A poem from Behind My Eyes by Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee reads the first poem, "In His Own Shadow," from his fourth poetry collection, Behind My Eyes, published in January by Norton.

 

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An Interview With Poet Li-Young Lee

by
Liz Logan
2.11.08

Li-Young Lee has said he doesn’t know whether to call himself Chinese, Chinese-American, Asian-American, or American. He was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957. His father, a deeply religious Christian who served as Mao Tse-Tung's physician, fled China to Indonesia with his family in 1949. They later fled that country after his father had been imprisoned in President Sukarno's jails. Brief stays in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan followed before the family settled in America. It’s no wonder that so many of his poems are about searching for an identity.

Lee is the author of four books of poetry and a prose poem memoir. His latest collection, Behind My Eyes, was published in January by Norton. Lee’s immigrant experience manifests itself in some of the new poems, such as "Self Help for Fellow Refugees" and "Immigrant Blues." In others, Lee manages to uncover the mystical in everyday life, as in "To Hold," in which he describes making the bed with his wife.

Lee has won numerous awards, including three Pushcart Prizes, the Lannan Literary Award, and the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award for his collection Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001). He has lived in Chicago since 1981, and makes a living by teaching and giving readings.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Lee how the urban setting of Chicago affects his work.

LL: I’m trying always to escape the city. I’ve lived in cities all my life. I’ve never really loved them. I feel kind of exiled from nature. In my work, I’m always trying to get beyond the human. And here I am living smack in the middle of the human, 24/7. So [the city] forces me, I think, to attempt to move toward a greater, deeper interior.

P&W: How do you get in the mental place where you find this deeper interior and write?

LL: Mostly just meditating and taking vows of silence: staying off the phone and even talking as little as possible to my family—being friendly and loving, but only speaking when I have to, and not speaking automatically.

The difficulty for me is, I wake up and I feel a multitude of personalities. There’s a person in me that somehow experiences the entire world as a kind of poem—the whole world around me is saturated with meaning and presence, and even the presence of God. There are connections everywhere, and everything sounds like a poem, everything’s the beginning of a poem.

And then there’s a part of me that isn’t prepared, and even afraid to really look at that condition of saturation and meaning and presence and order in the world. It’s too much to even grasp. Then there’s part of me that’s trying to see that and then hear the poem that comes from that condition of saturation and meaning.

The minute I wake up, there’s something inside of me that’s reading the world for its poetic state. I feel there’s a part of me that’s doing it even when I’m not jotting things down: I’m looking and listening and feeling, trying to stay in meditation. I’m listening for poems all the time.

P&W: Do you ever feel you are unable to write out of fear?

LL: Oh, all the time. And it’s frustrating because the poem is constantly there—constantly looking me in the face, constantly murmuring in my ear, constantly murmuring in my heart, in my soul. I don’t know what it is…. I’m afraid to write it.

The paradigm of poetry is DNA: the most amount of information packed into the least amount of space. When we read really great poems, we unpack more and more and more information every time we read it. And a lot of information is not even paraphrase-able—a lot of it is emotional and spiritual.

P&W: What were you trying to achieve with Behind My Eyes?

LL: I just wanted to go to a deeper understanding, a deeper music, deeper arguments with God, deeper encounters with God. I wanted to ask deeper questions.

P&W: What's different about the book?

LL: I hope it's clearer than Book of My Nights. I think I had to go through some real wilderness, tangled vines and trees and being lost in Book of My Nights, confusion about who I am and what’s going on, and what is language, what’s a poem, why am I writing—all that stuff—to get to this book. I hope it’s deeper and simpler.

P&W: In Behind My Eyes, there’s a poem titled "Standard Checklist for Amateur Mystics." Do you consider yourself a mystic?

LL: An amateur mystic, that's exactly what I am. A total amateur.

P&W: I was surprised to see that the poem "Bring Home Her Name" rhymes, since your poems usually don’t. What made you decide to write a rhyming poem?

LL: I love writing formal poems. I have a bunch of them; I’ve just never published them. It’s something I do to stay warmed up.

P&W: You ask a lot of open-ended questions in your poems, especially in the new book. What do the questions add to the poem?

LL: They're a way to admit my own condition of not knowing. I think that asking a question that can't be answered can move a poem forward. I feel like my whole being is a question.

P&W: You write about the difficulties of being an immigrant in the new book, as you have in the past. How has your writing about your experience changed?

LL: I think I integrate it more into the work, so it's not the only subject. For instance, in the poem "Immigrant Blues," the real subject in that poem is how social trauma can make it difficult for a person to experience love. The act of love requires so much courage, so much faith, that if one's faith and courage is destroyed by persecution or terror or violence, it makes the experience of love almost impossible. That poem is really about love. I was able to integrate my experience not just as historical data, but try to get to the emotions and the spiritual significance.

P&W: You said in an interview in 2001 that by writing Book of My Nights you were trying to make contact with a bigger consciousness in order to be "a reliable compass" for your sons, who are now twenty-two and twenty-four. Have you become that reliable compass?

LL: No. I am such a troubled individual—as Goethe called it, "a troubled guest on the earth." If I didn't have children, I would just resign. But because I have children, I thought, “Well, if I'm a troubled guest, the likelihood of them being troubled guests is greater, and I don't like that.” So I've been struggling hard to obtain some view of the world where I'm more at home. I have not been successful.
 

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?

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.

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

Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin

The lens zooms in, then draws back." Beautiful Children (Random House, January 2008) by Charles Bock. First book, novel. Agent: Jim Rutman. Editor: David Ebershoff. Publicist: Jynne Martin.

"Lightning first, then the thunder." The Invention of Everything Else (Mariner Books, February 2008) by Samantha Hunt. Second book, novel. Agent: P. J. Mark. Editor: Anjali Singh. Publicist: Taryn Roeder.

"I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn't my usual kind of job." People of the Book (Viking, January 2008) by Geraldine Brooks. Fifth book, third novel. Agent: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Editor: Molly Stern. Publicist: Louise Braverman.

"He saw the dim image of the traffic cop make a right-face turn and fling out a white-gloved arm, signaling that the flow of cars from the east should stop and that those toward the south now had the right of way, and at the same instant he heard the cop's shrill whistle: Wrrrriiiiiieee" A Father's Law (Harper Perennial, January 2008) by Richard Wright. Twenty-second book, sixth novel. Agent: Bill Reiss. Editor: Hugh Van Dusen. Publicist: Jane Beirn.

"In the river of my dream I'm ankle-deep / in the water's muddy froth, my cuffs rolled up." Undertow (Persea Books, January 2008) by Anne Shaw. First book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Gabriel Fried. Publicist: Stefanie Wortman.

"Penny spotted the anopheles mosquito one mid-morning break at Hatfield Girls' High School." The Leper Compound (Bellevue Literary Press, January 2008) by Paula Nangle. First book, novel. Agent: Anna Bierhaus. Editor: Erika Goldman. Publicist: Lottchen Shivers.

"A fetus doesn't sit passively in its mother's womb and wait to be fed." The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (Knopf, February 2008) by David Shields. Ninth book, first memoir. Agent: Henry Dunow. Editor: Ann Close. Publicist: Sheila O'Shea.

"He is seated in the first darkness / of his body sitting in the lighter dark / of the room, // the greater light of day behind him, / beyond the windows, where / Time is the country." Behind My Eyes (Norton, January 2008) by Li-Young Lee. Fifth book, fourth poetry collection. Agent: Alison Granucci. Editor: Jill Bialosky. Publicist: Samantha Choy.

"Candor may have indeed arrived, / after years of mistrust, / persisting on my part, / as to what exactly it is." Infamous Landscapes (Fence Books, December 2007) by Prageeta Sharma. Third book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Rebecca Wolff. Publicist: Rebecca Wolff.

"When I was young, I spent the summer holidays with my grandparents in Switzerland." Homecoming (Pantheon Books, January 2008) by Bernhard Schlink. Eighth book, seventh novel. Agent: Lynn Nesbit. Editor: Carol Janeway. Publicist: Liz Calamari.

"Nothing could have been further from my mind." Swimming in a Sea of Death (Simon & Schuster, January 2008) by David Rieff. Eighth book, first memoir. Agent: Andrew Wylie. Editor: Alice Mayhew. Publicist: Kelly Welsh.

"Then the imagination withdraws, drifts across the table / to investigate the glass flowers rolled in cloth tape." Seven Notebooks (Ecco, February 2008) by Campbell McGrath. Seventh book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Millicent Bennett. Publicists: Michael McKenzie, Jessica Purcell.

Bock's Best-seller Offered for Free Online

2.27.08

Charles Bock's debut novel Beautiful Children hit number fourteen on the New York Times best-seller list this week, but for three days, Random House, which published the book in January, is offering a download of the book for free. Through midnight on Friday, readers can download a PDF version of the full-length novel from Bock's Web site, as well as from the online stores of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Beautiful Children chronicles the lives of young people in Las Vegas, where Bock spent his own childhood—his family has operated a pawnshop there for over thirty years. Bock expressed his desire to widen the readership for his book in a statement issued yesterday by Random House. "If that means giving it away for free online, great."

"We love this book and we believe in Charles as a unique and fearless writer, and we want his writing to find the widest possible audience, including many college-age readers who may find the book's hardcover price a bit out of reach," says Jynne Martin, Bock's publicist. "It's a little bit in keeping with his novel's radical and open-hearted ethos."

HarperCollins Offers Free Online Editions of Books

2.20.08

HarperCollins recently began posting free online editions of some of its forthcoming titles. Among the books available for view on the HarperCollins Web site are the novels The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver and The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho. The "full access" program expands upon the publisher's existing "Browse Inside" option, which allows customers to look through a few pages of select titles prior to purchase.

As part the new program, each electronic edition will be offered online for one month, and will not be printable or available for download to e-book readers. The Web site provides links to a variety of retailers for customers interested in buying print or electronic copies of books.

Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, told Motoko Rich of the New York Times that she suspects most readers will not read an entire book online, but will be drawn to purchase titles they have perused. “It’s like taking the shrink wrap off a book,” Friedman said. “The best way to sell books is to have the consumer be able to read some of that content.”