Open Forum with Poet Li-Young Lee
The message on my sign read, “Mr. Li-Young Lee,” but somehow we had managed to miss seeing one another.
When I finally did lay eyes on Li-Young Lee, the first thing I noticed was the heavy blue wool coat and the crutches he was using to help him navigate slowly through the airport baggage claim area. I had been standing by the escalator; he had taken the elevator.
It didn’t take long to realize that this man was what our creative writing teacher calls a “Noticer” — an important quality for a poet. Instead of being self-absorbed,
as one might expect from someone famous, this soft spoken man seemed genuinely interested in the two of us who had come to pick him up for his visit to CF as part of the Debra Vazquez Memorial Poetry Reading Series. Upon learning that he was one of the first poets that Debra Vazquez had attempted to bring to the college, Li-Young, as he asked to be called, said that he felt honored and lucky.
The fact is that CF was honored and lucky to have this author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry: Book of My Nights, Rose, and The City in Which I Love You. He is one of the youngest of contemporary
poets to be included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature and has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lannan Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim
Memorial Foundation. In addition to poetry, Li-Young has published a book of prose, The Winged Seed, which received the 1995 American Book award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
In addition to the Poetry Reading, students and faculty had an opportunity to converse with Li-Young at an open forum the following day. What follows are portions of that conversation.
At what point did you realize you were a poet?
Li-Young: You know, I don’t feel like a poet. When I started writing I had a bunch of friends — we were all writing poems. We were all about 18. I was a biochemistry major; my friends were all business and math majors. But we had this obsession with poetry. We would read poems to each other, and if we discovered a great new poem or some passage in Whitman, we would call each other up like two in the morning and say, “Listen to this, you know, this is hot.” We weren’t going to class; all we were doing is morning,
and I just want to write a poem. I don’t know if I ever decided I was going to be a poet. I just couldn’t help it. It’s like I was addicted. You know when you write a poem and that flash — that lightning flash. Somehow after that flash you want to do it again. You just can’t help it; you want to feel that flash again. There’s nothing like it and so I just can’t stop.
How did you get your first poetry book published?
Li-Young: I was very lucky; I had a friend, a professor of mine who became a friend. We kept writing back and forth to each other about books we read, poems we were working on, and he would write to me and say, “You know, you should think about a book.” This was really edifying for me, but I thought, I’m above all that. I wrote back to him and I said “I don’t care if I never publish a book.” He wrote back [that] the point of a book isn’t to get yourself famous; the point of a book is to consolidate your fate. It’s a way to think about your work and your life as a whole so that you can kind of understand what you are going through. And I thought, well, that sounds noble enough, so I started putting a book together. And I would send him poems and then our conversation became deeper and deeper and deeper and at some point he wrote to me, and he said that somebody had come over to his house for dinner — a publisher and a poet, and the guy saw some of my poems and he might be writing to me ‘cause he liked them.
So six or seven months later this guy did write to me and said, “I would love to see some of your poems.” And I sent him some poems, and after about two years of that he said, “I’d like to put a book together.” I sent him a collection of poems, and he wrote back, and he said, “You should wait another five years.” I said, “Fine, I could wait ten years.” But actually, we continued corresponding, and only about two years after that he said, “I think you are ready.” He loved the poems that I had put together. He helped me shape a book, and he published it.
I liked the idea of a book — consolidating your fate. You can kind of gather your work. It’s a relationship
between you and your own… what the psychologists call your own libido. All this libido has gone into this work, these poems, and now is the time when you kind of gather it, kind of like bringing in the sheaves, you know. Tie it together; see what kind of harvest you’ve had, whether you were living right.
What inspires you most often: sight, sound, touch, or do you sense a message needing to be spoken?
Li-Young: All of it, I guess. My experience is that our being here in this lifetime is a message. I mean, if I sit here and I look around, there are messages everywhere, right? I mean there’s the smell of the cocoa, and the sugar, and the flour and the milk. We live in a world of just constant barrage of messages. My feeling is that if you don’t put up too many walls what you experience is a constant state of messaging. Not only are you being sent messages, but just your being there is sending messages, and so what inspires me is just about everything.
I read that you said about teaching poetry that you found many students write with their heads, “for clever
word games,” and I was wondering if you have been successful teaching anyone to go beyond that?
Li-Young: I haven’t, but I’m a really bad teacher. First of all, I felt like nobody really cares about poetry, least of all these young kids. And then second of all, I felt like there was no reason they should care about it. I don’t feel we all should read poetry. Poetry is like good scotch. Not everybody should drink it. But, no there’s no way to teach it. You can kind of point to it, you can talk about it, but you know what it is? It’s a spiritual path. Right? Writing poetry, or making any kind of art, is a religious path. And you can’t teach that, I guess.
Will you read us a poem?
Li-Young: Do you all know what a hammock is? I’ll tell you this, when I came to this country I didn’t speak any English. My father was a political fugitive. He was being hunted by [President] Sukarno in Indonesia. He was a prisoner there, and he escaped and took us with him, and so we came here. But when we got here, we didn’t know we were going to stay. We thought we were just going to be here until things blow over and then we would go somewhere else or go back to Indonesia. And so my parents kept us out of school, and we were here during the 60’s you know, the late 60’s and you looked around and it was the drugs, and hippies, and free sex, and free love, and so my parents thought, “Oh, boy, we don’t want them having anything to do with that;” so they kept us out of school.
By the time they realized we might be staying in this country the rest of our lives, they enrolled us in school. By then I was like 20 years old and going to kindergarten. I exaggerate, I was maybe 9 going on 10, but I was going into kindergarten. It was humiliating. I was bigger than everybody, and I didn’t speak any of their languages, and I’m there looking at pictures of apples, you know, ap-ple, and I didn’t want to go. I was confused about school, because the first day I went I thought, shew, boy, I got that over with. The next day when my mother woke me up, I said, “I did that yesterday, did you forget?” And she said, “No, you have to do it again.” And I said, “Why? Didn’t I do good enough?” And she said, “You’ve got to keep doing it.” Keep going to school? I didn’t want to go; I thought it was terrible, and so she cut a deal with me. She said, “How about I carry you to school?” I was in love with my mother like every good boy at that age, and I said, “Yeah, sure, ride on your back. Will you carry me back?” And she said, “Yea.” I said, “Done.”
So she did that, carried me back and forth to school in kindergarten, and that was the only way I would go until one day she got sick. I felt bad about her carrying me, and then I quit. And I walked to school from then on. This is called “The Hammock.”
When I lay my head in my mother’s lap
I think how day hides the stars,
the way I lay hidden once, waiting
inside my mother’s singing to herself. And I remember
how she carried me on her back
between home and the kindergarten,
once each morning and once each afternoon.
I don’t know what my mother’s thinking.
When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder:
Do his father’s kisses keep his father’s worries
from becoming his? I think, Dear God, and remember
there are stars we haven’t heard from yet:
They have so far to arrive. Amen,
I think and I feel almost comforted.
I’ve no idea what my child is thinking.
Between two unknowns, I live my life
Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am
by coming before me. And my child’s wishes, older than I am
by outliving me. And what’s it like?
Is it a door, and a good-bye on either side?
A window, and eternity on either side?
Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.
While listening to Li-Young read his poetry, it became clear that this poet who receives inspirational messages from everywhere indeed has a message to share. In fact, he has many messages — some of which, like seeds in the cycle of life, have grown in the hearts of his CF audience to generate poems or life-change. I myself came away with a renewed desire to drop the walls, become fully present in the moment, and experience what Li-Young Lee calls the condition of “aweness.”