Interview with Dean Young

Dean Young is the author of nine books of poetry, including Primitive Mentor (University of Pittsburgh Press 2008) and Elegy on Toy Piano (2005), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is one of our leading experimental poets, combining elements of the New York School with Latin American and European Surrealism. His poems are clever, funny, inventive, and more often than not, intensely moving. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Young's awards include an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His poems have appeared seven times in The Best American Poetry series. He has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, in the low-residency program at Warren Wilson College, and at Loyola University in Chicago. He is currently the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas, in Austin.

Interviewer: Lee Rossi

LR: Let’s start at the end. I loved one of your poems in the latest American Poetry Review (July/August 2009). It’s called “A Music as of Blunt Instruments” and hovers around the image of “Lucy, the dead hippo” and then segues into a meditation on various types of monsters, those that just look monstrous and those that embody great moral evil. “A little boy hits a girl with a brick” is the last in the series and is probably the most serious. And yet the statement is delivered with an almost alarming deadpan. How can a reader tell when you’re serious and when you’re just joking?

DY: I don’t know if there’s a real difference. There are differences at the extremes, but there’s a lot of overlap. There’s a line after “a boy hits a girl with a brick,” it’s like “no surprise there.” That line refers to the casual, daily cruelties that people enact upon one another. Little boys just do that kind of thing. He would do it because he liked the girl. In terms of evil, these are the kinds of monsters that we all have.

Regarding your question about humor and seriousness, there are some things in my poems that I know are just flat-out goofy. That’s a particular kind of delight that I go for, which has to do with the absurd, and the element of surprise. But in general, it's difficult for me to see the difference between humor and seriousness because often what’s funny is what’s true. In fact, what is funny is what’s true. The human condition is pretty funny, tragic as it is. There’s nothing funnier than being in a cardiologist’s waiting room. It’s hilarious.

LR: “Scarecrow on Fire” is another recent poem that I really admire. Like all your best work, it enacts a tremendous tension between the disparate elements of the poem and the desire for thematic clarity. “We all think about suddenly disappearing,” the first line, tells us that this is a serious poem about death. And yet by the end, despite an allusion to Jonathan Edwards out of Robert Lowell (“We all feel/ suspended over a drop into nothingness.”), the poem embraces a qualified, yet stirring, affirmation: “Maybe poems are made of breath, the way water, cajoled to boil, says, This is my soul, freed.” I loved the use of the word “cajoled,” both in its jolly personification of water and also as it echoes the sound of boil. How important is it that your poems navigate the treacherous passage from one emotional state to another?

DY: That’s something that just happens when I’m writing a poem, when I’m engaged with it. I mean, I do want a poem to get somewhere. Probably in the last five years I’ve noticed that my poems get somewhere while still remaining on the same subject. The end of that poem is just as concerned with disappearing as the beginning, but it’s tonally different. It can be seen as a kind of triumph, something beautiful, rather than desperate and deathlike. That creates movement while still staying with the same subject and concerns. Previously I would achieve that in the only way I could, by ending on a different subject. My poems could start in New Jersey and end up as a meditation on carpentry, something relatively unrelated. But the same thing is true: a poem doesn’t seem to be alive unless it has moved somewhere, unless it shows affect. How do you tell the difference between a stone and a lizard? The only way is to get the lizard to move. The stone’s not going to move.

LR: You’ve argued that “any discourse can be poetic” and then proceeded to utilize every register and rhetoric available to a writer in English. And yet for moments of the most intense feeling and greatest sincerity, your poems adopt or simulate language which most readers of English literature would recognize as “poetic.” There’s the Keatsian rhapsody of these lines from another recent poem “Colophon”: “It’s the bees I love this time of year./ / Sated, maybe drunk, who lapped at the hips/ of too many flowers for one summer.” How important is it that readers sense the different flavors in your poems?

DY: It depends on the particular poem. I do have poems that are explicitly working through different registers of diction. But others have a rather narrowly defined poetic discourse. It has to do with musicality and a certain formality in relationship to the reader. It’s all context.

We can’t say that even antiquated speech is no longer an adequate vehicle of expression. It is. It just needs to be refurbished. It needs to be “made new,” to use that cliché, at least to be dusted off, to bring it in contact with levels of discourse, modes of diction that are very unconventionally thought of as poetry. Sometimes you can do that in a particular poem, but I hope it also occurs in the juxtaposition of individual moments in a poem. It’s a quiet kind of inquiry that goes through my work as a whole, if I can talk about it as a whole, or my work as a big mess.

I have this student now who’s channeling Shelley. One of the things I’m trying to get him to do is not stop himself from doing that, stop from writing what, in his hands, turns out to be antiquated and corny, but to bring in contrasting diction, contrasting discourse. So that the tension between them can bring out other aspects to his Shelleyan expansiveness and Romanticism and lush phraseology that will, in fact, create more sparks and will make it seem more knowing at least, and then therefore have more expressive range. It won’t be as easily dismissable.

LR: How about a few questions on the nuts and bolts of writing? How often do you write? How long? What do you do to get yourself ready to write?

DY: I try to write every day. Right now I can’t do that because I’m teaching. Usually, however, I write every day. So I don’t have to get ready for it, because I’m constantly ready for it. If I have nothing to write about, that’s perfect, because it presents an opportunity. My expectations are that whatever discoveries I make will be inherent and demonstrated in the poem as it is made. The process of revision or re-writing or whatever you want to call that—which I do constantly—is one of recognizing aspects that have come about in these early drafts and selecting those over other aspects, for whatever reason. Either they surprise me or seem strange or have a kind of emotive volatility or I just like the music. It sounds purty. Then that becomes the organizing principle of the poem, although “organizing” sounds a little bit too rational. It becomes a sort of crystalline matrix or net which will catch the rest of the poem.

LR: When you sit down to write are you working on one poem or are you cycling through a bunch of poems on their way to completion?

DY: I’m usually working on just one thing at a time. I work on it, rewrite it, sometimes abandon it, sometimes go back to it. When I can’t get going, I’ll use pieces of it in a very different kind of context. But generally I’m just working on one poem at a time, because my mind is so all over the place, so digressive and dispersive, that I can’t work on more than one thing at a time. There are poems that I know I’ll go back to because they’re not done, but they’ll need me to come back to them as freshly as I come to the blank page.

LR: How do you know that a poem is finished?

DY: That’s a great question. In some of them I’ll see that the end has a great clarity and that there’s nothing in the poem that makes me wince. With others I just leave them alone for a while. I can only work on them for so long, and then I have to let the paint dry. They may not be any good (that could be true of the others too). But that’s another thing entirely, trying to figure out what the good ones are.

It’s not really a matter of, is the poem done, but of, am I done with it. Is it time to abandon it? I just love writing these things. I just love writing.

LR: Can you give us an example of a poem that started out being about one thing and wound up being about something else, something that in the process of revision changed from one breed of cat to another?

DY: This is a pretty old poem, but one that I still like. It’s called “One Story.” It started out as a letter to a friend, and I was interested in creation myths. So it starts out making one of those. But then I kept expanding the poem, noodling with it. Then it came to my father, and that gave me a meditative motif. Then it came to a meditation on returning to the past. So I followed that for a while, and that brought me to the end, where I’m going back to where my cat Mecalito is buried.

When my own writing is making me happiest, there’s the quality of the nimble about it. I can write about things and move very quickly and still perceive a connectedness among them that’s not about subject but about a mode of direction and revelation.

That’s still one of my favorite poems. It taught me a lot and was also such a discovery. I stuck with it for a while. By my standards, it’s a relatively long poem.

LR: That suggests another question. You’ve said that a poem is a song, and most of your poems are relatively short, a page or page and a half. Have you ever tried to write a longer work?

DY: I have a couple of poems in my new book that are longer, but not much longer. Three pages. I’m not interested in long poems. There are some great long poems out there, but I don’t feel much interest in writing one because the problems of writing a long poem are different than the problems of a lyric poem, which are the problems of music. With a long poem I think you have to have a plot, or some driving concern that takes place over time. Now time is always passing in a lyric poem, but it doesn’t have to pass in a literal way: in the beginning of the poem, it’s May and at the end of the poem it’s July. But there has to be a fictive element to a long poem, establishing character, some kind of journey, an epic structure. It doesn’t interest or inspire me. Who knows, maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and start something. I’ve often thought that would be an interesting thing to do, something you could return to day in and day out. Recently I wrote a prose book, a sort of amalgam of criticism and manifesto and pedagogy, and that was kind of interesting because every afternoon I just sat down for a couple of hours and banged at that. But it was a very different process for me than writing poems.

LR: So you’ve got a group of lyric poems sitting on your desk. How do you go about assembling a book from that pile?

DY: Generally, I put in one poem for every three or four in the pile. I have a big folder of stuff, and then it becomes a selection process. Part of the reason I like poetry is that you get to start over again so often. That’s also one of the damning things about it, it can be really daunting. Every day you get to start something new, knowing nothing about it.

Putting a manuscript together is like clearing off my desk. In fact, it is clearing off my desk. Then you don’t have to worry about those poems anymore. They have their own little home. You’re done with them.

As you’re putting that group of poems together, there’s a wholeness that emerges. Those poems represent three or four years of my life, particular concerns, aesthetic preoccupations, and methodology, as well as, I suppose, matters of content.

LR: I’ve got a few questions about poetic heroes. You’ve often been called an nth-generation New York School poet. I notice, for instance, that Elegy on Toy Piano is dedicated to Kenneth Koch. Who in that first-generation group do you feel a particular affinity for, and are there any that you don’t?

DY: The Big 3 have been hugely important to me, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Kenneth was friendly towards me. Ashbery has been nice. O’Hara, of course, was dead by the time I picked up his books. But more importantly, theirs were the first poems in which I felt a kind of living presence that I understood. I felt like I could somehow join the party of poetry. That I had people before me. Lord knows, everything about them as people is quite different from me. All three of them were well-educated intellectuals, and I’m not exactly that at all. But there’s something about the poetry.

With Ashbery it’s the associational mode, where he’s able to tap into so many different discourses of poetry in other ages. That’s so extraordinary. And O’Hara, along with all his wildness, there’s the familiarity. I think with all three of them, the familiarity is very important. Ashbery, for instance, is a very companionable writer. With Kenneth, it’s that his poems are so flat-out inventive. One feels in reading his poems that there’s a great joy in them, a great joy in making poetry. It’s fun. Poetry doesn’t necessarily have to be a measurement of suffering.

Those three are very, very important to me. And in the second generation, Ron Padgett and Paul Violi are two poets who constantly amaze me. Padgett’s incredible, screwball, goofy charm has evolved in the past few years into a lucidity and decorum that has both amazing gravity and lightness about it. Paul Violi is just an amazing inventor. One of the great things he does is to colonize various mini-genres and use them for poetry.

LR: How about Surrealism? An article in Wikipedia claims that “if neo-surrealism has a poetic corollary then it is [Dean Young].” How important is surrealism to your sense of yourself as a writer?

DY: Surrealism is part of my heritage. I thought you were going to say, how important is Wikipedia to me? I think in that same entry they claim that Rimbaud and Apollinaire are Surrealists, and they’re not. So that pretty much takes off the table what they’re saying. It speaks from a deep ignorance, I’m afraid.

The quality of invention is at the core of Surrealist poetry, the importance not only aesthetically but also philosophically of the imagination.

Robert Bly is really good about pointing out the difference between French Surrealism and Latin American Surrealism. He points out, and I think he’s right on the mark, that Latin American Surrealism has a whole bunch of emotive force behind it. Whereas with French Surrealists, they’re French after all. Surrealism arrived in the world not as a mode of artistic production, but as a means of transforming consciousness. So the imagination plays a more active role in our being. So I return to their poetry to get brushed up, to get the cobwebs knocked out of me. It always seems fresh and dynamic and exciting and unpredictable.

Association is at the base of what I do, and at the base of what many, many poets do.

LR: Can you comment on American Surrealism, if there is such a thing.

DY: I don’t know if there is such a thing. I don’t think of myself as a Surrealist, but Surrealism as a historical movement and practice and philosophy and concern has had an endless influence on my work.

LR: Also in the latest APR is an essay by Tony Hoagland entitled “The Dean Young Effect” in which he characterizes your relation to Surrealism thusly: “The poet is a channel for the cosmic Eros of the poem….Surrealists are not psychologists, working through neuroses, but devotees—language is their way of wooing the divine.” Is that an accurate description of what you’re trying to do with your poems?

DY: I don’t know if it’s an accurate description of what I’m trying to do with all my poems, but I think it’s not a bad reaction to Surrealism. You look at Tony’s work, Tony’s by no means terribly influenced or interested in Surrealism, but I think what he’s saying in that article is quite smart.

LR: So while it might be true about Surrealism, it’s not necessarily true about your own work?

DY: It sounds a little bit inflated. Access to the divine? Not really. I’m not really sure about that.

LR: I think modesty is always good when approaching the divine. I wanted to ask you about Wallace Stevens? Is he a model for your work, an inspiration?

DY: I hope he is. His work is extraordinarily beautiful and, God, sad! This is an interesting thing about Stevens. A lot of the time he’s just messing around. He’s able to evoke a sort of intellectual gravity but inhabit it with a kind of goofy play. But as his work goes on, there’s a darker vision that comes through in everything and with it the decorations drop away. His poems get barer and darker and more lonely, mourning the fact that there is no God, maybe, no connections that make sense of our life. The beauty of his language and the weirdness of his poems I find very inspiring. I also find it daunting. John Berryman in one of the Dream Songs says about Stevens: “Him hurt Henry’s head.”

LR: Any other literary hero we’re leaving out?

DY: I love the work of the Croatian poet Tomaš Šalamun. There’s an extraordinary and imaginative intensity to his work. It’s wildly uncompromised. He’s one of my heroes. And every year, it seems, there’s a new book by Šalamun to keep me going.

LR: When did you realize that you wanted to be a poet?

DY: I’ll re-phrase the question: When did I start writing? I started writing in the third grade, and I didn’t stop. What is being a poet but writing poems? I realized I wanted to write poems when I was in the third grade. I’ve always wanted to write poems. I still want to write them. Being a poet? We could talk about when I realized I wanted to be a college professor, when I realized that I wanted to publish books. That’s a matter of age. But being a poet? A poet doesn’t really exist. What exists are these moments when I’m making a poem. And that’s what I want to do. And that’s what I’ve wanted to do as long as I’ve known how to write.

LR: You’ve written nine books of poetry. Do you have a favorite?

DY: My favorite is the one that’s coming out in a couple of years. There are others that represent something to me. Design with X, my first book, that was important. Strike Anywhere, my third, that was a pivotal book. But after that they all kind of blend together.

LR: Do you have a title for your new book of poems?

DY: Yes, it’s called Fall Higher.

LR: Is it going to be different from your last book, Primitive Mentor?

DY: It’s going to have different poems in it.

LR: No, I mean is it going to have a different feel, a different range of subjects?

DY: I hope so. There are some poems in the new book that are vaguely metrical. There are even a few poems that have end rhyme. I don’t know how much that will influence the overall tone and feel of the book. I think it might be a tad more sober than Primitive Mentor. A terrible thing.

LR: I’ve got nothing against sobriety, as long as I don’t have to endure it too long.

DY: Exactly.

LR: You mentioned your book of prose. Do you have a title for that? And also can you tell us in general what it’s about and how it came about?

DY: It’s part of that series that Graywolf is doing, The Art of.... There’s been The Art of the Poetic Line by Jim Longenback, The Art of Attention by Donald Revell. Charles Baxter, who’s editing the series, asked me if I wanted to do one on Surrealism. I didn’t want to do one on a subject, but I said okay, I’ll put something together. So my book’s called The Art of Recklessness. I had all these notes from seminars I’d given, craft talks, lectures, so I sat down with that big pile and started pulling stuff out that I felt might be interesting. I tried to make it into a readable gallop.

There’s more than a couple of pages about Dada and Surrealism. There’s my pedagogy. Basically, it’s a lot of things I’ve thought during the twenty years I’ve been teaching. It’s not a coherent argument. I think of it as a provocation and a sequence of enthusiasms.

LR: I’m looking forward to reading it.

DY: I’ll probably feel horrible when it actually comes out, but right now I’m sort of glad I did it. I’m sure that there are lot of things in it that people will really want to argue with.

LR: When’s it coming out?

DY: A year from now. August.

LR: A long time to wait.

DY: I know. And my book of poems is coming out in two years. Sheesh!

LR: One reads a lot about the negative impact of MFA programs, how they’re too many of them, how they stifle individuality, how the poems that come out of those workshops are the same or similar. What do you think about those claims and accusations?

DY: I think they’re stupid! And they’re made by stupid, angry people, who are not reading. To think that every poem being written today by young people is the same is just ridiculous. Just look at two recent books, G. C. Waldrep’s book Archicembalo and Arda Collins’ It Is Daylight. Waldrep’s book just came out from Tupelo and Arda’s book just won the Yale Younger Poets’ prize. These are extremely different poets. G.C.’s work is almost baroque, very intelligent, very lush in terms of language. Arda’s work is very stripped down and psychologically intense. The language is very simple. He’s a completely different poet that G.C., but, by God, they both went to Iowa!

I don’t know where those kinds of gripes come from, other than people just having vinegar in their veins. But one of the things that writing programs do, and it happens nowhere else in our culture, is that for two years or three years it gives people a chance to be in an environment where the products of their imaginative life and their inner life are valued. They get to be with people who share this value system. Now the expression of those values is highly, highly diverse. Every program I’ve ever taught in has intentionally embraced diversity. Sometimes it doesn’t work out as racial diversity, but it always works out as aesthetic diversity. This is only to the good of our culture in general, and also to the health and vitality of poetry.

Those statements are so stupid on so many different levels that they’re hardly worth bothering with. But that is one of the things I address in Recklessness.

LR: Do you give prompts or exercises in your classes? Is there one or two you’d identify as the most helpful or galvanizing for your students?

DY: Generally, no. I hardly teach undergraduates anymore. I’m more likely to give an exercise if I’m with undergraduates and they feel a need for one. I think the prompts that are important for all of us are the prompts we find in our own reading or that emerge—and these are most important—from our own work. That’s why I put so much emphasis in a workshop not on evaluating poems but on describing what’s there. The poet can then look at what he or she has written and see in what way it’s prompting a response, either a further exploration in that poem, or in another poem.

I’m not an exercise teacher. There are billions of those kinds of books out there.

LR: If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?

DY: I don’t know. I was going to be a doctor. I thought about being a neurologist. This was while I was in college. I was pre-med. Then I thought about being a plastic surgeon. Not just for the obvious reasons, but I thought it would interesting to be involved in something where aesthetics mattered. There’s so much you can do with plastic surgery to really help people. You can get on an airplane and fly somewhere and fix cleft palates for a month. You change people’s lives. But I realized that I wasn’t that interested in sick people. I didn’t want to fix people.

So for better or worse, that’s what I’d probably be doing if I weren’t a poet.

LR: How do you like Texas? Is it fertile ground for poetry?

DY: It may be a fertile ground for poetry, but it’s also a fertile ground for mold. My health has been terrible here.

I have to say I’m not very place oriented. I loved being in Iowa City because it was a small Midwestern town and I had a lot of friends. It’s Texas, which is weird. Austin is a great town. It’s hot as blazes here. Now. Being here in the summer is not a smart thing to do, but the rest of the year it’s quite lovely.

In terms of it being a place which influences my work, I don’t think it’s doing anything one way or the other.

LR: John Berryman once said that a writer needs to be constantly challenged by life. “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him.” Do you think he’s right? Do you think your poetry has been made better by the physical challenges you’ve had to face in the past few years?

DY: I think John Berryman is an extraordinary poet, but I would be really suspicious of anything he says that has to do with life. It worked for him, I guess, but look how he ended up.

LR: I know that you’ve been facing some physical challenges yourself, and I was wondering if they’ve marked or changed your poetry.

DY: I’m sure it provides a content or a mode of energy, but that’s true of anything that happens to you. The one thing I’ve noticed about these physical challenges is that they take me away from my work. I don’t see being sick as an inspiration. Nor do I find it a valuable learning experience. It’s just dull and depressing.

LR: I certainly hope your health improves. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thanks for sharing your insights and inspiration with me and the readers of Pedestal.

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