Li-Young Lee and David Whetstone: Readers Respond

26 January 2019

What did you think about the evening of poetry and music Li-Young Lee and David Whetstone put on last week? No ordinary reading, the two men collaborated to pair never-before-heard poems from Lee with Whetstone’s improvisation on the sitar. Students in Professor Susan Jaret McKinstry’s Critical Methods class were in attendance at the performance and tasked with articulating their responses to the experience. They’ve generously agreed to share selections of those responses with the Miscellany for your perusal. If you couldn’t make it to the event, or you’re looking to relive a small part of that ephemeral night, read on to hear how members of the audience engaged with Lee and Whetstone’s performance.

Because the poems he read have never been published, I will not have the chance to reread the poetry and recall these words exactly. For this reason, the performance itself was both memorable and fleeting, as I heard each word only once. Without the urge to annotate a printed poem in front of me, I instead registered my emotional reactions to the images he described and let the words flow over me as I watched him read against the dark red backdrop. Ultimately, I will remember this experience more vividly than my previous readings of his poetry because I recognize and appreciate its ephemeral nature. By experiencing poetry in a performance setting, I was reminded of the way poetry itself captures ephemeral moments in the human experience and natural world. “The Sitar Player’s Birth” describes moments that have since passed, but these images were momentarily represented by Lee’s words last night.

Overall, what I’m getting at is that just like every person is unique, so is every piece of writing they create. Each piece was created during a novel combination of self-reflection, confidence, desire, and yearning that it is difficult to say how it reflects back to a person as a whole when we, as complex emotional creatures, can feel so different from moment to moment.

Analyzing Li-Young Lee as an Asian-American poet is not enough. Analyzing Li-Young Lee as a post-modern poet is not enough. Analyzing Li-Young Lee as either a lyrical or narrative poet is not enough either because before he is those things, he is a complicated human being that does not represent the entirety of any group. I believe we have to accept that humanity of them first and the unpredictability that creates, how it creates a private life for the author that the reader can never fully inhabit.

By conjoining musical and literary art on stage, Lee and Whetstone transformed us from being passive engagers of literary art to active responders interpreting the raga’s relationship to Lee’s vocal inflection and the implications of joining such disparate traditions. As we listened to Whetstone perform his raga as Lee recited the following words from The Undressing, “I kiss her nose and both of her eyes / I can do more than one thing at a time,” we experienced what Fish might consider an example of a different thing being “done to us.” We were presented with an added layer—a new gap—to interpret, and this gap was particularly sensual.

Whetstone and Lee’s performance deconstructed what in the literary community might consider to be the standard “structure of the reading experience.” The element of sensuality that the raga added to The Undressing led me to feel, and thus, interpret the poem in a more intimate way.

Li-Young Lee is an idol of mine. I’ve spent hours tunneling in the dark through his long and brooding poems searching for the doorway to his mind. In the process, I began to think of him as one of my most dear friends. In academic writing, I conversed with him, but last night I realized those conversations were with a different man than the one who stood before me. This leads me to my central lesson, contextualism is valuable, but looking into the eyes of a poet, experiencing the human in the godlike creator, banishing the figment of the imagination, that is dangerous territory.

Just as Formalist theorists resisted the practice of contextualizing a work of literature within the events of a writer’s life, I believe that meeting an author takes the practice of contextualism one step too far. In class we briefly discussed the way readers often construct an author in their minds as they read, and the likelihood of discord between the real and the constructed. This makes me wonder, which author is more important or even true.

The performative element that jumped out to me during Lee’s poetry reading was his use of tone, and in particular tonal change, during the poem “Why are you crying.” He begins the poem with a gruff tightness to his voice, and shifts out of it when he’s no longer speaking as his father. He shifts back into it whenever his father began speaking again in the poem, providing a clear auditory signal to the audience for when we were listening to Lee or to his father. More than that, however, the tone was full of characterization and knowledge, communicating both information about his father and about Lee’s connection to and understanding of his father.… It’s clear that Lee has taken the time to really listen to his father, to hear the ways he speaks and pauses in his speaking, and this depiction seems almost tributary, as if memorializing his father’s tone in our collective conscious.

The coalescence of the forms of sitar and spoken poetry also called to mind the conversation we had in class about a “third culture” or “third form” emerging out of Lee’s poems. In Lee’s poems, particularly in “Persimmon,” this “third form” served as cultural capital but also as almost a secret language only accessible to certain people. For me, the sitar accompaniment to Lee’s poetry reading embodied this notion of a “third form,” which communicates to us in different ways than either of the forms on their own. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed the deep, slow way he mimicked his father’s voice, had he not done so in between honeyed strokes of the almost otherworldly sounding sitar. This contrast gave me a different sense of Lee’s father—more sage but also more harsh—than I got from Lee’s poems we read for class.

During Li-Young Lee’s reading, I was most struck by the pauses in his poetry. I’m familiar with Lee’s work, and have loved many of his poems… However, I had only been privy to Lee’s actual texts, and according to literary theory, a poem is both a text, and an act or event (an act of the poet or the experience of the reader). This merging of words and events begs questions of how language changes shape when there is a specific voice behind the words (not just a conjuring of a voice from the reader), and how a performance can alter the meaning and impact of a piece. … About halfway through the reading, I started thinking about these pauses differently, as something more intentional and sublime, and they provided more space for the words to take shape on their own, through this evocation of something bigger, and they also made room for emotional reflection. … Lee’s reading of his skillful poetry, equipped by those spaces in time, which were partially filled by the music of David Whetstone, created an especially significant space for intense emotional expression. This led to an even more individual experience for each audience member, as the poem can take on so many different shapes through those pauses of individual reflection.

I am glad to give his words this space and to understand them as they are slowly and deliberately threaded together (perhaps to preserve the sanctity of line breaks or perhaps in efforts to navigate the rhythm of the sitar). In this moment, I am savoring Lee’s short lines one at a time and imagining thematic patterns of sex, tenderness, and memory that are fairly loosely composed in comparison to the schemas we arrange when tracking at a written poem. Primarily, I’m thinking about the picture Lee is drawing of intimacy and about what it means to me in this particular moment of my life. … It’s compelling, it’s engaging, and it’s beautiful to imagine the audience of a poetry reading as actors in forging the meaning of text and music alongside Lee and Whetstone rather than observers behind a glass wall or classroom desk.

The feeling… that most pervaded my experience of Li-Young Lee’s reading was one of forgetting, of having misplaced something: either my thoughts or Lee’s. Again and again I would grab hold of a line, taking immediately to its simple isolated beauty and the soft drawing out of it by Lee’s voice. Then, whenever I started to turn it round my head and realize its depth and breadth, Whetstone’s enchanting sitar would sweep me away to a wholly unfamiliar point in the poem where a new line would arise. With each new line I would try in vain to relocate the last, and try even more fruitlessly to thread the two together. Looking back, I think it most productive to view this fruitlessness as a consequence of a rigid poetic voice which I had constructed for Lee even before he opened his mouth, a voice that spoke with the same continuity with which I read. I was, in short, plagued by my own expectation: of the whole performance I expected the same coherence a written poem grants the studious reader; of each line, I expected a successor, a supplement. But as Lee has said, the utterances of his poetry are expressly not the straightforward utterances of our everyday lives, in which line leads to line, in which evocation evolves linearly and logically into evocation; his are conversations between himself and God, and who am I to say that such conversations are not by their very nature discontinuous?

One of the things that became apparent throughout Li-Young Lee’s performance is the way David Whetstone’s performance on the sitar was used to create audience expectations, and the way Lee both fulfilled and defied these expectations. When Lee first started reading with the sitar music, it seemed that pauses were being deliberately created in which Lee would read a line of his poetry — points in the sitar music where Whetstone would stop playing riffs and let a note hang, over which Lee would read. This created an expectation with the audience, and the starting and stopping of the sitar often emphasized Lee’s words. In one instance, Lee, talking about his father, said “In our first language he spoke,” and then paused for a long time to let the sitar play. The sitar fed into audience expectations of narrative—if an author describes speech, we expect to hear it; in this case the sitar seemed to be a stand-in for Lee’s native tongue.

It felt incredibly important that this be a performance, not just a reading; I’ve been to many bookstore events where, maybe out of protective concern for the merchandise, lights blaze on and the poet cannot help but look up and into the eyes of everyone listening. That is its own intimate and rewarding experience, but this felt different.  … At times, [Lee’s] delivery was masterful and silences seemed deeply intentional. I could rest my eyes on his dimly lit face, seeing him adapt his carefully wrought words to the spaces and rhythms of David Whetstone’s sitar playing. At other times, though, he would complete a stanza or poem and turn away from the audience, leaning on his arm, directing his attention to Whetstone. It was an abrupt way to signal that our attention should shift; it backgrounded him to the musical element. It felt strange, much as his improvised poem felt strange, and not in a totally good way. But it also presented a moment tense with collaboration and reaction between the two performers. Lee’s preoccupation with the gaze in his work leads me to believe that this tension of where to direct one’s attention is part of how he approaches this collaborative performance.