Chicago poet Li-Young Lee writes as a rare bird among modern poetry’s flock, more focused on building pretty word nests than soaring the sky to God. Now 46, Lee has published three books of poetry: Book of My Nights (2001), The City in Which I Love You (1990) and Rose (1986). His stream-of-consciousness autobiography, The Winged Seed (1994), was written from start to finish with the computer screen turned off.
While working as a poet, Li-Young Lee has helped raise two college-age sons while working at a Chicago warehouse for 20 years.
While working as a poet, Lee has helped raise two college-age sons while working at a Chicago warehouse for 20 years. “As the years have gone by and I started publishing books, my supervisor has all of my books in his office,” Lee says. “And he says, ‘I don’t read that crap.’ But he’s real proud of me.” His supervisor, though, wonders why he spends his time “hiding” at the warehouse instead of writing. “He will ask me, ‘Why aren’t you doing more?’ I feel as if I’m doing the most that I can. I’m writing poems. I feel that the most a human being can try to do is make art of some sort. “But I have to say I’m lazy, too. I’m really lazy. If I spend all day doing nothing and writing one line and taking a walk with my kids or whispering in bed with my wife, that was a good day.” NUVO: Talk about your views on the importance of spirituality in your writing and in poetry in general. Lee: I sometimes think that if the making of art doesn’t make us more complete people then what are we doing? We’re just making knick-knacks. I don’t understand the point of it. The practice of art is a viable yoga. I think that the practice of any artform is the highest yoga there is. The Sanskrit word yoga means “yoke, link or connection.” And the exact equivalent in Latin is the word “religio” and we get the word “religion” from it. Religio means “link or bond or connection.” It seems to me that something is yogic if it links us or connects us or binds us to our complete nature. Not some narrow bandwidth of our nature like we function as only a husband or only a father or only a working person. But all of who we are — dark and light, male and female, eternal and temporal, spirit and matter. Whatever puts us in touch with our whole nature seems to me is yogic or religious. NUVO: Do you think the poetry that is vertical asks the reader to feel more than the horizontal? And maybe, as an audience, people are more used to having a passive role? Lee: Feeling is the biggest challenge. I think feeling is disallowed in the culture. It’s not really promoted. We’re pretty undeveloped, maybe as a species, about feeling. But there are such fine degrees of difference, for instance, between love and desire. When you really go into it you find out, wow, ultimately they are different. But we hardly know the difference. So feeling is the area where we really need to begin integrating more and, at the same time, differentiating more one feeling from another. There’s probably a lot of feeling that we leave out in our literature. NUVO: It seems that many people are afraid to write that kind of poetry and do that kind of art today because of the stigma of cliché and sentimentality connected with it. Lee: It is a risk. And we do risk sentimentality. But it just means that our craft has to get better. The better our craft is the greater the chance that we can deal with sentimentality, negotiate it better. I don’t think the answer is just backing off. That would be like you’re falling in love and saying, ‘I’m afraid so I won’t ever fall in love.’ That’s not the way to deal with it. The way to deal with it is to go ahead and make your mistakes and learn and keep going. It doesn’t seem to me that backing away from feeling is a way to deal with feeling. NUVO: It seems to me that one of the things that you do in your work is take big, abstract ideas and place them in a tangible thing, in a body, in food. And a lot of that seems to be repeated as obsessions. Do you have personal symbols and personal obsessions that are always there for you when you write? Lee: I guess I do have obsessions. Probably to a fault. I try to free myself of them, detach myself from them, but then I feel haunted or visited by them. At the same time, the process for me is that I keep discovering the universal or the abstract in these little things, these mundane things. It isn’t so much that I have the abstraction in my head and I try to find a figure for it. It’s more like that as I’m writing about eating I discover, ‘Wow, it’s present there.’ Or if I’m writing a poem about combing my wife’s hair, I discover that the universal is there, too. I keep discovering that the universal is everywhere. The whole universe is in every part of the universe. But I guess a physicist would say, ‘What else is new, we’ve discovered that already.’ And the Chinese philosophers knew it 2,500 years ago. NUVO: Do you find your poems or do they find you? Lee: When it comes to writing, I feel like a slave. When it says, ‘Write,’ I put everything down. When it says, ‘I’m going to be quiet a while,’ I sit down and suffer. The opus or the grail isn’t even the poem. It isn’t even a book of poems or a prize. It’s self-knowledge. And making poetry seems to be a very viable yoga toward self-knowledge.
A Storyby Li-Young Lee Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one. His five-year-old son waits in his lap Not the same story, Baba. A new one. The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear. In a room full of books in a world of stories, he can recall not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy will give up on his father. Already the man lives far ahead, he sees the day this boy will go. Don’t Go! Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more! You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider. Let me tell it! But the boy is packing his shirts, he is looking for his keys. Are you a god, The man screams, that I sit mute before you? Am I a god that I should never disappoint? But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story? It is an emotional rather than logical equation, an earthly rather than heavenly one, which posits that a boy’s supplications and a father’s love add up to silence. from The City in Which I Love You (1990)
What: The Writers’ Center Festival, a one-day gathering of writers, readers and artists presented by the Writers’ Center of Indiana Who: Poet Li-Young Lee and a long list of book editors, literary agents and local and regional writers When: Saturday, Oct. 11 from 9:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. Lee will be speaking at 10 a.m. Where: Indianapolis Art Center, 820 E. 67th St., just east of College Avenue in Broad Ripple Tickets: $55 for the general public, $45 for Writers’ Center members and $25 for students. Includes breakfast and lunch. For more information, visit www.indianawriters.org or call 255-0710.