A Backward Song
Stephen Burt talks with Monica Youn about her book Blackacre, longlisted for the National Book Award
Oct 31, 2016
19 Min read time
Stephen Burt talks with Monica Youn about her book ‘Blackacre,’ longlisted for the National Book Award.
Longlisted for this year’s National Book Award, Blackacre is Monica Youn’s third book of poetry and her first since she left the practice of law to devote herself to writing and teaching poetry full time. It is also her first book to appear since the birth of her son (now nearly two). Her second book, Ignatz—a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award—considered romance, desire, disappointment, frustration, and American landscapes through a series of figures from the great comic strip Krazy Kat (whose recurring antagonist is Ignatz Mouse). The new book takes its title from law, in which “Blackacre” refers to hypothetical real estate (just as “John Doe” refers to a theoretical person). The longest poem responds in fourteen units to the fourteen rhyming end words of John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness. Other poems (eleven in all) respond to François Villon’s “Ballade des pendus” (Ballad of the Hanged Men), portraying dead, dying, posthumous, or mortally-threatened personages. Youn’s compact lines ask us to work—and they reward that work. Her austerities serve a severe beauty and point to a kind of wisdom that no easier, less demanding poetics could frame.
When I spoke with Monica about the book this summer, I tried to stay away from general questions about the law because they have come up so often when other critics examine her work. Instead I wanted to give her the chance to talk about writerly tactics, about particular poems, and about what makes this book stand out as a book, at once tightly focused and at times set against itself.
Stephen Burt: Blackacre’s opening poem, “Palinode” (“I was wrong / please I was / wrong”), takes its title from the term for a poem that retracts or reverses a position presented in a previous poem. Are all your poems—or are all poems—in part negative, saying “Not this, but that”; “No, but”; “I was wrong”—or “Other poems were wrong”—“before”?
Monica Youn: I don’t tend (or intend) to make “all poems” statements, even about my own work. But that is partly—as you point out—because the negative is so much a part of my poetic practice. I am not someone who asserts something and then fashions that assertion into a ladder or a pathway. Instead, I make a tentative assertion, then clobber it with doubts, then use those doubts to push me backward into another assertion, and so on—literal repulsion plays a big part in the way I write. Like a squid changing its mind, it is a backward-looking, caroming process, but—on the plus side—by not looking forward I might leave myself more open to being surprised.
What does it mean for a bird to lose its footing? What new understandings does it reach in a moment of unanticipated failure?
I placed one of my more direct negations—“Palinode”—at the beginning of the book as a kind of ars poetica. A palinode, etymologically, is a backward song, a song of retracing one’s path to find it changed. This book emerged from a poetics of retraction, of self-doubt, free-floating remorse and blame. As the lead poem in this book, “Palinode” positions all of Blackacre as a recantation of Ignatz, which was a book that stood for the generative self-sufficiency of even unsatisfied desire.
What does it mean for a bird to lose its footing, for a bird to fall, for a falling bird to find the wings it had relied on transformed into hands, its hands balled into fists? What new understandings would it reach even in a moment of unanticipated failure, disaster? How can one learn to desire nothing given the automatic grasping of the body and its wants? I wanted the reader to begin Blackacre with these questions in mind.
SB: The poem “Interrogation of the Hanged Man” puts forward a pattern that no other poem (so far as I know) has. Do you see the nonce forms, the invented patterns, in your poems as one sort of project, and received forms (sonnets, pentameter, and the like) as another? Or do they feel the same?
MY: I love the word “nonce”—it sounds so jaunty! This is probably a cop-out, but I think of all forms as nonce forms, in the sense that if I’ve used a form once in a book I am less likely, rather than more likely, to repeat it. (See above, re: repulsion.)
Of course, received forms have certain associations, resonances that go beyond their hardwired sonic or visual effects. The fourteen-part “Blackacre” sequence replicates, while commenting on, the Petrarchan structure it inherited from Milton’s original. It also attempts to deconstruct the binary oppositions traditional to that form. And the fourteen-poem “_____acre” series plays around with the idea of a sonnet, as well as with the idea of rhyme. To name two poems “Blueacre” is to instruct the reader to rhyme those two poems, to treat them as being in large part the same. At what point is the reader inclined to resist such instructions, to treat them as counterintuitive, or wrong?
I also think I have weird personal associations with certain rhythms. I often fall into anapestic tetrameter—as in the “Redacre” poems—to suggest a twisted childishness (reading Dr. Seuss to my son in recent months has brought home to me how much of my aesthetic was formed in the nursery). And pentameter isn’t a metric that comes particularly naturally to me (as it does to you, for example). To me, it always feels so authoritative that it makes me a little claustrophobic. So my impulse was to ground the free-floating Terrance Hayes–inspired anagrammatic free verse of the first half of “Testament of the Hanged Man” with a tomb-like slab of rhymed pentameter. And “Greenacre” tries to expand and contract pentameter past its breaking point, only to fail, to acquiesce. I’m always interested in forms that are so rigid as to provoke their own resistance. (“One Art” was probably my single most formative poem.)
But I don’t think of nonce forms as different in kind from received forms. C. D. Wright, paraphrasing Oppen, says that “Form is what makes the thing graspable. . . . Until it takes form you haven’t written it.” A poem has to become formally manifest in order to come into existence. It would be bizarre to me to consider the form of each poem to be less sui generis than its subject matter, its perspective, any of its other choices.
SB: Take “Portrait of a Hanged Man.” Do you have sources, or parallels, for your subtle and sometimes vexing use of typographical and visual elements (virgules instead of line breaks, lines that extend across a long page, white space as negative space)?
MY: The visual elements that I use are mostly a function of sonics—analogues to punctuation—ways of controlling the speed and dynamics of how the reader’s mind moves through the poem. I’m always interested in the question of notation—in music, in choreography, in coding—and visual elements expand the available vocabulary of poetic notation beyond the more conventional markers of punctuation, line, stanza and section.
For instance, I often use virgules to suggest some degree of segmentation or articulation within the overall movement of a line—like popping and locking. (In terms of predecessors, I was probably thinking of Inger Christensen’s It.) I gave a few early readings in which I had audience members read “The Hanged Men Reprise,” switching readers at each virgule. I was going for a “flipbook” feel for each individual line. Or in “Redacre (Don’t Look Now)” which has a strong anapestic rhythm, the virgules suggest a sub-beat, almost a syncopation.
The first “Blackacre” poem is probably the closest I’ve ever come to a primarily semantic—rather than primarily sonic—use of visuals. But even there, I really wanted each line to function as a line. I’ve never been so upset over a typo as when a magazine printed “Blackacre” as a prose poem rather than a lineated poem, taking out the line breaks entirely.
SB: In “Hangman’s Tree,” your aesthetic—so often pared-down, condensed, looking for cores—works against “contingent things,” as you’ve said in other interviews: what did you have to do to allow more such things into the book?
My impulse is always to figure out my exit strategy as soon as I walk in a room.
MY: My impulse is always to shut things down, perhaps prematurely, to figure out my exit strategy as soon as I walk in a room. In this book, I was consciously trying to fight those tendencies, to start writing earlier in my process, before I knew where the poem wanted to go. I wanted the poem to be able to generate its own resistance, to shrug off my controls.
This book contains the only long poems I’ve ever written, and they get pretty long: four pages, seven pages, fourteen pages. In previous books, I had usually tried to complete a draft in a single day, often moving from a point A to a predetermined point B. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work with these poems, but I tried to keep the poem open-ended as long as possible. The “Blackacre” sequence, for example, was written over six or seven weekends. Because I was following Milton’s path, I obviously knew where his poem ended up, but didn’t know whether I could—or would—follow him.
SB: In “Self-Portrait in a Wire Jacket,” you write, “ungridded / you could / no longer survive.” Do you see yourself as reliant on rules, on constraint?
MY: I’m unquestionably a constraint-based poet—Igor Stravinsky is my Jillian Michaels! But the way I was approaching constraint in this particular book, thematically and formally, was different—more constraining, I guess—than in my previous work.
There’s a difference in mood between open-ended and closed-ended constraint. Open-ended constraint is the generative constraint of Oulipian exuberance, the hundred thousand billion poems, permutation, variation, infinity. Ignatz was written in that spirit: each poem in the collection is loosely tethered to the Ignatz character and narrative, but the tethers are infinitely elastic, infinitely flexible—the constraint is a touchstone rather than a leash. The series could have gone on forever.
But Blackacre stands for the sadder, shyer sister of the constraint family—the closed-ended constraint of four windowless walls, of the bounded field. What subset of the possible is contained within these confines? It may still be an infinity, but a less confident, more compulsive infinity. You plant your given acre, then you harvest, then glean, then dig, then you sit and rest. (I’ve always found The Giving Tree too upsetting for words.) The closed-ended constraint—the blank box—always ends up being a trope for mortality.
SB: Can you say something about the challenges of writing in very short lines? The poems “Quinta del Sordo”/ “Landscape with Deodand” (especially since they are on facing pages in the finished book) strike me as obvious examples of your versatility in this mode—the first one could never have had a one-syllable line; the second does. Do you see your very short lines as falling into several types or categories, so that you use only one type per poem, or do you just see them all as short lines?
MY: Lapsing into a little Lineation 101 here, so apologies. If you think of a line break as the poet’s intervention into the reader’s experience of the poem, then the extremely short line is the equivalent of the helicopter parent—the reader is not allowed to proceed through more than a few syllables before the poet grabs the steering wheel again. (I’m mixing vehicular metaphors, I think.) This makes the short line perfect for—shall we say—manipulative control freaks such as myself. (Some of my parenting guilt is clearly coming through here.)
The obtrusively short line can, but doesn’t have to, create its own rhythmic expectation within the poem, one which exists separately from sonics or syntax. Where the line length is regular enough to create such an expectation, those three elements—sonics, syntax, and line—can generate an astonishing degree of authority when they coincide (Robert Herrick’s “Upon His Departure Hence”), and an astonishing degree of vertigo when they are pushed off the beat into syncopation (Gwendolyn Brooks, obviously).
But other extremely short-line poems don’t establish an expectation of regularity; they keep us on the edge of our seats, constantly turning corners—Williams’s jamcloset would be the paradigmatic example here. Hesitancy, rather than authority, is the predominant tonal analogue.
Most short-line practitioners use a mix of these strategies in any particular poem—the irregular line puts the reader on high alert, trains the reader to be hyperaware of sounds, of syntax. That way, the sense of authority, of closure is redoubled when sonic, syntax and line come into conjunction with an almost audible click. (Look at the endings of Robert Creeley’s “The Language” or Kevin Young’s “Beyond Words” or how Rae Armantrout carves syntactical authority out of a block of pop-culture cheese in “The Way.”) I make use of this kind of authority in poems such as “Portrait of a Hanged Woman (Necessity)” and “Hangman’s Tree.” The riskiness of the unqualified “X is Y” pronouncement is the opposite of my usual proleptic tendencies.
In “Quinta del Sordo,” I’m trying to deploy syllabics—a three-syllable line subdividing a nine-syllable syntactical unit—to create a lulling sense of regularity, so that the disruption at the end—the dropped syllable—is doubly jarring, as the reader recognizes that the soundless interior is actually a mouth. (A little manipulative, but I hope I can be forgiven!) “Landscape with Deodand” is much more of a “jamcloset” type of poem. I’m trying to make a rather unstable pile of short lines cohere sufficiently so that the whole poem can shift on “shift.” It’s a little like stacking Cheerios—half the fun is that any tall skinny thing is inherently unstable, especially when made up of small, unattached components.
SB: Reading “Epiphyte,” I wonder whether you normally see yourself in your personae, or do they sometimes feel, to you, more like antagonists?
MY: This isn’t an either/or question for me. Yes, I often see myself in my personae. Yes, they often feel like antagonists. I’d say that the “you’s” in this book average out to be about 60 percent me—I often start out with an addressee and swing around to direct the accusation at myself. But the antagonists are also figures from my life—parents, lovers, mentors, hopes, desires—whose voices I’ve internalized to such an extent that it’s difficult to figure out where my “self” begins.
This book is an investigation into why I want what I want, and what it would take for me to stop wanting what I want. What happens when you start regarding your own long-held and deeply rooted desires, your ambitions, your life goals, your self-image with suspicion, when you start trying to peel them away from the self and to hold them at arms’ length? What standard should one apply to differentiate self from not-self?
The personae allow the poems to act as exorcisms—the power to name is the power to dissociate, to expel. Only by lending flesh to some of these bogeymen/women can I see them clearly, and confront them squarely.
SB: In “Brownacre,” you write “The thing / you had just said to me still hanging in the air between us.” How do you use the unsaid, the MacGuffin, the secret, the thing readers aren’t supposed to know?
MY: I’ve always had a “thing” about blanks in poems, especially at the center of poems. “[T]he thing / you had just said to me” in “Brownacre” probably belongs to the same species as “the thing // you won’t admit to” from “Fiona Rae” in Barter. It creates an interesting energy, to make a hole in the poem and to force the reader’s attention through that hole—an acceleration like the acceleration of space through one of Henry Moore’s ovals. It puts a mirror in the middle of the frame, rather than a picture, and draws attention to the shape and function of the frame, the way it channels and shapes expectation.
I do something similar when I give the reader an instruction to create her own narrative, her own story (as in my poem “Ending,” from Barter, where I provide the ending to a story that hasn’t been told; Armantrout’s “Generation” is a clear influence here). In “Palinode,” I don’t tell the reader what statement is being retracted—the confession of wrongness is meant to suggest a universe of possible mistakes. In “Landscape with Deodand,” I don’t identify the crime or its instrumentality—the reader paints the landscape with suspicion, each named object a potential malefactor.
More and more I tend to think that the true medium of poetry—like the true medium of music—is the reader’s expectation, rather than anything that exists physically on the page, or in waves of sound or light.
“Sunrise: Foley Square” is my first use of a typographically explicit blank. (Jorie Graham is an obvious influence here.) Even though I consider the poem a failure on many levels, I still included it in the book because of that blank—its brackets were meant to suggest an official form, an omitted name, or a series of names tragically similar in their absence.
SB: Do you feel distant from parts of this book—like somebody else wrote it—since so much of the book has to do with not having children?
MY: I’m not sure the book is about “not having children.” Childlessness is a social condition; infertility is a medical condition. I’m no longer childless; I am still infertile (although the point is nearly moot—I’m approaching an age where ovarian failure would be medically normal).
But fertility—the concept—is, of course, never a simple medical question. It’s the hopelessly snarled knot where ideas about gender, property, religion, self, pride, shame, sexuality, purity, love, death, and eternity intertwine. The term itself—agricultural in flavor, as is “barrenness”—suggests landscape, legacy, an estate. (Think of Emerson: “In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more.”)
The barren woman is often cast as sexually manipulative, an illegitimate usurper—Lilith, Lamia, Snow White’s Evil Queen, The Handmaid’s Tale, Anne Boleyn, Josephine (although neither of these last two were actually infertile, they were reviled for failing to produce the requisite male heir). The wicked stepmother may be wicked because she stands for the severance of marriage from motherhood, of sex from reproduction. (The sin of contraception was hammered into me in similar terms over four years of Roman Catholic theology in my parochial high school.) The bride wears virgin white because any other option would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the heir, on the succession of the estate. At my own wedding, in the traditional Korean paebaek ceremony, I remember kneeling as successive rounds of relatives threw dates and chestnuts–representing the children I was supposed to bear—into the skirt stretched between my widespread knees. I had already been diagnosed with premature ovarian failure. I caught thirteen fruits.
I wrote the two “Blackacre” texts—the stand-alone poem and the sequence—at different moments. I wrote the first—the ultrasound poem—shortly after my birthday in 2013, the date at which my husband and I had agreed we would give up trying to conceive a child that would be genetically “mine.” We had been trying, at that point, to conceive a child for over four years after my initial diagnosis of infertility. We had tried pretty much everything—hormone and supplement shots, patches, inhalers, pills, elimination diets, a bizarre form of acupuncture in which an electric current was passed through needles into my lower abdomen three times a week. I had subjected myself to hundreds of weekly blood tests, dozens of transvaginal ultrasounds, rounds of IUI, IVF.
If this all sounds like a kind of neurosis, that’s certainly true. In retrospect, so much of it seems to have been based in self-hatred, self-blame, an effort to exert control. During those years, I didn’t think I would ever have a child, and I wasn’t sure that my marriage would survive childlessness. So much was at stake in the question of my fertility.
Even my doctors were playing the blame game. One of them had asked me—a successful lawyer in my thirties—“What the hell have you been doing all of this time?” Another had told me, “You’re basically dead inside,” and asked to write a scientific paper about me—an old woman wrapped in a healthy young body. My mother had told me that women after thirty are like fruit starting to go rotten; my father had told me that since he would have no grandchildren, he had immigrated from Korea and worked hard his whole life for nothing.
I felt alienated from my malfunctioning body, its blameworthy “failure.” From my sexuality, which felt like a fraud. From my family, from many of my friends—the “breeders.” From the life choices that had defined my sense of self—the choice to pursue a legal career, the choice to become a writer, the choice not to settle down earlier. And finally, from my own desire—a desire that seemed irrational, selfish—to have a child who would be genetically “mine.” What conditioning had created such a seemingly hard-wired need in me, and how could I disentangle this conditioning from my own sense of self?
I was starting the process of finding an egg donor, a process that still seemed bewilderingly abstract. It was so odd—so alienating—to be scanning through photos and profiles of various strangers whose descendants I might host in my own body, at great expense and at great risk. Something felt artificial, even grotesque, about going to such extremes to bear a child.
I kept flashing back to our last IVF attempt—to the ultrasound of what seems to have been my last viable egg. I had seen it there on the screen—glowingly dark and round, miraculously healthy, such a repository of significance and expectation. I was told to return the next day, when they would “harvest” the egg. Then, the next day, it was absent from the screen, and all of their probing and poking inside me couldn’t find it—I had ovulated prematurely, and the egg was lost. I could see its afterimage imprinted on the gray haze where it should have been. I can still see it.
Then, over a year later, I wrote the second “Blackacre”—the sequence—after I was already pregnant—that great seismic shift in body and mind, where everything was immediately forward-looking, filled with new potential, where suddenly my body seemed to have a purpose, seemed capable of hosting and nurturing life rather than remaining inexplicably, incurably barren. But even in this new phase, I felt I had to make sense of the previous period of my life—to cut that dead thing cleanly out of me, together with all of the negative associations entangling it like arteries feeding a diseased organ.
Writing the sequence was a little like being Harry Caul—the professional eavesdropper—isolating and identifying distinct voices in the static, stratified haze of memory and feeling. I felt like I had to confront and overcome those voices—through argument, analysis, and simple persistence—before I could move through and past them into the new possibilities that motherhood was opening up for me.
October 31, 2016
19 Min read time