Tina Chang: In your most recent book, Book of My Nights, night is many things. Night is: "abyss and shuttle," "the silence tolling after stars / and the final word," "all of night / the only safe place," and "All the nights are one / night." Why did you feel a calling to the night as opposed to the day?
Li-Young Lee: It's because I'm an insomniac. In fact, I haven't gone to bed yet. I was up a lot. And, I didn't know this, but I think my insomnia came from trying to quit writing poetry. As soon as I started doing that, I couldn't sleep.
Chang: Why did you want to quit writing poetry?
Lee: It was a weird time. I was involved in a lot of activism, and I came to this conclusion that poetry couldn't "do it." It couldn't change the world, or something like that. I was involved with this group, and we were trying to change the world [he laughs]. It's ridiculous. So I thought I'd stop writing. And I couldn't do it. I started losing sleep and I didn't know why. So I had to find a way to justify my own writing. I was involved with this person who told me I had to give up my poems.
Chang: Who is this person?
Lee: It's a complicated story. But he's a—what do you call them—a millenialist? "It's too late for art?" So we had this ongoing discussion. I had to find out whether or not what this guy was telling me was true—that art didn't do anything. I spent about ten years sweating that question. I think I've come to certain conclusions regarding myself.
Chang: And those conclusions are?
Lee: Well, I'm totally flipped now. I think that there's nothing more you can do than to make art. To write poems. And I came to the conclusion that aesthetic awareness—or aesthetic consciousness or aesthetic presence—is the only possible ethical presence we have. And so I went from thinking that the practice of aesthetics was a complete waste of time to thinking that aesthetic awareness is the most complete form of awareness we have.
Chang: And activisim? How does that play into your life right now?
Lee: I still do some of it, but I found out that activism without aesthetic awareness is as ego-driven as anything else—as misguided as anything else. It seems to me that one without the other is empty, somehow. For myself, there must be a two-pronged thing with activism and an aesthetic view of the world. And when I say aesthetic view: I mean the total view—the most comprehensive view—or presence, or consciousness, or whatever—you can bring to an act.
Chang: You mentioned "presence," and I remember in your book The Winged Seed, you wrote about your father's presence. In one part you wrote of washing your father's body in the tub. And of that you wrote, "because he's dying, his presence is bigger than anyone else's in the room." Can you speak a little bit about that?
Lee: When he was young and strong, he was a formidable person, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. When he started to die, the family was so attracted to him, and yet he kept a big space. He could keep us at bay or draw us in. The issue of his dying filled the whole house.
You know, I come from a really old-fashioned Chinese family. So when he was anywhere in the house, we had to be aware of where he was. If he was napping, you were not allowed to cross the line of his head. Or, if my mother or father were sitting in particular ways, we could not walk past them in certain ways. You had to be very conscious of their bodies. If an elder were sitting where you are, I wouldn't be able to cross my legs in certain ways because it implies that the bottom of my foot is facing you. So I have to be very aware of my own body and the elder's body. And I think this obsession with my father's body was taught to me all my life. I could never touch his head or kiss his face, but when he was dying, I had to strip him, put him in the bath, and wash his head. I was breaking all these taboos.
Chang: If I can quote a line from "Pillow,": "Night is the shadow of my father's hands / setting the clock for resurrection." Even there, it seems that he is the person in charge—even of his own resurrection.
Lee: I don't know if it was personal to him, or because he was Chinese. It was the distance he kept from us on the one hand, and on the other, a nearness and tenderness that he practiced with us.
When I was little he used to make us read from the Bible. He would put us on his chair, and as we read, he would take these little butterscotch things. He would smack them on the table, and open them up, and they'd be broken. It would be the book of Daniel, and he'd take a piece and pop it in my mouth when I was reading. He called that "sweet learning."
But he was sitting there, and every time he cleared his throat I almost had a heart attack. He was so terrifying. He was brilliant and physically strong. And he practiced [contemplation]. I think that people who practice contemplation have a gravity about their minds.
Chang: You equate your father with your love of poetry, because he used to read to you from the King James Bible. How did that affect your love for words or for the music of words?
Lee: My parents were classically educated, which meant that they knew hundreds of Chinese poems, and big passages of the Zhuang-zi and Lao Tze. So my father would recite Chinese poems, and when he would turn away, I would notice that he was weeping. He was a minister, so he would read from the King James Bible on Sunday mornings. I loved that, too. It never occurred to me that there was any difference between the poetry he was reciting and the poetry in the King James Bible. It all seemed like poetry to me. There was a superabundance in them, whether it was the Psalms or Li Bai and Tu Fu.
Chang: So when did you decide that you could write poems as well?
Lee: I started writing poems as soon as I started learning the English language. I got such a big kick out of it. My brothers and I used to think is was comical, because it's kind of monotone. I just loved the language. It sounded fun.
Chang: Do you recall when you started taking yourself seriously—if you did at one point—when you started looking at your poems as poems? Did it come from the encouragement of a teacher?
Lee: Early on, I had two teachers at the University of Pittsburgh. One was Ed Ochester, and then Gerald Stern. I don't think they made me think I could take my own work seriously. They tried. But they made me feel as though I could take poetry seriously. I don't think it was until very recently that I realized that making poems is a yogic path. It's not just indulging the ego. So when I allowed myself to take it seriously, it was with an almost grim seriousness—even an ugly seriousness, as my sister says. She says to me "Li-Young, you have an ugly seriousness about you."
Chang: In Book of My Nights, I noticed that in your acknowledgements you thank one of your mentors "for his relentless insistence on being in the word." What does that mean?
Lee: I had a teacher who early on tried to convince me that writing poems was akin to practicing meditation, or taking up a path like that. And I didn't understand that, and he kept saying how language is a form of presence. And somehow language is infinitely referential. Which is exactly the opposite of certain schools of thought which say that language doesn't refer to anything. So the practice of any linguistic art is basically the practice of a certain kind of presence—being present to language in a particular way. I didn't quite understand it until after he died.
Chang: In "Black Petal," you write of your brother's absence, "He died too young to learn his name. / Now he answers to Vacant Boat, / Burning Wing, My Black Petal." Do you think that absence has a presence, too?
Lee: I love that question. I've been thinking about something for a long time, and I keep noticing that most human speech—if not all human speech—is made with the outgoing breath. This is the strange thing about presence and absence. When we breath in, our bodies are filled with nutrients and nourishment. Our blood is filled with oxygen, our skin gets flush; our bones get harder—they get compacted. Our muscles get toned and we feel very present when we're breathing in. The problem is, that when we're breathing in, we can't speak. So presence and silence have something to do with each other.
The minute we start breathing out, we can talk; speech is made with the outgoing, exhaled breath. The problem that this poses, though, is that as we exhale, nutrients are leaving our bodies; our bones get softer, our muscles get flaccid, our skin starts to loosen. You could think of that as the dying breath. So as we breath out, we have less and less presence.
When we make verbal meaning, we use the dying breath. In fact, the more I say, the more my meaning is disclosed. Meaning grows in opposite ratio to presence or vitality. That's a weird thing. I don't know why God made us that way.
It's a kind of paradigm for life, right? As we die, the meaning of our life gets disclosed. Maybe the paradigm for living is encoded or embedded in speech itself, and every time we speak we're enacting on a small-scale, microcosmic level the bigger scale of our lives. So that the less vitality we have, the more the meaning of our lives get disclosed.
Chang: I notice that in your new book you ask a lot of questions. For instance, you say: "What does my death weigh?" "When will I be born?" "What have I done with my God?" To whom do you think these questions are addressed?
Lee: I don't know. There's the poet, the audience, and the poet's—I'll call it daemon, but I mean that in the strict Greek sense. I think they meant something like divinization; the gods could demonize or possess you. And it seems to me that the poems and poets that I love all participate in this tri-axial relationship with the audience, the poet, and this third party. In Emily Dickinson, it would be the Master. Rilke's angels. Lorca's duende. Whitman's America. Ginsberg's mother. With the ancient T'ang Dynasty poets it would be the Universe. Then there's the poet; then there's the audience. If any of that relationship is missing, it seems to me that the poems are less rich. I don't know who's talking to whom. The service that poetry renders is that it manifests or demonstrates demonization. Divinization, let's use that word. I think that's the greatest service that a work of art can do.
It's a transcendent relationship finally. But you're alienated by your transcendence. I was recently talking about the duende, and everyone was talking about how nice it is—how wonderful and rich—forgetting that when Lorca talks about the duende, he talks about how you wrestle in it and that it kills you. And we know that, historically, all encounters with the divine leave you, on the one hand, enlarged—expanded, enhanced—and on the other hand, crippled. Like the story in the Old Testament. When Jacob wrestles God, he goes from being Jacob—which is the name of a person—to being Israel, which is the name of a multitude. He becomes enhanced and enlarged. But God cripples him. And In the Eastern tradition, there are always these things about getting your head cut off because a god visited you. Rilke says, "Every angel is terrifying." The human countenance is threatened or even shattered by the divine countenance, but at the same time, the divine countenance makes us more fully who we are.
Chang: I read in an interview that you stopped using the word "God" and started using the word "Universe."
Lee: When I look at my shoe—or this cup, or this couch, or this jacket—if I think about how these things came to be, I'd have to account for the infinite net of circumstances, causes, and conditions that make each thing. We might as well say that each thing is a shape of the totality of causes. This is one shape of the totality of causes, that is another. But they look different.
And it seems to me that a poem is nothing less than that. It's not me who writes the poem, it's whether or not I had coffee that morning or did not, whether I ate red meat or did not, or whether I heard my sister singing in her room or did not. If you try to account for poem, you might think, it was that incident that I saw and that I wrote about, but it isn't. It's the temperature in the air, it's whether or not you had any sleep.
There's no way to account for any thing or any event. If you rigorously dissect it, you realize that everything is a shape of the totality of causes. What's another name for the totality of causes? The Cosmos. So everything is a shape of Cosmos or God. It feels like something bigger than me—that I can't possibly fathom—but am embedded in.
I think, too, that this is why the language in poetry is much more dense than in other conditions. Because, I think, the poet is actually experiencing the totality of causes. The poem somehow seems to have a 360-degree or spherical view of things. I think that's what makes poetic consciousness. That is, the consciousness that a poem imparts differs from other forms of consciousness.
Chang: In regard to writing poetry, Stanley Kunitz, said, "You have to move into areas of the self that remain to be explored, and that's one of the problems in maturing as a poet. By the age of fifty, the chances are that you've explored all the obvious places. The poems that remain for you to write will have to come out of your wilderness." By wilderness, he means the untamed self, all the chaos behind the locked door. Do you feel that you've explored all the obvious places or that you have more to discover?
Lee: Well, I feel both. I do feel that, as a yoga that one practices, writing poems is like any meditative path. You move through your own psychology, and then you move beyond your psychology. At that point it gets a little rough, because you have to posit something beyond your own psychology toward that which your psyche is embedded in. That adventure is, I think, an infinite proposition. That, to me, is the real wilderness. Beyond species-specific, beyond gender-specific, beyond culture-specific, what kind of poems are your cells writing? What kinds of poems come out of the space that is our bodies?
This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2007 by The Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved.