A Conversation With Monica Youn
BY AEKTA KHUBCHANDANI
Monica Youn is the author of From From, and three previous poetry collections: Blackacre, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Barter, and Ignatz, a finalist for the National Book Award. The daughter of Korean immigrants and a former lawyer, she teaches at University of California, Irvine.
Aekta Khubchandani: Monica, it’s so great to have you here! Many congratulations on your book, From From. I want to start the conversation with a broad question about poetry. The book opens with the piece “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaė / Sado),” which considers containers of Asianness, race, desire, violence, gender, sex, Korea, Colchis, tourist, artist, history, gaze, whiteness, and myth. I feel that these containers or these ideas, which cannot quite be contained, kept leaking into one another throughout the rest of the book.
In the interview with Dorothy Wang, you said, “I think of poetry as the most concentrated form of language.” So, if poetry is a sort of distillation, then how do you achieve this precision when the subject matter is so dense and closely knitted together in our daily lives?
Monica Youn: Yes, I like that question. For me, poetry enables the distillation of an array of very complicated concepts that you just laid out into a single image, or a couple of images. These two figures in the box, in their respective containers, contain all of these concepts within them. But what poetry also allows you to do—because of its freedom of form—is to unpack those containers and then repack them. So you can see both the container and the unpacking of it, which is what I was trying to do in that first poem, to really frame the various subjects I was going to be exploring throughout the book.
AK: Your mention of unpacking reminds me that this happens throughout the book—the speaker pokes at an image to expose the image under that image, as if we have a multiplication of meanings. And for me, it opened up parallel universes, those of violence and horror. Can you talk about this multiplication in the book?
MY: I think it’s important to be able to come at an image or a concept from a number of angles. I mean none of the subjects that I’m talking about are simple, and even the figures that I’m talking about are figures that have been explored throughout myth, throughout literature, throughout cultural identities in an incredible variety of ways. So for me, even to bring up the figure of King Midas means that I have to come at him from a different angle than other treatments have done. Being able to take one analysis as far as it would go and then stopping and then starting afresh from another angle was important to me. Sometimes those angles were more personal, sometimes they were more historical. At times they were more image-based. But I wanted to include them all.
AK: Did navigating multiplication bring you, the writer, closer to a space of solidarity or belongingness?
MY: It really depends on the subject because there are two subjects in the book—one was solidarity and the other was alienation. There’s belonging and there’s unbelonging. The book moves between the two poles, and there are moments of real belonging—the moments of humor in the book were me reaching out to the Asian American community and saying, “Look, you are going to get these references with a depth and an understanding that other people are not going to”—I felt that was a space to build solidarity around Asian Americanness.
But there are also moments in which I disclaim that kind of solidarity, where I say, “Look, there are Asian American experiences which are of precarity and trauma and those are not my experiences, and I can’t claim them.” I don’t want people to think that I’m claiming those experiences. There’s also the space of authenticity of people who have a much more organic relationship to an Asian homeland than I have.
AK: That ropes in a question I had about containment. Being an Asian, I was trying to place myself in the book. The last poem, “Detail of the Rice Chest,” has containers. I felt contained in the opening and concluding poems, and uncomfortably so. Gaze has been such a crucial element in the book—whose gaze are we seeing things from, whose gaze is scanning me, the reader, who’s also Asian but South Asian and not East Asian; and how different is this gaze—this gaze being different from narrative or POV, so to say. Can you throw some light on using “the gaze” in the making of this book?
MY: Sure. The gaze was very important. Elaine Castillo, a Filipina American prose writer, has a new book out called How to Read Now, which is a book of critical essays. She talks about this idea of the expected reader, and what to do when your majority expected readership—given the demographics of this country—are not going to be Asian American. They are very likely going to be White. How can you deal with that in terms of crafting a narrative, or in terms of crafting an image or a perspective or a point of view?
What I was trying to do, I think, particularly in the first and last poem, was to emphatically say—look, there are two ways in which I, as an Asian American, might be expected to figure into a discussion of an “exotic” figure such as Sado. I could either be placing myself with Sado in the box, or I could be the tour guide showing you Sado in the box. Those are the two roles that the expected reader might expect me to play, and I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to say, “Hey, let’s look at you, the person, who is looking at the person in the container, and let’s figure out what your relationship is to me. And let’s figure out what your relationship is to the container.” Unless we also look at my relationship to the container, why am I here? Why do I get to be outside the container, gesturing at the box?
Honestly, poetry is my way of working this stuff out for myself. I didn’t have a theory of how all of this was going to work. I didn’t know the movement of the poems when I started these two poems. I literally started both of those poems just with their first lines, not having anything else written, and followed the poem where it led me, and that was what the poems kept wanting to obsess about.
AK: Which one between these two poems—“Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaė / Sado)” and “Detail of The Rice Chest”—came first?
MY: I wrote the “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaė / Sado)” first, and I wrote “Detail of the Rice Chest” maybe two years later because I realized I wasn’t done discussing the rice chest. I asked myself, “What else do I want to say about the rice chest? Well, let’s think about that.” And I thought about it for a long time.
I didn’t want to exploit the figure in the rice chest. I didn’t want to try to put a camera in there, and violate the privacy of his suffering. Then I was watching this movie called “The Throne,” and I thought, “Okay, this is how I’m going to write about the rice chest again. So, let’s start with the movie.” The way in which I understand the movie is that it’s another way of packaging this story for a viewership and putting Sado on display.”
In the first poem, “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaė / Sado),” I had an instinct that I wanted these two figures to be exactly those outlines without the details of their features, or I wanted, in other words, to be talking about their positionality rather than their stories. So, I started with that. And what do they have in common? Well, they’re both Asian. And then I continued from there.
AK: That opens up portals in my head! You’ve mentioned in your recent interviews about From From the fictional element in the book, and your love for Greek mythology from an early age that made you want to become a Greek mythology professor. How did this love emerge? Can you also talk about the power and function of retelling in the context of bridging the intergenerational gap, if it does?
MY: Yes, I honestly have no idea who first got me into Greek mythology. It probably was a book I checked out at my elementary school library. I remember I read this book called D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, and then I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I was completely hooked, and then I read everything I could get my hands on. I don’t know where that started, but I think that, given the power of that particular set of myths across cultures, or at least through Western cultures, it was important for me to reclaim them for myself and to understand, okay, where do I fit into this myth?
And to the extent that I now, as an adult, have a more sophisticated understanding of where Asian figures fit into these myths, and how that relates to myth and nationalism, I’m asking myself, how can I reclaim these politically? Marsyas, for example, was always a political figure. He was considered by the Romans to be a figure of speaking truth to power, of popular revolt against tyranny in a way that was deeply racialized and anti-imperial—how can we reclaim that for Marsyas now?
AK: I’m thinking about Asianness in the context of color. The book opens with the “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë / Sado)” and puts Asianness in the spotlight. As we move towards the middle of the book, specifically at the point where the poem “Study of Two Figures (Ignatz / Krazy)” begins, there is an observant eye on the sun and the color yellow in the lines: “the sunset whets its billion bayonets…” (in the poem, “Studio”), “the sun winks out the sky” (in “Dream”), “the sunlight fashions the facing windows…” (in “Dream”), “…in the shadowless sun” (in “Parable of The Magpie in The Trap”), “…and you must be marked with a yellow sticker in order to leave this cage” (in “Parable of the Magpie and the Mirror”). The book also contains several other places where black and brown—the colors in terms of their race—come together while white stands out. Can you talk about the use of color as a tool in your work and its racial motives in the book? How has it changed from your previous book, Blackacre?
MY: In Blackacre I was not treating color—for the most part—as racialized, except for the poem, “Goldacre,” the Twinkie poem, which is pretty explicitly about race. But in From From, I was using yellow as a trope for East Asianness throughout the book because that’s what I was called growing up. People would refer to me as yellow all the time. People would hand me a yellow crayon to draw my family and me. And, as you know as a member of the Asian community, there is a political difference between the Yellow Asians and Brown Asians, which is to say, East Asians versus South Asians, and the way in which that distinction became particularly salient after 9/11 with rising Islamophobia.
I wanted to make that fairly clear. Yes, the term Asian American is useful as a term of political solidarity. There are moments of immigration history that will apply to both; for example, the application of the Immigration Act of 1965. Edward Said writes Orientalism in a way that encompasses both, and this exoticization by the West is something that East Asians and South Asians very much share. But I am writing from the point of view of personal experience, from the perspective of the yellow Asian, the East Asian, I mean.
AK: I received much of the book with an authoritative and analytical tone. I’m keen to unpack syntax, phonetics, and etymology in your poetry. What poetic tools do you gravitate towards while writing?
MY: I spent a long time thinking of my background as a lawyer as being irrelevant or completely antithetical to my poetic practice. Then, I started to understand that it could be useful for me. Part of the reason I spent such a long period of time avoiding it is because I distrust that voice. That sort of power language, that voice of authority, is usually the voice of the oppressor. It is the voice of power, and I couldn’t see a way to incorporate that into my work in a way that wouldn’t feel horrible and oppressive.
But what I came to figure out was that I could use that oppressive nature as a tool. I want the reader to resist that voice, not to relax into it. It is a voice that has a particular rhetorical power, but oftentimes the things it says are just flatly wrong—for example, to say, “Death is a wish to improve one’s surroundings.” That’s just not true. And to make that statement in this sort of flat, declarative voice is pushing the reader to resist that statement. I was interested in that movement of resistance. In a way, the voice in the first poem operates as the rigid walls of the container against which I want the reader to push.AK: I am very fascinated with your poem, “Installation,” which is in dialogue with Asad Raza’s Root Sequence. Mother Tongue (2017). It opens the IIIrd section of the book, “Western Civ.” It’s the first time the reader is in conversation with the “we” voice, the first person plural narrative. I’m eager to unfold the journey of this poem. It holds death, silence, the sun, and humans accountable for death with the last line, “Nothing needs to die in order for us to eat.” I’ve had my jaw locked while reading your book but this was the one space where I felt I sort of belonged. Can you share how this poem came about?
MY: That was the earliest poem I wrote that ended up in this book, and I didn’t know what the book was going to be when I wrote this poem. I knew it was going to have something to do with deracination, which means uprootedness. I was asked to write a poem in response to Asad Raza’s artwork, which was an installation at the Whitney Biennial, consisting of 26 sapling trees, each in its own container, which created a beautiful artificial forest within the museum. I was spending time walking among these trees and feeling sorry for them. Rather than being part of the forest or having their roots locked together in a network connecting them both to each other and to their dead, to their histories, they were instead placed on display in a museum. And so, the “we” of that poem is we, the deracinated, we, the uprooted, we, the out of context, taken away from our histories, forced to function in this artificial way in this artificial environment for purposes that are unknown to us—in that way, a poem about immigration and global capitalism. I’m hoping that was in your mind when you responded to it. And there’s a real yearning that I let into that poem—for the homeland, for the forest, for the original place.
AK: That was very much what I was responding to when I read that poem––to not be in one’s natural habitat or one’s home, and what it means to be on display. Even taking the subway feels like being on display.
At an event at The New School, “Cave Canem: Poets on Craft with Remica Bingham-Risher and Monica Youn,” you spoke about working on poems about deracination when your last book, Blackacre, was released. Did you begin writing this book, From From, with the “Deracination” section?
MY: The concept of deracination runs throughout the book. I wanted the book to articulate a space of deracination rather than a space of authenticity, and that was the conceptual distinction that was foremost in my mind throughout. I had written that particular poem in response to a commission, but I had been thinking and reading around the topic at that point for a couple of years. I think that was just the level at which I responded to Asad Raza’s artwork.
AK: Mostly everything in the book was nerve-wracking to me. What was the toughest part of the book to write?
MY: There were two very hard parts of the book for me to write. The initial part was extremely hard to write. The first poem in the book, about Prince Sado—I had been trying to write for at least three years. I could not get the tone right because I did not want to put a camera inside the box with him. I did not want to violate his privacy. I did not want to write an “Oh, poor Prince Sado” poem. I did not want to write a bad prince poem, and it was weirdly only when I put him together with this other figure, with Pasiphaė, that I was able to find an angle that led me to the tone in which I needed to write about them.
The other thing that was excruciatingly hard to write, in a different way, was the central prose poem in the book, “In the Passive Voice.” I knew that I wanted to write about the ongoing upsurge in Anti-Asian hate. And in March 2021, I happened to go down to the Hermitage Residency in Florida. It was the first flight I had taken since the pandemic. I was planning on writing something completely different. I had brought a lot of books with me about another project, and then I ended up abandoning that project because I was seeing these figures stooping on the beach for shark’s teeth. They were reminding me of the Asian American people in my neighborhood who were picking up cans and bottles from the trash and were being attacked. There was something about that posture that resonated with me, and I thought, “Why does abjection seem to draw hatred to itself in this way?”
I started off writing about that, honing in on the way post-Cold War and postcolonial precarity had allowed racial capitalism to use Asian Americans as a tool of anti-Blackness. I was trying to write it as a daily journal, but it was always tough going. And then about a week into that project, the Atlanta shootings happened, at which point, the writing just became much harder, but it did seem as if the worst thing I could do at that point was just to abandon writing about Anti-Asian hate altogether. But it was very, very hard to be writing those sections pretty much on a day-to-day basis while struggling to fight my own fear, and to keep it from destroying my relationship with my neighborhood, with my communities.
AK: You mentioned being at the Hermitage residency in Florida. I observed that most of the poems in the section, “In the Passive Voice,” begin at the beach. At the beginning of the book, we are contained, and there is a sense of interiority; then the next section brings in the sun, after which the water and the beach shows up.
The book brings back containment again in the last poem, “Detail of the Rice Chest.” Rick Barot, in a generative craft workshop, had mentioned how the hierarchy of the poems plays into the structure of the book—the power the writer chooses to give to the opening poem, its narrator, the people in the poem, and content and how that power sets the tone for the pages to come. Did you think about the play of interiority, containment, the sun, and the water in structuring the book?
MY: I wasn’t thinking of these in terms of structure. The ideas of containment preceded the “Study of Two Figures” poem that starts the book as well as any structural concept I had of the book as a book. But the interplay between interiority and outsiderness is partially a function of the pandemic and what we were all going through in terms of: When do you get to be outside? What is the privilege of being outside, of being uncontained? How just being outside the home felt very fraught during the pandemic.
First, it was because of people not understanding how the disease spread: the fear of contagion. But then, it was about feeling visible and vulnerable during the Anti-Asian hate surge. A lot of my Asian American women friends were talking about feeling as if they had a target sign painted on their backs for about 6 months to a year. Not feeling like they could go into the subway or cowering into the subway with their backs against the wall. The subway is not as comfortable a space for me as it was prior to the pandemic and the hate surge.
AK: I echo that in ways of my own. I’m also thinking about Asianness in relation to hatred and desire, how they’re juxtaposed and yet work alongside race, serving as a common ground. I combed through the book to find a cure for hatred.
MY: I think hatred, for one thing, is not the most useful term to describe a variety of emotions. I think of Robert Aaron Long, the Atlanta shooter—that was a hate crime. He felt hatred in a way, but that particular form of hatred asserted itself as in a way of ownership…like he thought of these women in the way I would think about junk food, the way I would think about having a bag of Cheetos in the house that I might just throw away if I were trying to give them up. He thought of these women as disposable in that way, non-human.
That’s one form of hatred. The white bully who accosted me outside of the restaurant, he felt a form of hatred that was aware of my consciousness, and he really wanted me to feel fear as if he desired my fear. And I don’t know what the hell that is—bullying, I guess. And then there is hatred that comes from misunderstanding. But if you let that misunderstanding into yourself in the first place, it becomes hatred—-you have to be open and receptive to hate from the start.
There’s such an upsurge of hate right now against everyone, against trans people; it’s not as if the violence against Black people or Indigenous people or Jewish people or Brown people has subsided at all either. Nor has straight-up homophobia or misogyny. The volume and power of all the hate out there is so turned up that we’ve all learned a lot more about hate in recent years.
AK: I agree. There are various kinds of microaggressions, no matter how diverse or seemingly diverse the participatory structures of education and information are. Can you throw some light on how teaching has changed or impacted the way you might perceive things in writing? Do you choose to include different books in the syllabus based on the students in your class?
MY: Yes, I’ll generally choose different books based on the students in the class, but not usually as a function of demographics. Usually more just as a function of wondering if they are going to freak out if I give them something insanely hard. But even beginning undergraduate students have dealt with much harder material than I ever expected them to be able to and they have enjoyed incredibly difficult materials.
Teaching causes me to articulate questions of craft in a way that I wouldn’t if I was just writing for myself, and sometimes those articulations are very helpful to me. I teach this craft class, in which I have a writing prompt or exercise with every one of the craft topics. It’s fairly standard, but oftentimes I’ll end up using those prompts for myself. So two of the poems in the book have, in fact, emerged from writing prompts. I often ask my students to do an in-depth study of one detail from one of their previous poems that they think needs some more room—it’s based on a practice of C.D. Wright. And that’s exactly what I did for the ending poem of the book. I also do this exercise that I call a sonic landscape exercise, which is based on Terrance Hayes’ anagram poems. But it goes a little further and expands the component sounds of a word into what I call a sonic landscape. And then, I write to envision a poem within the sonic landscape of that word, which is the sort of sonogram form I did for the Deracinations series. Both of those are standard exercises that I give in my beginning craft class.
AK: I remember that prompt from a previous interview of yours! And I tried it; it worked wonders.
MY: It’s really pretty fun. I still remember a student of mine, who was going through a transition, wrote one of those sonogram poems around the word “transition,” and it was just incredible.
AK: There’s joy in making such poems. While we’re talking about students, can you share some advice for students who’ve graduated and are working on manuscripts for first books—what’s the best way to approach them?
MY: Read as many first books as you can, and then try to put yourself in the position of a judge who is judging the finalists of a manuscript competition. All of them are generally going to be excellent. And to think, “What makes my work different from the other excellent manuscripts that are, or going to be, finalists for the same things that I’m competing for? What is different about my approach? What is different about my aesthetics? What is different about my influences?” I end up judging a lot of these contests. I judged a first book competition this year, and I always ultimately gravitate towards the writer who sounds different from the otherwise fantastic work that I’m reading.
There are so many great MFA programs, so many good mentorship opportunities, so much work being published that the standard is incredibly high right now. The other piece of advice I would give is don’t be in a hurry. Think of the first books that you have read that have made the biggest difference to you, and then see when that person graduated from their own MFA program, and I can promise you it will not be recent. They took some time, they published some chapbooks, and they talked to writers. They had time to think outside the sort of hothouse atmosphere of the MFA Program and consider what really matters to them as opposed to what really mattered to their program.
AK: These are such good questions to mull over. I love the space of ending a conversation with questions. Thank you so much, Monica! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your book, From From, and about your work.
MY: Of course! This has been a real pleasure.