Lee's fourth book of poems, Behind My Eyes, is an accessible mix of homespun spirituality, meditation on the plight of his Chinese immigrant family and musical language. Here, he talks about God, his readers and the contemporary poetry scene.
Many of these poems have spiritual themes. What role does religion play in your life and work?
Writing poetry—all of the challenges, joys, all of the things I encounter in the process of writing—is a religious issue for me, or a spiritual issue, though I don't mean any formal religion. Speaking, uttering speech in poetic form, is somehow very tied to the life urge for me. The struggle with poetry is a struggle between words and theWord. If I feel that there is such a thing as meaning, then life is worth living. Poetry is the only way I know to make meaning.
Do you feel a responsibility as an Asian-American writer to be an ambassador to a community, or do you feel people make assumptions about your work or your life based on that?
I feel responsible to my children, to be a kind of example of somebody who's struggling sincerely with his own life and the attitude that happiness is possible. I know that racism is something I've been struggling with all my life. I've gotten it from all sides: African-Americans have called me “gook,” and white Americans have beaten me up. I know that it's everywhere, and it's something to struggle against, probably in the literary community, too, but my first allegiance is to my identity as a child of God, a child of the universe.
Do you think about who your readers are?
When I'm in the throes of writing the poem, I don't think about who my reader is. When I'm not writing, I wonder, “Who am I writing for? For God? For my kids? For my wife?” I think, “An audience? What audience?” But when the poem starts happening, suddenly all those things disappear and I'm just writing and answering to some sort of inner value.
How do you think American poetry is doing right now?
Poetry's doing great! There are more people writing at this moment in history than ever, and I think that's a good thing. I understand some people's complaints that there's too much being published, but the fact that so many people are sitting down and answering to an inner, deeper authority can't be anything but good. It's like how more and more people are doing yoga—that's gotta be good, right?