Any Room Will Serve: A Normal Interview with Gary Young
By Ronald Dzerigian
“When he sounds his one shrill note, even the hawk is a songbird.”
Gary Young’s poems speak to all of us because they speak from the ground up. His works make you want to join him in making a powerful statement, in conversation with the cosmos, about what matters—on an everyday level—to the human race.
Young is the author of several collections of poetry, including Hands, The Dream of a Moral Life, Days, Braver Deeds, No Other Life, If He Had, and Pleasure. Selections from each of these can be found in Even So: New and Selected Poems from White Pine Press. He has also co-edited The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place and Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California with long-time collaborator Christopher Buckley. In Precious Mirrors from White Pine Press, he studied and translated the calligraphy and poems of Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. Adversary, his newest chapbook, is now available through Miramar Poetry Journal.
Young will visit Fresno State on Friday, Sept. 23 for a reading in the Alice Peters Auditorium at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Ronald Dzerigian: If you don’t mind, perhaps we can begin and end this conversation with simple questions and let the more complicated ideas be addressed somewhere in the middle. So: What poets are you currently reading?
Gary Young: I’m a fairly promiscuous reader, and I usually have several books going at once. I just finished Du Fu: A Life in Poetry by David Young. Jennifer Richter’s No Acute Distress is on my nightstand, and I’ve been enjoying A Small Clearing, a chapbook of new work by Peter Everwine, a poet I admire very much. I’ve also been dipping into In the Sierra: Mountain Writings by Kenneth Rexroth.
RD: Peter Everwine returns to my reading list with dominant regularity. What drew you to the art of writing poems?
GY: When I was in junior high school, I attended a book sale in the school library, and, for whatever reason, picked up a copy of The Jade Mountain, Witter Bynner’s translations of poems from the Tang dynasty, and Immortal Poems of the English Language edited by Oscar Williams. I still have them. I immersed myself in both volumes, and decided that I wanted to be a poet. In retrospect, it seems silly, but I have followed that original impulse for over fifty years. My grandfather was a Methodist minister, and my mother was a singer. I loved song and scripture, and it’s not a joke when I say that once I started writing, my earliest inspirations came from the Bible and Frank Sinatra. Poetry was a place to synthesize the disparate elements of my life; it still is.
RD: Disparity is necessary. In Days (1997) you moved abruptly from the lineated poem to the prose poem format. I learned a bit about your attraction to the prose poem in an excerpt from your interview with Tony Luezzi. You stated that, in prose “the reader can be led to places that he or she might ordinarily resist in a lined poem.” Can you explain, further, how this form produces “humility… in (you) when (you) write”?
GY: The prose poem is a form with little razzle-dazzle. It’s humble, workman like, and goes about its business modestly. When you devote yourself to a form with these qualities, they’re bound to rub off. Ego is great for getting you to the dentist on time, but it’s a hindrance to an artist. I suppose ego can generate the drive necessary to produce creative work, but it can contaminate art with doubt, or worse, with a desire to please. Measure is the death of art, and when we succumb to it, we kill a little of our gift.
RD: Your speaker, since we are speaking of “humility,” seems to understand the presence of the human being as parallel with nature. Is your abandonment of titles another way for you to further reduce the level of self-importance with which the poet is in constant battle? Is it a way of keeping the speaker of your poems grounded?
GY: I’m not sure that titles aggrandize poets, but they can certainly serve to raise the profile of a poem. Titles can be critical for the apprehension of a poem, but I’ve abandoned them for a couple of reasons. While titles can alert readers to what’s coming, they sometimes delimit the fullest broadcast of a poem’s potential by narrowly focusing the reader’s attention. I want my poems to be discrete utterances that begin without fanfare, move horizontally across the page, and end without commotion. I don’t think that’s necessarily a virtue, but for better or worse, dropping titles from my poems encourages me to write the kind of poems that bring me the most delight.
I think it’s clear that human beings are a part of nature, even if a somewhat malignant one, and one aspect of my poetic project is to explore that dynamic. It might be better to consider that we are nature thinking, and that when we write poems, we are nature singing. Consciousness often insists that it exists independent of the world, of matter, but bodies are essential to consciousness, whether they be our own animal bodies, or celestial, cosmic ones. I have always sensed a spirit in material things—stones, rivers, clouds—and I have no reason to believe it’s any different than the spirit I sense in myself. I don’t know if that makes me any more grounded; it’s simply how I see the world.
RD: You are also a visual artist; your drawings and prints grace the covers of all of your poetry books, and your artwork has been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums. Do you feel that, when you are creating a drawing, you employ a different lens than when you write a poem? Does Gary Young, the visual artist, inhabit a different plane than Gary Young the writer?
GY: It’s interesting that you use the word “inhabit” to differentiate modes of creativity. I really don’t think of writing poems as something that I do, but rather as a place that I inhabit. My embrace of the prose poem was a direct result of my work as an artist and printer. I started writing prose poems in an effort to achieve equivalence with mark making, specifically with landscape and the exciting events that occur on a horizon line. An attractive landscape that provokes a drawing or a print is frequently one that also inspires a poem. The two activities are separate, but equal.
Although I consider poetry to be the engine of my creative work, it’s my activity as a visual artist that “grounds” my poetic project, as you suggested before. Carving woodblocks to depict a landscape, or setting a poem by hand—these are visceral activities and embody, literally, the act of creation. I want my hands to be involved as well as my head. It’s easy for poets to retreat inside their own minds, but that’s a lonely place to be.
RD: Your newest chapbook, Adversary, seems to deal with vulnerability, duality of spirit, impermanence (death), and the basic inherent challenges of living in this world. Nature, again, plays an important part in helping your speaker come to terms with these things. Tell me about your conversations with nature. What does the non-human world inform you about yourself?
GY: Goodness, that’s a flattering appraisal. I hope there’s some truth to it! I think you’ve hit upon most of the themes in this new chapbook, which is part of larger collection I’ve just completed titled That’s What I Thought. There are reflections on the past, and how memory shifts and often distorts the perception we have of ourselves. Many of the poems in this new book were written in Japan while I was working on a collection of translations. This offered me an opportunity to reconcile my romance with Buddhism and the poetry of China and Japan with my own worldview and my own poetry.
I just turned sixty-five. My father died a few months ago, and for the first time in thirty years my wife and I are living without children in the house. The “non-human world” tells me the same thing that the human world tells me: everything changes, our time here is finite, we’re going to die. Paying attention to nature in the broadest sense makes these truths less disheartening. In fact, being a part of nature, we can recognize them as gifts.
RD: The Geography of Home, an anthology of California poets that you co-edited with Christopher Buckley, is astoundingly beautiful. Tell me a little about your love for California and your feelings about this place as a platform and/or character in poems.
GY: Quite simply, as the title to our anthology suggests, California is my home. Except for a few short teaching gigs in different parts of the country, and some modest travel, I have spent my whole life here. California is a magical place. If it were a country, it would surely be considered one of the loveliest. I live in a redwood forest. Across the road is a vineyard. The coast is only five miles away, and each day on my way to work, I drive beside the ocean, through artichoke and brussels sprouts fields. It’s almost too fulsome a place. And of course, as a writer, who doesn’t want to live in a state named after the character in a novel?
RD: You live in a beautiful part of California. What can you say, from a writer’s perspective, about the place where we live versus the place where we are from?
GY: Because of work, or family obligations, or lack of resources, many people, perhaps even most, live where they must, not where they’d like, so it’s a blessing to be able to live where you want to live. Of course, no matter where writers eventually land, they all carry their childhood homes with them. Memories and the odd stamp left by childhood bedrooms, first neighborhoods, the weather, or particular landscapes are a persistent source of material for most writers.
For almost fifty years I’ve been fortunate to live in a place of my choosing. I live in the Santa Cruz mountains, in a house that I built myself, a house in which I raised my children, and where I’m now moving into a later stage of life. I have lived here for so long, it has left the same patina on my consciousness as my childhood home has. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
RD: Has your ideal writing environment changed over the years?
GY: I carry a small notebook at all times, and most of my poems begin, however awkwardly, in their pages, so the writing environments in which I scratch out my first drafts are extremely diverse: in my car, on a walk, at the market. When I sit down to actually fashion a poem, it’s usually at the desk in my study, though as long as it’s quiet, and I’m uninterrupted, any room will serve.
RD: What advice do you give to beginning poets?
GY: I have little advice to offer beginning poets that wouldn’t sound like the tired bromides one typically hears—“show don’t tell,” or “write what you know.” The most practical advice I can offer is to read as much as you can, get plenty of rest, and understand that you are embarking on a dangerous, if exciting journey. Get a day job, avoid fame, and no matter the accolades you might receive, remember that the reward for writing poems is that you get to write poems. Everything else is peripheral to that.
Gary Young is a poet, artist, printer, and educator. His numerous awards include recognition from The Poetry Society of America, the 2013 Lucille Medwick Award, the Shelley Memorial Award (2009), the William Carlos Williams Award (2003), and the Lyric Poem Award (2001). Gary has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and his print work is represented in the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Getty Center for the Arts, and special collections libraries throughout the country. He teaches Creative Writing, and is the Director of the Cowell Press at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Ronald Dzerigian resides in a small farming community just outside of Fresno, California, with his wife and two daughters. He received his MFA California State University, Fresno. He has been a recipient of the Academy of American Poets’ Ernesto Trejo Memorial Prize, and the C.G. Hanzlicek Poetry Writing Fellowship. His poems can be found on poets.org, in the Santa Ana River Review, and forthcoming in RHINO and Prairie Schooner. He is a writing consultant for the Graduate Students at Fresno State.