Li Young Lee/ Interview by Black Dog Bone
Li Young Lee/ Interview by Black Dog Bone
When I first read your poetry I felt there was a lot of insight in your work. Is that what you’re feeling when you read John Perkins’ book, The World Is As You Dream It ?
Yes. I felt a lot of deep truths in John Perkins’ book. A lot of the things he’s saying I feel very deeply, but I didn’t have the language for it. But to hear him say it, I feel so excited. I feel like, “I feel that way too!” It’s so heavy, the realization that changing the dream is more effective and deeper than changing outer things.
It’s a victory to know that there’s no need to start a revolution to make change happen. If each person changes their dream the world will change naturally. John Perkins has some great books. He studied for a long time with different Shamans.
My feeling is the planet is dreaming. I want to know what the planet is dreaming. And when I write poems I feel I’m entering into the planet earth’s dream. I’m 51, but the human species is 1.4 million years old. So I feel as though I must also be 1.4 million years old. But then the planet is what?
6 billion years old or something like that. We’re part of the planet so there must be a part of us that’s 6 billions years old. I keep thinking this when I write and I’ve felt this all my life. And when I read this book “The World Is As You Dream It” by John Perkins I felt like he was talking to me because I’ve felt this all my life. Every time I write a poem I enter into the dream of the planet. It’s not just me. Now I just feel so happy that this person has said this. And I keep thinking that Rap and Hip Hop, it could be a kind of shamanism if they could accomplish it. If thousands of people are listening and they sing and dance, if they turn it into a ritual, it would be amazing. But I don’t know if the culture is ready for that. But poetry is that for me. It’s between me and the planet. I write it just to be in touch with the mother, my mother.
I really feel that when I write a poem everything is listening. The trees, the rocks, the stars, the clouds—everything is listening. I feel as if when I’m writing a good poem the vibration of my body and my mind and my heart and my soul is all the same as the universe vibration, as the vibration of the cosmos. Not just my human vibration, it’s the vibration of the planet. It’s the vibration of the stars. It’s the vibration of all the ancient things.
I love the title of your new book, “Behind My Eyes”. To me what that represents is that in front of your eyes you see civilization, but you’re really in the other world. Behind your eyes we see the authentic self, the self that is not programmed, what lies beyond man-made civilization.
That’s very much it, Black Dog. The other world for me.
When I read your words I hear the same things shamans are saying. As much as you’re a poet, I see you also as a shaman, a mystic. That’s why I was so attracted to your poetry. Do you see that?
Very much so. I really think poetry should be and can be shamanistic. I feel that poetry is another order. Capitalism is one kind of order, the governments and institutions, but poetry is the cosmic order.
You sometimes talk about what you call “universe law”, which is not the law of the system. That is the higher law.
Right. I think so. It’s a higher law, a deeper law, an older law.
It’s an eternal law. And I think poetry is in touch with that law. All art, great art.
In your book of interviews (“Breaking The Alabaster Jar”) you talk about “the culture” in a way I’ve never heard it said before. You say some people write for the culture.
I feel as though when I’m writing a poem I’m part of that order. I feel as though I’m opening myself up to it and I’m manifesting that order in language. And my hope is that when a reader reads it that they will experience that deep universe order too. I feel like that’s what a shaman is doing. A shaman is trying to channel or to bring that order into the world, to manifest it. So I feel that shamanism and poets are very close. Very close! Maybe the same thing.
When a person begins writing, maybe at the beginning it’s just pure inspiration. They don’t even know why they’re writing, they’re just writing. That is a vertical experience, when a person writes purely for the cosmos. Their writing of poems is purely between them and the cosmos. Then suddenly the experience becomes horizontal. They begin to listen to what other people are writing, reading other people. I think it’s a necessary stage. They begin to study the great poets who died many years ago. They study ancient poets. But all of that, I feel, is becoming horizontal. It’s becoming a dialog with the culture, instead of with the cosmos. In Rap I suppose it would mean you’re listening to what other people are doing, you’re hearing other artists and learning from them. I think it’s necessary, but I think it’s a problem if the poet stays there, if the poet doesn’t achieve another kind of verticality again where it’s not longer a dialog with the culture. Everything you learned, all your skills and all the techniques that you learned from studying other poetry, you bring it again to a vertical dialog with the cosmos. I think it has to go back to that. It’s not just a dialog with the culture, it’s also a dialog with the gods and goddesses, with the dead, with the unborn. All of that I think of as vertical.
How do you see your progression as a poet? Did you at one time write purely like a child?
My first poems, my early poems, I was writing just like a kid. I didn’t even know why I was writing. I wasn’t trying to do anything, I was just doing it. The poems were just coming through me. But then something happened. I’d have to say my intellect started to develop. I was a little scared at first. I was like, what is this intellect? It started to become very curious about what other people were writing, and about the differences between Western poetry and Eastern poetry, and the differences between ancient poetry and contemporary poetry. Questions like: what is poetry? Did ancient cultures use poetry as a spiritual practice? And why in this country is it not a spiritual practice. All these questions! But I feel it was important. I don’t feel like I did it purposely. Suddenly this stuff started happening. But lately I feel as if I’m goin back. Like everything I learned I’m taking it now to a—I see now and I understand consciously. Before I did it, but I wasn’t conscious.
I’m glad. And I feel that dreaming is not “cause and effect”. In dreams all kinds of things can happen. Dream logic is very close to poetry logic. “Cause and effect” logic, civilization logic, all of that is very limiting.
In your first book, “The Rose”, there’s a certain kind of innocence in your poetry. The feeling I get from that book is very different from your other books. Maybe “The Winged Seed” is closer to “The Rose”. When I read “The Rose”, it was like entering a mystical world I had never experienced before. In the later books I see a change. Did a change happen?
Yeah. What was happening was I would sometimes meet people—professors and critics—who would attack poetry. Not just my poetry, but poetry in general. And I would be bothered. I thought with my intellect I don’t know enough to defend poetry. I do what I do, I do it unconsciously, but I don’t know enough to defend poetry. I started getting more and more mad every time someone attacked poetry. Then I thought, I have to become conscious. Then I really started studying poetry, not just writing and enjoying it. Then I became conscious. So it’s a problem, Black Dog. I’m curious what you think about that. Do you think a person can get back?
All humans are born enlightened beings, because we are part of existence. Our true mother is existence. Then at the age of 3 or 4 we start getting programmed to be part of this man-made civilization. We lose all touch with our real self, we start to go further and further from our mother. Most of us live our lives in this confused state. After we get programmed by the system, we never find our way back to our original roots, we never find ourselves. We think we are this civilization, but it’s nothing more than a program that was installed in us, like a computer. Something drastic has to happen in your life, like what happened to you in Indonesia, the near death experiences. It’s like a big jolt. When something drastic like that happens, the installed program can’t handle it. It shuts down. It has no answers about death. Then you enter your other consciousness looking for answers. When that happens you see another reality—the original reality, we start finding ourselves. Now you know there is more than just the physical world we live in. So yes, we can get back. Just to even realize it, you have already gotten back. I’m not saying that you have gone astray, because the first book I read of yours, “Breaking The Alabaster Jar”, was the interviews. The interviews were done at different times in your life, and in those interviews I could see the wisdom a child has. You are still connected to the primitive world. In your new books, “Behind My Eyes”, “The City In Which I Loved You”, and “Book Of My Nights” you still have that mystical feel. What changes do you see in your poetry over the years? More intellectual. More knowledge. More rational knowledge. I have to say, I don’t think it was necessarily a bad thing. I realize now that I’m more conscious. But now I want to get back. It’s funny because the planetary dream is so big. The human dream is small. Why would somebody choose the human dream? Maybe it’s like you said, you get pulled into the human dream, the civilized dream. And you forget the bigger dream of the cosmos. Just lately, Black Dog, I’ve been thinking that that’s the only hope. There is no hope for me or my children or my wife or anything, unless I have access again to the cosmic dream, the planetary dream.
People are just witnessing what is happening now, in politics and society. That’s good and it’s important, but I think people forget that we’re supposed to witness the invisible too. The spiritual, the invisible, we’re supposed to help materialize it and make it visible. We have a double duty: we’re supposed to materialize the spirit and spiritualize the material. My feeling is, if we only write about the things that we see right now—the physical world—that’s not enough. That’s not the whole picture.
When civilization first started in the Fertile Crescent area, humans thought it was a good thing. They felt like agriculture was a great improvement. They could control nature and have all the food they wanted. But now we see how it has backfired. Now we have to leave it behind. When you study the Mayan culture, you see that they had an advanced civilization going on, but at a point they realized that it was not working. They walked away from it and went back to the jungle. But this civilization that we live in, they would never admit it’s not working. They’re driving straight into a wall. Every artist should read your book, “Breaking the Alabaster Jar”. Every person who is creating should read those interviews. The whole book is overflowing with insight. You’re not showing us technique you’re showing us something that’s impossible for us to see. You always talk about the silence in your book, how important it is. Silence is not bound to a certain culture. Your poetry is like that. It’s not bound to any culture. I always wonder how you came into these things? It’s like a shamanistic way of seeing.
I feel it is. When I used to go hear poets read, the poets that I love, if I heard them read I felt my molecules, the atoms in my body were changed. Then I would hear some poetry that I didn’t like and I would feel flat, like nothing happened. I feel like this is shamanistic experience. It’s ritual. It’s changing the person, changing the dreamer. Changing the dreamer in order to change the dream. I think poetry is the deepest dream a human being can have.
Poetry can lead you to enlightenment. People who create music or art or poetry, they’re in touch with that silence. When you create music you pull a song out of the silence. A poet is the same way.
I think so. I think silence is the mother and language is the child and the grandchild of the mother. Very much so. I love the title for your book of interviews, “Breaking the Alabaster Jar”. To me that title sums up all your poetry. It’s like going to the extreme. Like in the story in your book: the woman throws the jar onto the floor and breaks it. Your poetry is exploding with excess. A lot of poetry that is being published, there’s nothing in there. It’s a lot of words.
I know. It’s like eating white bread. It’s like eating bubblegum.
When they talk about reality, they mean conditional reality. I feel like conditional reality is “cause and effect” reality. That is, let’s say I grow in the projects. The projects are violent. So I become violent because the projects are violent. That’s cause and effect. The projects being violent is the cause, the effect is that I’m violent. But that is so disempowering! That’s just basically saying, I have no power over my life.
When you read your interviews in “Breaking the Alabaster Jar” you enter an altered state. Your poetry has a lot of healing power. It’s such a beautiful gift.
I’m so glad to hear that. You read the interviews first?
I read the book of interviews first. I was living in the rainforest in Sri Lanka then, and I kept reading it over and over again. Each time I read it I saw something different. It’s like you see a tree with yellow flowers; the next day it’s the same tree, but the flowers look red. Each time I read it, it was a new book. It put me in an altered state. Later on I read your first book of poetry, “The Rose” and your autobiography, “The Winged Seed”. Your life story is like a story from a book. You came from a Chinese royal family. Your father was the personal physician to Mao Zedong, medical advisor to Sukarno, political prisoner in Indonesia. You were born in Indonesia, and you come from a Chinese royal family, right?
Right. But that’s very distant from me in a way.
It’s distant, but not. You lived with your mother every day and she was that—a person who was born to a royal family
Yes, she was that. She was the oldest granddaughter of the first president of the Republic. When China became a republic they elected my great-grandfather. He had 9 wives and they lived in 9 mansions surrounded by a big wall. She was raised in there and never allowed to go out. Very protected. She wasn’t even allowed to wear clothing that men had touched. Only women could make her clothes. She was very beautiful and very protected, and all of a sudden she met my father. He comes from a very different tradition. His mother’s people were gangsters. They were gangsters and loan sharks and they were very powerful, very strong. They controlled the northeast coast, all the shipping. All the people who shipped and fished, anything import/export, they had to pay to them. My mother met my father and she just thought he was so exciting and so interesting. They left. She married him and he took her away.
Your father came from a gangster background? His grandfather was a gangster. My dad’s father was a banker. But a lot of the money that he used to open the bank was gangster money. But we’re not gangsters now.
I didn’t know that. I always had the feeling that I was like a seed blown—like the wind blew me from Indonesia to Hong Kong to Japan and then to America. I feel sometimes that there are forces bigger than me blowing me to places and taking me places.
You look like one in the photos you sent Murder Dog for this interview. You look like a Japanese yakuza in some of those photos. You look like a Mayan mystic.
I thought that was a good photo for Murder Dog. My editor hated that picture.
That’s an amazing story, to come from both royal and gangster backgrounds.
Another thing, my older brother, he was very young and my parents had to leave him in China. He was the oldest, and when he was young he got very sick. I can’t even get the straight story from my mother. She tells me one thing and then she tells me something different. She said he was very sick and they couldn’t move him, but they wanted to get out of China. So they thought they would move to Indonesia and get situated and then they would come back and get him. But when they left China closed the doors and they couldn’t get back in. But I also heard that my mother’s mother didn’t want to let go of him. She said they’ve got to leave him with her. And in China what the grandmother says is law. So they left him. That’s another story I heard; I don’t know which one is true. He was in China by himself for 26 years. He lived with my grandmother. He went through both Cultural Revolutions. He was tortured and he almost died. Then when he came to this country he became a nightclub singer.
I feel sometimes that people don’t praise. Not just in poems, but in their lives. When they say, “I’m witnessing reality,” they don’t praise. There’s a lot of reality that needs to be praised. For instance the love of a father for his children. That should be praised. Or falling rain—that should be praised. Trees and flower and plants growing—that should be praised! The seasons coming on time—that should be praised. The ocean should be praised. I feel that there’s a lot to praise.
That’s really strange.
He became a very famous nightclub singer. He used to sing in New York City in Chinatown, in Boston and Toronto and Hong Kong. He traveled all over the world. For 26 years we never saw him and then he came here. I went and saw him sing in New York City. And you know all the nightclubs are owned by gangsters, Chinese gangsters. When he died, at his funeral, all these Chinese gangsters came to shake my mother’s hand. She was so heartbroken. She didn’t know what kind of life he had.
That’s incredible. Your autobiography is phenomenal. You take us to a very strange mystical world. That book has a primitive feeling, also very dark and violent. Your life story sounds like something you would see in a film. Your parents had left China, then they were living in Jakarta, Indonesia, where you were born. How was life for them there? For a while they were very good. He started a university, my dad and a few friends. They started to break ground and build buildings for it. It was a college of all kinds of spiritual thought. He wanted to bring people from Christianity, from Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, together to give talks and lectures. But one problem was that in Indonesian there’s a lot of resentment towards the Chinese.
Do Indonesian people look very different from Chinese people?
They’re a little darker, but that’s all. Sometimes I feel more Indonesian than Chinese, but I have no Indonesian blood. Sometimes I feel like I’m dark enough that I could be Indonesian.
What happened when you were living in Indonesia?
One of the most important things I found out was the year I was born—I’m very proud of this, I feel so happy about this—they said the biggest congress of Third World nations met in Jakarta the year I was born to talk about ending colonialism and to talk about freedom and liberation. The energy must have been amazing in Jakarta! All of those countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, what the West calls “Third World countries”, the biggest congress met that year. I’m so moved when I think about that.
Just impressions. But what was more painful was that ever since I was little I felt that I don’t belong here in the United States and someday I’ll go home. I always thought I would go back to Indonesia. But then when I went back there I realized: this isn’t home. Indonesia isn’t my home. It was so painful for me to realize that Indonesia isn’t home. It was probably an important time in that place on earth, like a planetary change. To be born in a time like that is very magical. If you study the wisdom of ancient people all over the world, they understood magnetic and electric forces so deeply that they knew which places were right for living, and for sacred practices. They put their temples in certain spots where the planets created powerful energy. At certain times the planets align and the way the energy crisscrosses makes a strange electricity. There is a lot of power in those places.
I do think so. And you know one of the biggest volcanoes of the world is near Jakarta. So much energy there! And the Indonesian people are a very deep deep people. There’s a violence in their nature, but there’s also a very mystical quality, very beautiful poetic music, very ancient stories. All of that.
Have you been able to visit Indonesia often?
No, I only went one time. It was so painful.
Did you remember living there as a child?
No. Just impressions. But what was more painful was that ever since I was little I felt that I don’t belong here in the United States and someday I’ll go home. I always thought I would go back to Indonesia. But then when I went back there I realized: this isn’t home. Indonesia isn’t my home. It was so painful for me to realize that Indonesia isn’t home.
And it’s very depressing, very scary, because they’re very young and already they’ve lost touch with the universe. I meet these young students, and they’re already out of touch with the cosmos. They already don’t know how to dream. They’re already materialistic, and they already live in conditioned minds. They’re very young and they think they’re original, but everything they like and everything they don’t like is conditioned by the culture. They’re already not thinking for themselves. I look at them and I get scared!
You probably don’t feel at home even in Chicago. That may be the reason you and your extended family are all living together in a three story building. You have created your own country, your own tribal grounds to live in.
Very much so.
That’s the same thing I saw in the Zhou Brothers. They have that huge compound, the Art Center, it’s like their own country. You almost have to have that. You’re not at home in China, not at home in Indonesia, not at home in Chicago.
You still want to have a home, but where is your home? How old were you when the Indonesian government took your dad as a political prisoner?
I think I was 2 years old when they took him. He was in prison for almost 2 years. When he escaped I was about 4. We escaped the country with him. We went from Indonesia to Hong Kong and then to Japan, then Singapore and Malaysia and Macau. Then back to Hong Kong and to the United States. When I got to the United States I must have been 6 or 7.
You first came to Seattle. Why did you end up in Seattle? I think that’s just where everybody went. I don’t know why we went there.
It’s becoming a dialog with the culture, instead of with the cosmos. In Rap I suppose it would mean you’re listening to what other people are doing, you’re hearing other artists and learning from them. I think it’s necessary, but I think it’s a problem if the poet stays there, if the poet doesn’t achieve another kind of verticality again where it’s not longer a dialog with the culture. Everything you learned, all your skills and all the techniques that you learned from studying other poetry, you bring it again to a vertical dialog with the cosmos. I think it has to go back to that. It’s not just a dialog with the culture, it’s also a dialog with the gods and goddesses, with the dead, with the unborn. All of that I think of as vertical. I find it very interesting when you say that you’re not writing poetry for the culture.
I really feel that when I write a good poem everything is listening. The trees, the rocks, the stars, the clouds—everything is listening. I feel as if when I’m writing a good poem the vibration of my body and my mind and my heart and my soul is all the same as the universe vibration, as the vibration of the cosmos. Not just my human vibration, it’s the vibration of the planet. It’s the vibration of the stars. It’s the vibration of all the ancient things. I feel as though when I’m writing a poem I’m part of that order. I feel as though I’m opening myself up to it and I’m manifesting that order in language. And my hope is that when a reader reads it that they will experience that deep universe order too. I feel like that’s what a shaman is doing. A shaman is trying to channel or to bring that order into the world, to manifest it. So I feel that shamanism and poets are very close. Very close! Maybe the same thing.
In primitive tribes the shaman is the person who keeps all the dances and stories and songs alive. He keeps all of that and brings it to the tribe. A shaman’s role is the same as a poet or a musician. One thing about poetry, the reason I think a lot of people don’t read poetry is that poetry is of the other mind. Most people are of the civilized mind, which is the smaller mind, and they just can’t enter that other world. It’s a different language. It’s like you know Indonesian and you’re trying to read Chinese. What I understand about what you said about culture is this: If I eat a raw mango anywhere in the world it’s a pure mango. But if I go to Indonesia and they cook the mango, then I’m not eating the mango, I’m eating the culture of Indonesia. Then if I go to China and eat their cooked mango dish, then I’m eating Chinese culture. What you’re saying is you want to go early early early. You want to go to the original mango, not to the culturally processed mango. That is the real poetry, untainted by a specific culture.
Exactly. I think so.
Do you know this game called Sudoku? I’ve never played it, but I’ve seen kids play it. They do it like a math problem. They have a circle. The inner numbers, they do the problems and then they start moving out. Sometimes they get way far out and they’re doing the math and sometimes they do something wrong and they discover that it went wrong way in the middle. It’s very difficult to undo. I feel like civilization is like that. It’s like we made so many mistakes, but they don’t realize that they made the mistake on the inner circle. Their first assumption was already wrong. After that everything is wrong because the inner circle is wrong.
You said, “The news is that we are the universe. If you are witnessing what’s happening in this little world then you’re limited to the human experience on this small earth.” The universe is vast. Is that what you were saying?
Yes, that’s exactly what I was saying. I don’t want the conditioned reality. I don’t want the mango that’s been conditioned by the culture. That’s an intervention.
When you read poetry do you come across other poets who are doing what you are doing?
The poets who I felt were doing it were the ancient Chinese. So I was reading a lot of ancient Chinese poetry and that’s where I got a lot of my inspiration. When I started writing that’s where most of my inspiration was coming from.
The ancient Chinese poets had that innocence in their poetry. They could be talking about something very deep, something very sad, but it still had that innocence of a child.
Very much so. And they always saw everything within the context of the cosmos. To me that’s what it comes down to too—context. Some poems you read and the context is suburban White America. I just don’t get interested. Then some poems you read the context is America. That’s a little bigger, but not much. Some might include English speaking countries, that’s still not big enough. Then some poems are much bigger, the context is “the human beings”. But even that’s not big enough. I want BIG context! Deep. Not only big in terms of land, but time. Eternity—that’s a bigger context than just now, this time in history.
Like if somebody assumes there is no world behind our eyes, that the only world there is is what’s before our eyes, that’s a mistake in the inner circle. I feel as if poetry deals with things in the inner circle. If we can understand those truths then we can build something real. But I feel as if that inner circle is between the poet and the gods. The outer stuff is like how civilization uses the poems to teach in school. Civilization uses the poems to sell in bookstores. But in that inner most circle it’s the poet meeting the cosmos. Getting rid of all ego and meeting the cosmos. That’s what I’m interested in.
What happens to artists or writers who are foreigners or of a minority ethnic background in America, the try to categorize you as a “Chinese poet” or a “African-American artist”. You may be Chinese, but you’re so much bigger than that. You represent the universe. You’re not limited to just a culture. Maybe your physical body was born in Indonesia, and your heritage is Chinese, but you’re more than that.
Exactly. People forget that each of us is actually 1.4 million years old. In this lifetime, just for now, I’m Chinese, born in Indonesia. I’m a 51 year old male living in Chicago, but that’s all just the conditions for this moment. The bigger context is 1.4 million years of evolution brought me here and on top of that, even before human beings came about, we come from planet earth. And the planet comes from the stars. So we’re all stardust. I feel like there must be wisdom, information down there at the level where we are stardust. I want to hear the stardust talk in these poems. I want to hear the planet talk in these poems. I don’t think I’m just this moment. I don’t have a problem with who I am at this moment, I don’t want to shed it or hide it, but it’s not big enough.
I understand what you’re saying. Part of you is that physical person, but that’s not what it’s all about. We are the universe.
we come from planet earth. And the planet comes from the stars. So we’re all stardust. I feel like there must be wisdom, information down there at the level where we are stardust. I want to hear the stardust talk in these poems. I want to hear the planet talk in these poems. I don’t think I’m just this moment. I don’t have a problem with who I am at this moment, I don’t want to shed it or hide it, but it’s not big enough. Lao-Tzu 2000 years ago said that all material reality is space. Now physicists are saying all material reality is 99.9999%. That means our original condition is space. I want to write from that knowledge, that context, that depth. Not just the surface appearance—I’m Chinese or I’m male. I think all of us are male and female. We’re temporary and eternal. We’re all of these things at once. The things Lao-Tzu said were vast. I heard another thing he said was that our original color is black. Because the light is coming from the sun. The actual color of the earth and everything on it is black. Silence is our language and our color is black. The color is given to us, it’s not here without the sun. I see that in your work—the darkness. Darkness, not as a negative but a positive.
Poetry can lead you to enlightenment. People who create music or art or poetry, they’re in touch with that silence. When you create music you pull a song out of the silence. A poet is the same way. I think so. I think silence is the mother and language is the child and the grandchild of the mother. Very much so.
It’s very rich. The blackness, darkness is rich. The Chinese say that in the dark you can see the light, but if you’re in light you can’t see the dark. So they say it’s better to be in the dark.
You’ve also said in an interview, “The thing that obsesses me is always language. Language is almost an inconvenience.” Is that because language is tied to a certain culture?
Yes. My feeling is nature is the cosmos’ language. The cosmos speaks and you get a rainforest. The cosmos says a word and you get an ocean. Human beings, we speak and you get a word. We get the word for ocean. It’s close, but I sometimes want to experience the language of nature. Nature’s language, the silent language. I think the cosmos speak and you get planets, you get solar systems, you get stars. Sometimes human language can bring experience closer. And sometimes human language can push experience away. Sometimes it feels like it just pushes experience away.
I felt a lot of deep truths here. A lot of the things he’s saying I feel very deeply but I didn’t have the language for it. But to hear him say it, I feel so excited. I feel like, “I feel that way too!” It’s so heavy, the realization that changing the dream is more effective and deeper than changing outer things.
It does. The experience gets pushed away if you’re stuck in that culture language. But if you’re in the language of the universe, it is also the experience. There are two worlds going on. One could push it away and the other brings it closer. As a poet you probably go and do lectures in schools. You know that you cannot teach poetry to people. You could teach a class for any amount of time, but you still won’t be able to make a poet out of your students. When you lecture you are using that small language, the language of civilization. In that small language you cannot give the universal wisdom.
Right. All that “cause and effect” language, all that civilization.
You can teach technique with that language, but it won’t make a anybody become poet. Do you see that when you deal students? All the time. And it’s very depressing, very scary, because they’re very young and already they’ve lost touch with the universe. I meet these young students, and they’re already out of touch with the cosmos. They already don’t know how to dream. They’re already materialistic, and they already live in conditioned minds. They’re very young and they think they’re original, but everything they like and everything they don’t like is conditioned by the culture. They’re already not thinking for themselves. I look at them and I get scared! They all read the same books. They all have the same heroes. They all like the same food. They’re all politically about the same. They have the same dreams. They all want the same things. Very much. It’s very disturbing.
It does. The experience gets pushed away if you’re stuck in that culture language. But if you’re in the language of the universe, it is also the experience. There are two worlds going on. One could push it away and the other brings it closer.
How do you see your kids? Are they different or are they more conditioned by this civilization?
I think they’re both. They have a lot of both. I’m always trying to show them something different. Every time I see the civilization mind I help them critique it. I help them think it through, see what’s wrong with it. They’re very fierce that way. They’re very aloof when it comes to the culture. They understand it. They understand the vocabulary, they understand the clothes people wear and they understand what the movies mean. They’re very critical. I think it’s good.
You said, “Every artist has to have a dialog with something much more personal, urgent, true, than the dialog with the culture.” Do you talk about these things when you teach?
I try to. More and more. The older I get the more I feel like: I’m just gonna go out there and say my truth. If they understand it, let them hear it. If they don’t, too bad. I’ll move on and tell my truth again. I’ve just got to say what I think is true.
What I’ve noticed is that women are closer to the universe mind than men. The men have been pushed into civilization to get a job and succeed. In the past women were at home, removed from civilization. It seems that they’re more connected to the otherness.
You know, Black Dog, I’ve never actually experienced that. What I experience is kind of disappointing. As many women I meet are very ambitious and driven and materialistic as men. I feel like there used to be feminine knowledge. It’s gone now.
It’s like the woman’s liberation movement doesn’t emphasize developing power through their own identity. Instead of being liberated women have walked into the male shoes.
It’s very strange. It’s very sad to me. It’s like homogeneous. Even men and women are thinking the same. But once in a while I meet somebody like you and I think, “Here’s one person who’s different because they started different and they struggled to remain different.” I realize women are not born with this different soul necessarily.
I think we’re all born the same, but society conditions us differently. Like you say, women used to be deeply connected to that but they’re losing it just like everybody else is losing it. Poets like you, and for me to even do the interview with you, we need to keep these kinds of spirits nourished. What would happen to the world if we don’t have this kind of poetry? I might jump off a cliff or hang myself with a rope!
Me too, Black Dog. I know what you mean. I talk to a lot of poets and they’re trying to write poems using that civilization language. I say, why are you doing that? They say, there’s no other way, we have to do this. I feel like I need to get back in touch with nature.
You should really spend some time in nature. It cleans you of civilization and the culture. Nature is that pure mind, that pure dream. You were talking about the book “The World Is As You Dream It”. A dream is also like a language. It’s like a silence language that goes on inside us. Like when you said “Behind My Eyes”. All day long, don’t you feel like we’re dreaming? That title “Behind My Eyes” meant so much to me. I know what you were talking about.
I’m glad. And I feel that dreaming is not “cause and effect”. In dreams all kinds of things can happen. Dream logic is very close to poetry logic. “Cause and effect” logic, civilization logic, all of that is very limiting.
This was also interesting. You said, “We should write out of grief but not out of grievance. Grief is rich, exotic, but grievance is not.” I see that all day long.
My feeling is this: we use the word “I” all the time. “I’m talking” or “I go to the store.” But I think when we say “I” we actually mean “me”. I feel like grievance is the “me” thinking, but grief is the “I”. I think that most people don’t actually have an “I”. I think they are actually “me”, the ego. “Me” is the ego. Grievance is the ego. I think “cause and effect” mind is the ego. I think conditioned mind is the ego. But I think the “I” is much bigger than the “me”. It’s actually capitalized. The “I” is not the ego. The “I” is part of the gods, part of the goddesses, part of the planet, part of the cosmos. That’s the “I”. That “I” can experience grief. It looks at civilization and sees what we’re doing to the planet and experiences grief. It might even experience grief at a sunset. Or the death of a great healer. It can experience grief for the planet. But grievance is just the ego, it’s about “me”. Somebody did something bad to me. I’m mad. I feel as if the “me”, the grievance, the ego, all of that is in the way. It keeps us from true experience. It keeps us from true life. It keeps us from ecstasy. It keeps us from brimming. That’s what I meant by the difference of grief and grievance.
If science can’t explain to us logically people think it does not exist.
Sometimes they don’t even believe there is a place behind their eyes. They think, there’s nothing there. It’s all what I can see now.
But ancient people and primitive people, they knew about all that. Do you feel like John Perkins explains that in his book, “Dream Change”?
I think he does. Definitely. I keep thinking I would love to get a bunch of people and start a school where this kind of thinking is being taught. With poetry and music and synchronistic thinking and shamanistic ways. Teach people shamanistic views. I want to start a school or community.
People like you who have experienced the unknown, the unseen, want to leave this civilization behind because you know there is a better world. You want to share what you have found with others. It’s so much, it’s overflowing. I see you do that with your poetry.
What is a “haiku moment” to you?
To me a haiku moment is deep coincidence. Deep synchronicity where the outer world and the inner world meet, come together. And you see the truth of things. When the outer world is a reflection of the inner world, and the inner world is a reflection of the outer world. And language and silence and feeling and thinking, all of that comes together. That experience is the haiku moment. All that magic. Ultimately the word I’m thinking of is “coincidence”, meaningful coincidence.
Haiku poems are like seeds, so small but containing the whole universe. In your book, “The Winged Seed” you talk about how your dad collected seeds. He was always carrying seeds in his pockets. When I read your poems I can see your father was a very unusual person. He was very mystical. The title “Winged Seed”, I felt that Li-Young Lee is the seed that got wings. That’s exactly true.
You were born in August and August is the time when the seeds start traveling, especially in Asia. In the springtime the trees are flowering. The fruits come in June/July and by August the seeds are spreading around. They get wings. They either get carried in the wind or by humans or by animals, to different places so they can sprout and grow into trees.
I didn’t know that. I always had the feeling that I was like a seed blown—like the wind blew me from Indonesia to Hong Kong to Japan and then to America. I feel sometimes that there are forces bigger than me blowing me to places and taking me places.
When I hear about your dad, he was very mystical. To me the fact that he collected seeds means a lot. I wonder what your dad would think about you now?
I don’t know. I wonder sometimes. He was a very tortured person. I think he might have been manic depressive. I think it was because he was out of touch. The first time we talked you said, “Li-Young, your father was a shaman but he didn’t know it.” I think you were right. When you said that I suddenly understood why he was manic depressive all his life. I think it was because he didn’t know he was a shaman.
Maybe he didn’t have the understanding that you have. You have come into a deeper understanding. In your early books you wrote a lot about your father. I really like those poems because it’s a lot about you growing up as a child, and your childhood was very different from a lot of children. When you are thinking of the titles of your books, how do they come to you?
I dream it. I do a lot of dreaming and intuiting and waiting and then it comes. Then I know it’s the right thing.
One time you said, “Thoughts are like radio waves. They’re finer than radio waves, higher in vibration. The poet works in the first circle.” I love that.
Do you know this game called Sudoku?
I’ve never played it, but I’ve seen kids play it. They do it like a math problem. They have a circle. The inner numbers, they do the problems and then they start moving out. Sometimes they get way far out and they’re doing the math and sometimes they do something wrong and they discover that it went wrong way in the middle. It’s very difficult to undo. I feel like civilization is like that. It’s like we made so many mistakes, but they don’t realize that they made the mistake on the inner circle. Their first assumption was already wrong. After that everything is wrong because the inner circle is wrong. Like if somebody assumes there is no world behind our eyes, that the only world there is is what’s before our eyes, that’s a mistake in the inner circle. I feel as if poetry deals with things in the inner circle. If we can understand those truths then we can build something real. But I feel as if that inner circle is between the poet and the gods. The outer stuff is like how civilization uses the poems to teach in school. Civilization uses the poems to sell in bookstores. But in that inner most circle it’s the poet meeting the cosmos. Getting rid of all ego and meeting the cosmos. That’s what I’m interested in.
When a person realizes that there are two worlds—the world of civilization and the world of existence, the natural world—it almost cleans you out. You come to an understanding: this is this and that is that. You realize you don’t have to be a part of that conditioned programming. You can be in that pure unadulterated world. You can function in it, but you’re not part of it.
You are really good with language and with words. A lot of us who have seen the Other don’t have the words to explain or share it with others. But you have that gift. Did writing poetry come naturally to you?
A lot of it comes naturally and some of it I practice to get better at, to get clearer. To keep that tuning clear, that’s what the practice is. In the beginning I didn’t know if I was listening to the universe or to my own mind. The ego mind or the universe mind, I can’t tell. So over the years I keep practicing to try to recognize the difference. I don’t know. I really don’t know. And I don’t know why some people have the language and some don’t. I don’t know.
It’s a beautiful thing when you’re tapped into the universe language, to be able to write about the silence using a language. That’s the most exciting thing about your poetry. You can write about the silence using these words that humans can understand. You somehow retain that silence inside these poems. You probably search for other poets that are doing this, who have tapped the universal mind, but they’re very rare.
Exactly. I’m hungry all the time. I’m thirsty all the time.
I’m always in bookstores looking for more of that, but it’s not there. Your poem “Rain Diary” is such a magical poem. I wonder where it came from? It’s like a poem within a poem within a poem. You say, “Praise is the state of excess.” What does that mean?
I feel sometimes that people don’t praise. Not just in poems, but in their lives. When they say, “I’m witnessing reality,” they don’t praise. There’s a lot of reality that needs to be praised. For instance the love of a father for his children. That should be praised. Or falling rain—that should be praised. Trees and flower and plants growing—that should be praised! The seasons coming on time—that should be praised. The ocean should be praised. I feel that there’s a lot to praise. But in poetry and in lyrics I hear a lot of people complaining, but not a lot of praise. If we can praise and grieve at the same time, I think that’s good. I know that there’s a lot to grieve. I know there’s a lot of pain. I know there’s a lot of suffering. But I also think there’s a lot to praise. We are not doing it enough.
People always wait for miracles, miracles that happened in history books and in legends We just can’t see the everyday miracles like the green buds coming out of trees. It’s all magical, it’s all poetry. When you experience the universe mind and become one with existence you see that the civilized world is very small. You start praising existence, because that little thing called civilization is so small, and there’s so much to praise out there.
When we listen to the universe mind we are receiving a signal, a vibration from the whole cosmos. But we keep wanting to listen only to the local station. Most people only listen to the local station. They’re only receiving messages or news or vibrations from the small local station. It’s only humans and only this moment and this place. There are signals coming in from all over the universe, but they don’t tune in. I sometimes think springtime itself is a form of praise. Spring itself is a form of praise. All the little green buds coming out of the trees, all the baby birds I hear coming out of the nests. All of that is praise. It’s all magical. And it’s all poetry.
It’s all poetry. Definitely. I think more and more people get depressed because more and more poetry is very depressed. It’s all about “no meaning”, it’s very cynical. It’s very troubling.
You said, “I see our mission as much larger than witnessing only the material world.
There’s a movement in American poetry, in a lot of poetry right now, they call it the “poetry of witness”. People are just witnessing what is happening now, in politics and society. That’s good and it’s important, but I think people forget that we’re supposed to witness the invisible too. The spiritual, the invisible, we’re supposed to help materialize it and make it visible. We have a double duty: we’re supposed to materialize the spirit and spiritualize the material. My feeling is, if we only write about the things that we see right now—the physical world—that’s not enough. That’s not the whole picture.
What people see is what’s right in front of their eyes. They don’t see the unseen reality.
The big thing, the invisible thing, the unknown. That’s 90% of life. All of the important things—love is invisible, fear is invisible, dreams are invisible, hopes are invisible. You know in the Judeo-Christian tradition they say: without a vision the people parish. That vision is so important, and that vision is invisible. The better world we’re dreaming toward now, it is invisible yet. We don’t see it yet, but we have to dream it, we have to write it, we have to try to purpose that. And I also think that if we witness only visible then we’re always looking at the past or what is already done. The future and our hopes, all of that lies in the invisible. So I really feel that this witnessing that a lot of American poets talk about, it’s important but that’s not all there is to it. I was thinking a lot of times people, when they talk about reality, they mean conditional reality. I feel like conditional reality is “cause and effect” reality. That is, let’s say I grow in the projects. The projects are violent. So I become violent because the projects are violent. That’s cause and effect. The projects being violent is the cause, the effect is that I’m violent. But that is so disempowering, Black Dog! That’s just basically saying, I have no power over my life. The conditions of my life determine what I do completely. I don’t have any individuality. I have no vote as to what my life becomes. The thing is, to me poetry poses an alternative reality. Poetry undermines “cause and effect” reality. I think poetry undermines conditional reality. Poetry manifests coincident reality, synchronistic reality, not “cause and effect”. Great poems are instances of synchronicity in language. When silence and language and soul and heart and mind and body all coincide, all synchronize, then you get poetry. The nature of that reality is not “cause and effect”. I think coincident reality is non-causal orderedness. I’m going to tell you something that happened to me. I was at a school, I was there for a week staying with the headmaster of the school. The first morning there I got up and went into the kitchen and there was a note for me. The headmaster had gone to school and he said, “help yourself to breakfast. I will come and get you at 1:00 and you can go with me to class.” I had some coffee, and there was a book on the counter called “Parsifal”. It’s a very ancient French poem, it’s about the Holy Grail. It’s about a knight named Parsifal who was searching for the Grail. I read the book and later on I told the headmaster I really like that book. He said, keep it, you can read it. I was at this school for 5 days and on my last day I was in my room reading the book. I was at the part in the book where the knight, Parsifal, he fights 20 knights in a row. He was exhausted and half dead, and then he sees on the horizon a blue flag with a white dove on it. The banner approaches him, it’s another knight and the knight has on his shield a blue shield and a white dove. The man rides up to Parsifal and Parsifal is very scared now because he doesn’t have any strength left and this man is going to kill him. But the man says, “I don’t want to kill you, I came to help you. I came to give you the answer to your question.” He gives the answer and he rides away. Right at that moment the headmaster called downstairs and said, “Li-Young it’s time to go now and catch your plane.” So I close the book, I put it away and I say a little prayer. I say thank you to the universe, “I hope the universe takes me home safely.” And then I think, “It would be so cool if I saw a white dove.” Because the white dove in the poem, I don’t know why I thought that. Then I start walking upstairs and at that moment I hear the headmaster’s wife go, “Oh my god!” And I hear the headmaster say, “Oh my god!!” Both of them yelled and I ran upstairs and they were pointing out the window. They said, “Look on the glass!” I backed away and looked on the glass. It looked like somebody had cut out a perfect stencil of a dove and put it on the window and blown white powder on it. It was perfect. You could see the little feet. You could see the eye, its wings were spread out. You could see the little beak. I said, “What is that?” They said a morning dove had flown into the window and hit the glass and fell dead in the rosebush. I looked down and there was a dead dove in the rosebush. The dove had just crashed into the glass. Sometimes when I tell that story people say, “You made that dove, you called that dove.” No! I don’t think so. Or they say, “You knew the dove was going to come and so you said the prayer.” No, no, no. No “cause and effect” here. No conditions. It’s just coincidence. How many doves were there? There was the dove in the poem—that was the dove from art. Then there was the dove from nature that flew into the glass. Then there was the dove that I wished for. So there were three doves here. They didn’t have anything to do with each other. It isn’t “cause and effect”. I feel like when you read a great poem it has that same effect. Everything goes together and we don’t know how. All of these words and all of these ideas come together, but it’s a mystery how. There’s no “cause and effect”. I feel like poetry is you getting in touch with another order. Not “cause and effect” order, not conditional order. But see, I feel that anybody who says, “I’m just witnessing reality and I’m the way I am because reality is the way it is…” all of that is “cause and effect” mind. All of that is conditional mind. There’s got to be another order that’s not conditional. That says, I know the world is this way but I don’t dream that way. I know that right now civilization is having a nightmare, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to have this nightmare. I’m not conditioned by all this. There’s another order that we can get in touch with.
When you are programmed to believe you are of civilization, if civilization is having a nightmare you feel like you are having a nightmare.
For instance, the 9-11 thing. That’s “cause and effect”! And you know what’s so strange is nobody wants to admit it! You know that guy Reverend Wright, Jeremiah Wright, he tells people: they bombed us because we did something bad. But nobody wants to admit it. All of that, all of it, is “cause and effect” world. But I feel there’s got to be another order than “cause and effect”. Sometimes I think that people forget that poetry is another reality. When we put words together, like we say, “This happened and therefore this happened and then this happened.” That’s all “cause and effect”. But poetry, the language is not that kind of “cause and effect” language. It’s not even “cause and effect” mind. I think it’s like synchronistic mind. It’s like that dove happening. Here’s the thing, when I think about that—one time I told somebody this story and they said, “You should write about that.” I told him, “I can’t write about it because the happening is the poem.” I read about the dove, I wished the dove, the dove hit the window. All those doves—that’s the poem. I feel that that order, the order that is revealed in that kind of experience is the order of the universe. I think that’s the true order. I think the “cause and effect” order is human-made.
Exactly. Cause and effect is the order of the human-made civilization. Most of us think that is the only reality there is. Because of our programming we have lost our ability to see the true order of the universe.