OK, OK, I knew someone would ask. Yes, Li-Young Lee's reading Monday night was odd. I don't want to speculate about what's up with him; and I don't know how unusual this reading was for him, as I've only seen him read a couple of times, and the most recent one was in the rather controlled context of the IU Writers' Conference. And I'm not "in the loop" of MFA-program gossip, so I don't know what's being said or what transpired at his Q&A/discussion on campus the following morning. (I would've loved to have gone, but there is this little working for a living thing they make me do during the day.) I don't know how much of what transpired was pure theatrics.
Anyway. Cathy Bowman stepped up to introduce Lee, and after giving the usual quick biographical sketch, she asked the audience to say in unison the phrase "God in Man." This apparently had to do with a conversation the two of them had been having. The audience complied, sounding a bit confused. Lee stepped up to the podium with the requisite stack of papers & folders and water bottle. He said something about how that was what he wanted to write about, God in Man, but it always ended up being too much Man and not enough God, and he just wanted the God, or something. He started reading poems, but seemed frustrated, and before long he was revising poems as he read them -- stopping, shaking his head, going back and reading the stanza again with different bits in it. He expressed frustration quite a bit. Then he started reading a poem, talked about what wasn't working in the bit he had read (just a few lines) and how there were too many R sounds, finally put the poem down without reading past the first few lines. Cathy Bowman called out from the front row to ask him to finish the poem anyway. He didn't. (I was thinking at this point that it was kind of cool to see that maybe even Li-Young Lee has periods of thinking everything he has written is crap. Heh.)
At this point he seemed like he was going to go on reading poems, but he sort of went into ranting a bit. I wish I'd taken notes (although some of the bits I remember made their way into the poem I posted here). "I want to go home," he said several times, pounding on the podium. "You guys, I am in so much trouble up here. I want to get out of here, I want to go home, Cathy, I want to go home." He went on about God and Man and language, and I wish I'd been taking notes because there was a bit about a bird; he talked about how music and poetry and (a bunch of other stuff) wasn't the answer, sex was the answer, and we've got to get the sex thing right, sex isn't just about genitals but about the whole body, and if people would get sex right they wouldn't want to kill each other, and in fact the reason people kill each other is that they really want to fuck each other. He went on like this for oh, ten minutes maybe? fifteen? I wasn't really keeping track of time. Then he finally said something like "you guys just sit there, I'm leaving" and picked up his papers and his water bottle and left the room.
Cathy Bowman kind of looked around and went up to the podium as people applauded in a confused fashion. First she said that maybe that was just part one, but then I guess she realized he wasn't coming back, so she plugged the Q&A/discussion the following morning in Ballantine Hall, and said he'd be out in the lobby to sign books and so on (but I didn't see him as I left). All in all the reading was maybe 35 minutes or so, not a really unreasonable length for a reading I guess, though certainly shorter than I'd planned on -- and certainly much lighter on actual poetry!
I had a few thoughts about what was going on. Maybe he really was going through some kind of an emotional or existential or midlife or substance-related crisis and was just kind of falling apart. Maybe he was just having one of those "everything I've written is crap" days and couldn't deal with it. Maybe he was in the midst of working on an important new piece and he was so fully in the midst of the creative process that he couldn't talk to normal human beings at the moment (some of his ranting did kind of remind me of stuff I might mutter to myself as I pace around the house in the midst of writing a difficult poem). In a way it seemed like he was trying to read us poems that he hadn't actually written (or thought of) yet. Maybe he was just being a bit of a diva. I don't know. It certainly wasn't a boring stodgy academic Poetry-Voice reading, anyhow. And since I got a poem out of it, I'm not complaining....
Edited later to add: Here's a blog entry from someone who was there & actually took notes, which (other than the poem I started drafting as I listened) I failed to do. It may be somewhat enlightening, since she got down more of what he actually said than I managed to.
On a totally unrelated note, Amy Ray (of the Indigo Girls) just released her second solo album, Prom, and holy crap does it kick butt. Folkish-punky rock for the most part, with lots of electric guitars, some particularly excellent drumming from Kate Schellenbach, some cool melodies, and some fabulous lyrics. The whole thing is sort of a meditation (if you can meditate at the top of your lungs, haha) on high school, and how we learn about gender roles, and the intensity of being that age, and being queer in high school, and stuff like that -- some great lyrics like "I had a sex education without a word for my gender." I just got it on Monday (I'd pre-ordered it via Daemon Records) and already I've listened to it a half-dozen times. Good, good stuff.