Wednesday, June 8, 2011

David Young

David Young taught for many years at Oberlin College and still helps run Oberlin College Press, which publishes poetry titles and the twice-yearly journal FIELD: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. He has published eleven books of poetry, most recently Field of Light and Shadow: Selected and New Poems (Knopf, 2010), and is also active as a translator of poetry, having worked on Rilke, Celan, Petrarch, Montale, and the classical Chinese poets, especially Du Fu.


There aren’t that many, surely.
A tiny, crumpled list
you keep in purse or wallet.

Meanwhile, though,
think of your life as a bulky
present you were given
sometime around your first birthday.

You spend your years unwrapping it, perhaps.

Or you finish unwrapping, discover it’s a kit,
and spend your years assembling it.

The directions, if that is what they are,
are too confusing, with lots of gaps,
and there are way too many parts.

What you finally manage to put together
may or may not be what the kit intended,
but it’s yours, like a pet you never planned to own;
even if you run out of reasons to live,
it expects your care and maintenance.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this a couple of years back. I suppose it started when I was thinking about depression and suicide among some of my friends. I haven't personally experienced those extremes (though I think we all know something of what depression feels like), but I am drawn to consideration of them because, among other things, they afflict so many poets.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Sorry, but I work a lot on the computer now, which means I don’t keep drafts or dates.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I don't write poems unless inspiration strikes. That would be manufacturing, which is fine for some people but just doesn’t fit my paradigm for poetry. I have to wait for poems to happen to me.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

All I really did was use the line and stanza as a way of scoring the poem for the voice (my voice, but also, of course, the voice in the reader’s head).

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

A couple of years, I guess, until the book came out. I am lazy about periodical publication and only respond to requests any more. I don’t regard that as exemplary; it’s just a fact.

How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

When you’ve been at it for around fifty years, you kind of know whether a poem is a ‘keeper’ fairly soon. But it’s nice to have a reader or two to validate. My Knopf editor, Deborah Garrison, has a very good eye and ear.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I don't think that would be of interest in this case.

Is this a narrative poem?


Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Actually, it’s a book I’ve read since writing it that seems most germane to me: Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, which I’m reading right now, speaks to the issues that the poem grapples with. Our will to live, as he points out, comes mostly from below the conscious mind, from the cellular level on up, which means that questioning life and survival is a kind of incidental result, a byproduct of the fact that brains eventually produced what we now call consciousness. It’s a small part of the picture, in other words, though a crucial one, of course, for the consciousness. Here’s a passage that seems relevant to me:

"We commonly fall into the trap of regarding our big brains and complex conscious minds as the originators of the attitudes, intentions, and strategies behind our sophisticated life management. Why should we not? That is a reasonable and parsimonious way of conceiving of such processes, when we view it from the top of the pyramid and from present circumstances. The reality, however, is that the conscious mind has merely made the basic life-management know-how, well, knowable" (35-6).

I like the perspective that offers because it helps me see why I turned to the somewhat childish cultural stock of similes (the list, the birthday present, the kit, the pet) that inform the poem. We don’t have a deep understanding of our reasons for living because that depth is not really available to us, despite our illusion that it is.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

No, not really.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Yes, I try my poems out on friends: Charles Wright, Stuart Friebert, David Walker, my daughter Margaret, Franz Wright, et alia.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Well, just generally, I think my work has gotten simpler and more direct over the years. That might be a byproduct of working so much on Chinese poets like Du Fu and Du Mu. I admire the simplicity they achieve, their intimacy with the reader. Of course this poem doesn’t feel Chinese, but one might say that Chinese poetic values lie behind it.

What is American about this poem?

Well, everything, really. The subject and the very colloquial handling of it.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

That’s probably not for me to say!


  1. Really wonderful interview, David. The notion of the "manufacted" poem resonates with me as a fiction writer. In fact a lot of it does. Thanks,

  2. Thank you. A powerful, compelling account of the genesis of this poem. If I am allowed to say, this poem is Finished. Not abandoned.

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