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Acclaimed writer Li-Young Lee says 'art can heal us'

Published April 25, 2014 12:22 pm

Poetry • Arriving for an event in Utah, Li-Young Lee continues to search for home.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A burial ground can be a destination for remembrance, for solace, for feeling closer to the departed. It can also be a haven away from the clamor and buildup of urban life.

"In the city, I see the human thumbprint on everything," says poet Li-Young Lee, who lives in Chicago. "I get tired of the species-specificity, human faces on advertising … it is the most shallow thing — human beings as consumers — trade and commerce everywhere. I go to cemeteries a lot because it is so quiet."

Having to confront man-made obstacles and folly is all too familiar to Lee, who will read tonight as part of Utah State Poetry Society's Spring Festival in Salt Lake City.

Born in Indonesia to Chinese exiles, his early years were shaped by repeated upheaval: his father's harrowing imprisonment, the family's daring escape from confinement, a search for a place to settle that took the family through several nations in the Far East and several states in the U.S.

And the displacement continues.

"I've been homesick from the moment I became conscious," Lee says. "I think my origin is also my destiny, which is God. But I don't feel at home anywhere."

If he had his way, he'd live in a small town in western Pennsylvania, where his wife ("a coal miner's daughter") is from.

Indeed, recollections of life in the state form a vivid thread through Lee's American Book Award-winning memoir, "The Winged Seed," whose revised edition was published last year. Among them are those of visits with his father — by then a Presbyterian minister — with members of his congregation in Pittsburgh, who "mostly lived uncounted, discarded lives." Congregants that included "alcoholic mothers, delinquent children, shell-shocked bus drivers, pedophilic schoolteachers … liars [and] cheaters," to name a few.

Rural Pennsylvania has "a haunted landscape, it's gorgeous," he adds. "But the people there are so racist, there's an imminent sense of violence and hostility" that makes living there impossible.

So, how does a poet deal with such a reality? When suffering and "tragedies befall us, art can heal us," Lee says. "When writing a poem, the mind that takes over is another mind. I would say it's the divine." Early on, the feeling that there was nothing in the outer world for him to rely upon forced Lee to go inward, the inwardness enabling him to "encounter something like God." His conception of art seems to arise from that experience. Namely, that its practice "is alienation by transcendence, which — strangely enough — leads to a greater connection to humanity."

At readings, Lee's hope is that a listener gains a sense of beauty and mystery about the world, which, by extension, enhances the feeling that his or her own life is rich and meaningful. He sees poetry as an elixir, as something akin to a prayer, as a way of slowing down to a state where one is moving "at the speed of planet evolution, God time." Like other art, poetry opens up a place where one should linger, he says, and "forget about everything but the deepest things."

What would be the ideal way of presenting a poem? "I wish I could read it at a kitchen table, to one person," Lee says. "That would be perfect."

Lee plans to read some new work at tonight's event. But regardless of the poems he chooses to share, the audience can expect excursions of a writer who has looked deeply within. "[T]hough I'm told / apples come from apples," he writes in "Behind My Eyes," "I believe there must be a star somewhere among my ancestry / and a bee, a map, a piano, and a shipwreck."

One measure of good writing is that it compels rereading. Expect to hear work that does precisely that.

rmesicek@sltrib.com Li-Young Lee reading

When • Friday, 7 p.m.

Where • DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Salt Lake Airport, 5151 Wiley Post Way, Salt Lake City

Tickets • For information, visit http://www.utahpoets.com/events/events.htm.