Girlfriends Book Club and Li-Young Lee

Today Susan Cushman, a lovely writer friend of mine, introduced me via Facebook to a blog called the Girlfriends Book Club. Yesterday’s post, “Girlfriends dish on encounters with famous authors,” initially threw me off, thinking that it would be filled with dirt and gossip about authors who behaved badly in a public setting (let’s face it, this happens). But imagine my pleasant surprise when I found post after post of inspiring tales of authors taking the time to help out young writers.

As I read, I was reminded of my own little encounter with a famous author and thought I’d share it here with you.

In 2002 I was studying creative writing at Bowling Green State University. We had a number of wonderful poets visit in the two years I was there, but the one I remember most is the visit by Li-Young Lee. He came and gave a reading, talking between poems as poets do about his process, what he was thinking at the time, explaining little details. I’d not read all of his work yet, but by the time the reading was over, I was determined to read every last line. The next morning, Lee visited our workshop where he talked about his (brief) experience in an MFA program, his work as box lugger loading trucks, meditation and poetry. When the class ended, I went up to him and tried to express how much his words had moved me. Embarrassingly, I burst into tears while I was talking and had to leave before getting out what I was trying to say.

The next semester, I and a group of fellow poets petitioned the creative writing department to allow us to conduct an independent study in meditation and poetry. We would meditate for 30 minutes and then do a writing exercise – each of us taking turns leading the class. I was mindful throughout the semester that it had been Li-Young Lee’s influence that inspired the class and that was the impetus for the amazing poetry that was coming out of it. Rather than run the risk of weeping on the phone, I opted to write him a letter thanking him for his visit and for his words that had so moved and inspired our little group. Two months later, I received a handwritten letter from Lee encouraging me in my pursuit for silence in my poems. He wrote, “[W]e don’t breathe so much as we are breathed, and making the mind conscious of this seems something we need to keep learning to do. Meditation…is to be in remembrance of our continually arising out of a ground infinitely prior to everything, even as poetry must be words’ arising out of their ground – The Word.”

I still have his letter. It is a letter that came to a young writer from someone who owed her nothing but took the time to impart a few words of wisdom, advice and encouragement. I wonder where we would be without the generosity of more experienced writers who, inundated as they are by requests for help, take a moment to push us along?

3 thoughts on “Girlfriends Book Club and Li-Young Lee

  1. Lovely. Sean & I still talk about Li-Young Lee’s reading here 6 (?) years ago & how wonderful and bizarre he was. And how awesome his poems are. It’s funny b/c I sometimes pull out his book when I feel overwhelmed. There’s certainly something meditative about his poetry; they’re soothing, in rhythm at least, if not content.
    I like this story. I think you should frame the letter and hang it by your desk.

    • Thanks, hon. The letter I should frame is my copy of what I initially wrote him. I didn’t write about this, but that letter from the new poet that I was is so filled with turmoil and seriousness about writing. That girl who wrote, “I have a feeling of great responsibility in being a poet. That is, if I am ever to be the poet that I want to be – one who gives her readers moments of ecstasy in art and a feeling of completeness and fullness that I receive when I read really fine poetry,” has been buried under so much crap. It was a nice reminder to go back and find those letters, to remember where this all started. It’s so easy to forget…

  2. Pingback: Are We Really That Vain? « AngelSpeak

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