Misdeeds Exposed: An Interview with Katherine E. Young by Kristin Kowalski Ferragut

Photo by Samantha H. Collins

Katherine E. Young is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Woman Drinking Absinthe, Day of the Border Guards (2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist), and two chapbooks. She is the editor of Written in Arlington and curator of Spoken in Arlington. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Subtropics, and many others. She is the translator of Look at Him by Anna Starobinets, Farewell, Aylis by Azerbaijani political prisoner Akram Aylisli, and two poetry collections by Inna Kabysh. Young’s translations of contemporary Russian-language poetry and prose have won international awards; several translations have been made into short films. Young was named a 2020 Arlington County (Virginia) Individual Artist Grant recipient, a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow, and a 2015 Hawthornden Fellow (Scotland). From 2016-2018, she served as the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, Virginia.

 

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut: Congratulations on the release of your poetry collection Woman Drinking Absinthe. It’s a fascinating book in many ways. What might you consider the overarching theme of this collection, if any? Did you have that theme in mind on the outset or did you arrive at that understanding when putting the collection together?

 Katherine E. Young: The primary theme is probably transgression: the terrible, hurtful, deeply human things we all do to one another and have done since the beginning of our knowledge of one another. Think of Achilles sulking in his tent. And perhaps because transgression seems to be an immutable part of the human experience, a lot of these poems employ a few additional constants, although our understanding of them is more recent: mathematics, the physical sciences (there’s a love poem about a Martian rock, for example), the human thirst to make all forms of art… I always knew what this collection was going to be about—the challenge was to talk about monstrous things in human terms, to be simultaneously clear-eyed and empathetic about human frailty. I shifted shape a lot while doing it, playing with fairy tales, opera, visual art, and then I had to tie all those threads together.

KKF: Yes, shapeshifting, I can see that. It’s a brave theme to take on, transgression. Let me ask you this, like how actors often inhabit their roles and the parts they play impact their lives outside of their art, did you find that immersing yourself in poetry on themes of human pain and cruelty impacted the atmosphere in which you lived in the real world? Did it inspire a shift in your outlook or behavior?

KY: Any effective poem taps into something universal in people—and we’ve probably all stubbed our toes on rocks we’d rather not look under. I don’t know about a shift in outlook or behavior, but I do find that performing these poems as a group—and I’ve performed many of them individually over the years as the collection was being written—requires a certain amount of, hmm, intestinal fortitude. But if you’re not horrified by Bluebeard’s crimes or by Madame Butterfly taking her own life, you probably shouldn’t be writing persona poems…

KKF: Your poems are filled with powerful characters and fanciful imagery that don’t lend themselves easily being confused as nonfiction. But readers often seem to like to read poetry as though it is autobiographical. Might you share to what extent you see yourself, as in the real-life Katherine who walks through the present day world, in the poems in Woman Drinking Absinthe?

KY: It’s tempting to reduce poetry to episodes in an author’s biography, but if you do that, it seems to me you’re missing the point! A poem is first and foremost a creative work—it’s not intended to document or lay down a historical trail (at least, these poems aren’t intended to do those things!). And wouldn’t our walk through the present day world be sadly diminished if the curtain was always pulled back, as in The Wizard of Oz, exposing the ordinary little man instead of the pretty illusions we’re meant to see? But of course, you can’t create anything without putting something of yourself into it. For example, I’ve adored the opera Madama Butterfly since I was a child, and my fascination with all things Japanese (and with our problematic Western gaze, Japonisme) has certainly worked its way into this collection. And I’m entranced by what they used to call natural science, as you might guess from the poems about celestial navigation, a 300-year-old recipe to “cure” madness, and even “Fig.” In short, there’s quite a lot of me here—how could it be otherwise?

KKF: You have translated four books from Russian into English. In your writing, one can see evidence of some Russian folklore and at least one response to a Russian poet, “Today I’m Writing Love Songs,” “after Marina Tsvetayeva,” beautiful poem. It feels that the Russian language and culture have deeply impacted your work to extents that I might only guess. To what extent do you believe your years as a translator inform your poetry?

KY: My first career was in Soviet studies—back when that career existed!—and I found myself in that part of the world very often during the 1980s and 1990s. When I lived in Moscow, I had the chance to study Russian poetry with a teacher who spoke no English. We spent nearly two years reading Pushkin, Nekrasov, Akhmatova, Pasternak, all the great poets. And because I was working so intensively with poetic language in Russian, I began to hear English differently. My first book, Day of the Border Guards, is set entirely in Russia and the former Soviet Union, and many of those poems are in dialogue with the Russian poets, who are as fundamental to my writing as Whitman and Plath are to most American poets. So, responding to Marina Tsvetayeva in this book is really a continuation of that process. I didn’t become a literary translator until much later. But working with sound, which is vital to both poetry and translation, is the cornerstone of pretty much everything I do.

KKF: That’s interesting and now has me thinking of the young Katherine E. Young. Studying poetry in Moscow seems to have shaped your ear and voice in profound ways. I assume that you sought that instruction out already interested in poetry. When did your interest in poetry begin? Please describe for us Katherine E. Young, the early years?

KY: My father was a playwright and my uncle a poet and novelist—books and writing were always part of my life. For example, my uncle made a point of giving me every book that WS Merwin published as soon as it came out. Apparently, I wrote my first poem at age three. Like a lot of young people, I wrote poetry through high school and even into college, won some awards, but I wasn’t very confident about what I was doing. In college I was lucky enough to take a survey course on modern American poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, who remains a touchstone for me, but none of that increased my confidence in my own work. And when I went to graduate school in Soviet studies, I pretty much stopped writing poetry for nearly a decade. But then I found myself living in Moscow, with time on my hands—and suddenly, I was writing again.

KKF: I’m so glad you returned to it! And what current projects are you working on? Future plans?

KY: I’ve had three books come out in the last few months: Woman Drinking Absinthe, Written in Arlington (an anthology I edited that includes 87 poets and 150 poems from 4 languages, all connected to Arlington, Virginia), and Look at Him, my translation of a beautiful, heartbreaking, controversial memoir about the loss of her unborn child by Russia’s Anna Starobinets, who is best known in English for her horror and YA writing. And I’ve had individual pieces come out in various places, including a rare (for me!) essay in Deep Beauty: Experiencing Wonder When The World Is On Fire. So, I’ve been very busy promoting those books, and I keep hoping we’ll be back to live readings this summer so that people can hear how wonderful they are in person! I’ve also been working on several new translation projects, including writing by Akram Aylisli, who currently lives under house arrest in Azerbaijan because his work angers the authorities there. In terms of poetry, I have the core of a new collection, which seems to want to be about growing up white in the American south during the civil rights movement; my father reported on the sit-ins in Greensboro as a young journalist, and my parents worked actively to integrate the schools in the small Virginia town where we eventually settled. I’m still not sure this is my story to tell, though; the poems are coming very slowly!

KKF: Impressive — all this recent work, all important. I do hope you find that your recent poems are your story, because I want to read them, the individual pieces and how they’ll weave together. So much in there for us to try to make sense of and understand to move forward more honestly. I’ve enjoyed many pieces of Written in Arlington and look forward to reading your translation of Look at Him. Thank you for outlining your work. With the range of your topics, tone, and types of writing, I’m curious, so hope you don’t mind one last question — What are you reading these days?

KY: Thank you for your thoughtful questions, Kristin! As for what I’m reading, I just started Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort—this one is personal for me, as I’ve traveled to Belarus with people searching for their family history, and I lived in the USSR the year after Chernobyl. I’m also reading Hamid Ismailov’s GAIA, Queen of the Ants (trans. Shelley Fairweather-Vega) and Duanwad Pimwana’s Bright (trans. Mui Poopoksakul), the first novel by a Thai woman to appear in English. More poetry: Allison Blevins’s Slowly, Suddenly (which I read in manuscript—it’s coming out later this year), Megan Leonard’s Book of Lullabies, and F-Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, a groundbreaking collection of writing from a society that still has a good deal of trouble with the word “feminist.” As you can see, I make a point of reading translations, especially women in translation. Women writers account for only 30% of the startlingly low number of books (well under 1,000 titles, total) published in English translation each year—every book by a woman in translation is a small miracle!

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut is the author of the full-length poetry collection Escape Velocity (Kelsay Books, 2021). Her poetry has appeared in Beltway Quarterly, Nightingale and Sparrow, Bourgeon, Mojave He[Art] Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fledgling Rag, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. For more information visit her website at https://www.kristinskiferragut.com/

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