Interview with Darlene Young

by Micah Cozzens and Elizabeth Ross 

Inscape: So my first question is about the form. A lot of your poems, such as “Frequencies” and “To a Red Traffic Light,” are in free verse, but you have ten-syllable lines. Many poems in your book are like that. So, I guess I’m just wondering why that form? Because it seems to work for you.

Darlene Young: Yeah, form is a funny thing. When I draft a poem, it’s usually either in a big, messy paragraph or it’s in that shape, lines of about ten syllables-ish. Not so short that the line breaks distract me from what’s happening, but not so long that they carry over onto another line. I cut them off at that, just when I’m drafting, but then I come back and say, Okay, now I have to make the line break do something. There has to be a reason for it to be in the shape it’s in. Sometimes at that point I’ll structure it another way and find some other form for it. But sometimes I think, No, that’s feeling right, so I’ll leave it.

When I write in a specific form, though, like a sonnet or a villanelle, something that’s highly structured, I often start with an assignment to myself: I’m going to write a villanelle. Then I search for content. What kind of subject fits a villanelle well? Because if it’s going to be that structured, I can’t be married to the content because otherwise it’s going to feel forced, right? So, I have a messy paragraph or lines that are about ten syllables, and I’ll ask, Are these lines the right length to show what I want to show in terms of how I’m using language? If I’m using more dense language, I might adjust the lines so that they are in good tension or in good proportion to each other. If I’m using really accessible, or essayistic, not very dense, language, I might do something different with the line to get some kind of tension in there. I might vary it differently in some surprising way, or I might make it longer. Like I said, it’s usually something I address in revision unless I’ve set out purposefully to make the form super important to that particular poem. 

Part of it depends on the origin of the poem. Many, many poets write because they love language and love playing with language. They’re going to draft differently and actually construct lines as they’re drafting. Kim Johnson does this; she’ll spend a whole week on one line. And you can tell when you read her work that it is crafted, the line is everything—really rewarding. My poetry usually starts with something other than language. It’s usually an experience I want to tell about, something that happened to me. I’m more interested in the meaning than most poets are, so I tend not to craft it quite as much in the beginning. I’m chiseling down from a big, messy, prose-y beginning, and then trying to bump up the language to make it more poetic. I think that if I were more into thinking about form from the beginning, my poems would look different.

Inscape: But they wouldn’t be as successful, probably. 

DY: Maybe not. I am the kind of poet that likes accessibility. My favorite compliment—and I don’t know if you should quote me on this—is when someone says, “I don’t usually like poetry, but I like yours.” I love to speak to people that don’t read a lot of poetry—which might mean I’m not that intellectual, that I don’t write that high a level of poetry, but that’s okay with me. I care a lot about whether people can share the experience with me, and some poets don’t care as much about that. They’d rather have their cool language tricks, and there are rewards to that, too, but it’s just not what I’m interested in.

When you have a specific form in mind—let’s say you want every line to be in iambic pentameter, for example—you have to be willing to give up some of your meaning and content, because otherwise it feels like you’ve just wrestled and forced the language into place. You have to be willing to go somewhere else with the poem or maybe not say what you originally meant. If I decide I’m not willing to give up on meaning, I’ll put it in free verse so I can keep my meaning. But the more easily a poem that’s formal reads, the more work it took to get that way. That’s kind of hard for beginning students to understand. They think there are people who are good at rhyme and people who are not, and the poems that are good just came out that way. But no, to have the rhyme feel easy and natural takes much more work than to leave it feeling stilted with Yoda-speak and messed-up syntax in order to fit the rhyme. It’s lazy to resort to messing up the syntax in order to get a line.

Inscape: Is it weird to read your poetry in front of people? Is it different from reading prose?

DY: At first it was really hard. I’m not shy about speaking in public, or teaching, or giving talks in church, or reading someone else’s work. But the first few times I had to read my poetry, it was really hard. Part of it was because it was more personal, and part of it was because I’ve been to poetry readings where the reading feels so affected—which drives me crazy, you know? So, I’m always pushing against that, but if I mumble and rush through the poem, that isn’t giving respect to the words. Now I’ve done it enough that I’m getting more confident. It helps if you feel like your work is getting better. My first poems weren’t very good, so they were harder to share. But it is harder than just reading prose. You have to decide how you’re going to break the line

Inscape: A lot of your characters are women. When I’m reading poetry or prose, the religious women are caricatures—you know, either total hypocrites or total angels—and it’s nice to read something where they’re more complex. Your poem “Angels of Mercy” does that particularly well. I loved that poem just because it’s so funny and loved the line, “the worldliness of D-cup ambition.” Complex women are not only in that poem but throughout your collection. How did you do that? 

DY: Well, first of all, I only write what interests me, and it’s not interesting to me to not tell the truth about my experience, about my culture. I love my culture, but we have a problem with how we talk about women. This “angel mother” thing that we get over the pulpit is really detrimental. Consequently, I’m always pushing against that. It’s typical for women to hate going to church on Mother’s Day because they hear all this stuff like, “We love what you do, and what you do is important,” because the men are trying to be complimentary, but it comes across as “We have angel mothers and you women are angels.” What we women say to ourselves is, I know I’m not, and I know that you know I’m not, so this is just making me feel worse. I think telling the truth about experience is much more inspirational than building those caricatures. 

The best art is art that we recognize, where we say, Okay, that’s familiar to me. If we can tell the truth in really specific details, that’s more inspirational. Even telling the truth about the flaws. So in some of those poems in there I tell hard truths about what it’s like to be a mom. But also, I hope that readers can see I’m someone who loves being a mom, who gets joy out of it even though it’s hard. I think if I didn’t say that it was hard, it wouldn’t be as believable when I say it brings me joy. Poetry has to do two things: It has to make the familiar strange, but it also has to make the strange familiar. If we’re not finding something in common, you’re not able to enter the poem with me and have an experience. If somehow we can find common ground so that you recognize, “Okay, women are like that,” then I can put a funny metaphor in there that makes you think in new ways, and you’ll be with me on that experience. If I talk about our culture with honesty, but also with affection, then that’s resonant to people. I want people to celebrate our culture even with its quirks. 

I think that’s how God feels about us too. He looks at us and sees our flaws, right? He has great affection for us, and I think He wants us to feel that way about ourselves. Which means we can’t ignore the quirky things we do—you know, looking down on so-and-so because she had a boob job but also wanting to try to serve her at the same time. About that poem, everybody asks, “Is it true?” They want to know whether I had the boob job or was in on the Relief Society discussion. My answer is, “Absolutely yes, and absolutely no.” That specific thing hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve been in many discussions in ward council and Relief Society presidency meetings about whether someone deserves to have meals, whether they’re truly needy, whether they even want help. We’ve all been in a place where we need help, but we don’t really want anyone to know we need help. We’ve all been in a place where we judge someone else or we feel judged. There are so many things about that that are true for me and that are true for a woman’s experience in the Church. One of my delights is to put things in my poems that are both true and funny, showing how we do think about each other, “Did she have a boob job? Should she have had a boob job? And should I bring her meals or not?”

Inscape: I just really like the female characters. I guess the short answer is that you’re a woman, so of course that’s what you’re going to write about.

DY: Yeah, and we just don’t have enough poetry about our experiences, do we? Especially as a Mormon woman, I think there’s not much out there, and if I can just be really true about it, hopefully other people can relate. 

Inscape: I really admire that. Going back to the language that you talked about earlier, I do feel like so many of your poems have language that’s just really lush, like that Keats line says, “load every rift with ore.” Almost to the point where it’s excessive, but for me as a reader, it never crosses that line. Your poem about Joseph Smith says, “Not immaterial / his fumble and slop, his gimpy stuttering lope towards loft.” It’s such a thick line, you know, but I like it. You do a good job balancing the accessibility of the poem and what you’re talking about with your thick, dense, verta language.  

DY: Well, thank you. You’ll notice that I don’t do it in all the poems. I was just talking with my friends here about “In the Locker Room at the Temple.” That’s a really popular one, and people pass it around. I heard that people are handing it out at temple training sessions because they love to think about the temple that way. That poem is so un-dense. There’s really not much going on in terms of sound, and sometimes I’m a little embarrassed by it, with so little going on in the lines. So language has to be different for different poems. Part of it depends on the generation of the poem. Like, I remember when I was writing that Joseph Smith poem, some of the work I did was riffing on sounds. That was part of constructing it from the beginning. With some poems you can tell I wanted sound to be a big part of it, you know, the more dense language. With other poems, I just wanted a really clean experience where it’s mostly focusing on meaning, and the language doesn’t get in the way. So, they’re not all dense that way, but it is nice when you put a lot of work into the language, jacking up the language, to have someone appreciate it. I really like that. Sometimes I’ll take a draft and it feels like there’s not much going on, and I’ll say, Okay, I can do better in this line. I can do something better, or I can change the line breaks to show off this language a little bit more. Or I’ll say, There’s no surprise or interesting thing going on in this line, and so how about I jack up the sounds a little bit? Or, I’m going to make a whole list of possible images and find the ones that are more sonic or that fit with the line better, that fit the rhythm or make an interesting rhythm. Sometimes I just feel like there’s little enough going on that I want to find a place for tension, and maybe that tension will be language that makes your heart thump, thump, thump, you know? 

Inscape: So, do you feel like the content in your poems matches the sound? 

DY: Yeah. Or I might specifically want meaning to cut against sound. I may start with the content and then want more tension to come from sounds and language. But I didn’t bother with language that much for “In the Locker Room at the Temple.” I don’t know if I should have, but that’s an example of me just not wanting to get in the way of capturing the feeling of the temple locker room. It’s very simplistic and maybe more pure—I don’t know—but less sonically rewarding. 

A lot of my language work happens in revision. When I’m revising, there comes a point when in the making of a poem—I don’t know if you get to this point, too—where I start turning to the thesaurus. I’ve got a draft, and I say, Okay, I can do better than that. I start opening a thesaurus. I love that stage of a poem because it tells me that I’m well in, that I’ve found my angle, and I’m ready to struggle on the language level as opposed to the approach and framing level. At that point it feels like I’m doing a crossword puzzle because I’m just fitting things together. It feels like filling out a sudoku or something. I love that part—the play part. The hard work comes before—when I’m getting it down and finding the approach, but once I get to the word level, it’s a lot more fun. 

Inscape: That’s kind of a fun way to think about it. It’s just really refreshing because I feel like a lot of poets talk about it like there’s a sense of intangibility. It’s kind of refreshing to hear you say, “No, it’s a very tangible experience.”

DY: Right. But I agree that there’s a stage in the production of the poem where you really have to be open to the subconscious, of unconscious jumps and surprising things that you weren’t expecting. Maybe that’s kind of what they were referring to. But unconscious jumps have to be followed by hard work, you know?—sitting down and analyzing each thing, asking Can I make it better? It’s building with Legos, and it’s work.

Inscape: This is sort of a religious question. Do you see being a poet as your responsibility? 

DY: Well, so this is an interesting thing for me to think about. I don’t feel like I have any responsibility to myself or God or anybody to be a poet any more than I think anyone has a responsibility to use their—I don’t even want to say gifts because I don’t mean talent, I mean the thing that makes you you, your particular interests. I think God puts that little idea in you and your responsibility just as a child of God is to enjoy it and play with it and make use of it. I don’t think it’s a thing where He’s going to hold me responsible: [deep voice] “Did you use that gift I gave you?” Part of that is I don’t feel all that gifted. Maybe if I felt super-gifted, I’d feel some big responsibility to the world, but I don’t. I feel that once I know that I have this interest and this desire to do this thing, God expects me to use it in a way that brings me joy and not in a way that adds to the darkness in the world, you know? I don’t think He necessarily wants me to preach with it, but I think that by telling the truth I’m bringing more light into the world. I like that. I think that I have a responsibility to myself, if I’m going to do it, to be really honest in my work, to not sugarcoat or try to impress people just for the glory of the world—that I should be honest to what I love and what I’m interested in. I have a responsibility to myself to be the best I can at it, meaning that I put the work in. I feel it’s really irresponsible when a poet, for example, just dashes a poem off and then, there it is! Like, not be willing to say, I can make it better. I can use all of my training and my skill to make it the best it can be. I don’t feel like I’m called to produce this thing and put it out into the world like that.But I feel that, once I’ve decided to do it, my responsibility is to do it the best I can and do it in an honest way.

Creativity is a godly attribute. That’s what makes God God. He’s a creator. He just loves to see us be creative. That may be writing a poem or choosing the right flowers to put on your fireplace. It may be the way you break down the barriers with your roommate who’s lonely. There are so many ways to be creative, and I think God loves seeing us being creative. It’s not really a responsibility but a way we enjoy what He has given us.

Inscape: Yeah, I love the first poem of the collection, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace.” I mean, as you’re talking about gifts, I love how in this one you say, “Make me a tool,” and then when you were talking about poetry, I thought, He has made you an instrument.

DY: And poetry can do that. It’s fortunate and unfortunate that this poem is the first one in the collection. Because I think—I didn’t realize this when I arranged it this way—that it kind of looks like I’m saying, Here’s my poetry collection. This is me being God’s instrument, and the rest of these poems are my special music that I’m going to play for you from God. Right? Like I’m a prophet or something, and I don’t like that. But when I wrote it I was trying to speak to—everybody has their thing, and my poems are not violin poems. They’re not trumpet poems. They’re more like kazoo poems. I don’t want that poem to be like, I’m all inspired and now you should listen to me, but more like I’m kind of quirky, and these may not be that great, but they’re what God gave me. This is the skill He gave me, so I’m going to still play.  

Inscape: As a Mormon writer, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, just watching people in my life who are part of this faith, trying to write, I feel like it can be hard to find your niche. It’s either Deseret Book or Segullah or the highway. And I love Deseret Book. I love Irreantum. All great. I don’t want to project my experiences onto you, but was it hard to find your niche or was it pretty quick?

DY: It was really hard. I think if you want to take your writing seriously, to put work into it, you want to know there’s a potential audience. If there’s no way to reach that audience, it’s really hard to care enough to put work into it, right? I can write my thoughts about being in a Relief Society presidency in my journal, but if I’m going to make it into art, I need an audience. You’re right that there’s a real problem right now with finding that audience. It’s a catch-22 because artists are hesitant to put time into producing work about the Mormon experience if there’s no way they’re going to get it published, and publishers are hesitant to publish it because they aren’t sure that there’s a market and they’re not seeing a lot of quality work. You see how the two have to go together, and it has been a hard thing for me. In fact, I didn’t start writing seriously until I discovered potential audiences and places to publish. The time when I started actually saying, I’m going to take this seriously, produce something and revise it and work on it, was when I discovered there was a place I could publish it.

The very first place I published was in a little newsletter that Orson Scott Card produced, called Vigor. I got the newsletter, and I thought, Okay, here’s a place I could publish. So I wrote something, and it got published there. Then I discovered the Association for Mormon Letters. They had a listserv where people were just talking together, and it was a lot of people whose work I admired. Richard Dutcher was on there, and Marvin Payne, and James Goldberg—I don’t know if you know these people, but anyway—all talking together and having these conversations, and I thought, These are the people who would like any literary writing that I could do about my culture, so I want to write for them. I sent poems to Irreantum, which thank goodness was publishing then. Then I discovered Segullah and wrote for that journal. Exponent II. But those journals can’t accept a lot of work. We’ve got Sunstone and Dialogue, but certain very conservative members of the Church won’t read those. I feel like those members of the church are people I’d like to reach with my writing, but I wouldn’t reach them there. It’s super hard. There are a few publishers who are doing literary Mormon writing. Obviously I found a publisher (BCC Press), and I’m so grateful to them, but they are super, super small. All volunteer. They only publish print-on-demand because they don’t have enough money to run a whole bunch of books and then try to get them in bookstores. Bookstores are reluctant because they don’t think they’re going to sell, so my job is to hope people will share with their friends and ask the library to buy it, and pass it around. Part of the work that I do with the Association for Mormon Letters and my friends that I know in LDS publishing is just trying to get the word out that there’s an audience. People are thirsty for this stuff, and if we write it well, they’ll buy it. But it’s really a hard sell. I wish it were looking better. 

Inscape: It seems like the agents are limited, and the publishers that’ll talk to agents who would be interested in this are limited.

DY: I’m not sure, but I don’t think there are any LDS publishers that use agents–at least not for LDS-specific work. They can’t afford to because the Mormon market is so small. If you take the people in the LDS audience who read poetry, it’s not a big group, and if you then take the people among them who would buy poetry, it’s even smaller. We’re frugal people, right? Most of us just get books from the library. It’s tough. Really tough. I’m in a position where my husband provides for me, so I can teach, and I can produce poetry, but it doesn’t matter to me that I don’t get a lot of people buying my book. I don’t care. I don’t mind if they just loan it to each other, but I would like it to be read because I want people to see that it can be done. It’s possible to write literary poems for Mormons. I want future writers who are interested in writing about their culture to say, “Hey, look. Someone else did it. I can do it, too.” I want publishers to say, “Oh, people like this! They’re spreading it around to each other.” So, for that reason I want my book to go around. Other than that, I don’t need it to be purchased. Other writers do, and that’s really hard for them. They say, “Why should I write for a market where I’m not going to get any money, and nobody buys these books?”

Inscape: Even though I’m obviously at the beginning of this process and I’ve got a lot to learn, that’s kind of where I’m at, because why would I write something–

DY: –that’s not going to get published. 

Inscape: Yeah.

DY: You do it out of love, and you teach on the side because in the real world hardly any writers make a living. You have to understand that. But most of the writers out in the world have a better chance of selling than Mormon writers. 

Inscape: It’s true.

DY: Except for Mormon genre writers! Mormon romances sell really well. Mormon historical fiction. Mormon—well, it’s not really Mormon, but Mormon writers writing fantasy and science fiction, that kind of thing. Those things sell well. So there are exceptions, but who is going to buy Mormon poetry, really?

Inscape: Did you come to poetry or prose first? I guess you can’t really pick a favorite, but what do you like about the two genres?

DY: I’ve always written all three genres (poetry, essay, and fiction), but probably more poetry than the others. The thing I love about poetry is that you can have a really small frame for the piece. I’m more interested in just a little moment or just a glimpse. I have less attention and energy for the slow buildup of cause and effect over time that you need for a novel or even for a short story. I have written some, but it’s just not as interesting to me. I find myself feeling I have to get from here to here in a novel, and it’s just like yawn. I’d rather focus on this, and then talk about something else.

I’m very interested in essays. I’m also writing and  publishing them regularly, and I like both essay and poetry because they kind of embrace surprise and the juxtaposition of interesting things. What Mormon grows up not writing essays, really, if you keep a journal, right? We have a little bit more practice with that, but I love the genre for its open-endedness and its exploration. So, those are the two that I do the most now. As a child, I wrote a lot of poetry, but it was like Dr. Seuss-y kind of stuff. Then I hit high school and started reading real poetry and thought, Oh, my gosh. Everything I write is trash compared to this stuff. So I quit. It’s funny because those two things are connected–the reason my stuff was trash was that I hadn’t been reading good stuff. The best way to get better is to read a lot more. When I decided later that I wanted to get serious about writing, I started reading a lot more, and that helped my poetry get better. Those things are connected. 

Inscape: So what kind of reading did you get into? 

DY: At first it was really hard. I told myself, I’ve got to read more poetry, and I need to read what’s being published now. Because you can go back and read your Tennyson and your Blake and you know, the old classics—and they’re good to learn some things from. But if that’s all you study, you’re going to write like them, and that kind of work is not being published anymore. So I got The Best American Poetry of whatever year that was. I read it, and it just scared the bejeebers out of me because most of it I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t tell what they were doing and couldn’t tell why their poems were better than other people’s poems. They didn’t speak to me, and now I know that it’s because the editors are trying to cover this huge variety of aesthetic variety in one book. So, I tell my students, “If that happens to you, don’t freak out. Pick the two or three that you really love and go read those poets’ collections.” Because, you know, there were a few I liked, but at the time I thought, Oh, I must be way out in left field because I don’t relate to any of this. But then, slowly over time, people would say, “Here, read Billy Collins,” you know, and other more accessible poets. Then it was just a matter of finding the people who spoke to me. I took one class in which the teacher required us to find and read a poetry collection, a different one every week, and write a review of it. That was great. Six of the twenty I found I liked, so then I went and read more Kay Ryan and Philip Schultz and whoever it was that spoke to me. 

Inscape: Very wise. Thank you.