A Conversation with Monica Youn

by Natalie Louise Tombasco

Monica Youn is the author of 2016’s Blackacre, which was awarded the William Carlos Williams Award by the Poetry Society of America. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Open Book Award. Her previous books are Barter and Ignatz, the latter of which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A former lawyer and the daughter of Korean immigrants, she teaches at Princeton University and in the MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.

Youn visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series in November 2017. She sat down with Booth to discuss her latest collection, which Brenda Shaughnessy describes as “virtuosic: poems so sharp and fine they cut deep past the body or the self or the mind—they’re needles of rain carving out a canyon.” Youn discusses a medley of influences, such as Martha Graham, Yeats’ “Easter 1916,” Picasso’s “Bull’s Head,” and the “swaddling” of white fragility.

Natalie Louise Tombasco: In Blackacre, there’s so much to revel in with each Acre—the pearly possibility of “Greenacre,” the lushly sinister “Redacre,” the escape capsule in “Blackacre.” In previous interviews, you’ve explained to us law newbies that the term Blackacre is a placeholder for a fictional plot of land. In the collection, there’s a sequence of these Coloracres—two poems for each color. Were you hoping the reader would draw comparisons, or perhaps think of the second as a continuation of the first?

Monica Youn: Yes. I was thinking of the Acre series as a way to think of limits—the truth of possibility, compared to what the imagination offers. If you are a farmer and Blackacre is your farm, and it’s a rocky and depleted patch of soil, you may be able to grow potatoes but unable to grow pineapples. You can transform it within certain limits, but not completely. So, that tension between what is transformable and what is given is what I was trying to explore through the various Acres, especially the “Blackacre” poems—the poems about infertility.

The doubling titles I was thinking of as a kind of rhyme. Rhyme is just a species of sonic repetition, and repetition is about memory. The function of repetition in a poem is to call your mind back to the previous instance, and to think of those two in the same moment to achieve a certain simultaneity. Rhyming the doubled poems, I was thinking: “Okay, well, hold this thought in your mind, and now hold this other thought at the same time.” Hold the carpe diem of the first “Goldacre” as you think of the racial implications of the second “Goldacre.” What happens when you put these together? What sort of interferences, or patterns, are created between these two concepts when they’re juxtaposed into a form of parataxis? 

NLT: That’s an interesting way to delve deeper on a second reading of the collection, by thinking about how the Acres are communing. Because you were a lawyer in your past life, would you encourage the William Carlos Williams double life for poets? For them to be free from academia and bring different professions and experiences to poetry?

MY: I don’t think it’s a bad thing, assuming you have a career that enables both. You can do two things. It’s really hard to be ambitious in two things. I was working a legal job, working an average of sixty-hour weeks, so it was very hard to find time to write. I did manage it the first ten to twelve years—exclusively by devoting my vacations to writing, whether in self-created residencies or in actual residencies. But during the workweek, I could not write. I feel my life experience has been varied. I’ve met a lot of different types of people. Those experiences indirectly feed into my poetry. At some point, it may feed more directly, if I write more explicitly about politics. I mean, I’ve had a very different political experience than most poets.

NLT: How do you feel your writing has changed since switching professions?  

MY: It’s definitely changed in terms of formal possibilities. Ignatz was written entirely while working in private practice. I was working insanely hard, and when I did write a poem, I knew I only had a limited amount of time to write it, so I knew it had to count. I couldn’t really discard much. I had a much higher keep rate than I had in Blackacre. This book I only kept about half the poems I wrote. Ignatz is really a snippet kind of book. I would write something and say, “Okay, I have enough. I can stop.” However, in Blackacre, I was trying to push past that, saying, “Well, I’ve written this. I could stop here, but what happens if I push forward?” I kept pushing myself to write longer and longer. I never really wrote a poem over two pages before Blackacre. I was trying to force myself not to be satisfied with the poem, to keep going. That led to a sort of longer-form thinking—a lot more self-doubt and doubling back.

NLT: Blackacre’s idea of a woman’s body is as property, as legacy—as you say in the Divedapper interview, “transactional.” This idea was apparent early on in Barter from the line “and she knew / she was a container / for something else,” which I think speaks to a woman’s value being her reproductive potential. We think of those dowry days as over, but it feels particularly timely today, as if society is entering The Handmaid’s Tale. How did the marriage between property and the female body come to you?  

MY: It’s sort of inherent in the concept of Blackacre. If you read these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novels, or know much about history, you know that our literary and legal traditions are filled with this obsession about land. Think about Henry VIII and the whole crisis that was occasioned because he was unable to father a male heir—a failure he blamed on subsequent wives. Think of the crisis because Josephine didn’t provide Napoleon with an heir, Lilith not providing Adam with an heir, Guinevere and King Arthur, Serena Joy and Commander Fred.

This crisis is at the heart of our Anglo-American cultural history. The way property law in the Anglo-American system works is that the transfer of property, the mechanism of that, is the woman’s body. If John Doe wants to pass Blackacre down to John Doe Jr., he has to ensure that Jane Doe is fertile, faithful, and young. So you have these laws to control Jane’s body—laws about the entail of inheritance, marital rape, reproduction, adultery, divorce, paternity. This whole system of laws and, much more insidiously, cultural traditions stigmatizes women who are infertile or unfaithful, or who refuse to take part in the transaction of marriage and property. A woman whose sexuality does not tend that way, a woman who chooses to be celibate, chooses not to be monogamous—is pilloried.

With the shame around my personal experience of infertility, which far dwarfed the medical significance of the event, I began to wonder, “Where is this all coming from?” Well, it’s because you are devalued. Since childhood, you’re told that your primary value is reproductive. 

NLT: In “Blackacre,” you focus on a girl’s wideness: “A wide-eyed girl is often thought desirable; a wide-hipped girl is often thought eligible; a wide-legged girl is often thought deplorable.” I recalled a friend of mine during our junior year of high school. Upon meeting her boyfriend’s mother for the first time, my friend was told she had “good child-bearing hips.” How strange!  

MY: Right! Or, “You’ll make a good mom.” You hear that from the time you’re a little girl. This is why reading Peter Pan now is so creepy, because they’re telling this six-year-old girl, “You have to be a mom, right now!”

NLT: Your work has a reputation as being quite dense—filled with references to artwork, mythology, etymology—a style of writing that I enjoy because I think one turns to poetry to learn something new. Do you ever have that little voice in your head that screams, “Be more direct”? How do you maneuver from one image to the next without losing the reader?

MY: The simple fact of the matter is, I’m sort of a dense person. My life is filled with mythology, etymology, and literary references. I feel like I’m always living with one foot in books. When I’m living the experience, I’m living it through Milton, or Peter Pan, and when I see these things out in the world, I recognize aspects of my life. I don’t have that kind of separation between life and literature that I think less bookish people might.

When I was writing the book, one big influence on me was Brenda Shaughnessy’s book Our Andromeda, where she takes a very different strategy and says, “Okay, I’m going to try, as far as possible, to strip away the lyric and beautiful” and get to what she calls “plain.” Brenda is a dear friend, and I admire that book and was so influenced by it, but I could not do that. I thought, “What would it be if I wrote this experience ‘plain’? Let’s try that.” But it wasn’t me. I then thought, “I can strip away the lyric, and the beautiful, and the hip, the juicy, the sexy—whatever.” But what I’m left with is this dry, analytical person—which is me. The analytic has to be a legitimate register for the lyric, as well. This is how I think, and I could try to think differently, but why should I?

NLT: I’m a fan of Brenda Shaughnessy’s work, too, especially her poem “Artless,” which is noted as inspiration for your poem “Blueacre.” Her repetition of the suffix “-less” creates this feeling of constant diminishment that I feel is effective. Can you speak to the ways Shaughnessy’s poem lent itself to yours?

MY: The form is a direct homage to Brenda—the single-sentence mono-rhyme in tercets was taken from that poem. I thought it would be an appropriate form for this Martha Graham piece of choreography that I was trying to render. “Blueacre” is a constraint poem, but in the dance it’s a beautiful constraint. The dancer can never get out of this blue tube that’s enveloping her like a snake or a straightjacket. But she is able to make beautiful shapes within that constraint. When something happens to you, you keep comparing it to this, to that, to this, to that. You keep seeing similar things in the world and in your mind. I think the key to that poem is the way the pitiless mind goes on shape-making. The continual morphing of sound and image was something I was trying to pay homage to. You’re always drawn into the ineluctable vertical of this rhyme scheme pulling down on the poem. You can vary, but only within this very strict form.

NLT: I’d like to consider this quote by Pierre Reverdy in relation to your work: “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality . . .” This is especially true in the poems “Landscape with Deodand” and “Stereoscopes.” When putting two distant images together, do you feel it’s the role of the reader to make her own metaphor from what’s been bestowed?

MY: It’s funny you picked up on Reverdy, because there were originally a number of Reverdy translations in the book. I had borrowed a friend’s house to write some of the poems in Blackacre, and when I have trouble getting going I translate. He had a number of Reverdy poems in French, so I translated about five of them. A lot of them had similar themes to those in Blackacre.

That idea of clear parataxis, juxtaposition, and the greater distance is at the core of what I do as a poet. It is perhaps most explicit in the “Stereoscopes” poems in Ignatz, which is dedicated to the idea of “What if you take a poem that’s not really about this mouse, and you put the mouse in the title?” and how does the reader bridge that gap? How does a reader bring a narrative to a poem that’s not actually narrative? How much work does the reader have to do, and how much fun is that work for the reader?

I often tell my poetry students that writing a poem is like ice skating. One of the biggest thrills is taking a leap, and the larger, more difficult the leap, the more thrilling. But you only get credit for the leap if you land the leap. Otherwise, you’re just jumping up in the air and falling. But to land the leap, to have the legwork and preparation—people think leaps are all about what you do in the air, but it’s what you do before you go into the air. The establishing momentum and vector are what enable you to land the leap afterward.

I’m very interested in that process in the way it builds up. I was taking longer, slower leaps in “Blackacre,” thinking a lot about the way Yeats structures a poem. When he was working in drama he moved in a kind of symbolist poetic, just trying to be very sustained. You can have strategic dull spots in a poem, as in drama, so that you can build up to something quite spectacular. You’ll see that in poems like “Easter, 1916.”

The degree of difficulty—the further apart the two things—the more exciting is the energy created. It’s just something that’s simply true that we do all the time. I mean, why is it more fun for us to look at Picasso’s bike handlebars and seat as the head of a cow than as a realistic version of a bull’s head? The amount of work you’re doing is what enables that thrill of recognition. Your engagement allows you to bring your own experience to that very sketchy outline. I think of the medium of poetry as the reader’s field of expectation. It is not just my job as the writer to bring the poem—it is a reader’s job to bring the poem, too.

NLT: The psychic weight of multiple distant images coming together as one cohesive organism is something I think about a lot. Did intuition play a role in the poem “Whiteacre,” where we have caring for a newborn, the BLM protests, and what white noise actually is all existing beneath the shadow of this domineering title?

MY: “Whiteacre” was written while watching my baby nap and listening to the white noise machine drowning out the protests. It was somewhat of a self-criticism in that “I’m in here, watching my baby sleep, rather than out at the protest.” I didn’t have much of a choice at the time. There was something so sinister about the white noise machine, especially being called “white noise.” I had been doing some reading about white fragility and having my own experiences with that concept when I would try to explain the protests to my comfortable, rather conservative in-laws—“Why are these people making such a fuss?”—and feeling increasingly frustrated and disturbed by this enveloping swaddling of whiteness. 

NLT: I don’t know whether you’re a football fan, but I think it’s incredible how Colin Kaepernick has taken the BLM movement from Foley Square to the football field. Maybe you can talk a bit as a Korean-American who grew up in Houston about how whiteness, sameness, or cultural dominance has affected you?

MY: Growing up Asian in the South, you learn to devalue yourself. You think the way you look or do things is wrong. What is desirable is white cultural hierarchy. These are lessons drilled into you at a very young age. I remember, in second grade, going to my mother because I was upset that kids had called me “Chinese Eyes,” and my mother said, “Well, why don’t you call them ‘American Eyes’?” I was like, “Mom, you don’t understand. ‘American Eyes’ is not an insult.”

To call me “Chinese Eyes” is to do the low blow of recognizing the racial hierarchy we all know exists, that we all accept. To have internalized the idea that you are not as good as white people is a very strange way to grow up. It was exacerbated by the fact that there was not a huge Asian population in Houston. There was not a K-Town. I was not seeing positive explorations of Asian culture. There was no, “Oh, it’s cool to watch Korean videos or eat Korean food.” Everything was wrong and weird and foreign.

Part of what I’m thinking of now for my next book project is, once you understand that those values, that hierarchy you grew up with—that your own desires, what you find attractive—are morally wrong, how do you pull that out of yourself without pulling out your own spine?

NLT: The “failed tree” has been noted as a haunting image throughout the landscape of Blackacre—the Yggdrasil and “the wet / branch beating / for its life,” for example. In “Brownacre,” the tree can be seen as an emblem of failing marriage. We never get a sense of what “the thing” is that’s said to the speaker—that has put her in a foul mood—but we are left questioning “what still anchored us to the mountainside.” One can infer that “the thing” was, perhaps, blame on the speaker for her infertility. Trees are a loaded image in poetry, Whitman’s “Live Oak,” for instance. Would you be able to speak more on how you played with the idea of the “failed tree” in this poem or others?

MY: The tree in “Brownacre” is the most upsetting tree, but it’s not a real tree. I’ve always thought, “The problem with you, Monica, as a poet, is that you are always in your head. You have a terrible sense of direction, and you’re always getting lost because you’re not paying attention to where you are and what’s going on.”

In Blackacre, I was trying to pay particular attention to actual things. The other trees in Blackacre are actual trees that I saw, that I did my best to render in some detail with some fidelity. I don’t think of the “failed trees” in Blackacre as upsetting. Terrible things have happened to them, but they are all alive, right? They are all making a life despite the constraints. The sheer, dogged force of life is in them.

The tree in “Brownacre” is a mind tree. It is a tree more akin to the troubling, tunneling roots of what is there. If this tree has grown out of discord, if its strange root structure of nothingness is all that is holding you to a particular structure, then what does that mean? When you have something malignant replacing this structure—what should actually be there? 

NLT: The final section in “Blackacre,” titled “Wait,” leaves the reader with this lovely image of “a winter orchard, the lacerated land bandaged in snow.” In my reading of it, this landscape is somewhat bleak—all pruned and hungry and frostbitten and wondering whether whatever does grow there could be claimed as her own. However, there’s an undercurrent of healing, of transition. For the mere possibility of regrowth, the reader is blanketed with hope. If you were to give motherhood a Coloracre, what would it be? What would the landscape look like?

MY: There’s a point in the “Blackacre” sequence where black goes from a color of fear to a color of possibility. For Milton, black is a color of fear, sin—a color of “what’s of this dark earth and why?” That fear of possibility. At the turn of the poem, I quote Milton’s letter to an ophthalmologist friend of his, thinking, “No, no, no—the problem is white. The white sort of blanketing blindness—the cataracts.” In the final image of “Blackacre,” which I really did not intend to be as schematic as this, the black is what’s underneath this blanketing, frigid, white—lifeless white. The black is where things are growing. It’s the color of possibility, richness. It is not flashy. It’s not green or gold, or anything else. But it is what enables those other colors. It is the root onto which the young tree will be grafted.

Natalie Louise Tombasco received an MFA in poetry at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN, where she was a reader for Booth. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Minnesota Review, Southwest Review, Sonora Review, Birmingham Poetry Review and elsewhere. She is from Staten Island, NY.
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