In fact, I feel visceral about it. I feel that when I’m writing the poem it’s not my head writing, it’s my left hand. I realize my left hand is in there somewhere, the hair on the back of my neck, an aching in my knees, the soles of my feet, the breathing two inches below my navel, whether I had enough rest, whether I had too much rest, whether I’m relaxed—all of that comes in and I feel it in my body, the poem.
JM: In listening to you, I hear Buddhist, I hear Taoist. What are the major influences on you and your way of thinking and on your poetry? You talk about quantum mechanics, astrophysics, metaphysics, all of these things and they all seem to influence you.
LL: My father was sent to a Taoist monastery and studies there for three years when he was young. He learned meditation and contemplation and he raised us doing it. It was very influential to me. Somebody gave me a book about a year ago, The Letters. Has anybody heard of Wolfgang Pauli? He’s a Nobel-winning physicist and was seeing Carl Jung for therapy, and he and Jung exchanged letters. There’s a collection of their letters and someone gave them to me. At one point Pauli’s obsessing about a colleague. It’s a Chinese woman, a physicist. He’s dreaming about her and projecting all this stuff onto her. Jung is trying to help him through this. It thought, Is that my aunt? I looked back in the notes. It was my aunt! When we were little she would tell us about quantum reality, about neutrinos and all kinds of crazy things. Every time she talked I thought, This is like talking to my father about meditation and breathing and cosmos and God. They were very similar about the spaciousness of materiality. Those two influences were very strong.
And them my mother’s culture; she comes from that aristocratic culture with a lot of memorization of texts and stories about the way she grew up. I always had this kind of idea about my little life being connected to this vast household of my great-grandfather’s nine wives and nine mansions and all their servants and the compound they lived in with the big wall around it. My mother was never allowed to leave. None of the women were allowed to leave the compound, they were all educated inside. In fact, they had a big sewing hall where women sewed all the clothes for the female members of that family, because they did not want any of the females to wear clothing that men had touched. Stories that were exotic, darkly lit stories of some ancient culture, that was my mother’s influence. All of that stuff—my father’s love for Christian mystical thought, love for Taoist texts, his own love of poetry, the Old Testament, his love of Paul’s letters—was a whole hodgepodge of influences.
ES: In The Book of My Nights, some of those poems remind me of Emily Dickinson’s poetry because they have that intense kind of compression and a density that reminds me of her. I wondered if her strategies of compression were an influence.
LL: Yeah, she was a huge influence. She’s so interesting. Sometimes she gets so compressed that the poem is like a stone, you can’t even penetrate it. It’s like she’s so compressed it comes out the other side, completely transparent. I don’t know how she does that. She goes from the completely lapidary, opaque, almost impregnable poem to this kind of transparency that comes out the other side. I just wanted to know if I could do that, what would that do to my own mind to attempt that.
HW: What’s it like to grow up in an urban world versus a more rural world of nature, and what’s the cost?
LL: I feel when we’re cut off from nature, just a human being among things other human beings have made, it’s a kind of limitation of the scope of our inheritance. It’s as if our psychic inheritance didn’t include birds and trees and rivers and mountains and the wind and clouds and skies. You can’t even see the night sky in Chicago. You look up and you can’t see any stars. That’s a big deal to me. I drove an hour and a half and I still couldn’t see stars. It seems to me that’s part of our identity, all that space up there and those stars and the knowledge that some of them are already dead and gone. There are writers, very deep, expansive writers who speak with a voice that is not narrowly human. Poets like Frost or Robinson Jeffers, Neruda, you can hear the mountains, you can hear the birds, the river, stones and clouds. You can hear nature, it’s a part of their voices. In an urban setting the definition of what is human becomes more and more narrow. I think that’s dangerous. It’s a problem I don’t know how to solve. Because there’s eleven of us, if we move all eleven of us have to move. [Editor’s Note: Lee’s extended family lives together in Chicago]. We made a vow to stay together. We’re always trying to solve that problem.
HW: Earlier we were talking about the difficulty of teaching and you said maybe we should teach the science of gut feeling. How could that be shaped, what form would it take?
LL: I don’t know, Harbour. I know there are other modes of thinking than just rational, logical thinking. It seems to me poetry is a form of thinking, a very deep form. You would have to study models of intuition, then develop a whole new vocabulary to talk about it. I think great poems are forms of math, but that could just be because I write poems. When I read the great mathematicians, some of the great physicists, I feel like I’m reading aesthetics. Reading at any deep level becomes artistic.
JM: Maybe the inverse, or art is defined by depth.
LL: Yes, so the deeper you do a discipline, it becomes art.
JM: That’s very much along the Buddhist way of thinking, that nothing is unimportant. The depth with which you take it is the important thing. I think that’s where art lives. The great works of art, no matter what genre they are, move us in a similar way.
LL: But you know, great poets who aren’t Buddhist know that too. When Denise Levertov talks about cutting onions—do you know that poem? It ends something like, “Oh to have a grief equal to all these tears.” Suddenly cutting onions becomes this sacred thing. Anything looked at deeply becomes art.
JM: Several of the poets that have visited us have been what [Americans] would call “outsiders.” Michael Ondaatje was a Sri Lankan via England and now Canada. Mark Doty is an outsider by virtue of being gay. Naomi Nye is a Palestinian American. You’re a Chinese American. It seems to be a theme with us, threads of searching and wanting to belong and threads of home. We’ve also heard the universality of human experience from all, including you. Can you tell us how being a Chinese American has affected you and informs your poetry?
LL: John, my first reaction would be that poetry or trying to live a life in which I can write poems is nothing less than alienation by transcendence. It’s being called by some source that transcends me, that is the ground of my personal history, being called by that source more than I’m called by social structures. So even if I was a white American I would be alienated by transcendence. If one lives a serious life, one is alienated by transcendence. Look at Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Frost.
The Chinese American thing, it’s been difficult. One can’t look at the culture and see authentic representations of Chinese people. But when I really think about it, there aren’t even authentic representations of white people. I feel like it’s across the board. If you’re a thinking person you can’t possibly find true, authentic representations and I think that representational deficit is a real problem. In my case, the representational deficit might be cultural or racial. I think ultimately for me, my real sense is spiritual. I don’t see any genuine representations of spiritual hunger or resolution or possibilities in magazines or TV or movies.
JM: Why can’t human beings live at a deeper level? Why is it that we go there only momentarily when we hear a poem or listen to music that is moving? Why do our lives exist on the superficial level and not on a deeper level?
LL: There are just so many distractions. It’s as if I have multiple personalities and one of them is worries if I have a job and the other part doesn’t even care, could wander around the city in the open-air market looking at things, taking notes. There are so many things that call us away. We’re like corks. We try to go down to the bottom and the minute we let go it pops back up to the surface. I would just like to be weighted and stay down. Maybe we’re afraid to be alienated. It is alienation by transcendence.
Edited by Harbour Winn and Carla Walker | Originally Published in Humanities Interview, Fall 2004