Monday, December 29, 2008

a re-post from 2005: my first acquaintance with Li-Young Lee

[Written on 03/13/2005 about 03/01-02/2005 in Greeley, Colorado]

Li-Young Lee visited UNC eleven or twelve days ago, i.e. 03/01/05, and I was very lucky to be the guy who got to pick him up at the airport and drive him around and introduce him to the audience. He was a lot more casual and friendly and down to earth than I expected. In fact, I liked him right away. I don't know why I thought he might be anything else, maybe just because of his fame and how other famous poets are sometimes. It took me a little while to find him at baggage claim though I got there early and went looking for him whenever trainloads of passengers flowed up and out of the escalators from the underground rail. He was in a long coat and had on sneakers and just one small bag. He was easy to recognize; we spotted each other, and after I introduced myself he called home to say he had a ride.

(I had wanted to borrow a cell phone so that he could call me from baggage claim, which is how I picked up Sharon Olds the previous year, but this year no one in the dept. had one they could spare.)

Of course, I had heard him read in Chicago at AWP last year (when he shared a reading with, among others, Mark Strand), and I was happy to help him get to the Greeley Guest House. As we started off, he didn't really talk about himself at all. That was kind of a nice surprise. Instead, he was very curious about me. He asked a lot of questions. When he learned I was a poet, he said, "You're a rare bird," meaning, an Asian-American in poetry. He asked me how my parents felt about it. "They thought it was a catastrophe," I said. I mentioned how even just a few years ago my mother had tried to get me to go to law school depite fifteen years in teaching. "My mom wanted me to get a real job."

We had to take an airport shuttle to the parking lot to my car. During the long drive from Denver International Airport, we talked about a lot of things. His parents hadn't been thrilled with his career either, it turned out.

"Wow," I was impressed by how unimpressed Asian parents can be about artistic achievements.

We also talked about poetry recordings and some things that are happening with poetry audio and studio work. He was working with some studio, and he was surprised to learn how expensive it could be. Another thing we talked about was Sharon Olds. He had seen her the previous week at a party, and we talked about her a little. I explained how she had been my advisor and what a great teacher she had been for me. It turned out that we both had experience with meditation, and he had even helped to start a school for it. We also talked about art; it turned out that he had a strong interest in visual arts also. And his brother Li-Lin Lee had work in the Art Institute of Chicago. I said how I thought that was the greatest museum I had ever visited, and I've seen some pretty great ones.

I mentioned how many of my students really loved his work, and he was interested in knowing about them and how much experience they had had with poetry. He was curious about teaching and what it was like at UNC. I said the students were really nice and intelligent, but there was very little diversity.

Anyway, near the end of the long drive I stopped so he could grab some coffee (he drank twelve cups a day, he said), and I gave him my latest book and said I hoped he'd like it, and in a little while he was at the Guest House. Later that afternoon, I picked him up to take him to dinner and the reading in the evening.

Li-Young was curious about who was coming to dinner. I wasn't sure about who might be coming, so I was surprised to see the provost of the university and his wife, the Dean David Caldwell, and the other poets on the faculty, Lisa Zimmerman, and my friend Bob King. Li-Young was glad, I think, to be able to talk to the provost and his wife in Chinese, and he seemed pretty happy with the steaks at Potato Brumbaughs. I asked him towards the end if he needed a little time to relax by himself before the reading, and he said he really didn't. But when we got there with just a little time remaining he thought that maybe it would have been better after all if he had had a few minutes to himself.

A lot of my friends and students were there, and that made me feel good. Many of them had come 60 miles or so from Boulder, and it was wonderful to see them there. The crowd was very big but not as huge as people had anticipated, so there were many empty seats in the great hall. I did the intro very briefly, just saying welcome and thanks to the provost and the generous sponsor Mr. Rosenberry, a quick plug for the UNC litmag, and then the brief intro for Li-Young. I was nervous in a way that made me uncomfortable and unhappy (actually), and this is a new phenomenon for me.

As soon as the reading started, I was really intrigued by the style and substance of the delivery of the poetry. He really had the audience completely with him right away, and he really took some interesting chances out there, saying new poems and rough drafts, and even sharing things that had originated in improvisational settings. It was great to be lifted into the realm of poetry for a while, especially when it was coming from someone who was able to understand some things about me that may not be obvious to a lot of other people.

After the reading, he was signing books and talking a little to many, many of the people in the very long line. Meanwhile, some of my female students were telling me how they were so infatuated with Li-Young and how gorgeous he was etc. They were asking me how old he was as though they were considering running away with him etc. I thought this was kind of amusing. Then Li-Young was doing an interview with a student from the UNC newspaper, and finally I got to take him back to the Guest House.

He seemed a little tired, so I went there the quickest way. We talked a little along the way. Somehow it came up that when we both started writing, there were no Asian-American poets in the Norton Anthology, so it was a kind of a transformative moment for me when I realized I could write about things that had to do with my real inner life as an Asian American. Li-Young said it was like we were pioneers in this new literature.

The next morning, I got to take him to my morning class, and he was very relaxed. He had been thinking of a poem while going to sleep, and he had been working on this new poem early in the day. "That's exciting," I said. He smiled at that.

Some things he said that morning were really very profound. He talked about the poem being made of words but crafted out of silence just as architects work with material but what they shape is empty space. He talked about the poetry being embedded in silence, the silence being embedded in the psyche, the psyche being embedded in the person, and the person in the world, and the world in the cosmos. One of my students who was too shy to say her question aloud wrote on a little piece of paper: "What do you get from poetry?" Li-Young said it was a buzz, it was like drugs, it was exciting, it made him feel alive etc. That was a great answer. He was so totally at ease with everything; it was a real pleasure to watch him interact with people.

Then I returned him to the Guest House. It was sad to be leaving him there and returning to the regular grind, so to speak. He asked me if he would see me later before he flew back to Chicago. Sadly, I was not able to come back. He was so enlightening and so kind. He said that he loved my poems, and that I should let him know when I'm passing through Chicago. He knew the best place for won ton.

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