Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Review of Conversations with Li-Young Lee: Breaking the Alabaster Jar

The newly published, Conversations with Li-Young Lee: Breaking the Alabaster Jar (BOA Editions, 2006, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll), represents a landmark in Asian-American poetry. To the best of my knowledge, Conversations with Li-Young Lee is the first edited and published collection of interviews given by an Asian-American poet. While the fact that a book happens to be "a landmark" (in the sense that it attempts to undertake an original endeavor) does not necessarily make it good, I think that this volume of Li-Young Lee's thoughts on poetry, aesthetics, and life is superlative -- both in concept and execution.

I think that the first correct decision was in concept -- to make the collection about Li-Young Lee, as opposed to another Asian-American poet. Why was this initial editorial move a "correct decision"? Two reasons. First, Li-Young Lee has an almost twenty-year history of giving interviews on poetry. In fact, I imagine that it would be very difficult to do such a collection on other Asian-American poets, given their relative newness to poetry and/or their lack of published interviews. Second, Li-Young Lee's comments may be some of the most quotable and fascinating of any poet of his generation. In other words, he is very good at giving interviews. He is very good at sharing his thoughts on poetry and life in a compelling way, which all-too-often does not happen with poets talking about poetry. Even at the basic level of the sentence, Lee's ordering of words in plain speech has a certain poetry. I agree with Ingersoll's claim that Lee's interviews here "provide readers of Lee's poetry a sample of his provocative, witty, and engaging comments on his writing," and I think that Lee's skill at communicating with and relating to different people surely has helped contribute to his fame in the poetry world.

Next, I give a lot of credit to the editor, Earl G. Ingersoll, for his skillful editing of this collection. Most importantly, from interview to interview, the questions and answers do not become repetitious. We are not faced with the Sisphyusian phenomenon of Li-Young Lee answering the question, "So what is it like to be an Asian-American poet?," a million times. I could sense that Ingersoll put great care into the selection of the interviews. Ingersoll also makes the great editorial move of ordering the interviews in chronological order, which adds a certain logic to Lee's thoughts, as we can somewhat trace their development over time. I do have a slight quibble here -- I think that the Table of Contents should have included the dates of the original interviews, instead of having the reader figure out the reasoning behind the ordering for her or himself. In addition, Ingersoll adds the nice touch of opening with an introduction -- which is one of the most perceptive introductions on an Asian-American poet that I have ever come across (more in a subsequent post)-- and closing with his own interview of Lee. This bookending is done quite well.

But most important to me here, especially for the purposes of this blog, is that Li-Young Lee says A LOT about Asian-American poetry, writing, and identity. Now I don't agree with everything that he has to say, which I think is a good thing. I like the fact that Lee's remarks often challenged my own thoughts and views, further shaping them into what hopefully would be something better. In future posts, I plan to specifically address some of Lee's more interesting remarks, engaging in a kind of dialogue with the text.

In the meantime, I would definitely recommend this collection of interviews to fans of Li-Young Lee's poetry and to fans of poetry in general.


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