Li-Young Lee on revision


I feel that the work of poetry is like making potato latkes. Every poem is like a potato latke, that’s all it is. On the other hand, it’s the most important thing a person can do. I suppose it’s because I believe poetry’s work is to uncover a genuine or authentic human identity, an identity even prior to childhood. It’s like the Zen question: What was your face before you were born? I think poetry tries to answer that, to come to terms with an identity that’s ancient and eternally fresh because it is so ancient. If you think about it, poetic speech is so dense because it accounts for the manifold quality of our being. There are many selves in me. As I am speaking to you now, I am speaking out of one self, the self that is in conversation. But there is a self that was dreaming last night. Poetry means one thing, but it means a hundred other things too, because we are as humans manifold in being. Poetry accounts for the many-ness of who we are, and I think that is why its voice is so dense.


What happens is when I am writing a poem—and I am not kidding—when I write a poem, writing from left to right, my elbow will only go so far before it is uncomfortable. That for me is a line break. The arc of my elbow determines as much as my ear, and as much as my eye or the ache in my foot or the kink in my back. All of that figures into writing. It is a physical thing.