Li-Young Lee

(1957 - Present)

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, the child of political exiles who had fled China after the establishment of the People’s Republic. Both his parents were from formerly influential Chinese families: his mother’s grandfather was China’s first president, and his father, a devout Christian with a passion for Western culture, had served as Mao Zedong’s personal physician. In Indonesia, Dr. Lee became medical advisor to President Sukarno and helped to found Indonesia’s Gamaliel Christian International University. As anti-Chinese feeling grew in the country, he was arrested as a political prisoner. The family fled after his release from prison in 1959, making a difficult five-year journey through Macau, Hong Kong, and Japan before arriving in the United States. After initially settling in Seattle, the Lees moved to Pennsylvania; there, Dr. Lee began a career as a small-town Presbyterian minister. In fifth grade, Lee met his future wife, Donna, at his father’s church.

Lee’s father read to him often during his childhood, and the young poet began experimenting with rhyme in his earliest days of learning English. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, he started to write serious poetry, and the influential poet Gerald Stern became his admirer and mentor. Lee’s debut collection, Rose, was published by BOA Editions in 1986. The book won him wide praise, garnering him New York University’s Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award and comparisons by Stern to major figures like John Keats, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Theodore Roethke. His follow-up, 1990’s The City in Which I Love You, was named as the Lamont Poetry Selection (now the Laughlin Award), the only award recognizing second books of poetry. Both collections deal with themes of exile, memory, childhood, and family, depicted with the spiritual awareness and human universality that Lee is renowned for.

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, Lee’s 1995 memoir, won the American Book Award. In it, the poet renders the story of his family’s immigration to America in lyrical prose. His William Carlos Williams Award–winning third collection of poetry, Book of My Nights (2001, BOA Editions), saw the poet move into what critic M. L. Schuldt calls a “hermetic mode,” compiling “provocative instants of self-transcendence.” A collection of interviews, Breaking the Alabaster Jar, was published in 2006, followed by the poetry book Behind My Eyes (2008) and the chapbook The Word from His Song (2016). Most recently, he published The Undressing in 2018.

Lee’s many awards include a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, an PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, an I. B. Lavan Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. He has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, in addition to a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is also the recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at universities including Northwestern and the University of Iowa. The father of two adult sons, Lee lives with his wife in his longtime home of Chicago.


More Li-Young Lee

Audio: Lee's "Changing Places in the Fire" on the Poetry Magazine Podcast

Text: Read Lee's "Self-Help for Fellow Refugees" at Poetry Society of America

Video/Text: Lee reads "The Burning One" for Bill Moyers' A Poet a Day


Photo courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.