Monica Youn on Life & the Dreams It Evokes at Prairie Schooner
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.
Continue at Prairie Schooner.