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12-02_binghamWith great wit and unassuming gravitas, poet Li-Young Lee, this spring’s Bingham Visiting Reader, read his work to students in King Theatre. The first piece, “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees,” draws on his childhood in Indonesia, raised by Chinese parents who fled communist China only to be persecuted for their ethnicity in their new country.

If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother too harshly.

Mr. Lee’s second poem was a work-in-progress titled “The Undressing” about his relationship with his wife. The visual and provocative poem about his “shallowness” versus his wife’s “complexity” was cut short when Mr. Lee discovered the full poem was not printed on his papers. The audience, although left hanging in what was perhaps a planned humorous tease, embraced the moment with a round of cheers and clapping. 

When a student asked Mr. Lee how he knew when a poem was “right,” he responded that the process is “a delicious agony of trying to get it right.” He said everyone has four voices inside of him or her—the social, the private, the secret and the unknown.

“In my poems, I’m trying to hear and align the voices of all those selves. When I do, I think that is when the poem is right.”

Mr. Lee is the author of four crucially acclaimed books of poetry, his most recent being Behind My Eyes (2008). His earlier collections include Book of My Nights (2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (1991), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. Mr. Lee’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Lannan Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two children.

After his reading, Mr. Lee met with students in Straus Library to continue answering questions about his work and the process of writing poetry.