Li-Young Lee, a conversation of poetry and consciousness



Ram is made possible in part by grants from the Maryland Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Arts Michael Collier talks with Lee Jung Lee welcome to the writing life my name is Michael Collier and today I'm speaking with Lee Jung Lee who's a poet lives in Chicago and is the author of two books of poem wrote two books of poems rose and the city in which I love you he's also the author of a memoir the winged seed of remembrance which has been published this year I'd like to ask Lee Jung Lee to start by reading a poem and I thought it might be appropriate for you to read the first poem from your first book it's titled epistle okay epistle of wisdom splendid columns of light waking sweet foreheads I know nothing but what I've glimpsed in my most hopeful of daydreams of a world without end amen I know nothing but what I sang of once with others all of us standing in the vaulted room but there is wisdom in the hour in which a boy sits in his room listening to the sound of weeping coming from some other room of his father's house and that boy was me and he listened without understanding and was soon frightened by how the monotonous sobs resembled laughter all of this while noon became vast day while sunlight and the clock gave birth to melancholy before the day's grew vacant the Sun grew terrible the clock stopped and melancholy gave up to grief all of this in a dead hour of a dead day among doors closed for nap or prayer who was weeping why did the boy fall asleep did he flee that house is he there now before it all gets wiped away let me say there is wisdom in the slender hour which arrives between two shadows it is not heavenly and that is not sweet it is accompanied by steady human weeping and twin furrows between the brows but it is what I know and so I'm able to tell I'm presuming that that this poem is a kind of prologue to the rest of the book and one of the things I'm interested in in hearing you talk about is just the the role of the poet in in relationship to what the poet knows what kind of knowledge the the poet cared carries mm-hmm with him yeah that that's a great question Michael I uh I wrote the poem arm out of my love for you know the epistles of Paul to the Corinthians and effusions and all of those epistles and it occurred to me when I was reading them that Paul speaks from a kind of knowledge you know where as I speak from a kind of unknowing and I think that I think the poet writes in a condition of knowing but not out of knowledge you know and I make I'm I make a distinction between the two in my mind because I don't think the poet has to have any special knowledge but the poet has to be able to access a condition of knowing to write the poem in I always have the feeling that when one is writing the poem that the spends the knowledge as it is being written so that there's nothing left afterwards so really in a way the poet doesn't carry anything away from the writing of the poem to help him write the next poem because it's all spent in the writing of the poem do you think in in some ways that's why you'll go back to moments again and again because after you do write a poem now not only do you not take anything away in if I'm following what you're saying but there's also a sense of forgetting mm-hmm that that there's kind of that forgetting then demands that you go back and if it's remember or perhaps what it is even more especially in your workers to pay attention yeah I wanted to in your work but the idea of paying attention to if I can call it experience and the way that you pay attention to it is through a kind of prayerful attitude it's as if prayer is the way to yourself to pay attention does that enter into it yeah yeah very much so I think the the condition of prayer is a you know as a state wherein we have a kind of focus and yet we have a very wide peripheral attention and somehow it seems to me that the poem poems good poems are in act that kind of condition you know where we are very focused very concentrated on the one hand and on the other hand we have a very wide periphery you know a wider right awareness of the periphery one of the reasons I wanted that I wanted you to read this poem is that it seems to me one of the great sources of your work is is memory and it's it's not so much memory that is known but memory that needs to be discovered and and explored but then also there's another aspect to the work and that is which which is not necessarily dependent on memory but lives more in the present and and there's a poem that I thought you might read that takes as close to that is called a it's it's a final thing and this is from the book in the city in which I love you okay yeah maybe I can say this too before I read this you know I I was waking up every morning and listening to my wife read to our son in the other room you know morning after morning and the morning and every morning I woke up experiencing that I I realized I was in the presence of something really magical and wonderful and on the one hand eternal you know and on the other hand very impermanent because I knew I didn't know how long it would last you know how much longer he would allow his mother to read to him like that and uh and I knew that somehow I was in the presence of poetry and it simply was up to me to find the place in myself where I could pay attention enough to him to be able to write this it's called a final thing I am that last that final thing the body in a white sheet listening the whole of me trained curled like one great ear on a sound a noise I know a woman talking in another room the woman I love and though I can't hear her words by their voicing I can guess she is telling a story using a voice which speaks to another waited with that other's attention and avowing it by deepening in in attention rich with the fullness of what's declared this voice points away from itself to some place in the hearer sends the hearer back to himself to find what he knows a saying full of hearing a murmuring full of telling and compassion for the listener and for what's told now interrupted by a second voice thinner higher uncertain querying it seems an invitation to be met stirring anticipation embodying in completion of time and the day my son my firstborn and his mother are involved in a story no longer only theirs for I am implicated all three of us now clinging to expectancy riding sound and air will my first morning of heaven be this no and this is not my last morning on earth I am simply last in my house to waken and the first sound I hear is the voice of one I love speaking to one we love I hear it through the bedroom wall something someday I'll close my eyes to recall I loved how that poem presents the the image of the sleeper waking as if from a kind of death and coming back to life and and what brings him back to life is language hmm which I think is in some ways what a poet wants to have happen language is the thing that brings us back to life back to that that fuller sense of life yet by the by the end of the poem what we realize is that it also creates an eternity in that you've already imagined it as a memory I'll close my eyes to recall so that it isn't just dissipated that it's held in your ability to go back and think about and and in some ways what happens and with that poem and the first poem you read epistle it gives us the full range of your work how you're looking both inward or to the past let's say and specifically to the Father and then out to the future through the family mm-hmm through your wife mm-hmm and and children mm-hmm are those two poles that you feel sometime in the work or is it is it mostly unconscious as it's coming well it's unconscious when uh when I'm writing it you know but I'm I think I'm very conscious of it when I was in other times you know when I'm not writing and it feels to me you know for instance in that poem a final thing I'm talking about that I'm hearing a story being read but the stuff I never hear the story I just hear the voice you know and I guess I'm the poem is trying somehow to merge with that voice or enact the voice that adheres you know and I'm really interested in how do I say this you know not so much this the particular stories that are being told but I feel as if that there's a greater telling that goes on like in the universe or something that there's a telling voice that is telling all the time and I guess what I want to say is everything is discourse you know everything I mean leaves trees clouds mountains it's all discourse not only language you know or we can say everything is language this table these cups you know everything is language to me and I'm curious about what that larger what that other language is and sometimes it's clearer I think when you don't hear the the words because of a wall let's say that separates your could you hear the the intonation of the voice though you're in the presence of a telling right but not necessarily what's being told so it's that telling voice the murmuring that I am I'm really just in love with you and and isn't that really the one of the deepest sources of poetry is just how how we hear language or even how we feel language resonating in the body I mean without any kind of meaning just that visceral relationship yeah and it's not just sound but but it is language right the other thing that's that is powerful about this poem is that how we learn language is a mystery so that that's and so that's one of the other important powerful beginning points of poems is the fact that how we learn a language is a kind of mystery and what I like about this poem is that we overhear language being learned I mean one of its facets one of its aspects of learning it the poet overhears it from from the other room yeah you know I'm also interested in how a poem actually enacts that learning you know I never quite thought of it that way but now that you mention it that how we learn language you know I have the feeling that every poem in acts that learning I mean freshly you know every time we write a poem that's what we're doing you know we're almost starting from scratch you know well that's why it's so difficult yeah is it I think because and and that's why I think in some ways people who don't write are amused by the mystery and we're interested in the mystery and that that it wouldn't be easier each time mm-hmm but I'm I'm sure it feels this way for you each time I try and each time I finish a poem it seems like the last poem yeah and that another poem is impossible to do and yet eventually something begins to come and that that strange mystery mm-hmm I suppose is a kind of trails back to our first learning of language but for you who had Chinese as a first language and as I and and in at least in the memoir you several places are very self-conscious about learning English and I'm wondering if there was any if there's any kind of difference for you I mean you write in in English which is your second language but your first literary language I guess well I speak Chinese yeah and I hear it fluently I I lost I think my last 900 characters about seven years ago no host I can't write in it or read it anymore but um yeah I've always felt like a guest in the English language you know but you know Michael I'm not sure whether that's I think any thinking person if he spends enough time thinking about language he or she is humbled by the experience you know and maybe we all are guests in the language yes you know but I early on I felt as though I were a guest not only in the country but in the language itself you know but when when I learned English I didn't understand in any way any way that I was conscious of the social aspects of language mm-hmm you know I mean what I was learning I said I suppose were very direct emotional cues and communications but as a six year old or a seven year old you were very you were very much aware of language as a social mm-hmm in a broader sense it seems to me so that there must have been other other aspects to it I mean it was defining yourself you knew yeah that to learn English would also define you yeah in a way that I wouldn't be conscious of in any way yeah learning English is a day old child or a child in the womb or whatever language yeah wherever language begins so there's a it seems to me there's another layer yeah to to it for you but I like that idea of us being guests in a language that the language is so much larger mm-hmm in us to begin with yeah my kids always get I don't know how your kids are but whenever I pull out the dictionary to look well let's look at a word yeah I'm doing it mainly for myself because I'd love to see how far back the word the word went and I get very impatient cuz they yeah just want the word to live now right yeah present to be here Utah yeah but it has this whole genetic code uh-huh Kanoa code yeah let me see if I can to read another another poem maybe what what we should do is if I would ask you to read something from the memoir okay and and this actually goes back to this to the source of poems it seems to me I mean the ink the earliest English poems are riddles and you have the lovely section in which a knife and a seed are having an argument about riddles and the seed keeps supplying the the knife with these riddles that he can't figure out or does at first but then what would you just read one of the riddles yeah and then and then maybe we could talk a bit about the sources of of poetry maybe I should stay in 47 oh I should say this too the way the riddles got in here at all is uh I guess I find the whole enterprise of autobiography once I started thinking about like what is it we're doing when we're writing you know autobiography and I mean on a very basic level I guess we're you know digging up dates and place names where we where we've been we were born and yet after all of those uh all the data I it didn't account for who I am you know so I thought well syntax is identity you know a paragraph is identity a sentence is a form of identity you know and so I began to think that possibly the way I wrote the book tells is more autobiographical than the data that you know so and since I find existence itself itself so riddling I naturally riddles from the way into this okay here's one what happens is there's I guess a parable that goes on this seed goes traveling and its dream is to become rice and of course it's there's all kind of New Testament connotations in there and stuff and it's up with a knife and the knife once saw exacts a toll and this is one of the riddles the seed tells the knife tell the man whose head is bowed who's waiting to hear from me if he looks up he'll see the guests are leaving the feast tell him while his one-hand inches along the frayed margin of his father's cloth his mother mends the other hand falls to the threating to the threshing floor to lie blind among the blind grain but don't tell him my name and he who loved me once who has forgotten me all of me fallen from him like scales or old thorns making his journey lighter tell him his shadow of discarded leagues arrives before him everywhere he goes and she who had forgotten me who thinks of me tonight doubling me by patiently not finding me under her cooking spoon in either furrow between her eyes tell her I'm close the insect counting in her unguarded wrist but don't tell either of them my name and the boy who would make my picture with his pencil who draws the lines over and over multiplying me his drawing hand growing sore his paper beginning to tear tell that one who darkens me and darkens me and darkens me don't cry the path relinquished finds its way is home by a Stars influence lift your face from your hands tell him and set it thought toward an endorsee see it becomes what it faces and hands the hands hang leave them tell him they'll find water but don't tell him my name I don't know the answer to that riddle I suppose the writer of the book or something like you know sure as I'm reading this – I'm gonna occurred to me when I was writing this book I thought to myself I remember sitting on my back porch in Chicago and there are these huge trees in the porch and I was sitting out there listening to the wind just throttling the trees you know and I must have been listening for maybe half an hour and I thought I want to make a sound just like that you know of wind and the trees something that big oceanic right on the verge of a greater human meaning it's ready to break into language but not you know its nation language and I kept wondering when I was writing this book can I make our human language do something like that make a sound that big you know and so it meant of course that I would have to go right up to the edge of maybe nonsense you know but not nonsense you maybe glossolalia or something you know so it was a real test of my faith you know whether or not I believed such a sound was possible or is it all rationing as lang was just a you know is it a does it only belong to the rational and intellectual Ken of human existence yeah and I don't believe it does you know yeah I suppose that makes me think of when one question I had in reading through the winged seed since it is so much well first of all I don't know anything like it in the English language it's so elegant and it's it's it it's both sort of dense not in terms of impenetrable but in in in terms of its its gravity and and airy as I think that that passage shows but I was curious as to why he decided to to move into what's more like prose than than poetry I mean it's a very poetic prose it's it says poetic his prose can get I think and and still be prose but I'm also curious what was it that the poems weren't doing or not or maybe it's not fair to hold the poems up that way but what urge and you pushed you to write in in prose you know I guess ultimately Michael what I wanted to write was a long you know a very late 20th century ambition to write a long personal American epic you know and I thought to myself will it happen but have to be very big you know because I mean I'd read home or I know what I love in the old and new testaments right yeah so I thought okay well you know those are things to shoot for so primarily I thought to myself it would have to be like well the Bible you know you would have to enact it would have to be yogic that is the reading of the book would have to adjust the reader you know it would have to try to enact a kind of union with our our manifold self you know with other states of consciousness and it would have to have praise in it they would have to have see I don't mean to get too esoteric you're good yeah you know like in a New Testament I always my love for it but has brought me to read it over and over again and I noticed that in the Gospels we can brace basically break it down into the narrative and in the saying you know we have the stories of this man named Jesus and we have the things that he said and sometimes the narrative seems more pregnant sometimes it's saying see I'm pregnant you know so I knew that a book this book would have to be it would have to be narrative and saying you know and so it'd have to be the book both of them all have to have the extremes of a song and praise and I just wanted a form that I could just throw everything in and see what would happen I know and and and poems are more geared to the same purely the same well you know there's narrative poetry too but I guess I mean the kind of the kind of poem that you're that that you are right yeah yeah and I knew that the poems I wanted to write were on the other side of this book you know that somehow there was this really dense passage or even an impasse I would have to get through of my personal history yeah see my personal history Michael is so so dominant in my work it's both I know a richness and a resource for me and yet I know that it's a hindrance for me because I know I need to get beyond my personal history to hear a greater impersonal voice an anonymous voice you know and I really wanted to hear that voice and I knew that one of the ways I would have to be able to do that is to get past the personal history and the only way I could do that was to write it together to get as many as the deep the details right right so they wouldn't hamper me you know I could get beyond so it was a kind of process of purification so I see writing as a service in that way you know the book feels that way I mean I mean for the reader to as a reader I was very much educated and how to read the book and there is a sense of purification that that the reader experiences by the end as well Thank You Lee young apparently we're out of time but I enjoyed very much having a chance to talk with you thanks and I look forward to the the new poems as they appear and thank you very much for joining us on the writing life

13 thoughts on “Li-Young Lee, a conversation of poetry and consciousness

  1. Lee, more I read you, I become sure about possibility of getting dark things and mysteries and fascination of life around and every single thing we could sometimes just feel but won't even try to catch and capture through words, written.

    Every poem I read makes me feel something yet unexplored, something dark and deep, something we have to go to or are searching for.

    Of all your poetry, this line fascinated me most: "And the world keeps beginning. "

  2. I felt very serene listening to this beautiful poet speak, I am new to his poetry and feel as if I have discovered gold.  Thank you so much for posting this.

  3. Always great to hear Li-Young Lee speak at length — thank you for posting this!

  4. Great conversation, I love how right after they conclude the interview Li-young jumps back into conversation with Michael, not for the sake of the show but because they're so into their conversation. Very inspiring conversation.

  5. I just wanted to know how to pronounce his name for my speech LOL

  6. . Poetry is feeling. I experienced your story. I wandered through  your consciousness. We are host
    breathing life into words-—The writing life- is Life. Vincent J.Tomeo.

  7. His interview style has the same precision as his poetry – every word found with care as the right one. He is a magnificent poet and this quietly intense conversation moved and inspired me. Thank you for posting it.

  8. Hi,
    I'm glad you enjoyed his work — I do love to hear poets read their own, and give the background for the writing. His piece about listening to his wife read to his son was touching. If you enjoyed this program, try watching our piece on Jane Hirshfield or David Mura, both poets interested in identity and consciousness.

  9. thanks for posting.
    It's really nice to listen to li young lee reading his own poetry.
    The conversation between the two poets is inspiring as well!

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