The Rumpus Interview with Gary Young


“We write because we can’t not write. We want to make music out of our breath; we want to be under the power of an art that toys with us and could destroy us, but which allows us to get a glimpse of what’s real.”

My junior year at UC Santa Cruz, I discovered Gary Young’s writing and fell in love with his stories. My senior year, he happened to start teaching creative writing classes. I took his course “Methods and Materials” and later that year, I designed an independent study with him. He was an amazing mentor and always inspired me to write out of love.

Recently I realized I had surrounded myself with people who were not very much concerned with writing out of a love for language or stories, or people. So I decided to get in touch with Gary and he agreed to answer my questions and for that I am grateful. I find his answers inspiring, interesting, and sincere. I wish to share them with you.

Gary Young’s most recent book is titled Pleasure.  He has written several other books, which have received many awards, including the William Carlos Williams award. In 2009, he received the Shelley Memorial award and just last month, he was named Santa Cruz’s first poet laureate.

The Rumpus: What was the last book you loved?

Gary Young: I assume by “loved” you mean the last book that made me feel as if I’d fallen in love. I can think of two books: Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, and Jack Gilbert’s The Dance Most of All. I had previously read Scarry’s book The Body in Pain, a fascinating study of torture and of the limits of language to adequately express the experience of violence and pain. On Beauty and Being Just is a marvelous antidote to her book about violence. Her thesis is simple and profound, namely that beauty encourages a sense of justice. She recognizes that beauty is life-saving for individuals and collectives alike. Her short philosophical inquiry is simultaneously radical in its approach, and conservative in its embrace of traditional, even reactionary values. Scarry believes what the medieval philosophers believed, that “beauty is a call.”

Jack Gilbert has been a favorite poet of mine for decades, but his latest book, The Dance Most of All may be his most heartbreaking. I have always admired artists who somehow manage to do their best work at the end of their lives—Rembrandt, Milosz, W.C. Williams, Hokusai—and Gilbert’s newest collection puts him squarely in that group of artists who continue to grow even as their physical strengths decline. His poems about love and loss are especially trenchant, written as they are from the vantage point of old age, and his insistence on passion and on beauty even in the face of his own decline and imminent demise are powerful evocations of a great spirit.

Rumpus: I first read your poems when I was a junior at UC Santa Cruz. Micah Perks recommended the book No Other Life to my then boyfriend and he absolutely loved it. He read the book and shared it with me and his roommates. Everyone seemed rather amused by your author photo because you are clearly sitting in a cemetery. I too loved your poems and felt especially drawn to the poems in Braver Deeds. I had not really read prose poems before. I did not then know what I was reading were prose poems. I knew it was writing and it affected me.

I think you call your writing prose poems. And I know we’ve talked about flash fiction/prose poems/short shorts, the labeling of these things. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I discovered prose poems existed because of your writing. Then, through your Methods and Materials class, I realized, more and more, writing in very short pieces was the form that best suited what I was trying to say. My question is how did you discover prose poems? How did you discover that this form worked best with what you were trying to communicate?

Young: Taking that author’s photograph in the cemetery was a conscious decision on my part, but I have to explain that the cemetery is directly across the street from the Little League field where I was coaching baseball; it was a convenient backdrop.

I have written several essays on the prose poem. I’ve edited a critical anthology about the prose poem, Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poetry and Poetics from California, and I have chaired panels devoted to the form and its practice; to be honest, I’m a little sick of the whole thing. This obsession with form and with labels is finally a distraction from the poetry. I don’t care what they call it, I just want it to move me.

I first read prose poems in the Bible, of course, and when I was in high school I discovered Arthur Rimbaud. I read prose poems by Charles Wright, James Wright, Borges and others while I was in graduate school, and it never occurred to me that the form was anything special. There was one prose poem in my first book, Hands, but when I started writing prose poems exclusively in my third book, Days, I discovered the hostility and animosity the form could engender in editors, readers and even in other poets. It made no sense to me then, and it still doesn’t. I started writing prose poems when I discovered they were the best form for externalizing what was going on in my head. I produced an artist’s book of letterpress prints, The Geography of Home, and printed the text as a single line on the back of the 40 images. The text runs almost 100 pages in a single line. I realized that I wanted my poems to run out like that, horizontally rather than vertically, and it’s been my preferred form ever since.

Rumpus: You are a poet as well as a printer. How did you start printing?

Young: I started a literary journal, Greenhouse Review, while I was in graduate school. When I returned to Santa Cruz where I lived, I took a night class at the high school to learn how to print; I wanted to save money on production costs. I aced the course in offset printing, so I started playing with an old Chandler and Price platen press that was hulking in the back of the classroom. It was about to be scrapped. I read an old ITC typographic handbook, set a poem by a friend, and printed it. The experience was just like those of some drug addicts I’ve encountered who say they knew they were done for after the first taste. I was hooked, and I’m still printing after almost 40 years.

Rumpus: I find myself asking, “Why Write?” I find myself asking, “Why Publish?” I’m curious what your answers to these questions might be.

Young: We write because we can’t not write. We want to make music out of our breath; we want to be under the power of an art that toys with us and could destroy us, but which allows us to get a glimpse of what’s real. I suppose we publish for any of a number of reasons. The best reason is for community. When we publish a poem or story that makes a connection with someone, there’s a kind of magic at work that is essential to human beings. People publish for vanity, for money or for fame, but to reach out through space and through time and touch another person is all the reason I need. That’s a gift other writers have given me, and I like to think that I’m returning the favor.

Zoe Ruiz is the former managing editor of The Rumpus. Her work has appeared in The Weeklings, Salon, Two Serious Ladies, and Ohio Edit. She studied creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and now lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →