Li-Young Lee Sings the Immigrant Blues

“Sometimes, I don’t even know what I’m doing,” confessed award-winning poet Li-Young Lee, leaning casually against the podium in Kemper Auditorium last Friday. Even his audience of sullen students, dreading the coming Saturday classes, managed to smile. Within minutes, Lee’s candid banter and quirky hairstyle captured the audience’s attention. After joking around for a bit, Lee jumped into a poetry reading, which included various poems from his new collection, “Behind My Eyes.” One unusual poem was “Immigrant Blues.” It began: “People have been trying to kill me since I was born.” He spoke this shocking statement in a slow and thoughtful tone, pondering each word while the audience did the same. Lee stopped frequently to add anecdotes about his childhood as the son of a prominent member of China’s Maoist Regime and recalled fleeing Indonesia to escape an anti-Chinese movement. Though Lee was born in Indonesia in 1957 to a family in exile, he learned to speak English when he moved to the United States at age seven. “[Lee] read with a lot of passion. I definitely got a better idea of what it would have been like to be an immigrant,” said Stephanie Moroney ’09. Although inspiration poems come to him in many different forms—a feeling, an image, words (both English and Chinese) or a visceral reaction—he now writes his poems exclusively in English because he is drawn to the language’s elusive qualities. “[English] is so ‘other,’” Lee said simply. During a Q&A session, Lee revealed his religious roots. He claimed no credit for his poems. He said that the poems are already written, but it is his job to put them in words. According to Lee, he knows when he needs to write a poem because he can feel the talons of God grasping him and shaking him at night until the poem is complete. However, putting these poems into words hasn’t been an easy process for Lee. “Tearing the Page,” a reflection on childhood, took the poet eleven years to write and even so, Lee said, “I’m still not done with it.” “I’m really glad I went to the reading,” said Julie Cachia ’11. “Everything balanced out really well. The poetry was serious, but everything else was really humorous. He was actually funny.” All spectators, including those whose teachers “encouraged” them to attend, can thank Sandra Isham-Vreeland Fund for bringing such an eccentric and talented guest to campus. Whether he was exploring the nuances of language or expressing his affinity for spooning (no, not Senior Spooning,) Li-Young Lee certainly kept us awake, engaged, and inspired.