Gary Young is a poet and artist whose honors include grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Vogelstein Foundation, the California Arts Council, and two fellowship grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received a Pushcart Prize, and his book of poems, The Dream of a Moral Life, won the James D. Phelan Award. He is the author of several other collections of poetry including Hands; Days; Braver Deeds, winner the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize; No Other Life, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America; Pleasure; and most recently, Even So: New and Selected Poems. He is the co-editor of The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place; Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California; and One for the Money: The Sentence as a Poetic Form. He has produced a series of artist’s books, most notably Nine Days: New York, A Throw of the Dice and My Place Here Below. Since 1975 he has designed, illustrated, and printed limited edition books and broadsides at his Greenhouse Review Press. His print work is represented in numerous collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Getty Center for the Arts, and special collection libraries throughout the country. He was Santa Cruz County’s first Poet Laureate, and he is Santa Cruz County’s 2012 Artist of the Year. He teaches Creative Writing and directs the Cowell Press at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
An Interview with April Stearns
Braver Deeds is one book of poems in a trilogy written by UC alum and UC Santa Cruz creative writing teacher Gary Young. Filled with sixty-two prose poems describing the hardships and tragedies of life, this book was filled with events and lines I found devastatingly, yet beautifully, mysterious. After becoming entranced by the quiet language and descriptions and finishing the book, I got the chance to sit down with Professor Young himself at Santa Cruz’s Lulu Carpenters to hear his perception of his book, poetry, and the life he lived and transformed into art. good
AS: What is the meaning behind the title Braver Deeds? What does the Stephen Crane poem at the beginning of the book mean to you?
GY: Stephen Crane is the poet that, out of any single writer, made me want to be a poet. I had been reading a lot of poetry for years, and knew I wanted to be a poet. I actually started by reading Chinese translations…Tong Dynasty poems and Oscar Williams’ Immortal poems of the English Language. I got those when I was 12, read them, and for some reason decided I would be a poet. Then when I got into high school I discover Stephen Crane and read The Open Boat and The Red Badge of Courage. I read everything he wrote—all of his letters and his poems, which are these marvelous little untitled gnomic poems. I haven’t titled a poem in my last five books, and that definitely was in part influenced by Stephen Crane. I use [the Stephen Crane poem] as an epigraph because of the whole notion of brave deeds of war, and I think there are braver deeds. The book Braver Deeds is about violence and it’s about political violence, physical violence, sexual violence, racial violence, emotional violence. One of the underlying ideas behind [the book] is that we recognize courage in soldiers, firemen, and people who risk their lives, and my contention has always been that there are braver deeds than that. For some people, just getting out of bed in the morning is a lot braver deed than a soldier charging at an enemy. So that’s where that comes from.
AS: What is the relationship with autobiography in your poems? Are they closer to fiction or memoir?
GY: I never think of them as being memoir, but there’s very little fiction in my poems. My poetic project is to try to make sense of how I wander through the world, so I tend not to make things up. I really don’t have much of an imagination, but frankly who needs one? You got the world. You got your life. So there has always been enough material there.
AS: What was the original inspiration for your book and the poems in them?
GY: The original inspiration: I wanted to write a book about my mother who committed suicide. I started it, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t a good enough writer to write that book. I didn’t have the poetic chops to get it done and it became clear to me that I would have to write a book where I would learn how to write the poems I needed to write about my mother. So I then made it that I’d be writing two books, and it didn’t take me long once I started the first book to realize that I would have to have a third book. So I knew I was writing a trilogy. The first book, Days,was published, then so was Braver Deeds, then If He Had, the third book was published, with all three of them together as a trilogy called No Other Life. But the original inspiration was to write a book about my mother, a kind of sad but interesting woman, who had sort of an addiction for pain, I guess would be the best way of putting it. And drama. If there wasn’t enough drama in her life she created it. The first book, Days, is really about life and light and the birth of my first son, and there’s some little dark hints in it, but it’s mostly about light. The second book, Braver Deeds—this is mostly a dark book. And then the third book is sort of gray it’s sort of a reconciliation of the first two.
AS: So you consciously knew from the beginning that you’d be writing a trilogy?
GY: Yeah, pretty much as soon as I had to abandon the second book. I had published two books, and I knew what I wanted to write. I had been working my second book, The Dream of a Moral Life, in really long measures. I was working on an artist book called The Geography of Home, and it’s a big artist book of colorful wood block prints and monotypes and then I have a text that runs in a long line—100 pages on the back of the prints. And I realized that’s what I wanted my poems to do. I didn’t want them to be vertical anymore, I wanted them to be horizontal. That’s when I started writing prose poems, and the first book Days was my first book of prose poems. Once I had a form, the form really helped me realize how I could get into the subject matter about my mother. When you write about violence, the most difficult thing and the problem with writing in lines is that the line is a tool of amplification. And if you’re already writing something that’s overblown, like people being stabbed to death and people being raped, you’re already at a hysterical level emotionally, and so if you start juicing that up with a line break, you either risk pandering or exploiting the situation. In prose, you can tamp it down. You can write about some really horrible things low key, and I found that to be a very useful thing. As it turned out I had a sweetheart who died. I took care of her when she was dying of ovarian cancer at the same time my mother was attempting suicide, and they died within a couple months of each other. I had the two women in my life, one trying desperately to live, one trying desperately to die, and then they both died at the exact same time. The trick was trying to write about that without exploiting it and without trying to just make it a shocking story. Because it wasn’t a shocking story, it was a sad and interesting one.
AS: You said through writing you can keep those events more low-key. Do you think that happens through language?
GY: And rhetoric and tone, as well. I think some of my poems, especially in this book, are pretty shocking. Some of them deal with pretty horrific events. But that’s just it—to be able to look at a horrific event and see it clearly not be overwhelmed by the brutality or sheer awfulness of it requires an approach that allows the reader to take it in without being slapped in the face by it.
AS: That is interesting, because these poems don’t have a slap in the face to them. They’re all pretty quiet.
GY: Well, these events, most of them are pretty loud on their own. They don’t need a poem to inflate them. The trick is to lower the volume so you can actually apprehend what’s really going on.
AS: These were the first prose poems I’ve actually ever read and they were really interesting. I enjoyed the narrative focus and was wondering if you had any thoughts on how these poems were different from fiction narrative.
GY: They’re still poems, but what I try to do in my prose poems, and really particularly in this book, is I try to utilize narrative the same way I utilize images. I want the narrative to serve as an image, if that makes any sense. The narrative arch is not the important thing, but to use the narrative the way one presents an image in the poem, that’s what I’m trying to do.
AS: One of the poems is about a couple who killed a man in New Jersey, and at the end you write: “the stories I must tell myself about myself seem even more pitiful repeated in the history of others.” I found myself thinking about that line for awhile and thinking about what it might have meant, such as the human desire to control your own story. What did it mean to you?
GY: This is a couple that locked a man in a box trying to extort money from an oil company, and he died in the box, horribly. When the couple was arrested the wife ratted out her husband, and at the trial they were leading him out of the courtroom and a reporter screamed, “What do you think of your wife now?” And he turned and said, “I love her.” That resonated with me because, I already mentioned my mother and my sweetheart. I didn’t mention my first wife, who had left me when I got cancer and my sweetheart, after my wife left me took care of me when I had cancer, and two years later, she got cancer, I took care of her and she died. So this guy’s wife was horrible but [he] loved her, and I’ve been there.
AS: How long did it take for you to work on all of these poems?
GY: I think I spent about three years on each book. It took me about nine years to write all three of them.
AS: And you sat down with the goal to write each book and continued working on it through that period?
GY: Yeah, and when I was writing these books I wasn’t teaching. I had a stint teaching with the university of Missouri, and I taught for a semester in New York City. I was making the bulk of my living as an artist, which I did for 25 years. If I spent all of my time writing, I would’ve written a lot faster, at least I’d like to think I would have. Maybe I wouldn’t have. That was a productive period, and I was printing a lot of interesting books, as well. That was my forties. Life does begin at 40 and unfortunately stops at about 50—you get 10 good years out of it.
AS: You said you were an artist, were you referring specifically to printing?
GY: And printmaking. I was illustrating books and a printmaker.
AS: How did you become involved with that?
GY: When I was in graduate school I started a magazine, getting my MFA at UCI. When I came back to Santa Cruz I took a night class at the high school to learn something useful once I was out of graduate school. I learned how to print because I wanted to save money printing my magazines. So I learned how to print. As it turned out I was good at it, I liked it, and I finished the class, and it was only half way through the semester. So they had an old Chandler & Price letterpress, and I asked about it, and they said oh it’s just there to be scrapped. I read the old typographer handbook, I set a poem from one of my old teachers from UCSC, I printed it, and it was like taking drugs. And I’ve been doing it for forty years. I started printing books, then I started illustrating books, then I just started making prints. The next thing I knew I was in the Museum of Modern Art—I don’t know how that happened but it did. I’ve made a living selling art to various museums and special collection libraries and collectors. The point being that I hadn’t intended to become an artist I never took an art class in my life, although I teach art now. I just did it. But it all grew out of poetry—that was the engine of all of it.
AS: On your website, I saw a quote from your Passwords Primeval interview that discussed how “[with the prose poem] the reader can be led to places her or she might ordinarily resist in a lined poem.” I was wondering what you meant by this.
GY: In a lineated poem, you can feel yourself being taken somewhere. You can see the movement of the poem. That’s not saying you can’t be surprised or that it’s a bad thing, but as a reader you can see it coming. But not in a prose poem. A prose poem can just turn inside out, and you don’t even see that it’s happening until you open your eyes to somewhere else in the poem and are all, “How the hell did I get here?” Again it’s the subtlety of prose. We trust prose. We use it to write newspapers and menus, things like that, like instructions.
AS: Do you think it’s the trustworthiness of prose that takes people places they would otherwise resist?
GY: Absolutely. Not just the trustworthiness but it’s less sinister, less intimidating, it’s just a little block of prose. How could that hurt? Where as a poem, even a haiku, by breaking the lines there’s an intimidation factor that disappears in a little block of prose.
AS: Do you think that makes prose easier to read than poetry?
GY: Well, there’s some prose that’s very difficult to get through and there’s a lot of poems that are very easy to read. It just depends, but I think just in terms of apprehending the work prose is easier because we spend more time reading it. We use it for everything. I read a lot of poetry and I still am more comfortable reading prose.
AS:You had an interview with Zoe Ruiz for the Rumpus in 2010. In the interview you brought up how editors, readers, and poets can form a hostility toward prose poetry. You said it made no sense to you at the time. Do you have any clue today why that might be? I was wondering if it was about the boundary crossing nature.
GY: I think that that’s part of it, but the truth is, you know I was talking to Zoe about what happened: I published my second book with Copper Beech Press at Brown University. I thought it was the best thing I’ve done so far I was really excited about the book. I couldn’t wait to send it to my editor there, and I was just waiting to get the letter back that would tell me, “Yes, this is genius and fantastic.” I got the letter back and opened it, and he said, “You have betrayed poetry.” I think people don’t like the crossing over from one genre to another. At this point I asked Philip Levine for some work for the prose poem anthology Bearflag Republic Prose Poems and Poetics from California, and he said, “I don’t have any prose poems.” I said, “But I’ve seen some of these little prose vignettes you write,” and he said “Oh, you want some of those? Oh, ok.” He gave me some, and we put it in the anthology. When the book came out we had readings all over, and after the reading [someone] questioned me and said, “How can this be a poem?” I went through a little description of how a poem works, and why it doesn’t necessarily have to be lines to be a poem. All of a sudden Levine stands up, and he says, “May I respectfully disagree.” We’d been out and had a few glasses of wine before the reading, and he admitted later that he perhaps had one too many glasses at this point. But he said, “These are interesting and sometimes brilliant but they are not poems. They are noble turds.” I told him I wanted that on the back of my next book. But in his next book, he has five or six prose poems. So I think at this point there may have been a little historical moment when the prose poem was edgy and avant garde, but how long can you stay edgy and avant garde? Everybody has a prose poem or two in their books. They’re not unusual, but it’s hard to write a good prose poem. It’s hard to write a poem in lines, it’s hard to write a good poem, and it’s a convivial form for me. I feel comfortable, and it still challenges me. I find it a lot easier to write in lines so I don’t do it. Simple as that. It doesn’t make it any easier to write good poems.
AS: It’s easier to write in lines, so you don’t do it?
GY: And sometimes I think it’s just laziness, too. I wrote a bunch of poems for a textbook I published last year called Sentences of Poetic Form. It’s a workshop textbook, and I gave examples and wrote them in about 15 seconds. I could’ve written 100 of them, one after another, because I think in rhythms. I think in lines. So people say there’s no lines—I think in lines like most poets write in lines. I’m obsessed with the line. And I really do think of my poems as very long one-lined poems. So I’m using syntax, grammar, punctuation, and tone to get the same movement you get in the line. Well, there’s some things you just can’t get without the line, enjambment for instance. It’s harder for me to write a good prose poem than it is to write a good poem with lines, and I’m just suspicious of the ease because I know that if I had written 10 of these things a day, one a week might’ve been a real live poem. That’s 52 poems. That’s a book at the end of the year. So I may have made a huge mistake, but I’m just not attracted to it. I have the form that I’m working in, and every book, I think, is different than the one before. The form is just a small part of it. No one says, “Are you still writing short stories?” You wouldn’t ask that about a fiction writer. So I think it’s absurd to ask that about a writer or someone who writes prose poems.
AS: If you have any advice for the younger generation who is interested in writing and has a passion for it, where should they start?
GY: Everything I say is going to sound like something you read in Poets and Writers Magazine. You should start by reading. It’s so basic, but I’m just astonished and sometimes appalled by how little poetry my poetry students have read. You have to read. You have to read thousands and thousands of poems and as many stories and novels as you can, and you have to absorb them. You have to really physically know how a sentence moves—how language works, and you have to get to a point where you have internalized all those great poems, all those great stories, and you only do that by reading and rereading and reading some more, and that’s more important than writing. It’s way more important than writing. Writing is the hard part, but the important part is reading. You can’t do too much of it, and the nice thing about being young is you have the time to do it. So it’s a nice situation, coincidence, you’re young, and you have time, and you want to start writing, and you need to read so it’s perfect. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t generally start writing when they’re older, because they don’t have time to catch up on the reading. It’s not the writing, it’s the reading. For me, it’s being fearless and it’s being honest and that’s one of the hardest things about writing is being honest, and not necessarily about yourself but just being honest period. Telling the truth is one of the reasons, to get back to one of your first questions, why I write so much about my life. Because I know it, and I can be honest about it. I’m not going to make anything up. The hard part about it is looking at it honestly and telling the truth. Even if you’re making it up if it’s a story about characters you invented you have to be truthful, and that’s not always easy.
AS: Can you expand on that? Like truthful about where the fiction is coming from?
GY: The truth about what is happening with your characters. The truth about the world that you have invented for them. Rather than creating an easy world or creating an easy character or creating an easy situation that you can exploit in some way. That’s why I have so much trouble with fiction and film. You got to blow something up. Somebody has got to get killed all the time. The history of novels is one of adultery and passion, but that’s not where most of us live. But it’s boring where most of us live. But it’s true. And I think there are a lot of writers who do make moving literature out of the truth, which is quite often quite dull. If we’re lucky, it’s dull. The poems in Braver Deeds, most of them chronicle events that were exciting. I really hope my life is never that exciting again. And I hope yours is never that exciting at all.