Li-Young Lee by James Lee

BOMB 51 Spring 1995
051 Spring 1995
Lee 01 Body

Li-Young Lee, Photograph by Paul Elledge Photography. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Li-Young Lee grasps for things seemingly palpable, yet ultimately elusive: to “speak” to another. This struggle to communicate first begins with a conscious effort to listen. Lee hears the voice of memory, a past that fuses the familial with the political. His biography has become almost folkloric: the son of Chinese parents who lived through the political turmoil of Sukarno’s Indonesia, and exiled to several other Asian countries before arriving in the US, where his father became an evangelical minister for a small community in western Pennsylvania. We see moments of this rich narrative of history in both of his books of poetry, Rose (1986) and The City In Which I Loved You (1991), and in his forthcoming memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995).

Yet, if Lee is trying to excavate the regions of memory, he is also pushing the language of remembrance to its circumference, its limit. Finding the nodal moment of memory and language, Lee explores that which remains inexplicable. In his memoir he asks, “Love, what is night?”—and we realize that all four words in that sentence are incalculable, indeterminate, profoundly metaphysical yet resolutely material. The incommunicable pervades his work, a movement of language that gives his writing an intensity but also a humility. In this sense, Lee is a theological writer, one who allows the stones of words to reverberate, in a lyrical, groping “narrative.”

James Lee You’re known as a poet: how did you feel writing this memoir in narrative?

Li-Young Lee It was hard for me because I wanted the book to be one person’s thoughts during a single night, and the way I tried to reproduce that was by seeing if I could actually write the book and plumb the depths of consciousness in one night. It sounded so easy: it was foolishness or even stupidity on my part. It was impossible, actually. It took me three nights, and it had taken me five years of processing to be able to even write it in that time. I wanted the book to have the feeling of a single movement, a single gesture, and within that single gesture to contain many smaller, nuanced, subtle ones. It was like taking a ball or a stone and throwing it—that single arch. And I didn’t want to fabricate it, so I planned to write it in one night. My other difficulty was not believing in narrative. I’m suspicious of the ulterior manipulation that goes on in narrative. Prose writers, of course, would differ with me. I thought of the book as a lyric moment and didn’t know how to sustain that for two hundred pages.

JL Your book engages in several extremely lyrical moments. Was it more difficult to reach that state of consciousness crafting in prose than in poetry?

LYL I wanted to transcend craft. I was interested in the possibility of actual human utterance without revision—that seemed like life to me. We can’t revise anything we do in life; I wanted the book to have that kind of trajectory. I would revise by writing the whole book over again. I had to make it up as I went along. As I was writing the book I was pitching into greater and greater commitment. I wasn’t allowing myself to look back, or look to plot. If there is a plot, it’s accidental or coincidental. It’s a bonus.

JL There’s a connection between your search for the momentary human connection and the search for that voice which you discussed in your interview with Bill Moyers.

LYL That voice isn’t a fabricated, pre-made voice. I sometimes hear it if I’m in the right state of tension. But sometimes if you listen too directly, that voice disappears. So it’s a peripheral voice that you yield to. Poetry for me is that other voice. I wanted to write a long prose poem.

JL How do you feel about the book, now that you’ve completed it?

LYL I’m unhappy that it’s finished and I’m a little exhausted from writing it over and over, and over again. I look at my work: all the poems that I write, everything, as a failure of a kind of perfection that I was trying to reach.

JL Does this sense of trying to seek perfection have anything to do with the constant metaphors of flight that reverberate in your book? The bird—the wing at sea—emerges several times in the narrative. Even the letter “r,” which you examine in a significant portion of the book, becomes something fleeting. Were you trying to work with language fleeing us?

LYL Yes, exactly. Not only language but experience itself. It seems to me that all the metaphors: sewing, walking, flying, express my inability to touch a human being, really touch another human being—in this case, my wife lying there. If everything is constantly elusive: experience itself, consciousness, language, poetry, then I never know what the work is. In a way, the book keeps exceeding me, language keeps exceeding me, and I keep trying to catch up with it. A lot of times there is a slippage in the language. I’m excited when that happens.

JL Some of the passages in the book became very difficult and challenging. I realized I’m not to let the narrative work as it goes. At certain moments, I felt that you were trying to let the meaning escape, and chasing it.

LYL As I was wording a record of actual thinking, the meaning would escape. Thinking and thought are two different things. A thought is encapsulated and already dead. It’s a noun. Thinking is a verb which means it’s in action, and I wanted to capture the action of thinking. That’s why sometimes it defies the way we understand meaning in conventional terms. I’m hoping too, that if the book is read out loud it speaks to the non-rational part of our consciousness. I’m interested in other forms of intelligence that inhabit us or that we’re ruled by. Conscious thinking is maybe ten percent of the way we actually exist in the world. I wanted to get into that darker 90%, the way the mind actually works, the way it doubles back on itself, the way it eludes itself.

JL Psychoanalysts talk about this kind of unconscious that we’re unable to reach but that momentarily emerges. It’s something that we forget but comes back to us in our dreams. In these moments, this other voice speaks to us.

LYL It occurred to me as I was writing the book, that it’s possible for a sentence to exist without words, that a sentence is a rhythmic frequency and words are like birds that come to perch along that sentence. We see the birds. I wanted to strip the sentences just to hear the rhythmic frequency.

JL Grammar and syntax.

LYL Yeah, if we read it out loud, we can hear the beauty and rhythm of the sentence. That’s a very old idea. Robert Frost talked about that. Sound is a lot more important to me than sense.

JL You’re focusing on the action of thinking rather than the state of thought. Near the end of the book, you mention the importance of dying not as death. It seemed that as the narrative was coming to a close, it was important to look at the movement of dying.

LYL It was important to capture flux. I can’t stop thinking about love and death; no other issues interest me. Political issues don’t interest me. Romantic love interests me only slightly. More than anything, a kind of a universal love—divine love—death and dying are what interest me. The momentum of dying and the act of making art are opposing forces. Making art opposes dying, but at the same time, it gets all its energy from this downward momentum, this art into the abyss that all of us are a part of, that’s the tension we feel in art which we enjoy.

JL You subtitled your book as a remembrance and I’m wondering, what are you trying to remember? There is a constant indication of your wife in the book. Was it a personal remembrance for her?

LYL It was a very personal thing to me. It seemed I was unable to communicate to any human being at all. All my life, I used to attribute it to being an immigrant. The things that are closest to me and dearest to me defy language. It seems to be some sort of ghastly joke. And while writing the book I thought, well, let me address that directly—that inability to communicate to somebody I love very much, somebody very close to me, physically and emotionally. Why can’t I communicate? Part of it is because language itself is both a vehicle of communication and yet an obstacle to communication. And the other thing of course, is my feelings are somehow outsized. They seem to me frequently larger than myself, overwhelming. In that way, they seem to defy language.

JL There were moments in the narrative when the language became so unconventional that it forced me as a reader to move to a different realm. Could you discuss the way in which you negotiated the historical past, your past, with passages that move into moments outside those narratives of history?

LYL I’m a historical being, and yet an entirely nonhistorical being. I’m both a person who was born and will die and someone who was never born and will never die. I wanted the book to have that simultaneity of both the historical and the nonhistorical, the personal and impersonal, the spiritual and the very human narrative. The lyric moment for me is exactly that: a moment in which all of who we are is simultaneously true—the contradictions, the paradoxes, the opposites are simultaneously negotiated. In other words, the book was impossible for me to write. And I liked the task because it was impossible. I might add too, that the reason I’m suspicious of narratives is I’ve noticed that we can’t be free of stereotypes as long as we’re thinking with our rational mind. So it was important for me to take a breath and then go under, the way one goes under water, to try to escape all stereotypical views of what an Asian is in America, what an immigrant is, what a man is, what a human being is. The only way I could escape those stereotypes was to defy my own rational thinking.

JL Do you think it’s possible to escape these narratives that are imposed on us?

LYL I don’t know if it’s possible or not but it’s important for me to live in a state of ‘nobodyhood.’ The culture we live in offers or imposes versions of ‘somebodyhoods’ that are really shallow and false. The car we drive—that’s a version of ‘somebodyhood,’ the woman or man we take to a party, who we marry, what shoes we have on—those are all really cheap, shabby, insufficient versions of ‘somebodyhood.’ The titles we earn, the awards we win. Those are all obstacles to the real gift of living—this consciousness that we have been gifted with momentarily. If I can attain a state of ‘nobodyhood,’ which is the same thing as the state of ‘everybodyhood,’ that’s much richer and more full of potential than some false, made-up, Hollywood magazine, university, or cultural version of ‘somebodyhood.’ I don’t know if that’s possible but that’s where I’m headed. And so it was important in writing the book to remember that I was writing a personal history, but I also wanted to reach a detached voice. In a way, I was cutting my right hand off and was letting it write by itself. Almost like automatic writing but not quite.

JL Your story is grounded in your family. Your father looms over your poetry as well as in this book. How do you negotiate this quest for ‘nobodyhood’ with your familial history?

LYL Words have personal and impersonal connotations, and sometimes if we don’t hear the impersonal connotations then a word loses its reverberation. The word “father” itself has personal connotations, yet when I say the word I can’t help but hear impersonal connotations. All my work has been a struggle with the personal and the impersonal.

JL You mentioned before that you were trying to get beyond this father figure.

LYL It was a conscious effort, but since that time I’ve been a little more humble about it. I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it. We write hundreds of poems, and many books and paragraphs and lines, in order to understand that one sentence. It isn’t a matter of switching subjects; it’s yielding to whatever forces, whatever furies, sadnesses, whatever darknesses inhabit us.

JL There’s a passage in the Book of Revelations where everyone is given a stone that constitutes who they are. It’s something that’s given to you in a certain sense by God.

LYL Martin Buber called it the stone of witness. Yeah, it’s that one stone. It was a useful arrogance to think I could switch stones or get beyond that stone. I’ve gotten humbler—trafficking with the muse really teaches you humility.

JL Your father was a minister. Do you still cherish the religion that your father taught you?

LYL Very much so. The whole enterprise of writing for me is a spiritual enterprise. I’m at a point in my life where what’s become important is to discover a naked relationship between me and the greater self, or the true self. In the Bhagavad Gita, they call it the self. They mean, of course, the godhead. The entrapments of Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism—those are just entrapments—they’re like crusts that I need to shed to get to the real kernel of truth. I think Christ was doing that in the New Testament. It’s this naked relationship between me and the godhead, to become somehow united with the godhead that has become absolutely necessary. I’m on the path, I hope, through meditation and prayer, practicing a certain way of life, a certain way of writing. The whole enterprise of writing for me is spiritual. My soul is at stake. I have this secret wish: I write to be a perfect conduit for a greater voice and it means, of course, that I have to quit my own rational thought because real contact with the godhead defies rational thinking. It doesn’t make any sense in the world we live in, and yet it is the only refuge for me, not only because of my background, because my father believed it, but because it seems that any other refuge is willful foolishness. That’s why this idea of ‘nobodyhood’ is so important to me—if I can empty myself of my own willfulness, my own ideas, I’ll make room for a greater selfhood to abide in me.

JL Are you still drawn to your father’s evangelicalism?

LYL Every time I think I’m free of paradigms, I discover another one that was already installed in me. I’m trying to live a life without paradigms. It’s sooner than the eye. And it seems to me that life moves at that pace that, before we know it, we’ve already done something to jeopardize the well-being of ourselves, the people around us. So by the time I’m thinking ‘Thou shalt not,’ the situation is over and I’m sitting there thinking I should not have. It’s important to be more fluid and more immediate. I’m trying to get beyond analytical thought. I’m trying to have my head right up against the nub of living. Life is happening to us so fast that I have to find a way in which I’m not submitting to it, but yielding. I’m not even reacting but I’m involved in a perfect, if possible, dance with it.

JL But people do respond to your work and categorize you, put you into a paradigm. Your name comes up frequently as representative of Asian diasporic literature. I was wondering to what extent would you allow yourself to be classified as such?

LYL I never thought of myself that way. I’ve always stupidly thought that I was just writing poems, saying things that were closest to my heart, cocking my ear to hear what it was I needed to say. That classification can bring attention to Asian American writers who are overlooked because they’re Asian American. But, ultimately, if we’re not careful, it can be a prison because in America we have poets and then we have Asian American poets. That’s such bullshit. When I’m writing, I’m trying to stand neck and neck with Whitman or Melville, or for that matter, the utterances of Christ in the New Testament, or the Epistles of Paul. Those are as important to me and perhaps even more influential than Asian American writers. It’s lucky that we live in a time where Asian writers are getting that kind of attention but in the end it’s not about that. It’s something much more immediate, something much more close and necessary.

JL Would this search for immediacy even go beyond family?

LYL Oh yes, yes. Honestly? Sometimes I’m not even talking to a human being. I feel as if my ambition is to speak to God, to find a human utterance that makes sense to my God. Half the things I’m saying tonight, I realize will sound lunatic to most people. And yet when I write, I am speaking to a human ‘other’ that is in everybody, not a specific somebody—a kind of greater everybody.

JL At the same time, you talk in your work about your family and their history of constant movement and exile. That’s significant in thinking about what constitutes the writing of Asian Americans.

LYL Yeah, but that applies to the children of Israel, too. I always thought that trying to find an earthly home was a human condition. It’s an arrogance of the dominant culture to think it’s not part of a diaspora. My hope is that somebody who isn’t Asian American can read it and say, well, I feel that homeless, too. The difficulty is that Earth is not my home and that’s why I feel this schism. It’s so important for an artist of any kind not to identify with a group. You know what I mean?

JL And transgress those borders …

LYL It’s about transgression. So if the term Asian American empowers us, fine. But the minute it starts making us smaller than we are … They’re going to have to deal with Maxine Hong Kingston the way they deal with Virginia Woolf or any other major writer. They’re not going to be able to sweep her into a little ghetto. She has already exceeded those boundaries. They’re going to have to deal with her as an equal. In this way, I’m speaking to the Anglo-community. To the Asian American community, I would say, “Yes, she’s one of us!” But to the Anglo-community, I would say, “Don’t try to ghettoize us,” because the writers who are among us have already equaled and surpassed many of the Anglowriters they send up the slag.

JL What is driving you now?

LYL My first love is poetry and I’m trying to find a way to write sacred poetry, poetry that sends the reader to a sacred place or calls to a sacred place inside the reader. I don’t know how to do that. That’s my wish. That’s what I meditate on and hope for: to discover the sacredness in the profane world.

James Lee is a writer living and working in Los Angeles.

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Originally published in

BOMB 51, Spring 1995

Featuring interviews with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Juliana Hatfield, Li Young Lee, Antonia Bird & Danny Boyle, Liz Diamond, Bradford Morrow, Dave Hickey, David Seidner, Shirley Kaneda, Cachao, and William Gass.

Read the issue
051 Spring 1995