An Interview with Monica Youn
Eleanor Wright, Issue 41
Years ago, as a very aspiring writer, I tacked a Virginia Woolf fragment to my wall: “so many sentences absolutely struck with an axe out of crystal.” Substituting “lines” for “sentences,” this seems an apt characterization of Monica Youn’s poetry: her taut, precise, assured lyrics feel consistently crys- talline. And not just to me—critics have called them “sharp,” “scintillating,” and “dazzling” (while Monica herself has compared writing poetry to coaxing a crystal from a supersaturated solution).
The crystal image suits, not just because Monica’s poems are beautiful, but because they insist on both lucidity and intricacy. Many exhibit a clarity of vision that almost belies the rigor and originality—the complex angles and refractions—of their seeing: not satisfied with simple (however gorgeous) depiction, the poems boldly and hauntingly dismantle, defamiliarize, and expose. Monica couches her investigations in a virtuosic range of poetic forms, wielding hypercompressed couplets, prose blocks, and invented structures with equal ease. At the same time, her work is prodigiously, omnivorously ekphrastic—attesting to a life ex- perienced, as she told me, “through works of art.” Her books reference a stag- gering array of visual and written media: paintings, sonnets, classical myths, legal texts, comic strips, urban legends, and explicit Polaroids, to name just a few.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Monica grew up in Houston and prac- ticed law for over a decade before she shifted her focus to poetry full-time. She’s the author of three collections: Barter (Graywolf Press, 2003); Ignatz (Four Way Books, 2010), a study in obsession and desire featuring characters from George Herriman’s comic strip Krazy Kat; and Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016), which invokes legal and literary frameworks to probe questions about property, legacy, and fertility and draws on Monica’s own experience with premature ovarian failure. (In law, “Blackacre” is a placeholder estate title, the way “John Doe” might refer to an anonymous person.) Blackacre won the William Carlos Wil- liams Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Open Book Award.
This year, Monica is teaching at Princeton and Columbia, serving on the Racial Imaginary Institute’s curatorial team, judging several major poetry awards, and potty training her son Toby. We met at her home in Manhattan to discuss nature poetry, writing about race, dark humor, exhaustion, and more.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You pulled off the impressive feat of publishing two of your poetry collections while managing a law career. You made a point of carving out time to write by doing poetry fellowships and residencies while prac- ticing law. When did you start feeling so driven to write, and what were some of your early encounters with poetry?
MONICA YOUN: Well, just to clarify, I don’t write all the time. I’ve written three books; the first two were when I was a lawyer. The first one I wrote mostly while I was a Stegner Fellow—I got a lot of that manuscript under my belt there. The next one took me a while: I would basically take vacation time and go to residencies and write in spurts. I’ve always been a spurt writer rather than a slow-and-steady writer. And I have long fallow periods. I’m in one right now, where I just kind of read and absorb things and think.
I’m not sure how I started with poetry. My parents are immigrants—they have English as a second language. Their English is fluent, but I started correct- ing their business correspondence when I was around nine. I think one of the things about being an immigrant kid is that you start to feel more competent than your parents in certain social ways at a relatively young age. In any case, I was always interested in reading, and somehow I just started writing poems. The first one I recall writing was maybe in second grade. In junior high school I had one friend with whom I’d exchange poems; of course the poems were terrible, but I was still interested in it. In high school I had a couple more friends, and it just kept going from there.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You mention periods of reading and absorbing, and it’s clear from your work that you’ve read and absorbed many poetic voices. There are poems your own work is directly in conversation with, like Villon’s “Ballad” and Milton’s sonnet in Blackacre, and then there are epigraphs from a whole range of poets. Do you have a core group of writers whose work is always in your head?
MONICA YOUN: The poets who meant the most to me growing up (when I say growing up I mean, like, in my twenties) were probably Yeats, Milton, Pound, Auden, Bishop, Stevens, and some of Rilke—Rilke’s more object-driven work. Contemporary voices are just an infinity, and they change constantly.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is there a pattern for the way you go about conceiv- ing a poem that alludes, either via epigraph or in its body, to other work? Do you start writing it with the other work in mind?
MONICA YOUN: Epigraphs are very after-the-fact for me. I think of epigraphs as a way of explaining things to the reader without having to put them in the poem or in an endnote. Now, that’s different from the ekphrastic question, which is whether I’m writing through works of art—which I always am. I feel like I live my life through works of art. I understand my own experience in terms of Krazy Kat, or in terms of, I don’t know, Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t have an experience and then go out looking for cultural correlatives. A lot of my life is experiencing cultural work; I don’t think of my life somewhere and art somewhere else. So I’m recognizing a lot of those patterns—even as you might see a symbol in the natural world and see some of yourself in it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And the ekphrastic mode is so prominent in all three of your books. But nature and landscape do figure importantly, too—in Black- acre land becomes a symbol of this problem you’re working through around property and fertility; in Ignatz the southwestern landscape is especially central, and sometimes personified; and Barter has a lot of “place poems” or “travel poems.” This is a sprawling question, but do you have a sense of how landscape, place, and travel figure into your work and process?
MONICA YOUN: In my first book there were a lot of travel poems, just because I feel like one is more highly aware of one’s environment when traveling. All of my books wind up having that quality—I very rarely end up writing in the place that I live. I very rarely have New York poems; the New York urban landscape does not interest me that much. San Francisco I did find more generative, I have to say.
With regard to the landscape, I don’t at all think of myself as naturally a nature poet. It’s something I have to force myself to do, to get out of my head and to really look at things, and it’s something that I think takes on an ethical dimension. The critic Hugh Kenner has a phrase, “idiosyncrasy of language de- rives from attention,” which I think is absolutely right. The world will always surprise you more than the echo chamber of your own thoughts; you can always get sharper angles by going outside of yourself than staying within yourself.
Ignatz and Blackacre—and to a certain extent Barter in particular—were periods in which I had the leisure to really spend time in a landscape, to con- sciously notice it. Ignatz was written in Tucson, Arizona through San Diego— that stretch of aridity—and at the MacDowell Colony. Of course, the woods of New Hampshire have nothing whatsoever to do with Coconino County, Arizona. So I was like, “Okay, at some point I’m just going to have the whole scene just shift inexplicably to the forest, because I’m surrounded by forest right now, and I keep writing about these trees.” I was very influenced by the Arthurian legends in Ignatz, and the forest seemed like a more natural setting for those kinds of resonances than the desert did. But it is sort of funny—at some point the book just moves from the desert to the forest, without really explaining why.
With Blackacre, I spent a lot of time in Italy, at the Civitella Ranieri residency. Being in an eleventh-century castle (there were literally murder holes in the floors and piles of spears in the corners), and then walking past olive trees and through wheat fields, was pretty amazing. Then I also spent time in upstate New York, getting very involved in random garden activities. So I was trying, I think, to be a little more conscious of my surroundings than I often am.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Which part of the book were you working on in the castle?
MONICA YOUN: Most of the Hanged Man poems were written in the castle. It was ridiculous—I was living in this castle; in my leisure time I was reading Wolf Hall; and occasionally I was watching Game of Thrones. The overload of medieval influences became kind of comic.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: When you wrote the first Hanged Man poem, or the first coloracre poem, did you know it was going to be a sequence? Or did it just proliferate?
MONICA YOUN: With the Hanged Man sequence, I think I knew it was going to be more than one poem, and I didn’t know how many. I didn’t think I had enough in there to do a whole book. And the Hanged Man sequence is probably the low point of the book: those were written at probably the lowest point of my life. I was just trying to figure out how to move forward, or how to write the poems of moving forward. The “Blackacre” sequence—although it is called “Blackacre,” and, you know, not exactly cheerful—at least has a bit of hope at the end.
The Hanged Man poems were written when I got the diagnosis of infertility, and I didn’t think I would ever have a child. At the same time, my parents had split up, my mother was talking about killing herself, and my father-in-law had just died—so the memories of that deathbed vigil were very much with me. I was also at the end of a legal career, and not sure what I was going to do for a living, exactly. A lot of pathways of hope and ambition were coming to an end. I was like, “Okay, I need to figure out what is left of myself.” Or, if I was looking at someone else: What is left of my mother when the central fact of her life, which is her marriage, is taken away from her? Who is she? How does she define her- self? Who am I? If I’m not a lawyer, if I’m not going to have a child—what can I make of that?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So, when you were writing those poems, did it feel like they would eventually become a book, or was it really just personal? Or is there not much of a distinction?
MONICA YOUN: I don’t think there’s much of a distinction. I was writing them, and I thought someone would read them. I don’t really write poems for myself, because I don’t think of writing as that kind of therapy. I think of writing as choreography—for me it doesn’t come to life until the reader reads it. So the idea of just writing for myself would be weird. If I want to talk to myself, I’ll just talk to myself.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Does that feel related to all the intertextual webs in your work?
MONICA YOUN: No, not really—I don’t expect the reader to particularly understand why, for example, Piero della Francesca’s St. Julian reminded me of a hanged man. That was a very strong impression that I had, that I thought I should make into a poem—but a poem that did things in a reader’s mind, hopefully.
Again, the artistic references are not coming after the fact. The artistic ref- erences are the generative nub of the poem: there is no poem without the artistic references. One has a prevailing metaphor—like, think of that great Jack Gilbert poem, “Michiko Dead,” about the cardboard box. You think, “Did you have an idea of grief and then . . .”—no, the two were inseparable, the poem is the cardboard box.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You spoke earlier about transitioning out of a le- gal career, and you’ve talked in other interviews about the way law and poetry intersect. I think the similarities you see between them are fascinating: all the accrued resonances words have, the need to work within formal constraints. It’s interesting that, even though legal themes exist in your first two books—the title Barter having to do with possession and property—the collection that most overtly invokes legal frameworks is the one you wrote after you stopped practicing.
MONICA YOUN: Well, people tend to treat Blackacre as my “law book,” be- cause it has a legal title. But the title is a little coincidental—that it happens to be a legal term. It could have been another historical term; I thought about calling it Tragedy of the Commons, which is an economic term. And the techniques that I’ve used with respect to etymology are common through all my books. I think what was different is that the “Blackacre” sequence starts from a point that’s much, much drier than I’ve ever allowed myself to start from. But that sort of dryness is not unique to legal writing: it could just as well have been an English department textual exegesis.
I say that only because I still think I have a law book in me somewhere, that I haven’t really gotten to yet. Blackacre’s not exactly it. It just happens to have that title. And obviously there’s a thematic resonance with property law and control of the body—but, you know, had I written about abortion law and the body, I don’t think people would have thought of it as this legalistic.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: When I first came to your work, I knew you were a lawyer, so I expected it to be very serious. And a lot of it is serious—many of the core themes are really heavy. But there’s also this element of play that sometimes enters via the art you’re in conversation with. Ignatz has dire moments, but it’s based on a comic strip; and even in Blackacre you have, for example, a poem with an epigraph from Peter Pan—it’s not funny per se, but there are moments of whimsy. And some of the wordplay feels very . . . playful. How do you see play and seriousness interacting in your work and in your writing process?
MONICA YOUN: I have a pretty dark sense of humor as these things go—so, I think the Peter Pan poem is kind of funny, in a sort of sick way. I think the Twinkie poem is funny in a sort of sick way. There are parts of even the “Black- acre” sequence that are a little bit funny, or at least wry. Things occur to me, and I kind of want to pull them in. For example, Villon’s “Ballad of the Hanged Men”: it’s a deeply serious poem, but there are elements of the humorous. It veers from riotously funny to angry to bitter; there’s a roving sensibility there that’s a lot of its charm—a charm that’s even more apparent in the “Testament.” So some of the Hanged Man stuff was meant to be sort of like, bwahaha, sinister- villain funny. “Exhibition of the Hanged Man” in particular, maybe—but a cou- ple of the other ones are just so dark they’re sort of funny.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And maybe humor naturally emerges from that sort of iterative mode—relentlessly working the same image. You take it in all direc- tions, so some are bound to be lighter and more playful.
MONICA YOUN: You’re trying to push the image until it becomes surprising, until it becomes something else, in that uncanny way. But that surprise can lead to humor as well as it can horror or revelation. I always think reading Stephen King is interesting: what Stephen King understands better than other people is that the moment of real horror comes when something is so degraded that it starts to resemble something else entirely. There’s something deeply formal about it—the taboo is against the crossing of category restrictions, like in the abominations of Leviticus. (I have a poem in Barter about hardcore porn—the hardest core porn is where the body is so contorted that it starts to resemble something else, right?)
WASHINGTON SQUARE: One salient feature of your work as a whole is that it’s so formally varied. Your signature style is a very slender, aerated, concise line—but Barter opens with a kind of reverse instruction form, and Blackacre flirts at the end with this prosier, essayistic mode. How does a poem typically finds its form?
MONICA YOUN: For me, the form is the solution to the poem. It’s what un- locks it; I don’t think of the two as separable. Part of the trouble with writing the “Blackacre” sequence for me—why it took me so long—is I could not figure out what the form should be. I tried composing it in lines; that wasn’t happening. I tried writing it as a sonnet sequence; that wasn’t happening.
I use this metaphor a lot, but it’s like saturating a solution: at some point something precipitates out, the crystal of it. And there’s a limit to how much you can change that—unless you just go back to the drawing board and say, “I’m going to melt the entire thing down.” But you can’t revise a crystal. And I think there’s a real limit to what people can achieve with revision. I would rather just toss the whole draft, wait a couple of days, open up another document, and then start—and if anything’s essential, it won’t have gotten left behind.
In the Twinkie poem, the problems of tone and form were so intertwined that I think I went through seven “I’m tossing this poem entirely, I’m going to wait a few days, I’m going to rewrite it from scratch.” It started off rhyming. The original “Blackacre” concept was going to rhyme—it was going to kind of be an explosion of the Milton sonnet. But tonally that wasn’t going to be right, because of the quality of the end words. Words like “chide” and “hide” would become so dominant in that structure.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Something you’ve said in a couple other interviews that really interests me is that you feel the poem “Sunrise: Foley Square” isn’t totally successful, but it’s important to the book (Blackacre) anyway. How can a poem that fails individually be a successful piece of a book as a whole? How do you gauge whether a poem “succeeds”?
MONICA YOUN: I thought that that poem failed—I thought that it moved into abstraction and vagueness where it really needed to be a lot more pointed. I don’t know if I exactly said it was a successful part of the book; it was an element of the book that I wanted to be there, and in a way I wanted it to be a personal reminder of failure. A reminder of what I had set out to achieve and didn’t quite get.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Are there other poems you feel this way about?
MONICA YOUN: I mean, you always feel that to a certain extent about all your poems. “I could have pushed harder right there.” I think I swapped out probably a third of the poems in the original Blackacre manuscript, and the manuscript grew by about thirty percent; so I tossed a lot of poems. And I didn’t toss that one because I thought, there’s some note that needs to be there and isn’t any- where else. So let’s try to keep that in.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: While we’re on the subject of wrongness—Blackacre opens with a palinode (a poem that retracts the sentiment of a previous poem). Starting there is obviously a destabilizing move: if you think of the book as its own unit, it’s a retraction of something that hasn’t been said, or maybe some implied historical starting condition. But you also have two previous books that it could refer to. When did you realize “Palinode” was the way the book should open—and, more broadly, how do you see your books speaking to or against each other?
MONICA YOUN: Placing “Palinode” where I did serves two functions. One, it positions the book as a retraction of Ignatz; Ignatz is about desire and play, and how even unsatisfied desire can be self-sufficient as an artistic object.
The other thing is, it’s an homage to the idea of the Hanged Man. In “Bal- lad of the Hanged Men,” the refrain is—translating—“And please God, absolve us.” What are they asking absolution for? You never know. It starts off as this free-floating gesture of remorse and abjection. I was interested in that position- ality. The Hanged Man Tarot card—you don’t know what he’s been hanged for. But you start at this moment and you move forward.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So, a sense of guilt?
MONICA YOUN: A sense of guilt—and part of it was also, “I am rejecting the premises of my past life” or “I understand the premises of my past life to have been mistaken or wrong.” The word “wrong” is one that I intentionally placed fairly constantly throughout the book. It’s meant to sound this kind of chime or knell.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: “Palinode” also features a lyric “I” whose utterance is very raw and desperate. I was curious, reading that poem and then reading the other “I”s that come up throughout Blackacre—some feel like personae and some feel more personal. Generally speaking, your work has relatively few in- stances of the sort of “confessional” mode.
MONICA YOUN: The traditional lyric “I.” I never really wrote in the first person until after I graduated from college. It was just not something I was com- fortable doing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: But the “Blackacre” sequence is quite personal. Do you feel there’s been a trajectory toward a more lyric “I”—a more confessional register—over your three books? Or does the “I” still usually happen in a way that’s sublimated or in conversation with other art?
MONICA YOUN: I’m not the strongest self in the world, maybe. I do tend to notice things more in other objects than I do in myself; and I perform introspec- tion as if it’s outside myself, like surgery on an external object. The first person of Barter was almost pathological in its avoidance of the “I”: there are some “I” poems in there, but I had to really fight to get those out.
Part of that is, I’ve always been very private; I’ve always been secretive. That’s something I’ve had to push hard to overcome. Particularly from my family and religious background, I just cannot feel that comfortable. But for Blackacre, especially with the fertility stuff, there’s so much shame surrounding that topic. And so many people, after they’ve read the book, have come up to me and said, “I never talked about it, but I had a miscarriage,” or, “I can’t have children.” It’s insanely common, but the reason it remains a locus of social shame is because people don’t talk about it. So I felt like there was actually some social value to being more straightforward than I usually am. I still wouldn’t say that filtering the whole thing through a Milton sonnet is the most straightforward confession- al voice in the world—but at least there is an “I.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So maybe that was more a function of what you were writing about, rather than an evolution across your work?
MONICA YOUN: Part of it is just growing up. Like, “Okay, I’ve got to stop caring what people think of my life. If I need to write this, I just need to write this.” I’ve done, as you know, a number of interviews for that book, and in each one I think my skin gets a little thicker. I remember the first essay I wrote about Blackacre, for the Poetry Foundation website—I literally did not sleep the night before I knew it was going live. And I blocked people from seeing it on Face- book, because I was like, “I just don’t want people knowing this about me. I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. This is not part of my self-image. I don’t like this.” But, you know, I had chosen to write the book.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Has your family read your work?
MONICA YOUN: My nuclear family has. Now, my parents will not tell other people in our family that Toby [conceived via a donor egg] is not my son genet- ically. They, in fact, urged me to conceal it from people like my brother and my mother-in-law. There’s a lot of shame around this in the Korean community in particular; even IVF is considered taboo in Korea, so you can imagine what an egg donor situation is like.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: On that note—Blackacre is very much about bod- ies, about the social and historical pressures exerted on them. A few poems, like “Goldacre,” deal explicitly with race. You’re currently involved in the Racial Imaginary Institute with Claudia Rankine, and you are Chair of the Committee on Race and the Arts at Princeton. Is race something you see entering your own work more explicitly in the future?
MONICA YOUN: It is something I’m trying hard to figure out ways to write about. I think I had a reaction against writing about race in my earlier years. There’s a double bind: if you don’t write about race, you’re “writing white,” and if you do write about race, you’re an “identity writer.” Particularly in the places where I was educated—Princeton, which at the time had no faculty of color in Creative Writing; Oxford, which also had no faculty of color in the English department; and even Yale, where I was socially involved with the English department—these were places where so-called “identity writing” was considered second-tier. So, there was that.
There was also, like, “How do I go about doing this?” The sort of normative models that I had for writing about myself as an Asian-American all seemed to be premised on some kind of authenticity that I felt I didn’t have—I wasn’t “Ko- rean enough” to write these poems. I didn’t speak Korean; I didn’t know all the food; I didn’t know how to make the food . . .
Adrienne Rich has this rather pointed comment in her introduction to the volume she edited of Best American Poetry, where she deplores one’s “columnar poem” about one’s ethnic parent or grandparent. You know, the poem about one’s elderly female relative silently preparing food. And Homi Bhabha said about Salman Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, that he was packaging himself for Western consumption. I think there’s a certain amount of that, and I worry, for example, that writers of color get incentivized into marketing victimization— because, to the extent that a white reading public wants to read writers of color at all, that’s what they seem often interested in consuming.
[So] how to write about one’s race [in a way] that’s true to one’s authenticity— or lack thereof? How do I write about race as a deracinated writer? That chal- lenge is quite interesting. The Twinkie poem was hard for me, because it was my first foray into, “Okay, this is a poem from the perspective of a deracinated person.” (Actually, it’s from the perspective of a baked good . . . but, you know.) I think definitely the next book is going to be about deracination. That’s what I’m thinking about; that’s what my reading is geared toward. I’m just not sure what shape it will take. Part of it will deal with my family; part of it will deal with Ezra Pound. Who knows where else it could go.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’re also teaching a course around this stuff, right?
MONICA YOUN: I’ve taught it twice, both at the undergraduate level and the graduate level. It’s called “Race, Identity, and Innovation.” It’s sort of a response to Cathy Park Hong’s essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” which I know a lot of people have read—and really trying to look at some of the contemporary writers who are writing in the tradition of racial innovation, or identity innovation. But also to think about particular innovations that poets of color seem to have in common. The deployment of pronouns, for instance, to craft or divide audiences. The use of aphasic techniques to kind of go one click off of the dominant language, to open up a space for critique. Or the use of disclaimers, formal rules, rule-bound structures—the way in which the almost over-formalized use of those rule structures becomes itself a source of critique.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Are those things you think about in your own writ- ing, too?
MONICA YOUN: It’s stuff I’m starting to think about. Right now I talk about it with my students, and I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to affect my writing. But it’s certainly very absorbing. I love teaching that class.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: As a lawyer you were involved in public interest work, specifically campaign finance reform. Are there moments—especially in the past few years as the political situation seems increasingly bleak—when you feel frustrated that you’re less directly involved? Do you feel poetry intersects with activism?
MONICA YOUN: I’m not sure poetry intersects with activism. I think that’s something everyone has to figure out on their own. What I tend not to like is the pose of helplessness that’s adopted by a lot of poets: “Oh, I can’t possibly call my senator because I’m a poet.” I think the unwillingness to get one’s hands dirty and actually knock on doors and do some boring work is one of the least appealing things about poetry’s capture by the academy.
I do fairly often get twinges of “I wish I were back in the fray.” I have mul- tiple friends who are on Robert Mueller’s team; I have multiple friends who are in politics; I have multiple friends who are working for impact advocacy organi- zations. And I miss that work. As a [campaign finance] litigator you were always on defense, and that sort of work is not as glamorous as, for example, suing the Trump administration because of the Muslim ban (which a friend of mine did). But it was still necessary.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve said in other interviews that some of the extreme compression in Barter and Ignatz actually came out of the fact that you were practicing law, so you just had very intense and brief spurts of writing.
MONICA YOUN: That’s partially true. But I also do love Rae Armantrout, Pound, Williams, neo-minimalists like Graham Foust, so the affinity was aesthetic as well as imposed by necessity.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You have a great poem in Blackacre called “Against Imagism.” Do see yourself fitting into or out of any kind of school or lineage?
MONICA YOUN: I don’t know why anyone, honestly, would place themselves in a school. I’ve always been fascinated by these courses which teach schools and movements, as if that’s all there is. I can’t say that any particular movement or school has been important to me. I like individual poets very much. I like Rae Armantrout. I don’t like all Language poets; I like some of them. But I also like Richard Wilbur.
The people who call themselves schools and movements are usually hangers-on of some particularly good poet—and why not just read the good poet and then read other good poets? Rather than defining oneself as sixth-generation New York School, or whatever it is at this point?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That also fits with the formal diversity of your work.
MONICA YOUN: I get bored! I write a short-line poem and I’m like, “Okay, I’ve done that, let’s try something long-line this time.” One of the reasons I quit being a lawyer and an advocate was because I was like, “If I have to write another thousand-word op-ed with three arguments, or if I have to write an- other twenty-page brief that always has to start off the same way, then I’ll hate myself!” Why would I confine myself—in poetry, which is the most free of all literary media?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Are there any forms you haven’t tackled?
MONICA YOUN: Oh, quite a few. I’ve never written a good villanelle. I would like to do a little more with repeating forms—they’re particularly interesting to me now and I’ve been rereading Patricia Smith.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Are you writing in a lyric essay mode at all now? That’s kind of where Blackacre winds up.
MONICA YOUN: I’m not really writing right now at all. I’m just reading. I’ve taught a three/three course load this year, and I judged five contests, and I’m raising a toddler. I’m also chairing this committee at Princeton, and I’m working on the Racial Imaginary Institute. So I was like, “Okay, this [is] my year to read and gather influences.” And thanks to the contests I judged, I’ve recently read a lot of contemporary poems!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you learned anything from that, or does it become drudgery?
MONICA YOUN: You do learn things about yourself as a reader—about your own preferences and the limits of those preferences. All of which is good. And there are a lot of people writing really well out there! The two big awards that I’m doing are the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award; neither of those has screeners, so you’re just reading every book that’s published this year. Crates and crates and crates of books.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Since you’re not writing now, maybe you can’t an- swer this—but do you have any sense of how being a parent will affect your work?
MONICA YOUN: I don’t really have a sense. I look at the poems I wrote before Toby’s birth and after Toby’s birth, and they don’t seem to differ that much. But it’s hard to predict at this point. I’m currently in the middle of potty training—and the idea of the poetics of potty training is not really dismis- sible out of hand, you know? It’s such a regimented activity, and such a strange one.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What about watching him learn to speak?
MONICA YOUN: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Ellen Bryant Voigt, in her little book The Art of Syntax, has a description of children acquiring language, and the term she uses is “chunking.” They don’t acquire vocabulary words; they accrue chunks of syntax. I can really see that process right now with Toby. His vocabulary isn’t that good; his syntax is really good. He almost never makes a mistake in his spoken English, even though he doesn’t know that many words. His sentences are, like, “If the fountain goes on when it’s cold outside then the water will freeze.” And I’m like, “I can’t believe you just said that!”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Has that given you any ideas about how language works that you think might inform your own poetry?
MONICA YOUN: Not readily. I mean, most of the influences in Blackacre are things I experienced from ages, like, five to fifteen, and I’m just now figuring out how to write them. I don’t write quickly; things percolate for a long time. So, who knows when things will come out. When I’m seventy I’ll be writing potty training poems.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you read anything good recently aside from the contests? Or are they dominating your reading?
MONICA YOUN: Fiction-wise I loved Lincoln in the Bardo. And Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. And Exit West. But I haven’t had a lot of time to read other things this year, frankly.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Speaking earlier of teaching your course on race and innovation—I’m curious who your own writing teachers were in college.
MONICA YOUN: My first teacher was J. D. McClatchy; then I worked with Jim Richardson; then I worked with Paul Muldoon. Julie Agoos was my thesis advisor.
[Studying writing in college] was wonderful. I didn’t know anything about poetry—I was [a Public and International Affairs] major. I had read nothing. You know, I feel like I shouldn’t be as hard on my students as I am. I’m like, “You’ve read nothing!” But I had read nothing. I didn’t know what I was doing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Did any of your college thesis poems make their way into your published work?
MONICA YOUN: A few of the poems in my thesis were in my first book. But just a few. Barter (and I think a lot of first books at that time) was just poems I’d written over a certain period of time, until I had enough for a manuscript. And that included the three years in law school, in which I wrote nothing at all. I think, now, first books are more cohesive, as a general rule.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How do you feel about “project books”?
MONICA YOUN: I’m sort of interested in them. What I like about having a project is, it allows you to keep returning to the same theme. As opposed to, “I’m going to write exactly one one-and-a-half-page poem about my infertility.” Which just would not have been possible—I wouldn’t have been able to move beyond the obvious.
My students right now are working on an “exhaustion exercise,” which is: “Okay, you’re going to write a poem about an egg; and then you’re going to write another poem about an egg; and you’re going to spend all semester, and all you’re going to write about is an egg.” By the end of the semester they’ve ex- hausted all of the obvious takes and angles, and things have started to get really interesting—because they’ve kind of dug below the bottom of the bucket.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you think of Ignatz as an exhaustion exercise?
MONICA YOUN: Ignatz is very much an exhaustion exercise. It was just like— if George Herriman could spend thirty years writing a daily cartoon strip about cat, mouse, brick, then I can do forty poems!
The genesis of Ignatz was: I had just been through my most recent terrible break-up, and one of my very good friends and I were driving across the country to Tucson, Arizona. During the road trip, I was looking at all this landscape (be- cause that’s what you do on a road trip), and he was reading The Tale of Genji to me aloud. Which is kind of a great thing to read on a road trip. When we got to his apartment, he just happened to have an entire set of the Krazy Kat comics. And suddenly, everything is falling into place—the break-up and the landscape and The Tale of Genji and Krazy Kat.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Did you know then that it would be a whole book?
MONICA YOUN: No. I wrote one, and then I was like, “Oh, I need to write another of these.” Then at some point I had five. And at some point I had forty. And then I was like, “Okay, what is this?”
That was a tough book—Graywolf actually turned it down. My editor Jeff Shotts believed in me, but he was outvoted. People were kind of like, “What is this? This weird book about this cartoon mouse—what are you doing?”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Jeff Shotts spoke at NYU recently, and he mentioned that you brought him the cover concept for Blackacre. Given the ekphrastic bent of a lot of your work, it’s not surprising that you’d be involved in the cover process.
MONICA YOUN: I made the cover. I knew it was going to be a Gothic font, black on a white background. We went through eleven drafts of the font. Line weight, degree of cross-hatching . . . I drove that designer absolutely crazy. You should see my mark-ups of these drafts—they’re nuts.
I chose the cover art for my first two books, but I wasn’t as involved. But [with Blackacre] I was like, “Hmm, I really need to get this one right.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I wanted to ask, generally, what you’ve learned from teaching. For a long time you were writing but not teaching; is it different being in the classroom?
MONICA YOUN: Teaching is fun! I didn’t major in English—I took very few English literature classes in college. I have read a lot, but sort of late-night- with-a-glass-of-whiskey rather than for a class. I just have my own idiosyncratic impressions of how things, particularly poems, work. I have very strong convictions of how poems work, and I teach very structured craft classes, but it’s all kind of my take on things. And the students seem to like them! I kind of assume that what gets me going will get other people going, and that seems to have held up so far.