18
Jan
13

Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (2006)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 8/9, which was published circa April 2007.

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Li-Young Lee's – Breaking the Alabaster Jar“Hey folks, there is a cosmic consciousness,” said Allen Ginsberg during a SUNY Brockport Writers Forum interview. I think he was right, and now I further agree after reading Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions), Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll.

Within the collected interviews, there are many recurring themes: Lee’s father, The Bible, alienation, being an Asian-American poet, & the interconnectedness of the universe – especially through its vibrations, as everything vibrates.

But first let me get to how I trust Lee. In the first interview from 1987 with William Heyen and Stan Rubin, Heyen and Rubin ask Lee some strong questions, which almost seem like an initiation ritual into entering the world of poets, which are questions that only one committed/seduced/given to poetry could answer. Lee answers, but he says something startling. His answer is unexpected to me. It’s an answer that only someone truthful could give. His answer, “I have, in fact, a handful of readers that I think about. . . . Oh, if so-and-so sees this, then they’ll really think I’m a poet. I always have this feeling I want to prove I’m a poet myself to a handful of people” (p 27). Do all us poets, especially young ones, have this secret urge within us? Lee also adds that he writes for soul-awaking, too, but it’s the first answer that sucks me into believing him.

The interviews that follow are all interesting. All have new angles (slants of light), even when he similarly responds to similar answers. And each interview, each question and answer, accrue and inform the following interviews. Each interview has Lee thinking more.

During Tod Marhsall’s interview, my way of thinking about poetry changed. Marshall asks Lee the right question with the right words, and Lee responds. Here’s how it goes:

Marshall: I feel those poems as moving vertically, down the page with a push. The movement in the memoir – we’re pushed along in a similar way, but the pace is much slower.

Lee: Even now, in the poems I’m writing, although they have longer line breaks, I can see now that the sentence is my concern. I like the idea that the line breaks make notation for the mind actually thinking. I like that. But it’s ultimately the sentence that I’m writing. Not the grammatical sentence, the measure.

[. . .]

Marshall: So you don’t see yourself as ultimately despairing that you can’t capture this litany.

Lee: [. . . ] I started to entertain some of the “stuff” that’s in the canon; I forgot for a little bit that that was the horizontal, the cultural, and that wasn’t the richest mode for me. If you look at the earliest poems in Rose, you’ll see the vertical assumption. The assumption that vertical reality was the primary reality and all of this was fading away, just “stuff” spinning off on that more important reality. The change was just in the realization. (p 138-39)

So what I realized after reading this and reading what had preceded is that the horizontal movement is when the poem talks to culture. (I had believed that poems intentionally talk to other poems & poets.) The vertical moment, however, talks to the self and the universe. This changed my thinking of writing. Instead of writing for other poets & poems, I should be writing for the depths of my self while simultaneously shooting up to speak to the universe. If you do that, do it well, do it with honesty, then you’ll catch the vibrations of the universe & your soul, and then necessarily/accidentally, the poems will have horizontal movement and talk to poems and poets naturally. To write is to write lines (“a literary activity”), which is vertically neglectful. But to write vertically (as if creating a conduit between you & the universe) – well, if you make the connection with the universe, then reverberations will happen, and it will vibrate up & down & horizontally.

As for Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee as a whole, the interviews inform through accretion and the thinking poet – though he thinks of himself as a body poet – but that’s another theme you should read about in these interviews.//

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Lee, Li-Young. Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2006.//


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