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Born and raised in Utah, Darlene Young currently lives in South Jordan with her husband and sons. She received her BA from Brigham Young University (1994) and, after raising her family, returned there for her MFA (2014). She teaches Creative Writing and Literature of the LDS People at Brigham Young University and Brigham Young University-Salt Lake.

Interviewed by Brandon Merrill

Inscape Journal: Do you usually have multiple projects taking mental space, or do you just focus on one?

Darlene Young: I mostly write poetry. I usually get a draft down, then I put it away for a while so I can concentrate on the next one. On another day, I might pull an old draft out, but it’s really—poems are so short. In terms of bigger projects, I only have one at a time that I’m working on. When I have lots of poems, then I start thinking, “Okay, do I have enough for a collection? What would that look like? What are the themes?” Then, there’s a lot of rearranging and culling and, you know. But I don’t have more than one book going at a time.

Inscape: So tell me more about your collection with Here. How did it come about? A similar instance of you had a lot of poems that you started looking at and seeing some themes?

DY: I had a lot of poems; I even thought I might have enough for two books. There was an illustrator who wanted to get together and do a motherhood book. I thought, “Can I pull out all the motherhood ones and make this separate thing?” I did that for a little while, and it didn’t work out. I just moved them all back and felt out what would be a good size and how many would go into each section.
    When I was putting together this collection, I realized I had themes. The first thing I did was stack all my poems according to theme. These are the “My body’s getting old” poems. These are the “I’m a parent, and I don’t know if I did a good job or not.” These are the “commitment to a religion,” and you know, these are the “marriage poems.” Like that.
    This collection isn’t all the poems I had done at the time. There were others that didn’t really fit that I just set aside—maybe for the next book, or maybe never. Then it takes a while to go through the publishing process, get accepted, and all that. Meanwhile, I’m writing more.

Inscape: Do you, how do you keep all of that organized, organize all of these poems that you’re writing?

DY: So that’s not that hard. I have different folders for what state they’re in. I have folders for “in progress” and folders for “done but need to be reviewed by someone else.” I have a writing partner and we talk about it and work on it.
    The organizing trick is when the poems are ready to be sent to publishers. Like keeping track of who’s got what and who’s rejected what. You send them out in packets of five, and so it’s a mess to keep track of. I might send the same five to one publisher and they’ll take one, but they’ve got four more, so I have to withdraw that one from everybody who’s got it…That’s a mess. I just have a spreadsheet. That’s about it.

Inscape: I read elsewhere in a different interview of yours where you talked about poems and literature as an opportunity to feel other people’s experiences. Would you talk more about that?

DY: To increase in empathy. I mean, ideally, you—as someone who doesn’t fit the expected demographic for my collection—would read it and say, “I understand my mom more now.” And she would read it and say, “Oh, someone else has been through what I’ve been through.” It’s cool to get that.

Inscape: Talk to me a bit more about the section titles in your collection.

DY: So each of the section titles takes words from one of the poems in the section. I was very loosely aiming for a kind of feeling in each section or an overall theme. For example, section three, “this jumblesale world,” I wanted to talk about how life is messy, you know? I picked those words from one of the poems to be the theme for the whole section. Or the last one, “its glorious burn.” Because it’s talking about getting old: the burning out feeling, burning up and burning out.

Inscape: When did you first read the poem (Grace Paley’s “Here”) that you used as the epigraph for your collection?

DY: Isn’t it a great poem? I first read that poem in, I think it was a Best of American anthology, years ago. I don’t know. It might’ve been 2015, 2012. I just loved it. I never forgot that image of the woman. She’s got these big old hips and she’s sitting. Just this older lady who is sitting, enjoying the evening. And I love that it describes her, that she’s large and she’s relaxed and she’s having a good time and she’s with people she loves. She’s older, and I thought, “This is who I want to be. I want to be a woman just like that.”
    I just filed it in the back of my head. I teach that poem, so it keeps coming back, and I’m sure that I have written to that poem many times subconsciously. But as I was gathering the poems together for this collection and seeing that it was a book about an old lady—it’s about a middle-aged lady whose kids are growing up and she’s deciding whether or not to enjoy herself. So it felt like a good thing for the book, like a good entrance to what I wanted to do.

Inscape: At what point did you know that you wanted it as your epigraph?

DY: I think it was one of those things where I woke up first thing, 5 AM, and it was running through my mind, and I thought that it fit several of my poems. I thought I might use it as an epigraph for one of my poems. Then when I went through, I realized I didn’t write any of the poems directly to it—I usually use an epigraph because it informs the actual writing of the poem—but it sure seemed to apply to a lot of the poems. It really epitomizes a lot of what I’m doing.
    So I don’t think I had decided for sure on exactly which poems would be in the collection, but I felt a pretty good feeling of what most of the poems were going to do or how they’d hang together. So it was well into the gathering process.

Inscape: How do you approach saying something is finished or done (either a poem itself or a collection)?

DY: That’s a good question because even after something gets published, I can still see its weaknesses and want to play with it. It’s hard to stop. So I get a draft. I let it sit for a while. I play with it some more. I share it with somebody. I play with it again. Then I decide whether I’m sick of it or whether it wants to be something more. Usually, after I’ve peer-reviewed it and then tweaked it again, I feel like I’m done with it.
    Whether it will make it in the book is something else. But I have a great writing partner who will point out where it feels like there should be something more or where it doesn’t feel quite done. That helps. So I might take something back and work on it some more, but after it’s been through her opinions and another revision, I’m usually done. As I said, I’ll get proofs and still want to tweak. This happens with anybody who’s practicing a craft, you get better, hopefully. Even now, I look at my first book and there are things I would write differently now, and I have to just say, “That’s proof I’m getting better. That’s good,” and I let it go.

Inscape: Is it frustrating to look at things and feel like you’d like to change them?

DY: I mean, it’s a little bit annoying to have my older poems that I’m less proud of now to be out there in circulation. But other than that, no; I’m glad I’m growing. I had to get over that a long time ago.

Inscape: Talk about some tensions writers experience.

DY: We have to admit, it takes a huge ego to think you have something to say that other people will want to read, and especially to pay money for—not that anyone buys poetry—but you have to have an ego to think that. You have to make peace with that because if no one felt that way, there’d be nothing for us to read.
    Anyone who’s had their lives changed by a really great book realizes that it’s horrible to think that no one would ever dare put something down because they knew their weaknesses. So I have to forgive myself for the ego of thinking that I have something people might want to read.
    The flip side of it is that every writer has great insecurities. You know the flaws of your work, and, in particular, you know the flaws of your earlier work compared to what you’re doing now. You have to be sufficiently excited with what you’re doing now to think it’s worth working on. But the things in the past, you’ve moved beyond them.
    So for a writer just starting out, embrace that. Embrace that you’ll look at something you wrote last week or last year and think, ugh. That doesn’t mean I should stop, that means, “Wow, look at me, I can see better now. I’m getting better already.”

Inscape: Do you feel like there are other emotional or psychological blocks that you have to overcome as a writer?

DY: For sure. There’s just the famous fear of the blank page or blank screen. Just starting in the first place, getting the motivation, getting over the nausea of sitting down, and getting the first bit down. That’s always hard.
    I’ve heard of writers who say, “Oh, I just can’t help it. I can’t stop. I just can’t wait to get to my keyboard.” Great for them, but there are a lot of people it’s hard for. You learn, you sit down, and you do it anyway. That’s the difference between writers who get stuff done and those who don’t: They sit down and do it anyway, right?

Inscape: So you teach, you’re a professor, and you’re a mother. There are other things you balance. Talk to me about your writing practice.

DY: I’m really good at not writing. I wish I could say that I couldn’t help but write all the time. Ideally, I would be writing every day, but I can go months without writing. So at least once a year, sometimes twice, I take a whole month and write a poem every day that month. This is a project I started maybe six years ago. What happens is, I end up with 28 or 30 really lousy drafts, because it’s just one a day. I’m not spending a lot of time revising, but I have the rest of the year to revise them, right?
    Two-thirds of them will end up being published. So that’s pretty good output, I think, for six months or a year. And it’s a really cool project because what happens is, after a couple of weeks into the writing month, you think you’ve written a poem about every subject in the world—there’s nothing left and you’ve covered it all. And yet, you still have to write a poem. That’s the assignment, so you just grab at anything. But the thing is that desperation is what makes the best work.
    The not knowing beforehand, the being surprised, the forcing yourself to go somewhere you weren’t planning on. I’ll just write a poem about dirty sneakers because I’ve got to get a poem for the day. That may be the best one. By the end of the month, I’m seeing poems everywhere, and I sometimes write two a day, because something clicks into my mind and says, “Oh, I’m serious about this.” You start getting in the zone, I guess.
    So that’s my really odd strategy. Come and see me in February, and I’m very poetic.

Inscape: Is February always your writing month? Is there a pattern to when in the day you write?

DY: Well, it used to be August, but I started a group on Facebook that does it with me, and they all voted for February. I think it’s because they’re wussies, and it’s two days shorter. That’s when we do it, but I sometimes do it again in the fall.
    I also do it first thing in the day so I can get it over with. I can’t relax until it’s done. It feels a lot like training for a marathon, you know? A marathon’s huge, but you break it down and you say, “Today is my five-mile run. I just gotta get through today.” You just get it over with, and the rest of the day feels so good. And the next day I get up and do it again.

Inscape: In your article for the Association [for] Mormon Letters, you talked about the idea of poetry helping you fall in love with the world, and how it’s an act of turning very abstract ideas into concrete details. Can you talk more about that?

DY: A good poem has to be specific. So if I decide I want to write about something, I have to find some concrete, specific imagery. Maybe a situation, or maybe just a bunch of images, or something like that, in order to make the poem good, in order to create an experience for the reader. It just has to be specific.
    The falling in love with the world—If I’m going to write a poem about something, I have to be attentive to it, right? Knowing that I have to do that makes me more attentive to the experience. I get up, it’s a day in February: I have to write a poem, what is there around me? There’s my front yard. I have to write a poem about my front yard, so I’m going to have to care about something about it. I’m going to pay attention to its details. I’m going to try to find ways to make those details matter. I’m going to try to find a journey through the writing of the poem so that I’m a little bit surprised at the end.
    I think if you know exactly where a poem is going to go before you start it, it tends to be kind of boring, and not very fresh, not very interesting, and it might be better as a sermon or an essay than a poem, right? So I’m going to pay really close attention, and I’m going to look at those details, to try and be surprised, to see something I haven’t seen before, and in the process of that, I come to love that thing more, because I’ve been attentive to it.
    The other thing I was going to say was just that there are abstract topics I love, but you can’t write about an abstract topic and make a good poem, so you have to make it concrete. One of my favorite themes is, “What is faith? What does a faithful life look like?” To me, faith is what you do, separate from what you believe or feel. So faith is just a choice to act in a certain way—because there’s nothing we can know for sure, right? If we know it for sure, Alma says that’s the end of faith, that’s knowledge. So faith is what happens in the gaps, which is a great place for poetry.

Inscape: But what does faith look like? If you write a poem just in the abstract, somebody might find it satisfying intellectually, but I don’t feel like it moves anybody. They can’t access the experience. So I have to think of what faith actually looks like.

DY: Well, faith looks like a kid getting up at five in the morning to go and shovel snow for the neighbor, because he’s hoping there’s some truth to this “follow Jesus” thing. So I’m going to talk about that, instead of something abstract. I’m going to talk about the details of that. It’s cold, and it’s miserable, and there’s nobody there to see, and who’s going to know if he leaves it undone? Those are the details that are interesting, and they’re the details that a reader can access, and so I feel like the reader can have an experience with faith through those details.

Inscape: When you’re writing a poem, do you start with the details and it leads you to abstractions? Or is it the other way?

DY: I’ve started both ways. If I say, I want to write a poem about my temple experience—that’s kind of abstract—I’ll brainstorm. I might draw a cluster or mind map. I might brainstorm lists like the details I could use to talk about a temple experience. I want to get as specific as I can, so I might choose just one room. I’m going to pick something really specific and get details for that, but I started with the abstract. Other times, I start with the details. I just want to talk about this thing that happened today, or this object, and I’ll describe that, and maybe it will lead me to realizing that this is really about getting old, or about my fears for my child.

Inscape: How do you balance being specific to a moment in time with being relatable?

DY: I kind of think in terms of choosing a topic that’s timely. I mean, some of the things I wrote about in the poems that ended up in this book were the things that were on my mind. It was worth writing a poem about the pandemic or about politics at the family gathering or something like that. And because I knew the book would probably come out quickly enough where people would know those things, I left those poems in.
    But I really believe that the more specific you can get, the better, even if it does anchor you in a specific time or place or to a white, female, middle-aged, Mormon experience. I think that when something is told well, its specificity actually enables even someone different from me to access the experience in a way because it triggers their own memories of times when they felt similarly. So, for example, even though you haven’t been a mom, you have experienced worry over whether you did well enough at something, right? Or worry about if you’ve offended somebody. I feel like the more specific a writer is, the more it enables the reader to find a comparison somehow to their lives which overall might be different.
    So I think about some of my favorite books that are very specific to their time and place. Chaim Potok and The Chosen, one of my favorite books, is very steeped in the Hasidic Jewish community, and there are things about that culture that I didn’t know until I read the book, and yet I recognize loneliness. I recognize disappointing your father. I recognize trying not to offend someone who has a different religion than you. And because it is told so well, and I’m inhabiting those feelings, it reminds me of the things I’ve experienced, even though they’re different.
    When I teach my students to write, they tend to want to please everybody, so they back out and try to be really vague so it can apply to everyone, but the problem is that doesn’t affect anyone, because it’s not specific enough. It’s not triggering any of the responses we get when we experience something. They have to be specific to their experience, and their time, and their gender, and their situation— whatever it is—in order for it to be good art, in order for it to create an experience for the reader. Then the reader can have their own little revelations as they experience those things.

Inscape: What role or influence does the idea of an audience have in your writing? Do you write for an audience, or do you write for yourself?

DY: My ideal reader is probably someone just like me, so I probably write just for myself. I think for me that’s the best way to write well. If I wrote trying to please other people, I don’t think I could do it well. However, it’s super important to me to know that there is an opportunity to get my stuff out to people who might care.
    I write LDS literature. They’re LDS poems. They have LDS themes in them; they’re for LDS people. If I felt it was impossible that anyone who has my background would ever read them, I would be less interested in writing. So it’s important to me to know that I could find an audience somewhere that would understand these things. As I just told you, if I write it well, it should apply to anyone, and I do believe this. But I include some distinctive LDS cultural details, like in the temple poems. I can portray an experience in the temple exactly, but if you are not ever able to go to the temple, you’ll miss things about that poem. I still think it’s worthwhile to write that poem, assuming that people like me who’ve had temple experiences can read it.
    What I’m getting at is I feel it’s super important that there is an audience for LDS poetry. And we have a problem right now in that the major publishers of books for LDS people don’t think there is a market for LDS poetry. Because of this, they are unwilling to take poetry manuscripts. In particular, I’m talking about Deseret Book. So my ideal readers buy some books from Deseret Book, but they’ll never find my book there because Deseret Book won’t publish poetry.
    BCC, the publisher of this book and my first book, is doing good work to change that, but they’re still very small. They’re non-profit, they’re volunteer, they don’t have inventory, they’re only print-on-demand, they can’t get their books into big bookstores. So there’s a problem. I find I have a good audience. When people read my work, they like it, especially people like me. But they have a hard time finding out about it. So I feel pretty passionate about just getting the word out that there are people who want to read this kind of thing because then more writers will write it. When good writers think others would never read LDS-themed work, then they’re not going to bother to write it.
    Kind of got a little off-topic there, I think, but I feel strongly about that, about building an audience. And I don’t care so much about sales of my book, but I care a lot about publicity for my book. Because if I can get the word out, and if people like it, and they tell other people, that communicates to my publisher that people want this, and maybe to other publishers that people want this. And we’ll have more people writing it. We’ll get better.

Inscape: If you can and if you want, talk to me a little bit about what you’re working on now.

DY: Well, I have another collection coming out in Spring of 2024, this time from Signature. Other than that, I’m just doing little poems here and there. Come February, I’ll do a bunch. And then we’ll see. I’ve published several essays, with some success. I’d like to do some more. But essays are hard to publish, like poetry. And especially if they’re LDS in content. Like how many essay collections have you read? And where would you find an LDS-oriented essay collection? It’s tricky. But I’d like to do more—an essay collection, or maybe a lyrical novel. I’m toying with some ideas. I haven’t been ready to commit yet.