Li-Young Lee: notes on his reading
in San Jose, November 12 and 13, 2003

Behind my Eyes (2008). Li-Young Lee: notes on his reading of some poems and answers to some questions in San Jose, November 2003
Buy: Rose Rose (1986) by Li-Young Lee.
His first (and many call it his best) poetry collection.
Buy: City in Which I Love You City in Which I Love You (1990) by Li-Young Lee.
A lyrical memoir of childhood and youth in privilege in pre-revolutionary China, in Mao Zedong's China (his father was Mao's physician), Indonesia (where Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 and his direct experiences began), Hong Kong, and the U.S.A. (where he arrived in 1964).
Buy: The Winged Seed The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1999) by Li-Young Lee.
Published as written, without revision.
Buy: Book of My Nights Book of My Nights: Poems (American Poets Continuum, 67) (2001) by Li-Young Lee.


* Reading: The first six poems *

"I was told to read a few poems", said Li-Young Lee, finding his controlled and careful way into the challenge of the microphone with a tendency to resonate.

"I will read a few things. I don't know if they are poems", he stated in his dead-pan way, a self-acknowledged son of a shame-based culture looking for praise.

He read the pieces slowly, with a significant pause at each phrase or line break, and with a stillness that drew everyone in to a calm and quiet concentration:

  1. "Have you Prayed?"
    In a conversation the next day, Li-Young Lee said he wrote this poem in 3 minutes in a motel and then he threw it away because he didn't think it was a poem and it didn't make sense. To many of us, the lack of logical sense is appealing; the poem has much emotional sense. We are glad he retrieved it.

  2. "Become Becoming".
    ["All of time began when you first answered to the names your mother and father gave you ..."]

  3. "Every Wise Child is Sad".
    This is a riff on claims and generalizations. In a conversation the next day, Li-Young Lee said that he has been working on this poem for maybe five years, and that for many of his poems, he takes years to write them, that he keeps "knocking on them" (he raps the wooden table loudly) "to see if there is anything there." To construct this poem, he says,
    "I wrote one statement after another, testing if anything was sayable."
    Another example statement (cast as a rhetorical question) is
    "Who can tell the one who stitches from the one who rips?"
    and another:
    "The child who counts negotiates between limits and longing, infinity and subtraction."

    In this poem (as in several of his poems) it is not clear why he ends where he does. But this is a work in progress (even though he says that he is almost ready to abandon it).

  4. "Station".
    A meditation on the "Your Attention Please" announcements over the loudspeaker in the Chicago railway station. This poem, with its repeated phrases, reminds me of the way a ghazal repeats a phrase.

  5. "Breathe".
    ["After the wind stopped I started wondering about it, if it was left-handed ..."]

  6. "First World".
    ["Sister, we died in childhood, remember. Into birds we died ... we died and I've been sowing grass and flowers ever since."]

* Reading: Some Answers *

Li-Young Lee invited questions. The audience of over 200 looked like 83% students. Most of the questions came from these students, possibly with assigned papers to write.

One student wanted him to agree that her litany of topics were the topics of his poems. He countered:
"There is only ever one subject when you are writing a poem. Most human sounds are made with the out-going breath. ... When we breathe in, we feel comfortable. We can breathe in almost indefinitely. ... A poem is a score for human speech. All poems are done with the dying breath. ... A poem is a score for our dying. That's the subject - the dying breath ... and how do you ransom the dying breath. ... Hopefully as you die and exhale your poem, hopefully, someone else is inhaling."

He also said:
"All art is Yogic. It yokes us ... to experience the reality. ... We have huge deep spaces inside of us. ... poetry is a way to inflect that silence. ... That body of silence is huge. ... The mission of poetry is to give us back our solitude. "

Someone asked who he likes to read and he said:
"Emily Dickinson is just killing me. I almost use her as divination. ... I think she is much deeper than Shakespeare ... more individuated, non-fictive."

Someone asked him how to get her poems published and he graciously declined to do so. ["I don't read magazines too much."]

* Reading: Two closing poems *

Always dignified, Li-Young Lee moved toward his final poems by saying "Thank you for your patience and generous attention." He read:

  1. "Little Father"
    Because someone in the audience praised that poem particularly, showing again his susceptibility to praise:
    "I buried my father in the sky. Since then ..."

  2. "Echo and Shadow".
    Introducing it, he said, "I'll end with a love poem because it doesn't have death in it ... oh, it does."

The audience clapped enthusiastically. Li-Young Lee clapped back gently with his small, pale hands.

* Conversation: Some more Answers *

The following day, Li-Young Lee spent an hour in public conversation with Mitch Berman of San Jose State University.

Before I headed upstairs to the meeting room, I noticed that the "clock" of the number of books checked out from the library had passed the 3 million mark since last evening. It began at 1 in August 2003 and is now (on November 13, 2003) at 3,006,474. Reading is certainly not dead here.

Li-Young Lee has the grace of a golden carp in shadows when he responds to questions - there is something brilliant, muscular, and slippery in the way he answers the question he wants to answer as opposed to what was asked.

Rather than document the conversation, which was taped and presumably available for the dedicated from the S.J.S.U. archives, here are the highlights according to my notes of what Li-Young Lee said.

Concerning what poetry is:
Writing and reading is a tri-axial relationship - there is the author, and the audience, and then there is the Daemon, which means a divinity ... To some the Daemon is the Muse. For Lorca it was the duende.

Poetry is daemonized speech. ... I try to make shapes that don't get shattered when the daemon arrives.

Concerning how he writes poetry:
[Mostly I] whittle away. I feel like I'm groping in the dark, testing the sturdiness ... to support psychic, emotional, and intellectual content. Our psyches operate in two modes [analysis and synthesis], and so I want to integrate as much as possible and differentiate as much as possible.

Concerning knowledge:
I think that poetic knowledge is absolute knowledge. ... Maybe the next poem will come closer to the truth.

Concerning being asked to read his [older] poems:
I like getting requests to read. It makes me feel important. ... Sometimes I am embarassed by my own work, maybe because I am Chinese and I come from a shame-based culture.

Concerning revising:
I can take 7 or 8 years to revise a poem.

Concerning not revising:
The Winged Seed is totally unrevised. It's a mess. I was going through a weird time when I wrote it.

Furious Versions [from City in Which I Love You] was unrevised. I kept starting a new section [to say what I wanted]. I had about 20 of these sections and I picked the 7 that were the most interesting.

Concerning what poetry is (again):
A poem belongs in the category of experiences that we call coincidences ... you can't tell where it came from ... to create this integrated and differentiated [poem].

Concerning not choosing to become a poet:
I don't know if I am a poet. ... I worked in a warehouse for 22 years, up to a few months ago. I thought I was a warehouser. ... I owned a restaurant with my brother. ... I don't think writing a poem is an occupation. It's a daemonization.

Concerning how he experiences the world:
The saturated condition of language, presence, knowing ... this back and forth-ness ...

Concerning how he experiences performance poetry:
I am alarmed by poetry that, when it is performed, is mostly ego. Whereas the annihilation of the ego is what I am after.

Concerning the function of the lyric poem:
I feel that it comes down to the problem of problems, the aesthetic consciousness of the greatest good, integrating observation, imagination, thinking, feeling, eroticism, and soul function. That polyvocalization is the function of the lyric poem.

Concerning the breath:
[My father taught me] every time you breath in, say thank you. Every time you breath out, say goodbye. [Doing this] I was heartbroken for three years. this back and forth-ness ...

For me it's an infinite inwardness.

As I leave, I check the "clock" of the number of books checked out. It's 3,010,629. Four thousand an hour, all those pilgrims.

Original Announcement of November 2003 reading


Li-Young Lee Events 
     Three-time Pushcart Prize winner.  American Book Award.
	 Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. 
	 Author of:
	 Rose, 
	 The City in Which I Love You, 
	 Book of My Nights, 
	 The Winged Seed.

     Wednesday, November 12, 2003  Reading, Q&A, Book Signing  7:30 p.m., 
	 Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Library, 4th St. & San Fernando.  
	 Meeting Rooms 225-229, 2nd Floor - Admission: Free.
     Co-sponsored by the Poetry Center San Jose 
	 and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library and CLA.

     Thursday, November 13, 2003 Conversation, Q&A, Book Signing  12:00 noon.  
	 Same location and same co-sponsors.

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