Six Questions with Dean Young

Dean_Young_shortDean Young is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Primitive Mentor and Embryoyo. His 2005 collection Elegy on Toy Piano was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Young has received numerous awards, including the Colorado Prize for Poetry, a Stegner Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.  His work has been anthologized numerous times in The Best American Poetry.  Currently, he teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. –Josh Wild, Poetry Editor

SR: First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview.  You recently became the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas after spending several years teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  What has been the most surprising adjustment you’ve had to make between Iowa City and Austin?

Young: The airport is closer in Austin than it was in Iowa City.  Everything nearly dies in Austin in the summer, not in the winter as it does in Iowa City.  You can’t slip on a banana peel without landing on a poet in Iowa City; in Austin you land on someone who’s in a band.

SR: In “Half-life,” a poem from the Seven Poets, Four Days, One Book project, you write, “Nothing breaks down quicker than Dean/ Youngium, the last atom before/ the first layer of devils.”  What is the atomic weight of Dean Youngium?

Young: It’s impossible to say what the atomic wait of Dean Youngium is because it’s so unstable.

SR: Your next book, The Art of Recklessness, is a book on poetics.  Has writing this book, putting those ideas concretely on the page and offering them to the public, had any discernable impact on the subsequent poetry you’ve written?

Young: Recklessness is the sort of drunken distillation of twenty years of my thinking (I guess we can call it that) about reading, teaching and writing poetry.  Its impact was either simultaneous with what I was writing or in response to what I had already written.  Poetry is always in advance of any sort of criticism about it.

SR: Have you discovered any poets in the last few years whose work you particularly admire or that has challenged your notion of a successful poem?

Young: As a teacher, I’m running across poets all the time who challenge and delight me; if I started listing them, it’d go on for a while and I’d feel a lot of anxiety about leaving someone out.

SR: When Rita Dove recently visited Purdue University, she stressed the importance of keeping a notebook and writing down any and ever bit of life, culture, or anything else that gives you pause.  Taking into account the associative quality of so much of your work, do you often see the potential for your surreal connections during the sort of prewriting Dove describes?  Or is it more like carbo-loading before a race, filling yourself up with information and discovering the leaps at the moment of the poem?

Young: Pre-writing, what an awful term.  All language has the possibility of being poetic language.  I write, and what I write I try to turn into poems; I don’t have any golden journal marked ideas for poems or scrapbooks or journals.  Just grubby notebooks and tablets.

SR: Hypothetical situation: Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia decides to hold a Dean Young Triathlon.  The three participants are Dean Young, the cartoonist for Blondie; Dean Young, the Australian rugby player; and Dean Young, the poet.  The three events are javelin, Dagwood sandwich construction, and having Tomaž Šalamun write a poem that explicitly mentions you in the first line.  As identified by his vocation, who wins?

Young: It’s been a long time since I was on the track team so I think I’d cede the javelin to the rugby Dean.  (The Blondie Dean I think is rather old now.)  I’m confident that I could throw down a Dagwood sandwich as good as anyone (fried egg and all) so at best I’m willing to let that be a tie.  I thought Tomaž was talking about me but now I’m not so sure, and neither am I sure who that makes the winner.