An Interview with Li-Young Lee

When did you first become interested in poetry?

My parents would recite a lot, I was always very moved by it. My father was a minister, so listening to him read from the Bible was poetry to me.

When did you first consider yourself a poet?

I always wrote things down, but I never considered it poetry. I was just writing to understand my own thoughts and feelings. Poetry is just a way for me to… it’s like my prayer life. When can you consider yourself a prayer? You aren’t a prayer, you just pray. Poetry is like that for me. It’s a way to pray. It’s a way to discover the presence of the Divine in my life. God is always present, but I don’t always sense it.

How do you express your unique childhood and struggles through your writing, if at all?

I was talking to someone many years ago who told me that 70% of the world has experienced what I have experienced. So I’m not unique. What is unique, in fact, are the people who haven’t experienced it. I have more in common with other parts of the world. I’m not that unique.
I feel a kind of allegiance to the injured and the insulted. My early life was marked by a lot of poverty and persecution like a lot of the world. I’m not that unique.

When you sit down to write a poem, do you feel yourself drawn to a certain subject?

Yes and no: because I’m not that bright a guy, my poems tend to do that. I wish my mind would always wander in different realms or avenues. There are three kinds of poetry, poetry of illness, poetry of diagnosis, and poetry of cure. Poets like Sylvia Plath write poetry of illness. There can be uses for that. Poetry can be diagnostic in that it is trying to find the source of that illness. The words of Jesus are ultimately poetry, poetry of cure. There’s a curative effect, a healing. I go toward that. I’m trying to hear a voice aware of human pathology, aware of human problems, able to reach a cure. My mind tends to flow into that most of the time. Poetry reproduces its conscience in the reader. The poet is ultimately an artist, and one of the more important roles of art is the shamanistic role. It heals, it does not produce illness.

Many of your poems are about your father. Is he one of the subjects that you are repeatedly drawn to, seeking that healing?

I’m obsessed with a heavenly Parent, a heavenly Father. I’m interested in the way that I see my heavenly Father in my earthly Father. I’m a father, and I see that my greatest duty is to initiate my sons into the knowledge of the Divine. My earthly father was a man, he lived, he died. But he’s a representation of my heavenly Father.


Works by Li-Young Lee

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.