An Interview with David Young
Interview by JUAN REYES
The first time I met him, David Young was sitting on a couch waiting for me, the last of his students, to arrive to class. He hosted a poetry class and curriculum that was all about exploring three international poets he had earlier translated or was translating currently. After three nights of classroom discussions, I learned to share his affinity for these very unique poets: the Italian Eugenio Montale, the sensual, descriptive lyricist who always looks to engage a “you” outside the text; Du Fu from China, a deceptively straightforward poet who lures you into his immediate world and uncovers the layers of meaning inside it, sometimes gradually and other times all at once; and the Romanian Paul Celan, a lyricist who embodies the world of loss and displacement with a survivor’s heart that struggles with a destiny of luck.
After discovering the influences that inspire him and his volumes of poetry that encompass his breathless work, it became clear that David Young carries a sensibility. He has a way of looking at the world that acknowledges the blending of perspectives, a way of looking at the world that realizes how ideas that permeated physical spaces many years ago can affect the thoughts we process today, as if history were more than the collective experiences we remember, as if history were defined as an active and engaging component in our everyday life, such that, by recognizing it, we call upon history to inform our perspective, enlighten our ideas, and shape our gestures.
In terms of literary bling, David’s awards are numerous, including but not limited to a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Bogliasco Fellowship, a Witter Bynner Translation Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, and the Ohio Major Artist Award. He is currently Longman Professor of English at Oberlin College in Ohio.
The following interview was conducted in the Alabama Public Radio studio at the University of Alabama.
Black Warrior Review: We’ll start off with an icebreaker question, what’s your favorite color and why?
David Young: [Laughs] I suppose it’s green. Associations with nature, favorite poems that have lines like “a green thought” and “a green shade.” And it’s a color that doesn’t look too bad on me.
BWR: In Seasoning, a Poet’s Year, you go into a lot of recipes. Explain to me the process of creating it. Why did you choose the recipes you did, and why did you decide to create this kind of book?
DY: It’s interesting how that book evolved. I’d written Night Thoughts, poems entirely in my backyard. It was an attempt to see if, in my backyard, I could take in everything that was of interest to me. The book was a real struggle, and when I’d finished it, I thought about what more I could do, and it occurred to me to write a daytime equivalent. So, in a sense, Seasoning is the day companion to Night Thoughts.
And then it evolved. What would I put in a book about the place where I live and the life I lead? I thought, I’m very interested in my environment, and talking about one’s environment inevitably leads to talking about the different seasons and the passage of time. I can bring in poems that interest me or that I associate with certain parts of the year, my own poems and the poems of other people.
As I began to work on it, I realized that, for me, the seasons have a lot to do with food and what is available and what I like to cook, depending on the time of year. So then I thought, why not have some recipes? If there’s going to be a chapter for each month, why not include some discussion of what I like to cook and eat in that month, and then a few recipes at the end of each chapter to go with that month. I just picked things I had been cooking or that I liked or that seemed particularly seasonal to me.
However, after it was done, it made the book a little harder to place. For a while, I had a New York agent who was taking it around, and editors couldn’t categorize it. What is this? Is this a memoir? Is this nature writing? Is this a cook book? It was so many different things. Finally, I found Ohio State University Press who was happy to have it be so many different things. They did a really nice design job on it. And that’s essentially the evolution and history of why there are so many recipes in that book.
BWR: Do you have a quiche recipe? If so, would you be willing to share it?
DY: I don’t have a quiche recipe, no, and I’m not as good with pastry. There is one point where I talk about pie, and my daughter makes a pie in the September chapter because we’d acquired some grapes and berries. I talk about the fact that I’ve never really learned to make a great pie crust. [Laughs] So that’s probably why I didn’t write any quiche recipes.
BWR: What does Ohio means to you?
DY: The fact that I live in Ohio and have lived there now for almost fifty years has meant that, over time, it has come to mean more and more to me. I’m a Midwesterner, so I’m comfortable away from either coast. Ohio is something like an older comfortable version of states like Iowa and Nebraska and Minnesota where I grew up. So it happened so imperceptibly that I became a regional writer. It almost had to wait until my daughter, who’s also a poet, came home from where she was studying at Davis and says, “You know, you’re a bioregionalist.” And I said, “Oh, that sounds cool.” I hadn’t even thought to put a term on it. She was studying with Gary Snyder and others who were strongly interested in environmental writing. And once she pointed out my bio-regionalism, I began to be conscious of it and more self-conscious about it.
It was partly that that led me to write the backyard poem and Seasoning. I wanted to celebrate the place where I lived, and I heard just enough people complain about it, one way or another, that I wanted to let them in on the secret of how great it is. Really, though, almost any place you live, if you really get to know it, is a great place.
BWR: The poems in Night Thoughts have such a unique structure. Which was it that took precedence in the creation process: the content or the form?
DY: I started with a more formal commitment, that I could do this long poem by developing some reusable format. I decided to use ten-line stanzas, and maybe make a certain number of them for each hour of the night. For quite a while, I had lots of those kinds of stanzas. I was having some difficulty because I didn’t think it read very well. And then one day I realized that that formal commitment was not helping. It wasn’t a poem that was going to require that kind of regularity. As soon as I stepped away from that and started to break those stanzas up and write more freely, the poem went better. You can still find things here and there that have formal characteristics, but now it’s more a free, associative and meditative poem. Night Thoughts was a case where I first tried to be too regular and then realized I needed to back off.
BWR: The poem purports to have taken place completely on the night of the meteor shower. When you sat down to write the poem, did you have pictures or notes or other material you referenced?
DY: No, because it was really a hypothetical night. [Laughs] I like the meteor showers, but I didn’t really spend one particular night in my backyard. This was a fictive thing in which many thoughts were assembled. In that sense, I stayed with a formal commitment, to build the poems around the one night. It was going to be in my backyard, and everything fit within those parameters. I essentially developed that night as I created that poem.
BWR: How often do you create parameters around an idea to get it going? Are parameters a consistent thing in your poetry, or do you develop them as you need them?
DY: It could vary quite a bit. Sometimes you see the need for a certain kind of structure, so you try to work within that. Then there are other times when what’s coming doesn’t seem to require structuring, and you just have faith that sooner or later, it will take the form and structure it needs. Meanwhile, you’ll not press the issue. You’ll pay more attention to sound, rhythm and content.
For example, it’s very easy for me to write a sonnet because I’ve translated so many sonnets. I don’t even have to think about the form. And I don’t necessarily mean rhymed. Rhymed or unrhymed, the sonnet is a form I find myself falling into sometimes because I know it so well. After starting a poem, if I suddenly see that it will fit nicely into a sonnet, I’ll go that direction. So in my New and Selected Poems, which I just put together, there’re several occasional sonnets, I call them. They’re just poems I happened to be motivated to write because of various things: the death of a friend, the politicians interfering in the Terry Schiavo case, thinking about the Iraq war dead. Those were all poems that wanted to be sonnets or seemed to be comfortable being sonnets. They’re quite diverse (it’s a group of eight or ten) but they’re all comfortable in that form.
But then I could also turn around and write something else, and it could be something like a musical suite or a sort of free verse poem taking its form from each new move or subject that comes along.
BWR: You talked about translations and a lot of what’s going on around you as far as what might influence and inspire a poem. How do you see your inspirations come across in your poetry: concretely or abstractly?
DY: It’s concrete. A poem for me usually begins around things like an image or two, the sound of a phrase, the movement of a phrase, and it will coalesce. It usually has to be specific so that I won’t write about some large general topic. It’s more along the line of, here comes material that feels like it might be a poem. Let’s see where it goes. Let’s see what it turns out to be.
The writing process for my poem about the Iraq war dead, for example, which appeared in Best Poems of 2008, began with an analogy. It’s an analogy that closes the poem: the phantom limb, the missing limb, that you still feel is there. It was analogous to these young people who died. I wrote the poem when the administration was not acknowledging that bodies were coming home, that we were having those losses. The writing of the poem began with a specific physical thing that for me became an analogy for what I wanted to say about society’s failure to acknowledge what was going on. It’s not a terribly militant poem, but it does address a larger question, and it came about because of a comparison I wanted to make.
BWR: Is this the first time you’ve written a poem about war?
DY: No. During the Vietnam War, I was very concerned. A number of the poems I wrote at that time reflected that.
BWR: Using the war poem as an example, the war poem you wrote recently and one of the poems you wrote during the Vietnam War, what would you say is the biggest difference in the creation process of your poetry?
DY: Well, I think of a Vietnam poem that was chosen by Denise Levertov and included in a Peace calendar. In that poem, which is a rather free form, deep image poem, at that time, I was very interested in poets like James Wright and Robert Bly. I’m sure it reflects some of their influence. I just used the fact that sometimes, when I’d be driving and exploring Ohio through its back roads, I’d be brooding about the war and our part in it.
Jump ahead in time to my Iraq war dead poem, it takes the form of a sonnet. The difference writing them probably is that I have more options to draw on as a writer. When I wrote the Vietnam poem, I know that I wanted to be Midwestern, and I also wanted to avoid certain kinds of styles and forms. I tried to write a James Wright sort of poem. But when it came to the Iraq poem, the fact that I’ve done all that Petrarch, in Rilke, for example, means it’s very easy for me to construct that poem as a sonnet. The tension between the history of the sonnet and the Iraq war as subject helps make the poem more interesting and complex. Some people might still prefer the earlier war poem, but you go where you go. When you have a larger backlog of experience and knowledge, you draw on it.
That would be the main difference I think. I don’t want to belittle the earlier poem, but I also wouldn’t be so apt to write it now.
BWR: you wouldn’t be a poet in your position if you, at least in part, didn’t want to leave your earlier poems where they belong and keep going with what you’ve done, compiling an great body of work, as you have.
DY: Well, some poets do go back and revise their early work. Yeats did that, and Auden fooled around with his early stuff. I’ve never seen the point in that. When a poem is finished, you let it out into the world and wish it well, and then you go onto the next. It is what it is.
BWR: How did your history in translations play into all these new tools, into these fresh options you have as a poet?
DY: It certainly widened my horizons. I still wanted to be, without knowing what it was called, a bioregionalist. I still wanted to be situated. But at the same time, if I knew a broad range of poetry over space and time and languages, then I would have more options with how I responded to my own time and place. Translations were my way of doing that. Someone else might do it a different way, but for me, translating was the act that gave me a sense of intimacy with other poets who might be distant in time or place or both. I sometimes use the analogy of a neighborhood, and I’m very lucky because Du Fu lives next door to me, and Rilke lives across the street. That’s how it feels, that they’re available to me.
BWR: The mention of neighborhood brings to mind “In My Own Backyard.” In it, you see Li Po walking across your yard.
DY: That’s right. [Laughs] That’s probably the germ for the “Night Thoughts” poem.
DY: Well, it was a backyard poem. And it appeared in The New Yorker. So it probably made me think, there was something right about that, that maybe I ought to go on more about my backyard.
BWR: Take me through writing the poem. If this was the poem that later led to the creation of Night Thoughts, what was the impetus to create this first poem and the process of that creation?
DY: Let’s see. At our commencement, George McGovern had spoken, and he had talked about the concern about nuclear war. This was when that was our foremost issue and fear. In the fifth section of “In My Own Backyard,” I’m worried about the world’s end, as I realize I have been most of my life, because the nuclear threat began when I was quite young and stretched at least until this time and later. [Reading from the poem:] “I take my work outside and sit on the desk, distracted. It was a day like this, I think, in Hiroshima.”
So, that began the poem: me, in my own backyard, worrying about the end of the world and thinking about Hiroshima. And I built the poem around that. I picked different moments for different scenes, and I led up to that. I recall pretty clearly that George McGovern’s commencement speech was the trigger for this poem.
BWR: Was Night Thoughts the only time you explored your backyard subsequent to this?
DY: Well, there’s some backyard stuff in Earthshine, which is like one large poem. While searching for a subsequent project, I was looking for something, like the design of Earthshine, that was not altogether one large poem but that felt unified, so that if you read it from beginning to end you had an experience that was more than the sum of its parts. I wanted to do that again, and as I said before, I struggled through Night Thoughts. But I always felt that it was a good idea.
BWR: Do you always have a book in mind when you sit to write a poem or a series of them?
DY: No. Mostly I just accumulate poems until I have enough for a collection and then I try to figure out how to order them. But in those two cases, especially in Earthshine, “A Poem in Three Parts,” I knew I was embarking on something I wanted to be long. I did it once more after that, but that was enough. I don’t think I would do another book-length poem. They’re hard to control and finish because the design of the overall project is more complicated than your usual poem. So, for the most part, I write lyric poems, keep them short, and let them accumulate. However, it’s interesting to try the alternative and to see how that works. It’s not that, in order to be a major poet, you have to write long poems. But you need to challenge yourself to try things you haven’t accomplished.
I think some of my contemporaries have done interesting long things. I admire C.D. Wright’s “Deepstep Come Shining” very much. And Charles Wright, he’s a good friend and I admire his work. His poems are very often designed as sequences and holes.
BWR: What are you working on now?
DY: I just finished putting together a New and Selected Poems. This has meant going back over my work and figuring out which poems to keep, as well as assembling the poems I’ve written since my last collection, Black Lab, for the “New Poems” section.
This new collection will only be about twenty or twenty-five pages because I haven’t written a lot in the last few years. I don’t like to repeat myself. Very often, when I get an idea for a poem, I realize I’ve already done it. That’s one reason I’ve been translating. It keeps me using my craft.
I have a long poem in the “New” section that people have said nice things about. By long, I mean, too long for a magazine. It’s going to take up about eight or ten pages of the book.
BWR: How many poets have you translated?
DY: I started with Rilke, and at the same time I was translating the contemporary German poet Günter Eich. I had many [Eugenio] Montale translations that just sat in a drawer for a long time because there was a restriction on publishing. Rights were owned by New Direction. One couldn’t contemplate at least a book of Montale translations.
I eventually I became interested in Chinese poetry, and I began with Wang Wei. I gradually accumulated enough versions of Wang Wei to make a pamphlet, and people liked that, so I continued and began to translate other poets of the same period. Li Po, Du Fu and Li Ho. Eventually, there grew a collection called Four T’ang Poets which became Five T’ang Poets when I added Li Shang-yin. I read a lot of Chinese poetry and explored it enthusiastically. The Du Fu project ultimately grew big enough to become a book by itself.
After that, I translated two Chinese poets with a friend of mine who was the East Asian librarian at Oberlin [College], Jiann Lin. We translated a woman poet of that period, Yu Hsuan-Chi, and we later translated a poet named Du Mu, who’s sometimes called Little Du because Du Fu is considered Big Du. That collection is called Out on the Autumn River.
At some point, I translated Neruda’s Heights of Machu Pichu. It was published in a limited edition. I had a great time doing it. I translated Heights because I had done Duino Elegies , and I was interested in comparing two great long poems of the 20th century.
And then along came Miroslav Holub. He was at Oberlin as a visiting writer when I began translating his work, and because I didn’t know Czech, we had to work on it with the help of third parties. By late in his life, however, his English was good enough so that we could work together. He was a distinguished scientist as well as a poet, and he had lived through the Hitler and Stalin tyrannies and survived and created great poetry from it. I learned a great deal from him, and translating his work was a real joy. So he’s the other big figure in my translating career.
BWR: How has discovering those writers in their native tongues helped your writing in English?
DY: In the act of translating them, I’m trying to bring them into American English. And that means that I am writing English poems, inspired by them, you might say, or modeled on them. Therefore, it’s always about English and what can make a good poem in English, but it’s not that I jettison their language. My role is to make good English poems, and that’s what my translating activities have always been. I have never tried to translate out of English into something else, though, because that would be disastrous, I think. [Laughs]
BWR: With your experiences in other languages, what would you say are the characteristics or nuances that set an English version of a poem apart from its translated counterpart?
DY: As a poet, I’m always deeply interested in the way a language can move and how it sounds. When I translate a poem from another language, I can’t hope to replicate the movement and sound of the poem. [Ezra] Pound said, what you can translate is really the images. That’s the challenge of the translator.
For example, this Dutch poet I am currently working on, she rhymes in meter quite often. I take it poem by poem. If I feel that, for any particular poem, the rhyme and meter are essential, then I try to reproduce them, which isn’t always that easy because English doesn’t rhyme that readily. Meter, yes, you can do that. Rhyme schemes, that’s tricky, so I allow myself off-rhyme or variability in the rhyme scheme. However, if it doesn’t seem that rhyme or meter were in the poet’s foreground, I might abandon them altogether. It’s a case by case thing, and it’s getting a feel for the other poem, trying to get inside it, trying to inhabit it, and then trying to see whether you can produce a cousin of it or a sibling in your own language. It’s a fascinating challenge. You get kind of hooked. There probably ought to be an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous for translators or a twelve-step program to get you off of it. [Laughs]
BWR: It seems to me that images are the easiest to translate between both languages and cultures. Would you say, as an American poet, you have a responsibility to make that poem as vivid and visual as you can so that it can translate not only to an American English speaker but also to speakers of English abroad so that they can understand, to some extent, our value system?
DY: Yes. I think, for example, of the Chinese. Chinese poetry is wonderfully oriented to the visual, but the language and poetic forms have characteristics you just can’t hope to reproduce. So if Chinese translations work, they will work because the images retain their power. The translator just needs to know that and not fiddle around too much. The translator needs to just keep it simple.
It’s interesting because I recently had a German writer translate one of my translations of Li Bai into German, and he sent me first the magazine and then the book that it was in. He must have liked the English version enough to want to translate it into German, even though that took him two languages away from the original, and I don’t know how well he knew the Chinese. But, he was assembling examples of Chinese translated into German, and he wanted to include me. So that was kind of fun. I can’t really judge his German version, but I showed it to a friend whose German is quite good, and he said it was fine. It was good. The guy got it.
BWR: The best example of imagery in your work is in Earthshines. There’s “Nine Deaths,” a series of very powerful images. Can you take me through the creation process of those nine poems?
DY: It’s about the death of my first wife by cancer. The poem, I’m sure, could be described as therapy for grief. At first I didn’t have any notion I would write a poem about her illness or, once I started to assemble it, that I would show it to anybody, or then that I would show it to anybody else other than a few friends and immediate family. But it was the response that people had that gradually convinced me that it wasn’t as private as I thought it was and that it could be shared. It was a very gradual thing.
At first, I was writing its sections, narrating the history of the illness and our reactions to it, just to relieve myself. That’s one of things that narrating does for us in relation to illness: if we can tell its story, it helps us to understand and, perhaps, even to accept it. In the months after her death, it was only very gradually apparent to me that I had written a poem I could publish and share with other people. It felt very raw. It felt unshaped. It didn’t feel like I was writing polished materials. It didn’t seem to me that I was writing poetry in the way I usually write poetry, with a sense of pleasure and accomplishment and slight detachment. It was very personal, but people have liked it and they have said it’s helped them. And so it went into the book.
The long poem that accompanies “Nine Deaths” in Earthshine, “A Poem in Three Parts,” is historically simultaneous, so that if you know the story in “Nine Deaths,” as you read “A Poem in Three Parts,” you get glimpses of the illness. I like the way it looks, the way “Nine Deaths” reflects the larger more detached and ambitious poem.
BWR: How much should poets be aware of audience while they’re writing, while they’re creating?
DY: Not so much at the beginning, more so as one shapes and revises. If you’re conscious of your reader or worried about how many readers you’ll have at the early stage, you may constrain your own imagination and its freedom. You shouldn’t care whether anyone else will ever read it at the beginning.
For example, I write a lot of things that I just throw away. And that’s my privilege. Nobody gets to see them, and nobody has to see them. Knowing that makes me much more willing to put pen to paper and try things. If you can’t try things and be messy and fail, you’re not going to get very far as a writer. At first, it’s very private because you may keep it or you may not. You may show it to someone else or you may decide it’s not worth doing that. Your sense of readership emerges gradually. And then maybe, as that’s happening, you think of friends and family who know and like your work and how they will respond to it. Then your audience broadens a little: if this were in a magazine, if this were in a book, what would they think of it? You have to at some point address that: is this poem going to make sense to anyone else? But that comes at a later stage as you become familiar with it. At that earlier stage, maybe you’re just your own reader.
BWR: Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote? Do you still have a copy of it?
DY: [Laughs] I can remember it, and I don’t have a copy of it, thank God. I was in high school. I guess we were reading T.S. Eliot or something like it, and I suddenly realized that anybody can do this. Anybody can try this. So I wrote some very silly juvenile thing, self-dramatizing poems, and I’m not going to tell any much more than that. [Laughs]
BWR: From that first step, what made you stick with it and continue?
DY: There was something satisfying about it, even though the first poem was dreadful and probably lots of others were, too. And so I hadn’t necessarily decided I wanted to be a poet. I was interested in fiction. I was interested in drama. It just felt that I had walked into something I was meant for, that using language expressively, either in fiction or in poetry or even writing a play, was something that I could hope to do as well as others or better.
I had been kind of a lost soul up to then. I didn’t feel a sense of vocation. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. But as soon as I began to receive the kind of bio-feedback that comes with writing, I knew it was right for me. I had a pretty strong sense of purpose, even by the time I went to college, that I was interested in writing and that I wanted to be a writer.
BWR: How did that purpose first take shape?
DY: Well, at first, you’re just trying to please your teacher and your classmates, and make them jump up and say, you’re the next J.D. Salinger [Laughs] or whoever it is at that moment when you’re trying to figure things out. I knew it would take a while, so I wasn’t initially ambitious to publish.
BWR: Why did you pursue the poem over other writing?
DY: For me it was never a question of whether I write prose or poetry. It was more, do I narrate or am I more interested in the lyric. And it was the latter. I found myself really liking to read lyric poetry and, therefore, wanting to write it. My own pleasure as a reader drew me gradually into the commitment to write poetry and not to think of myself as a narrator or a dramatist. I envy dramatists, I wrote a play while I was in college and had the pleasure of watching it acted and produced. That’s a very exciting thing. The words you put down on the page come to life, and there’s nothing quite like that. But I did not have some of the necessary skills to go that way, and I also realized I wasn’t that great a storyteller. So it was a process of elimination.
BWR: To wrap things up, in the spirit of Rilke, what advice would you give to a young poet who’s made the commitment to poetry?
DY: I would say it may require great patience on your part to make this happen. But it is a rewarding commitment, in and of itself. I believe that there must have come a time, pretty early on, when I thought, I’ll do this all my life whether anybody else is interested or not. Therefore, I will not be dependent on outside confirmation. I will have my own sense of vocation, of mission and purpose. And that’s important because then you’re not at the mercy of “X got this prize and I didn’t” and “Y published here and I didn’t” or “Z has this New York publisher and I don’t.” I see friends or acquaintances go through that sometimes. I don’t think it ruins their lives but it makes them less at peace with themselves, with what they are and what they do. So I would say, come to terms with that. Realize that you’re probably not going to be rich, probably not going to be famous, and you’re doing this because you love it, not because you think it will bring you glory and riches and immortality.
BWR: Thank you.
DY: Thank you.