Justin Bigos: I’d like to start by talking about beauty. I am currently taking a poetry workshop in which the teacher, on the first day of class, asked us: “Is beauty something you think about in your poems?” I was kind of struck by the question – as if a poet could possibly not think of beauty, not just in his or her own poems but in the poems of others. Carl Phillips has written in an essay, “The point of the poem is not to say anything about beauty, but to enact the vision of it” – “to see it.” So, the student now asks the teacher: Is beauty something you think about in your poems, in the poems of others?
C. Dale Young: Many have written about beauty, but I always return to Stephen Dobyns and his extraordinary book of essays Best Words, Best Order. In that collection, he has a phenomenal essay on the problem of beauty. In that essay, he quotes a passage by Dostoyevsky in which one finds the following:
“Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. […] The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the Devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
I return to that quote often because I don’t know exactly what beauty is, and I firmly believe one cannot know it without the juxtaposition of the ordinary. Someone once tried to convince me you could only see the beautiful if you had seen the grotesque, but I disagree. I believe to see beauty one must also see the ordinary out of the corner of one’s eye. So, in the drafting, the getting the poem down, I do not think of beauty. But in revision I do, and at that point I am also keenly aware that to have beauty one must also have the ordinary. If a poem is filled with nothing but the beautiful, it becomes a kind of grotesque. In the end, I strive not for beauty but for elegance, remembering that elegance arises from simplicity and not from the beautiful. Reliance on the beautiful, reliance on detail, gives rise not to elegance but to the baroque, something which if taken to the extreme is grotesque.
JB: I like your emphasis on the common, the ordinary, even the peripheral. It does seem that poets who have an aversion to “beauty” may think of it as necessarily precious. And in that way the beautiful becomes “sentimental” – another word poets tend to hate. I think of your poem “The Bridge,” which begins, “I love. Wouldn’t we all like to start/ a poem with ‘I love’? I would.” The poem moves from this playful ars-poetica opening to a love poem, and the poem ends on the image of the speaker and his beloved holding hands, and how they look together like the Golden Gate Bridge. The poem definitely flirts with sentimentality, and in its flirting it feels defiant – and so the ending is a kind of middle finger to those who would deny – well, the things we’re talking about: beauty, feeling, joy, which are found in common, everyday life. So: what the hell is going on? Seriously, where does all this doubting of our own emotions come from? Is it worth thinking about? Or should we just get our work done and not worry about it?
CDY: It is, I would argue, a good thing to doubt our emotions and how they are used in poems. If the poem arises wholly from a single emotion, the likelihood the poem will be flat increases significantly. “The Bridge” started because many years ago I noticed that there were parallel lines in the word “parallel.” I just loved that. When I was much younger I falsely believed that the love poem was in essence a dead form; I believed this out of a kind of laziness when I was a graduate student. What I realized with time is that the love poem isn’t dead but just incredibly difficult to pull off. I wanted to write a poem about the fact I love so many things. I wanted to be playful. In the end, I believe it is the playfulness that allows me to pull that poem off. If I had opened the poem with what comes at the end, the poem would have spiraled into utter sappiness. For every force there must be an opposing force. Poems are much like that basic idea in physics.
JB: In rereading your latest book, Torn, I was struck again by the grace, the exactness, of the diction and syntax. The poems feel made, in the best sense of the word. And yet, there are moments in which the voice seems to crack a little, to give way to something vulgar – again, in the best sense of the word. I am thinking of a poem like “The Cutting Room,” in which the speaker says, “I speak what I know. I speak with a filthy mouth.” I love that line, and its careful placement in the poem. And yet the “filthy mouth” is not foul as much as it is physically filthy, dirty, of the earth, of the body formed by earth. That’s what I mean by the best sense of vulgar – the low, the against-the-ground, where all of us really live whether we admit it or not. We have spoken of beauty – can we speak of the vulgar in the same breath?
CDY: Well, this is another facet of what we are talking about when we talk about beauty. If by vulgar you mean common, then yes, for me a poem like “The Cutting Room” cannot exist without the common. A poem in which a falling glass becomes a falling heart, a heart that does not break but turns to dust, is a poem heading for disaster. The speaker of that poem has to be angry, has to say something rather common to offset the pseudo-surreal transformation of the glass into a heart. Tone and diction can do an incredible amount of work to ground and stabilize a wildness of image, something I have marveled at in the work of Sylvia Plath. But yes, the common is absolutely necessary to execute the moment of transformation in that poem, which could be seen as an attempt to enact the beautiful. Without the common, without the modulation of tone, that poem would be just a sequence of images enacting a kind of Ovidian transformation. And that may be beautiful, but it would also be immensely dull.
JB: In “Corpus Medicum,” a poem of eros, faith, and doubt – connecting the world of medicine and Christianity – you write, “Someone/ whispered that the very act of naming was holy.” In the poem “Against Divination,” the vision of the medical doctor at the end of the poem is of a “terrible oracle.” Do you truly believe in the oracular? Was Emerson right to think of the poet as “the namer, the sayer”?
CDY: This seems like a trick question! I guess the answer depends on how you define “oracular.” Lyric poetry relies on the voice or, more specifically, a reader’s sense of a voice. The voice, if too simple, is easily ignored along with the chatter of the world around us. But if the voice is complicated, the way real human beings are complicated, a reader is drawn in and captivated by the voice. In this way, I believe in the oracular, in the basic job of the lyric poet to construct a speaker who seems real, seems complicated, seems human. This goes back to beauty, too. If everything the speaker of a poem says is wondrous, is joyful and clean, no one will believe that speaker. The poem is just ornament: something pretty, like a piece of jewelry. The poems that capture my attention have speakers that seem real. Within the poem, one senses a mind at work behind the voice. A poet may not be a namer the way a field biologist is a namer, but a poet can “name” things a reader never fully realized or ever thought about deeply until confronted by it in a poem. Many of my disagreements with myself about faith seemed odd and ridiculous—unnamed until I read Donne. Donne gave a “name” to that back-and-forth in my head that seemed almost perverse. Did Donne give that sensation a literal name? No, but his poems showed me I was not the only one who felt like this. Sometimes the thing “named” isn’t even a thing but a feeling or an emotion. In that way, I believe in the oracular.
JB: Your poem “Deus ex Machina” is a poem that looks hard at the question of whether or not we can ever truly “fix” each other. Part of the medical doctor’s job – in the poem as in life – is not just to fix (when possible), but also to offer words, sometimes kind words, sometimes painful words. If not oracular, the words certainly matter – as we see in “Deus,” words can be a matter of life and death. As a doctor you must experience a tremendous amount of responsibility for the words that come out of your mouth. Do you also feel the poet has a responsibility – to anyone or anything?
CDY: As a physician, I am keenly aware of the words that come out of my mouth. I never lie to a patient, but always I must be aware that how I phrase something can have a remarkable impact on the person in front of me. To me, the poet has a responsibility to the poem. I don’t believe getting the draft down on paper is writing. To me, that is just getting the raw materials in front of you. The real work of writing is in what many call revision. I feel my responsibility is to sit with the draft and be open to possibilities. Many times, I want to just get the poem done. But poems are never really finished. And that desire to get it done quickly often forecloses greater possibilities for the poem. The only responsibility I feel as a poet is to sitting and being open, to really look and look again, which is exactly what revision means.
JB: While rereading Torn, I noticed something I hadn’t the first time: a kind of occult subject matter. There are ghosts, omens, divinations, photos of the dead speaking to the living, devils in fields. Poems, in some way, seem the perfect place to explore ghostly voices and presences, and all that is unexplainable. Yeats was certainly a poet who was very steeped in occult studies. Is this subject matter incidental, or do you have a pagan-like curiosity about these phenomena?
CDY: It is funny that you bring up Yeats. My first real love, the poem that stunned me into silence and made me marvel is his poem “The Second Coming.” I didn’t have any idea then I would ever end up a poet, but I deeply remember wanting to make something in life as mesmerizing as that poem. Yeats was definitely a student of the occult. I cannot really say that for myself. I suspect the otherworldly echoes in my work are more a result of growing up Catholic and my love of the Greek myths. Presence and absence haunt virtually every Greek myth. I find that captivating.
JB: Yes, Yeats’s “The Second Coming” is mind-blowing in its musical power – it feels, to use the word again, oracular. To be honest, though, the oracular feel of the poem is why it keeps me at a distance from it. I find the Yeats of, say, “Easter 1916” more compelling, because the voice – to echo what you said earlier about lyric poetry – sounds more human, more complicated. I love how the poem dramatizes Yeats’s conflicted feelings about the Easter rebels, and how he delays the bardic duty to name them until the very end of the poem. Do you find yourself sometimes attracted to certain aspects of poets, certain poems or books over others? I mean, is it okay to admit Whitman can be annoying sometimes?
CDY: To this day, having read “The Second Coming” countless times, I have no idea exactly what it really means. But I am not remotely bothered by that. The strangeness of that poem, its “music” as you point out; well, it just floors me every time. As much as I like “Easter 1916,” I just don’t love it the way I do “The Second Coming.” Who knows why we are attracted to certain poets and not others? And who knows why we are attracted to certain aspects of a poet’s work and not others? As for Whitman, I love his bravura, his bold, to use a modern expression, in-your-faceness! But I would argue that for me “The Second Coming” does sound human. It sounds like a person in mental and emotional distress. Yes, there is the history to latch on to in a poem like “Easter 1916,” but the lyric voice of “The Second Coming” stands up regardless of history, and in many ways stands on a history much older than the Easter rebellion.
JB: You have mentioned a love of Greek myth. Are there other literatures outside of the English/American tradition that are important to you? Do you think American poets read enough poetry in translation?
CDY: The multiplicity of the Vedic tradition has been important to me since college when I discovered the Gita. The ancient Sumerian myths of creation are also incredible. I love the fact that there are so many Hindu myths of creation, all different, but all considered true and considered to have happened at the very same time. As for literatures outside of myth, I read widely in the South American traditions, mostly because I can read many of those poems in the original. I had a teacher once who felt reading poetry in translation was a waste of time if you didn’t have the language, but I don’t believe that. Language affects and effects the imagination. It doesn’t take a lot of time reading poems in translation to realize that even if the translator didn’t get the exact line down something of that poet’s imagination is captured on the page. So, I read Chinese poetry in translation. I read poetry and fiction translated from Russian, French, Portuguese, etc. I always feel rewarded for doing so. As for whether or not American poets read enough poetry in translation, I don’t really know. I know I make my own students do it. But I don’t have a sense of what others do.
JB: Torn is dedicated, in part, to Donald Justice, and the book contains an elegy to Justice, “Late Poem.” The poem is more than elegy, it is a poem of humble gratitude from student to teacher. The poem pivots on the question, “But what keeps a voice moving, old friend?/ What prompts us to open our mouths and sing,/ once again, the same sad song you knew so well?” Can you talk about Justice, the teacher and also the poet?
CDY: I owe Don Justice more than I can ever express. At the end of my first year of graduate school in creative writing, I felt overwhelmed and positively stupid. I wanted to quit and just go on to medical school. That summer between my first and second years of graduate school, I attended a conference where Don was teaching. We ended up one day going on a hike, which in and of itself seems almost preposterous considering our dispositions. While on that hike, I mentioned I had decided I wasn’t returning to graduate school. He stopped and said “Why would you choose such a thing? If you believe leaving is best, then you should leave. But it isn’t every day someone arrives understanding a poem whole.” He didn’t say another word. I did not quit the MFA Program. And then, as I reached the last semester of graduate school, I became panicked that should I start medical school I would never write again. Once again, Don had words for me. When I expressed this fear to him, he responded with only this: “We always find time to do the things we want to do.” Don Justice saved me from quitting poetry and from later quitting medicine. I cannot thank him enough. Years later when I reminded him of these things, he brushed it off as just mere advice. But I knew he was not one to offer kindly advice to every old student he had. I remained in touch with him up until the year before he died. I still have a difficult time believing he is dead. His work is one of grace and balance. Whether writing in metrical form or free verse, his poems always seem to balance on the page, even if at times precariously. “Late Poem” is a very autobiographical poem, one of the few I have.
JB: One of the things I love about the elegy is its use of repetition. Your use of repetition, say, in a poem like “Maelstrom,” from your previous book, The Second Person, can feel incantatory, almost sestina-like but repeating the phrase, not the single word, and showing an interesting irregularity of pattern, the kind of precarious balance you describe in the poems of Justice. Other poems, like the title poem in Torn, are more subtle in their repetition of phrase, and the effect is just as powerful. What are the advantages of repetition, the risks?
CDY: “Maelstrom” is a pantoum, so it is built on repetition. It happens to be the only pantoum I have to my name. I have a sestina somewhere, and a villanelle. I have a couple of sonnets, and a number of poems in blank verse. I suspect I am attracted to repetition because it can function not only as incantatory but also as a means of parsing logic. What happens between each repetition colors the things being repeated. The ancient Greeks believed in multiple types of repetition and painstakingly documented them. A few years ago, I became more and more interested in using diction and repetition as a structuring device as opposed to relying wholeheartedly on line. I am still working that out. The risk of repetition is of course an old one, the danger of being a broken record. But so far, I try not to think about that too much.
JB: I notice you write mostly in set stanza lengths, especially the tercet. It feels right for the kind of control you have over the poems – again, they feel made, sculpted. Can you talk a bit about form, and how the tercet, quatrain, couplet, etc., can act in service to your music? Why write a poem in tercets rather than quatrains?
CDY: I like using stanzas. They add another element of containing things besides the line. And I do have an unnatural love of the tercet. I remember Linda Gregerson once discussing how the tercet seems almost made for argument, for rhetorical concerns, and I suspect that is true. They are fluid, much more so than couplets or quatrains. They allow one to shift and shift again, rapidly at times. They also help me when revising to trim the fat; they reveal, when revising, where I have left too much “fat.”
JB: How do you feel about the monostiche? I’ve started using them here and there, and my guess is that the major influence is Larry Levis, especially his last book, Elegy, which I recently reread. Twice in Torn you end poems of tercets with the monostiche, five times in The Second Person. Why isolate these lines at the ends of poems?
CDY: I never plan to use a monostiche when drafting. Invariably they arise in revision after I have trimmed and tailored and added and stretched and pared back. I almost always know the last lines of my poems first, so many times these monostiches arise because I cannot let go of the line but it doesn’t sit right within the final stanza. I had not remembered Levis using them that much, but now that I think back, I suppose he does. The most difficult aspect of using a monostiche is making damned sure after all those regular stanzas the line can stand on its own. I use them less and less because I am less and less sure that when I use them I do so correctly.
JB: Let’s talk about the title poem. At the risk of violating the so-called heresy of paraphrase, I want the reader to at least know that the speaker is a medical doctor – and a gay man – who is performing surgery on the face of a young gay man who has been beaten and knifed. The ER doctor tells the speaker to “Stitch up the faggot/ in room 6.” The speaker spends an hour, more time than told to, with the young man, trying to make him “beautiful again.” The poem is one of the most striking poems I have ever read. I would like to ask when you knew this was your title poem.
CDY: The speaker of the poem is charged with suturing up the face of a man who has a large laceration due to a knife. This, in and of itself, is brutal and absurd. Usually one would call a plastic surgeon or someone more skilled than a resident or intern to do such work. But the situation here is that the man with the laceration is gay, and the ER staff doesn’t feel he warrants the care he should have. Most readers don’t get this aspect of the poem. But most doctors I know who have read the poem get it. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because the poem unfolds in a way that makes it almost impossible to ignore the injustice and hatred the poem keeps stepping toward and then avoiding. Eventually, by the end of the poem, the speaker himself must admit that he is also one of these “dirty faggots.”
The odd thing about this poem is that I wrote it after not having written for a year. I wrote it a few days after taking my specialty board oral exams. I had been copying Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Song” out by hand. I think I had copied out in longhand four or five times. I love that poem and admire it like a schoolboy admires his teacher. I wanted to understand the rhythm of it, via my hand as opposed to my ear. “Torn” came in a kind of flood a few days later. When I first looked at it, I was appalled. It seemed far too confessional to me. It bothered me. I decided I would throw it away. The situations in this poem come from my own life. Writing this poem did not exorcise the demons. Every time I read the poem, I still find it unsettling. I showed it to some friends of mine who are writers, and all of them told me to keep it and to stop worrying. I read the poem for the first time at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference the year I was a fellow there. Never before had a I done a reading where so many people came up to me afterwards and specifically wanted to talk about the same poem. After I published the poem, it was reprinted online by Poetry Daily. I received something like 69 emails from people all over the world. I was, once again, puzzled. I have come to terms with the fact I will never understand that poem. I have resigned myself to that now.
When I first put together the manuscript for my third book, I became aware of the fact that the speaker in the poems seems torn, and I started seeing all of these dichotomies in the manuscript. Unlike my other two books that changed titles often, the only title the third manuscript ever had was Torn. I know some feel I titled the book Torn because of the poem of the same title, but in the end it was simply the fact the speaker in many of these poems is in fact torn: between professions, between belief and doubt, between so many things.
JB: I know that you recently received a message from a seventeen-year-old boy who said that Torn was the first book he had ever read that truly spoke to him, a book in which he was able to see himself. Let’s end our conversation on this boy, who in a way is maybe why anyone writes at all – and who, as you’ve told me, was once you, as you read Forster’s novel Maurice. What did his message mean to you?
CDY: I woke up to that email this morning. I have, over the years, received a number of letters, emails, etc. about my poems. Quite a few of them have not been nice, to say the least. But this email, from a young man who is just coming to terms with the fact he is gay, almost had me in tears. He thanked me profusely and said it was the first time he had read a book in which he saw himself, someone like him. This is not something I have ever heard, nor did I ever expect something like that. And I remembered how at this young man’s age I read E.M. Forster’s Maurice. I read it almost by accident in that I had read a number of Forster’s novels and wanted more Forster. I checked Maurice out of the library having no idea what it was about but assuming I would like it because I loved Forster’s other novels I had read. When I read Maurice I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. In this novel, I found myself. And even though it would be years before I admitted I was gay, here in this novel were the feelings I had known existed in me since childhood. I never knew what it was or what to call it. I assumed something was wrong with me, wrong with my head. I can remember praying to God to make me more like my brother. So, receiving this email from a 17-year-old boy brought me almost to tears. I remember how much I wanted to write to Forster and thank him for Maurice. But Forster was already gone. This email is better than a Nobel Prize. If my tinkering and playing with words finds someone, communicates with someone, then all those hours and hours and moments of neuroses were worth it. In the end, I cannot shake Forster’s own words: “Just connect.”
JB: Thank you, C. Dale.
CDY: And thank you, Justin.