Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Kirsten Chen, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Monica Youn about her book Blackacre (Graywolf Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Poetry for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Kirsten Chen: I’d like to discuss the first poem, "Palinode." While palinodes are usually a response to a previous poem, we're presented with this one straightaway. I thought initially of Socrates' famous palinode where he first rejects and then praises "mania" and its place in relationships. But then I learned that a palinode is also a term in Scots Law. Can you speak to your decision in opening the book with this device?
Monica Youn: I wanted to position the poem and the book with respect to my life as I had previously understood it, and also with respect to my previous books. My previous books had been preoccupied with desire, romantic and sexual obsession, and much of my life had been spent finding a life partner with whom to settle down and start a family. But I wanted to start this book from a position of failure and reassessment. It’s a statement of self-doubt, and remorse, with regard to a self that I had previously thought of as constituted by desire. How can you disentangle yourself from the desires that have shaped you? And what remains of the self after that?
KC: The book handles very difficult themes, particularly shame and judgment in the Hanged Man/Hanged Woman section. What was the role of the “audience” here?
MY: A lot of the Hanged Man / Hanged Woman poems, especially the portraits, were written with specific people in mind. For example, the hanged woman portraits are about my mother, to the extent that they’re about a single figure. At the time I wrote them, I had reached sort of a point of crisis with my life and the lives of people around me. A lot of things seemed to come to a head around the winter of 2010, spring of 2011, which was when I started the sequence. I had been recently married and received a diagnosis of infertility, which launched us on a multiyear struggle of various treatments until we finally gave up. The initial diagnosis, and the continuing failures, were devastating, both personally and as they affected my marriage. At the same time, my father had left my mother after a marriage of 40 years and she was facing old age without him. She kept telling me she wanted to kill herself. During that time, my father-in-law died and his wife was left a widow. I was also leaving a 15-year legal career and trying to figure out what my life had been about, what I had worked so hard for all those years.
And in the midst of all of these crises, these seismic shifts, I went to Mexico to get away and had my tarot read and the card that came up at the top of the reading was the Hanged Man. And the Hanged Man stood for an inverted perspective – for suspension away from the ordinary events of one’s life and, in some sense, for rebirth; the Hanged Man is not a negative or dark card. And that, of course, layered onto my reading of Francois Villon’s “Ballad of the Hanged Men,” which I had learned in school. Also I’ve always been a mythology buff, so I was also recalling the Norse god Odin, who hung for 9 days on the tree Yggdrasil, and at the end of that ordeal received the gift of the runes, of language.
KC: Suspension is an interesting point as lot of these poems seem to give perspective on one’s life as being suspended above of it – gaining perspective – and being suspended within it – feeling stuck. Not to tangent too far, but if you had read Gurlesque, it reminded me of that. If these poems existed when that was being published, I feel like the portrait of the Hanged Woman, and many others, could have been front and center.
MY: It’s funny, to follow that tangent a little… Gurlesque, and a lot of the authors in it, were important to me in trying to figure out tonally what I wanted to do with the book. Especially in the longer-line and prose poems. My default mode is this very clean, minimalist diction, but that wasn’t going to be appropriate for everything I wanted to do. Particularly, I was reading Ariana Reines and Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson and Rusty Morrison – although not all of those are Gurlesque writers – but the linguistic texture of those writers was important to me.
KC: There seems to be a distance to many poems, but a tender one. How important was tenderness to the book?
MY: Do you have a particular poem in mind?
KC: How about Hangman’s Tree? (Yggdrasil)
MY: Yeah, that is a tender poem because, when writing it, I was thinking about my advice to my mother. I was trying to talk her out of killing herself – which she did not do – I’m not sure how serious that threat ever was. But she certainly felt that if the central fact of her life – her marriage – was taken away, she couldn’t figure out how to constitute a self out of what remained. Thankfully, my father eventually came back to her, which was an enormous relief. But trying to render an appropriate tone – as my relationship with my mother has always been difficult – and the tenderness I felt when she finally admitted that she needed help, and singled me out as the only person in whom she confided. There was a new intimacy that had never before existed in our relationship. I felt like we were in a shared situation considering my infertility and marital issues at the time –so much of my life had been spent in the expectation of eventual motherhood, and in my legal career, that the loss of those two assumptions was deeply destabilizing. In giving advice to my mother at this time, I felt like someone who had a slightly better handhold slightly higher up a cliff, talking to someone further down the cliff telling her not to let go.
KC: Every poem is written with such precision, and yet the sharpness often acts to open the poem further and give way to a variety of interpretations. The acre poems can be read as spaces for the physical and the figurative. Having a legal backdrop & lexicon, do you feel that knowledge allows you to create this nuanced world in these poems?
MY: I think when you’re writing as a lawyer, you’re always thinking about what lawyers and philosophers call the Kantian Imperative, or what others refer to as the golden rule: if you set a rule for a particular situation, how would it be applicable to all situations that might follow? That’s what it is to construct a legal rule, a law or contract or precedent. Lawyers are always thinking of ways in which phrases will be used in different contexts – a good lawyer has to have that imaginative capacity with regard to language. For example, if you’re drafting contract terms, you think about the way a particular contractual clause will work in the best and worst case scenarios – and it has to function for both or it’s not good legal language. I think that lawyers partake of that hyper-awareness of the infinitely expansive, collaborative nature of language. And I like to think that in poems, I write something and think of the medium not just as the page or language, but also the reader’s mind. What is the reader’s mind making of this? What possibilities are opening up there?
And when I came up with the various acres, I was thinking of that relationship between a given text and its proliferating possibilities. If you start with a given – an artwork, a racial identity, a memory, a particular body with its features and failures – to what extent can your imagination range freely before it is brought up short by the leash that tethers it to the actual, the immutable fact.
And part of my investigation was also excavating those factual frameworks, understanding how deeply rooted they are, how immovable. Particularly with the Blackacre sequence, the framework I was tugging at, digging around wasn’t just the medical fact of infertility, but the legal, economic and social structures that value and control women as reproductive commodities. The shame that surrounds the topic. The stigmatization of the aging, the infertile, the unfaithful female body. The stories we tell our little girls about what women are, what they are valued for.
KC: Given your legal training, it must be part of your everyday life to just take in information and split it into every angle?
MY: The stereotype of lawyers is that they’re risk-averse and a little paranoid because they’re trained to think that way. If you write a contract and you haven’t taken a scenario into account and then it happens to your client, well then, you’ve been a bad lawyer. You’ve gotten your client into a mess that your rule can’t address.
Or when Barack Obama said he was looking for “empathy” as his primary criterion for a Supreme Court justice, the right pilloried him for being a bleeding-heart liberal, but he was talking about something like what I’ve just been talking about. If you’re a justice and you’re deciding a case that will set a precedent – a legal rule – you have to be able to put yourself in a variety of situations, to see how that rule will play out in differently circumstanced lives. For example in the Crawford decision, which upheld the constitutionality of Indiana’s voter-identification law, Justice Stevens, who’s often thought of as a liberal lion of the court, failed in empathy. He simply couldn’t sufficiently imagine a position that was alien to him – the position of being of the many groups of voters who lack certain forms of government-issued identification. That failure of legal reasoning was, at root, a failure of empathy, and a failure of imagination.
KC: Right, and then translating that mindset to poetry, seeing every angle is so important.
MY: Yeah, I’m not very interested in language that only works at one level. If you’re going to write that kind of language, why write a poem? Why not write an essay or an op-ed? I’m not often that gripped by poems that merely put forth well-phrased or beautiful statements that the reader is expected to agree with. I feel like poems can do so much more than that.
KC: So, now I want to move to what I call my Teen Vogue questions. It isn’t as simple as sit-down-and-write for most people. Certain things generally have to coalesce for a poem to happen. Do you have any writing habits you find useful?
MY: I’m a very infrequent writer. When I do sit down, I think of myself as someone who works in watercolor rather than someone who works in oil. An oil painter will put something down and if it doesn’t work, she’ll scrape off the canvas or start again. And I’m more the type who feels that what I initially write down is indelible and it’s very hard for me to erase the first take of a poem. And so if I don’t get that right, then I’ve ruined the poem. That’s not always true, though. I think I rewrote the Twinkie poem six times from scratch. But I have to start absolutely from scratch in order to revise anything at all. I think that trying to revise a poem by tinkering around with slight alterations and existing phrasing is often a waste of time – you can only achieve marginal improvements that way. If you don’t get it right the first time, you have to start completely over, from as blank a slate as you can manage – otherwise all this redundant scaffolding gets in the way.
KC: So do you find yourself thinking through a poem mostly before you get it down?
MY: Yeah, I usually have a lot of things I’ve collected that I think ought to be in the poem. I’ll create notes and rearrange elements, stare at them for a long time before I really “start.” I talk about it sometimes as super-saturating a solution, but then once the poem precipitates out, then the shape is there, you can’t change that fundamental shape. And I’m very interested in each poem having its own shape. I don’t really understand writers who are content to treat every subject from a particular tone or from the perspective of a particular persona or with a particular formal strategy. I admire a lot of those writers, but I couldn’t do it myself, I’m too self-doubting.
KC: That’s interesting because it seems to me that to write such a variety of poems takes confidence and versatility
MY: Oh no, I think it’s much more about self-doubt. I write something and I think, “I hate myself and the way I write,” and then I write something completely different. It isn’t until they’re all corralled in one manuscript that I start to worry that, “tonally, this is all over the place,” but it probably needs to be all over the place. I don’t think you can get any sharpness of angle if you’re confining yourself to a single perspective, because a single perspective has to be authoritative and multiple perspectives have a lot more freedom. This is probably again where my legal training comes in – that sense of the possibilities tethered to a single word or phrase.
KC: What are you working on or writing now, if anything?
MY: Oh, I can’t write anything now; I never try to write anything very soon after a book comes out. I give myself a year to just read without an agenda. But after that, I’ve been thinking about the topic of deracination – about a truly immigrant identity that isn’t premised on an assumption of an “authentic” relationship to a “home” culture or heritage. Part of that has to do with having a baby son who is half Korean – we were able to find a Korean-American egg donor. How can I pass down to him a sense of a heritage of which I’m largely ignorant? I’ve been talking to a number of younger Asian-American poets lately about a common problem – how we feel the need to “research” our own culture in order to “perform” authenticity. And the question for whom that performance is intended remains open. I’m also thinking about the extent to which that “research” is undertaken through a set of borrowed lenses, various Westernized takes on Asian culture, Ezra Pound, etc.
KC: How did you writing change after becoming a mother?
MY: Well, I’ve had to change my writing habits. I’ve always been a residency writer and obviously I can’t do that anymore. The Blackacre sequence I wrote over a series of weekends at a cottage. I couldn’t do that once the baby was born. So, I had to think “I have three hours to write this poem today before my babysitter leaves.” I think 4-5 poems in the book were probably written under those circumstances and I found it worked better than I thought it would.
KC: What texts have played an important role in your life as a writer?
MY: When I’m writing I’m in a pretty constant process of digestion and regurgitation. Just call me Lowly Worm. For Blackacre, of course I did some research into Milton, Calvinism, blindness, the valuation and devaluation of woman’s reproductive capabilities. Mythological reading – the Edda, the Georgics, the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses – a slew of Latin classics. The Purgatorio. Children’s books. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. And a slew of my contemporaries who are far too numerous to start to name here.
Monica Youn is the author of two previous poetry collections along with Black Acre, Barter and Ignatz, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A former lawyer, she teaches at Princeton University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Kirsten Shu-ying Chen founded the artist collective BTP and currently leads a monthly creative writing workshop at the Ali Forney Center in Harlem. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Anamesa, Artist Catalogue, PANK, Public Pool & Seventh wave, and VIATOR among others.