NewsPoet: Monica Youn Writes The Day In Verse

Apr 27, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 10:20 am

Today at All Things Considered, we continue a project we're calling NewsPoet. Each month, we bring in a poet to spend time in the newsroom — and at the end of the day, to compose a poem reflecting on the day's stories.

The series has included Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, Craig Morgan Teicher and Kevin Young.

Today, poet Monica Youn brings us the news in verse. Her second collection, Ignatz, a series of poems loosely based on the Krazy Kat comic strip of the 1920s-'30s, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010. Youn is also a lawyer and a Brennan Center Constitutional Fellow at NYU School of Law, where she focuses on election law and First Amendment issues.

Monica Youn sat down with Melissa Block to talk about her double life as a lawyer and poet, and her time spent with NPR's All Things Considered. She told Block that her two worlds don't often collide. "I use one form of work as a vacation from the other form of work," she said.

In fact, there was a point in her life when she leaned toward doing poetry exclusively. But not practicing law was tough. "I missed the intellectual rigor," she explained. "Poetry is rigorous, but in a very different way."

Now she does both. But even though Youn is accustomed to the fast-paced life of a lawyer, writing a poem quickly presented a new kind of challenge. She called it "one of the hardest things I've ever done," explaining that although she is attuned to news and politics, this assignment forced her to use the other half of her brain — the part usually reserved for isolated contemplation. "It was like trying to draw a picture with the wrong hand," she said.

The end result was a villanelle. Youn said she chose the form, which calls for lines that repeat throughout the poem, because it allowed her to make connections between the different stories she was hearing.

One of Youn's repeating lines refers to the day as "a net of twenty four knots." She said it was inspired by the story of a blind Chinese activist who had escaped house arrest, unnoticed by the 24 guards stationed outside. But the symbolism didn't end there. "I was also thinking of the constraints of the 24-hour news cycle," said Youn, "and of my own self-pitying constraints of trying to write this poem on this schedule."

Usually when writing, "I think of it as supersaturating a solution," said Young. "You just keep adding things into the beaker until something crystallizes." But today there wasn't time for that. "I think this is the fastest I've ever tried to write a poem," she said.

In the end, she was happy with how it turned out. "I might sub in some things. I was relying too heavily on the online rhyming dictionary," she laughed. But "I'm happy with the overall theme of surveillance, entrapment and fear."

All Things Considered's NewsPoet is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman.

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Each month, we invite a poet to spend the day with us and compose a poem reflecting the day's news. Well, today, we're joined by Monica Youn. Her second collection of poems, "Ignatz," was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2010. In addition to her life as a poet, Monica Youn is a lawyer specializing in election law. Monica, welcome to the program.

MONICA YOUN: Thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: How tricky adventure was this for you, being a poet and at the same time digesting the news and trying to meld that into one thing?

YOUN: Well, this is very hard because in my life as a lawyer and as an advocate, I do election law, so I'm very much tied into the news and politics and all of that. And so I'm very used to dealing with that with the lawyer half of my brain. And so trying to handle a lot of that same material using the poet side of my brain was kind of like trying to draw a picture with your left hand when you're used to being right-handed. It just felt strange and uncomfortable but also sort of interesting.

BLOCK: And were you able to rise above that...


BLOCK: ...uncomfortable feeling and then get the creative juices flowing?

YOUN: I certainly hope so. I mean, I just wrote this poem. It's fresh off the presses, and I'll take a look at it...


YOUN: a few weeks and tell you what I actually think of it.

BLOCK: Now, I'm really curious to hear what you've come up with. Can you read it for us?

YOUN: Sure.

BLOCK: Great.

YOUN: It's called "24."

(Reading) Fear is the coin dropping into its slot; $2 fall to the liquor shop floor. The day is a net of 24 knots. A modestly veiled woman poses no threat, but the veil truly masks a thief's face and hair. Fear is the coin dropping into its slot. Three hundred Priuses that someone forgot voluptuously rust in the Miami air. The day is a net of 24 knots. The primary insight of Keynesian thought: The way out of debt is for us to spend more. Fear is the coin dropping into its slot.

(Reading) A lawsuit, foreclosure, inescapable debt is the price of a new mother's prenatal care. The day is a net of 24 knots. A blind man trapped in a ring of perpetual light slips the noose, vanishes into the glare. Fear is the coin dropping into its slot. The day is a net of 24 knots.

BLOCK: The poem "24" from Monica Youn. And I see you've incorporated the thoughts from a number of the stories in the program today. Tell me about this repeating line: The day is a net of 24 knots.

YOUN: That was initially inspired by this blind activist who has escaped in China because apparently he had 24 guards stationed around his house at all times who were, you know, creating this sort of net. But I was also thinking of it in terms of the constraints of the 24-hour news cycle and that things just keep happening. And in terms of my own, I guess, self-pitying constraints in trying to write this poem on the schedule and...


YOUN: ...and thinking about trying to be a poet on the 24-hour news cycle.

BLOCK: Do you think - when you think about the poem now, is it something that you might go back to, tinker with, play around a little bit?

YOUN: Oh, yeah. I think I definitely might. I mean, I might sub in some things. I was relying kind of too heavily on the online rhyming dictionary while...


YOUN: ...writing this on the schedule.

BLOCK: Oh, true confession here from our NewsPoet.

YOUN: So, yeah, I'm sure I would tweak it quite a bit.

BLOCK: When you usually write a poem, what's your process like?

YOUN: Usually, when I write a poem, I think of it like super saturating a solution, like you just keep adding things into the beaker until something crystallizes. And it happens all at once, but the whole process of adding things into the beaker usually, for me, takes months, if not years. So I think this was as fast as I've ever tried to write a poem.

BLOCK: Well, we thank you for taking it on. Monica Youn, who's our NewsPoet for the month of April, thanks so much.

YOUN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.