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Poetry Breaks: Li-Young Lee Reads "I Ask My Mother to Sing"

About this poet

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. His father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong while in China, and relocated the family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959, the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.

Lee attended the Universities of Pittsburgh and Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa.

He is the author of The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton & Co., 2008); Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (BOA Editions, 1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award.

His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, BOA Editions, 2006), a collection of twelve interviews with Lee at various stages of his artistic development; and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

With regard to Lee's work, the poet Gerald Stern has noted that "what characterizes [his] poetry is a certain humility... a willingness to let the sublime enter his field of concentration and take over, a devotion to language, a belief in its holiness."

He has been the recipient of a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the I. B. Lavan Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1998, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from State University of New York at Brockport.

He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, Donna, and their two sons.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Behind My Eyes (W. W. Nortion & Co., 2008)
Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001)
The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990)
Rose (BOA Editions, 1989)

Nonfiction

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

I Ask My Mother to Sing

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.

I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

From Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Used with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

From Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Used with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents.

by this poet

poem

Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can't come up with one.

His five-year-old son waits in his lap.
Not the same story, Baba. A new one.
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear.

In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not
poem
People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

It's the same old story from the previous century
about my father and me.

The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.

It's called "Survival Strategies
poem
He gossips like my grandmother, this man
with my face, and I could stand
amused all afternoon
in the Hon Kee Grocery,
amid hanging meats he
chops: roast pork cut
from a hog hung
by nose and shoulders,
her entire skin burnt
crisp, flesh I know
to be sweet,
her shining
face grinning
up at ducks
dangling single