When I met Li-Young Lee for the first time, I found him much different than the picture I had formed. Wearing a North Face jacket and UGGs, he tells me that his plane was three hours late and he left his suit in the car on the way to the airport. He greets me warmly, and even though we were conducting the interview during a literary conference — UC Riverside’s annual Writers Week — and there was constant interruption, he maintained a quiet composure that some of us can only dream of. Hand-selected to read at Writers Week by US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Li-Young Lee and I had an incredibly candid conversation about art, fried chicken, and why teaching is not for everyone.
ASHLEY BEENE: At a Poets and Writers event last summer in Chicago, you said that art participates in a double life. The life of scarcity and the life of abundance. Can you elaborate on that idea?
LI-YOUNG LEE: It seems to me that the life of scarcity is the profit economy. You know, there’s one prize and a million writers who want that prize. There’s one job and a million writers who want that job. There’s only so many places to publish, and so on and so forth.
Art is beautiful, I think, in that the most essential and most primary life is this life of abundance. The longer you do it [art], the more you know about yourself, the more you understand your medium, and the more you understand your relationship to the medium.
In our case, it’s language. Poetic language. The more we practice it, the more we discover how thinking in poetry is actually the closest thing we have to enlightenment. Poetic consciousness is the deepest, fullest form of consciousness there is. The longer we practice it, like a yoga, the more we uncover about ourselves, our identity as children of the cosmos, or of God. Whatever you want to call it.
It has nothing to do, in a way, with the other life of scarcity and the profit economy and the life of violence and rivalry. So art participates in these two lives and I think sometimes we don’t have a hard time remembering the life of scarcity. We just get right into it. And I think people cheer us on. But maybe we don’t talk enough or think hard enough about the life of abundance. And how we can practice art not only as a way to make money, not only as a way to compete, not only as a way to aggrandize the ego, but as a way, really, of self-knowledge.
It seems to me the more we practice it, the more art gives us. That’s abundance. It’s infinitely abundant. You never stop discovering. You never stop.
So can anyone ever really master his or her chosen art?
Probably not. I mean, you can get really good at it. But no, probably not.
By nature of that relationship between art and its artist?
Yeah. It’s just infinitely abundant. The more you do it, the more …
You know, that’s a question I’ve been wondering about, Ashley. I thought to myself … I practice other art forms. Poetry and these other art forms all seem infinitely deep, infinitely immense in the knowledge they can offer. But here I am, this kind of shallow, temporary human being, and I think, How does that work? A shallow, temporal mind, limited, mortal, can recognize infinite, universal, eternal things. I thought it would take an eternal mind to recognize something eternal. You know, like recognizes like. But I’m this mortal, temporal human being bound in a body. How is it I’m surrounded by all these things that I recognize as infinite and eternal?
Frankly, I’m astounded that we have these things: music, Tai Chi, yoga, poetry, the violin, the piano, singing. Those are infinitely deep. And yet we’re these finite, momentary human beings just participating in all these great eternal things.
Obviously art is sort of timeless or eternal. But is the person who created that art made timeless through the art that they’re creating?
Of course if you write a great work. Or if you do something great (whatever the culture deems as great) they will remember your name forever. But I guess we participate in eternity that way. But the person him or herself, they’re gone.
Of course. The corporeal body is not present.
I mean, I don’t know if the writer of the Bhagavad Gita is sitting on the other side of eternity going, “But I wrote that.” I don’t know. I’m assuming that that consciousness is gone. The consciousness came through him or her. The person is just the vessel. Totally disposable.
If the person is a vessel then what would poetry be?
The mind of God. I think poetry is the mind of God. All the great poems that I love seem to me to all have that little ingredient. You feel like you’re in the presence of the mind of God. You can’t even account for the level of wisdom in certain poems. Take Rilke, I mean, you can’t just live and come to the conclusions he came to. I think his mission was to learn to get out of the way so that something bigger could speak through him.
Emily Dickinson, my God, she’s full of the mind of God. You can just feel God shining through those poems, darkly. So it was her, but it wasn’t. It’s unaccountable. In other words, if you wanted to be Emily Dickinson you couldn’t just have been born on the East coast, done the things she did. That wouldn’t guarantee that you could write anything. There’s something unaccountable that happened to her. And it’s that unaccountable thing that I love.
Is that unaccountable thing fate?
This is what I think. The Chinese say, “In order to write poems, it’s a process of Yin, the practice of Yin beckoning to Yang.” Yin is yielding. That is, you practice yielding. We live in a culture in which yielding is not a virtue. Retiring is not a virtue. Staying silent is not a virtue. Everything is aggressive. Yang.
Dickinson was so retiring. She was witty and she was fierce in her wit and everything, but her whole life was retiring, pushing back from society. Withdrawing, in a way. And Rilke too. He was not your average male, macho, aggressive. In fact, his lover Lou Andreas-Salomé said, “You know, that name Maria Rilke that’s no good, it’s too feminine. You’ve got to stick with Rainer.” She thought he was too effeminate.
But the Ancient Chinese believe that that’s the way you practice great art. You get the ego out of the way so that something bigger comes through.
Is this true of other work, besides poetry? I read that you did something with jewelry …
I used to make handmade jewelry with my brother. You know how we started? He was drinking a Coke one day, and when he got done he looked at the can, took a pair of garden shears, and cut a couple of shapes out. He drilled holes in those shapes, sanded then down so they were smooth, painted on them, and put little, I think they’re called “fasteners” on them, and gave them to his wife. She wore them to work and her colleagues went crazy.
Then he had a crazy idea, he said, “Li-Young, why don’t you and I make some earrings? We’ll go to the Maxwell Street Flea Market in Chicago.” We made tray after tray of jewelry: earrings and pins. We put them in the trunk of his car, drove down to the market, popped the trunk, and sold out. One day a woman from Nordstrom walked by and she said, “I’ll buy this whole tray, and I want you to make us more.” So we started making stuff for Nordstrom. Then we started making stuff for Saks Fifth Avenue. And a movie was being made called Pretty in Pink. They used a bunch of our jewelry. So it got really popular. Vogue magazine did a big spread. Cosmopolitan had models wearing our jewelry.
But even before that, he and I opened a restaurant together. In South Philadelphia, before the jewelry. We were supposed to go to medical school like all good Chinese boys. But he said, “We’re not gonna do that. We’re gonna open a restaurant.” We were living in Pittsburgh at the time. We drove to Philadelphia and opened a little luncheonette. And he came up with this recipe for fried chicken that was crazy good. It’s the best fried chicken. And people were lined up around the block wanting this fried chicken. But the restaurant business is crazy. Just crazy. As much money as we were making with the fried chicken, we just couldn’t keep afloat. So much overhead. The place closed down in a year and a half.
I went to grad school for two years. He went to art school for two years. After that, we met up again and started making jewelry. After the jewelry shut down, I went and got a job at a warehouse. It’s a book warehouse. You just stand in line and pack books. And I never paid any taxes. They paid us under the table. It was a great job for a while.
Were you writing at this time?
I was writing. I was writing. And I was young and stupid enough to think this is the life. I’m making at the time what felt like a fortune. I was making $11 and I felt like a rich man. I had a wife and a baby … and I was trying to write poems. All of my friends were getting teaching jobs. All of them were winning prizes. And it never occurred to me that I was wasting my life. Like an idiot. Of course I was wasting my life. Maybe not. Maybe I wasn’t good for anything else. I don’t know.
Then I started doing more and more readings. And I held on to my warehouse job for years because I thought: “As long as I know where bottom is, I’m okay.” But after a while I was just doing so many readings that my boss said, “Look, why don’t you just go. You will have a job here if you want it. Come back anytime.” To this day, I could go back if I wanted to. He’s so sweet, he has all my books. And I asked him, “Have you ever read them?” And he goes, “Nah. I don’t read that shit.”
You do many readings, still. You’re very much in demand.
For a while there, Ashley, it was horrible. I’m gonna be honest with you. I started doing them when my first book came out. The next thing I know I was doing 40 a year.
Multiple a month.
It was just brutal. I don’t like giving readings. But I talked myself into it because the money was good. I kept telling myself, yeah sure this is great, you like it. But the real me kept saying, No I’m miserable. I hate this. I don’t think I’m very extroverted. So I started drinking. And then I started getting into a lot of trouble. I started exhibiting a lot of antisocial behavior. Because I didn’t like what I was doing. So, my wife said, “You’re either gonna have to cut back or quit or you’re gonna kill yourself. You’re gonna ruin your reputation. You’re going out there, getting into fights, getting into trouble. It’s ridiculous. It’s not worth it.”
So for many years I stopped. Just completely. Then I do a little now and then. Things that seem worth doing. Like celebrating Juan Felipe today.
I did so many. You know, I earned a living. I couldn’t teach. There was a moment I thought to myself I’ll teach instead of this. So I tried teaching. Teaching is like sainthood.
I think I read something you said about how teaching is like bleeding …
It’s like giving blood. You’re using all of your energy, libido, creativity, and bringing it. You’re trying to say something. You’re trying to impart something that you think is worthy. First of all you’ve got to find something worth teaching. And then you do it. And some of them are paying attention. Most of them are not. And you have to forgive that. So you have to be a real saint to do it. And I just wasn’t a saint.
Can you talk a little bit about how Rose came about?
I was very lucky. I was writing poems and I had friends who kept telling me, “You gotta publish. You gotta publish.” I was never done, I was never finished with the poems. I had sent some poems to a friend. He happened to have a dinner for other friends that I didn’t know. One of those friends had a friend who was a publisher, a founder of a publisher. They were sitting on a credenza, I suppose, and he picked them up, read them. He said to my friend, “These are really good. Who wrote them? I’d love to see more.” So my friend wrote to me and said, “Al Poulin saw some of your poems sitting on my table. He loved them and wants to see more.” So I sent him some more. He [Al] told me, “You’re really good, you need a mentor.” So he helped me. After I wrote enough poems that he thought were good enough, he published them.
Wow. I imagine your story is quite unlike most people’s first book stories.
You know, I came of age in a really good time. There was a kind of really good feeling among poets. At least as far as I felt. I could be naïve. I don’t think it was the way it is now. Things are now broken up into camps. These books don’t like these books. When I was coming of age as a poet, I felt like if you were a poet, you were an outcast, a scapegoat, a victim. You were insulted and injured and confused. You were pushed to the fringe. But you loved this crazy language, the way language was.
So all of them got together and all of them loved each other. Like a love fest. Every time I met a room full of poets, they were just wild, warm, crazy, and brilliant. All of them were just not fit for primetime. I mean later they became stars, but they weren’t when I met them. They were just this group of wild women and wild men who were brilliant and on fire. No one could see any value to them. And then I don’t know what happened. I guess it got popular. But now I don’t know.
What are you working on nowadays?
I’m trying to come to terms with my own violence, my own propensity toward violence. My own violent nature. The nature of violent male behavior. Violent culture. I don’t know what it is.
My flight was four hours late … I had just gotten used to writing on a computer. My kids bought me a computer and I learned how to use it, like two years ago. It was so exciting to write at the airport.
So that’s what I’m working on. This long poem about violence and love and God and dying.
Ashley Nicole Beene is currently a third year poetry MFA student at the University of California, Riverside.