Episode 12: Li-Young Lee

Author Li-Young Lee reads at Fresno State in 2002. (Screen shot)

Editor’s Notes: This is Episode 12 of the Fresno Poets Archive Project. It features Li-Young Lee, recorded in November 2002 inside the Alice Peters Auditorium (PB 191) at Fresno State. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by graduate student Kirk Alvaro Lua in Fall 2017, and his interview with the author took place in January 2018. A native of Madera, California, Kirk earned his BA in English Literature at Humboldt State. He currently studies poetry in the Fresno State Master of Fine Arts program.

This video recording also included a wide-ranging Q&A session with Li-Young Lee and a packed classroom of creative writing students, facilitated by the poet Corrinne Clegg Hales. There are several references to the Q&A session in the recording and in Kirk’s interview here. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, the Q&A portion is not yet available, but it may be posted in the future– a revision, an addition yet to be made.

On Self-Revision and World Making: A Conversation with Li-Young Lee

By Kirk Alvaro Lua
For the Fresno Poets Archive Project

Li-Young Lee is a poet, the word at its most faithful. I believe poetry makes the Earth go around the Sun. I believe that if everyone stopped writing poems, birds would stop singing, suddenly bread wouldn’t even be bread, worms would start coming out of milk.

Being given the opportunity to work on this archive reading of Li-Young Lee from November 8, 2002 at Fresno State has meant many things to me in my progress as a poet, but more importantly as a person. Watching and rewatching, listening and listening again, reading and rereading, all while captioning Li-Young Lee’s poems and thoughts, became a crash course taught by him. Li-Young Lee became a mentor as the poet, but also as a friend through the page.

I was not in attendance for this poetry reading in 2002. In fact, I wasn’t interested in poetry at all at the time because I was twelve then, but after watching these videos as much as I did, fifteen years later as an MFA student, they have become memories that I remember. I was there. Li-Young Lee has helped me understand myself in 2017, back to 2002 and back again, all while looking ahead.

The point of self-revision isn’t to revise the poem until it is good enough, but with each revision we get closer to understanding ourselves. The whole part and process of writing poetry isn’t for me to just win awards or publish books. My real interest in it is the psychological effect it has on me. It hopefully helps me gain more self-knowledge and self-awareness and makes me a better person.

This journey of making our own worlds includes getting to know ourselves more deeply, wherever our self-revision processes take us, but also letting in the world. I include a human audience, it’s a very important part of the audience, but I write for trees, clouds, birds, rocks, earth, and the stars. I go out into the natural world.

Remembering, even at times like these, we can change the world, even it is just our own reassurance. We think in the beginning when we’re children that the world is just where we inherited it, but I don’t think that’s the case. The older I get, the more I realize that world making is up to us.

When it came time to talk with Li-Young Lee, I was nervous, having never spoken with him before, only having memories of him, through the video, that were not completely mine, but that I still somehow remembered. Then, I heard a genuine hello on the other end of the phone, followed by my name. Apparently, he remembered me too.

* * *

I’m greeted over the phone with a warm afternoon hello from Pittsburgh, where he was visiting from Chicago. I am told that it is bright outside, it is cold, there is snow on the ground, and that it is quite beautiful. It is still morning here in the Central Valley, cold with the sun peeking through the clouds, but by the end of this conversation, it won’t matter where I am. We live in the world we create, behind our eyes, with who we are way back there, with this conversation as the guide.

Kirk Alvaro Lua: When you mentioned you were in Pittsburgh, it reminded me of your poem “Braiding,” the first poem you read in the video. You talked about the bus, the 71 Negley, and its importance in the poem. Have you happened to ride it this visit?

Li-Young Lee: [Laughter] I did not. I see it all the time though. I have a car now. When I wrote that poem I didn’t have a car, so I was always taking the bus.

KAL: After watching the Q&A and reading, what feelings or memories did you feel or remember?

L-YL: You know, I don’t find it easy– it’s not easy for me to be in public, and so what I remembered most was the nervousness and anxiety and embarrassment of being in public. It’s not a good time for me.

KAL: During the Q&A, you spoke about the origin of the poem “Every Wise Child is Sad,” which with time and revision became “Tearing the Page.” I compared the 2002 version you read in the video, before it was published, to a published revised version on the Illinois Poet Laureate website. Do you remember the history of the revision process for the poem?

L-YL: I can just tell you that I’m always revising my poems. I’m constantly revising. I know I’ve given up revising that one. I just got exhausted doing it. I don’t even remember the last version I left it as. I know that it came out in a book. I’m not sure which book. I had an opportunity, there was publisher in England that wanted to publish a collection, and I took that up to revise that poem. So, there is another version in England and there is another version in the United States. I’m not even sure at this point which one I prefer. I haven’t looked at it in a while. I’m sure if I looked at it, I’d want to revise both.

KAL: Has your revision process changed, stayed the same, improved, or is it easier?

L-YL: It’s actually more intense because I’m so close to seeing the perfect thing, my vision gets better. This is weird because as I get older, my physical vision is getting worse, but my inner vision is getting better. So, I can actually see clearer, the perfect body of the poem and so the clearer I can see it, the more it frustrates me that the poem I have before me doesn’t fit that. So, I just keep trying to get to that.

When I say the body of the poem, I mean the body of thought– the body of thought, feeling, transcendent knowledge. I can see it, but I can’t quite obtain it. I mean through a lot of exercises, meditation, Tai chi, and all these other things, I’ve tried to get my inner vision stronger, clearer, more powerful, and then tried to think and I believe that it has worked. So that I can see the thing better and I can hear the poem that wants to be born, but because I’m a faulty, flawed, deeply problematic human being, I’m the receiver and the receiver isn’t always receiving clearly.

There is a lot of static. Ego is the biggest static. I can’t receive the whole poem yet. All of that revision, though, is preparation for when a poem does come down in five minutes. My receiver is so clean, so clear that the poem really comes down completely and gets born without any defects. That’s what I’m after, that pure clean– I think of it as dustless action of the mind. The mind with no dust. That’s what I’m after. All the revision is to exercise, if you will, to get me ready for that. Does this make sense?

KAL: Oh yes. Yes, it does. Also, back on transportation. In the reading and in the poem “Every Wise Child is Sad/Tearing the Page,” you mentioned Union Station in Chicago and the Twentieth Century train. You said that they wanted to tear the station down and I was curious if they did and if you still take that train?

L-YL: I do sometimes take that train and they did not tear it down, The Great Room, I’m happy to say.

KAL: In the video, you read a poem titled “Poor Shadow,” which with time and revision became the published “Become Becoming” in your collection Behind My Eyes. The video version had a character of a poor shadow and in the revised published version the shadow is absent. Do you remember your choice in doing this revision, removing the shadow, and possibly what it meant?

L-YL: I’ve revised these poems so many times I don’t remember it clearly, but I’m guessing that the reason I even used a fictional shadow is a way to think a little more clearly. I mean the shadow is ultimately me, but it sometimes helps to project that part of oneself out so you can see. Once I accomplished what I had to see, I feel as if I need to introject it again to own it.

You know, for me, the whole part and process of writing poetry isn’t for me to just win awards or publish books. My real interest in it is the psychological effect it has on me. It hopefully helps me gain more self-knowledge and self-awareness and makes me a better person because I am so fucked-up as an individual. I am so problematic. There was a long time I was dangerous to be around, a very angry person, a lot of problems, and I probably still am. I’m not going to say probably, I am, but not as bad as I was.

I think a lot of it has to do with these, I would call them psychotherapeutic messages, practicing meditation, practicing poetry, practicing Tai chi, and writing poetry so that I can see on the page what my mind is doing and where it’s unclear. Why it has such low resolution of thinking and why I think so poorly? Sometimes I have to realize a lot of what passes for thinking in myself is just prejudice or preconceptions or thoughts I inherited. I’m not actually thinking. I’m not actually feeling, I’m just putting down inherited feelings. Which is very different than feeling your way.

So, writing poetry for me is a really important way for me to kind of get an X-ray of my own mind so I can be in working on myself. So that’s why I revise and that’s why I keep looking at the poems and that’s why I would project that shadow because I can’t see this thing, my shadow is behind me in a way.

It’s like when you’re walking into the sun, your shadow is behind you. So, for me to have projected a shadow I would have to turn around and put the sun behind my back so I can see the shadow and I can attribute things to it and then I can remember that those things are me, they’re in me and I can reprocess it that way.

KAL: The recorded Q&A and reading took place at Fresno State in 2002, 15 years ago. Is there any advice you would give yourself then, now, or self-reflection from then to now?

L-YL: What I want to say is what I tell my kids all the time, try to relax a little more, try to love your life a little more, love the– don’t be so anxiety ridden about being in public, love the audience, try to give love.

I mean we live in such a– I don’t know, I just feel life is suffering. Everybody is suffering on some level. Everybody. If you’re going to be in public don’t get all tied up in knots with your own ego and fear and anxiety. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Love the audience a little more, be open to it a little more, be open to the situation, and try to trust the poem. Trust that you did everything you could to write good poems and to understand yourself a little more, understand the world a little more, and just try to be in that situation with a little more– I don’t know, a little more transcendence. Instead of getting all– have a little more fun with it. Enjoy the people more.

I don’t know. I guess that’s what I would say. That’s just what I tell my kids. When I think about who I am, I feel like that wouldn’t have been enough. That guy was so confused. Who I was, was just so confused.

KAL: These last questions I think are a little easier. I feel they are a little silly because they are my own curiosities. I bought a copy of Behind My Eyes and it was inscribed by you and it said, “Every world lives behind our eyes.” I was curious by what you may have meant by that?

L-YL: I meant that we look at life, reality, and I’m not sure– I mean we’re in a place called Earth, but I’m not sure that it’s actually a world. I think all world making begins behind our eyes, in our minds, or in our hearts. I mean somebody could take an empty apartment and depending on who they are they create, I don’t know, a crack house. Somebody else takes an apartment and creates an orphanage. Somebody else creates a home for a wife and children. It just seems to me whatever world we create depends on what’s behind our eyes or who we are way back there.

I don’t know. I just feel that world making, all of it is– boy, that is not a silly question at all, Kirk, it’s actually– yeah, world making begins behind our eyes. It begins with us, all world making– we think in the beginning when we’re children that the world is just where we inherited it, but I don’t think that’s the case. The older I get, the more I realize that world making is up to us. There is no world out here except the world we make. There are objects, there are things that don’t have any value unless we assign value to them.

KAL: Are you currently reading or rereading anything or is there writing you always go back to?

L-YL: I’m reading fairy tales. I love fairy tales. I am reading ancient Daoist text, Tai chi text. I practice Tai chi, so I’m always reading Tai chi text, ancient Chinese text about movement and breath.

KAL: Your new book, The Undressing, is out in 2018. Congratulations! I look forward to reading it very much.

L-YL: Oh thank you, Kirk, I hope you like it.

KAL: Are you going to do a book tour or any readings in California?

L-YL: Not that I know of, but you know, if anybody invites me and the timing is right …

KAL: This last question is the silliest one. I have a cat and I was just curious if you liked cats too?

L-YL: I do! I love cats. My problem is, my kids are allergic to cats. We use to have a cat and I loved that little guy. My kids loved him too. They were just so deathly allergic to him that we had to give him up.

KAL: What was his name?

L-YL: His name was Benjamin. [Laughter]

KAL: My cat’s name is Zucchini.

L-YL: Aw, nice. [Laughter]

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