Li-Young Lee on writing poetry, listening to the unknown and mastering silence.
On Saturday 21st of November 2015, during one our classes of the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong, we had the honour to welcome the renowned poet Li-Young Lee. It was an enlightening session, where Li-Young Lee talked, among other things, about writing poetry, clashing with an inconvenient profit economy, discovering the creative process in our unknown self and exploring silence.
Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta to Chinese parents. His great grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, and his father had been personal physician to Mao Zedong. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Lee family escaped to Indonesia, where Li-Young Lee’s father helped found the Gamaliel University, a college of religious thought. He was arrested by Sukarno and consequently jailed (and tortured) as a political prisoner for 19 months. Finally, the Lee family escaped Indonesia and settled in the United States in 1964, after five years spent between Hong Kong, Macau and Japan.
Li-Young Lee won many awards, recognitions and honors, but despite being a well-known poet, he has been trying to find a balance between two dimensions of his life that became evident as he started to gain wider recognition. He defined one of them as marked by scarcity, and the other by abundance. ‘Scarcity’ because there is not necessarily money or fame in the life of a poet, writer or artist and ‘abundance’ because the more you grow and practice your art, the richer you become and get to know about yourself and the world. This inspiring dimension is unrelated to the life of scarcity.
Once he became a published author, Lee experienced that contracts, time constraints and publishing deadlines were not necessarily a positive experience for him. Good but also confusing things happened and created a conflict within himself. According to Lee, art should be practiced just for ourselves and, in his case, this meant that the publisher had to wait for a few years before getting a new book to publish.
Poetry for Lee has been intensely intertwined with his past. His family’s history had been painful and complicated, and he inherited suffering, from which he could not escape. Due to his initial experience in the USA as a ‘foreign’ boy whose name could not even be correctly pronounced, Li-Young Lee felt at times invisible and he was therefore and gladly ‘kidnapped by poetry’ very early in life.
Poetry allows us to see a primordial reality and puts us in touch with our unknown self. Each of us, according to Lee, has four selves: the public (how we express ourselves in society), the private self (the way we are with people closer to us, when we adopt a different verbal and body language compared to what we use in a social context), the secret self (which is only ours and that we find when we are alone with our own language) and the unknown self. We can get in touch with this last one only through art, which allows us to find our primacy as human beings. The other three selves are composites, because of the way we are and change when in the presence of others or when alone, but not necessarily in touch with our unknown self. Art teaches us that we are composite and primal being at the same time, but our being ‘primal’ is what distinguishes our form of art from other people’s. This only happens when our unknown self talks to us.
Lee thinks that practicing poetry means using language, but the real medium for it is silence, which is what he wants the reader to experience. He gave us a beautiful metaphor: ‘We look into the dragonfly’s eyes and we see the mountain over our shoulders’. In this sentence, the universal is enclosed into a tiny detail. And we have acquired the ability to put so much information into a small space, quietly.
One of the masters of silence is, in Lee’s view, the poet Emily Dickinson. Silence is expressed in her poems through colour, size, temperature. The unspoken and the unsaid are the real subjects, because silence is the ultimate reality. As poets, when the unknown speaks and we realize it, then we marvel and transmit this marveling to the reader.
Lee also mentioned that while crafting poetry, both pattern and randomness should be welcomed, like in reality. But it is important to recognize what is ‘Art’ and what is ‘art-like’. Art-like expressions are bondage, not freedom.
Poetry is everywhere for Lee and it is what opened his heart to love. He sees inspiration in whatever surrounds him, even in what could seem insignificant, like the bed sheets of an unmade bed.
Three days before our Master class with Li-Young Lee, I also had the chance to take part in a public reading of a selection of his poems, at the Hong Kong University Museum. Not always poets love reading their own works, and not always they might be gifted with a deep and distinctive voice. While listening to ‘To Hold’ (http://poemsoutloud.net/audio/archive/li-young_lee_reads_to_hold/) we can experience, through his voice, how the simple action of making up the bed conveyed deep feelings to the author.
(To hear more from Lee, you can also check this link from the Poetry Foundation website
On the night of the event, I was soon immersed in his words and in the rhythm of his voice and I felt captivated, especially when Lee recited his nine-page poem: ‘The Undressing’, a deep and intimate dialogue between Sophia (in Christian mysticism, a female aspect of God representing wisdom) and the author.
Lee explained during our class that when an author reads poems for an audience, he/she should not speak directly to it, but rather to God. This special communication will, in turn, benefit the listeners. This was exactly what happened during that night: his reading was quite an otherworldly experience.
Once back home, I continued to enjoy Li-Young Lee’s poetry with the exploration of ‘Book of My Nights’. The opening poem, ‘Pillow’ (see excerpt below) anticipates how the sleepless night becomes the hamlet for ‘speaking and listening’, a vulnerable fortress full of memories and personal visions that transmit their universal echoes to all of us.
There’s nothing I can’t find under there.
Voices in the trees, the missing pages
of the sea.
Everything but sleep.
And night is a river bridging
the speaking and the listening banks,
a fortress, undefended and inviolate.
There’s nothing that won’t fit under it:
fountains clogged with mud and leaves,
the houses of my childhood.
Li-Young-Lee is the author of The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton & Co., 2008); Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (BOA Editions, 1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, BOA Editions, 2006), a collection of twelve interviews with Lee at various stages of his artistic development; and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He has been the recipient of a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the I. B. Lavan Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1998, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from State University of New York at Brockport.