Poetry series opens with Li-Young Lee
Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL) Poetry Series will present its usual diverse lineup of poets this time around, but regulars in the audience...
Seattle Times art critic
Here is an excerpt from Li-Young Lee's poem
"Cuckoo Flower on the Witness Stand."
I sang in a church choir during one war
American TV made famous.
I fled a burning archipelago in the rain,
on my mother's back, in another war
In the midst of wars worldwide, many
in places whose names I can't pronounce,
my father taught me, "When asked
about your knowledge of politics, answer, 'None.' "
Seattle Arts & Lectures 2008 Poetry Series: Li-Young Lee (Tuesday), Eavan Boland (March 3), Lucille Clifton (April 7) and Edward Hirsch (April 21). All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St., Seattle (206-621-2230 or www.lectures.org). Series tickets, $60-$120. Single tickets $20, students $10.
Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL) Poetry Series will present its usual diverse lineup of poets this time around, but regulars in the audience will notice a new moderator and a slightly different format from years past.
The series opens Tuesday with Li-Young Lee, a native of Jakarta, Indonesia, and author of three books of poetry. He will be followed by esteemed Irish poet Eavan Boland, preeminent African-American writer Lucille Clifton, and incisive Edward Hirsch, author of the best-seller "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry."
Lee's extraordinary past informs his writing, as you can see in his new book "Behind My Eyes" (Norton, $24.95). His father was a physician to Chinese ruler Mao Zedong, had a falling out with him, and escaped China for Indonesia in 1949. There he was a political prisoner under the Suharto regime and while imprisoned had a religious conversion. He became a Presbyterian minister and eventually fled the country with his family (Lee was born in 1957), moving from Macau to Hong Kong and Japan, before settling in Chicago in the 1960s. Lee says his mother's side of the family was prominent, too: His great-grandfather was Yuan Shih-Kai, the first president of China when it became a republic.
The weight of all that family history is "very influential on the one hand and also remote from my day to day life," Lee said by phone from Chicago. "My mother ... is a kind of connection for me to those large political movements, and because of that she has this mythic quality to me, as my father did when he was alive." Lee believes that, as children, we all "felt we had connections to the world of archetypal reality, through fairy tales, religious systems, ways for us to see our lives in the context of [other] realities." In that sense, he says, "my whole experience is much like everybody else's."
Well, maybe. But picture this: Lee lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons — and also his brother, his brother's wife and children, and his mother. His grandmother used to live with them, too, making four generations under one roof, like in old China. "My great grandfather, the president, had nine wives and they all lived in separate mansions enclosed by a wall. My mother never left that compound until she was married."
Lee's work alludes to his family history, but aims deeper. "My own poetry is, I think, obsessed with religious or spiritual questions ultimately," he said, citing mystical Chinese philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition of God as "the two rivers that feed my writing."
This is the last group of poets selected for the series by former SAL executive director Margit Rankin. In years past, she also introduced the poets and interviewed them on stage after the reading. Rankin stepped down in July and her replacement, Linda Bowers, has turned over selection and introduction of the Poetry Series to SAL director of education programs Rebecca Hoogs, herself a poet. Rather than conducting onstage interviews with each poet, Hoogs will moderate a question-and-answer session, accepting questions in advance from the audience.
Hoogs is beginning to ponder the lineup of poets for next year's series, which is presented in collaboration with Intiman Theatre and Open Books: A Poem Emporium. She is not sure whether she will choose a noticeably different path. "I'm still in the thinking and researching stage, just starting to explore where we want to go" Hoogs said. "I want to be both respectful [of the wishes of the audience] and exciting, to try some new things out." Hoogs welcomes input from the community.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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