Far From Our Beginnings: An Interview with Monica Youn

Z.L. Nickels

Monica Youn is one of the most brilliant people you will ever meet. This seems to be a shared consensus among the people I know who have also met her. In conversation, she is precise in her language and personally engaging. She possesses a generosity that belies her legal training, such as when she assumes the best intentions of an otherwise-ambiguous question or by providing thorough context whenever possible. Perhaps this is because Youn is also one of our most brilliant poets working—another concord many of us share. Her latest collection continues a run of critically championed work that began with Ignatz (a 2010 National Book Award finalist) and was followed by Blackacre (longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award). With From From, Youn turns her unremitting attention to “a question every Asian American gets asked as part of an incessant chorus saying you’ll never belong here.”

My interview with Youn took place early last winter, prior to From From being named a National Book Award finalist, prior to several “Best of 2023” lists and a litany of positive reviews. As I prepared my notes for conversation, I attempted to organize my inquiry around the issue of “from” that is central to the collection. In my review of From From for Gulf Coast (Print Issue 37.1) I note how the desire to return to where one is from “nourishes writers’ obsessions as well as their choices of language.” This conversation makes apparent just how deeply Youn has considered this question.

Given the space constraints of this section, I have condensed the interview to the lines of inquiry that most align with Youn’s text. Wherever possible, I have tried to preserve Youn’s detailed observations, especially in those places where she illustrates her process of poetics.


Z.L. Nickels: 20 years since you put out Barter.

Monica Youn: How is that even possible?

ZN: Thinking back to what it was like to write that book—to put it out, to put this book out, which seems to be very personal in a way that I think is different from your other books—what is it like for you looking back?

MY: Barter was a collection that just sort of came together by happenstance. It remains my only collection that wasn’t written with a book in mind. I had done an undergraduate minor in creative writing; had written quite a bit in grad school in England; went to law school, stopped writing entirely; went to Stanford, wrote quite a bit more; and was just working as a corporate lawyer, working between 60 and 80 hours a week. It was brutal.

I think I was vaguely acquainted with Jeff Shotts. And at one point, he passed along the message: “Do you have a manuscript? I’d love to see it.” I didn’t have a manuscript, but I quickly pulled together enough poems to have one, sent it to him and to my amazement he took it. I had no idea what it really meant to have a book—I never did an MFA, there was no one really to advise me. So I sort of published the book and then went on with my life but kept writing.

ZN: One thing that really interests me is that you publish Barter first, which is a verb. Next are two collections of nouns, Ignatz and Blackacre, and now you’ve arrived at prepositions with From From. And what is really intriguing is that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of bartering in this latest collection. What does that movement feel like to you?

MY: I think at the time I wrote Barter, I wasn’t aware of the ideology of my poetic training in that I was taught in incredibly conservative schools: first, Princeton, then Oxford, then Stanford. I never had a poetry professor who was a person of color, and everything was steeped in this new critical valorization of the poetic product. And so Barter was kind of a reflection of what I thought was the exchange involved in the artistic process where you exchanged experience for this thing.

I think you refer to this most recent book as being by far my most personal, which is right. I was really just never comfortable writing about myself. I like to write about objects, and at first, I liked writing about what I thought of as objects. And I’m still oriented in that direction, hence the number of “Two Figures” poems in the current collection. I have known about the story of Prince Sado for years and had always been trying to figure out a way to write about it. There’s no shortage of writing about Prince Sado, and the last thing I wanted to do was put him back in the box as an exotic object to be scrutinized for an audience that remains outside the box. And to a certain extent, the same with Pasiphaë who, in one version or another, has appeared in every one of my books.

ZN: What I really loved about Blackacre was the way you maneuver distance around the personal as a way of allowing the theory or the cognition to come forward. You move into a different space in this work. Your second book, Ignatz, is really interested in its titular figure; in this book, you have a “Study of Two Figures” featuring Ignatz. It seems to me that this is the best example of the shift between those collections.

MY: Yes.

ZN: I wondered whether that feels correct to you or whether there were other places that really felt quintessential of what you’re achieving in this work.

MY:Yeah, I think that’s an interesting and multi-part question that I’ll try to break down. When I was thinking about Ignatz, I didn’t want to tell the narrative. George Herriman did 30 years-worth of daily comic books on the narrative. Ignatz was playing with the way in which we construct romantic desire and the romantic figure of the beloved. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Ignatz or Beowulf or Tristan or Iceberg Slim or, you know, anybody.

And then—I mean, I think this in some ways relates to your question about the personal—Blackacre was a book that really did feel like tearing my heart open and saying, “Okay, come here, take a look.” And I was doing that very intentionally because there is so much shame and stigma involved in the question of infertility and aging that I thought: “Let’s just put it out there, and perhaps it will have value for people.” And, indeed, women do come up to me after readings and say, “Thank goodness someone is talking about this,” even though I’m talking about it in this weird academic way that I do.

ZN:  What is so interesting is that the speaker of Blackacre is still somewhat removed from the tearing open you describe; however, in the new collection, that distance is no longer present.

MY: From From is personal in a different way in that a lot of the book is very much not personal by choice because I said, “Look, I am not the hero of these stories, my own experience is largely beside the point.” But then I was thinking about it as the book was taking shape; the long prose poem, “In the Passive Voice,” was one of the very last things I wrote. And I hadn’t originally been planning on writing it, but I thought: “You need to make it clear what your positioning is, just ethically, because you should not be trying to come at this as if you’re some neutral or impartial expert or as if you are equating yourself with some of the victims of racism of the kind that you’ve been discussing” because really that wasn’t my point.

ZN: So in the first “Two Figures,” which is… I’ve never seen a poem like it. It’s incredible. It is so damn good, and it functions on the level of containers while also serving as a collection of facts, right? And here I mean ‘fact’ in the way of ‘fabricate’. In this “Two Figures,” you’re fabricating this sort of academic text that is also operating in the interrogative.

There’s not really a question here other than to ask: how did you come up with the form? It’s just amazing. I don’t know how you did it, but I would like to hear more about it.

MY: You know, I can tell you the story of how the poem was written. And then what I figured out I was doing after I made it, which is usually what happens to me. So I was trying to figure out how to write this thing, and I wanted to go at it flat. I started with the basics. What do we have here? Well, we have two figures: one’s male, one’s female. Well, why am I putting these two figures in a poem? Well, they’re both contained. What else do they have in common? Oh, they’re both Asian. Well, what does that do when I put that in? I was thinking of it like building a staircase and taking the shape of the plank I was working with and using it to generate the next plank. And so I just kept following that, and the planks were interesting materials to work with because they were extremely rigid. Sometimes the rigidity was, you know, a function of rhetoric rather than truth. But it still enabled me to build on them.

At one point, I stopped about two thirds of the way in because I mentioned race in the first page of the poem, and I also referred to Chekhov’s gun. Race is the gun in the story; I placed it in the story. How is race in the poem, still? I was thinking about it, and I swam across Willard Pond at McDowell, swam back and thought: “Oh, race is the container. Why didn’t I understand that? Of course, that’s what I’m doing.” And so it really was that intuitive of a process, but I think my intuition is so formed by the various kinds of writing I have internalized that I’m able to just kind of generate these rigid planks of rhetoric without really being conscious that’s what I’m doing.

ZN: What was it like writing the Magpie section and the parables of that section?

MY: Oh, the magpies were really fun. I’ve always been interested in magpies. They are a symbol of Korea and particularly the symbol of the Korean proletariat against the traditional feudal aristocracy, which is represented by a tiger. And so there’s this iconography in Korean art—the magpie and the tiger—in which the magpie is always outsmarting the tiger, which is kind of great. And then they are so widely hated in the West that they were almost exterminated.

I was thinking about Louise Glück’s parables, which seem to give her permission to be didactic. I mean, she’s often very didactic, but she seems freer to be didactic in her parables. And I thought that would be fun because so much of this book dances around didacticism without actually just going straight there.

ZN: Two questions on the level of personal biography. You mentioned receiving the American Heritage Dictionary, is that where your etymological interest came from?

MY: Oh, no, I had always been interested in etymology. And, you know, I should signal: it is a very personal book, but the deracination sections are in the third person for a reason. A lot of those are loosely based on things that happened. And the figure, particularly in that section canon, is very different—probably a lot cooler than the college student I actually was.

ZN: We also have here: Troy Carson, lead singer of the White Minorities, which is different from the name that comes up in Blackacre—John Hollis, lead singer of the White Minorities.

MY: One of those names is real, and the band is certainly real. I mean, when I look back at exactly how bad my junior high school was, it’s sort of stunning to me that my parents let me go there. I don’t even get close in the book to how actually bad it was. Like, my seventh grade English teacher would regularly allow the white students in the class to make fun of me and the only other Asian kid in our grade, who was a Vietnamese immigrant. They would put on these skits during class time called, I think, “Miss Ching and Miss Chong,” where they would be squint eyed and buck toothed, using our names.

ZN: Oh my God.

MY: And you think to yourself: “I really can’t believe that I was subjected to that instead of English class.” It didn’t occur to me that one could complain about this sort of thing. And I didn’t complain, I just sucked it up. But I do remember correcting that teacher on his grammar once and being sent downstairs to the vice principal’s office to be paddled because corporal punishment was allowed in the school. It was an amazingly bad school.

ZN: Wow… is that something you thought about consciously while working on From From? Or something you’ve thought about more since finishing it? Because, I mean, that’s… yeah.

MY: I look at it at this time from the perspective of comedy, like, “Wow, that school was bad.” I kind of thought about it, and I think at the back of my head I said: “Well, maybe I’ll reference that,” but I didn’t want to. That’s a poem of victimization, and it didn’t really get to what I actually wanted to get to with the deracination section; it’s much more about what it means to have a deracinated or colonized consciousness than it is about anything that happened, per se. So I’ve seen a couple of reviews saying, “Oh, she was bullied.” But no, I’m not talking about being bullied. If I was going to write about the bullying, I would write a “How I was bullied growing up” sort of thing.

ZN: I was curious, why do you call the poems in the deracination section ‘sonograms’? 

MY: I wanted something that got to the texture of deracination—it’s a word composed of very soft sounds and very ubiquitous sounds. So it’s a soft constraint rather than a hard constraint. Terrance Hayes uses anagrams—those are generally a fairly hard constraint. This is looser, but it’s always there. And that’s kind of what I wanted. That was the experience of deracination for me: it’s nothing you can really push against or fight, but it’s just always there and it occupies all of the space around you. And so I thought that creating a series of portraits in that relatively limited, but quite quotidian, palette was what I was interested in doing: all of these have the same sonic range, I guess. It’s something I talk to my students a lot about, the textures and tones of language and sonics. And so that was kind of the way in which I wanted to render these experiences. 

ZN: All of your other collections are four parts, this is in five. Is that for any particular reason?

MY: It ended up just being hella long. I kept asking the people who I asked to read the manuscript in advance, “Should I cut a section?” They all said, “No, no, leave them in.” And so I left them in, but I was very tempted to cut one.

ZN: I think this is the last question I really wanted to ask you. You said in your BOMB interview, “I always aspire to write poetry where after a reading, no one will tell me, ‘Oh, your poems are so beautiful.’” I was reading Blanchot recently on Kafka, and he writes, “What is strange is not only that so many writers believe their entire existence is devoted to the act of writing, but that by devoting themselves to it, they still give birth to works that are masterpieces only from the aesthetic point of view, which is precisely the point of view they condemn.” What level do you think From From is attempting to exist at outside of the level of aesthetic beauty?

MY: This is not a book that is outwardly harrowing. And there are certainly a lot of poets who do that and do that very well. There are poets who do not have this problem of being mistaken for beautiful or who are more consistent in their opposition to it. Somaz Sharif comes immediately to mind. She’s very interested in weaponizing Bad English, so-called Bad Writing as a response against the purely decorative commodification of some of the art forms.

I’m not doing that with any degree of consistency. Some of the poems in the book are quite attractive. Many of them are written about attractive subjects. But I wanted the fundamental response to at least some parts of the books to be like “That’s unsettling” or “You’re making me think about that.”

ZN: From my perspective, the collection was successful on both levels. It’s a really remarkable book, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk more about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.