Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Sandra Marchetti reads “Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee.
Sandra, amazing poem you’ve read for us today. How did you come to know Li-Young Lee’s poetry? What was it like when you first experienced his work?
Sandra: Li-Young Lee was one of my early heroes in poetry, along with Sharon Olds. I’m honestly not sure how I came to his work, though it was probably in college and maybe at the hands of Richard Guzman, my first English professor, who helped me learn something about non-Western literature. Lee is an “Asian-American” poet, but he eschews that term. I have read everything of his now, as he writes sparingly, and in that way he has also been a guide to me (I don’t think of myself as particularly prolific).
When I first experienced his work, I felt this overwhelming sense of wisdom in his words. He knew something—though that’s another concept Lee himself would eschew! Encountering that sort of timelessness is powerful for a young poet, and it showed me what great poems could do (a mind melt!). At the time, and maybe still now, I felt a poem was received in some ways from another source, another voice. Lee has this expansive voice, that time travels but is fully grounded in the now. He speaks to the domestic and the fabulist in all of us.
Chris: The first strophe of “Eating Alone” is full of beautiful imagery and sounds. I love “The ground is cold,/ brown and old.” Are there particular moments in this poem that you especially enjoy?
Sandra: I needed to pick a short poem because I cherish every line of Lee’s. Maybe I cherish every line of “Eating Alone” because the poem is short. It is the perfect embodiment of what a poem can do. Looking back at it, scrutinizing the poem for this interview, I see myself striving to write this poem every day of my life. It’s compact, it’s sonic, it’s imagistic, it’s sensory, and the ending is a surprise—not heavy handed at all. It is beauty incarnate.
As for the line you quoted above, it’s a favorite of mine as well. It’s so sonic—those long “o” sounds. I’ve often thought, what if the line was: “brown, / old and cold”? That wouldn’t sound as nice at all. It’s like the “black old knife” in Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” “Old black knife,” the typical order for those words, doesn’t do much for me at all. However, these greats see sound differently. They see the possibility in the words. I’ve even incorporated “cold, / brown and old” into a poem of my own (giving proper credit, of course). Other favorites? “Icy metal spigot”; the internal rhyme of “knee” and “creaky” in the second stanza along with “crazily” and “glazed” and all of the “l” sounds in that stanza that makes it stroll and roll along peacefully; and then the third stanza—all of the “e” sounds—“me,” “tree,” “see,” “lean,” “deep,” “green” leading into “steaming” and “sesame” in the last stanza. The “e” sound continues to the end, as not to jar us sonically. However, the image at the end is completely new, only a slight call back to the very beginning. The cooking image disrupts us, but the sound stays on course. This is the master at work. I love the colors of the poem: red, green, beige, chrome, pink. And the senses! If you look, all five senses are present in this poem, which is what truly fleshes the images. I also love magical realism—the image in the corner of your eye and when you turn to touch it, it’s gone. That temporal quality is a specialty of Lee’s. I could talk about the intricacies of this poem forever, but…
Chris: Five senses, color, and sonic quality all packed into a relatively short poem. Is that characteristic of all of Lee’s work? Do you try to emulate each of these qualities in your own writing? Or is there an element that takes precedence, as in sound over color, color over image?
Sandra: I think it is characteristic of Lee, though this poem is on the short side for him. Some of my other favorite poems of his are longer: “Dreaming of Hair,” “The City in Which I Love You,” “Always a Rose,” and even “Persimmons” come to mind as longer pieces that do some similar work as “Eating Alone.” I am partial to shorter poems, and I write shorter poems, which is probably why I picked this one. What I like about Lee’s longer works is his ability to weave—he is essentially writing lyric essay that includes family history, visual image, and a confluence of languages in those pieces. “Eating Alone” is a microcosm of all of those things. That is often what I attempt in my work: the world in one blade of grass, or one “young onion.”
I once did an exercise where I took my five favorite poems of all time (including this one by Lee) and the best five poems I felt I had ever written and did a close comparison between them. I was trying to figure out what I internalized from these poets I loved. From Lee, I have definitely learned how to use sneaky slant rhyme, and I have learned how to use color. Often, after readings, folks will comment on the colors present in my poems, which I am routinely surprised by—since I often let sound take precedence over color in my revision process. Image is sometimes what gets the poem going—you can see Lee is working off image here. His actions become recollection, and recollection eventually brings him back to the present moment. Sometimes I start that way, or sometimes I’ll hear a sound that sets me ticking.
Chris: You mentioned not being a prolific writer and neither am I (which that took me awhile feel okay about). Could you speak about your process a bit? What’s writing a poem like for you?
Sandra: I am not prolific, that’s for sure. I have gotten to a point where I’m writing maybe 20 poems a year which seems like a lot to my former self who could maybe muscle up a third of that. A good support system of poets who keep me writing can be credited for that. Lee is not prolific either, and I have heard him say of his memoir, The Winged Seed, that he demolished whole drafts of the book and started over. I cannot imagine! He said it was because those drafts didn’t “listen” enough, and they weren’t close enough to the source—the voice of God. So, he listened again, hoped to listen better, and re-wrote. I don’t often delete things I write, but I do have a hard time listening. I have a hard time snatching moments to write. I compartmentalize and write only during “writing time” which seems like it’s almost never. So, I work really hard over breaks. This summer I am working on my poems a couple times a week (which is quite a bit for me). I send out poems for publication during the school year, revise, and maybe draft a few things. Most of the drafting, though, comes when I have a break from work.
I have found that allowing myself to draft poems as notes has helped to take the pressure off. I used to write out a whole draft on notebook paper, but lately I have been drafting in notes, and filling in the rest when I have time to sit down. I think one of the differences from when I was a beginning writer to now is that I can work from a silhouette—an outline—and make a poem of that. I’ll go back sometimes to the notes months later to flesh out the piece. It’s like a place marker, or a bookmark.
Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Subtropics, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Word Riot, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review, Whiskey Island, and other venues. Currently, she is a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Aurora University outside of her hometown of Chicago.
Chris Petruccelli misses the cold of Fairbanks and the slammin’ meals prepared by his buddies August and Elle. He is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance, and his poetry appears or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. In the next week he will begin brewing mead. Wish him luck.