Thursday, April 14, 2005

An odd reading

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.


Radish King said...

I would have said GODDAMNED FAN! really loudly. Really, I would have. That's why no one takes me to these things. I took a class with LYL once. He didn't teach much but he looked real pretty. Good cheekbones.

A. D. said...

Wow. As twisted as I am, that sounds wildly poetic (and we know I like the wildly poetic). Was it endearing or troubling or both? I'm reminded of a Komunyakaa poem I can't get away from.

With eyes close and fists balled,
Laboring over a simple word, almost
Redeemed by what he tried to say.

Thank you for sharing at last.

Anne said...

Rebecca, LOL! Too bad you weren't there.

A.D., I guess it was both endearing and troubling, though I'd say closer to intriguing than endearing. I'm sure I would have seen it differently if I knew him personally, or had any clue about what might be going on in his life or in his work. (And I guess that's why I was hesitant to describe it in much detail -- I don't feel like I necessarily had a clear view of what was going on, & I won't swear my description is accurate or complete.)

At first I thought it seemed courageous and oddly intimate for him to be literally revising poems as he read them, expressing his frustration with not knowing quite how to say what he wanted to say. Then it just seemed odd and rant-y. A lot of the audience (many of whom were MFA students, I think) seemed to be taking it in stride. If I knew Cathy Bowman just a little better, I'd be tempted to email her and ask her what her take on it was.

Kells said...


Loved your post. I think it's amazing (and thanks for the detail) and hey, you got to witness it.

This cracked me up:
(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.)

I wonder what was up? It sounds bizarre and fascinating. And the sex talk too. Really, I'm not even sure how to respond, though it sounds as if others weren't too sure as well.

thanks for the post!

Julie said...

Hey, I have a recording of the reading he did at my university, but I didn't record the first 10 minutes of it, because it was so weird, I forgot I had the recorder. He told us all that his son was very sick, back in Chicago, and that he was very worried, and he was hating his life as a poet because it made him feel irresponsible because he couldn't buy things like health insurance, and his son was having an operation, and he felt like he should be back there with him. We were all very understanding, and chalked up his weirdness to worry. When the reading was opened up to questions, one of my classmates asked him how old his son was, and he said, "Oh, he's 22."

But he said lots of fascinating other things and the parts I have recorded, I have listened to over and over again. Don't give up on him. I think that's what poets are supposed to be like, and all the uptight, organized and together types are the weird ones.

Rebecca, he was at our school for a whole week, and he mentioned that he tried teaching and he was really lousy at it because he felt like he really didn't know anything to teach anyone anything and felt paranoid the entire time that someone would find him out.
He certainly does have dreamy cheekbones. I think one of my fiction writing instructor's students referred to him as the Chinese Johnny Depp.

Look for the interview in next Fall's issue of Sou'wester.


jenni said...

I feel bad for him. Not pity, but sounds like he's going through a hard time. You should send him that poem you wrote.

Emily Lloyd said...

I agree with Jenni. I think he'd like an appreciate the poem, especially if he felt upset afterwards at how the reasing had gone: hey, it produced this great poem!

Yeeps, I didn't even know Amy Ray had a first solo album. Thanks for the review; I definitely want to buy the second one.

Anne said...

Kelli, you're right, people really didn't seem to know how to respond. I'm curious what the English-dept. gossip about him is -- or maybe I don't want to know; it can be a bit brutal over there.

Julie, sounds like he's definitely having a life/career crisis, from what you said! He has such a thing about his father, I can only imagine that worrying about his son would be a raelly difficult thing for him.

I know I know someone who was in his workshop at the IU conference last year, but I can't remember who! I want to ask them if he seemed "off" then. His reading that week was, for lack of a better word, pretty normal.

Jenni and Em, oh god, do you really think I should? I guess I could get in touch with Cathy and she could forward something on to him, but I'd feel kind of weird about it. Hmmmmm. I'll think about it.

Em, Amy's first solo album (Stag, 2001) kicks butt too! She used the Butchies as her backup band for most of it, and they toured with her. Land Mammal: your one-stop source for all things Amy Ray. *hee* (okay, I'm just a wee bit of a fangirl...)

Suzanne said...

Holy shit! Now that's a poetry reading. I wish I was there, he's my kind of poet.

jenni said...

I think so. It sounded to me as if he was going through some emotional turmoil, having been there, I know that it's comforting when someone shows they care, that compassion still exists, even if the world can be a confusing and evil place at times.

David Koehn said...

I'm pleased to see this post. My original take on him to a friend was that I thought he was on drugs. Which is great! But hold off until you're offstage buddy.

Now, I realize, that it is a pattern. His performances are a combination of pretension and schtick.

I like his poems on the page. But when I go to a reading, spare me the melodrama please...

Julie said...

For my poetry dollar, I'll take the spazz over the dull any day. I think there are entirely too many well adjusted and organized poets out there already. Bring on the drama! Li-Young Lee will always have me in the audience. He spent three hours with my workshop talking poetry and he was so neat to be near. I like to think he's our Emily Dickinson.

Dan said...

LYL came to Fayetteville, AR in '94 when I was doing an MFA there. His reading was labored, tedious, and self-conscious. He never smiled during the whole three days he was there. Poets at that level usually get a pretty good chunk of change for basically standing there and reciting poems. To subject the audience to his personal misgivings and what sound like sophomoric musings on sex and war was unprofessional and juvenile. Try to look past the cheek bones, the identity/minority politics, and the tortured artist schtick and see LYL for the second-rate poet he really is.

Anonymous said...

He sounds bipolar to me. I have known a couple bipolar people, and the things you paraphrase him saying are (paraphrased) VERBATUM of the kinds of things these poeple would say while in a manic episode. especially making the audience say "God in Man" and his comments about that. Your questions about whether he was on drugs, or just being a diva...those things point to that to me as well...but of course I could be projecting my own past experiences onto him and could be terribly wrong.

Anne said...

Just a clarification -- it wasn't LYL who asked the audience to repeat the phrase "God in Man" but Cathy Bowman, who introduced him...

I'm starting to feel a little bad about this whole thread, as I had no intention of stirring up speculation or starting rumours. I think LYL is a fine poet, and when I heard him read last summer he seemed perfectly centered and "normal" whatever that means; his reading last week, while unusual, was still quite interesting and gave me a lot to chew on.

I'll make a new post later, perhaps, on some thoughts these comments have given me re: our expectations regarding poets and performance, whether being "calm and professional" vs. being "wild" is more or less poet-like, et cetera.

Lars Palm said...

Now, I would have had to cross the Atlantic ocean to be there, but never mind that. I have seen quite a few (and on occasion been one)wild poets on stage and never have any of the memorable ones gone on and on about irrelevant crap. Beckett:"Fail again, fail better". Being "wild" to me has more to do with giving the audience too much too soon. I'll have to look up Li-Young Lee's poetry, it might be interesting, but maybe he simply cannot cope with being on stage. He wouldn't be the first good poet with that infliction, and he certainly won't be the last

didi said...


You are one with God when you write. You are one with man when you read.

That is all I have to say about that.

Jehza said...

I'm not sure if i would be disappointed or completely entertained and tickled to witness this. On one hand I'd want more poetry for my trouble. On the other hand, I'd know too well the feeling of reading my work aloud with a complete sense of dissatisfaction...and that sympathy might allow me just to sit back and enjoy the show.

Thanks for reporting,

Poetry X said...

So even someone who writes beautiful poems can be a jerk. I suppose you could excuse his behaviour if you knew he was stoned at the time, but otherwise such selfish indulgence is just obscene. He forgot that the poetry reading wasn't about him as much as it was about sharing something with his audience.

Tsk tsk. It's not like he's alone in acting like this, though. I'm sure one could write a multi-volume book series on "Poets Behaving Badly."

Anne said...

Didi, I think that's my favorite thing that anyone has said about this. Thank you.

Dan said...

Part of the problem is the idea of "poet-like." The young tend to revel in the idea of poet-as-suffering-genius, but as you get older, so does that shtick. "Wild" is fine if that's part of your show. Why can't a poetry reading be stand-up comedy? Think Yevtushenko.

We tend to tolerate behavior from artists we would not tolerate from others. When the poet has an obligation to an audience, that sh** is just annoying.

Just Me, Michele said...

I love Li-Young's poetry and have for a long time but this behaviour strikes me as at best diva-ish and self-indulgent, and it won't be the first time that I have wondered if he was bi-polar. I knew him pretty well about twelve or so years ago when I lived in Chicago, and yeah, even back then he was extremely prone to very public drama. On one level, I think he really does believe that this is what a poet is supposed to be. I think this is rather sad really. I hope he is okay and has someone close by who can help him.

J said...

LYL came to my college and nearly refused to do the reading they had paid him to come for. The reading was set up with two armchairs, one for him and one for the moderator. He spent a long time complaining about there not being a podium or a microphone (it was located in a small auditorium with accoustics so nice there is no microphone system). He was eventually convinced to read, but he read in a very quiet voice, toward the ground, in a complete monotone. The reading part was horrible, but the discussion part wasn't bad.

You should hear the gossip about him in the English Department here. They would probably be far less upset with him if he had simply skipped the conference. At least they would have had something to say to the audience then.

Anonymous said...

I heard recently that LYL missed a conference he was supposed to speak at because he went into rehab. That's just what I heard...since we're railing the guy, I wanted to say that there is a significant difference in sexual tone between the poems in "Rose" and those in "The City..." The poems in the former are intimate, touching, a man worshiping his wife. The poems from the latter seem perverse, uncomfortable for me to read.