I heard Li-Young Lee read in February. I was so very impressed. He comes across as a very quiet man in his poetry, someone finding the exactly right word with thoughtfulness and in a time scale that is not ours. However, in real life, he’s hysterical in his quietness. Very funny. As in his poetry, he referenced his wife often. I think she’s probably as fascinating as him. He related stories about her influence on his thinking, and his poetry. I think he contemplates her words and influence more than his poetry could ever relate.
He talked about writing. He’s considered a confessional poet, but he sees it more as a gift from him. Kwame Dawes introduced him. Dawes discussed whether one becomes a priest if they are hearing/reading a confessional style poem. Dawes dismissed that as limiting. He too thinks it is a gift that one gives to another rather than to be the oppositional thing of confession. Confession sets up a divide I think, I’m seeing the confessional door and screen, and if you hear the poems as only that, you miss so much.
Lee talked about race. Many of his poems touch on race and his experiences as an Asian man in a predominantly white culture. He talked about one time his children had a hard time when he was walking with them, so he backed off, and the comments stopped. Someone said they thought his children were Jewish. His wife is German. He couldn’t figure how those people came up with that.
They way I used to hear his poems in my mind when I was reading them was different than before I actually heard him read. He reads softly, which I somehow expected, but the nuance and specifics were different. He reads very colloquially, casually, but very pointedly. He means what he says. There is no denying his commitment to his work.
Lee said that death was behind all he wrote. He contemplates death constantly and knows it could happen at any time. He said that we know so much about our lives except our deaths are kept hidden from us. I’d never considered it that way before. Still thinking about it.
He didn’t read many poems, but did read several longer ones, including a new one, The Undressing, that is the companion to (I think) Virtues of a Boring Husband. Which is much funnier hearing him read, than on the page. The new one was a dialogue of sorts, with wife, as he begins to make love to her. Poignant and again, thoughtful.
He talked about revision and how he does not revise. He rewrites. He uses pen and paper and rewrites the whole poem. Completely. Not just words and lines here and there, he does a complete rewrite. He worries as he ages how this will affect his poems. Time weighs heavily on him.
It was a wonderful evening. I met him briefly after the reading when I got my copy of Rose signed. We talked about hair, and his lack thereof. I expected a head full given his photos, and heck, poems!, but he had it buzzed. A good look, but just unexpected.
I hope we get more poets of his caliber here. That would be awesome! So if you ever have the chance to hear him read, do so. It will make you very happy! Time, and all its weight, very well spent!