It didn't start well. I busted my butt to get downtown in time for Ann Lauterbach's 11 a.m. reading--an absolutely uncivilized time. Apparently Lauterbach agreed: she didn't show.
Oh well. I meandered over to the fair itself, set up along Dearborn Street in the South Loop. Summer is festival season in Chicago: just block off a street, throw up some canvas tents and you're good to go.
The fair's vendors are mostly used booksellers, interspersed with stages for readings, music, and cooking demonstrations. The booksellers are in the middle of the blocked-off street; tables along the sidewalks are largely occupied by small presses, though mostly of the type that some guy started to publish his memoirs.
I stopped off at the booth for the Poetry Center of Chicago, which was sponsoring several of the day's readings. This may have been the first time someone's ever given me something for free just for being a blogger: I was handed a copy of reVerse, a CD on which I can hear Li-Young Lee and Lou Reed. Cool. I duly promised to review it. Then I bought a copy of Lee's Book of My Nights to assuage my guilt.
After picking up John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer for $2, I found the booth of Third World Press, the Chicago-based publisher of Gwendolyn Brooks and other major African American poets; I leafed through a copy of Amiri Baraka's Wise, Why's, Y's that I regret not getting. From there I stumbled upon a table staffed by three languid and attractive employees of Poetry magazine, who casually encouraged me to take any issues I wanted for free; that seemed like a fair price, so I assented. I see that they've altered the cover format for the first time in decades. ("We've got $100 million! What do we do now?" "Hire a graphic designer!")
After consuming what was mysteriously described as a "kid's burger," I made my way back to the blissfully air-conditioned room where the poetry readings were taking place. As I entered the nearly full room, a festival employee stopped me and asked me if I had seen Li-Young Lee. Um, no, I hadn't. Puzzled, I wandered up to the front of the room and paused, looking for a seat. As I stood there near the podium, members of the audience began looking up at me expectantly. Oh my God, I thought. They think I'm Li-Young Lee.
I toyed with the idea of pulling Lee's book out of my bag and beginning to read from it. But, alas, good sense got the better of me and I found my way to a seat. People were still looking at me funny. I think.
Admirably enough, Lee actually arrived early, and gave the most efficient reading I've ever seen: done in 20 minutes, giving him plenty of time to sign books and get out before the next scheduled reader. He had his hair pulled back in a little ponytail--a look I must confess to have sported myself in college--and was wearing a big blue blazer and even bigger white pants, for a vaguely Stop Making Sense effect.
I've always liked Lee; he's one of the more talented and self-aware poets of the '80s generation, and certainly a beacon of intelligence and humility among the Asian American poets of that cohort. While I don't think anyone would confuse Lee with an avant-gardist, he does share that sense of the poem in process, of a work constantly under revision. He began by reading a poem called "Live On," which he described as work in progress; after concluding he paused and said, "There's something wrong with that." For a moment he seemed as if he wouldn't be able to continue; finally he said something like "well, I can't fix it now" and moved on.
One thing that's attractive about Lee's poetry--and which pushes it beyond mere confession or memoir--is his depiction of memory as a struggle, one that he loses more often than he wins. Lines chosen at random from his reading: "I've forgotten where I'm from"; "I'm through with memory"; "Is any looking back a waste of time?" So his poetry's in part the attempt to fill those gaps in memory, with an ironic awareness of the task's impossibility and even its absurdity. "Live On" created a kind of fantastic ancestry, imagining that "turning away was a survival skill my predecessors acquired" and remarking that "my name suggests a country in which bells were decorated." Lee said of another poem: "I can't tell whether this one is called 'Immigrant Blues' or 'Self-Pity.'"
Still, I wonder if in his recent work Lee isn't floundering a bit. Book of My Nights seems to find him repeating the same gestures of self-doubt and self-questioning, less ritualistically than obsessively, in poems that seem increasingly abstract. Religion has always had a role in Lee's work (his father was a minister), but what I feel at times in these poems in the consciousness of someone who feels he should aspire to religious insight but whose bent is really toward the earthly and erotic.
After the reading ended I joined the crowd of autograph-seekers. I'm pretty sure I was the only other Asian man in the room, and I wondered if Lee would register this. He did. We had the following profound conversation:
"Are you Chinese?"
"Yes, I am."
"Do you speak Chinese?"
"No, unfortunately, I don't."
"Do you write poetry?"
He signed, with a kind inscription.