Li-Young Lee is discombobulating.
“So what are we here for?” he asks in the opening moments of a masterclass at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2017. “It isn’t a class or anything, is it?” Thirty heads nod in unison. “But I haven’t prepared anything,” he says, with disorientating frankness. “What’s it on?” From the front row I feed him the title: ‘”Creating the Poetic Mind.” He reflects, nodding. “Good title, but I didn’t write it. Perhaps whoever wrote the title should come and do the class, not me.”
I’m torn between irritation at this apparent disorganisation and disregard of the good souls paying good money to have an insight into ‘the poetic mind’ and a growing suspicion that that’s exactly what’s about to be revealed. “The guy’s either a jerk or a genius” an American voice whispers in the row behind me. My mind is circling on ‘maverick’.
After a few queries from the floor Li-Young Lee is beginning to warm up. He talks about the length of time required to create a poem, quoting one which took eight years from conception to completion. Suspicious of work that comes too easily, he says everything is in preparation for the future work: “I don’t like any of my work. I have a troubled relationship with my work,” he confesses disarmingly. “But there’s a good poem in me… I sense it lurking… I haven’t written it yet, and I don’t know how to reach it.” He shrugs, face and palms open towards the audience. “T’ai chi masters talk of dustless action and that’s what I strive for. Dustless action. Perfection. It is possible,” he nods vigorously, but then stalls, his face falling. “The trend now for popular poems are ones showing lots of dust.” He shakes his head, his disappointment shared by many in the room.
A lifelong t’ai chi practitioner, he believes everyone should practice, as it is “a dynamism of opposites which is at the centre of it all”.
“The ultimate polarities, the ultimate opposites is the definition of t’ai chi,” he says. “So making poetry you have a profound voice and silence – I’m not sure you have the differentials of this in prose. Let me talk about architecture,” he says as the room slides from distrust into a rapt attention. “The medium of architecture is of space. You inhabit space and you inhabit it differently – a bedroom, a shop, a temple – you’re using the same materials but how you inflect the space impacts on how a person inhabits it. Poetry is like this. You’re using the materiality of language in poetry and the opposite is silence.”
As an example, he speaks of a visit to Duke University Cathedral, and how when he was approaching the building he was walking in “vertical infinitude” but wasn’t aware of it until he went inside this gothic cathedral with “space inflected” and saw a little boy lying on his back looking up into the great dome, calling out to his mother ‘I’m falling upwards!’ “We live in vertical infinitude,” he smiles, “yet we forget this until we go into a cathedral and then we remember. Poetry is like this. Poetry is a revelation of reality.”
Born in Indonesia to Chinese political exiles, the family were, as he puts it “fugitives, on the run, changing names and identities” during his early years, finally receiving asylum in the US in 1964. An audience member asks about his childhood, and his acclaimed memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995), but Lee is reluctant to speak about it.
“I don’t want to remember any of that stuff,” he says. “The Ancient Greeks said the Great Muse is memory, but it is the kind Buddhists remember when they meditate – our original state.” He is warming to this new subject, expanding before our eyes. “I have a self I expose to the public world – a public self. My private self is disclosed to my family and friends, my secret self is disclosed when utterly in private, and my unknown self has a kind of personal memory I can’t account for. There’s an unknown self that is twenty thousand years old. This is what poets need to connect with – that intelligence we find in Emily Dickenson’s poetry – it’s an intelligence that’s older than America – this unknown intelligence which poets need to connect to.”
I can feel others in the room leaning forward into this surprising conversation. “Composite nature is in us,” he says suddenly, “like the number twelve – it’s a version of two, three, four, six. Then there’s a prime number like seven, which is just a version of itself. We’re versions of each other – our friends, mother, and so on – we’re composite – versions of Buddha, our teachers, etcetera – but we’re also prime. There’s a primacy in us. How do we access this primacy? We can only encounter it through the unknown self. You can’t will a poem into being – it isn’t up to you. When you’re in contact with the unknown self, the imagination – well, that’s when you’re really working, really making.”
Chimes from the Clock Tower across the way break into the silent room. Our hour is up. We wander out from the Old Parliament Building into the shrill brilliance of tropical sunshine, past the river-side statue of Raffles, ‘founder’ of modern Singapore, dazed. I sit at Raffle’s landing place and look out onto Boat Quay, light-headed from a masterclass with a poet, mystic, and trickster all rolled into one.