David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Madelaine Lucas’s Thirst for Salt. A debut novel that Leslie Jamison calls, “A love affair so richly and attentively imagined it carries the grace and gravity of memory itself.” A magnetic and unforgettable story of desire and its complexities, and a powerful reckoning with memory, loss, and longing, Thirst for Salt, reveals with stunning, sensual immediacy the way the past can hold us in its thrall, shaping who we are and what we love. Says Heidi Julavits, “Lucas is a brilliant conjurer of emotional and bodily longing. I felt, while avidly turning the pages, that briny tightness of the skin, as though I’d sat in the hot sun after an ocean swim. Thirst for Salt is a sensuous, visceral debut.” Thirst for Salt is out on March 7th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. You’ll notice that during the outro music of every episode, I thank many people from Tin House including one of Tin House’s publicists, Jae Nichelle. Jae has a book coming out this month, a poetry collection called God Themselves, and I wanted to point you to it not because she needs my help, far from it, it’s actually wild to think she’s a publicist for my show because as a poet and poetry slam champion, she is deeply loved. The video of her performance of Friends with Benefits has 1.7 million views and counting. Many of her poems have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of views. Nevertheless, I wanted to do my small part to alert you to her debut, a celebration of queerness, Blackness, and love; a book divided into three sections: Everything, Everywhere, and Love. In the email to supporters, I’ll link to some of her performances and also to her TED Talk, Reclaiming Negative Labels Using Poetry, and to the recent Slowdown podcast episode where Major Jackson discusses and reads one of Jae’s poems from the upcoming collection called Jesus Saves, which indeed includes Jesus in a coffee shop with his everything bagel, and of course, I will include a link to the book God Themselves out on March 14th. Check it out. It’s no exaggeration that today’s episode with Monica Youn is epic, touching on everything from Greek and Korean mythology and history to the 1992 LA Uprising and the murder of Latasha Harlins to the ongoing unfolding history of anti-Asian sentiment and violence in the United States. But the thing I was most interested in exploring with Monica was her notion of writing a poetics of difference versus a poetics of authenticity and how to write into the traumas and vulnerabilities of one’s people but in a way that doesn’t lose sight of the structural, that doesn’t lose sight of how a specific group is positioned structurally within society and the implications of that both in the world and how we make our art when we acknowledge or ignore this aspect. Long time listeners likely already know this is something I’m attracted to, these questions, whether my conversations with Pádraig Ó Tuama, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, which both touch on the history of the Irish in Ireland versus the history of the Irish diaspora in relation to colonization. Or with the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa looking at questions of colonization in North Africa but also Blackness and anti-Blackness. Or the more recent of the two conversations with Viet Thanh Nguyen, which would make a great companion listen to today’s episode as both of these conversations look at the racial triangulation of Asian Americans. I, at least, aspire to place myself in these conversations as a Jewish American and how these questions reflect on the positioning of Jews, this question of how we can attend to our own lived and ancestral trauma while also accounting for rather than eliding or erasing the stories of other communities that we live among and maybe structurally positioned above so to speak is one I’m compelled by as a writer myself and also simply as a person in the world. You’ll notice today that all the more craft-like questions, questions of poetics of tone and form bring us back to questions of self and identity, the individual in relation to the collective, one’s community in relation to the larger one because Monica is continually doing this herself in this book From From. For the bonus audio, Monica contributes a reading of two truly electrifying long poems. The first of which, one which gave me chills, was commissioned by the Boston Review for their anthology Poems for Political Disaster written in response to the election of Donald Trump, and the second is a draft of a poem, one she has never shown or read before, one that might have been part of this book, is part of the sequence of The Parable of the Magpie poems but hasn’t quite come together in her mind even if we might beg to differ. The bonus audio, which includes readings from everyone from Dionne Brand, Nikky Finney, Natalie Diaz, Kaveh Akbar, Alice Oswald, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Jorie Graham is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode, and every listener-supporter has the opportunity to help guide who we invite in the upcoming years to the show. On top of that, there are a lot of other potential goodies from writing consultations to becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving books months before they’re available to the general public. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Monica Youn.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Poet Monica Youn is a graduate of Princeton University, pursued creative writing as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and a law degree at Yale University. In her work as a lawyer with a specialty in media and entertainment law, she represented none other than Beyonce in a contract dispute. But ultimately, Youn moved to a focus on public interest election law. She was the inaugural Brennan Center Constitutional Fellow at New York University Law School, worked as an attorney in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, and directed their campaign finance reform, money and politics project. She was a member of the bar of the Supreme Court co-lead counsel for Defendant-Intervenors in McComish v. Bennett before the Supreme Court, and has litigated campaign finance and election law issues in state and federal courts throughout the nation. She’s appeared on PBS NewsHour, Hardball with Chris Matthews and Bill Moyers Journal, was the editor of Money, Politics, and the Constitution: Beyond Citizens United, and has testified before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. While Youn has long ago left law, for quite a while, her life as a poet and as a lawyer overlapped and her trajectory as a poet is no less impressive. A 1998 Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford, her debut collection Barter arrived in 2003 with Graywolf. “Not since Plath has poetry so taut and so dangerous graced a first book,” said D. A. Powell; “I found this incredible collection disconcerting in its spectatorship, and breathtaking in its beauty,” said Claudia Rankine. Her 2010 collection Ignatz with Four Way Books was a finalist for the National Book Award, and of which poet and critic Stephen Burt proclaimed, “No poet of Youn’s generation has made more demands on herself — and none has done more in her art.” Her third book Blackacre, long listed for the National Book Award, shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Kingsley & Kate Tufts, and winner of the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America, was named a Best Poetry Book of 2016 by The New York Times and Washington Post, and prompted Linda Gregerson to proclaim Youn as “Quite simply one of the two or three most brilliant poets working in America today.” Monica Youn has taught at Bennington College, Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program, Columbia University, New York University, Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater Princeton, and at the University of California Irvine. Since her last book, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Levinson Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and has been a member of the curatorial group of Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute. We’re lucky to have Monica Youn today for her much anticipated new book of poetry from Graywolf entitled From From. Publishers Weekly in its starred review speaks of the long prose poem in the book entitled In the Passive Voice calling it “A virtuosic performance addressing the challenges of maintaining racial solidarity under capitalism.” Dorothy Wang adds, “This powerful book is, without a doubt, her best. Written during the Covid pandemic, a time punctuated by unrelenting and visible acts of anti-Asian violence, it speaks directly and unsentimentally of racism and misogyny while still retaining Youn’s characteristic style; the familiar references to Greek myth feel catalytic and urgent.” Finally, Cathy Park Hong says, “From From is equal parts comic and tragic, clinical and wrenching. Monica Youn’s parables and studies are devastating meditations on the sadism of whiteness and the abjection of racial containment. Youn examines how complicity gestates and develops, how unexamined desire and fear lead to the hatred of the other and oneself while yanking up the roots of words to unearth the hidden biases built into the way we speak. Youn’s strongest work to date, From From is unforgiving and horrifying, singular and absolutely extraordinary.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Monica Youn.
Monica Youn: Thank you so much for having me.
DN: I wanted to start with the notion of doubleness. There is the obvious linguistic doubleness of the title From From, which I suspect is linked to a doubleness of identity as I imagine someone saying to you, “Where are you from?” and you saying, “Houston,” and them saying, “But where are you from from?” situating you someone visibly not White in two places or in neither place, but we also have seven poems in the collection that are Study of Two Figures, whether (Midas / Marigold), (Echo / Narcissus), or (Orpheus / Eurydice), and many of these poems are the first poems that we encounter in the book. They’re our way into the book. Your poetry doesn’t make me think of Jorie Graham’s poetry but I did think of her book The End Of Beauty because of the preponderance of two-figure poems in that collection. For instance, in her book Self Portrait as Hurry and Delay, Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne, Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them, and even the non-self-portrait poems Pollock and Canvas, Ravel and Unravel, The Lovers. It feels like this is true for From From too. I was hoping we could start here with why you are interested in the Study of Two Figures as a frame or form, and why you wanted this to be the archway through which we enter the collection as a whole.
MY: The Study of Two Figures poems were new for me I think in two ways. You mentioned one which is the doubleness of them, which for me becomes the space of complication. I like you bringing Jorie into the equation because, of course, she’s been a massive influence, and her idea self-portrait is the space between them, what is that space? How is that space activated? How does that space introduce a complexity that isn’t available in a spotlight on a single figure? You also mentioned my work with Claudia Rankine. Claudia is always interested in the way the racial imaginaries, various other imaginaries influence dialogue, influence the relationship between people. Now in some of the studies of two figures, notably the first one, the two figures don’t intersect in any kind of sphere except for this constructed sphere of Asianness. But I was interested in what happens structurally if you throw two figures into the mix. That gets me to the second part of what I think the Study of Two Figures poems are doing. The Pasiphaë / Sado poem was the first of those poems that I wrote and it took a really long time to figure out what I wanted to do with it. I’m not someone who comes to a poem within a priori conception of form, I’ve been trying to move away from knowing what the end of the poem would be, so I end up in this situation where I’m trying to feel myself into, I think not so much form as tone. I think of form as subsidiary to tone. Tone is what drives me. So I was thinking okay, well, here I am. I’m this lawyer, as you’ve extensively detailed, and there are various registers that are more or less familiar in lyric verse, the power language of the lawyerly analytic is not one of them. Somehow I feel that that’s a tone that would be appropriate to deploy here in its rigidity and in its artificiality. What happens if you start with this material of tone and you start building something out of it—and it’s not a rock, it’s not a thing of clay, it’s not malleable, it’s somewhat hollow, it’s unreliable—and so what happens if you start building a step and then you build another step, that you want to meet it. You end up with this double staircase made out of these very thin boards that are holding up only through the rigidity of their assertion, only through the rigidity of their false authority. Then what happens when those staircases start doubling back on each other? How do you use tone to generate structure? Then what does that do and then how does the thing become recursive? Then what does that mean? I was just watching that process happen in constructing. I think the first of those poems was the most palpable to me because that’s when I was I think figuring this out and saying, “Okay, I’ve just laid down this plank and what does this plank have on it? Well, it has Asianness on it. What does that do? Well, let’s mention that and see where that gets us. Well, Asian just brings race into the poem. Well, what does bringing race into the poem do? Well, that [inaudible]” I just kept moving step by step from that and then the material itself will create its own resonances. I don’t need to do that work.
DN: Well, you’ve had a long-standing interest in Greek mythology long before this collection and many of these two-figure poems engage on one side with a Greek figure. You’ve talked about how Greek myth has been an obsession of yours since you were a child; that if someone had asked you in elementary school what you’d want to be, you said, “A professor of Greek mythology.” You’ve said that in some ways these myths are more constitutive of the way you process the world than the Catholicism you were raised with. But both in your interview with Dorothy Wang at BOMB Magazine and explicitly in the poems themselves in this new collection, the engagement with Greek mythology isn’t just because they’re rich, evocative stories that have subsequently influenced so much of culture, art, and your own life, but returning to these two figures, I think of Emily Wilson’s Translator’s Note to The Odyssey where she talks about the Greek coinage of the word Xenia, their concept of hospitality and also xenophobia, that Greekness is defined in relation, and often in opposition to the other, to the non-Greek. Like Wilson who suggests that the rituals of Xenia are employed as a means to extend empire, you look at Greekness in relation to both their own colonial aspirations and their racial self-conception. I was hoping maybe you could talk into that more for us; the functional role Greekness is playing in From From.
MY: Yes. I love that you’re bringing Emily Wilson into the room because talking about that last poem, the poem ends with a translation, my own translation of the word Pasiphaë. Emily Wilson is someone I know very slightly from Yale and so I bounced it off her. I’m like, “Is this legit? Can I say that Pasiphaë means this?” and she said, “Absolutely.” So I felt validated I guess. But I also think that she has a deep understanding of the context and function of Greek myths. It’s not like these figures were always white statues. In fact, they never were. That was not their function. I think the Trump presidency made me think a lot about the myths that people tell themselves and the centrality of the idea of nation or national identity to myth-making. That was true for the Greeks as it has been for many other cultures; what is Greekness. A lot of Greekness is defined as Greekness became more complicated, became more widespread, as the Greeks started establishing colonies and as they started worrying about influences such as the worship of Cybele or the Egyptian mythos coming into Greek religion, a lot of Greekness starts to become defined in opposition to an Asian other and the myths become somewhat obsessed with thinking about this idea of Asia. Asia is a Greek word. We treat it as if it’s somehow more neutral than the word Oriental. It’s the same thing. Asia for the Greeks meant that place over there where we have colonies. The content of what is in that box that is called Asianness has changed. They were referring to Phrygia, to Turkey, to parts of present-day Georgia, to Armenia, and now we think of the focus of Asianness has shifted more east and southeast and south, but that idea was always there and a lot of the figures that we consider to be taboo or dangerously alluring, sexual, magical, and dangerous in that way, the witch queens, the Trojans, the Thebans, all of the sites of taboo fascination for the supposedly rational Greeks are Asian and would have been understood as Asian.
DN: I wanted to ask about the construction of Asianness in From From in relation to your own self-conception over time. Long before this book, you’ve talked about growing up deracinated. That your parents who came before the 1965 Immigration Act were an early wave of Post-Korean War immigrants who were very much striving for assimilation. Your parents see model minority as a positive thing, their social circle being other Korean engineers from the same elite high school in Korea, that your brother didn’t learn to use chopsticks until college, that you grew up in a White part of Houston where you’d be the only Asian person in your classes, and perhaps most notably, growing up in the south with a racial binary where you were either not White or not Black, and your family chose not Black. I know you’ve engaged with the feeling of being deracinated before this book in multiple ways, maybe most notably in your “Twinkie” poem Goldacre from your last book. But if I didn’t know your history, if I didn’t know this about you, if I came to From From ignorant of it, this book feels like it is the work of someone very assertively racialized with a self-conception of their own identity in relation to race that feels very nuanced and dynamic. The book very provocatively and actively places us in a racial dynamic regardless of the race of the reader right away, which begs the question for me about the story or journey for you. For instance, when you say in the acknowledgments, “Thank you to my fellow members of the Racial Imaginary Institute for their profound influence on my thinking about race and art making,” I noticed myself wanting to construct a narrative about how you’ve come to this point of writing From From, which feels like a fully embodied and confident engagement with really difficult questions of being Asian in America. Not that you weren’t confronting race before, you were, I think, but something about this feels different to me than even your most recent book before this.
MY: I think that’s right. I think I was doing a lot of self-searching both just as a sign of the times partially as a result of the birth of my son who was mixed race and partially as part of my curatorial work for the Racial Imaginary. In thinking about the construction of my identity, it’s very hard to write about an empty space without filling it. Deracinated identity for me is an empty space. It’s an empty space that is contained in a shell and the shell is the interface with whiteness. The interface with whiteness, also the interface with other racial identities causes you to be defined as Asian without the guts of it, without the deep connection to homeland or belonging that I feel that other people have access to and that I never have. Growing up in the south, people in ways that are deeply binary and deeply racialized nonetheless have a connection to place, to homeland that I have never felt, and also have senses of community that I experienced only in very small ways. Thinking about how to write that shell in a way that makes both the external pressures and the internal emptiness somewhat palpable was I guess for me the big challenge of this book. Writing a book about deracination is very different from writing a book about identity. It’s what people, for example, in talking about the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha will refer to as the poetics of difference versus the poetics of identity. Identity meaning sameness, meaning I’m the same as these other people. That’s not a feeling I feel very often.
DN: Well, the first poem which you set apart from the others, the one you’ve referred to, Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë / Sado), even though it is a long poem, I think we should have you read it because it really is almost like a thesis for the book as a whole, setting us within a certain atmosphere and an ideologic space. I was hoping maybe you could introduce us to the two figures if that’s not too much explaining before reading it. Then if we could hear that opening poem that feels so vital to everything that comes after it.
MY: Thank you. Yes. Unfortunately, I remain one of these poets who require extensive endnotes, which is something that Jeff Shotts, my darling editor, has been eye-rolling about since the very beginning. Now there is the internet so people can look up certain things for themselves, but I also want the book to be accessible so I do still include the endnotes. The first figure in the book is Pasiphaë who is the wife of King Minos of Crete. The story is that the gods send a white bull from the sea and King Minos is supposed to sacrifice the bull, he doesn’t, and the gods become angry and they decide to punish him by punishing his wife Pasiphaë by making her fall in love with the bull and she asked the inventor Daedalus who is then working for them to construct a wooden cow. She crouches inside the cow, is impregnated by the bull, and gives birth to the Minotaur who is then later killed by that Avatar of Greekness, the hero Theseus. The thing about Pasiphaë is she is from this family of witches out of Colchis, who are sometimes known as the daughters of the Sun. Circe is in her family, so is Medea, so if you go down is Fedra, and these are figures who are thought of as magical taboo and Asian. Then Prince Sado is from 18th-century Korean history. He is the crown prince and he has a famously stern father. He gets married to this woman named Lady Hyegyeong who is amazing and from whose memoirs we know his story. At some point, he becomes insane and he begins killing and raping courtiers. By some accounts, he killed up to 100 people. There’s very little that the king can do about this problem without creating a crisis for the succession because if he kills Sado as a criminal, then the entire Sado’s son, the grand heir will become illegitimate or tainted. The same will happen if he’s declared insane, various other stigmas will attach to that house. So what the king does is he asks for a rice chest to be brought and the rice chest is just what it sounds like, it’s a box, it’s about four foot by four foot by three foot and he asks Sado to get into the rice chest and he binds the rice chest with rope. He puts grass on top and about eight days later, Sado dies. So this is the poem:
[Monica Youn reads a poem called Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë / Sado)]
DN: We’ve been listening to Monica Youn read from her latest poetry collection From From from Graywolf. We have a question for you from Claudia Rankine.
Claudia Rankine: Hi, Monica. Congratulations on From From. It’s such an achievement. I was thinking about a question to ask you and I was wondering, because this is something I think about for myself, does writing from a point of view that attaches to one’s racialized position foreclose any possibilities, emotional pathways, or avenues of creation? It’s really a question about subjectivity and writing and I just wondered your thoughts on that. Congratulations again.
MY: I think that’s a really interesting and incredibly difficult question as is typical of pretty much every conversation I have with Claudia as much as I love her. [laughter] I think that the question of whether a racialized perspective in the poem forecloses possibilities for insight perhaps, possibilities for flexibility, for mutability really depend on where you think that mutability is going to occur; whether it’s going to occur within your own consumption of the poem or your own creation of the poem. For me, I think the subject position is already racialized. I’m not one of these new critics who always seem to me to be completely unrealistic. I always know and I assume that the reader always knows that I’m coming to the question of poetic authorship from a racialized position. For me, in a way, making it conscious or evident for the reader makes it evident for myself in a way that helps me to articulate what it is that I do and do not want to be doing in the process of the poem. For example, in this poem, I did not want to be the exploitative artist who is taking photographs of Prince Sado in the box who is rendering Pasiphaë in the wooden cow. I do not want to be the tourist who is stepping in and out of those experiences, and especially I do not want to be the tour guide who is hawking these exoticized experiences. For me to make the racialization of myself as the poet, explicit, causes me to, in a way, further open up what it is that I’m trying to do in the process of the poem. This might come true even more so in the final poem, which is, in some ways, a companion piece to this one in which I am constantly questioning my position as the person who is showing you what is in the container and whether I am, at any instance, inside or outside of the container, whether I’m part of the exhibition.
DN: Yeah. I was excited to see that you were in conversation with Dorothy Wang at BOMB Magazine, who I also want to thank. I want to thank BOMB Magazine for so often giving me access to their incredible interviews which end up influencing my conversations. But I was also excited because when I talked with Sawako Nakayasu recently, I brought up how she had said previously that Dorothy Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry had been so crucial for her in showing her that she wasn’t as White as she thought she was. Then Sawako spoke to the importance of that book. In doing so, she referenced the conversation I had with Elaine Castillo where Elaine said, and in this case, she’s speaking about dialogues within the Filipinx community, “I know that to be part of a family also often means having to fight, and that fighting with your family is sometimes a way of fighting for them.” Sawako felt like that is one thing that Dorothy does. I think of this in relation to the poem you just read where the tourists and the artists are allowed to pass for White, the tourists and artists are not contained, and in fact, they literally walk away and can walk away, but Asianness is a container in this poem, race is a container. I think of this when I think of something that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o says that our bodies are our first field of knowledge, that if you start from a place of finding that field to be wrong, you don’t have the foundation to build from. Also, when I talked to Claudia in 2014, her talking about her desire for White writers to stay within their bodies when they write, to write as White writers, to in a sense be contained, to accept containment and not perpetuate Whiteness as White space as universal perhaps is the ability to step in and step out. But I wanted to read a couple of things Dorothy said about your work in this interview as a lead into what I found to be a really fascinating response on your part that I’d love to explore. Her introduction notices, like I did, something different about From From when she says, “Youn’s first three collections are accomplished and impressively controlled, with a palpable sense of wariness about them. They can be hard to penetrate, not because of the numerous high-culture references to Greek and Nordic myths, Proust, Antonioni, and so on, but perhaps because of a restraint or constraint which felt, well, racialized. In Youn’s latest collection, From From (Graywolf Press, 2023), something has come undone—all to the good of her,” and in that same introduction, “Since graduating from Princeton, Youn has had the sort of career that could be seen as embodying a ‘model minority’ or aspirational-immigrant dream: Yale Law, jobs in top New York City firms, Stegner and Guggenheim fellowships, and critical acclaim for her three books.” Then she goes on to talk about performing a mastery of knowledge, something I want to return to because I do think you use this mastery of knowledge in a weaponized way now in this latest book that I really appreciate. But your response to her when she brings all this up is to say that there’s also a lot of credentialing on the identity side as well, not just on the assimilation side. You go on to talk about how the only model for you growing up in relation to Asian American-ness was an authenticity model which you couldn’t perform as you’ve already alluded to, not knowing Korean language, not having spent much time in Korea, and that part of the impetus for this book came from a panel of young Korean female poets at AWP in LA. You say, “I didn’t want to be led down the ‘authenticity’ path. I wanted to be able to write from the perspective of deracination—more a poetics of difference than a poetics of identity,” which you’ve already nodded to earlier today. But I was hoping we could linger here with what happened in this panel with what you think the trap of the authenticity path is in your mind, and maybe just a little bit more unpacking poetics of difference in contrast to this idea of the credentialing that might happen not from trying to aspire as a model minority but the credentialing that happens in asserting an authentic identity.
MY: Yes. You see how as a veteran listener of this podcast, I knew to bring a notepad.
DN: I know you showed me the notepad. [laughter]
MY: [Inaudible] six questions and let me just start by talking about Dorothy, how influential thinking its presence has been to me, to Cathy Park Hong, to pretty much every Asian-American poet I know who was looking for different models, I wanted Dorothy to do that interview because her work on what it means to be a racial marker, what it means to have a racial marker, particularly with regard to John Yau who is one of my most important generative influences and who is also writing from a perspective of deracination, of inauthenticity, I don’t want in any way someone to come away from either of these two interviews thinking that I am in any way disclaiming the work of the Korean-American poets on that particular panel. I adore their work. I teach it all the time and I don’t think that they are performing authenticity. I think what I was responding to was their description of the funding mechanisms that enabled the production of their poetic works, which was they would often get some Fulbright or research funding to go back to their home country and research it in order to be able to conduct a sufficiently authentic performance that it would be acceptable to a White consumer or a capitalist consumer who only wants to consume authentic racialized experience in the same way that they only want to consume authentic racialized food. That was what I was trying to steer clear of. This is not my home cooking and I’m not going to cook it for you.
DN: Well, part of why I asked this question in relation to containers and bodies is because paradoxically, I think resisting the authenticity trap is a way to write from one’s body, from one’s primary field of knowledge if we borrow that in [inaudible]. I think of something you said at Cave Canem that during your Texas childhood when people would say, “You aren’t from around here, are you?” that you had the sense of pursuing your own memories of that time as if you were doing so as an anthropologist with a certain distance because you weren’t the hero of your own story, that what it means to be from this place and the stories that are supposed to inform that sense of placeness are not ones designed to include you. That in a sense, you’re disembodied in relation to yourself. It seems like one move would be to find an essentialized identity from the “homeland” even if one has never been there, doesn’t speak the language, etc. But it seems like it could be paradoxically a more authentic move than the authenticity move to embrace this double space as the primary space, a critical distance from Houston but also a critical distance from Korea. It made me wonder, I would love to hear about that in its own right but I also wondered if it’s related to the Paul Chan epigraph that opens the book. Is there a direction home that doesn’t point backward? Can you speak to the sense of being disembodied from one’s own story as well and is that part of the poetics of writing a poetics of difference?
MY: Yes. I think absolutely and I love that you brought up that quote which was one that a young curator involved with the Racial Imaginary Institute brought up at one of our meetings when we were thinking about nationalism. What that means in terms of identity, is there a direction home that doesn’t point backward? I think the “where are you from from” thing comes from the experience of really being two blocks from my childhood home where I had spent my entire life and having someone say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” and feeling like I could either try and prove one form of authenticity or another but that both would be false. I came to the idea of a poetics of difference through Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and, of course, Dictee doesn’t start with either English or Korean, it starts with French. I think the French made this experience more physical to the reader, which is what does it mean to be having the performance of this language literally forced into your mouth, literally forced into your body as a process of colonialization? Also, how can you resist that without resisting it from a position of authenticity? Now I think her difference would have been defined as exile rather than deracination. She was somebody with indeed a deep connection to a Korean homeland which, in fact, her family had been exiled from four generations: first to Manchuria, then to Hawaii, and then to San Francisco. Yes and I’m interested in the authenticity of deracination, of not pretending like I am coming to a knowledge of Prince Sado because it was a story told to me in the cradle by my mother, it wasn’t. It was the story I discovered through the work of a White novelist, and not pretending to fluency that I don’t have. I’m trying to learn Korean now through Duolingo and through Zoom class classes. It’s very embarrassing because all of these middle-aged White women who watch a lot of K-drama are much, much better at Korean than I am and keep telling me I need to watch more K-drama. [laughter] I don’t want to disclaim the attempt to recapture one’s supposed home culture that processes of coloniality have stripped away from you. The reason I don’t speak Korean is because of the Korean War and I feel like trying to recapture that heritage on behalf of me and my son is an ultimately healthy and enriching experience, but I don’t want to pretend that the void isn’t there and that there isn’t hollowness that I know a lot of other people experience as well.
DN: Well, let’s hear one more two figures poem. I was thinking Study of Two Figures (Midas / Marigold). As part of introducing it, I remember on Facebook you expressing gratitude to Kevin Young at The New Yorker for publishing what you call a troubling and difficult poem and that you were worried that it would be misread so much so that you tried to pull it at one point. Tell us about the poem and the fears that you have about the poem as a lead-in to reading it for us.
MY: I had posted on Instagram that I almost pulled this poem and in fact, I had called Cathy, Kevin, and my editor Jeff to talk over whether I should pull this poem from The New Yorker. I think my problem was I had submitted it before the Uvalde shootings and it was accepted a few weeks after the Uvalde shootings. I know that I myself could not think about a dead child at that moment without becoming incredibly emotional and I did not want to inadvertently trigger that effect in people. That was an initial problem and Kevin, Cathy, and Jeff talked me down off the ledge, bless them. As far as I know, Kevin is still speaking to me so this is good. But I think that the other question I had about the poem, which remains a more fundamental question and is inextricable from the project of the poem, which is how do you criticize both the stereotype of the striving immigrant tiger parent as well as criticize the actuality of these driving immigrant tiger parent, criticize both the coloniality and the colonized consciousness. That needs to be a question for me because that, in fact, in fighting with this model minority thing that as you point out, my life in many ways exemplifies, that is in some ways the question of my life, or at least of this part of my life and of my artistic process in this moment. Let me read the poem and then we can continue talking about it. Just for those of you who don’t know, just so I can preface this, because I think people think that they know King Midas, they don’t know King Midas, King Midas is from Phrygia in Asia Minor. I think according to myth, he was the son of Cybele, this Asian goddess who the Greeks were so worried about encroaching upon a pure Greek religion, and it’s not incidental that the myths about Midas, like the myths about Marsyas, are myths about the punishment of hubris and you cannot read that in a way that’s inextricable from coloniality. Marigold is only Nathaniel Hawthorne’s version of the story does this daughter appear, Marigold, and I think it’s a particularly American move to have the innocent child, this particularly American version of innocence manifests itself as Marigold.
[Monica Youn reads a poem called Study of Two Figures, whether (Midas / Marigold)]
DN: We’ve been listening to Poet Monica Youn read from her latest collection From From. I want to move toward talking about my favorite section, which is In the Passive Voice, but first I wanted to ask you some questions about poetics. When you were talking with Kaveh Akbar for Divedapper long ago before this book, you said something that you’ve already articulated today, you say, “I feel like most poetic questions are ultimately questions of tone. Form ends up being merely a manifestation, or expression, or consequence of tone. So, once I said, ‘I’m going to free myself to be boring and dorky rather than trying to be hip, or sexy, or lyric, or beautiful,’ then the form could start to take shape.” Then Kaveh talks about how this makes the poems powerful, staggering, and surprising because it’s a vocabulary that poetry is not familiar with. You’ve given speeches on, and are often asked about the relationship between law and poetry and you often answer by speaking about how metaphor is analogical reasoning. It is what the law is and that something like Citizen United is built upon three metaphors: money is speech, corporations are people, and elections are marketplaces going to the highest bidder. With From From, you’ve talked about a discussion you had with the artist Nayland Blake at MacDowell about the ethics of power language, how they related it to BDSM practices, and how this conversation with Blake influenced the tone of your opening poem. I wondered if you could say more about power language and also how you would describe the tone of that opening poem and of the book, which to me does not seem boring or dorky, it feels analytic at times but I wouldn’t call it either of those. But speak more about power language and then how you would describe the tone of the book.
MY: Power language for me is the rhetorical power of law, the ability to assert analogy or metaphor as if it were fact: money is speech, corporations are people, beauty is truth, truth beauty. They’re all the same move. Death is a wish to improve one’s surroundings; that’s not true. That’s never been true. But to assert it in that tone is to make it at least temporarily true; is to freeze the language temporarily into a rigidity that one can build upon (to use the stair step metaphor that I have been playing with a lot). This troubles me because I understand power language to be a language that people have differential access to according to the [inaudible] traditionally and structurally drawn by power. So to be deploying that kind of language evokes an ethics for me. I was talking with Nayland about this at MacDowell. The first poem took me two days to write. About halfway through the poem, I was like, “Okay, I’ve invoked race at the beginning of the poem. I’ve said that race is like Chekhov’s Gun is going to come back. I don’t understand how race comes back into the poem,” and then I swim across Willard Pond and back and I think race is a container. These are all containers. This is what I now understand about what I’ve been doing, and to loop back to Claudia’s question to me, this is what I meant about the fact of making yourself uncomfortably visible as a racialized subject can heighten consciousness of your process in a way that helps develop the work. But this all goes back to what I think I’m doing with power language. I am creating something that is intentionally artificial and intentionally not me, intentionally this is a game that I’m playing. It is a tone that is relatively less used, I guess, in lyric. I think you could see a well-known instance of it. For instance, in Layli Long Soldier’s 38, that great poem where a lot of the greatness of it is not in the atrocity that she is narrating but in her determined attention to the artificiality of her tone, of her syntax, of her discomfort in inhabiting that. We have, at this point, a very well-developed poetics of othering English, of bad English, of calibrinization, of using your bad English, your immigrant English as a weapon. Now, I am not an immigrant. I do not speak immigrant English, neither does Layli as a deracinated subject. So how can we use our fluency to the same effect? How can we use fluency as critique to, in some ways, over perform English? I’ve been trying to work my way toward this talk, which I call proleptic form prolepsis in rhetoric is the anticipation of counter arguments in advance is litigators technique. In order to be persuasive, you have to anticipate the counter arguments in advance. That’s what Layli is doing in 38. She’s anticipating the voices that are going to say, “Hey, you’re cherry picking. You’re hysterical, you’re irrational. You’re subjective, you’re biased,” all of these accusations that are deployed against racialized engendered bodies. How can you move beyond mere defensive credentializing and make that into its own art form? I think that Robin Coste Lewis is doing something similar in the preface to Voyage of the Sable Venus where she is laying out, as part of the poem, the extensive processes of credentializing that she’s going through to construct this poem. I think that Claudia is often doing something similar in part in citizen where the determined affectlessness and flatness of the narration is performing tone policing as an art form, that defensive maneuver. I have a talk about this that’s currently called something like toward a poetics of self-defense. I think I have answered the question.
DN: Yeah, you’ve already partly answered my next question because part of why I wanted to start with tone as a first step toward your long sequence In the Passive Voice is because Dorothy links passivity not only to grammar but to the stereotype of Asian Americans is passive as well as to questions around gender and passivity. But I thought of a panel you’re on at Poetry Studies Now called Poetry Outside Poetry Studies where you talked about the proleptic strategy used by poets of color and you brought up in that talk Layli Long Soldier, Robin Coste Lewis, and Bhanu Kapil. I wondered if this exaggerated obedience to certain normative rules to show and foreground the postures that these writers are forced to adopt in the world, I wondered if you connect yourself to the strategy of prolepsis in that section.
MY: There are two different strategies in the book. I think only one of which I would characterize as proleptic. The Study of Two Figures poems are proleptic. They’re often using that extremely authoritative X is Y, therefore Y is Z, therefore X is Z rhetoric that resembles logic but is not actually logic. The passive voice thing is more politeness, which I think of as a different strategy, which is more understatement, more trying to make palpable the [inaudible] of the politeness surrounding you at all times, so it is difficult to even articulate something as primal as rage.
DN: Well, when you are at that conference that I was referring to, talking about those three writers in prolepsis, I may not be remembering this well but I thought I remembered you talking about them using passive constructions and an exaggerated performance of following the rules, “These are the rules. I’m following them. I’m under them,” as almost an adversarial stance paradoxically.
MY: Yes. This obsequiousness has always been a colonial imperative and therefore decolonial strategy, a deep subversion of this and I should have looped Harryette Mullen’s work into the fold as well. I think you’re right. The careful disclaimer of agency is a hallmark of what I think that this form is. The, “No, no, it’s not just me,” and my racialized subjectivity saying this, there’s a more reliable tone that I’m trying to access because I realize that my racialized subjectivity is considered unreliable.
DN: Well, as a last form and tone question about In the Passive Voice before we dig into the content, I wanted to ask you what you consider this sequence formally, this sequence that Publishers Weekly calls, “A virtuosic performance.” I want to ask this because you’re obviously someone who thinks deeply about form. For instance, I listened to a lecture you gave at Warren Wilson on the Petrarchan sonnet, a lecture that you open with a meditation on this really weird necklace that James Joyce made for his lover Nora Barnacle that includes incomplete phrases of words which together and separately have different meanings. You use this as an entryway into the sonnet, then you compare and contrast Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet and talk about how for you, you need more than 14 lines for a poem to be one, and even a 14-line poem with a turn isn’t enough in your mind to be considered a sonnet. In the spirit of thinking about form, before we talk about the long sequence in the book In the Passive Voice, I wondered if you considered this a prose poem or simply prose or less simply something like a lyric essay. When Rosmarie Waldrop was on the show, this question was a part of our conversation, what prose poetry is and the ways the very existence of prose poetry puts pressure on us to define what poetry itself is. I’d be curious if you had any strong feelings about how this section is approached formally speaking and whether you see this section as poetry, and if so, how?
MY: I have come around, after the fact, to the conclusion that it is in fact poetry. That was not my intention in starting off writing it. It started off really as a day-to-day lyric essay that I was writing, thinking about the roots of anti-Asian hate, then the Atlanta shootings happen about 10 days into it and it becomes much longer and much more complicated. I think about the difference between traditional essay and lyric essay as pretty straightforward, that the logic of the lyric essay is associational as opposed to argumentative. I think it verges into poetry where what I think of as the non-semantic aspects of language get brought into play, questions like cadence and sonic resonance. Now, I think about form all the time in my own extremely weird way. It’s strange because I have no formal training whatsoever in prosody and now I find myself a professor of English, never really having studied English except in a weird two-year master’s program at Oxford that was almost entirely focused on James Joyce. I had never done this Norton Anthology English 101 study of English in that way, so my thoughts about form are almost purely intuitive. For me, form is functional. A form exists for a function. Otherwise, there’s no reason for it. Sometimes the form performs a function and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that’s what I was trying to get at with that extremely weird Petrarchan sonnet talk. For this essay, the form did not start off as functional, then it became much more functional as we moved deeper and deeper into the piece, and it starts to circle back on itself in the same way that a long poem will eventually do if you allow it to.
DN: Let’s hear a part of it before we discuss it. I suggest a part of it because it’s nearly 45 pages long.
MY: Really long. [laughter] I have turned down multiple offers to publish excerpts of this, given it is far too long to publish except in book form because I felt like I needed space to make the complete argument rather than a partial argument. But I’m happy doing that here because I feel like I have room to contextualize it.
[Monica Youn reads an excerpt from From From]
DN: We’ve been listening to Monica Youn read from From From. So Dorothy Wang doesn’t say which part of the book she’s referring to when she says, “I found your critiques of racial ideology and structures devastating at times. I work on this stuff so I usually don’t go, ‘Whoa!’ But, there were moments when I gasped,” but I imagine her, with no evidence, as referring to this long sequence. I also feel like this piece returns us to questions of doubleness and is a different entryway into a different Study of Two Figures. When Dorothy Wang says, “There’s no way to talk about Asian immigrants or the Asian American experience as separate from the Black American experience or the Indigenous experience or the Latinx experience because of the relation to whiteness. Nothing’s in a vacuum,” and I think of Korean Americans not being the buffer of a blow in Koreatown, of a blow delivered by Whites on the Black community but instead being the blow itself, and at the same time, you saying all of this while talking about real substantive violence against Asian Americans, that talking about the latter in America in Wang’s formulation and I think in yours needs to be linked to the former. It reminds me of my most recent two talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen. We look at the LA riots in a structural way as you do and we look at the George Floyd murder with the Arab shop owner calling the cops, and the bystander among American cop but also looking at the ways Asian American as a term has both a revolutionary and visionary activist origin, and now has this reactionary representational politic also that can and does erase real deep differences in experience, say between the Hmong community or other refugee communities and many East Asians and Indians who came as high-skilled professionals. I think my attraction toward having these sorts of double-vision conversations, it’s because I feel like as a Jewish person in the United States, the response that feels most compelling to me as the best response is Dorothy’s response and yours. When I think of the situation of the Korean shop owners, I think of my own family, I think of my grandparent shop owners. Not to say that the situation between Jews and Asian Americans is the same but I do think there’s some structural overlap. I know in Koreatown where Koreans were moving, positionally speaking, into the same places Jews were before them. It feels like for me at least, in my imperfect evolving way of seeing things, that for all of the communities that aren’t White, cis, heterosexual, Christians but who are also not primarily Black or indigenous, whether Arab, Jewish, Latinx, or Asian, it seems like holding two things at once, the real vulnerabilities we each have as communities, the real ways and different ways we are diminished or threatened but also the ways because of where we’re situated structurally, the ways that only protecting our own can perpetuate harm on other communities, that configuration, as complex as it is, resonates with me. I’m thinking about what you say in In The Passive Voice, just before the section you read about how Koreans are able to move into the neighborhood, obtain loans, mortgages, and leases to open businesses that their Black neighbors in the same neighborhood could not obtain. It seems like that applies to many non-Black communities of color and otherwise. I guess I just would love to hear more about this notion of reconfiguring the buffer to the blow itself and how, and why for you it’s important to explore the many incidents of anti-Asian violence that you do explore throughout the book in this way to link it also to something way more complex essentially and not primarily effective or subjective but structural, and in some ways exterior.
MY: Yes, absolutely. Just absolutely fortuitously, last night, I was having dinner with one of the people whose thinking has been most central to me on this issue. It so happens that the political scientist Claire Jean Kim who works on what she calls The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans is at UC, Irvine and she happens to be a poetry fan, so she invited me to dinner last night, so we met for the first time and talked for about four hours, largely about this. Now, her new project, her new book which is coming out in June and which I have been promised a galley of, which I will hold her to, is called Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World. Her argument is Asian American studies and a lot of the thinking of Asian Americans about race likes to think of Asian Americans in relationship to Whiteness, to coloniality which makes sense given the international context, the foreign policy context. But when you’re thinking specifically about the Americanness of Asian Americanness, her argument is you can’t do that in a vacuum, that what I call racial capitalism and she has a much more pointed critique, she says, “Structural anti-Blackness is constitutive of Asian Americanness. You cannot understand Asian Americanness without understanding structural anti-Blackness, other forms of structural racism and inequality, and the ways in which Asian Americans have been brought to this country under racial capitalism to perform two functions.” I mean first of all, to be the scabs, to be the buffers, to be the people who were undercutting the wages of emancipated slaves, the wages of newly unionized workers on the West Coast, the wages of Latinx workers, first, the Chinese were brought in and the Koreans and Japanese were brought in to undercut the Chinese. Whenever a group gets too much power, they bring in Asians to be the scabs. That was the first wave. Then after the INA, the second wave is brought in with a Cold War function which is to be the model minority function and also in the service structural anti-Blackness to say, first of all, look at how these Asian Americans, these Chinese immigrants, these Korean immigrants, and these Vietnamese immigrants are thriving here as opposed to those nations that are under communist governmental systems. Secondly, how come these immigrants of color are doing so much better than the existing Black populations, particularly those who are descendants of enslaved Africans and to very cynically be making that argument to try to undercut other people of color, and particularly Black people when in fact, the people who are brought in as that model minority wave as a result of skilled employment preferences are specifically brought in to be model minority, are more educated than their home populations. Look at what’s happening today in the Supreme Court. I can barely speak about how angry I am that once again, they’re using Asian bodies to beat down Black and Brown bodies. They tried this case before with White plaintiffs, then when that didn’t go anywhere, they substituted in Asian plaintiffs, as if we were the same thing. It makes me just absolutely almost speechless with rage that they are once again using Asian bodies to beat down Black and Brown bodies, to use us as the instrumentality of racist depression, to use us as the fist of structural racism. The breathtaking cynicism of this is not surprising at all. I think my rage is deepened by being able to feel the resonances of the way in which this is constantly happening. This was always happening and this is still happening.
DN: Just for clarification for people who don’t know, you’re referring to the affirmative action case, right?
MY: Yes, the affirmative action case. Sorry.
DN: It’s alright. [laughter]
MY: This case is taking up such a large part of my consciousness right now that I assume that anyone talking about the case is…
DN: Yes. Well, you could have written a powerful and substantive book that’s solely focused on anti-Asian sentiment and violence on its long-standing history, on the recent explosion of acts but the way you do it in a way that isn’t decontextualized from structural questions, it makes me think of Christina Sharpe’s notion of care as shared risk, then Eunsong Kim thinks her way through Sharpe’s notion of distributive risk and perhaps suggesting a different sense of what solidarity might look like when she says, “It might not be that we all live the same but we might have to give things up. That’s a very different way than what our movements have been.” Another choice you make that I really like is dramatizing the difficulty of this. For instance, there is one poem where the people in the speaker’s apartment building, a building that is half Asian, are all incredibly anxious about anti-Asian violence which had become an entire atmosphere in the city but who on the list serve are conflating homelessness and homeless people with mental illness and trash as if homeless people themselves were all crazy and trash. The speaker, who herself is also fearful after an acid attack on another Asian woman living in Brooklyn, nevertheless drafts up a letter encouraging her neighbors not to call the police on the homeless near the building but she never sends it. Similarly, in the section, you just read how you wanted to write about Latasha Harlins and it took you nine years to figure out how to. To me, these are really generous moments in the book that draw me further into the book, these failures to engage. Perhaps this is a stretch but it made me think of my favorite talk of yours called Generative Revision: Beyond the Zero-Sum Game. In that talk, you start out with Elizabeth Bishop as the epitome of the classical revision strategy. You use the example of a poem of hers One Art which in its first draft describes blue eyes. But 19 versions later, the blue eyes are no longer in the poem, the revisionary process having erased the evidence of the past versions. You yourself are more curious in this talk about non-normative revisionary practices, looking at four different strategies, looking at poems from everyone from Ross Gay to Philip Metres to C.D. Wright to Jake Skeets. But all practices regardless of the four strategies were the older versions of the poems might still be allowed to exist. To me, this feels like a kindred gesture to both having a very visionary book, a book that imagines an otherwise and one that retains these episodes of falling short in real and I think relatable ways to look at and also dramatize self-revision in a way. I don’t know if this is a stretch but I wondered if this sparks any thoughts for you about any of that.
MY: Writing this, I guess we’ve decided to call it a prose poem, was itself for me an episode, an extended self-questioning. I think it is one of the two autobiographical Is in the book. I think the only other one might appear in the last poem if I’m not wrong but I could be wrong. But in the experience of drafting that email and not sending it, then in the experience of writing about drafting the email and not sending it, trying not to perform this hollow virtue signaling in which I’m pretending that all of my impulses are pure and that I’m some warrior for a more enlightened vision of racial solidarity, I’m just this Brooklyn mom going about her day subject to the temptations to give in to exaggerated fear during this period and trying not to let it disrupt my relationships with the only place I felt at home. There’s an episode that I keep thinking about in the essay where I describe some racist assh*le coming after me in front of this local restaurant. The reason I’m thinking about it is because I would go back now and revise my description of that episode because what interests me thinking about it is not the assh*le like racists are going to be racist, what are you going to do? But what it said to me about belonging and solidarity, because what happens just to narrate the episode is that I’m two blocks from my house, I’m in front of a restaurant that I go to all of the time, that I used to eat lunch at daily, this is during the pandemic, it’s filled with outdoor tables, all of the outdoor tables are packed, and this assh*le comes up to me, and starts visibly confronting me, this racist, and I’m audibly trying to signal for help. I’m saying, “None of this racist bullsh*t in our neighborhood,” etc., trying to get the White patrons of the restaurant to help me, to intervene to do something. I’m not exactly sure what. None of them do anything. This goes on for an unreasonably long time. Finally, this Black cyclist pulls up and starts locking up his bike, and I intentionally position myself next to him and what I ask him is not, “Can you please help me?” What I ask him is literally the sentence, “We don’t want this racist bullsh*t in our neighborhood, right?” So the complications of what I am asking him in that moment, I’m asking him in a specifically racialized way, in a way that asks him in some ways to equate our racial experience or to join me in solidarity when I didn’t even know him, I mean I don’t even know if he lives in the neighborhood and to unite with me against this racism, and in so doing to, in some ways, disclaim or gloss over all of the incredibly complicated dynamics between Asian people and Black people in this country, and that he’s willing to say, in a confused way having just dropped into this situation, “Oh, yeah, sure. Yeah, right.” But just that moment and I think the way in which I guess I had been affected by what seemed to me a rejection of belonging by the people in this restaurant calling me to be, I guess, searching for a more active form of solidarity from again, this complete stranger who doesn’t even know me and the generosity of his willingness to respond to my question, not for just help that I would ask anybody but specifically racialized help that I am asking a Black man to give me I think is the reason that episode continues to haunt me.
DN: Well, we have a couple of questions for you from other people still.
MY: Okay. Oh, God. [laughter]
DN: I’m going to play one, then shortly after the other, after you answer the first because they both touch on pronouns and on the Deracination sonograms. Here’s the first one from Diana Khoi Nguyen.
Diana Khoi Nguyen: My question revolves around the Deracination sonograms, poems which felt tremendously personal, somehow more so given that they are written in a distance third person as if watching a home video of scenes from one’s childhood. The ways in which your devised form propagated the letters and sounds of the word deracination through the sonograms felt like a tender act of resistance to the violent ruptures and consequences of uprooting. These poems literally and literarily not only break down the word and the act it represents but allows for these sounds to take root in new words, perhaps not unlike taking parts off of a jade plant to root many more jade plants. Could you speak about the process of writing this long sequence?
MY: Thank you, Diana, for your close reading and for the generosity of that question. I feel like I can see the spawning fish figures of ghosts in your question and this image of the jade plant, and its tendrils. Deracinations stem from an exercise I often give my students which I call a sonic landscape exercise where they take a word and they break it down into its constituent sounds, and really go nuts on it and generate a brainstorm of words that are occupying the sonic landscape of whatever the source term is. It bears some relation to Terrance Hayes’ work with anagram which has been tremendously influential on me and which I explicitly follow in Blackacre or in one poem in Blackacre. But here I thought, “Well, deracination is an interesting word because it consists so much of soft ubiquitous sounds.” It’s everywhere and you don’t realize that it’s everywhere, that it is the air that you breathe. You don’t realize that you have walls around you because the walls are clear. I wanted to have something that is that first person largely, although I fictionalize a lot of it and some people are writing about those poems as if they’re strictly autobiographical, I mean they’re really not. Some of them are pure fiction. But to write about it from this extremely artificial and third-person distance allowed me to make things of them, and to say in some ways, “Well, this is something I’ve always taken for granted.” The opening poem of the Deracinations sequence is about how I learned to read and this in fact is maybe my earliest memory. I learned to read very, very young and I learned to read the book, Curious George. Only later when it was time to teach my son to read did I ever look again at Curious George and am appalled to discover that it seems to be weirdly a coded parable about the Middle Passage. I say, “Okay, there’s no way in hell that I’m reading this to my son.” I am surprised that more people are not talking about this, although I’m sure that there are people who have. But the way in which that was really my first lesson in written English, I think in second grade, my parents wanted to give me a long book. “We’re in the American South. What’s a good book? Oh, Gone with the Wind. Let’s give this child Gone with the Wind.” With Gone with the Wind, I learned what slavery was before I knew what sex was. I have no context whatsoever. My parents don’t really know any of the history either. They’re immigrants. They just are like, “Oh, our kid is bothering us, let’s give her a long book to read. Here’s Gone with the Wind.” [laughs] I have no concept of what’s going on but that the first two major reading milestones in my life were books of enslavement is something that I thought was interesting in ways in which that keeps playing out sometimes in relatively comics, sometimes in more serious ways throughout this sequence. I don’t usually write autobiographically. I don’t really see the point of it. I don’t think explorations of race should center around me and my experience. I think I’m in some ways beside the point. The idea of writing just a sheer anecdote like, “This is what happened to me,” is something that I just really can’t bring myself to do. But I could do it in this way and that was interesting to me, seeing what it becomes a symbol of.
DN: Well, let’s hear the second question which extends some of what the first question opens up.
Victoria Chang: Hi, Monica. This is Victoria Chang. I’m really excited to be able to ask you a question about your wonderful book From From. I noticed that the first person is delayed in the book and I felt like at the end, that first person is earned if that makes sense. Even in the second section in Deracinations where there are a lot of narratives, a lot of that section was in third person. So a long-winding question but I was wondering if you could talk about some of those choices.
MY: That’s really interesting. I’m actually having dinner with Victoria in two days. But it was at Victoria’s suggestion that I moved the Deracination section earlier in the book because she said, “We need to be able to situate this perspective in something. It can’t just be this drifting vaguely authoritative assh*le voice that you have going on through a lot of this.” So I thought that was fair, so I moved Deracinations up and I gave it a little more prominence in the book. I think she talks about the first person at the end as earned. I wanted very much, as I said, to call attention to what I was doing as the speaker and by so doing, to call attention in some ways to the audience, like Elaine Castillo’s talking about the expected audience of the book is very helpful here because I was very aware that for Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë / Sado), for Detail of the Rice Chest, that the expected audience is White and how do I again revisit these overly exoticized stories in a way that is not reinscribing that exoticization. I thought that in order to do so, I had to bring me into the frame in order to bring the audience into the frame and to show me showing them the box, and to say, “Look at yourself looking into the box. I want you to be aware of that and I also want you to be aware of me standing outside the box pointing to what is inside the box.” I want that to be a conscious part of these poems. That’s I think why those two poems ended up being framing mechanisms. I could have had Deracinations. I could have made it less fictional. I could have put it in the first person. I could have been, “Oh, okay, here are these narratives of microaggressions,” much in the same way that people misunderstand Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as being merely a narrative about microaggressions when in fact, that’s not what she’s doing. What she’s doing is very much conscious of the expected audience and the way in which people’s bodies being required to inhabit the “you” of those narratives are going to fit with varying degrees of familiarity or lack of familiarity.
DN: Well, I’m sure a lot of people, when you mention the part about showing in the box and showing yourself showing in the box, are like, “Whoa, that sounds really complicated.” But I think Victoria is really right that when we arrive at that poem which has to come at the end, the Rice Chest poem, it’s not confusing. It’s extremely earned and it makes a deep sense that maybe if that was the opening poem, we would have no clue what you were talking about.
MY: Yeah. I don’t think that poem would have made any sense as the opening poem to a book.
DN: Yeah. Well, let’s hear one of the Deracination sonograms. I was thinking maybe Education.
[Monica Youn reads from her latest collection From From]
DN: We’ve been listening to Monica Youn read from her latest collection From From. I wanted to think about Diana and Victoria’s questions about pronouns and distance in relation to distributive risk or care as shared risk also. You say something about your last book Blackacre with Kaveh Akbar that leapt out to me, “Part of the idea of Blackacre and the linkage to property is that this system of inherited property is dependent on women being the embodiment of that transaction. Is dependent on women’s bodies being the mechanism that ensures the stable transition of property, what lawyers call the ‘free alienation of property,’” then later, “If you have had your entire self shaped and supported by this particular structure, and you start to attack and dismantle that structure, then what is holding you up? That’s the premise of that poem, and I think that’s a central poem to the book. I keep going back to the image of the trellis—whether and in what condition the tree can survive without it. The book is full of failed trees.” When I think of the pressure on the notion of the I, the individual that you’re leaning into in From From, because I do think what is scary not only about assuming risk on behalf of others who aren’t you or who aren’t like you is not just the risk itself but the destabilization of self, of the I, and the unanswerable questions that might arise around who you are if you’re assuming risk on behalf of a group that isn’t “you.” But the flip side is your image which I love, not of failed trees necessarily but of trellis trees because I think even so-called successful trees are in reality being held up to not by trellises but by other things, that the flip side of the fear of shared risk is something worth living for I think. But I wanted to hear any thoughts you have about this question of failed trees in relationship to individuality being destabilized in these poems. This idea that you’ve earned the I is true with Victoria but I also think you’re doing something to the I as well.
MY: I’m trying to do the same thing and I think of Blackacre and From From as companion volumes in this sense. I think in Blackacre, I was really trying to just disengage what I have been taught to desire, what I have been told that I want, and what I think that I do want or what I thought that I did want, and why, and really trying to figure out how to come up with alternative visions of sustenance, support, survival. I think I’m doing something very similar in From From which is to say, “Look, having been raised as a little model minority poster child, how can I even talk about my childhood or the formation of what what passes as myself while trying to call that whole process, that whole structure into question,” all of the lengthy resume thing that you preceded the podcast with, I’m like, “All of that,” and what are the silences that underlie those assertions. What I think was important to me in Education again was not just the random assh*le calling me a Chink, whatever, that happened daily but the assumption on the mother’s part, the confidence of being able to say, “Chinese eyes are better than American eyes. Asian eyes look better than American eyes,” and her understanding that her daughter does not believe that, her understanding that the daughter has internalized racial inferiority, even as of the second grade, I’ve seen my own son do that. I’ve talked with other parents who’ve seen their children do that and how she chooses just to go forward because the mother has chosen to go in this immigrant model minority direction, and this is the price of that, this is the price of immigration, that’s what’s interesting to me about the poem. By later in the sequence, the mother has so far abandoned those ideals as to be pressuring her daughter to get plastic surgery to look more white which is an autobiographical detail. To think about those in relationship to a self, what do you call a self? What do you call desire when it’s been formed under those conditions?
DN: I want to ask you more about desire in a minute but before we do, I thought it was interesting that they both noticed your relationship to distance, the distance in the sonograms but then Victoria’s notion of earning a closeness of an I. But it made me wonder about your discussion again with Dorothy about how she describes your work before this book is carapaced, like when Linda Gregerson said about your last book Blackacre that we, “encounter a more expansive, undefended version of the poet than any of her previous work had led us to expect.” It seems like Dorothy feels this sentiment not about Blackacre but about From From. You seemed attracted to her using this word carapaced and you talk about how you have always been attracted to poets like Rae Armantrout who, as you describe, construct these mega robot fighting personas, these avatars to do their work in the world. It was actually an event you did with Rae when I was preparing for her most recent appearance on the show where I knew I wanted to have a conversation with you for the show because you seem so deeply attuned to the salient elements of Armantrout’s work and also the subtle ways it had changed over time. You get very granular in this conversation in a way that I thought was really satisfying, you noticing that pronouns were super rare in her early work but then start to appear and be more actively engaged with in the later books, also how her latest work seems less fragmentary, that there’s more continuity of thought. I wondered if in that spirit of Victoria’s question about progression within the book, if you could do something like you did to Armantrout’s career to yours on the level of poetics, if you could talk to us more in this granular way on shifts that you see, book to book on the level of the line, the stanza, or the poem.
MY: I love the carapace thing because it was something that I’ve always thought both about my own poetics and about Rae’s poetics. I’m really glad that you picked up on my relationship with Rae who is a deep influence. Actually, my favorite talk I’ve ever given was one that I gave at a tribute to Rae Armantrout, an AWP that I think four people saw that was called Rae Armantrout Avatar, [laughter] in which I overlay her work on top of these stills taken from the movie Avatar and I explain how the plot works as an allegory for her poetics which she told me was the most on point thing that anyone had ever said about her poetics. [laughter] She agreed that was exactly what she was doing. This is also a reason why I’m attracted to John Yau who is always using these various layers of artifice and persona to get to these issues of deracination. The reason you have the carapace is once you get beyond the carapace, what’s there? What is supposedly tender inside that the carapace is hiding, I have no idea. When I opened it up, it looked like when you open up a bug, it’s just this massive goo. [laughter] How do you write from a massive goo? [laughter] I like In the Passive Voice because I feel like that is my massive goo poem. That is me really opening it up to the uncertainty and being like, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just trying to write this out and to withstand these pressures using something that doesn’t feel false.” I think the same perhaps in Detail of the Rice Chest where I’m really just trying to say, “Look, I’m going to show you all of the artifice.” I don’t know if there’s a truth underlying that artifice but the least I can do is to make the artifice apparent. I think this is why I was having a bit of a tussle with Dorothy much as I love her in this interview because I think that she thinks that my references, my fluency, my erudition are a form of credentialising. I’m like, “You don’t understand, Dorothy, that’s all I am.” [laughs] I’m that grown model minority. I don’t know what else I am.
DN: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Before we end, I do want to ask you about desire and the function of desire in the poems of From From because the first poem feels like a cautionary tale very explicitly about desire among other things, as you mentioned, Prince Sado is a serial rapist, gets locked into a rice chest by his family until he dies and Pasiphaë who mates with a bull, and is the mother of the Minotaur, curses her husband for his infidelity so that he ejaculates poisoned creatures into his lovers, killing them. You’ve talked as you have here and elsewhere about how the Greeks defined Asians as decadent, sexual, irrational, and taboo. In that first poem, you talk about the origins of the word hot button and the ways the desires of laboratory animals are manipulated and shaped. Then if we leap forward to near the end of the book, you talk about Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem Lust, one that ends with the lines: “He longs to be An orange, to feel fingernails Run a seam through him,” which comes after a long list of longings in that poem with similar syntactical structure to be formulations which are not in In the Passive Voice. You say, “I read the poem again. It’s the only version of desire that doesn’t disgust me right now, that doesn’t make my stomach clench up or make the spit run sour in my mouth. Maybe it’s enough for me for now.” Talk to us about desire, and I guess by extension, disgust in this collection which is bookended by these very pointed explorations of desire.
MY: Yeah. I think that there are two notions of desire at play in the work, one of which is my personal desires and the way in which—Blackacre was entirely about this—the way in which I distrust what it is that I want because I think that the reasons I’ve been taught to feel that I want them are themselves horrific, toxic, and whatever. [laughs] That process continues through From From. It’s just this time, I make its racialized origins explicit. Then there’s this desire I’m talking about in the In the Passive Voice essay which is the desire of the objectifying gaze. It’s the desire that’s referenced in that canon poem you were thinking about having me read in which the woman finds out that her boyfriend has been watching videos called Naked Asian Naughty Hotties Take It in the Face!!! and how you deal with that abjectification, and being told your whole life that you should be considering that a compliment, that you should be considering being treated as a sexualized object as some sort of under capitalism, a proof of your worth as a commodity and how you try to get beyond that to what you think of might be a legitimate notion of desire. What I didn’t get into In the Passive Voice essay is the way in which this plays out in the history of Korea, the gender politics of contemporary Korea and post-war Korea, and the normalization of sex work, race, and rape culture where you have a country that at one point, 25% of the GDP is prostitution, how you come to an understanding of desire that seems non-commodified. [laughs] I think that’s what I’m thinking about and that’s what I think a lot of Asian women were feeling around the time of the Atlanta shootings, all of these men telling us that we should be taking this as a compliment and just the almost unbearable rage that would result from that.
DN: Well, let’s end with a poem from the section we haven’t discussed. I was hoping you would introduce us to the figure of the magpie and talk about the many Parable of the Magpie poems as a set, then maybe we can go out with Parable of the Magpies in the West.
MY: I was just talking yesterday with a friend about how, if I get a tattoo, it’s going to be a magpie tattoo. But magpie in Korean is kkachi which is very similar to the word for together in Korean which is gachi. In the East, the magpie is traditionally an omen of good luck. Often, there’s this series of famous Korean paintings called the Tiger and Magpie. In it, the tiger is the corrupt but powerful traditional aristocracy of Korea, the yangban, and the magpie is the rest of the population, the peasantry, and the magpie is always getting better of the tiger in some ways. The magpie has always been a mascot to the Korean people and it is the national bird of Korea. Whereas in the west, the magpie is always seen as possibly satanic, certainly a thief, a hoarder, the whole like, “Oh, you’re covetous like a magpie,” the whole plot sequence that focuses around that starting with the Rossini Opera La Gazza Ladra and the fact that seems entirely to be a fiction that in fact, magpies don’t like shiny objects. [laughter] This has just been something that people or Europeans have credulously believed for as far as I can tell centuries without really questioning it. The way that played in the West, in America, the domestic magpie population was hunted to near extinction because people thought that their picking insects off of cattle meant that they were eating the cattle, devouring the cattle, drinking blood, that they were vampiric in some ways and they killed hundreds of thousands of them. Literally, there was a bounty on magpies, like a nickel per dead bird or egg. It was only I think when the migratory bird, sorry, as you can tell, I did a lot of research about it. [laughter]
DN: I love it. I love it.
MY: It was amazing what you’ve been searching [inaudible] but it was only when the Migratory Bird Act was extended to cover magpies that the slaughter stopped. I like the parables because parables give you the opportunity to be explicitly didactic in a way that I had to hold myself back from doing, I was interested in the cadences of, for example, the King James Bible version of the parables and the artificiality but the authority of that language. I was raised very religious, I went to Catholic school for four years in high school after leaving the terrible public school where most of the deracinations, the sequence is set. I responded in some ways to the cadences of biblical language as being another one of these languages that I had been forced to inhabit.
[Monica Youn reads a poem called Parable of the Magpies in the West]
DN: Thank you for being on the show, Monica.
MY: Thank you so much for having me, David. It’s been a pleasure.
DN: We’ve been talking today to the Poet Monica Youn, the author of From From from Graywolf. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Monica Youn contributes the reading of two mesmerizing long poems for us, one written for the Poems for Political Disaster anthology and the other called the Parable of the Magpie’s Nest. These join bonus material from everyone from Ayad Akhtar to Teju Cole, to Jorie Graham, to Victoria Chang, to Ada Limón. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community including collectibles from everyone from Ursula K. Le Guin to Mary-Kim Arnold, the Tin House early readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm for future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle whose book God Themselves is out this month in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.