Musings on Kachemak Bay and Li-Young Lee: a guest post by Bill Sherwonit

Heading down to Homer and the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, I knew next to nothing about the “widely acclaimed poet” and keynote speaker Li-Young Lee. That largely has to do with my general ignorance about the world of poetry, beyond a few favorites (both local and nationally). Gary Snyder, Robert Bly, or Mary Oliver I would have looked forward to with great anticipation. But Li-Young Lee? I didn’t think much about his participation, one way or the other.

Li-Young’s keynote talk left me – and many others, I would discover – with mixed reactions. He seemed distracted and, at times, almost disinterested. His presentation wandered here and there with no apparent direction. Or planning. Frequently he lost his train of thought. “Where was I?” or “What was I saying?” he would mumble (or something to that effect). He truly seemed to forget, not once or twice but a few times. I wasn’t sure if he was being authentic or if this might be his routine, his shtick.

For all of that, I found bits of wisdom scattered throughout his talk and I came away from it certain that he’s a serious student of poetry and other practices, including spiritual disciplines. He talked about poetry as the highest form of martial art, poetry as yoga, poetry as a way of letting go of ego and touching upon – or seeking – a greater truth, a larger, transcendent reality. As I heard it, he experiences poetry as a spiritual practice. I wish I’d taken notes, but I didn’t, so many of these words are mine, but I think they reflect what he was saying. In the end, I felt confident he wasn’t “putting on an act. This was Li-Young Lee – or at least a side of him. The scatteredness, I think, can be attributed to the circumstances: his arrival in Alaska, his entry into the conference, the frenzy often associated with such beginnings, etc.

I saw another side of Lee the following evening, when he gave a public reading at Homer High School. Though I don’t regularly attend poetry readings, I’ve been to a fair number over the years. His kept my attention as only one other poet had previously done: Robert Bly. Their styles, voices, and stage presence are vastly different, and so were the settings and circumstances in which I listened to the poets’ voices and words. But both touched me in ways no other poets have in reading their work. Here, to me, was poetry and the spoken word at its most powerful, its most transcendent. I write these words knowing they can’t capture the moment and I feel I run the risk of somehow trivializing or romanticizing or otherwise not getting the experience “right.” But if Li-Young Lee seemed scattered and a bit off kilter that first night, on this second one he seemed firmly centered, grounded in something that for me approached sacred space. The entire reading – his presence and words and what lay behind the words and images and emotions he evoked, the energy in that darkened auditorium – all of it was profoundly stirring.

After that came a “Q & A” session with conference attendees and Lee seemed both completely engaged and relaxed and genuine in all of those exchanges. And finally, Lee read and discussed two poems, each by Robert Frost, that he found stirring and deeply meaningful, perhaps even transcendent (though he didn’t use the latter word, that I recall). His discussion of the poems (“West Running Brook” and “Directive”) and his enthusiasm for them were a delight, especially since I hadn’t known them and they didn’t particularly move me on this first reading.

To end, a few random thoughts: one of my middle-aged credos (if not before) has been: stay open to possibilities. I’m extremely happy and grateful that I remained open to the possibility of Li-Young Lee, though I hadn’t known his work and did not go to conference to learn more about poetry or seeking a greater understanding of its possible relevance to my life. In fact I gained more from poetry and two poets – Li-Young Lee, of course, and also Todd Boss, an enthusiastic, engaging and talented poet who in the mid-nineties (I think) got a degree from UAA and worked with Tom Sexton– than from anything else at Kachemak Bay.

Lee himself seems to be a “seeker” of wisdom or truth or spiritual understanding – again, my off-the-cuff interpretation, based on a few hours in his presence, so take it for what it is worth – and he actively pursues them in many disciplines beyond poetry: again, the martial arts and yoga, but also science and math and philosophy and psychology and religious traditions (and who knows what else). In the end, though, he muses, “I think it’s all poetry.” I’m taking him out of context, of course, but I think I’m capturing something he believes, or close to it.

More: Lee seems like a truly humble person and he constantly reminded us (sometimes playfully) he doesn’t have the answers. At various times he’d say something along the lines of, “I really don’t know what this means” or “I have no idea . . .“ In that regard he reminded me of a saying that Joseph Campbell shared during his Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers and which Campbell attributed to ancient texts written in Sanskrit and which is apparently also expressed in the Chinese Tao-te Ching (or Taoist Scriptures): “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.”

Finally, for all us writers struggling to get published here and there and perhaps gain some recognition along the way, Lee offered this (again, I paraphrase): The whole business of publication is built on a paradigm of scarcity. There is only a limited supply of riches and fame to go around. To get caught up in that paradigm – as we all do at times, I think – is to put yourself into a place of competition and the scarcity associated with it. The art of writing, on the other hand, is based on a paradigm of abundance, “the abundance of our minds.” Our art feeds and fills us. Even if you were to never publish any of your work, Lee told the gathering, there is still value in what you do. Amen to that.

1 thought on “Musings on Kachemak Bay and Li-Young Lee: a guest post by Bill Sherwonit”

  1. Excellent critique of a poet as a human. Your paraphrase of Lee's speech on the art of writing was very meaningful to me.

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