Open Book with Monica Youn

GREAT BARRINGTON — In Monica Youn's latest collection of poems, "Blackacre" (2016), the poet responds to one of the greats. The book draws some of its inspiration from and even analyzes John Milton's "Sonnet 19," which ruminates on the English poet's blindness. In "Blackacre," a legal term that refers to a fictional piece of property, fertility is often at the fore.

"When I was trying to write the poem that became 'Blackacre,' I was trying to write something painfully private, painfully personal — about my 'barrenness,' my desire to have a child who would be genetically 'mine,' my increasingly irrational pursuit of that desire, its long-drawn-out failure, the fallout of recriminations and regrets, and my eventual decision to have a child by other means," Youn wrote for Poetry magazine.

"Blackacre" is Youn's third book of poems, the second to receive National Book Award attention. (It's longlisted in the poetry category.) It won the William Carlos Williams Award in 2017 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry as well as the PEN Open Book Award.

Her previous collection, "Ignatz," was motivated by George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" comic strip. The collection was a finalist for the National Book Award, an acclaimed follow-up to her debut effort, "Barter."

"It's funny, my first book, I didn't consider that difficult," she told The Eagle. "Every single review of it said that it was quite difficult. And my second book, I actually thought was very difficult. I thought the poems were more experimental. I thought they were much harder to grasp, [but] because there was that 'Krazy Kat' through line for the reader to grab hold of, the readers didn't seem to think it was difficult."

Youn has been pleased with her third book's critical reception.

"I've been really impressed with the degree to which people seem to have opened themselves to this book. It's not an easy book. It is a very dark book," she said.

A longtime lawyer, Youn stopped practicing when she joined the faculty at Princeton University, her alma mater. The Houston, Texas, native also teaches poetry in Columbia University's MFA program. (She once spent a semester lecturing at Bennington College, too.)

On Tuesday, Youn will be reading from "Blackacre" and other works as a part of the Poetry & Fiction Series at Bard College at Simon's Rock (Blodgett House, 7 p.m.). The poet answered some questions by phone in advance of the appearance.

QWhat are some of your favorite works by Milton?

A "Paradise Lost" was just mind-blowing. I didn't know that language could do that. Everything from ... sentence structure to rhythm, just the vast sweep of the themes there, I was pretty obsessed with. My other love is, of course, the sonnet "On His Blindness" [Sonnet 19]. Those are my two favorite Milton works.

QDo you have a favorite book of poems?

AWhat's great about working with students, especially very smart and motivated students, is that you can see it when something clicks for them; it clicks into place what poetry is or what it is really to write poems, what makes poems different from any other kind of writing. And I think — I don't know if I recall my favorite book, but the book that did that for me was [Rainer Maria] Rilke's 1907 [and] 1908 "New Poems" in the Edward Snow translation. That was when I was like, "Oh, this is what a poem can do. I get this."

QWhat was your favorite poem as a child?

AI don't know that I had a favorite poem as a child ... The earliest poem I remember encountering was one called, "The Highwayman" [by Alfred Noyes], which we read in like a fourth grade reader, and which I was surprised to learn while writing "Ignatz" that I still had memorized. And there's a couple of references to it in "Ignatz." [Youn went on to mention that her parents didn't keep many books around the house. "They are just not reading people," she said.]

QDo you have a favorite novel set in Texas?

AMaybe Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses," although I'm not sure if that's in Texas. [It's partly based in the Lone Star State.] But "Lonesome Dove" [by Larry McMurtry] ... I do like Westerns. I love Wim Wenders' "Paris, Texas." That landscape really spoke to me, and something about the bareness of the Texas landscape is something that I've always really internalized.

QYou wrote a poem in response to the [U.S.] presidential election [in 2016, commissioned by The Boston Review]. Do you have a favorite poem that has covered that topic, that has been inspired by November 2016?

AThere are a couple of works that I have noted that have come after that. There was one ... by Jane Hirshfield. I can't remember the title of it. [Hirshfield has written multiple election-inspired poems, including "Let Them Not Say" and "On the Fifth Day."] Ada Lim n has one that I also really like ["A New National Anthem"]. But, so far, I think we're still waiting for a lot of those poems to appear. I used to be a lawyer and a public advocate, and there ... if something happened in the morning in Congress, it would be, "OK, have a thousand-word op-ed drafted and on my boss's desk by 2:30 in the afternoon." And I really hated that hot-take response to things. I think a lot of people are brooding on the election and writing. I don't know that I've seen a lot that has come out that has impressed me, but I'm expecting the best work to come later.

QYou alluded to your legal career. I'm curious if you have a favorite legal thriller.

AI can't say I like legal thrillers as a genre. I like detective stories a whole lot. I'm a huge detective story fan. I think I've read all of Agatha Christie.

QWhat books are currently on your nightstand?

AI read Min Jin Lee's "Pachinko." I have a book club, so I've just read, Shirley Hazzard's "The Transit of Venus." The best book I've read, I think, this year was George Saunders' "Lincoln in the Bardo," which I'm obsessed with.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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