SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
In his latest book, "The Undressing," poet Li-Young Lee explores the beauty and violence of human relationships and connection.
LI-YOUNG LEE: (Reading) I loved you before I was born. It doesn't make sense, I know. I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see. And I've lived longing for your every look ever since.
MCCAMMON: Over the course of this slim volume of poems, a romantic moment stretches into a spiral of memory and longing, taking the reader on an emotional and sometimes turbulent journey that ends much like it began. Joining me now to discuss all of that and more is poet Li-Young Lee. He joins us from member station WQED in Pittsburgh. Li-Young Lee, thank you so much for joining us.
LEE: Thank you for having me, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: The inside jacket of this book, "The Undressing," says that this collection of poems, quote, "attempts to uncover things hidden since the dawn of the world." That sounds like a big undertaking. What do you mean by that?
LEE: Yeah (laughter). I was kind of shocked that I said that. I guess, you know, when one writes poetry, you enter into a relationship with the logos.
MCCAMMON: That's Greek for word, right?
LEE: Yes, it's the Greek for word. And when we write poems, we enter into a relationship - a deep relationship - with the logos, the word and with the dynamism of opposites, you know, meaning and nonsense, chaos and order and form and void. So it seems to me that when we write poems, we are trying to access or understand those deep laws. So that's what I meant, I guess.
MCCAMMON: Some of your poems seem to express almost a frustration, though, with poetry. For example, there's a section in your book where the speaker appears to be a woman. She's referred to as she. And she says, you call yourself a poet. You tame high-finisher of paltry blots. You publish doubt and call it knowledge. You destroy the wisdom of ages to gratify your envy. You murder benevolence and virtue with condescension. You pretend to poetry and destroy imagination.
Do you ever feel that way about your own writing?
LEE: Oh, that's exactly what I feel about my own writing. And I had to face this goddess-like figure in that poem who was telling me all these things and accusing me. And I face her every morning and every night before I go to bed, you know. That's the - I don't want to say a negative muse, but she - yeah, she accuses me of all those things. And I thought maybe if I gave expression to her accusations, I could kind of exorcise myself of those things, you know.
MCCAMMON: I want to talk about your family history, which you've written about over the years, including in "The Undressing." You talk about your siblings, your father. I should mention you were born in Indonesia. Your father was a political prisoner there for a year, and then the family fled the country. If you would, I'd like you to read for us page 43, section 4.
(Reading) After 19 months in prison, eight of those in a leper colony - and he never got leprosy - my father was unrecognizable to me. So when I spied my mother slipping him a bar of soap during our visit, I thought that strange man had thieved it from her. As the guards were returning him to his cell, I ran after them and snatched the soap out of my father's pocket, exposing my parents' ploy. The guards had a good laugh when they discovered what was happening. Funny thing is, my father later told me, they didn't punish him that time, though in the past he'd been tortured for lesser offenses. The reason was he'd been teaching the prison guards in secret, at their request, to read and write in English using the King James Bible.
MCCAMMON: Is this based on a true story?
LEE: This is an absolutely true story. You know, my father was a political prisoner. And the reason he was kept safe was because of the stories he told. He had a gift for storytelling. And even the guards loved to hear him tell stories, and so they kept him safe because of that. And they later found out that he also spoke and read English, and they had him teaching them.
MCCAMMON: You describe it almost as as a witness. You were not there, correct?
MCCAMMON: So this is - how were these stories passed down to you?
LEE: They were passed down from my sister. Well, I was born there. And this was actually something that happened to me. But a lot of - I have an older sister and older brother who remembered a lot of these things. You know, they would always tell me things. You did this or you did that or we did this or this happened to us. And - so it's my family - the family canon I'm trying to account for.
MCCAMMON: Li-Young Lee. His latest book of poems, "The Undressing," is out now. Thank you so much for joining us.
LEE: Thank you, Sarah.
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