Poetry, Prose, Pataky: Li-Young Lee and the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference

Did you know that the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference sold out last year? I didn’t. Now might be a good time to reserve a space; and now is the perfect time to learn more about the keynote speaker, Li-Young Lee, pictured at left. Thanks to Jeremy Pataky for this thoughtful summary of the Alaska writing scene and profile of our next KBWC headliner.
I’ve watched Alaska become increasingly hospitable to poets, writers, and readers over the last few years. Much has obviously changed here, even recently: Ice-Floe is gone, the Alaska Poetry Slams as we once knew them have simmered down and Wisdom’s scene out at Out North has risen, and UAA’s graduate creative writing program has become low-residency. New journals, websites, and presses have launched to complement the host of writer-based groups and events that seem to keep popping up. Websites like this one, new literary radio programs like Juneau-based Letters from the North, and the creation of Northshore Press all bode well for the literary community here in the state. The Rasmuson Foundation is generously supporting a “State of the Hood” poetry series curated by Lila Vogt, and other literary and arts pursuits. Our annual Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop out in McCarthy is still going strong. Bruce Farnsworth and crew have created the MTS Gallery in Mountain View, and the Alaska Quarterly Review has managed to maintain its national niche reputation, while other Alaskans, like Seth Kantner, help foster a dialog between state and national audiences.

Perhaps one source of this collective momentum comes from right down the road; one true wellspring for creative inspiration in Alaska is the annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer. With the percolating literary climate and a stellar lineup of faculty and programming coming this year, the 2009 conference will surely prove to be worthwhile. Not only will poet and memoirist Li-Young Lee serve as this year’s Keynote Speaker, Lee will also lead a post-conference workshop called “Anatomies of the Word” across the bay at the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge in China Poot Bay, a wonderful and affordable opportunity for conference attendees really ready to go for broke strengthening and toning their writing muscles.

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is held each June and is sponsored by Kachemak Bay Campus—Kenai Peninsula College/UAA (plenty of time between now and then to read Lee’s poetry). The conference brings readers and writers together for a few days of workshops, readings and panel presentations in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and the writing and publishing industry (not to mention copious amounts of time to socialize, network, and take long walks on the beach). It’s a truly great time, full of formal and informal events that will bolster your writing reserves for the year ahead.

The last time a poet headlined the event was 2005, when Billy Collins came, a former U.S. poet laureate. This year’s guest, Li-Young Lee, will have plenty to offer both poets and prose writers. Regardless of whatever genre you claim (or aesthetic, for that matter), Lee will bring a welcome energy and talent to the Homer Spit.

Lee’s individual poems, whether straining toward the lyric or narrative, often draw autobiographically on memories and familial myth. Lee was born in 1957 to Chinese parents. His father was once the personal physician to Mao Tsetung while still in China and he spent a year in President Sukarno’s jails as a political prisoner. The family moved to Indonesia where Lee was born. Lee’s family fled the country in 1959, and after five years of moving through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964. Eventually, Lee’s father became a Presbyterian minister in western Pennsylvania, where Lee attended high school and college before leaving the state to attend school in Arizona and New York. Lee has published five books of poems and numerous awards and honors, and lives in Chicago with his family. His memoir is called “A Winged Seed: A Remembrance.”

Lee’s testing of memory in poetry covers creative terrain integral to the writing efforts of creative nonfiction writers; fiction writers will glean something from his eye for image and for narrative nuance. Lee’s world is a storied world, and the stories are works in progress, revised and re-revised through the crucibles of remembering, forgetting, and sense-making through art. To a certain extent, family becomes a sort of interpretation-field for Lee’s own obsessive notions and questions about family and his self-identity within that; “Am I stricken by memory or forgetfulness?” he asks in the poem from Rose, his first collection. “Is this my father’s life or mine?” The poems in this first book continually mull issues of family, grief, the body, and memory, sometimes even reaching a sort of magical realist and metapoetic pitch.

In his second book, called “The City In Which I Love You,” Lee continues to explore the nature of memory itself as well as the content of his own memories, particularly those concerning his father. In this second book, though, the poems are counterbalanced by the fact that he himself is a father, now. The poems in this book cover a longer, more lyrical and Whitman-esque expanse; like the speaker in “Song of Myself,” Lee’s identity is a plurality, composed, in this case, of family members. He is susceptible to loneliness, though, because so much of what defines him is only accessible as memory, desire, and imagination:

But I own a human story
whose very telling
remarks loss.
The characters survive through the tellings,
the teller survives
by his telling, by his voice
breaking silence does he survive.
(“Furious Versions”)

Lee’s scrupulous and ongoing meditation on the nature of human experience continues its evolution in his third book, “Book of My Nights.” As the title might suggest, Lee is interested in the porosity between sleep and wakefulness, death and life. In some ways the book is a turning inward for Lee, as he tries to locate himself from a displacement of family and nation within both time and society. He turns more and more to the natural world for metaphor and imagery, and this book is rife with nights and days, stars and birds, trees, oceans, roots, and seeds. Lee seems to be realizing that both place and time fertilize our identities.

Lee’s latest book, “Behind My Eyes,” is a hardback published by Norton, and includes an audio CD read by the author. The poems in this book come from an awareness focused much more fully upon the present… Lee seems to be finding a home within himself, in a default country, a de facto homeland. He’s finding home in his wife, and perhaps within the idea of family that he’s explored throughout his entire corpus. He makes many overt references to naming and language in this book, imbuing the whole thing with a self-awareness that reveals much about the poet’s process and motivation as a writer. Writing, Lee’s way of naming what he sees and knows of the world, seems to itself be a natural form of utterance, like a bird’s song. In the poem “Little Ache”, Lee launches into a celebratory fit of naming, taking as its occasion the singing of a sparrow, which seems to apprehend its world by describing it through song.

Throughout his writing career, Li-Young Lee has been a poet of image, idea, and obsessive repetition. The sheer number of recurrences in the poems generates a centripetal force that sucks readers’ consciousnesses into the anxieties of the poems’ speaker. But as readers, we can enter that anxiety and learn something useful, something ultimately beautiful that we can apply to our own efforts to know ourselves and the world of which we are a part.

The separate poetry workshop held after the writing conference across the bay is open only to conference participants, and is limited to a maximum of 15 participants. Information about it and the general conference can be found on the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference website. I’ll be sorry to miss it, but not sorry to be spending time in the Wrangells. Let me know how it goes, and send me a poem or essay after the conference or workshop. Better yet, come out to McCarthy this summer and swing by the Old Hardware Store to say hello.

Jeremy Pataky directs the Wrangell Mountains Center, and lives in Anchorage and McCarthy, Alaska. He earned an MFA from the University of Montana.

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