“Every poem is like a potato latke.”–Li-Young Lee
I’ve taken this quote somewhat out of context because I love the vivid image it conjures. I’ve only made latkes or latke-like potato cakes a handful of times, but I can immediately conjure a physical memory of grating, mixing, shaping, and flipping. Latke-making is a very hands-on process with a number of steps, but the end product seems so simple: small, round, almost self-contained. A potato pancake promises simple pleasure that belies the labor that goes into it. Perhaps the same could be said of certain kinds of writing: when it is finished, it is simply ready to eat, and you don’t necessarily need to see how the ingredients were massaged and mixed together in order to enjoy it.
In context, Lee’s meaning alludes not only to the work of poetry, but the work of identity. In this 1995 interview with The Missouri Review, Lee contemplates a response to what must have been one of the Frequently Asked Questions of his work: where are you from? Lee was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents, and they moved through a number of cities and countries before finally settling in the United States. When questioned how this multicultural childhood influences his writing, Lee resists the question and poses a different one–to which poetry is the answer.
Lee: I feel that the work of poetry is like making potato latkes. Every poem is like a potato latke, that’s all it is. On the other hand, it’s the most important thing a person can do. I suppose it’s because I believe poetry’s work is to uncover a genuine or authentic human identity, an identity even prior to childhood. It’s like the Zen question: What was your face before you were born? I think poetry tries to answer that, to come to terms with an identity that’s ancient and eternally fresh because it is so ancient. If you think about it, poetic speech is so dense because it accounts for the manifold quality of our being. There are many selves in me. As I am speaking to you now, I am speaking out of one self, the self that is in conversation. But there is a self that was dreaming last night. Poetry means one thing, but it means a hundred other things too, because we are as humans manifold in being. Poetry accounts for the many-ness of who we are, and I think that is why its voice is so dense.
Later in the interview, he comments that “poetry is like soul food”–and though he doesn’t elaborate at that time, one can see the connection to his statement above. What could be more complicated than soul food or comfort food, the meals of our childhoods that originated from families across oceans and might carry all the weight of cultural identification along with our own personal memories; food that often takes many steps to prepare or a long time to cook, because that is how cooking was done when food needed to be rib-sticking and pantry-stable. But what could be simpler or more immediate than how we enjoy these small but important things?