Li Young is considered as one of the foremost living poets today. He was awarded the 2017 Levinson Prize for his poem, Changing Places in the Fire. This prize has been won by such great poets as Wallace Stevens (1920), Edna St.Vincent Millay (1931), E. E. Cummings (1939), Dylan Thomas (1945), William Carlos Williams (1954), Anne Sexton (1962), and others.
Li-Young Lee was born in Djakarta, Indonesia in 1957 to Chinese political exiles. His father, a deeply religious Christian who served as Mao Tse-Tung's physician, fled China to Indonesia with his family in 1949. They later fled that country after his father had been imprisoned in President Sukarno's jails. Brief stays in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan followed before the family settled in America.
Li Young began to seriously write poems as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied with Gerald Stern. He also studied at the University of Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport. Influenced by the classical Chinese poets Li Bo and Tu Fu, Lee’s poetry is noted for its use of silence. He writes with simplicity and passion which creates images that take the reader deeper and also requires his audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. The feelings of exile and boldness to rebel take shape as they provide common themes his poetry.
He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and two children.
Changing Places in the Fire by Li-Young Lee
What’s The Word! she cries
from her purchase on the iron
finial of the front gate to my heart.
The radio in the kitchen
is stuck in the year I was born.
The capitals of the world are burning.
And this sparrow with a woman’s face
roars in the burdened air — air crowded with voices,
but no word, mobbed with talking, but no word,
teeming with speech, but no word —
this woman with the body of a bird
is shrieking fierce
in the swarming babble, What’s The Word!
is the year of my birth.
The country has just gained its independence.
Social unrest grows rampant as the economy declines.
Under a corrupt government of the army and the rich come
years of mass poverty, decades of starving children
and racially-fueled mayhem. Word is
armed squads raping women by the hundreds. Word is
beheadings, public lynchings, and riots. Word is
burning, looting, curfews, and shoot-to-kill orders.
And word is more deadly days lie ahead.
Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, the forecast calls
for more misery, more poverty, more starvation,
more families fleeing their homes,
more refugees streaming toward every border.
(this is part of the poem's first section. The entire poem can be read or
listened to on the Poetry Foundation website.