ed. Earl G. Ingersoll
The following conversation with Li-Young Lee took place 19 November 2004 in a crowded, and noisy, restaurant in the East Village of New York City. Also participating is Lee's editor Thom Ward, the editor of BOA Editions, Ltd., Lee’s publisher.
Ingersoll: I'd like to begin by asking you how you feel about being interviewed. One of the things that amazed me, once I got started with this project, was how many interviews you've been involved in 25 or 30 interviews, which is quite a few for somebody who's not 89. I'm curious how you feel when someone turns on the tape recorder: Are you anxious? Do you dread it?
Lee: I guess all of that. I'm anxious, I'm excited, I dread it. But it's fascinating for me, too, because we talk about poetry during most of the interviews so it's language about language, and I find it a happy thing to be thinking out loud about language, about words, about literature.
Ingersoll: Do you get anxious that these words you're speaking now, for example, become the property of this machine and then me as your interviewer so they're out of your control. Does that bother you?
Lee: No, that's part of the pleasure, in a way. I mean, as long as what I'm saying isn't completely distorted and as long as it's taken within a certain context or a historical moment. It can be very exciting to be in the unknown.
Ingersoll: So it's a kind of exploration of the unknown with somebody.
Lee: It can be the practice of a certain kind of presence. I almost feel as if what we're doing is being present to our own minds in a way we wouldn't normally be.
Ingersoll: Have you ever felt that everybody is asking the same question?
Lee: In the beginning there were a lot of questions about my biography, and now I've resisted talking about that so much.
Ingersoll: Your ethnicity and origins?
Lee: For a while there, that was the primary topic. I lost interest.
Ingersoll: One of the things that interested me in your responses was that I got the sense people were trying to pin you down as "Asian-American." They wanted to push you into that pigeonhole, and you were resisting that, and saying, "I'm an American poet. I don't think of myself as an Asian-American poet."
Lee: You know, I don't know whether that was such a good thing to do. I have friends who write about ethnicity and race, and they're very angry with me. They say that somehow I don't own up to my Asian identity, and part of me says, "But I do it on a day-to-day basis. I do it everyday with my life." But as an artist I'm trying to get in touch with something that can't be accounted for by my gender, my race, my ethnicity, my class, my historical moment. Those all figure into it. But the math isn't what we think it is. It isn't like, Oh, you're this gender, you're this race, so you should write this kind of poetry. Poems are unaccountable. They're not accountable by only race or gender or whatever. And you can't account for my personal life only by those specifications.
I'm interested in the nature of reality, and I don't think constantly wondering about my ethnicity can lead me to a firmer grasp of the nature of reality. I think it can up to a point; for instance, I think it's a very important thing to think about racism in terms of projection and transference. It's important to recognize that, but it seems to me that after we recognize that, then there's real work to be done, withdrawing your projections. I think poetry for me is ultimately a mode of withdrawn projection. Is that possible?
Ward: I think so. One of the concerns I see in your poetry after reading and editing it is the interplay between language and silence. The other morning when I woke up my nine-year-old, the first thing he said was, "You know, Dad, an echo is a shadow of sound." I thought, That's something my friend Li-Young Lee would like to wrestle with.
We all know how important the Bible has been to you. What other books you've read, past or recent, have come back to haunt you, in the best sense of the word haunt? What are some of the books that have unconsciously empowered you in your writing?
Lee: You know, my reading is very what is the word? desultory. I'm not very disciplined; I just read all over the place. You know, the one I keep going back to is Meister Eckhart. It's not even the concepts per se; it's the way he thinks. Right now I'm reading Nietzsche again, and Nietzsche's making a lot more sense this time round. I don't know why. When I was younger, I said, "I don't like this cult of the strong." But I don't see it that way recently. I've been reading Thus Spake Zarathustra. It's such a beautiful book, so tragic.
Ward: And there's a lot about the empowerment of the artist and the poet as creator in there, too.
Lee: You know, I've been thinking, It's the bonds between letters that create words, and it's the bonds between words that create sentences. And those bonds can be dissolved what would be the opposite of binding?
Ward: . . . rending.
Lee: Yes, rending. So poetry could be a way to create new bonds and even to rend meanings so that new meanings can enter.
Ingersoll: Actually you have a favorite word from your own poetry cleaving which can mean both "binding" and "rending." It's a wonderful word with its opposing meanings.
Lee: Yes, maybe that's what I was thinking about.
Ingersoll: To follow up on Thom's question, any other book that "haunts" you?
Lee: Grimm's Fairy-Tales and Italian folk tales, especially those by Italo Calvino. Italian folk tales are beautiful, but I find them very repetitive. In Grimm's Fairy-Tales there's a lot more variation, and yet they maintain their archetypal significance. The patterns are reconfigured in more various and interesting ways.
Ward: You also read philosophy, like Heidegger, don't you?
Lee: But I've sworn off philosophy because I think it's flawed somehow. Lately, every time I read even a few pages of a philosopher I think, Just get to it! The answer's poetry. The conclusions philosophers keep arriving at are just various ways to say the same thing. And the same thing is that the practice of poetic being or aesthetic being in the world is a value. It's a value-creating mode of being. That's what it comes down to all that stuff with Heidegger. He spends pages talking about what is thinking, like three pages talking about a door closing and listening to it, and he's trying to decide whether he heard it first and blah, blah, blah, and I think, the answer to your problem is aesthetic presence. It seems to me he suffers from a malaise, or a malady, an illness of the philosophical mind.
Ingersoll: I'd like to take you back to the Bible because that's been one of the enduring elements in your interviews. In our conversation before the interview began, you were talking about your more recent views of the Bible and posing the question about the father-son relationship and...
Lee: You know, Earl, I'm so troubled by that book. About a month ago I was rereading the Book of Luke, where Jesus says, "I am the son of God. I am the way." You know, If you've seen me, you've seen the way, and I thought, If somebody sat across from me in a chair and said that, I'd say, "That's proof you are not."
Ward: You mean, There's only one way to the Father, and that's through Me.
Lee: I would say that's proof you're not the Way. Because nobody who knows would say that. Then, I thought, OK, so what words in the Gospel were the words that really made sense to me. Then I thought that the Gospels can be separated into two things: one where Christ's saying things like the Beatitudes, where He's saying real metaphysical truths, and then there's the other stuff which seems to me the worst of spiritual seeking. I mean, the best of spiritual seeking is in there, too. They're both in there. That puzzles me.
And I was thinking about the Jewish tradition of the midrash. Do you know that? That's the retelling of stories from the Torah and letting your imagination work in the retelling so you're also improvising a little. And your improvisations reveal something about yourself. And I realized we do that naturally. We think about something, and it changes in our memory. And even the way we change it tells us something about the reality we've created.
Ingersoll: So every retelling is a kind of rewriting of the tale. Suppose, Li-Young, you were retelling the story of Abraham and Isaac we were talking about earlier. What's your take on that story?
Lee: You know, sacrifice is a big issue for me. I don't know who said it, but you can't sacrifice something lesser for something greater. That's not a sacrifice. It's just trying to get something greater for something less. Then I think, What was the nature of the sacrifices that keep occurring in the Bible? And what is this repetition of the slaughter of the son? What is that about, ultimately? Isaac. Joseph gets thrown into the well, although he gets that done by his brothers, but there again the son was threatened. And then of course there's Jesus. And I think, What is this myth about, this slaughter of the son? And there's Absalom. I keep thinking there's a struggle between the actual presence of father and son in the Bible, literally. Abraham is a father figure. He's very large in the Old Testament. The Isaac figure somehow doesn't have as much potency. Now this is my imagination. Now Isaac's children were... Jacob and Esau? What's interesting to me is that in the Jacob and Esau story the sons are the main characters. They're in the foreground. In the Abraham and Isaac story the father was in the foreground. Isaac was the sacrificial victim.
Ward: I don't think Isaac speaks in the Abraham and Isaac story.
Ingersoll: When they get to the sacrificial altar doesn't he ask Abraham where the sacrificial lamb is?
Lee: I have a theory about that. The Bible says there's a ram stuck in the thicket. This is the midrash thing, and I'm wondering why my imagination is going in this direction. The Bible says there was a ram stuck in the thicket, but I don't think it was a ram. I think it was some boy, like a slave boy, but that's too heinous a story, because where's the sacrifice if it's just a ram. That's number one. Number two, there's this weird substitution that goes on when Jacob robs Esau of his legacy. The mother puts a cloak over Jacob and he goes in, and the father, Isaac, thinks it's Esau, the brother. Now I'm wondering, Did the mother of Isaac do that with Abraham? The Bible does say that on the morning they were leaving to go up onto the mountain the mother was standing at the tent, watching them, and I remember thinking, Why did they mention that? That's such a moving and terrifying thing to have her watching it. I mean, when you think of it, if I get up at five o'clock in the morning and wrap a big butcher knife up in a piece of cloth and take my son off with me, I'd be psychotic. Right? And my wife is standing in the doorway watching us go. She's beginning to figure it out.
Ingersoll: But isn't it partly too that Isaac represents a miracle, that he came as this almost divine gift to this old couple who'd long before given up the hope of having a child and to sacrifice that child makes it an even greater sacrifice?
Lee: But here's the thing, though: it isn't a sacrifice if it's for something higher. What was the higher good?
Ward: An allegiance to God? We're moving toward Job country here. I mean, talk about sacrifice! Nobody sacrificed more than Job his children, his servants, and all his livestock. He goes from Donald Trump to Skid Row in a heartbeat.
Ingersoll: I've always had trouble with that story, and with the system that says, OK, you've passed the test; now you get it all back. How would you deal with the replacement kids? I'm with you, Li-Young, these are tough stories.
Lee: Now, here's the thing: what if every little thing gets restored to Job? What if there really is literally the reincarnation, every 400,000 years? I mean, every 400,000 years we're back here?
Ward: I'm bumming out about that. I want one and out, Baby. I wake up every morning and say, Oh shit, I'm still me. I want this to be the threshold to something else, not return here as the angel-beast I am, with all my ambiguities and ambivalences. No, I definitely don't want that. I become more and more fascinated with the beforeness, what was before the chromosome, the 46 that I am supposedly. Is it a circle back to the Apple or are we really stuck in some linear deal, diachronic time? Or is there synchronic un-time? These are concerns of your work, the issues that inform your poetry.
Lee: I love thinking about this stuff, but we haven't been talking about anything pertinent.
Ingersoll: I want to circle back to the metaphor that's here in the title of your latest collection of poems, Book of My Nights. Do you do all of your work at night, all of the drafting, revising, etc.
Lee: In that book I did. And I work almost completely at night.
Ingersoll: Could you conceive of being switched to the "day shift"?
Lee: No, I would get depressed. Evenings are great. I know what to do in the evening. There is this weird time of day, and I think, What is this time of day about? Maybe between 1:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon. I think, What am I supposed to do with this? And I get depressed.
Ingersoll: I ask in part because you make such a point of access to the inner voice, and I'm wondering if night time is the best time to get in touch with that inner voice.
Lee: Yes, it is for me. It's almost a cliché. I've always felt funny about it because it always means it's the last voice. And maybe there are writers for whom it's the first voice. Stafford wrote in the morning. Maybe there are two kinds of poetic utterance. The utterance of the puer, in Latin "boy," and the utterance of the senex, the "old man." There are two kinds of wisdom, and they're both in touch with the source. In the case of the "puer" he's in touch with the source because he's so recently broken away from it. In the case of the "senex" he's in touch with the source because of his mortality. In the first case it would be the language of poetic utterance before experience. It's the voice, in a way, of innocence. And then there's the voice after experience, the voice of the "senex," that is, a voice that's come to wisdom, that's processed experience.
Ward: Some of us who are morning writers can't write at midnight because of that great void of complete silence. In the morning as I write I can hear the birds, or maybe a garbage truck. How do you deal with that pure silence at night?
Lee: You know, it's not pure silence in the city.
Ward: Well, I live out in the country suburbs, where, especially in the winter, there's not a sound at night.
Lee: I'm guessing I would love that because I do remember that as a child living in a little town. I loved that.
But you know, I've been hiding all my life, hiding from my parents, right? And my parents were hiding from the authorities so there's this issue of hiding. Maybe that's why I write at night. I don't mean to imply that writers who write in the morning necessarily write as children. I'm just wondering about these two threshold states.
Ward: There's the wisdom of the child, that you can't say is of the depth of the wisdom of the older person, but there's always this relationship. I remember my child at three asking how old his g.p., or Grandpa, was, and when I told him that Grandpa was 66, he said, "You know what? He's old. And you know what? I'm new."
Lee: Frost has a wonderful poem, "West-Running Brook," in which the woman says, "Are we old, or are we new?"
Ingersoll: Thom tells me you're putting together a new collection of poems. How does that go? One, how do you know it's time to? Two, how do you feel about doing it? I mean, are you saying goodbye to those poems in a way? How do you do it? Do you have some special way of organizing, selecting the poems?
Lee: I think for each book it was different. In this particular instance, I think the reason we're going to put together some poems is that I've been going on readings and a lot of people have been saying, "Can I have a copy of that poem you just read? Is it in any of your books." I've been saying, "If you give me a stamped, self-addressed envelope I'll mail it to you." I think I've mailed hundreds of copies of these poems. I'm thinking, Maybe people like them, and they're ready to be published. I'm mailing them out for free; maybe I should put them in a book. Not just to sell them, but maybe they're ready to be in a book. In this case that's how this book evolved. In the last one I think it was different. I think Thom was saying, "It's time!" In each instance there was a different impetus pushing the book out into the world.
Ingersoll: But you have to decide what goes in and what doesn't go in. How does that work?
Lee: I just try to pick what I think are the best poems and run them past Thom. Poems that are inventive enough, and interesting enough, and where there's enough imagination.
Ingersoll: Now does Thom say, "Instead of that one why don't you include this one"?
Lee: Yeah, I guess he does.
Ward: One of the things I did in the last book was with a poem I didn't think was going where it could, and you made two poems out of it. If there was one thing I learned from Al [Poulin, the founder of BOA Editions] it's how to help writers in their own terms. The way I work with Li-Young is different from the way I work with Lucille [Clifton] or [W. D.] Snodgrass. I try to offer the poet, let's say, a line or a stanza, and we'll call it "A." And the poet will have in his or her mind "B" and might say, "You know, maybe you're right. I didn't feel comfortable with that line or image." My happy job is to say, "Think about my 'A' and your 'B' when you revise, and like with the Hegelian dialectic 'Q' or 'J' will arise. It won't be my 'A' or your 'B,' but those forces will unconsciously empower a new revelatory or apocalyptic moment." I don't feel my job as editor is to prescribe, but to suggest, to open the doors of perception, but it's the poet's task to make a decision to walk through.
Ingersoll: I'm wondering, Li-Young, what effect it has on you in doing the organizing of poems into a book. I'm thinking of these blockbuster exhibits at the Met, like the two van Gogh shows back in the '80s. Some people got tremendously excited by seeing for the first time two paintings of the same subject next to each other on the wall. Does that happen to you as you put two poems next to each other in the manuscript?
Lee: Yeah, it does. Sometimes it creates a good effect, and sometimes it's bad. Sometimes I put the poems together, and I think, Wow, I guess my inner life was OK during this time because there's a lot of richness there. Sometimes I put a certain bunch of poems together, and I think, That's terrible. My inner life seemed really thick and monotonous. Because I write as a form of divination. I write the poem to see how I am. Even if the poem has suffering, but if it's full of invention, if I'm making moves with my heart and my mind and my soul that are lively and full of richness and possibility, then I feel, Well, I must be still alive. You know, I'm making a lot of vivid, vital moves intellectually and emotionally on the page. But if I write a poem and it comes out very flat on the page, then I think, Why am I writing like this? Then if I put the poems all together, and I see certain consistencies, I'm always amazed. Even with Book of My Nights I was surprised that all those poems had so much night in them. I didn't set out to write them that way.
Ingersoll: The reason I'm asking is that I've heard other poets say that this can be a very revealing activity. They might say, No, this poem doesn't belong here. Or, this one belongs next to that one. Do you do that? I should think that would be very exciting.
Lee: Yes, I do that. It is exciting. It's like composing the stanzas of a poem.
Ingersoll: Your speaking about sending out poems to people who asked for them after your readings opens the door to the question of your sense of audience.
Lee: I think the narrative-lyric mode is basically one in which the audience is behind a curtain so the dialogue is with your own divinity, and the audience overhears it. When you're reading a poem, the feeling is always that you're overhearing somebody speak to himself, which is some bigger part of himself, or to some totality of himself, or herself, or to God. So what we're actually witnessing, for instance, in Lorca is his wrestling with duende and Emily Dickinson is wrestling with God and mortality, with Whitman it's God and America, but it's always an other thing America, God, mortality, duende. It's always some demon, daimon, divine figure. It's a triaxial state of affairs: you have the poet, the poet's demon, and the audience as witness. I think it's only seldom that they're actually addressed. I think it's very seldom that I'm actually writing to an audience. I'm usually enacting my own demon.
Ingersoll: In working with the interviews, I've shared with so many people the story of Li-po finishing a poem, folding it in the shape of a boat, and sailing it down a nearby stream. It seems so liberating to me as a writer to be free of the concern with the end-product of writing, to remind myself it's the process, the moment of the creating that finally matters.
Ward: And there are those Tibetan monks who make mandalas out of colored sand and when they're done they go and dump them into the river. Most Americans are completely frazzled by such an action. The Western mind is all ends oriented, not process oriented.
Lee: Well, here's the other thing, too. A lot of that comes from us not recognizing what the Grail is. For instance, some might look at that sand painting and think, The Grail is the sand painting. Or I might think, This poem I've written on this page is the Grail. That's because we don't trust the possibility that after having written the poem you're changed on a cellular level, and I think repeatedly doing that with your mind it really changes you physically.
We were talking earlier about the Bible, and I think it's written in a certain way that if I can just turn my head the right way I can see the way all the plates are lining up, and I can say, "Oh!" then my vision of the world would change. I would not walk through the world with blinders on anymore. I would suddenly see the deeper paradigms that are being disclosed, the deeper orders. Sometimes I think the practice of reading literature must change us on a cellular level, so after those monks have done that painting they're changed. If we had different glasses on we could see that their body structures have changed. Their cells are different. And the sand painting, what's that?! We don't know what the Grail is.
Ingersoll: On the subject of the poet seeking the true Grail, we were talking earlier about your sons, and I'd like to pose this hypothetical situation: suppose one of your sons came to you and said he wanted to become a poet. What would you tell him he needed to do to prepare for becoming a poet? Or, what do you see as the apprenticeship of a poet?
Lee: I don't know, Earl. I know this sounds crazy, but if my son said to me, "I want to become a poet" it would be as if he were saying, "I want to marry God." Part of me feels, Yay! Part of me wants to say, "Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to marry God?" I feel that when a person writes poems they're trying to hear a voice, or construct a voice, or discover a voice, or uncover a voice, that is not human, that includes the human, but is beyond the human, deeper than the human, older than the human. It is the voice that is prior to the human. The source of language and the source of reality are the same in a poem. It's like the ancient poets saying, "Sing, muses." It's like saying, "Sing, gods." They're bigger than we are, and older. You know, they're daimons, demons. I think the mission of poetry is to impart a divinized voice. Otherwise, all we would have is language as it exists in its social spectrum, i.e., language is important there as a conveyance of information and social representations. But I think divinized language is why poetry is important. There's no way to divinize language except to open oneself up to deep, unconscious influences, to integrate deep, deep, and sometime massive amounts of psychic material. And even transpsychic material.
I feel my work as a poet is to come to terms with not only my personal history but also my species history so that my work has to be specific not only to me but to my species. I know it may sound crazy, but it's like having the universe speak to you. I feel that anything we look at, anything at all, this tape recorder, is part of a larger order. If we examine how this tape recorder came to be here, we'd have to, first of all, account for you because you brought it into this restaurant. Then we'd have to account for the inventor of the tape recorder. If you flew here, we'd have to account for the pilot, and so on. So if we look at any specific thing in the world, everything and anything resides in a center of what I call a totality of causes. I mean, it's such a finely, myriadly woven net of cause and effect that brought this tape recorder to this table. It's expedient to say that you brought it. But in fact everything exists in the middle of this totality of causes, and I feel that that condition of allness, if it had a voice, that voice would be poetry. Poetry is basically the locally inflected voice of the condition of allness. That condition of allness, it seems to me, is God. I mean, if I sat here, completely aware of the myriad of circumstances in this finely woven net of causes that have brought me to the position of sitting here at this moment all the food I ate, my parents, how we set this meeting up, the telephones involved what a net of circumstances!
Ingersoll: It sounds to me, and I know very little about it, but it sounds like what's popularly known as "chaos theory," where the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in the Amazon rainforest can lead to a hurricane in the Bahamas that sense of everything being connected.
Lee: I don't understand that, Earl! How is that "chaos"? It sounds like "order" to me. Chaos would imply that nothing's connected. But it seems to me that that condition of allness and we know that by what they call six degrees of separation, that you're connected to anybody else in the world by six steps so what would it sound like if somebody suddenly opened up his mind to that condition that we are constantly living in? That would be poetry. Because a poem, it seems to me, is basically a remote instance of that condition, and in a good one there are connections being made throughout the poem that you can't even foresee, connections to other images and other references so in the poem itself there is a spherical condition of infinitely referenced elements.
Ingersoll: So the poem is a kind of replica of that allness you were speaking of.
Lee: Yes. If my son said, "I'm going to practice the condition of allness and write from that perspective," I would say, "God bless you!" at the same time I would say, "Oh no." I know what happened to William Blake. That's what I meant when I said that my son announcing he wanted to become a poet would be like his saying he wanted to marry God, to be marrying that allness, to be examining, meditating about that condition of allness all the time.
About Li-Young Lee
Li-Young Lee was born of Chinese parents in Jakarta, Indonesia. His family moved to the United States in 1964. Mr. Lee lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. He is the author of three books of poetry: Rose, The City in Which I Love You, and Book of My Nights, all published by BOA Editions. Rose received the Delmore Schwartz Award, The City in Which I Love You was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets, and Book of My Nights was the winner of the Poetry Society of America's 2002 William Carlos Williams Award. Mr. Lee is also the author of the memoir The Winged Seed.
About the Editor
Earl G. Ingersoll is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York, College at Brockport. He is the author or editor of eleven books, including collections of interviews with Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Durrell, Doris Lessing, and, most recently, Rita Dove.
BOA Editions, Ltd.