Interview with Monica Youn
by Kyle Keymaram '14
Monica Youn is a poet and a lawyer. She has written numerous political articles for the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, and Slate. Her poems have been published in the New Yorker, Gulf Coast, and the Paris Review. Her collection of poems, Ignatz, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry.
Monica came to Bennington as a visiting professor at the beginning of this term. She is currently teaching two poetry classes: Reading and Writing Poetry: The Poet’s Toolkit and Modernist Monuments: Yeats, Pound and Eliot.
KK: What where your initial impressions of Bennington before you came to teach here? Have your opinions changed now that you have had some time to acclimate to your surroundings and get to know the students?
MY: I have a number of friends who have taught here in the past and a number of friends who teach here now, so I tried to get a good sense beforehand about what my experience here was going to be like. I had heard that Bennington students are very enthusiastic and are willing to do a lot of work, but I am now completely convinced that students wouldn’t be attending this particular school if they weren’t willing to put in the hours and do good, hard work.
KK: You are currently teaching a poetry class called “Modernist Monuments: Yeats, Pound, and Elliot.” When did your relationship with Modernist literature begin? What has drawn you toward it? Do these various writers – Yeats, Pound, and Eliot – influence or help to inform your own work as a poet?
MY: I did my masters degree in twentieth century literature with a concentration on Modernist poetry, but I did my masters thesis on Joyce. All three of these poets are influential to me in rather complicated ways. Yeats is obviously the great music maker –the fluency of his rhetoric is very attractive, but I’m still a little suspicious of him at times. Pound is the great entrepreneur and, as I tell my students, he is both the most influential and the least read of any major poet writing in English in the twentieth century. All of us are living in Pound’s world, but none of us read him! It’s sort of funny to teach Pound, but when I do I tend to focus more on communicating what he was trying to do as opposed to what he actually did. I’ve always had a strange relationship with Elliot - I find him to be kind of thin and sour. I’m not a religious person and I feel like the religiosity at the end of his life was a bit of a cop out, a sort of turning away from the world. So, in one way or another, all of these poets have managed to influence my work, but it is difficult to say exactly how they have done so.
KK: You are both a lawyer and poet. Do lawyers and poets exist in different realms of thought and expression? In addition to recognizing and being attuned to the nuances of language, are there other commonalities that link these practices?
MY: Both law and poetry are based on the idea of when to employ and when to resist analogical reasoning. The case system in law is based on a process of reasoning from analogy, i.e. this precedent is like this precedent. Now, this can be very attractive, but it can also be very dangerous. If you are going to equate a human being to property, a corporation to a human being, or money to speech, you tend get yourself into all kinds of morally problematic situations. In poetry there is also a suspicion of comparisons being made too easily – some poets can get a little too carried away with the power of their own language and in the process forget about their responsibility to the actual.
KK: In light of my last question: Poe once said, “The principles of the poetic sentiment lie deep within the immortal nature of man, and have little necessary reference to the worldly circumstances which surround him.” Are you inclined to agree or disagree with this statement?
MY: I don’t think I can agree with Poe’s statement. I think the statement is the sort of romanticism that I tend to resist in poetry. It’s a pity that the combination of the romanticism of poetry and the capture of poetry by the academy has led to poets being separated from the world. When people ask me what I do, I say that I am a poet, whereas before I said I was a lawyer. The assumption (when I say I’m a poet) is that I’m going to be helpless and incompetent… It’s a pity that poets have allowed themselves to be pushed into that corner. Sir Walter Raleigh, who was both a poet and a lawyer, was surely not incompetent in either realm. Up until the Romantic Movement, the idea that the poet should be a weak creature was not as dominant as it is in culture today.
KK: Someone told me that you were Beyonce’s lawyer… Is this true?
MY: I spent about five years practicing law as an entertainment and media lawyer. I represented Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan. It was kind of interesting…
KK: So where does Beyoncé stand in the pantheon of Modernist literature?
MY: Believe it or not, I think Beyoncé has a lot to do with Modernism. She is someone who has a talent for writing both syncopated and insistent rhythms. She is also someone who has a lot to do with mask making and self-presentation… I think that any Modernist would be happy to claim her.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
(Cover Photo: Brennan Center for Justice)