1. You mentioned during the Saturnalia Books Poetry Reading at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia that voice recordings you took on a road trip you went on were inspiration for your “Patriot” poems from Industry of Brief Distraction. Could you tell us a bit more about these recordings of story and sound? Did they inspire any other poems in the collection?
I was driving on the highway a lot—from North Carolina to New York to Texas. The highway system is a great way to see a lot of this country, and driving is, of course, a fabulous way to be alone with your thoughts, whether you want to be or not. I made many voice recordings during 2009-2010, forgot about them, and when I backed up my iPhone a couple years later, they all transferred to iTunes. Suddenly I was in possession of a very particular archive, one of thoughts and ideas about what I saw while driving, as well as lines for poems and images I intended for prose pieces. The recordings themselves were jumbled and sporadic. I think it was the experience of driving, of being between homes and selves—my first marriage ended in 2006, I had several rocky relationships before I remarried in 2010, and I was moving every couple months—so my experience of the world was pretty fragmented and ungrounded. When the poems emerged, it was like writing a poem for every member of a chorus. To write a series of poems that was so inclusively a group was a new experience for me. I’d say that the energy that inspired the poems carries over into some of the others—“Drone,” perhaps—but generally it’s a closed circuit.
2. The setup of your poems varies greatly. For example, “Drone” moves through multiple pages with none of the lines touching, while “Pretty Girls Are Everywhere” is spread out in stanzas on the left and right sides of the pages. Can you talk a bit about poetic form and how it serves the poems? For example, in “Drone,” is form meant to help with pacing? In “Pretty Girls,” does it reflect the speaker’s scattered mind?
I love metaphor so I’ll revert to figurative language: I think of the book as moving through different rooms in an art show. As a writer and a reader, I need a degree of variation. Not as an end in itself, but as a way to introduce other possibilities. In poetry, how the work appears on the page is a pretty quick and easy way to introduce a visual variable. Line is my touchstone, the place all the poems spring from. I am a great believer in being patient and seeing where and how and what and why the poem wants to go. For “Drone,” I think the shorter lines, the centered text, and the spacing/white space do infuse the poem with a sense of distance or detachment—as if the poem were experienced from a great height, like a drone flying high above.
“Pretty Girls” I think of more as collage—the turns are abrupt, jumping so quickly it risks making no sense at all. If poems as they are written are a reflection of our lives at the time, some of our poems will be fiercely uncertain. More than a scattered mind, I think it reflects the speaker’s scattered life. Recently I saw a documentary of the dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Streb. In one of her pieces, a dancer is enclosed in a long, rectangular box built of clear plastic or glass. Because of the dimensions of the box, she cannot stand up, and so she moves through a series of carefully choreographed moves, which involve her hurling, stamping, flinging, and pounding her body from one end of the box to the other. Much motion and velocity can be created in small spaces.
3. It seems that poetry and photography have one important commonality: they both focus on specific images, images that aren’t necessarily tied to plot. What makes both poems and photographs work is a strongly felt point of view. Is this how you also feel about the two arts? Does photography have a specific influence in your writing? Does your writing ever inspire you to take a picture that perfectly describes your poem/ work or vice versa?
One way I see poetry and photography linking as of late is in a feeling of stasis and quiet invading some of my more recent poems, ones I’ve been working on since Industry was completed. A photo freezes a visual moment; a poem spills over its auditory boundaries. Point of view is tricky—it’s either yours, or you are assuming someone or something else’s. To what degree can we step out of ourselves? In writing poems, I like to think of viewpoint in terms of position or stance, which is conveyed, among other ways, through voice, tone, and subject. In photography, I think of it in terms of eye, or gaze. What is the focus? What is included in, and omitted from, the frame? Over time, a poet’s viewpoint can become richer and more certain, even as it courts instability in form, line, or sound. In the same way, a photographer’s eye becomes more empathetic and refined as the artist learns what she or he sees best.
My philosophy and approach are more associative and Venn diagram-based, than an attempt to draw an obvious, overt link between image and text. I claim the artist’s right to be hazy in my intentions. Part of this is to save my own sanity, because when I set out to take pictures, I never know what I’ll end up with—the weather could change, the zoo could be closed, the film shop could ruin the roll of film. My goal is not to avoid or court accidents, but to move through them and make them work for me. It’s the same way I enter the process of writing a poem. At the inaugural Strange Pilgrims poetry reading in Austin, the poet Carrie Fountain read a poem about the realization that her two children would have a relationship as siblings that was apart from their individual relationships with her as their mother. With image and text, I can exert some control, but if I veer into over-determination, I risk forcing a connection that isn’t there, or worse, repeating the obvious. What I strive for in my work is room for possibilities, for connections and images and revelations to appear over time. There also must be space for readers to create their own relationship with the work. The closest I’d like to get is for my writing and my photographs to complement one another—to be attached by a cord of varying thicknesses and lengths. If either is forced into an explication of the other, something dies.
4. Who are some of your favorite poets? How do you see their aesthetics influencing your own?
It’s hard to say how the aesthetics of others influence my work. I read a lot—poetry, fiction, non-fiction—and I think that, in concert, what a person reads does end up, in some way, obviously or not, affecting either the work on the page, the writer’s approach to the work, or some combination of the two. Our brains, being the plastic things they are, love to soak up information. When reading it’s not a bad idea to note things you might like to try in your own work—turns of mind, form, approach—if only to figure out how they can work for you, or if they work for you. Overall, some of my long-term favorite poets (and a favorite poem), the ones I can’t shake, are Sylvia Plath (“Berck-Plage”), Anne Sexton (“Three Green Windows”), William Carlos Williams (“Spring and All”), and Robert Penn Warren (“Audubon: A Vision”).
Collarbone broken & then I am pushed
Hard off the boat. This is America.
If entry is not desired, take that door away.
You want to say I deserved it
Which is often what people think
When force is brought against a woman’s
Smaller frame. Diplomatic, I desire little
Cows in a range of shapes:
Miniature but representative
Lowing in a field outside Hershey, PA.
Faint purple smudges under his dark eyes.
Sound of a dog’s feet in the grass.
This is Humbert, taping a note to Rita’s belly.
Bioluminescence of the highway at night,
What is America?
Four years later she listens to the mixtape
In the parking lot at Snuffer’s Restaurant and Bar:
Girl, don’t go away mad. Girl, just go away.
Inside I pin my hair up & the bartender
Turns & says to my boyfriend, Oh, now I see.
Texas in winter is a silver caul stretched
Thin and babies born into not enough
Jobs not enough medicine not enough water.
Laurie Saurborn Young is the author of Carnavoria (2012) and a limited-edition chapbook, Patriot (2013). Winner of an NEA fellowship in poetry, Saurborn Young currently lives in Austin, Texas.
Kerry Dowd is a recent high school graduate who plans to attend the New School this fall.