Event Preview: An Evening with Li-Young Lee featuring David Whetstone

14 January 2019
Li-Young Lee

This Wednesday, Carleton plays host to an evening of literature and music as nationally acclaimed poet Li-Young Lee visits us to read from his work, accompanied by sitarist and Carleton music instructor David Whetstone. Lee’s work spans several decades, a memoir, and five collections of poetry—his latest, The Undressing, was published last year. The Miscellany had the opportunity to speak with him about his writing, its process, and its performance, and you can read his responses below. We hope to see you at his reading on Wednesday, January 16th, from 6 to 7:30 pm at the Kracum Performance Center in the Weitz!

What do you consider when deciding which pieces to perform at a reading? Are there pieces that you find yourself returning to or rediscovering through the opportunity to perform them live?

Speaking to the first part of your question, my choices for public readings are based on certain assumptions: The audience will only be able to listen to the work once and not have time to ponder its possibly more subtle complex merits. Most of the audience will have a hard time crossing the threshold from an extraverted to an introverted orientation, and many may even resist. Attention spans are getting shallower and shorter because of the stresses, pressures and distractions of contemporary life. As for the second part of your question, yes.

How does the act of reading your work to an audience change your experience of your poetry? What do you hope your audience gets out of hearing you speak versus hearing you through the page?

When I write, it’s between me and God, that imaginal embodiment of my highest principles. When I read to an audience, it’s the same. I hope both reader and listener overhear and witness a mind and voice in the passionate throes of speaking with God. Too often, however, because of my lack of discipline and the disorientation which the presence of others causes in me, the audience claims too much of my attention. And then the writing goes wrong. The same goes for reading to an audience. The less the audience is present to me, the more present I am to God, that embodiment of my chief and highest aim.

Can you tell us a little bit about the decision to perform accompanied by a sitar? What made this pairing seem fruitful and exciting, and what effect do you hope it to have for the reading of your work?

I heard David Whetstone perform with Robert Bly and Coleman Barks a while ago and immediately recognized the beauty that was possible. I hope the music opens a listener’s heart so the words can enter.

You write verse extensively in the first person. What is your relationship to that speaker – what parts of yourself do you try to transpose on the page, and what distance (if any) do you find between yourself and the I of your poems?

Since a person, an “I”, is the beginning of all thoughts, actions, and words that determine the good or ill consequences of all man-made things and events, it seems obvious to me that knowledge, understanding, and transformation of this “I” is the only hope for a good change in my personal and social environment. I write poems not to be famous to others, not to change others, not to entertain others, but only to understand myself, to think through problems that plague me, and to change myself and become more clear-eyed and more loving. I try to transpose all of me onto the page, the one who thinks, feels, loves, desires, the one who is afraid of death, the one who longs for death, the one who has infinite hope for humankind, the one who has no hope for humankind. I’m interested in the practice of poetry as a way to achieve a psyche well-informed of its own parts. I believe most of us, out of ignorance, denial, repression, or distraction, live as persons uninformed of our own psyches and their complexes. The practice of poetry, for me, is a way to uncover all of who I am.

The Undressing opens on the long titular poem, following which you move the reader through a series of shorter pieces. Is the length of a poem something you know before you write it, and how is the process of writing a long piece different from writing a short one for you?

We know that light is both a wave and a particle. I think of long poems as a way to study and think about the wave function of the soul, while short poems are a way to understand the particle-manifestation of the soul. I never know what length a poem will be. Long poems grow and accrue their lines and stanzas around some center of gravity that seems to increase naturally.

Were each of these poems in The Undressing written for this collection in particular, or is it a road map for where your mind has travelled over the course of many years? What prompted your decision to publish this collection in this moment?

I like the way you posed it, so let me quote you a bit. The Undressing is a road map of where my mind has travelled over the course of the past several years. I published the book at this time because it was about five years late. I’d signed a contract with my publisher, promising the book to be done nearly five years ago. I might have held on to it, kept writing it, and never published it if the publisher hadn’t kindly reminded me to make good on my promise.