Li-Young Lee

Editor's Note: Before Songwriters on Process, there was Writers on Process. It was the same format as this site, only I interviewed writers of every stripe: essayists, playwrights, novelists, poets, short story writers, and songwriters. Eventually, I moved to interviewing only songwriters and archived all of the non-songwriter interviews. Today I'm going to start bringing some of them back, because I think a discussion about writing with any type of writer is a worthwhile one to have.  And since most of the songwriters I interview are also voracious readers, I know that songwriters will especially appreciate some of these conversations.

This interview from 2010 is from one of my favorite poets, Li-Young Lee. I discovered Lee in college and have followed him since.  Read my interview below. His answers about poetry and writing are nothing less than sublime. He's on entirely different level than most of us. 

Reason number one why I am not introspective enough to be a poet:

When I get up in the morning and look at a messy bed, I see a bed that needs to be made.  The poet Li-Young Lee, on the other hand, sees both beauty in the absence of a body and the shape of a body simultaneously.

Poets have a different perspective on the world around us.  They see beauty in things that I cannot possibly imagine.  Heck, they just see things that I cannot imagine.  Which is why, I suppose, they became poets.  When Lee says, "I am aware of the fact that there are poems everywhere.  My whole experience, both inside and outside, is one giant poem: my dreams, the things I am looking at.  I am sitting here talking to you and looking at these books on my shelf, and there is a poem there somewhere,"  this is what I mean.  And when he has trouble writing, it's not because he doesn't know what to write about.  It's because he is so overwhelmed by everything around him that he doesn't know where to start.

Li-Young Lee has been a favorite of mine since college, when my professor, poet Jack Ridl shared some of Lee's poems.  The two have been friends for years. It is no stretch to say that Li-Young Lee is one of the finest poets--no, make that writers--alive. It is hard for me to convey my appreciation for his words, his use of language, and his meaning without losing myself in hyperbolic fawning.  So I won't even try.   You will appreciate the world around you much better after reading the poetry of Li-Young Lee.

Read The Poetry Foundation's biography of Lee here for a good critical introduction and a list of his many deserved honors. 

Before you read my interview, watch this clip of Li-Young Lee reading his poetry.

Why did you choose poetry as a means of expression, as opposed to another medium?

It was the quality of mind in poetry.  The mind in other kinds of writing is more cause and effect.  Like if we read fiction or essays, it seems to me that most of that writing--and I love reading them--functions along the lines of cause and effect, like when we are trying discover the effect of a certain character. When people say character is plot, that's basically a cause and effect statement.  That plot is an effect of the cause, which is character.

But there's something about poetry that doesn't move along those lines, that logic.  There's something about it that's more about synchronistic logic or mystical knowledge or non-rational processes of the mind.  The psyche is more engaged.  The minute I was touched by poetry, I thought. "Wow, there's something else going on here."

Was one poem a eureka moment?

No, it was an accumulation.  My parents recited a bunch of Chinese poetry, and the great Chinese poems all participate in that non-causal orderedness.  With the ancient poetry, there's almost a Zen-like non-logic that they manifest, so I was hearing that a lot.  My father was a minister, and in the new Testament the character of Jesus says all these things that are non-narrative--and I want to reiterate that I have nothing against narrative--but what intrigued me was this non-rational process of knowledge and the non-rational but deeply truthful statements about the world, about life.

How disciplined is your writing routine?

Not very, but I noticed that when I wake up, there's something in me even beyond my wakeful mind that's been paying attention all night long to the the divine and the uncanny.  So the minute I get up, I feel I am already involved in the writing process, and I just grope my way to my study and see what happens.  So I feel like I am on the job 24 hours a day. There's something inside of me--either unconsciously or consciously--paying attention to moments when language synchronizes with mind and with experience.  I am looking for that throughout the day, and it could happen anywhere: at a restaurant, riding the bus, taking a walk.

So when you compose, do you stick to a regimen, or do you compose when the inspiration strikes?

I wish I knew what the right conditions were.  After all these years, I have not been able to pinpoint that.  I wish I knew.  And this is what leads me to think that I don't write those poems.  Some other deeper psychic entity writes those poems, and I don't know how to make contact with that person all the time.  But I am aware of the fact that there are poems everywhere.  My whole experience, both inside and outside, is one giant poem: my dreams, the things I am looking at.  I am sitting here talking to you and looking at these books on my shelf, and there is a poem there somewhere.  I am talking to somebody I have never met on the phone, and I am looking at these books, and there is some interesting constellation, and there's a beautiful breeze coming through the window. I know there's a poem there; I just don't know how to enter it.  I am kind of overwhelmed with the poetic experience, but I don't all the time know how to translate it into words.  I spend most of my life groping for the answer.  Laughs.

What do you compose on?

I think I prefer a number one pencil on paper.  Sometimes I'll go with that for a while, then it won't work, and I'll love the blue Paper Mate pens. Then I'll do that for a couple of days. Sometimes I'll write on lined paper because I need the lines, but then the lines seem too confining so I have to write on a white sheet of paper.

photo from Poetry Foundation website

photo from Poetry Foundation website

It's interesting to hear the answers people give when I ask that question, because they all have a rationale for their writing instrument of choice.

A weird thing happened to me recently.  There was a period in my life when I was attending a lot of art openings, and there's always a guestbook to sign there.  I signed this one guestbook and it occurred to me to write something like a poem, so I did.  I looked at it and immediately thought, "I have to copy that down!  It's a pretty good stanza."  So I copied it down and took it home with me.  And I showed up at another opening, and signed another guest book with a pretty good stanza.  And I thought, "What is with me, where my best writing is going on in guestbooks?"  So I started accruing all these little pieces of paper, but I couldn't do anything at home.  I don't know whether it's because it was a type of anonymous intimacy.  On the one hand, they don't know who I am, but on the other hand there's this intimacy: I'm writing in my own handscript in someone else's book.

How do you revise a poem?

Sometimes I revise a lot and sometimes not so much.  For instance, this morning I've been looking at poems that have been sitting here for five or six years that I've just been revising. And then there's a poem I wrote about two years ago that I sat down and wrote.  I tried to revise it, but it keeps going back to the way it came down.  Some poems require it, some don't.

When do you know a poem is done?

That's a hard question. I publish less and less as time goes on.  That seems disturbing to me.  They are never done--I just get tired of working on them.  It really is a kind of yoga for me, trying to get the postures and breathing right.  Only once in a while do I look up and wonder if anyone is watching me do my yoga.  For the most part, I am just trying to get them right.  At the risk of oversimplification, I feel as if the poem seems close to right if the poem reveals a dynamic negotiation between chance and probability.  If a poem has too much probability, it's boring.  If it's all chance, it's boring as well.

William Stafford once said that if you have writer's block, the solution is easy: lower your standards.  What do you do when this happens?

I love William Stafford, and that idea really helped me out.  My whole experience is that when I am having trouble writing, it's because I am dumbfounded by the overabundance of richness in life.  It feels so overwhelmingly full of signs and omens, it just shuts my mouth.  If I can just withstand that overwhelmingness and find some access to language, I am OK.  But most of the time, I am overwhelmed by how many poems there are out there that can be written, and I don't know where to start.

For example, every morning for the last forty years of my life, since I was a young child, I've been amazed at the beauty of bedsheets after I wake up and look back at them.  There's something so pathos-ridden and meaningful in that kind of absence of the body, even though the shape of the body is there with the pillow and the bedsheets.  But I haven't been able to write a poem about it since it's such an overwhelming thing for me.  Sometimes I've gotten up and just sat there with a cup of coffee and stared at how beautiful they are, because somebody's body has been there, whether it's my body or my wife's body or our bodies.  Like wind in the trees--that seems like an infinitely beautful experience.  I've tried to write a poem about it but I can't.  I have no access to it.  Everywhere I look, there are poems, and I don't know where to begin.  I am overwhelmed.  So sometimes I'll say, "Just lower your standards" and write about the smallest thing.  But when I do that, I get a little writing on a page, but it's nothing I keep.

I went to the Stafford archives and looked through years of pages of his daily writing.  I think that dude was a saint. There was something on every page that I would have loved to have stolen.  I mean, he was hitting the mark, even if he was just scribbling.  Every day.  The difflculty with this question is that we are talking about the unconditional or the non-conditional, which poetry is, and we are trying to find the conditions that are conducive to the non-conditional.  We are trying to discover what are the conditions for the mind to access the non-conditional mind.  With the poems I love to read and hope to write, if they don't have some of the non-conditional heart or mind, it's not interesting to me.  I do think there's non-conditional intelligence in us; Whitman called it the "cosmic intelligence" in us.

Does reading other poetry inspire you?

Some poems absorb me, but they inspire me to live and not always to write.  It's hard for me to turn that into a poem.  I have in front of me now a gorgeous poem by Emily Dickinson, and I was so filled with it.  I thought I was ready to find a poem.  But nothing happened.  It gave me hope, but didn't make me write a poem.  Writing a poem is such an unconditional experience for me,  I don't know where it comes from, I don't know what to do to create it.  I wrote a poem one time sitting in an airport.  I hate airports, I hate traveling, but I wrote a poem one time sitting there.  I never would have guessed that.

What in that airport inspired you to write a poem?

I thought about that, and the conclusion I reached is that I found the experience so offensive that something inside me turned completely inward.  I mean, I hate the shiny chrome, the impersonality of airports.  So maybe I accessed this deep inwardness in which the outer world just kind of evaporated.  I pulled out a sheet of paper, started writing, and just disappeared into this poem that had nothing to do with the airport.