The Fourth River

A Poet’s Quest for the Universal Truth: A Conversation with Li-Young Lee

By Alyssa Guelcher for The Fourth River


Born in 1957, Li-Young Lee has written a vast collection of poetry that is quiet, thoughtful, complex, and very much focused on the minutiae, on complementary and contradictory forces, on the yin and yang nature. His works include four books of poetry, Rose (1986), The City in Which I Love You (1990), Book of My Nights (2001), and Behind My Eyes (2009). His memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995), draws from his childhood experiences as the son of Chinese exiles. Fleeing persecution in Indonesia, Lee and his parents travelled through Hong Kong and Japan for several years before reaching the United States in 1964. He has garnered many fellowships and awards, among them the Whiting Award, the Lannan Literary Award, and the William Carlos Williams Award.  

In April, 2017, Li-Young Lee visited Chatham University for the literary event, Dialogues: Writing in Divided Times. This is part 1 of a 2-part interview.


With gratitude to Alyssa, this interview is for Elia, who asked about joy and hope.–Li-Young Lee



The Fourth River: Your poetry has a strong focus on ancestry, or more specifically, the concept of lineage—that is, a kind of cosmic continuation from one generation to the next. In this, you look primarily to the past, to your heritage, and especially to the/your father. The poems “Mother’s Apple,” “Father’s Apple,” and “The Apple Elopes” stood out to me in Behind Blue Eyes. This triptych clustering heightens the tension between parent and offspring (who will inevitably move away from the family tree as he grows older and becomes his own person). Would you expand on that tension you feel yourself, in relation to the past, but also in the context of your children, whom you talk less about in terms of this continuation of generations? It must be different because, as I understand it, they grew up here in the United States.

Li-Young Lee: I love your question. You know, part of the problem for me is that I’m discovering that my mind performs two acts. There’s an act of remembrance. The ancient Greeks thought the memory was the muse—that memory is the muse. But there’s an act of thinking, too. The problem with thinking, it seems to me, is that it inevitably becomes philosophical. I think philosophy leads to mystification. I know we live in a time when the philosophers are very much respected, when philosophical thinking is respected. I think it’s a form of mystification. I think that’s dangerous. Not all philosophy—I think there’s practical philosophy that’s very profound. But somehow, the philosophers always end up mystifying us. You have philosophers like Nietzsche. You have philosophers like Heidegger, like Derrida. They get more and more mystifying. And it leads to crazy things. So it seems to me that remembrance is very important, and I’m trying to remember past my own biological, personal origins, to some sort of transcendent ground. Does that make sense?

TFR: Absolutely. I think that theme definitely goes beyond the Asian-American heritage, or your personal family heritage; you reach back to more human roots, more universal roots, quite often.

LYL: Yes, and I know that word, “universal,” is under siege nowadays, but I feel we need to keep that word. We need to interrogate that word. We need to understand what it really means. I think there are people, or parties, let’s say white males, that say, “Well, anything that is a white male is universal.” And then there are other parties that say, “There’s no such thing as universal.”  That’s not the way to go.  I think what we need to say is, no, just because it’s white male doesn’t mean it’s universal. We need to get to the absolute; I believe in that. Just because somebody co-opted the word and misused it, doesn’t mean we throw the word out. That means we need to rehabilitate the word.

Given the way the world is, we need to arrive at some common place between persons, between human communities, between races…I don’t even understand that word anymore. I thought we were one human race. When did we become, I don’t know, different races?  But that probably was used by the victimizers, the people who victimized other races. They probably said, “Well those people aren’t even the human race. We’re humans.” But we just went along with their definition of the word. I think we’re one human race. We’re going to have to come to some kind of consensus.

I’m trying to remember some transcendent ground, because I do have kids, and I’m doing this for my own children’s sakes. They cannot afford to have a father who doesn’t see a ground that is deeper than his own opinions. I had a father that I struggled with that.  He would say things that would make me think, “What you’re saying feels to me like a universal truth.”  Then he would say other things, and I would think, “That feels like opinion.” I don’t want opinions. I want truths, because I can’t get through this life just with somebody’s opinions.  That’s not a real provision. That’s not real food. That’s not real water.

I tell my kids all the time, “You’re going to have to interrogate everything I say.  Everything. It’s going to make for a little difficulty in our relationship sometimes. But in the long run it will make for a really good relationship, and it’ll keep you safe.”  I tell them, “If there’s anything I say that feels true to you–you weighed it, you measured it, you thought about it—then keep it. And, if there’s anything that feels like it’s just opinion, throw it out.”

I hope I’m pointing to something bigger than myself because at some point I’ll be gone. If I have to spend my whole life pointing to something truer and bigger than me, then they will be okay. But if I just pointed to myself the whole time, what is that?  So I think this struggle to find universal truths is absolutely dire.

And I do believe that as artists we are trying to discover the subtle body of universal laws and principles that underlie all manifestation. You know, why is that tree manifest? Why are you manifest? Why is this light coming through the window manifest?  How do poems, essays, manifest? If I say to you that this is a poem, that word makes a figure in your mind. There’s a figure of a poem. There are also figures inside a poem, figures like in “Apple Elopes” of apples, mother, father. But the poem itself makes a figure; that figure comes out of a ground.

What is the ground of that poem? The ground of the poem is all the possible ways you could say something.  That ground is so deep it’s like there are a billion ways to say something, trillions. So that ground is a massa confusa, as the Romans called it—a massive confusion. There are a trillion ways to say something. That poem is one way to say it.  You’ve made a decision to say it this way. The more that poem becomes this way to say it, non-negotiable, the stronger the figure is lifting off the ground of all the possible ways to say it.

For beginning poets or artists, the hardest thing for them to do is to get that figure/ground dilemma right. Sometimes, there are other ways to say something that might even be better than what you have. So the figure the poem makes isn’t strong enough.

That struggle for the figure from the ground, it seems to me, is our daily struggle in this society. There’s a culture. It’s a massa confusa.  There’s just stuff pouring in through the Internet, through TV, news, everywhere. There are a billion versions of ways to be.

It’s like that song, “Season of the Witch”: “When I look out my window / So many different people to be.” I love that song. There are a million ways to be out there. How do you find your destiny, your singularity, your primacy?  That struggle for your own personal figure, I think that’s probably why you’re an artist; you’re trying to write something that differentiates you from all the other voices.  The learning process is you imitate the great ones. You have to imitate a master.  After you’ve done the imitation well enough, then you understand all the principles, and then you can do your own thing.

So this struggle—figure/ground—is profound, and I think that’s why we practice art, and why the practice of art is important. Can we say something that’s so distinct—the figure of the poem is so distinct—that there’s not a single word that’s exchangeable?

TFR: In the context of your children, does the way you approach this universal truth differ between Li-Young Lee the poet and Li-Young Lee the son or the father?

LYL: No, no. Everything I learn from trying to write poems, I bring into my life, and everything I learned in my life, I try to bring into my poems. I’m trying to make my poems more real, and I’m trying to make my life more true in regards to what I learn from making poems. For me it’s all the same project: I’m making a strong figure that’s connected to the transcendent—a real transcendence, not a false transcendence—and trying to give that to my children, to keep reminding them, “Your life has more meaning if it’s grounded in the transcendent.”  Otherwise, it’s just grounded in the culture, and what is that? The culture we live in is founded on murder and violence.

TFR: Especially in this day and age, it’s divisive; that was the theme of our event [“Writing in Divided Times”].

LYL: You know, I have this idea about division. I think there are happy divisions, for instance, between the lover and the beloved. I don’t think a lover and the beloved should be merged. In that situation, the more separation there is…like that’s the beloved, and this is the lover. We’re not merged. I’m not going to assume that what I think, she’s thinking, you know? I’m not going to assume that what I feel, she feels. I think that’s unhealthy. But that doesn’t mean that when the lover and the beloved meet that they don’t change places: the lover becomes the beloved; the beloved becomes the lover. But I think when there’s this kind of merging…when I project…. Let’s say my wife and myself, if I project myself onto her as she projects onto me, there’s no separation. We don’t really know who we are. So those kinds of divisions that are mediated by love, by genuine interest…I’m interested in who she is. I’m not interested in just projecting my junk onto her. Do you know what I mean by projecting?

TFR: Yeah.

LYL: That’s separation and division in the best way. I don’t even want to say, “that division”—that threshold. The threshold is really an important symbol in marriage, in love. That threshold is honored, and it’s observed, and it’s mediated by love, and interest, and curiosity in each other. That’s good division. When there are divisions that are mediated by violence, mediated by selfishness, mediated by ego—I don’t like those divisions.

TFR: The image that comes to mind, and I think this is a common theme in your poetry, is the yin and yang—not necessarily even a binary system, but you have these opposing forces that also work together.

LYL: Yes, absolutely. There’s a practice called Taiji that I’ve been practicing ever since I was a child. “Tai” means extreme, ultimate.  “Ji” is polarity.  So the study of Taiji is the study of ultimate polarity, extreme differentials….

There’s a book called The Book of Changes from China.  It was written, I think, 2,500 maybe 3,000 years ago. We call it I Ching. It’s the study of polarities, of yin and yang, and all the ramifications.  It starts out with yin, which is the broken line, and yang which is the solid line, and then all the possible combinations.  This is a book of great peace and love, and it’s not just a book of divination. The I Ching is deeper. I’m having my students look at it…they’re just getting knocked out by it. All literary principles are in this book. It’s amazing. One of the students was having a real difficult time understanding closure until she read the hexagram for closure. And there’s an inner hexagram. The inner hexagram for closure is disclosure. And then she realized the missing part of her understanding of closure was disclosure. You see, the opposites exist within each other.  She was trying to think about closure in and of itself.  It doesn’t make any sense in and of itself. It was so profound.

Now, the thing that makes it so interesting to me this is this: three hundred years—it might have been five hundred years—after The Book of Changes was written in China, another book of changes appeared in Rome. Ovid wrote it. It’s called the book of changes, the book of transformations. We call it The Metamorphoses. That book is so violent. It is so violent and disturbing. And both books are trying to talk about the beginnings of the universe. The Fu Hsi book of changes is trying to get to the bottom of…so what are the principles that underlie the manifestation of the universe. How did this whole world, this universe come to be? How did human beings come to be? And it turns out into the book of love, great peace, great understanding. And then, in this other book of changes, Ovid tries to understand where we come from. Where does human culture come from? Where do the stars come from? He’s trying to understand it too, and it’s so full of violence.

I’m not going to say, well, that’s the West. That’s too easy. What I do notice is that in Ovid’s book of changes, he tries to narrate, he tries to put a human face on all the forces and tries to understand them that way. When he says “yang,” he doesn’t say “yang.”  He says there’s a male god. When he says “yin,” he doesn’t say “yin.”  He says there’s a female goddess. These two get together, and immediately it becomes violent. So I keep thinking that there’s some capital error we make in our thinking when we project a human face onto universal forces. Somehow, the human takes over, and it becomes violent. But Hsi was wise enough to say, no, no, let’s keep it yin and yang. They’re not human. They’re beyond human. And there is way less violence in it. There’s almost no violence. I want to say there’s no violence, but I’ve only been reading it for a few years so I’m going to keep studying it.

Am I off on a tangent, Alyssa? Is this interesting to you? 

TFR: Yes! This is very interesting.

LYL: Good, good.

So, these two books of changes, Alyssa, you know, somebody should look at that and go, “What’s up?”  You know, I think part of the problem this is when we project a human image onto universal principles, something happens.

I think if we do it the other way…if we assimilate the universal principles this way, it’s better. I think peace in the world might be impossible. This projection thing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they have this concept of original sin. And people keep asking what is that? What is that? I mean, I know a little bit about the Judeo-Christian tradition. I’ve studied it. My father was a Christian minister, but I’ve also studied the Eastern traditions. I’m studying now the pagan traditions: the Greek gods, those kinds of things. And this original sin thing, I think it’s projection. I think the worst thing we can do is project. You know the word “sin” actually means “error.”  So, there’s an original error, and that’s what the Judeo-Christians are proposing. I would say that feels pretty original. That’s pretty early in our psyche that we do that without even knowing we’re doing it. You know what I mean? So, that error is earlier than, let’s say, eating the wrong thing…I don’t know…telling a lie. Where does all that come from? That comes from something earlier. I think it comes from projection. I think Ovid was projecting the human image onto universal forces, and they became more and more violent. You know? Whereas Fu Hsi was trying to understand the universal forces purely without any human narrative. And what happened was this wonderful, profound, peace-giving, love-giving view of our human mission, of the universe. I think that’s crazily amazing.



Alyssa Guelcher is an MFA student studying creative nonfiction at Chatham University.