Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee

Informal Poetry Colloquium
Mohr Visiting Poet Series

Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460,
Room 426 (Terrace Room), Stanford University

Tuesday, May 23, 2006, 11 am-12 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Li-Young Lee gave a Poetry Reading at Stanford's Campbell Recital Hall in the Braun Music Center on Wednesday, May 10, 2006 at 8 pm. As I was working at Foothill College Middlefield Campus Computer Lab on Wednesdays, I couldn't attend. My first acquaintance with Li-Young Lee was around 1987 when a package of his arrived by mail in our home in Palo Alto. It contained two copies of his first poetry book Rose, published by BOA Editions (1986) with photographs of the poet. My Dad told me that he had sent a check for the books after reading a review in the New York Times Book Review (October 4, 1987). Dad asked for the photos so that he could write a book review of Lee's Rose for a Chinese newspaper or magazine. At the time, I was just beginning to appreciate modern poetry, but didn't read Lee's book. When I was in Dick Maxwell's Poetry Workshop class at Foothill College, Dick praised Lee's second book City in which I Love You (1990) and recommended it highly to the class. When Lee gave a Poetry Reading at De Anza College (1992?), Dick invited me to go with him. I brought Dad's hard-cover copy of Rose and my paperback copy of City in which I Love You for Lee to autograph after his reading. Lee told me that he was away from home when my Dad's letter with the check arrived. His wife mailed the books with Lee's photos at the time. Lee was happy to autograph the book personalizing it to my Dad. It's fourteen years since my last encounter with Li-Young Lee, and I'm happy to be here at his Poetry Colloquium. The Terrace Room was already filling up fast, and I got a seat in the second row. When I entered the room, the organizer asked Lee if there is anything she could help him like a bottled water or soda. Lee replied, "Just tell me what to talk about." She said, "I'm sure you'll do just fine." Later, Eavan Boland, Director of the Creative Writing Program introduced Li-Young Lee, praising his Poetry Reading of May 10. Here are my 11 pages of notes to share with poetry lovers. Some of Lee's answers are incomplete [indicated by (?)] when he spoke faster than my notes-taking. If I can find them in other of Lee's interviews, they'll be filled in later. I've added web links on Li-Young Lee's books, biographies, poems, essays, interviews, news, and book reviews. May they deepen our appreciation of this illumined and inspiring poet.

Lee: "I was sweating this and looked up colloquium
          it's just people talking. I guess you can ask me questions, and I'll talk."

Q & A Session:

Q: How has your poetry changed? Did it evolve without you
      thinking about it or were you conscious of it?
A: I think both. I hope my poetry has gone deeper—
      deeper into my life, into the source of language.
      It's identical to the source of reality, to discover reality
      in my poems, to get more focus, to make sense of my life.

Q: I noticed recurring themes and word choices in your poems
      such as death, listening, flowers, stars, sleep
      It's your word choices that create profoundity.
A: Thank you. English is my second language. I wish I had a wider vocabulary.
      I'm obsessed about these things, particularly about death.
      Death makes profoundity. Poetry's ultimate concern
      should be about death, life, care. The poem is a score
      for exhaled breath. It behooves us to think the nature of
      human speech. All speech is done with the outbreath.
      The Lakota tribe has inbreath speech to pass on secrets.
      I inhale in silence. Inhale breath is feeding oxygen.
      Your bones get hard, your skin gets redder during inbreath.
      When you exhale, your bones get soft, nutrients leave the body.
      Think of the outbreath as the dying breath.
      Speech is done with the dying breath.
      The more I say, the more meaning there is.
      As you talk, you're dying. Meaning ratio to vitality.
      Speech is a paradigm for human life.
      The older you get— less vitality.
      If you focus on loss of vitality, it leads to depression.
      But there is joy in verbal meaning.
      Think of the breath as body-respiration
      Deeper breathing is beyond respirattion.
      A poem is a score for human dying or human living or both.
      You can't look away from your shadow.
      Poets like Wallace Stevens have talked about this.
      Meaning that he uncovered is the dying breath.
      Deep respiration.

Q: What was your father's influence on you?
A: It's a Taoist thing—
      My father told me that humans take 15,000 breaths a day.
      When I inhale, I say "Thank you"
      When I exhale, I say "Good-bye"
      This helps you to rest your mind and breathing.
      Create (?) a weird density.
      You feel like you're in a moving train.
      William Blake's "kisses the joy as it flies"
      ["Lives in eternity's sun rise."]

Q: Do your poems come out fluid?
A: Some do. I have... I should...
      I don't like my own work.
      Resist tempering...(?) Happiest... (?)

Q: Who do you wish to write like?
A: I wish I could write like God.
      I'm not joking. The cosmos is the paradigm for poetry.
      It's the ultimate paradigm. Read the cosmos, the All as the text.
      I don't think poetry belong as other literary objects.
      Jung calls it synchronicity
      non-causal or acausal orderliness
      The cosmos is a synchronicity.
      There is no rational movement or perfect sense.
      Meta-rational approaches to make sense.
      A poem should have coincidences
      otherwise it's not a poem.
      What's unaccountable... (?)

Q: There are religious elements in your poetry.
      Do you treat a poem as a prayer?
A: Making of a poem is natural religion.
      I was in Hawaii and watched an island being born on a mountain.
      The poet stands on a mountain and watch naked encounter with reality.
      The practice of art is the highest form of religion.
      Religio- means link or bondings.
      Yoga means to bind. Art is the supreme yoga.
      Our bondings of the beyond—
      Poetry is touching the beyond.
      Poems help us feel that.

Q: Do you like formal poetry?
A: I love formal poetry.
      I'm going to... (?)
      Every time I speak, there... (?)
      In the writing of a poem, there's negotiation
      of chance and randomness, probability and
      determination, some struggle for freedom.
      If something is overly probable,
      then it's like being in jail or prison.
      We wear the same thing, drink coffee at the same time.
      There's need for randomness and chance in life.
      We think we're free, but that's not true freedom.
      In formal poetry, the sonnet has 14 lines.
      Rhyming verses have 4 lines for the first stanza,
      4 lines for the second stanza—
      rhyming patterns of abab, cdcd.
      Beauty of it is when you bring in randomness.
      Something great about formal poetry is its patterns.
      The has a pattern but sounds different
      as you read it because of the element of surprise.
      In free verse, one discovers other forms
      of probability or randomness, ushering in surprise.
      The ultimate freedom is cut up the New York Times
      into words. Pour them out of a jar and create a random poem.
      However, if you take a different newspaper or magazine,
      you'd wind up with different words and a different poem.
      A mathematician told me that after 64 tosses,
      you would get the same poem coming out.
      There's a higher synchronicity in great poetry.

Q: Can you compare writing poems with music?
A: I don't write music, so I can't compare.

Q: Being bilingual, has it helped your poetry?
A: Bilingual sometimes helps me,
      but it sometimes hurts me.
      The unconscious life of English language
      feels more evident. Maybe the feel for language.
      I'll sense unconscious things about a word and
      I struggle to get my sentences and words right.
Al Poulin, Jr. helped me editing my English.
      My experience of the world is in silence.
      Silence is the medium of poetry more than prose.
      Silence is to poetry as space is to architecture.
      There is sacred space, public space, private space.
      In silence, there is perpetual "don't knowness"
      and sacred secrets to explore.

Q: How do you know silence is inhabited?
A: I don't. My own reading is so subjective.
      Everything I say is subjective.
      When I read a deep poem
      there is cathartic silence.

Q: How did you decide to pursue poetry?
A: My parents were classically educated in China.
      The recited ancient Chinese poems.
      I noticed my father would look away and weep.
      They recited ancient poems among friends
      and finished each other's stanzas.
      I was glad that I was too young to participate.
      My father translated The Midrash.
      He had a poetic mind. My encounter with poetry
      happened in real life when I was young.
      I was an oversaturated being.
      Poetry formulated me.

Q: You had a conscious relationship with your poetry.
      What inspired you to get over that?
A: That's the ego talking. I write poems to keep the ego in check.
      This is weird— If ego is the mind associated
      with the outbreath, it's also the dying breath.
      When we exhale to maximum capacity, we feel uncomfortable.
      You can't talk except with the exhaling breath.
      The ego is not a friend to me.
      It is a yoga— you do it because you feel good.
      Self-consciousness: I don't know.

Q: When you sit down to write—
      is it observation or reaction?
A: I don't know where is the source of poetry.
      The poem is an incidence of coincidence.

Q: In your poem— the light come from the Light.
A: She's a plant [Laughter in audience]. I don't know.
      It's great to talk about poetry.

Q: If you knew the source, would it help your writing?
A: I don't know, but I want to know.
      If I know where it came from,
      I'll do it again.

Q: We had a spectacular discussion today.
      Your talk about synchronicity.
      Robert Pinsky talked about breath in poetry.
      C.D. Wright referred to light upon light.
      How connected are you to contemporary American poetry?
A: I feel connected to contemporary poetry.
      We're living in a great time.
      More people are writing poems.
      More poems are published—
      not just people wanting to get famous.
      There are other ways to do that.
      People are waking up.
      There are programs encouraging writing.
      A close reading of poems
      heighten our sense of perceptions.
      Some say this generation of ours
      is the cruelest and stupidest of all.
      But I don't think so.
      I don't know—
      I have no clues.

The Poetry Colloquium ended at 11:45 am.

Afterword: Eavan Boland welcomed the audience to buffet lunch on the patio of the Terrace Room. Many Stanford students had copies of Li-Young Lee's books and crowded him for autographs. I went out to the patio and got a plate filled with veggie bun, potato salad, grapes, pineapple, honey dew slices, and bottled water. I sat at a lunch table with several poets from Waverley Writers and we chatted about Lee's Colloquium, how he touched on the spirtual dimension of poetry that's not often discussed. When I noticed that the crowd of students around Li-Young Lee had dissipated, I went to say hello to him. A woman was asking Lee about randomness in poetry, and I suggested that she consult John Cage's book Silence (1961), where he used the I Ching (1000 BC) to create his avant-garde music by chance. Merce Cunningham choreographed many of his modern dances according to John Cage's music. I told Lee how much I enjoyed his talk about breathing in relation to poetry and life. I mentioned Max Perutz and his discovery of hemoglobin breathing in and out on the molecular scale. Lee was fascinated when I told him of my career change from biochemistry to poetry— that in both cases I was deciphering the language of life either from proteins or poetry. Lee didn't have an email yet, but gave me his home address so we can correspond. I told him that I'd send him a copy of my review paper (1978) on protein structure predictions so he has some idea on the research in this field. We had a warm chat for 15 minutes on the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching and the 64 codons in the genetic code that generate the 20 amino acids which form the building blocks for protein synthesis. After our conversation, I began surfing the web for links to Lee's poetry and composed this web page. Lee's insightful remarks about our inbreath & outbreath reminded me of Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann. I've typed out the relevant passages on Goethe's idea on the earth inhaling and exhaling (April 11, 1827). I was also inspired in writing a poem "Breathe In... Breathe Out..." which was completed a week later during my walks down Palm Drive at midnight. It took me another five days to complete the Notes citing sources and correlations to this poem. I thank Li-Young Lee's Poetry Colloquium which focused my mind on this poetic endeavour.


Books by Li-Young Lee: (at

BOA Editions, Ltd.
(June 1986)

City in which I Love You
BOA Editions, Ltd.
(June 1990)

Book of My Nights
BOA Editions, Ltd.
(September 1, 2001)

The Winged Seed
Ruminator Books
(April 15, 1999)

Breaking the Alabaster Jar
BOA Editions, Ltd.
(Sept. 1, 2006)

Li-Young Lee Biography & Poems:
Academy of American Poets: Li-Young Lee
  (Biography, Two Poems, External Links)
Wikipedia: Li-Young Lee
  (Life, Career, Selected Bibliography, External Links)
Modern and Contemporary American Poetry: Li-Young Lee
  (Web page from Taiwan: Biography, E-texts of poems, photos)
Poetry of Li-Young Lee
  (A Story, Early in the Morning, The Gift)
"The Sacrifice"
  (By Li-Young Lee, Ploughshares, Issue #53, Vol. 16/4, Winter 1990-1991)
"This Hour and What Is Dead"
  (By Li-Young Lee, Ploughshares, Issue #53, Vol. 16/4, Winter 1990-1991)
"Become Becoming"
  (By Li-Young Lee, The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 44, Winter 2003-2004)
"Between Seasons"
  (By Li-Young Lee, from Rose, Dan Wickett's Blog, April 14, 2006)
BOA Editions: Li-Young Lee
  (Bio, Readings, Interview, Books) Li-Young Lee
  (22 poems: Eating Alone, My Indigo, Persimmons, The Sacrifice, With Ruins)
Li-Young Lee
  (Family History, Lee's Poetry, Brief History Of China & Indonesia, Web Links)
Poet Li-Young Lee
  (Quote, Poems, Interviews, Essays, Multimedia)

Li-Young Lee Essays:
Inheritance and Invention in Li-Young Lee's Poetry
  (By Zhou Xiaojing, Melus, Spring 1996)
Li-Young Lee's "Persimmons"
  (By Tim Engles, The Explicator, Spring, 1996)
Li-Young Lee: The Poem within the Poet
  (By Chris Cooper, Jade Dragon Online, Sept-Oct 2000)
The Course of Memory: Li-Young Lee and the American Tradition
  (By Karl Thomas Rees, Brigham Young University, August 2001)

Li-Young Lee Interviews:
Poems From God: A Conversation With Li-Young Lee
  (By Amy Pence, Poets & Writers, Nov.-Dec. 2001)
The Writer's Chronicle: An Interview with Li-Young Lee
  (Interview by Marie Jordan, AWP Magazine, May/Summer 2002)
Li-Young Lee: Infinite Inwardness (Audio)
  (Devotionals/Forums at Brigham Young University, Jan. 27, 2004)
Lannan Readings & Conversations: Li-Young Lee (Audio)
  (Interview with Michael Silverblatt, March 29, 2004)
Interview: Li-Young Lee
  (Scene Missing Magazine, December 7, 2004)
Poetry, The Supreme Yoga: An Interview with Li-Young Lee (PDF)
  (By Harbour Winn, Elaine Smokewood, & John McBryde,
  Humanities InterView, Oklahoma, Fall 2004)

Li-Young Lee News & Book Reviews:
Li-Young Lee's Rose (1986)
  (By Matthew Flamm, New York Times Book Review, Oct. 4, 1987)
Poet Li-Young Lee to receive honorary degree
  (State University of New York, Brockport, May 16, 1998)
Li-Young Lee to Give Reading at Susquehanna University
  (Press Release, Susquehanna University, Nov. 5, 1998)
Li-Young Lee at Spring Literary Festival: April 9
  (Press Release, Salisbury State University, March 21, 2001)
Atwood Lecture Series Welcomes Poet Li-Young Lee
  (By Megan Cox, Salve, Salve Regina University, March 21, 2003)
'A silver tear, a tiny flame':
  Chicago poet Li-Young Lee pays a visit to the literati at The Poetry Center of Chicago
  (By Lydialyle Gibson, Chicago Journal Poetry Center Event Review, April 10, 2003)
Li-Young Lee: notes on his reading in San Jose, November 12-13, 2003
  (By Joan Zimmerman, November 2003)
Poet Li-Young Lee to Present Nov. 4 Reading
  as Whitworths 2005 Endowed English Reader
  (Whitworth College Press Release, October 14, 2005)

| Top of Page | Stanford Lectures | Poetry on Peace | Poetry News | CPITS |
| Books | Numbers | Enlightenment | A-Z Portals | Home |

© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (6-9-2006)