Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia. His mother was a descendant of Chinese royalty and his father was a personal physician to Mao Tse-tung. Disillusioned with Communism, Lee's parents left China only to experience persecution in Indonesia, where his father was imprisoned by Sukarno. From Indonesia, the family traveled throughout Asia, eventually coming to the United States in 1964. Li-Young Lee attended the Universities of Pittsburgh and Arizona, and the State University of New York-Brockport. He is the author of Rose, winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award; The City in Which I Love You, a Lamont Poetry Selection; Book of My Nights; and most recently, Behind My Eyes. His memoir, The Winged Seed, received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. His other honors include a Lannan Foundation literary award, a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. We interviewed Li-Young Lee when he was in residence teaching in the M.F.A. program at New England College.
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I realize that it's my own mystery I'm looking at.
English is not my first language, though it is the language in which I write. I feel the real medium for me is silence, so I could be writing in any language. To inflect the inner silence, to give it body, that's all we're doing. You use the voice to make the silence present. The real subject in poetry isn't the voice. The real subject is silence. It's like in architecture, where the medium is not really stone or metal, but space. We use materials—brick, glass, whatever—to inflect the immaterial, space. I would say that the real medium of poetry is inner space, the silence of our deepest interior. It just happens that as time has gone by I get better and better with English. As I use it every day, English grows less alien to me. But I'm still using it for this one thing, to inflect the inner space as I feel it.
The early years of my childhood were spent moving from country to country with my family, from Indonesia to Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan. The other day I opened the back porch door and got a blast of winter air. Suddenly I was reliving the newness and strangeness of our first winter in America. It was an almost overwhelming visitation from childhood. I do have such memories, and they're very vivid, but they're not surrounded by any narrative. Maybe I don't have a narrative because that's the way my mind works. Or maybe it's because my parents were inundating me with narratives of their own, so I couldn't make one up as we went along.
My father was very involved with the books of the Old Testament, studying them and translating them, so he was reading to us all the time from them and telling us his versions of those stories. A lot of the narratives he gave us were biblical. I guess, looking back now, it was his own form of midrash. The way he told those stories, the way he interpreted them for us, led us to believe that we were the children of Israel, and the Indonesian dictator Sukarno was Pharaoh. And, of course, my father saw our plight as a version of surviving the flood. The ark was the family, along with the stories, songs, and photo albums we would need to start over again once we had found shore. On the other hand, my mother, who came from the ruling family that was displaced when the Communists took over China, was filling us with the stories from her childhood—haunted mansions, heroic uncles, ignoble ancestors, concubines, and so on. My parents' stories probably helped us. They gave a kind of mythic content or background to our experience, which saved it from being just late-twentieth-century exile.
My earliest memory in Indonesia is of the servant bringing in a basket full of eels and pouring them into the yard, and chasing them around chopping the heads off, because we were going to eat eel that night. For a child seeing that—the eels being beheaded—it's both violent and vivid and sexual. When we moved to the United States, I remember the little house where we lived in Seattle. I remember a hill and the woods in the back. I remember that it was sad. I remember my mother crying a lot. One of my father's first jobs was in the China exhibit at the World's Fair. He was "the Chinese man," the token Chinese. He was unhappy about that.
My father was imprisoned in Indonesia. Sukarno said that my father and the CIA were planning to bomb Indonesia. It was ridiculous, and the charges were made up. Sukarno was just locking up Chinese out of Sinophobia. My father had a conversion experience in jail. While in jail, he was supposedly dying. They asked him, "Do you want to be buried in a brown suit or a blue suit?" He said, "Blue." They pronounced him dead. His cell mate washed his body, and the state gave him a blue suit. They were going to bury him, and I don't know whether he wasn't dead, or he came back to life. He told me, "I died. I saw things." But he didn't die. He said this was God, giving him back his life. He gave his life to the ministry after this.
My father was not a Christian before this conversion, but afterward there were things we experienced that he saw as divine intervention. For instance, we were being taken from Indonesia to a prison colony, and on the way the ship stopped outside Hong Kong. We were there to let some people off, but we weren't allowed to leave because we were under arrest. A chartered boat came along. A man got on our ship and said that he was looking for someone. The captain of the ship said, "That person isn't here." The man said, "He chartered this boat. It's paid for. I'm supposed to take him in to the harbor." The captain said, "I'll look around, but he's not on our list." My father happened to be walking around and saw this man, and they knew each other. He was an ex-student of my father's. They started talking, and the man said, "I'm here to pick somebody up, but he's not here. I've got this boat." My father said, "Why don't we get on it?" But of course we couldn't get on the boat because they had to give us our passports to let us leave.
I remember my father and mother whispering back and forth very excitedly. It was Christmas. We looked out the portholes and saw the green Christmas trees on Hong Kong island all lit up. My parents approached the soldiers and asked if we could get off. The soldiers looked at our passports, looked at their lists, and said sure, we could get off. The list should have told them we were under arrest, but it didn't. They gave us our passports. In fact, they looked at me and my brother and said, "These two, when they grow up, you must bring back to Indonesia, because that's their home." They knew who we were, so why did they let us go? I don't know. My father said that was God. It was like in the Odyssey when the gods cloud somebody's vision.
I've taken that personal, historical—I'll call it a horizontal—phenomenon of my childhood, traveling from one country to another, and seen it as a metaphysical phenomenon. I feel as if I've been exiled not from any one country but from a state of identity with the world. When I was little, there was an identity between me and the world. I was the world, the world was me. There was no difference. Then suddenly I began to feel so apart from that connection. I've been exiled from Eden, I guess you would say, exiled from the Garden.
What I have gone through on the horizontal plane of history just happens to coincide with what we all go through in our psychic lives. For me that coincidence of the personal history and the psychic history is something I see as lucky. It's clearer for me.
But I would like to be known as a poet of reconciliation, a poet who made it back from exile. You see, I have children, so everything's at stake. My final report to them can't be that our true human condition is homelessness and exile, though if that's what I ultimately discover, that's what I'll report. At this point in my life maybe there's a lot of homesickness and exile in my work because this is what is true for me. But my hope is that someday I will be a poet of blessing and praise. Still I know I need to get there authentically. I need to find my real way home.
If you tell yourself that the whole world depends on everything you do, suddenly when you have children, you feel that it's concretely true. I met a man, a professor, who was telling his class, "There's no meaning in the world. It's all fabricated by language. Language doesn't refer to anything." I asked him, "Do you tell your children that? You profess that to other people's children. Do you profess that to your children?" He said, "Of course not. Why would I do that?" It would get dangerous if his kids walked around saying, "Your words don't mean anything. They don't refer to anything. When you talk about love or safe sex or whatever, it doesn't refer to anything." So why is he professing this to other people's children?
Whatever you profess, whatever you write in a poem, is a self that you are making, and this is the self that you give your children. Yeats said that we make the self in the poem. My children don't get what I say, they get who I am, and who I am is in large part the self I uncover in my poems, whether that's a homeless wanderer or a man rooted in a deeper repose.
When my family came to America, we were poor. My mother sold her wedding ring at one point so we could get by, but my father's work as a minister brought him in touch with people who had even less. He saw suffering that was astonishing, destitution rivaling the worst slums of Jakarta or Hong Kong, except that it was in a rural setting. In the area where we lived in Pennsylvania, the people were coalminers and steelworkers, but most of the mines had closed down and the mills were beginning to fold, so many people were out of work. There was a great deal of alcoholism, and there were those who didn't even have money for alcohol. It was baffling to find people in the twentieth century living in the hills in unheated shacks. I remember being dumbfounded, thinking, "That guy lives in a shack and survives on squirrels and dandelion leaves. What the hell is this? Where am I? Aren't we in America?" Traveling with my father to visit shut-ins, I saw many shocking things and inhuman conditions.
There's no need to romanticize poverty, but I think it was good for me. If you're poor, you wear terrible clothes which you got from the neighbor, and when you're done with them, you're going to give them to your brother, and so on. On Christmas, we had nothing. We gave each other presents from our own belongings because we didn't have real presents to give. When you live like this, you ask, "Where is my value in the world?" You can't say, it's because I'm rich, or it's because I'm clean, even. You begin to value people differently. Does this mean that everybody should be poor? I would say that I was fortunate to experience poverty and fortunate to get out of it.
All my father's life he was wrestling with visions of God that he found contradictory. On the one hand, there was a God who acted in history and time, and on the other hand, there was a God who was a condition of the pure present. I think this is my obsession, what I wrestle with, too. But I'm beginning to believe that the two visions aren't mutually exclusive, or that the two views are a single view, a fruitful paradox.
The whole idea of a historical God was very interesting to my father when he converted. He started to feel that he had a destiny.
I do believe God unfolds a divine will in history. By history, I mean human phenomena. I think a divine will is unfolded in human phenomena. When we read history, we can read history as either the story of humans or the story of humans and God. For me, if history is read just as human endeavors, it's not interesting. I think a deep sense of order permeates all phenomena. Call this order God, or Tao, or the vast hand of Buddha, or whatever your Jewish mother or Chinese father called it. I believe poetry is grounded in this order.
Ever since I was a kid, I would ask my father, "Is there a God?" and he would say, "Who wants to know?" I would say, "Quit playing games. Is there a God?" He would shake me and say, "Who wants to know?" He would laugh. I never understood. Now that he's been dead twenty years, I'm beginning to understand what he meant. Is it God who wants to know? It isn't me, because where did I get the idea of God? If I've never heard of a mango, don't even know the word mango, have never seen one, never tasted one, I would not out of the blue say, "What is a mango?"
I'm not sure how having a father who was a minister and growing up in the church influenced me. If you take the genetic view of upbringing, you would say it made me obsessed about spiritual matters. If you take the Buddhist or karmic view, in another lifetime he and I were both obsessed with this stuff, so I became his son. I don't know whether my obsession with otherworldly matters comes from him or just comes from me.
Growing up in church made for a rich symbolic life. The church itself was a huge symbol, especially when it was empty. I loved sitting in the church by myself when it was empty. It was a very pregnant symbolic life—the loaves and fishes, all the stories of the Bible, and communion.
I don't attend church now because it's not pregnant for me anymore. I see formal religion as taking calcified poetic images and worshipping them for two thousand years, but the poet is making for himself or herself fresh religious images. Emily Dickinson addressed the way people worship. She said, "They worship an eclipse."
I always thought poetry was the opposite. There's eclipse, covering, and there's apocalypse, uncovering. I think poetry provides a very important service. It uncovers our deepest identity. When we read a poem, that's what we get—our deepest identity, who we are fully. Religion is a path to this uncovering, but it's not as immediate. Poetry provides a very deep, immediate service, like a church service. It is proof of contact with God, proof that contact with God is possible, and not through a middleman. Read Emily Dickinson. Through all her quarrels, she affirms this.
Now the "I" in a poem is either a very deep "I" embedded in a bigger "I," or it's just this dry "I," tiny little "I," floating around like confetti. I'm afraid this sounds like I'm referring to the ego. I don't mean the ego. I don't mean that we humans are the only thing. But every time we look at a poem or a piece of art, the real subject is the "I." Art can give us a version of the "I" that is manifold, deep, and has divine and human content. But when I say divine and human, it's as if they're separate, and they're not. Divine in human content is what I mean. That's what poetry is.
I do think that poetic consciousness is the fullest, most complete consciousness. It gives voice to the fullest of who we are. As I'm walking around in the world, I'm noticing what is around me. I look at the bridge out there and the river, and I think that's so beautiful, that's so mysterious. Then I realize that it's my own mystery I'm looking at. The river is not there saying, "I'm beautiful." So the idea of beauty is something I give to the river or project onto it. The river is embedded in nature, right? It's part of nature. I'm embedded in nature. The river is embedded in God, I would say also, and I am embedded in God. So when I look at the river, it's nature looking at nature. It's God looking at God. Where does the "I" come from? Why do I have a sense that there is a me, something separate? Where does that come from?
What we encounter in art is presence. Every time we encounter a poem, we encounter a version of a self. Sometimes the self we encounter in poetry is vapid and tinny, jejune. There are poems where the presence is more complete and poems where the presence is not as complete. What troubles me are the ethical implications of projecting into the world an "I" that is less than the best of who we are, a presence that may even be toxic in one way or another.
Poetry may begin in a conflict, but it ends in marriage. I think praise, as Rilke says, is about an inner marriage. And an outer one—us and the world. Somehow we are harmonizing with the world, even with its worst parts. We are married to it. That's why I am disappointed by poetry that is a kind of mimesis, a copy of what is around us. We look at the culture and it's fractured, so we make a fractured text that's mimetic. If the world is fractured, the work of poetry is to marry everything, to integrate everything. I think it's a nasty trick to leave a reader in a bad place, because we can choose.
You can't say, "I wrote it this way because it's more authentic." No, you chose that ending. You can't say, "The world is a terrible place, so in order to be truthful I want the poem to reveal all the ugliness and mendacity in the world." That's only part of the picture. I want the whole picture. It seems to me poetry gives the whole picture by practicing the whole presence.
I love thinking about God. The problem of problems, as Freud put it, is the ethical problem. That's it. Right and wrong. Good and bad. If a poet doesn't tackle this problem, doesn't face it down and come to a conclusion, then he's just making knickknacks; he's decorating. There must be an ethical consciousness that is available.
For me, the only possible ethical consciousness available to humankind is poetic consciousness, because poetic consciousness accounts for the most of who we are. Any other standard doesn't account for enough. I think I'm in agreement with Blake here. Poetic consciousness equals complete consciousness, accounts for the whole human being. On a social scale, this would be a government, an empire, that accounts for all of its population—the poor, the rich, women, men, children, old people, black, white. Poetry is a way to integrate all of who we are. The beast, the murderer, all of it. I think that's what Rilke was trying to do in the elegies, when he talks about the murderer. I don't mean give the murderer free rein, but we have to account for that psychology and understand it, without pushing it aside. Poetry is a way to integrate all of our consciousness.
Of course, Buber spoke of this question of ethics in I and Thou. But I would want to move past Buber to I and I. If we can walk through the world and practice I and I—Christ said this, right? Treat your neighbor as yourself. If I looked at everything as myself, that would be complete enlightenment. You could never hurt another person.
But we're so unenlightened, we do hurt ourselves. There's all these people cutting themselves, people killing themselves, drinking themselves to death. So we haven't even gotten past just loving ourselves. We're not there yet. The practice of poetry can help us move toward this. It can help us be more comfortable with things in ourselves we don't like.
I do believe that poetry makes better people. How come we're not allowed to say this? Nobody says this. There is a great poet, I won't mention his name, who said, "Poetry isn't therapy." I think it is, and in fact, when I read his poems, I felt that they saved my life. Am I stupid? Am I one of those idiots who goes around saying that poetry saved my life? His poems, I can say this, saved my life. And I bet they saved his life.
My poems are addressed to an "all"—the stars, the trees, the birds, everything. When I'm writing a poem, I feel like the whole future of the universe depends on that poem. Of course I'm laughing, chuckling to myself as I say this. I'm embarrassed that I feel this way, but I do. Someone asked a poet I know after September 11th if he could write a poem for the occasion of September 11th. He said, "I already did. It's all I have ever been doing." In a way, every poem is written at Ground Zero. Yehuda Amichai said, "Every poem I write takes all of human history into consideration, all the atrocities, all the good stuff, and it's the last poem I'm going to write." So you're there—that's Ground Zero. You write at Ground Zero all the time. The audience is everything: birds, trees, stars, women, children, men, old and young, grandmothers, aunts, uncles—everybody is listening.
Sometimes a poem comes out and it's done. Sometimes it takes a long time. I do sense when I'm revising that it's about a balance between fate and destiny, and chance. Somehow the poem has to have a lot of fate in it. The sense that a line, for instance, is destined and could not have been written in any other way. At the same time, a poem has to have all the excitement or danger of chance. How do you negotiate those two things in a poem?
It does feel to me that when we write poems, we're dealing with very basic things in life. We want to fulfill our destiny, which we feel in our belly and in our hearts. At the same time, we want to keep it open to fateful chances, some sort of paradox like that. So revision is for me a lot of fun. It's joyful.
For me the question of what is poetry is very narrow, but then my definition of what is God is very wide. So I would say that God is all through Robert Frost, even though he said he was an atheist. I see him wrestling with God in "West-Running Brook," "Directive," and "The Most of It." In Frost, the surface subject is the people, but when you read the lines, you see that there is divinity in those lines. There is a will in those lines that is beyond Frost's personal will. God is a mystery, but God is also our deepest identity. If the presence of God is not in a work of art, it's not art to me.
People who read poetry but don't write it are like those who have just heard about the burning bush. They've got to write poetry. They've got to read it also, because then they've heard about the burning bush, but when you write it, you sit inside the burning bush, which is different. I think everybody should write poetry. I do. I have friends who say, "The only people who read poetry are people who write it." I think, "Well, of course. And everybody should be writing poems, right?"
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About the Editors
Ilya Kaminsky is author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo, 2004), co-editor of The Ecco Book of International Poetry (2010), and editor of This Lamentable City: Poems of Polina Barskova (Tupelo, 2010). He teaches at San Diego State University and in the New England College M.F.A. Program.
Katherine Towler is the author of a trilogy of novels: Snow Island (Plume/Penguin, 2002), Evening Ferry (Lawson, 2006), and Island Light (Macadam/Cage, 2010). She consults on publications with schools and nonprofits and teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.A God in the House:Poets Talk About Faith