A Conversation with Kim Young
by Kari Hawkey
When did you begin writing poetry?
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. I don’t know what that says about me—that I felt the need to make art or create narrative at such an early age—but it certainly seems to be my inclination. I’d say I found poetry, as a genre, nearly twenty years ago.
Do you remember the first poem you read that just made you want to become a poet?
H.D.’s “Tribute to the Angels”
What other poets have influenced or informed your poetry?
Diane Wakowski, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, James Wright, Denise Duhamel, Dorothy Barresi, Rachel Zucker, Maggie Nelson. And so many others. And too many individual poems to name.
You received your MFA from Bennington College. Some people argue that this type of schooling can stifle creativity and create homogenization in contemporary writing. Do you agree or disagree? How do you believe your MFA has affected your writing?
I think the criticism about homogenization in contemporary poetry speaks to how difficult it is to write great poetry, not necessarily that MFA programs are churning out McPoems, as the argument goes. It takes a lot to write poetry that’s truly dynamic. That’s what makes the endeavor so exciting.
Honestly, I think Night Radio is of a certain sensibility that might seem similar to some of my classmates’ work. But I think that has more to do with generation and development than conformity. If you grow up with Annie: The Movie and Are You There God It’s Me Margaret and Twin Peaks and Kurt Cobain and Bikini Kill, you’re going to share a sort of historical aesthetic with other writers. I also think it’s a first-book thing--the journey out of childhood, the strained seriousness, the heavy imagery. I see my writing changing dramatically in newer poems.
All in all, though, my MFA program, though by no means a practical business decision, was incredible. My teachers were generous and attentive and challenging. I understand that not everyone is willing or privileged enough to drop (or borrow) 35-40k on a degree that guarantees no job or postgraduate success--but, in a way, that’s what makes such an endeavor so precious. In a society where everything is valued through currency, people are willing to devote their time and money to something that has little monetary value.
How do you feel about confessional poetry?
I feel good about it. I just re-read Berryman’s Dream Songs --Mr. Bones and the sonnet form and the unchecked Id--Who is the “I” in those poems? And Plath’s word-chunks of loss and anger that she’s willing to elevate into the traditionally male-dominated terrain of history. I feel inspired. The criticism is that confessional poetry is akin to craft-less journal entries better left shared with your therapy group. What I think is that dead language and bad poetry can be “about” anything and that writing explicitly about life experience requires the same wrestling with form and language as any other approach or content. I mean what’s more destabilizing than life itself? What’s at the heart of confessional or autobiographical writing, for me, is all the fascinating ways the imaginative lens can transcribe actual lived experience. The notion that there’s some sort of inherent “truth” that can simply be uncovered has been dispelled, so confessional poetry or poetry that uses autobiography or life events requires the same act of creation, the same meaning making, the same art that any other project would.
I read Night Radio and it is hauntingly stunning. I respect that you have chosen to share the truths of such a traumatic experience with the world. But, what types if reactions have you received when others find out that this book of poetry was based on a real event your family endured?
A couple things come to mind: First, it wasn’t really a choice. I’m with Mark Doty in that my metaphors are much wiser than I am and that my content is revealed or made only if I trust in an attentiveness to language, detail, metaphor, or rhythm. At some point my husband said to me, “not another sister poem.” I would’ve stopped if I could have. (I am pleased to report that I’ve now moved on).
As for reaction, people are naturally curious about the “real life” aspect of the book. But since I mostly read and share the work with other writers, they tend to be more engaged with how I handled such content formally. The most satisfying reaction is when readers are deeply touched or jarred or engaged with the book. As a writer I have that conflict where I want the work to be deeply seen but at the same time such attention feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar.
Your book deals with the false sense of security and its reality. How do you believe this juxtaposition informed your poems in Night Radio?
My hope is that the story-beneath-the-story in Night Radio is more about coming to believe in the world again, rather than the details of the trauma. What emerged in the writing of these poems was questions about whether language, meaningfulness or art could suffice—whether or not that speaker-voice in the poems, the conglomeration of me as a person writing the poems and all the voices I create through language and approach, could come to rely on anything. That desperate desire for art to make life meaningful is certainly a central theme of the book for me. I’m still not sure if I actually believe art does that or not. Certainly, part of me does. I keep writing. I keep sharing passionately with my students. But a funny thing happened toward the end of the composition of Night Radio and that was the conception of my daughter. Bringing another life into the world somehow changes all of these questions for me—changes them in a way I don’t even fully understand yet.
Your poems in Night Radio seem to slowly progress toward the unfolding of the narrative involving your family and the trauma of your sister's kidnapping. Were these poems written in any specific order or did you have a group of poems in which to organize after?
I wrote, I’d say, the first half of Night Radio not really knowing where I was going. At one point, I had another thread in the manuscript about my white grandmother’s affair/work at integrating churches with a black minister here in L.A. I thought the L.A. theme could hold the book together but quickly realized the grandmother’s story was too big and the book would be best served if it stayed focused on the sister story. When I graduated with my MFA in 2008, I started to think I should send the manuscript out but knew I wasn’t finished. I spent 2009 in Germany and when we came back to L.A., I ended up interviewing the wonderful Maggie Nelson about her books Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts for Chaparral (the online literary journal I edit). Nelson is so smart and generous and, after hearing about her projects and talking with her about some of the difficulties I was having with Night Radio (that’s what I mean about generous—I was interviewing her and she immediately asked about my project with such attentiveness), I wrote 5-7 poems and knew more than ever that I was almost finished with the book. So was mix of writing into completely unknown territory and then work that was generated specifically for the arc of the manuscript.
In Night Radio, were specific poems like "The Facts" written for the book specifically as a sort of way to support and continue the narrative?
Major Jackson, one of my teachers at Bennington, had suggested more than once that I attempt to write a poem outlining the facts of the actual assault. I couldn’t do it. “The Facts” and the three ‘snapshot’ poems were among the last poems I wrote. Funny, huh? Such simple poems. But trauma is that way. It’s in the ability to examine the details that something so mythic can become more manageable, more life-sized.
Was the act of writing this book a cathartic experience? Or did it cause problems with your family in making such a tragic experience a bit more public?
It’s difficult to separate the art from all the personal healing work I’ve done outside of writing. I think it all works together to act as some sort of catharsis. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that writing the poems wasn’t a particularly emotional experience for me. But now that I’m out reading from the book, I feel the loss and grief and despair of having to reconcile myself with something so senseless and destructive.
As for my family’s reaction, I was very concerned about exploiting my sister or doing anything that would over-expose her or use her in any way. My teachers all encouraged me to keep writing and to keep the focus on my own experience of her being kidnapped and trauma that created in our family. I was transparent with my sister throughout the process of writing the book and once the book was accepted for publication offered again to let her review the draft before it was out of my hands and into the world. She was supportive. And my family has been incredibly supportive. In a way, I think they are relieved that someone was willing to tell the story. My mom has actually said as much.
You won the 2011 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize (The University of Utah Press) for Night Radio. What can you share about that experience?
The message that I won the prize came after we had lost power for several days in that windstorm that took out trees and telephone poles in Pasadena. The heater finally clicked on and I was just getting around to checking an old email account. When I saw the message—with “Ali Prize” in the subject line—I almost deleted it. My daughter was a year and a half old and I had been dutifully sending out the manuscript in the midst of colic and sleeplessness (with an admittedly dimming hope that the book might find a home). The book did find a home. And it came right on time.
Are you currently working on another book of poetry? Do you have any daily writing routines?
I’m about a quarter of the way through my next manuscript, tentatively titled How To Be Bad. No daily writing routines here. I wish.
What advice encouraged you when you were beginning to write?
I had many wonderful mentors when I was beginning to write but the two that stand out are Lee McCarthy (a first-rate poet and, as it turns out, Cormac’s first wife) and Joan Raymond. Lee and I wrote letters for many years and Joan published some of my first poems. When I sent Joan a batch of poems she called me up and invited me to lunch with her in Ojai. Never hide in your work, she said. These were brave writers and brave women and their drive and fearlessness is something that’s stayed very close to me over the years.
What advice can you give to poets who are hoping to publish someday?
Use the disappointment, the rejection, the failure. Use it to get better. So often I’d look up the winner for a prize I didn’t get and I’d read the winning poems and say, yes, the work is stronger than mine. It’s more alive, more interesting, further along. What can I learn from this? How can I strive to reach a similar dynamism in my own project? I used the failure and I still do. You have to be determined.
And maybe even more importantly, if you call yourself a poet and you’re not supporting poetry in some way, it’s time to serve. This artform of ours survives because we run reading series or edit magazines or subscribe to journals or buy new books. When I feel especially discouraged, I’m still shored up by championing the work of writers I admire. I came to this art as a reader first. So when a student workshops a poem that the entire class recognizes as vital, it’s like falling in love with that first poem again. And I’m buoyed.