An Interview With Poet Li-Young Lee

Liz Logan

I've always talked to [my sons] about the human mission. I tell them, we're here to add value to the world, or to uncover value in the world. I hope that by the time I die I will have achieved a little bit of that wholeness, so that they know somebody put their shoulder to the wheel.

[Poetry] is like any other yoga. It's a practice to try to get to that state of ultimate sanity. Great poems are models of human sanity. If sometimes they seem insane, [it's because] greater sanity always challenges the status quo. Jesus seemed insane. I'm sure Joan of Arc seemed insane. But on retrospect, we recognize that there was a greater sanity that encountered the status quo.

P&W: So poetry is about making peace with the world?

The paradigm of poetry is DNA: the most amount of information packed into the least amount of space.

LL: Yes, definitely. I feel that language and the poetic condition is basically made up of actions—that is, the words—and rests—that is, the pauses. And I think that the deeper the rests that are imparted to the reader, the deeper the peaces. We see it prominently in the Judeo-Christian belief of the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest. And that rest isn't just a cessation from thought or a cessation from speech or a cessation from action, but it's a deep, rejuvenating, fulfilling silence and restitution and renovation of even time. Those rests from language are ultimately trying to achieve the deepest rest of Sabbath at the end of the poem, which is kind of a mystery to me, because the silence that a poem comes out of is, on the one hand, disturbed when the poem starts to speak. But by the end of the poem, the silence that exists is not the same silence as the origin, but is the silence of destiny, which is Sabbath. It's the rest, the peace of Sabbath.

P&W: Are you able to take comfort in knowing that your sons see that you've struggled to achieve peace with the world?

LL: I do sometimes take comfort in that. And yet I don't want to contaminate them. But they are a lot better adjusted than I am. They didn't have my history either. People weren't trying to kill them since the day they were born.

I'm not a very safe person to be around. I'm safer now—safer, not completely safe. I'm troubled because I didn't like the fact that I wasn't a safe person. I was emotional and volatile. I want to know what it means to be a safe person to be around. I know that's not a very interesting thing to say, because most people think they want to be a little bit dangerous. I'm not interested in that at all. I feel that all that stuff is just ego—wearing leather jackets and all that. I want to get to a safe place to contribute to the world being a safe place, so I don't contribute more fear and more terror or insecurity. Which is weird, because part of the pleasure of a poem is the kind of jeopardy you experience when you're reading a poem. But the ultimate gift of reading a poem is a deep sense of satisfaction, safety, refuge, Sabbath, peace. And all of it is because I just really want my children to feel safe around me.

P&W: In the poem "First World" from Behind My Eyes, you write about you and your sister "dying in childhood." Is that about being aware of death when you were growing up?

LL: Yes. When I was a child, I felt like there was death all around me, in a good and bad way. Neighbors were being hauled off and executed. While we were traveling, we would hear news of close people we loved that had died at the hands of Sukarno and Mao Tse-Tung. But also because my father was in pretty bad health, his death was always there, very present, and it became a source of mystery and anxiety for me, even a source of richness.

I became obsessed with the unknown things in the world—the stairs to the basement, the stairs to the attic, and when we moved to the U.S., the place in our yard in Seattle where the woods began. We were not allowed to go into those woods, and I projected all kinds of things into there. Death, mystery, sleep.

My mother seemed like such a mystery to me. There was something about her being beyond encroachment. I could never access her. It troubled me. And because of my simplistic mind, that somehow got married with death. Sometimes I thought she was the source of my death, and it didn't scare me. It was warm. She used to comb her hair, and the distance between the hair and her neck made like a little tent. There was like a whole universe rolled in there of death and mystery.

My relationship with death was almost to a relative. I think I actually said that in a poem: "We shunned death for less faithful playmates." I felt death was a kind of faithful and abiding cousin. I felt warm about it—not morbid. I associated death with the underside of the pillow. When I went to bed at night, I remember there was the side that I could see, and the underside, where all the dreams come from, and that must be death.

We live constantly in the present, but there's just always a little something distancing us, by mystery.

P&W: Your wife Donna is a frequent presence in your work. How did you meet her and has your marriage had an impact on you as a poet?

LL: We met in fifth grade, at my father's church in Pennsylvania. I was just mad for her. It wasn't until high school that I actually became friends with her, but I was too weird and poor. My father was this country minister making like a thousand dollars a year, and I was working at a carwash to help the family income. So I had no money to take her out or anything. So I was just a stupid, violent, poor country minister's son who was in love with this sweet little Italian girl.

The encounter with romantic love has been the most important thing in my life. Because of my love for [Donna], I've tried to become a more whole person, a more safe person.

P&W: When did you start writing poetry, and what moved you to start?

LL: The minute I started learning English—I was about nine years old when I started to understand English—I started rhyming words. I remember very specifically that I went fishing with a friend and his family, and caught a little fish. I remember writing, “Here is a fish, make a nice dish,” and giving it to my mother. And I thought the repetition of fish and dish—the repetition of sounds—was shamanisticly magical, like somehow I had turned the fish into a dish just by saying that. All kinds of English words I kept confusing, and was happy, because I thought it was rich. I kept jotting down little rhyming things. But it wasn't until college that I was actually moved to put words together into more sustained things called poems.

P&W: What's your revision process like?

LL: I have to develop a real dialogue with a poem so that the poems can tell me how much work they need. When I read the poem, I'm trying to listen to some deeper order. And when that aesthetic order emerges, I'll touch it. Sometimes that deeper order doesn't emerge, and I know that I was distracted and didn't get that part of the poem or something, and I have to go back and try to unearth more stuff.

Sometimes the poems come so fast that certain words are actually placeholders for the real words that are supposed to be there, and the work is to go back and figure out which words are the placeholders and which words are destined.

P&W: You once said in an interview that you consider every poem "a descendant of God." What about failed, or flawed poems?

LL: There are great poems that have flaws. There are failures of perception, failures of understanding, but those flaws become a part of the poem's integrity, so I still feel that those poems are descendants of God. But if a poem isn't even good enough to be a poem, I don't think it's descended from God: [If] there is no "I" [as in Martin Buber's I and Thou], there is no God. The "Me" talking about "Me"—that's not enough.

P&W: Heaven is a big theme in Behind My Eyes. Do you believe in it?

LL: I believe that heaven on earth is possible. As far as if you go to heaven after you die, I have no idea about that. But I think heaven on earth is not only possible, it's a mission. And that's part of the mission of poetry: to help build heaven on earth.


Liz Logan is a master's candidate at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her poems have appeared in Potomac Review and the anthologies Becoming Fire: Religious Writing From Rising Generations from Andover Newton Theological School and Tree Magic from Sunshine Press.