Poets Andy Young and Sara Slaughter met while in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. They will each present their new book at a Happy Hour Salon presented by Room 220 from 6 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 4, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.).
Young’s debut collection of poetry, All Night It Is Morning, cuts across geography, politics, language, and culture to present an outward-looking American perspective that reflects the author’s life with one foot each in Western and Arab cultures.
Slaughter’s debut chapbook, Upriver, is a sequence of prose poems that tell the strange story of a “smell man,” Roosevelt, who determines seafood quality in New Orleans after a disastrous oil spill. Her poems are accompanied by woodcuts by Layla Ardalan.
The two old friends conducted this interview via email a few weeks ago.
Sara Slaughter: Peter Cooley called All Night It Is Morning your “fearless addition to the poetry of disaster.” How do you feel about your work being described as “poetry of disaster”?
Andy Young: We must play the hand we are given—whether or not we write about our lives directly, it impacts the work. Disasters have been in my sphere of influence in different forms in major ways, especially for the last decade. Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill both changed the actual landscape of what I’ve called home for most of my adult life. Then, as part of an Egyptian-American family, we are profoundly impacted by what goes on in Egypt. I wouldn’t call the revolution a disaster, though the fallout of it, in terms of human rights and basic infrastructure of the country, could be described as disastrous. Then there is my Appalachian background riddled with stories of mining disasters. There’s the slow disaster of what has been happening to the land there in the years since I left it. This isn’t what you asked, exactly. I’m just pointing out that disaster has not been some abstract thing I’ve sought out as a locus of meditation, but something I’ve felt I had to address to process my world.
SS: I know early on you played with various structures for your manuscript and made some determinations about how to present a manuscript that had three loci: New Orleans; Alexandria, Egypt; and West Virginia. How did you handle the sequencing of a manuscript that contains an array of geographies?
AY: I am very interested in the specificities of place, but in the end I did not want place to determine the relationship of the reader to the poem. I did not want the “Appalachian poems” in one section, the “Egyptian poems” in another, etc. Being from southern West Virginia, I understood early on how easy it is for people to dismiss a person based on place and stereotype. Married to an Egyptian, and trying to raise two kids with identities in both the United States and in Egypt, has only reinforced that experience. New Orleans has its own associations, especially when dealing with subjects such as crime or Katrina that are easily turned into sound bites. So instead of inviting simple categorization, I tried to find more human connections that went beyond place through juxtaposition. I followed a poem about a mine disaster in El Salvador with a poem about a picture of my father when he was a coal miner, for example. A poem about the immolation of a Vietnamese nun follows a poem—which relates a New Orleans fruit seller to the vegetable seller in Tunisia who kicked off the “Arab Spring”—which ends with the image of the Tunisian man’s immolation. Some poems have more tangential relationships based on tone or form. But the main idea was to link poems that are often rooted in place or event in ways that go beyond place and event.
You describe your book as “a story sequence of prose poems,” but it also includes visual art. What are some of the ways you think about order and juxtaposition in Upriver, a book that includes work in another medium?
SS: More than anything, I’ve been guided by the desire to make something that isn’t precious. When you’re working with a sequence of poems, there isn’t a lot of play with the ordering of pieces. I found myself spending more time making choices about how to present the pieces on the page. I didn’t want them to be seen as independent things. What does the space look like between the poems? Should more than one appear on a page? How do the section breaks occur? How can I present the sequence in such a way that the impulse behind the project shines through? It’s a strange endeavor—a story sequence of prose poems. Pulling the artwork in was the easiest part. Layla Ardalan’s woodcuts are clean but textured. They resonate with the book’s subject matter, and their aesthetic gestures toward what I think the work of Upriver to be—a carving out of things, an exploration of New Orleans’ landscape through a new medium. In the book, that medium is the protagonist’s nose. For Layla, it was woodcuts.
How did you ultimately reach the order of poems that appears in All Night It Is Morning? Were there any structural choices that helped with the task of sequencing?
AY: A wonderful poet and reader, Laura Mullen, helped me see how concerned my poems are with time. This helped me arrive at a larger structure for the book, which was to anchor it in the five aubades that are placed more or less equidistant in the book to serve as section breaks. My poems tend to be pretty heavy, and the idea that morning always comes, and that it comes to everyone, felt like a salve. Within the sections, I tended to let the poems get more and more immersed in darkness, then let the idea of morning break the sequence. Of course, morning evokes mourning, so that’s never far away.
SS: At one point, I believe you mentioned motherhood felt like a fourth place that held its own space in this collection.
AY: Motherhood is very much a terrain throughout the book. But being a mother—while living in New Orleans and in Cairo—has shown me how malleable that terrain is. As a mother, you are the geography for the baby-in-utero. You are your own country. And even with the kids out in the world, I’ve felt very much like the stable ground they stand on, which is scary when you realize how unstable your own ground, and the ground you actually stand on, can be. So I try to deal with those issues in the poems, too. The motherhood poems, in some ways, went more easily beyond the geography considerations.
How did you find Upriver’s form, and what were some of the struggles in getting to the final iteration of the poems and the book as a whole?
SS: Finding the book’s form felt like playing accordion. In the beginning, it was all about building, discovering the story. The more pieces the project accumulated, the more chunks fell to the wayside. Some weaseled their way back in; others are still in a file of culled material. The manuscript at its heftiest was book-length, seventy pages or so, and it had started drifting into near-sci-fi territory. My best friend joked that the mammoth iteration of the sequence could be called Escape to Shrimp Island. At its lightest, the poems were a chapbook. What’s published is probably closest to the earliest version, which feels strange but right. There’s more to the story, but a good 70 percent of it was pruned back in putting together the book in chapbook form. That seems to be the nature of working in sequences. Each small change you make puts pressure on another aspect of the manuscript. It’s a wonderful headache, and for me, it lasted years until I was ready to let it go and let the sequence stand on its own in chapbook length.
You mention artwork reflecting aspects of Egypt’s revolution, and I can’t help but think about our conversations regarding artwork on the streets, particularly graffiti.
AY: One of the things that most inspired me during Egypt’s revolution and the aftermath that followed, was the street art on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which is a street that leads into the Square. It was what Dr. Mona Abaza, a colleague while I was at the American University in Cairo, called a “barometer” of the revolution. The images, and their whitewashing, were the most accurate way, to me, of reading how the people, and the powers that be, were responding to the events of the day. One of my favorite artists to emerge from these expressions was Alaa Awad, a classical painter from Luxor who began to paint on the walls during the revolution’s beginning. The image on the book cover, which I was very grateful to have his blessing to use, is one of his most famous.
Are there words or images that kept coming up in your poems for this collection?
SS: I get a pleasure from folks’ names, so it was no surprise to me that the protagonist’s name, Roosevelt, is most prominent. Same goes for “water,” and maybe the words “oil,” “smell,” and “crab.” I’d be more surprised if those weren’t prominent. Those are the things at the heart of the book, and they’re figured and refigured within the sequence. If they didn’t get mentioned a whole hell of a lot, the book might feel more like it’s meant to be an actual story, moving along in time, than a story-like poem sequence that meditates on something larger. The narrative elements of Upriver work less like a plot and more as a vehicle for the Roosevelt to explore his world. Water, oil, and crabs—the water-dwelling kind—were most pronounced in his investigation, so they’re most prominent in the text.
AY: Did you embrace these repetitions and use them as conscious elements, or did you try to prune them back?
SS: The whole damn book hinges on smells as a way of engaging with things, so it’s fine by me that these words kept coming up. The repetition makes the whole thing feel circular, but sometimes in circling back we are able to see familiar things differently at the end. We’re able to draw more clear, charged conclusions the second time around because we’ve been through other experiences in the mean time. Sometimes, though, we’re just chasing our own tail. The real rub for Roosevelt is what to do once you catch your own tail, how to overcome the paralysis of perception, how to sit still in discomfort.