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"Transformation, however limited that transformation may be": An Interview with Monica Youn

by Eric Farwell

Monica Youn is a poet interested in the intersection between the beauty we want in life, and the darkness that often serves as an invisible barrier for it. Youn’s background in law allows her to probe and navigate these gray areas gently, using an economy of language that both cuts to the heart of the matter and reveals nuanced layers of caution, lust, and desperation. Her latest collection, Blackacre, is a masterful effort that examines the similarities between land and the body, estates and flesh, public and personal. In many ways, the collection reads like an act of magic or acrobatics, as Youn shapes lines and establishes unique connections to delicately scrutinize her own struggle with having a child, and how that struggle connects to larger symptoms of life. Extremely self-aware and generous, Youn spoke with me by phone to walk through some of the decisions that went into crafting such a stunning work. - Eric Farwell

1. More than a lot of poets, the form of the poem seems to matter as much of the line itself in your work. I was curious if you feel that about your work, and whether or not that's a function borne from your prior life as a lawyer?

I think I am, on some level, trying to move from writing poems consisting of exquisite moments stitched together to writing poems with more cumulative and structural force. I’ve been teaching Yeats, and thinking about his movement from a symbolist poetics of sustained intensity to a more drama-inflected poetics of peaks and valleys. This doesn’t mean that each line isn’t important, but just that each line needn’t necessarily call attention to its own importance – a quiet rhythm is still rhythm.

For me, the “form” of the poem is its mode of being, its authorization to exist. And for me, each such authorization is one-time-only, expiring and having to be earned afresh with every poem. I’ve never come across a particular mode of writing that I’ve felt gives me permission to speak consistently, durably, poem after poem. Instead, after finishing one poem, I find myself starting from scratch with the next. I feel like I’m always trying to find a shape that will withstand the pressure of silence. It’s like a diver designing her own diving bell to survive in an alien – possibly hostile – environment.

I’ve never been someone who has taken permission to speak for granted, permission to take up other people’s space and time. That hesitancy, I think, is what drew me both to poetry and to law – both practices with a fraught relationship to form.

Law, of course, is notorious for its formalism. Supreme Court Rule 33, for example, dictates everything about the form of Supreme Court briefs -- fonts, paper weight, margins, typesetting, word count. Law is obsessed with the permission to speak: lawyers ask the court for a set allotment of time, of words; the court asks the sovereign for its juris-diction, its permission to speak the law.

But I also recognize that this clinging to form may be rooted in insecurity, in pathology. An African-American female law professor tells a story about going house-hunting with a white male colleague – she felt the need to suit up in business attire, he felt free to dress down. Form can be the comfort zone of the insecure, the powerless – sometimes a bulletproof vest, sometimes a disguise, or a trap.

2. Going off of this, I wanted to know if you conceptualize each book as a different format? Just as experimental novelists might write books in play forms or epistles, there's been a movement away from the formalism of Barter, your first collection, and a boldness in aesthetic from collection to collection, with Ignatz being more sparse and playful while Blackacre is dense and substantial in terms of language and shape.

I resist the thought of treating books as projects, as concept albums. I often tell my students to distrust any approach that would mean that you would have fewer choices – rather than expanded choices – when you’re in the middle of writing any particular poem. A concept can be a bailout, a ripcord that can be pulled prematurely so that you never really experience the risk and the exhilaration of freefall.

I never want to be in the position where, in order to have poem A and poem C, I have to write poem B just as a bridge. I’ve painted myself into those kinds of corners before. The pattern-making mind has a tendency toward sequence, toward narrative or argumentative closure, and it requires conscious disruption to resist that impulse.

But sometimes my preoccupations hijack my writing. I try to always allow for multiple non-sequential takes, so that no one take on a subject is necessarily authoritative. With Ignatz, I found myself going, "All right, here's a little poem about the Krazy Kat comics. What else can this be?" I hadn’t come close to exhausting the topic –subject matter is inexhaustible -- and I ended up with 5, then 15, then 40 of these poems about this fictional cartoon mouse, many of which were only tenuously connected to him. It became a sort of game to see how much distance could exist between Ignatz and the object – like the distance between a tetherball and its pole. How much tension could you place on a title to provide a semantic anchor for the poem? How hard would the poem fight to break free?

Similarly, the Hanged Men sequence originated with Francois Villon’s poem. I tried to take the themes of bodily deterioration, transformation, and necessity that play out in that poem and offer my own take. So I ended up with 11 Hanged Men poems, when I had started with one.

3. For you, is a poem something that's sprung full-formed, or does it lie in the labor of the editing and shape-finding?

It varies from poem to poem. For example, for the title sequence for Blackacre, I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a poem about infertility that would be based on the Milton sonnet – an “On my barrenness” counterpoint to “On his blindness.” But I carried that idea around for more than three years -- since 2011 -- trying to write it in different forms and registers. It started off as a sonnet sequence, then took on various modes and tones as I searched for the form and the language that would “unlock” the poem. Once I finally discovered that form – a lyric essay / prose poem sequence based on the end-words of Milton’s sonnet – I was able to write the poem in one sustained push over several weeks. But even though the sequence was a relatively shaped concept, I couldn’t have anticipated the images and obsessions that surfaced during its writing.

Is this experience fairly typical for you while drafting?

Well this is the first book I’ve written as a full-time poet and teacher. Until 2013, I was a lawyer – first in media and entertainment law, then in public interest election law. When I was in private practice, I spent 10 years of my life billing my time in 6-minute increments. That changes you, changes your perception of time – its progression, its opportunity cost. Looking back, I can see how that time pressure manifested itself in the extreme compression of much of my first two books.

In Ignatz, the poems were terse; they were almost like snippets of text, as opposed to long-form considerations. Part of that was due to the fact that I wrote Ignatz in concentrated spurts at residencies during my vacation times working as lawyer. I felt like every bit of writing had to count, like I couldn’t afford to make mistakes. Also, the pieces tended to be more modular, more stand-alone. With Blackacre, I simply had more time, to play around, to make mistakes, to develop and layer themes and images, to think in terms of longer arcs of association.

4. How does legality enter your work? In other words, your collections often focus on the compromise between what's socially acceptable and the harder nuances that underpin those actions. I was hoping you could speak to how the poem makes room for that focus, whether it's immediate or subconscious.

I usually think of the legal influence on my work in terms of language, not in terms of ethics or norms. When you’re a lawyer in the Anglo-American common-law tradition, certain words and phrases take on new meanings over time. ”Cruel and unusual punishment" carries a certain resonance, and accrues layers and levels of meanings over time. I always think of it as a sort of hyper-text, the way those nuggets of language take on dimensionality as they move through history and experience.

I play with this dimensionality in my work. For example, in Blackacre, certain phrases – “wide-eyed,” “oubliette,” “desideratum,” “wrong” --  recur in the book, taking on additional facets and angles. To use the phrase “wide-eyed” in a poem about puberty is very different from using the phrase “wide-eyed” in a poem about racial identity. Images also recur – the field, the trellis, the tree. There are a lot of failed or damaged trees in the book, and I wanted to use that image as a touchstone, the tree that keeps resurrecting and reincarnating itself. So that the reader – upon encountering each tree – would be transported back to the previous trees in the collection.

5. How long does it take for you to find a new focus, collection to collection? With such left-field subjects as Ignatz the mouse and the distance between earthly inheritance and landscape itself, I wonder if you're a research poet, or if you might just look for any signs of a new obsession or question as you work on new material.

I think of beginning a new body of work as if I were supersaturating a solution. You just keep stirring things in, swirling them around, until, at some point, the whole thing precipitates out in a clump of crystals. I’ll have a certain preoccupation – with Ignatz it was unrequited romantic obsession, with Blackacre it was barrenness, intractability, and legacy. And then I’ll move through my life, and certain experiences and images just seem to dissolve in that solution. So for Ignatz, I happened to be driving across the country on old Route 66, in the aftermath of a series of failed relationships, with a friend who was reading The Tale of Genji aloud to me to keep us both awake. And the repeating tropes of Genji and the desert landscape seemed to mimic the recurring failures of my romantic life. And then, when we arrived at my friend’s house in Tucson, he happened to have a set of the Krazy Kat comics, and that became the precipitating trigger that caused all the rest of the images and themes to crystallize. And then I did a lot of other reading that seemed related – about the desert, about the Arthurian legends, about spies, pimps and anti-heroes. But nothing programmatic enough to be called “research.”

With “Blackacre,” I did do some additional research – into Milton’s life, Calvinism, the parables, etc. But that wasn’t where the poem started. I started with a field of words – Milton’s sonnet on his blindness –and I was trying to dig into that field. Much of my digging was etymological, but I don’t think of that as “research” as such – just an exploration of materials, of medium, the way a sculptor would investigate a particular piece of stone, getting a sense of its strata, its flaws, its densities.

6. Even though you're no longer practicing law, do you feel that the identity you formed there and your identity as a poet are inextricably linked? Does your ability to create hinge, somewhat, on your ability to think in terms of law & certain grey areas of compromise?

I think being a lawyer is like being a lapsed Catholic. (I happen to be both.) There are all these vestigial cartilaginous walls that predetermine the ways in which I process language, image, experience. Look at a baby, who probably approaches the world with the sense of taste/touch at the forefront – this certainly seems to be what my own son is doing. When I operate in the world, I do so with these sort of analytic scissor hands stretched out in front of me. I don’t experience things in an unmediated way. I write about things that have already been analyzed, already processed. Particularly in the “Blackacre” sequence, I was trying to approach the poems in a way that was more true to that perceptual sequence, and to get away from trying to be hip, juicy, beautiful, or funny.

7. Magic plays a subtle if not important role in Blackacre, the wanting to take our future into our own hands and hold it for certainty and scrutiny. What sort of decisions and moves went into making the connection between this childish aspect of the self, this use of tarot, and the more personal aspects of the collection?

Magic is interesting to think about in relation to law. One classic definition of law is the effort to bring physical forces into conformity with moral law. Law, poetry, and magic or religion all think they can make changes in the actual world by arranging or rearranging certain words in ritual or formal ways – they are all power language, performatives.

And there’s a sense of emotional satisfaction that comes with that sensation of efficacy. The first poems I wrote in Blackacre were based on Villon’s “Ballad of the Hanged Men,” but I was also thinking of the Hanged Man tarot card. I was dealing with my diagnosis of infertility and all the personal fallout that went with that – at the same time, a lot of certainties were unraveling for me – my marriage, my family, my career. In the middle of all of it, I went to Mexico for a week and had a tarot reading. One of the cards that came up in prime position was the hanged man, and I started thinking of the hanged man not as a dark card, but one of transformation, however limited that transformation may be. The hanged man is suspended upside down from this tree, but somehow retains a semblance of power. The card represents being able to approach the world from a new, inverted perspective, while still being tethered. There are certain facts, and to view them from a changed perspective does not change these facts. So the hanged man – both in Villon’s poem and in the tarot version –stands for an appreciation of changed circumstances, the interplay between transformation and givenness.

8. Silence seems to be a preoccupation. It's central to both the new work and Barter, and it runs along the cracks of Ignatz. For you, is silence a crucial aspect for the core of these poems, or does silence have to find its way in after the poem is drafted?

Silence is a precondition for the poem. Part of writing as a poet is that you think of the white space of the page as having its own physical existence, its own prerogative, always questioning and exerting pressure on any text you place on the page. When I said that I don't take form for granted, I was trying to say that I don't necessarily have permission to intrude on or break that silence until the poems have form. I think a lot about who feels entitled to speak and who seems to seek permission to do so; and I always find myself in the latter category. I was always most comfortable speaking in formal settings – as a trial lawyer or debater, where permission to speak is built into the rules of the game; I'm not someone who interjects opinions when not asked.

I think that my experience as a lawyer tended to exacerbate my sense of the stakes of silence. When you’re billing your time – my billing rate was well over $10 per minute – there’s a price tag on every sentence that you speak. And this increases exponentially when you’re in a roomful of lawyers, all billing at those rates – there’s an incredible pressure not to waste time. So I tend to be hyperconscious of taking up time, of taking up space on the page -- what gives one permission to speak and the pressure silence places upon speech. Ultimately, I would like to move beyond what can feel like a pathology. I would like to not treat form as an excuse or permission to speak.

9. One of the big talking points for the collection is how it navigates your own struggles with getting pregnant and giving birth. Yet, the collection avoids the "I" and favors a bit of vaguery. With something so personal, did you look to hide, in a way, in the poems and hope that at the end you'd be able to step back and come to an understanding through the work?

Blackacre is by far the most personal, and the most painful, writing I’ve ever done. The poems do contain the first person --  even if they don't start there, they often end up there. The first poem in the “Blackacre” sequence, for example started off as an 8-line paragraph that was about the Milton sonnet and a 6-line paragraph that was about my experience – those were the way the lines worked out in my word processing program, but isn’t how they appear in the finished book. And the sequence itself starts out being about blindness and Milton and ends up being about barrenness and me, even as the diction progresses from the analytic to the more recognizably lyric.

I’ve never been someone who felt at home in the autobiographical first person. Even though I was a creative writing concentrator undergrad, I really didn't write a poem in the 1st person until my early twenties. I wasn’t comfortable with the exposure or responsibility that comes with the speaker position.

Discomfort with silence?

Yes. I tend not to be a chest-beating "I, I, I" type, as much as I admire the confidence of that sort of writing. For better or worse, I tend to be more subdued.

In my more recent work – and especially in the “Blackacre” sequence – I’ve tried to push through and past this reticence – to resist the impulse to hide. But it does feel terribly uncomfortable – the night before the “Blackacre” sequence was first published, I couldn’t sleep at all, and I ended up blocking many of my friends and family on Facebook from seeing it.

10. The collection transitions beautifully from more formal poems to textual blocks. In terms of the line, how much labor goes into it as it finds its length and diction?

I don't tend to think of formality and experimentation as being opposed. I was trained in fairly traditional programs at Princeton and Oxford, but my mentors and exemplars were always people like Rae Armantrout and Claudia Rankine. For me, it's more daring to draft a rhyming poem than a prose poem. I try to avoid labels like “traditional” or “experimental,” schools or movements, etc. The ability to draw from a wide repertoire of formal strategies within a single book gives me a much broader palette in terms of tone. For example, writing something in doggerel creates a tonal register that another form wouldn't. Or, as another example, the “Blueacre” poem about The Passenger uses an inventory form, which is intentionally super flat, affectless.

In the “Blackacre” sequence, calibrating the tone of the poem – the kind of language it would be made of – was a large part of the challenge. I had drafts that were in-your-face crass, drafts in plain speech narrative, drafts in a more traditional lyric mode.  But none of those seemed “true” to the way in which I “experienced” infertility. To try to write a “true” or “plain” or “emotional” account would have been a fiction.

What ultimately seemed to provide the right entry point was what I think of as lawyer-language: the hyper-cerebral, analytic, dry-as-dust language that starts the poem. I guess I was trying to let my lawyer flag fly, to make the case for the analytic as a legitimate tonal register for lyric. But as the sequence progressed, other tones, other echoes started to surface, and the high-lyric mode where the poem ended up took me by surprise.

11. Your work asks a lot of the reader in terms of personal reflection and seeing themselves in the work. In Blackacre, the way you create those spaces is aided by repetition in the titles & forms of those poems. How do you think your creation of that space differs from past efforts?

I think that Ignatz didn't have emotional urgency that Blackacre did. Ignatz was more playful, in theme and in form – a game of tetherball. I was interested in putting relatively equivocal textual objects on the page and to have the reader create her own patterns and interpretations. But I was writing Blackacre in the middle of what, for me, was a life-changing realization – a diagnosis that I would never have a child that would be genetically mine. So I guess I had more at stake in Blackacre, more of a vector or agenda – I wanted the reader to travel a particular path, not just to encounter various objects in a playground.

But even within that relative intentionality, I tried to open up possibilities by layering images, titles and forms. I wanted the multiple figures of the hanged men to converge into a composite portrait of necessity – its leeway and limits. And the pairing of the 14 “-acre” poems was meant to be a kind of rhyme, ending with the “Blackacre” couplet. I’ve always been interested in proposing and then dislodging potential meanings, in alternative realities, in the shadows as well as the shape.