The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Monica Youn about her new collection Blackacre, hypothetical tracts of land, Milton, and infertility.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Camille D: Hooray! Now we don’t have to have a conversation with a hypothetical poet about hypothetical tracts of land. What would be the equivalent word? Poet Doe of Blackacre?
Brian S: Ha!
Monica Youn: I’d rather be the Dark Lady.
Camille D: That wasn’t really a question. But it was a statement about how much I loved the way the book made me think about language and its use. Which is, of course, what poetry ought to be pushing us to do.
Monica Youn: I hope so. I tell my students to think of poems as language plus, language with value added beyond its everyday use.
Brian S: I’ll have to borrow that. I basically tell mine that poems are where words work harder because there’s fewer of them to do the labor.
Camille D: Okay then, Dark Lady. Here is an actual question. Were there insights you learned from living so closely with Milton’s poem that you didn’t get to write about in the Blackacre poem that directly addresses Sonnet 19? In other words, what were the ways in which you discovered the LIMITS of such an exhaustive return to a similar set of concerns as you practiced in this book?
Monica Youn: I’m not sure I’m quite getting the second part of your question so I’ll start with the first. Sonnet 19 is a poem that I’ve lived with for such a long time—since a summer school teacher made me memorize it when I was sixteen—that it’s like a loved one. I recite it waiting for the subway or the elevator. The thing that really grabs me about it is the way that the plodding, tentative rhythm of the first part of the poem embodies blindness, embodies “the dark world.” The monosyllables, the unvarying iambics are the opposite of the bravura Milton of Paradise Lost, the innovator, the rebel. Rather than the visionary, in the first part, we get the blind poet, taking measured cautious steps.
The phrase “this dark world and wide” always particularly gets me, sometimes brings me close to tears. The way you think that the line is over, syntactically complete at “dark world,” and then the poet extends another cautious little step, like a blind man descending a staircase, and not sure whether he’s reached the bottom step.
I’ve changed my mind about my nickname, btw. I’d rather be La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or LBDSM for short.
Camille D: That’s fair enough that you didn’t understand my final question. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write the second part well. I am thinking about Solmaz Sharif’s fantastic book, Look, which we also had in the Rumpus poetry book club this summer. She talks about how she realized soon that she had to push her interrogation of the Defense Dictionary or her poems wouldn’t really be doing much in the end. In your case, you come back again and again to some of the same things, and I wonder if you could speak to the challenges you faced in doing that.
Monica Youn: Just so I’m clear, when you say “some of the same things” are you talking about the infertility narrative, or something else?
Camille D: I see a lot of wonderful repetition throughout this book. Not just the infertility narrative. You come back again and again to Milton (another poet would have been finished with that subject in far fewer lines, but—hooray for this!—you keep returning. You come back again and again just to the very phrase Blackacre (or green or blue). It feels like a book that is a returning again and again on a lot of levels to a lot of different things.
This is what I found so compelling in the book. The “bareness” it renders is both concrete, actual and personal, but also collective and figurative and abstract-able (and I mean that last made up word as a compliment, not as a statement of derision).
Monica Youn: Got it. For me, the constant repetition in this book—the almost compulsive return to the Blackacre trope, and to Milton, was a way of layering meanings. When you think about the concept of infertility, for example, it’s not just medical; it’s a repository of so many personal and societal meanings—religious, legal, sexual—encompassing mortality and sin and family and eternity. I felt that to shoehorn all of those meanings into a single take—a single poem—would result in a tangled mess. Instead, I wanted to take one run at it, then catch my breath and come at it from a completely different angle. The resulting composite picture would be, I think, more accurate than a portrait taken from a single perspective.
Brian S: I have to admit, I’d never thought about infertility from a legal perspective. It’s outside of my area. But it added a richness to the poems.
Monica Youn: And then, the repetition of the Hanged Men, the various acres, was a way of “rhyming” things—of asserting similarity. For example, the first “Greenacre” poem is primarily about money, the second it primarily about race, and about memory. But to call them both “Greenacre” within a series that considers infertility is a way of teasing out similarities between capitalism and family relationships, race relations and sexual shame.
When you talk about “infertility” you’re already using a land-based metaphor—a woman’s body compared to property, to be considered fruitful or barren. And “estate” encompasses both legacy and landscape. Think of Emerson, referring to his son’s death as “the loss of a beautiful estate.”
Camille D: And when you speak like that, I can’t help but think about the way that race and gender play into our ideas about bodies as property and “in/fertile terrain”
You make it sound as if you knew from the beginning that this would be a long series of poems, not just a single take. is this true? Or did it take you awhile to see what you were up to?
Brian S: Even a poem like “Whiteacre” (the page 45 one), which reminds me of the way whiteness blows out everything not white in this world.
Monica Youn: I wasn’t sure whether “Blackacre” would be a series or not. I knew I wanted to take Milton’s poem and to reseed it for my own purposes, to tell my story using his poem. But at first I tried to write it as a single poem, then as a sonnet sequence. I ended up needing A LOT more room in order to get the layers of tone and meaning that ended up feeling necessary.
Yes, that Whiteacre poem was originally written as part of a “Nap Poem” challenge by my friend and colleague Michael Dickman. A number of us—him, Ben Lerner, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips—had new babies, and the challenge was to write a poem in the span of time of your baby’s nap. Luckily, my baby was still a newborn taking 2-hour naps. But, listening to his white noise machine, I became fascinated with the way that replication—in this case, of a particular sound wavelength—is a form of security, of insulation. It reminded me of certain racially homogeneous gated communities.
Brian S: OMG.
I have twins, 2 1/2 right now, who don’t nap anymore, but when they did I was too exhausted by chasing them around to even think about writing anything.
I also found fascinating the range of images and references that made their ways into these poems. Snopes and Twinkies kind of threw me for a moment in “Goldacre,” but it sure worked in context.
Monica Youn: Brian, I can’t even imagine having twins. Wow.
Brian S: They are work. Lovely lovely work, but still work. Blissfully sleeping work right now.
Camille D: Here’s a different question. There are moments in this book that brought me near tears. So much deeply felt emotion. The lines on page 67 for instance: “one day they showed me a dark moon ringed…” And then you turn sometimes to this other kind of being. That technical, etymological, legal, seemingly “unemotional” voice. This may not be a question. It’s more of a marvel at the way the book toggles back and forth so compellingly between these two stances. Both moving, and for different reasons.
Monica Youn: Yes, that first “Blackacre” poem is probably the darkest poem, and the most personal poem, I’ve written. But the extremely dry, analytic voice in which the other “Blackacre” begins is just as true to me. I often feel like Edward Scissorhands—unable to touch the world without cutting it up. I don’t experience “emotions” then “analyze” them; they always reach me pre-analyzed.
I’m not sure whether the extreme tonal shifts of this book are a strategy I’d recommend to a student. I certainly spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could possibly keep the “Redacre” Peter Pan poem or the “Blueacre” Passenger poem in the book. But it was important to me to keep these aspects in the book—part of my reaction to my diagnosis of infertility was deeply sarcastic and critical, part of it was morbid, part of it was numb, part of it was neurotic and desperate. To mush all of those notes together would cancel them out. I ended up just trying to keep them as separate as possible.
The Twinkie poem is also kind of an outlier, but I wanted to keep it in because race is one of the legacies I think about passing down to my son—its combination of givenness and constructedness.
Brian S: How long did it take to write this book? There’s so much going on in it.
Monica Youn: A few of the Hanged Men poems got started in 2011. But I wrote most of the book—and came up with the Blackacre concept—starting in 2013.
Camille D: So that was relatively fast, if I am correct to assume about an 18-20 month publication ramp for Graywolf.
Monica Youn: I knew I wanted to write the “Blackacre” Milton poem as of 2011, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it until the fall of 2014. At that point I was already pregnant, and I really wanted to finish the book—to exorcise that particular set of demons—before my third trimester. But once I finally figured out how to approach the sequence, the writing came relatively quickly. Yes, it was a pretty fast book to write, although I was writing poems for it through late fall 2015—long after the book had been accepted—and kept making changes in proof through spring of 2016.
Brian S: Are you working on something new now?
Monica Youn: Right now I’m blissfully not writing anything. Just doing a lot of reading and hopefully some thinking as well. I think my next project will be called “Cribs.” I’m planning on starting with Ernest Fenellosa’s word-grid “cribs” of classical Chinese authors that Pound used in writing Cathay.
Brian S: What are you reading? Anyone we should be on the lookout for?
Monica Youn: I’m reading pretty widely. Kind of obsessed with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.
Camille D: I love the cover of the book, by the way. It’s simultaneously clean and messy. Perfect. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!
Brian S: Yes, thanks for joining us tonight and for writing this amazing book.
Monica Youn: Thanks so much for having me here!