my portion of heaven and hell



I recently found my 2005 interview with Li-Young Lee. It was originally published in my (now defunct) online journal Rock Salt Plum Review. I thought I had lost all of my interviews, but this one remains because it is handwritten. 

In a recent post about poetic mentors, I wrote: 

“My third mentor was Li-Young Lee…I had just started up [an] online literary journal –Rock Salt Plum Review — and wrote to Lee asking if I could interview him. I was a complete unknown and my online journal was just cutting its teeth. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear back from him, especially since he didn’t have email at the time; getting back to me would involve answering all of my interview questions by hand, in an old fashioned letter. And he did just that. I couldn’t believe it. Lee mentored me by taking me seriously, by investing hours of his life in my journal, by engaging with me thoughtfully, in human time. His meditative, gentle way mirrored his still-life poems. I was so pleased to walk the periphery of his mind for a little while, and to walk it one on one, slowly.”

My Portion of Heaven and Hell: Conversation with Li-Young Lee 
    
 by Jalina Mhyana, March, 2005
          Originally published in Rock Salt Plum Review
Mhyana: I can’t think of another poet who is so inextricably linked to his parents and upbringing. Your parents are immortalized and mythologized in your poems – there is little doubt about the impact they have had upon you. We Americans have often been accused of disowning the past in order to affirm the present, as if the past has had no influence on us.  Asian cultures tend to be more mindful to respect their ancestors and influences. Do you think this is why, given your Asian roots, you are more intent upon remembering and giving tribute to your parents than most American writers are? 
Lee: Jalina, I understand my work to be the same as other poets: to manifest in language the original condition of the archetype of The Speaker, that One who participates in world-creating and world-destroying utterance. My limited scope, I understand any poem’s primordial condition to be: poem is made in the image of the psyche that made it; psyche manifests in the image of its maker, call it Nature for simplicity’s sake (that is, psyche exists as an image and aspect of the matrix from which it emerged); Nature is embedded in Cosmos; and Cosmos in turn exists as the image and manifestation of that further ground from which it emerged. These concentric circles of ever-widening groundedness aren’t necessarily the ostensible subject of any poem, but this condition of ever more deeply embedded contexts can be heard in the ringing, the depth, the echoing that poems impart to our souls.
The challenge for me, therefore, has been to uncover the transpersonal significances of my personal biography, especially in view of so many political, sociological, and historical forces undermining any sense of the value or worth of my own being. My mother’s family suffered persecution for being aristocracy, my father’s family for being not of that class. Later, they suffered for being Communist, then Nationalist. Even later, in Indonesia, they were persecuted for being Chinese, and then for being Christian. Finally, our coming to the U.S. meant being Asians living in a country at war with an Asian country. As far as I was concerned, without a spiritual context, I would all too easily fall into one of two kinds of bankruptcies: the self-image of the victim, the sufferer, the persecuted, or the self-image of the American Dream-achiever, a victim of another sort, tyrannized by materialism and the illusion of materiality. Does this make sense, Jalina? Anyway, I sensed, even in early childhood, an infinitely receding background to my life, a thread reaching through my heritage and beyond it. Like threading the eye of a needle, or several eyes of several needles, in fact, that line up beginning with my heart, running through my parents’ hearts, and on toward God’s own oceanic frequency. Or like Odysseus shooting his arrow through the lined up axe heads. This isn’t just my ambition, Jalina, but what I assume, judging by the poets I love to read, to be the mission of poetry in general.
Mhyana: Now that you’ve written at length about your experiences as a child, and your memories of your father, are you interested in turning your attention to writing about your own children, and your experience as a father? How do you feel about bringing your living family into the public domain through publishing – is it a violation of their privacy, or a celebration of your love and entanglement?
Lee: Poems about my family are, I hope, recognitions and celebration and acknowledgement of our participation in deep connectedness and belonging. “Love and entanglement,” you say so beautifully.
Mhyana: Have you been able to read your poems to your mother in Chinese, and if so, what poem do you think was her favorite, and why? How did she feel about depictions of your father, and your devotion to him?
Lee: I have not ever had the courage to read any poem to my mother. She has asked others to translate them for her (my sister, say, or an aunt who is bilingual), but never in front of me. She has on occasion asked me, to my surprise and embarrassment, about particular poems. I usually respond, out of some habit, with something like, “Who knows what I meant, it’s all gibberish anyway. I was just fooling around.” Now that I’m thinking about it because I’m trying to answer your question, I sense there is something insufficient about my response to her, something hidden about the way I go about writing poems, at least in regards to my mother.
Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that a poem “is a kind of divination”, a mirror of who you are on any particular day. This leads to collections of poems that are as disparate and complex as our moods – a wild eclecticism. What are your thoughts on wildly sown poetry collections?
Lee:I’m going to make the presumption that your question is a form of statement, and I’ll say: I’m with you.
Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that the sort of poets you’re drawn to at poetry readings are the ones with extraordinary “inner richness” or sense of universal wholeness – poets who are able to reveal you to yourself, rather than revealing themselves to you. What is it about a poet that conveys this richness to you the most; their words, voice, carriage, magnetism? Would it be possible for a person to read another poet’s work and still get that feeling across, or is it limited to the poem’s creator? What if a poet’s words were revelatory on paper, but the poet stuttered and hacked his or her way through the reading? Would that feeling of connection still be there for you?
Lee: I guess I think that reading poetry out loud is an art form all by itself. It is its own medium and, as such, has its own laws and possibilities, different from silent reading to oneself. Some poets write good poems and also channel poems out loud very well. Some poets are better at one or the other. Channeling poems out loud (giving poetry readings), for me anyway, enacts a kind of service not entirely unlike the service poems provide. That is, if successful, a poetry reading can create the zikr or zakhor, that remembranceof our primordial condition of embeddedness in God-head, which certain ancient poetic communities practiced.
Mhyana: Speaking of that, I’m familiar with your theory of the “dying breath” (our bodies are strengthened and revitalized by the incoming breath and conversely weakened by the outgoing, or dying, breath).  In order to speak, we must speak upon exhalation – the dying breath. You’ve said that poetry involves this dying breath, because it is meant to be spoken. It is a verbal art form, and when spoken aloud, the poem becomes one with your body, it becomes more real. But I have to ask you, what about people who are socially phobic, or people who, for whatever reason, are averse to reading their work aloud? I tend to think that some work is simply better read than recited. Do you feel that all poetry should be read out loud, or are there some poets whose work stands on its own? Does the dying breath come into play when a poem is read silently?
Lee: The dying breath absolutely comes into play when we read in silence, since the breathing we usually call breathing (respiration) is only the most obvious kind of breath exchange known to us, others including exchanges on such deep levels that the only word some ancient practitioners could think of to describe it was dialogue. Dialogue itself is kind of breathing, in-going and out-going proceeding not only in words and the breath that carries them, but soul exchanging with soul. The breathing that goes on in reading, even in silence, the in-coming and going-out-to-meet, is enacted on the physical realm in our respiration. Perception itself is recognized in ancient yogic traditions as breathing, obeying much of the same laws. Breathing itself is perception. I hope I make sense. None of these ideas are original to me. And they’re not just ideas, but experiences we have every day, consciously or not.
Shy people who write great poems should never feel compelled to have to read them out loud. Those who feel called to read poems out loud probably should not refuse. Remember all the stories about prophets refusing their call and bringing bad luck to everyone around? But then, same could be said about people who are not called but who belabor us with drivel. Am I being mean?
Mhyana: What is your inner voice saying to you the day before a poetry reading, or the morning of, or when you step up to the microphone? Is it a nagging voice, or an encouraging one? 
Lee:
Many voices before and during a poetry reading:
“You suck, Li-Young. Why are you here?”
“They don’t want to hear your tripe. Anyway, even if you were Sappho, they’d rather be watching T.V.”
“What is a poetry reading? What’s the most it can be?”
 “These poems are all wrong. I should throw them all out and start over.”
“Is that my third grade school teacher in the sixth row?”
“Kill your ego, it’s not your friend. Kill your ego, it’s not your friend. Kill your ego, it’s not your friend.”
“Everything is fading away. Even planet Earth has a half-life, even stars. This will be over soon.”
“Try to feel happy. Open your heart. Try to feel grateful. These people have come hoping to experience some poetry. You yourself have come a long way to be here. And this is not just about you or the audience. You do this for God, to please God, to delight the God in each member of the audience and the God in you. And the invisible audience of spirits and ethereals, souls of the unborn and the dead. God likes to hear your voice. God gave you your voice. God gave you these poems. They’re not your poems, really. Who are you to judge them, or yourself, for that matter? You are God’s little drummer boy.”
I try to listen to that last voice. It sounds the most comforting to me, like my mother’s and father’s voices.
Mhyana: When you began work on your memoir the winged seed, were you apprehensive about switching genres (especially considering your success as a poet)?
Lee: No. The book is both an experiment in writing prose poems, and a notebook.
Mhyana: While reading the winged seed, I was struck by the beautiful metaphors, images, and incidents that would have made fantastic poems in and of themselves. Were you tempted to use the material in the winged seed in poems? It seems sacrificial; a book is only read a few times in a person’s lifetime, whereas a poem is more eternal, isn’t it? It’s read again and again, like a favorite song played over and over.
Lee: Honestly, and I’m a little ashamed to admit it, I wrote the book pretty much without revision. It was a misguided experiment in “first thought, best thought” writing. I think it’s pretty accurate to say that I actually haven’t even read it. My intention is, as with most of my work, to let it sit a while, and then go back and read what I wrote and begin to understand it, and what it wants to be, what it needs to become, and what I need to do to help it find its destiny.
Mhyana:  David Mura adapted the winged seed for the stage through Pangea World Theater in 1997. Did your family have a chance to see the production (in person or on video)? If so, what were their reactions? How did it feel to watch a stranger portraying your father?
Lee: My wife and I saw it in person. We liked it. I liked watching David as my father.
Mhyana:  Your father embraced Christianity throughout his epic struggles, eventually becoming a Presbyterian minister in America. In an interview with ArtBeat Chicago, you said, “I think art, the practice of any art form is natural religion, and I think formal religion is – can I say this – petrified art?” Could you go more in depth about this, about formalized religion being an outmoded form of creation, much the same as a poem or a painting? What is spirituality to you, versus the doctrine or dogma of an institutionalized religion?
Lee: Can I refer to my answer to the first question? I think that pretty much says it, with this small addendum: religio, from which we get religion, almost means the same thing as yoga, that is, yoke, link, connection. I would think, therefore, that anything that reminds us of our link, our bondedness to complete reality, sacred reality (by sacred I mean saturated with the presence of God, and by complete I mean the same), that is yoga that is religio, or religion.
Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that great poetry has to be about the spirit or the “soul.”  What about atheists who don’t necessarily believe in the presence of a soul? Many of our best poets have been non-theists. Can writing be limited to the physical, or emotional, and still be endowed with this greatness? What is your idea of a soul?
Lee: Poetry reveals the numinous whether written by an atheist or an avowed theist. In any case, writing that isn’t written at the very brink of the known and the unknown, writing that doesn’t communicate the surrender of the knowing will and reason and logic to other modes of reasoning and knowing, feeling, intuiting, other logic, is pretty sterile, whether practiced by theist or atheist. I have simply consigned those other modes to the realm of the divine, the demonic, God. One could call it the super unconscious, or the supreme consciousness. It has too many names, even contradictory names.
Mhyana: The recurring theme of eating strange things, such as a rose, a head,
Emerson; is this an oral fixation? A cannibalistic desire to take someone’s – or something’s – qualities into yourself, to assimilate its otherness? It’s an act of defiance and devotion, isn’t it? What does it mean?
Lee: Definitely orally fixated. Definitely devotion and defiance. Definitely don’t know what it means.
Mhyana: I love the symbolism of the seeds in your father’s pocket, how they were probably buried with him; a lost cause. It suggests many lives he could have led, many dreams that never met fruition. You, in a sense, are one of the surviving seeds, one of the few that he was able to nurture. How do you resemble him in thought and action?
Lee: I don’t know.
Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that when you sit down to write a poem, you feel that there are 10,000 poems waiting to be written. But when you choose one, suddenly a door closes on the other 9,999 poems and you’re left feeling melancholy. I know that this is a lot to ask, but I’d really love it if you would list the top five topics that you feel are waiting in the wings to be written about, that are currently pestering and intriguing you. Would you please list some of these inspirational ideas, feelings, or memories in a bit of detail?
Lee:
1.) Now that he knew he had confused his eye and his ear, that his wish to know the story the wind in the trees told actually arose from a need to see shapes in a further dark only a most ancient,, or a more future, fire ranged, now that he knew, how would he begin?
2.) If speech is the place the oar dips into the water, and only the rower who rows with his eyes closed faces both ways: the continually emerging and the vanishing…
3.) A book of children’s drawings. Every secret thing. And when it was time the girl awoke before her mirror.
4.) And then the boy understood he was not the rain. E neither had as many eyes nor as many little deaths. And he could never stay at sea for years without a compass.
5.) And then I finished the letter to my mother, and it seemed alright that I didn’t know the names of the little flowers I enclosed I the envelope, and didn’t know the word in her language for their color. It seemed alright to have no idea what sought completion in those stems, and in those withering petals.
Mhyana: Now that you’re a very popular and well-respected poet, do you ever receive rejection notices? Have you ever had to go through the rigorous submission / rejection process? What are some journals that you still regularly submit to?
Lee: I have not received many rejections lately because I’ve only sent poems to publications that have asked for them, and then only sometimes. I have nothing against magazine publishing, but lately I’ve been thinking that a really fine collection might my heart’s ambitions more than scattered publications in various magazines.
Mhyana: Would you give an example of a submission cover letter that you would send to journals?
Lee: I need some tutoring in this department.
Mhyana: What do you think about the popularity of MFA writing programs? Is American literature being diluted at the hand of mediocre, though well-trained, poets, or are we in the midst of a pivotal modern Renaissance? What is it about life today that is awakening so many poets? What are we responding to; what needs to become beautiful?
Lee: I don’t know. Maybe the divine, the numinous, is making itself felt in more and more people and they are witnessing to it in poems. In my most hopeful moments, I do think we are in the midst of not only a cultural Renaissance, but a spiritual awakening. MFA programs might prove to be the matrix that gives birth to some of the most important spiritual and religious sensibilities of our time, or, as you imply, trained mediocrity. Can’t tell.            
                                                                               
Mhyana: In your interview with Alan Fox for Rattle, you said, “[my] 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 tenderness that I want to embody.” I often feel this way too, that my poems project an identity that I haven’t consistently attained, but one that I strive toward. What do you think your readers think of you, not as a writer, but as a person and how much of this description would you say is accurate? How much of it is the poems living ahead of you, maybe giving a distorted, or hopeful, reflection of who you are?
Lee: Jalina, this question presupposes some things I would like to wonder about with you. I assume that writing poems is an encounter with God. That’s because, my experience of writing poems feels like an encounter with deep magic. Magical things happen. I say things I didn’t want to say, words in an order I could never have planned, or willed. I access knowledge I never knew lay inside me. Images arrive out of nowhere. Poems happen like dew. From where? How? I begin with nothing. Within a few moments, a poem is there. It feels like a miracle to me, and has all the AH! Of witnessing the mysterious, the uncanny. Every experience I have with writing a poem leads me to greater and greater conviction that some body in me who knows more than I know, sees more than I see, hears more than I hear, figuring causes and consequences out to the ninth generation of my grandchildren, lives with me, hidden in me, and writes my best poems. Without this presence, the poem sounds and feels like a piece of “writing” fashioned by human will. With this presence, however, the poem has magic, depth, mystery, destiny. It shines with the same unaccountable light as other descendants of God, a wren, a sycamore, a cloud, a sneeze. So, I write poems primarily to experience this Other in me, to feel the presence of this 8 billion year old intelligence in me, to get close to it, to get next to it, to feel it again and again, It is exactly the relationship of the Lover and the Beloved. In fact, I believe romantic love on the human plane to be this First Love, and interior and vertical experience, enacted horizontally in an extroverted dimension. Therefore, when you ask what I think I might seem to be in the eyes of others, I wonder if you mean in particular poems, as a kind of “character?” Or do you mean what true intentions, what deepest desires, what abiding passions emerge over time, in view of the work as a whole? I mean, I just spent this morning looking at the manuscript to what I hope will be a new collection, and if my reading is accurate I thin k I’m closer to writing the kinds of poems that are truest to me, the poems I need most to write. The new poems are, I think and I hope, simpler, more straightforward. But is this the way I want to seem? No. That’s the way I need to be in order to be a better conduit, a better secretary to the voices inhabiting my portion of heaven and hell.
                                  Many fond thanks to Li-Young Lee                                     

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