A CONVERSATION WITH LI-YOUNG LEE
March 10, 2003, in Los Angeles, California
FOX: Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
LEE: Yeah, I guess I do. It was, “Here is a fish, make nice dish,” or something like that. I caught a little fish for my mother and I wrote that, I was just learning English, and I was just so amazed that words rhymed.
FOX: So your first poem was in English!
FOX: And how do you find writing in English? I assume it’s not your first language.
LEE: No, it isn’t. It’s like my third language. But I keep forgetting languages. My first language is Bahasa Indonesian and I learned that from my nursemaid. My mother was absent a lot in the beginning because she was trying to get my father out of jail, and so after we left Indonesia I started learning Chinese and I lost all the Bahasa. Then I began to lose a lot of my Chinese when I was about fourteen so English became much more comfortable. I guess it’s buried under there, I don’t know. I don’t know how that works, Alan, I don’t know if you forget it, or is it a buried language?
FOX: It’s probably different for different people. I assume you don’t use the other languages now, or do you?
LEE: Oh, I do. My mother only speaks Chinese, so I only speak Chinese with her. And I had a brother who recently died and he didn’t speak any English, so I used Chinese with him. But after he died, it dawned on me that the people that I use Chinese with, there’s less and less of them. So I feel as if that language, my use of it, is getting less and less.
FOX: Have you written poetry in Chinese?
LEE: No, no, I used to write letters in Chinese to my mother. Up until college, I was still writing letters, but they got more and more elementary and so I don’t even write, I can’t even read, Chinese any more. But I was back in China about ten years ago and within a week I was dreaming in Chinese. I was answering, my wife is Italian-American, and I was answering her in Chinese, so it must have been just natural for me. And I was suddenly able to read a little bit more every day, signs and things, so I think it’s under there somewhere probably.
FOX: How is the process of writing poetry for you? Do you write every day, or when you feel like it, or what?
LEE: I don’t know, Alan. I feel like I actually am on the job, I feel like I’m on 24 hours a day. I’m always listening for or trying to feel, just to get a sense of that field of mind that you’re in when you write, when a poem happens, so I’m always feeling around for that. I’m doing that 24 hours a day, and I’m ready to put everything down to write the poem. I got up this morning about 4 because I thought there was something happening. I wanted to sleep in because I went to bed late last night, but I thought no, no, no, ’cause it doesn’t always happen. So I got up and started writing—nothing came of it, a couple of lines. It’s so haphazard for me. I don’t have a system. I just feel like I’m doing it all the time. It’s really inefficient, you know. I’ve tried to sit down and do it but it doesn’t always work.
FOX: Do you have an idea of what tends to inspire you or the spark that starts the process?
LEE: I don’t know, Alan. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Lately I’ve been noticing that any situation I’m in, for instance, this interview—I’m aware, I’m more and more aware of the fact that so many things had to happen in order to make this meeting possible. Not only the phone calls and the invitation to the interview and my flying here in the airplane, so I think, well, somebody had to invent the airplane, right? And then I think, well, RATTLE had to have happened for this interview to happen which means, Stellasue, your life had to have a certain trajectory. Alan, your life had to have a certain trajectory to make all of this happen, right? And I think about the cab driver who took me to the airport and somebody—I just think it’s almost too much to disentangle, the myriad things that have to happen to make any situation occur. So I came to the conclusion that everything makes everything happen and it dawned on me that that’s the way a poem happens. So I don’t know if there’s a particular cause. But a poem somehow is a version of that condition. And I think that’s part of the joy of reading poems. We read a poem, we start to notice how words refer to each other from the beginning of the poem to the end of the poem. There’s this kind of manifold or myriad field of reference going on, of connections. So I don’t know what it is that ever makes me write a poem, you know, the sound of a bird or the smell of leaf mold, my hand, the coffee I had or the coffee I didn’t have or the ache in my left knee. There’s just so much, so I suppose for me I can hardly tell what it is. That’s part of the frustration for me too because I feel as if at any moment a poem could occur because that condition of allness, of everythingness, is occurring all the time. And so what is so special about when it yields itself or manifests itself in language? I don’t know what that is, but I’ve been thinking about that. So I guess I don’t know what inspires me, would be the answer.
FOX: Do you ever have an idea or a wish for what will happen to a poem, how it will be received, or what impact it might have?
LEE: I do, [pause] I suppose that something in me—I wish the poem would last, would last forever, but I don’t know what I mean by that. I hope that it contributes to the, I don’t know, the evolution of humanity, I hope it contributes to that. That sounds arrogant or claiming too much, doesn’t it?
FOX: No, I wouldn’t think so, if that’s a wish. For me, I would have an idea of where I want it to go, what I want to have happen, perhaps unconsciously.
LEE: And I guess it’s happened to me, Alan. You know, I feel as if reading poetry has helped me in my own evolving as a human being, so I want to return the favor?
FOX: When you read poetry, what touches you the most, what has the greatest impact on you?
LEE: I guess the doorway for me is the emotional doorway, if there’s emotion in the poem, if it’s authentic or authentic feeling. If there isn’t that, the poem can be I think intellectually really wonderful, but I’m not interested. I can appreciate it, I can respect it, I can stand in awe of it even, but if I’m not stirred, I don’t take it to my heart.
FOX: And what emotions do you like the best when you find them in a poem?
LEE: I don’t know. Maybe, maybe it’s not even emotions. Now I’m thinking a little more, a little harder about that. Maybe what it is, what I really love when I read a poem is the visceral experience of a sense of wholeness, that somehow the poem I’ve encountered is a reflection of a psychic wholeness, that when I’m reading the poem the poem is—it dawns on me, Alan, that every poem is a portrait of a speaker, right? So if my experience of that speaker is a kind of integrated, a deeply integrated but at the same time a highly differentiated psyche—I’ll use that word, I’m not sure what I mean by that—but then I get a real sense of satisfaction, a sense somehow that in the poem the emotional function is well informed of the intellectual function and the intellectual function is informed of the emotional function and they are both informed of the erotic function and the erotic function is informed of the spiritual function. Sometimes I have a problem when I read a poem that’s just the mental function, it seems uninformed of the physical functions or the emotional functions or the spiritual functions. Or even a poem that is just the spiritual function working overtime but uninformed of the other functions. So what I love is a poem that somehow posits, proposes, a condition of wholeness.
FOX: When you read poetry, do you find the emotional part often when you read, or is it rare?
LEE: I think it’s very rare. I would say, I can’t tell, Alan, if it’s rare because it’s really difficult, right? It’s difficult. Or whether for the most part it’s disallowed, because we don’t allow it, won’t allow it into our lives. I don’t know, it may be disallowed in the culture at large, and I feel maybe it’s not allowed in poetry, either, or we don’t trust it or something like that. But maybe we haven’t evolved enough. Maybe our emotional function is retarded.
FOX: Maybe poetry is an acceptable way of conveying emotions.
LEE: Yeah, but then you think about all the poets who we consider great, Eliot or Pound, I don’t think they’re particularly emotional poets. I see on your shelf there, Yehuda Amichai. I love him because there’s a lot of emotion in those poems, it seems to me. And so I think that’s really rare, and it’s emotion that feels to me that it’s not uninformed, that it’s of his intellect, but the intellect is very informed of the emotions, and they’re both informed of their temporality and their eternity. Amachai, I would say, is a poet that really gives me that. But I think that’s rare in the English language.
FOX: I tend to agree with you because when we read submissions to Rattle, one rule I have is if when I read the poem if I’m almost in tears [Lee agrees] or if I’m laughing, it’s in. And that doesn’t happen too often, either one.
LEE: Right, right. Why do think that is, Alan?
FOX: I think we look for emotional connection and I think poetry is a way of doing that …
LEE: But then why are the people who are writing not doing that?
FOX: Ah! I think you’ve put your finger on it. I think it’s tough to do.
LEE: Yeah, it’s tough to do.
FOX: Do you find that you’re inhibited in what you write? Do you ever censor, because you might reveal too much of yourself? Is that an issue for you?
LEE: No. Maybe it is an issue, but it’s kind of a backward issue because what I’m trying to do is reveal more and more. And I do recognize that there’s something inside of me that resists it. For instance, Stellasue has given me this new strategy into a poem. But I do find that there’s something that resists being revealed, so for me the problem isn’t that I’m revealing too much and I’m trying not to—no, the problem for me is that I’m trying to know myself, to self-reveal, to uncover. In this way I think I feel poetry is apocalyptic, uncovering, as opposed to ecliptic which is covering, right? And in the same way I find that poetry is disillusioning in the best way—it frees us of our illusions. But there must be something inside of me that resists disillusionment, that wants to hold onto all my illusions, all my narrow definitions of what myself might be.
FOX: What have you written which is successful in conveying emotion in your own work?
LEE: I wrote something just recently I feel as if that has a lot of emotion in it, but I can’t tell, I haven’t shown it to anybody yet, but I feel like it has a lot of emotion.
FOX: Do you typically show your work to anybody before you send it off for publication?
LEE: Well, my editor, but no, I don’t have much of a, which is a real problem, I think, for me, and a handicap, maybe. I wish I had some readers—I show it to my wife when I’m ready to show it to her …
FOX: Is she helpful?
LEE: She’s very helpful because she has a really good bullshit detector. I just read something to her over the phone. She said, “No, no, no, no, Li-Young, you don’t mean that.” [Fox laughs loudly] And I tried to convince her, you know, I’m so defensive. [more laughter from Fox] I tried to convince her, “I did mean it.” And she said, “Now think about that. Did you really mean that?” I thought, all right, I didn’t mean it. It was just, it was a device or something. So, yes, she’s tough, she doesn’t mince any words, she doesn’t pull any punches, [laughs] so that’s tough.
FOX: Is that a good thing for you as a writer?
LEE: I think it’s good. I think it is good to have somebody who’s not a writer. She comes from a coal mining background, and she doesn’t particularly value literature. She values a hundred other things, but not literature. But I think it’s also valuable to have fellow poets reading which at the moment I don’t have.
FOX: It’s an interesting issue, the impulse to reveal and yet the contrary impulse to protect.
LEE: I don’t know what that’s about. I thought about this a little bit and it dawns on me that it’s part of the whole difficulty in writing. I feel when I’m sitting in front of an empty page, part of my problem is I feel like the poem could start anywhere. So there I am sitting in front of an empty page and I feel like the page is almost a symbol of pure potential. I could start with the window or the bird or my feet or my shoes or my socks or my nose, my thumb, anywhere, I could start anywhere. But the minute I put the pencil down on the paper, the minute I start it, then the potential closes down. Then it starts to be about this particular poem. And even though you try to move that poem into a kind of spaciousness, you try to say as much as possible, but even so, it does feel as you’re closing down into this particular poem. And so for me, the experience of writing one poem is saying goodbye to the 999 other poems that want to get written. So sometimes I do have the sense as if I’m like a little doorway and there are 10,000 poems that want to get through. So for me to pick one poem is to say goodbye to 9,999 other poems and that grief just makes me crazy, because I have to pick one. And so sometimes, it doesn’t make sense, because what I do is end up closing the door and saying “no” to all of them. It’s weird, right? I don’t know. So it’s a kind of neurosis. I’m probably talking about my own neurosis here, you know [laughs]. But I don’t know. There’s a kind of loss. The whole thing about revealing is so interesting to me because I do believe that the practice of poetry is a viable path to self-knowledge. If we study the things that human beings have made, it’s a way to study human beings, right? So then a poem is a product of the psyche, and it’s a way to study the psyche. So it seems to me that it’s a way that we can know ourselves better, right? When we write the poem, we can say, well, here’s where I am today. So it’s a form of divination. So we don’t even need to do the I Ching to find out what’s going on, we can just write a poem and say, this is where I am.
FOX: What reward do you get from writing poetry?
LEE: For me it would be the experience of the all, which is so strange to me because it seems to me that that’s our perennial condition, that’s we’re always in the all. I don’t know why we need a piece of art or the writing of poem to remind us. Because when you’re in that state, if you’re writing the poem, that trance state, it’s almost as you’re omniscient, you know things you didn’t know you knew, and you see connections you didn’t think were there. And that condition of seeing all those myriad connections at once, I guess it’s just that experience of the all.
FOX: How would you compare poetry as an art form with other art forms, music or sculpture or painting?
LEE: I think of poetry as a score for the human voice, so I guess the voice is ultimately the thing you’re scoring. How does it differ? I’m not sure it’s different. I think all art forms are revelatory. All art forms reveal us to ourselves so all art forms are viable paths to self-knowledge, to knowledge of our, well, I’ll use this word—primordial condition—our original condition which is our interconnectedness and interpenetratingness with everything else. So I guess all art forms lead us to that.
FOX: Do you do many poetry readings?
LEE: I’ve been doing a lot lately, well, for the last ten years I guess I’ve been doing a lot.
FOX: Is that something you enjoy?
LEE: I do, I do enjoy it when I remember what it is I’m trying, or what I would like to do. Because it seems to me that the most a poetry reading can be is the imparting of a kind of inner richness. I think the worst, the least it can be, and I hate it when it becomes that, is when—I guess this is what I feel—if I do a reading and the audience feels, boy, he’s really smart, or he’s really deep, or he’s really interesting, I feel like I’ve failed. But if I do a reading and the audience goes home and thinks, wow, human inner life is really rich, my inner solitude is really spacious, and maybe a second or even a third or fourth thought, they think, hey, he’s pretty good, then I succeeded. If that’s the first thought, that they are rich or that the quality of their listening is really spacious and rich, then I feel that it’s a successful reading. Again, I’m just returning the favor, because I’ve gone to readings where that’s exactly what I felt after hearing the reading I feel like, wow, I felt an inner richness or richness about life, or just being alive, and only almost as an afterthought I think, wow, that person gave that feeling to me. God bless him, or her. But a lot of times when I’m listening, and I can’t tell whether this is my problem as a listener or the poet’s problem when I’m listening, and I feel, boy, that person’s really smart, or that person really knows how to use language. I feel as if psychic energy has been drained from me but not given back. Then I feel that’s not different from TV. I mean, the TV just drains your psychic energy and doesn’t give you anything back. I think real art, somehow, the more psychic energy you put into it the more you get back. It’s weird. You get it back tenfold.
FOX: Well, that is interesting because to me you’re saying that showing off is not helpful but self-revelation on a deep level, true level, is.
LEE: That’s exactly how I would say it. That something else is going on. It’s not about a bunch of people listening to somebody else or looking at somebody else. I think something deeper is going on. If the poet is a great poet, I don’t know, I never heard Frost read but I would suppose, or Emily Dickinson, but I would suppose if I heard them read that they would reveal me to me, as opposed to revealing themselves to me. Somehow by revealing themselves to me I have been revealed to myself.
FOX: I would think that’s one of the most important benefits of poetry, to allow the reader to reveal him or herself to him or herself.
LEE: Right, yeah, so it’s a real mysterious and wonderful thing that happens between the reader and the poem. Yeah.
FOX: Do you find that audiences differ a great deal at your readings?
LEE: They do, in terms of age or gender or class or race, but ultimately I’m trying to hit something that is the same. We’re all mortal human beings, part spirit, part matter, dying and eternal, male and female, dark and light, good and bad, so I guess I’m trying not to pay too much attention to the surface quality of the audience. I’m just trying to pay attention to the heart that’s afraid, that’s jubilant, sad, happy, clapping, singing, grieving. It seems to me that it’s all the same heart. It’s inflected differently with races and gender, but I never try to tailor the reading, and that could be my downfall, too.
FOX: How do you mean?
LEE: I don’t know, I just read to a high school audience and maybe, I walked in there thinking, well, I don’t care, they’re eighteen or seventeen or sixteen, they’re human beings and I’m a human being, so there must be some common ground here, but maybe I was wrong. They were so quiet I thought maybe, did they all go to sleep, man, or what? So I can’t tell whether, or maybe they were just listening well. I don’t know. But maybe I should have tailored it a little more to like a seventeen-year-old, eighteen-year-old audience instead of trying to … I don’t know, Alan, I really don’t know, but that doesn’t seem fruitful to me. That seems like a bankrupt thing to do, to try to guess your audience. I believe in a universal, or in a common ground.
FOX: Do you ever teach writing?
LEE: I tried that. I tried it a number of times, just enough times to come to the conclusion I can’t do it. It’s like sainthood. I don’t even have a little bit of a saint in me. [Fox laughs] You go in, you open a vein and sometimes the student catches it in a bucket or a cup or a thimble or they don’t catch it at all and you’re bleeding all over the floor. But that’s what it felt like to me. It felt like, I don’t know, it is an incredible service that one is doing and I wasn’t, what am I admitting? That I’m too stingy of spirit to do it? But that’s can’t be true, because not everybody is meant to be a teacher, right?
FOX: Absolutely, but look at it from the other point of view. What has helped you the most in terms of learning from others?
LEE: I think being around poets helped me a lot. Being around them, seeing how they function in the world. For the most part, I would say how they somehow embody the condition of that all in a world that isn’t completely friendly to that condition. So the poets that I have always loved, who are living poets that I’ve loved and been around their presence, their presence has taught me so much about poetry. They way they react to things, the way they see things, they way they are.
FOX: Who are some of your favorite poets?
LEE: I guess ones that come to mind, Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, John Logan, Hayden Carruth, there are so many of them. Emily Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly, Robert Frost, Lee Bai, Du Fu, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, Michael Palmer, Allen Grossman, boy, we’re living in a such good time. There are so many great poets. I think we’re living in a really special time. There are more and more poets. Somebody told that there are more poets now in North America than there ever has been in the whole world. And I thought, wow, that’s a lot. That’s really wonderful.
FOX: Do you find that there are cultural differences in the writing or response to poetry in the United States in comparison with other cultures, other countries?
LEE: I was in Indonesia and I saw this crazy poet. Boy, their idea of a poetry reading was very different than our idea. He had an ax hanging from the ceiling of this place we were in and the ax was swinging back and forth, just missing him. He was ducking and he was chanting and shouting these poems. And I thought, wow, that is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was an ax head, it wasn’t the ax, and it would sometimes stop and he would swing it again and it was just swinging around. He was drinking, had a bottle of beer that he broke, and he was lacerating himself with the broken bottle, and chanting poems, and he was in some sort of weird trance. I couldn’t tell whether it was theatrics or real, but the other people seemed to me like they were in this trance with him, they were really into it, and shouting, and clapping, and responding gutturally, grunting when he was, and so I thought that was kind of interesting. But there must be some sort of cultural background for that, right? If we did that in this country, it would be just…sensationalism?
LEE: So I guess it’s just different, and I’ve noticed in Indonesia the kind of possessed quality of poetry had not gone out of favor yet. I think maybe in North America or in Eurocentric countries we are suspicious of that, if somebody believes that poetry is a form of possession by higher powers. I happen to believe that it’s the all speaking through the singular one so I’m all into that.
FOX: Do you think that over the past 20 or 30 or 40 years poetry in the United States has become more popular, less popular?
LEE: I think it’s more popular. There are more poets writing, more books published, more magazines, more MFA programs. I guess there might be a downside, and I sometimes think the downside could be when we forget that it’s ultimately about spirit, or it’s ultimately about soul, and we think it’s about other things. The upside would be it’s a sign of our evolution as human beings. In my most hopeful moments, I think it could be that it’s ultimately a sign of our evolving.
FOX: Do you think that writing of poetry can be taught?
LEE: Taught? I suppose. I hope so. I feel as if I’m teaching myself. Can it be taught? Maybe, not taught from the outside. It can be taught, I think, as a road to the interior. I think it can be taught that way, but I don’t think it can be taught like this writing scheme or this meter, or something like that.
FOX: What suggestions do you have for a new poetry writer?
LEE: Boy, I feel like a new poetry writer, Alan, so I don’t know. I guess, just keep doing it, believe in yourself, remind yourself. It’s the deepest thing you’re probably doing. Well, that’s not true. I mean, there are deeper things, such as raising children. Just remind yourself of that and keep believing in what you’re doing.
FOX: Do you like to hang out with poets?
LEE: I do. Some of the poets I mentioned, I love being in their presence. They always teach me to be more expansive, more welcoming, more accepting, compassionate. Maybe I’ve been lucky because I’ve heard the other thing, too. I’ve heard poets are terrible, they’re stingy and they’re self-aggrandizing, but that hasn’t been my experience. The poets I’ve known have all been extremely capacious in their emotional range, in their acceptance, in what they love and what they’ll tolerate. Now those are the poets I’ve known, maybe I’m just lucky. So I love being around them, but I don’t get to be around them all the time because of my conditions of work and family and where I’m at. There aren’t that many in Chicago.
FOX: You mentioned compassion. What’s the role of compassion in poetry?
LEE: I’m almost embarrassed to talk about this stuff because it’s so murky. So I can’t even account for it. I feel as if it weren’t for poetry I would be a worse human being than I am even right now. I know I’m pretty bad in so many ways, but I can remember the day when I discovered not just reading poetry, the idea of writing it—reading it I appreciated it and this and that—but the moment I started writing it I started to think, well, wait a minute, I have to change. In order to write these poems that I love so much, in order to write like, for instance, Emily Dickinson, I thought I’d have to change, because I don’t think what she’s doing is a technical issue at all, I think it’s about her being. [Fox murmurs agreement] And for me to write like that, I would have to get to that place, that complete openness and self-acceptance and self-forgiveness that’s going on. I know there’s a lot of pain in those poems but she’s willing to forgive what she’s doing in those poems, that is, be irrational, to defy probability, all that stuff. I never thought for a second it was some sort of technical device she was doing. I thought, well, okay, I’d have to be that, how do I be that, how do I get there? Or when I read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, I would think, that sort of appreciation for existence? I don’t think that’s a technical device. I think, how do I reach that place in order to write like that? In order to earn the authority to say that? So I thought, I have to change.
FOX: Wonderful insight. So what did you do when you had this realization?
LEE: I don’t know. I just started thinking about why. It made me more self-reflective, noticing how I’m not consistent with what it is I’m saying or whether somehow my saying, the poems somehow live ahead of me because they’re a paradigm for what I want to be, they’re a paradigm for the consciousness or the love or the compassion or the tenderness that I want to embody. If I read a Roethke poem, the tenderness he has for the natural world, I feel like I would have to ask myself, well, how do I get to that place, to be that tender? Unless I believe, which would really just feel nauseating to me to think, well, how do I effect that device? I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in how do I make my heart like that. But see, and I know Roethke was a real asshole, that’s what I’ve heard, I don’t know. Or John Logan, I was just reading his poems, and I know a lot of people think he’s sentimental and overwrought—I don’t. I feel he’s tender and I think he’s a master of the line. I just ask myself, how do I get to that place, to be able to say those things with authority. And I don’t know how. So I guess maybe making the poem is self-making. But I think Yeats said that. He said, “I’m not making the poem only, I’m making myself.”
FOX: That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I think that, for myself, when I was young I wanted to fake it better, have something—I remember a speech in high school and my instructor said, “Why’d you write this speech? It’s not to entertain, it’s not to educate, it seems to me you wrote something just to impress people, and it’s hollow.” I think that to be a really good writer you have to access yourself in a true way.
LEE: Yes. I think ultimately, Alan, what I’ve been trying to say so clumsily for this past hour is I don’t think the poem or the poetry is the final opus. I don’t think the work is the poem or book of poems or the novel or the painting. I think it’s the self and that the making of the art is a way toward that total presence that one is trying to achieve. And how do you do that? You can’t just go through the world and try to be. I think art is a viable path toward total presence.
LEE: That took, what, three seconds to say. I should have said it in the beginning. I guess that’s what I feel, so that the total presence is the grail. The poem is not the grail. The poem is a kind of divination. You write a poem and you look it and you go, wow, I’m really dark today. And you say, why? And you look and you go, that’s a really incomplete unfair view of existence. And then you realize, oh, well then, you have to work through something. So I look at the poem as a kind of looking into the mirror. How do I look today? How does my soul look today? But then, of course, you have to have some sort of ideal as to what a total poem that manifests total presence, what that would look like. And I think we do have models of that.
FOX: Such as?
LEE: I would say certain great poems by Robert Frost, like “Directive,” “West Running Brook”—boy, that poem just breaks my heart every time I read it. That poem, “West Running Brook,” is just amazing. The need of being versed in country things, poems like that, that give you feeling of, an experience of total presence. Or even in Neruda’s poems, in “Residence on Earth,” even in their translations, somehow the presence gets translated. So for me it’s about presence. And so the work is not even the poem, the work is the self, without making too many claims on poetry.
FOX: I think, poetry is—you used a good word—the mysterious.
LEE: It really is.
FOX: The process, the result, it’s very mysterious. I think it calls upon the poet to really look at himself or herself.
LEE: Yes, and I think it’s ultimately a kind of alchemy, Alan, because I’ve been thinking that, even a metaphor, we could think of it as a literary device—that’s just so bankrupt to me, when I think about it that way. I literally feel when I think of it as a literary device, it just feels nauseating to me. But when I realize that ultimately what a metaphor does is it marries two seemingly incompatible psychic contents. It marries them in an image that’s a metaphor, so it’s alchemical, right? You’re trying to happily integrate parts of your psyche that resist integration, maybe it’s feeling and thinking, but then you find an image and image is like a perfect marriage of thinking and feeling, right? Whereas a statement would be all thinking. Do you know what I mean? But an image or a metaphor is that composite of thinking, feeling, everything married together. So it’s ultimately alchemical and I think that it’s good for us to do that with our own psychic energies, to marry them, to make them admit each other, to encounter each other, to integrate each other.
FOX: Why do you write poetry instead of novels or short stories or something else?
LEE: I have this theory, Alan. I notice, for instance, a poem is the scored human voice. Voice is speech and all speech is done with the exhaled breath. You can’t inhale and speak so you have to breathe out. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the exhaled breath is the dying breath. When we breathe in, our bodies are full of life, our muscles have real tone, our blood is full of oxygen, our bones actually get very compacted, they actually get harder. There’s some proof for this, and we feel full of life and very comfortable. And when we exhale, our bones get softer, our muscles lose their tone and it’s the dying breath. Now when we speak, we’re using that dying breath, so I think that gives writing a particularly tragic undertone, overtone, what’s the difference? What is undertone and overtone? Let me just use tragic color. Because what you’re doing is you’re using the dying breath, you’re inflecting or figuring your dying breath. The interesting part, though, is meaning gets born. The more you speak, the more meaning gets revealed so that meaning grows in opposite ratio to the vitality of the dying breath. So as meaning gets bigger, the breath gets less and less. Which seems to me a paradigm of life—that as we die the meaning of our lives gets born, and that seems tragic to me. There’s something melancholy about that thought, that meaning can’t even get made unless I expend the breath, right?
FOX: Unless you die.
LEE: Right. And so part of that is, I think, because one feels so sharply that one is engaging in one’s own death, one’s own dying, when you’re scoring the human speech, you try to ransom that breath, you try to make it count as much as possible by packing it with as much psychic content as possible. The language that most approaches that state is poetry. A sentence of poetry is more packed than any other form of speech, I think, with psychic content, emotional content, intellectual content, spiritual content, visceral content, because I think more than with any other form of speech, you’re more aware of the fact that I have to spend this breath to give birth to meaning. Robert Frost knew that. He said, “Well spent is kept.” Right? So you get to keep the meaning, but you have to spend the breath. Did that make any sense, Alan?
FOX: I think so.
LEE: I’ve been thinking about it and trying to find a clear way to articulate that.
FOX: I think what you’re doing now is like the process of writing a poem.
LEE: I’m also thinking there’s all these weird trajectories of force that go on when we write a line of speech or a sentence of speech because while vitality decreases meaning gets born and yet potential decreases, right? Because we go from a state of, the beginning of the line is pure potential, before you even put a word down you’re in a state of pure potential, but as the line proceeds, you close down, the potential is closed down. But then the poem keeps bringing your hand or your thinking back to the beginning of the line so it enacts this desire to return to pure potential all the time. Does this make sense, Stellasue, to you? You’re actually enacting in the writing of a poem the deepest laws that govern the universe. I don’t know why that should be a surprise, because ultimately if a poem is a paradigm of psyche and if psyche is a paradigm of cosmos, well then, it’s obvious, it would be that a poem would be a paradigm of the all, that seems obvious—so why is every time I think about it, it seems surprising or novel? I don’t know why that would be. So I think one writes poems because of that. You’re trying to ransom that dying breath. You just can’t stand the thought of death, so you try to pack everything in as much as possible.
FOX: Would that have anything to do with the reason why many people have an aversion to poetry …
LEE: Yes! Of course! They can’t stand that density, the total presence. It is too much. Why is it too much?
LEE: I think this is a weird time we’re living in, Alan, because I’ve noticed, for instance, people’s reactions to certain words. We’re living in a time where the word “sincere” and I didn’t know this, is suddenly a bad thing. I don’t get it. I heard a poet say to me, “Oh, I hate sincerity.” And I thought, oh, what do you like? Insincerity? I don’t get it. [Fox laughs] What do they mean by that? And then I was talking to a poet and I said to her, “Well, for me, poetry is a form is disillusionment, right? It frees you of your illusions in order to uncover the condition of the all which we are constantly in the midst of.” And she said, “Well, I don’t like to be disillusioned.” Why? You want to be illusioned?” [Fox laughs loudly] I mean, Hollywood gives us illusions. People Magazine gives us illusions. TV gives us illusions. But I think art gives us reality. And the reality that’s uncovered is so rich. Maybe that’s what it is—it’s not only rich and beautiful but it’s terrifying, too. Because it’s so vast, it’s so limitless and so overwhelming, it’s overwhelming. So maybe we can’t stand abundance. We can’t stand abundance and so we keep making models of scarcity. I feel as if we keep living by models of scarcity. And I feel like somehow horizontal models are all based on scarcity. But I think vertical models are based on abundance. And maybe we can’t stand abundance. We can’t stand the fact that ultimately this condition of the allness is what is our real condition. And so we’d rather live, we don’t want to be disillusioned. I want to be disillusioned. When I first read the poets that I love, I thought, wow, you mean, this is real existence, this is somebody speaking truthfully about my own experience of the all. And I just don’t want to live in illusion. And yet I’m my own worst enemy. I do recognize that I keep creating little illusions I can function inside of.
FOX: How would you say your work has evolved in the past ten or twenty years?
LEE: Well, I hope it’s gotten better, deeper, truer.
FOX: What would you consider to be better?
LEE: [pausing] Fuller, fuller, more, the word that comes to mind is “naked,” less, less dressing, more the thing, the true speaking directly, what it is, is exactly my experience, less dressing, fuller, more differentiated and at the same time integrating more psychic contents. I hope the presence of the poems, the presence that those poems impart is fuller, deeper.
FOX: And what would you like your work to be remembered for?
LEE: Oh, man, I don’t know, just, I don’t know. I just want to write a good poem.
FOX: Well, I think that’s a good spot to end at.
LEE: I think I was rambling a lot, Alan, all over the place. I don’t know what I was …
FOX: It was very interesting.
LEE: Okay. I hope it wasn’t too weird, too [lost in Fox’s laughter] …
—from Rattle #21, Summer 2004