Ashleigh Young Q&A

Your second collection of poetry, How I Get Ready, begins with a long poem, ‘The Spring’, a poem I’ve become slightly obsessed with reading. The poem starts with the story of an anxious person who sees a horse fallen over in a street. The person cannot move until that horse is back on its feet. There’s a formal, wooden syntax in the poem which makes me want to know more about this person, and then there’s this phrase— ‘When I am satisfied with one thing/I want something else’. I feel like the poem enacts this feeling – of being satisfied and wanting. Can you talk a bit about this poem? What is it?

I’m glad you like this poem, because I was nervous about it. It is essentially a found poem. Last year I started reading a lot of old case studies about neurology, particularly in relation to people struggling with intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. I had an intrusive thought of my own and wanted to learn about how these thoughts have been studied in the past.

I came across this early 20th-century account of a young man – a 23-year-old immigrant from Russia to the US – who, his neurologist says, ‘carries himself like a prisoner under sentence, his head drops and his eyes avoid the examiner’. He is said to be ‘turning the serious activities of his life into bizarre distortions’. It’s a discursive account, interspersed with the physician’s interpretations, in which the young man details many of the things that torment him, all of which seem to revolve around his not knowing things that he desperately wants to know, such as the contents of a woman’s handbag on the train, or what specific drink someone has in their cup, or where somebody got their hat. Small questions consume him.

I found his account mesmerising, and poignant, and also very sad because this young man clearly needs help and it seems unlikely that he’ll ever find any peace. By the end of the account he has been drafted into the army (‘totally unfit for duty,’ the neurologist notes). At this time very little research has been done on severe cases like these, partly because often the patient doesn’t return after a few appointments.

I wondered how the young man might be treated today. I was very taken by his expression of his torment and by the bigger question of how people reconcile themselves to uncertainty, and what happens if they can’t. I started to piece together this poem.

In the beginning it was a much longer, very unwieldy screed that incorporated much more detail – for instance, the young man has an obsession with liquids. So I had many scenes where he was thinking about and looking at water. There were other scenes where he gathered up the courage to ask people what drink they had in their cup, and when they told him he felt better. Gradually I pared the poem back and back, and the horse began to take a more central role. I realised that I wanted to keep coming back to the scene with the horse. I wanted that scene to be the story. We could move away from the horse for a little while to glimpse other moments in his life, such as his relationship with his mother, but we had to keep coming back to the progress of the horse. The horse is something that he does know about, because he stayed to find out, so there is some certainty about the horse.

It took a long time to find the voice of the poem – because it’s the voice of the young man of course, but it became something else, something that I wanted to sort of splinter as it tried to move forward. There is this idea that you have to make peace with uncertainty in your life, and of course, to function well, you do. But I think this poem is trying to see what happens if you can’t make peace with it.

Your answer is so interesting as an insight into how you might take raw material and shape it. Emotional connection is key, right? I think we can feel your connection to his story in the poem. But when you say you pared back and back, and that it came down to the horse, can you explain why? What makes you know that the final form the poem takes is the right form?

Maybe part of the reason I came back to the horse, apart from the narrator’s staying to find out what happened to it, was that it was at the centre of a dramatic scene – and I thought that it might give the poem some tension. Also, it’s a horse! I am drawn to horses. Their mystery, their power, but also their incongruity and slight silliness. There are a few horses in this book. My favourite one is the one that's standing at a hotel window.

There’s this poem I love by Naomi Shihab Nye, called ‘How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?’. The first stanza is ‘When you quietly close / the door to a room / the room is not finished.’ I feel that about many of my poems and definitely about 'The Spring' – that I’ve just left it temporarily. Not abandoned it, but let it settle into itself. In the past I have actually published poems that I thought were finished and then realised that they weren’t. (One time Gregory O’Brien emailed me and said, ‘That poem . . . I wasn’t quite sure about the ending’ and I realised I wasn’t sure about it either.) So I revised the published version and published it again.

It feels endlessly negotiable to me, which probably makes me look a bit flaky. I'm never completely satisfied. But there is one thing I find helpful. If I show the poem to someone, and for the first time I feel I don’t need to explain anything, or apologise for anything, then I feel it might be close – that the poem is doing the work I want it to do.

Also, it seems to me that poetry is a solace here. The real story of the young man is so cruel, but perhaps in even sharing a part of his story we, the reader, feel some comfort. Do you find poetry a solace?

I think it depends what you’re looking for as to whether you find comfort in poetry. I’m not always looking for solace when I read a poem, but when I am looking for it I nearly always find it. For instance, the weekend after the Christchurch attacks in March, I read Gregory Kan’s book Under Glass. It’s a very beautiful book – I felt sort of enveloped by it. I sat with it for ages.

I think of you as a very generous poet. You have an open-hearted empathy running through all your work. And I wonder if your generosity has something to do with all the animals in your poems. In this collection there is a dog, a horse, longfin eels, support wasps, turtles, a porpoise, an angry elephant seal...I'm not listing them all. I wonder if the animals are there to remind me that there is a world of experience beyond what I can know?

Yes, an animal experiences the world in a way that human beings can never know, and it possesses an intelligence that we wouldn’t know how to measure. That thought is overwhelming because it makes me think of fragility – how human beings destroy things without understanding what they’re destroying – but it also makes me think of the hard limits of my own seeing. Maybe I’m kind of reminding myself of that with all these animals in poems.

Meeting an animal requires you to recalibrate yourself – crouch down, or move slowly, or speak softly – in order to become acceptable to the animal. I like how a person changes when they’re in the presence of an animal, because there is nothing worse than being rejected by one. People must become softer and gentler. I judge people quite harshly if they don’t treat animals well. Maybe subconsciously I think that if I put an animal in my poem then people will also become gentler when reading it.

At a surface level, I love how different kinds of animals move, and how they express themselves. I love the challenge of describing them.

I wrote quite a few of these poems when I was in a really weird depression. I felt like I was losing language and losing my ability to communicate with people. I turned towards imagery of animals because it felt like a particular language I could understand – like, the way an eel moves or a horse runs or a dog wriggles around, these felt like languages that were comprehensible and immediate.

There is too much/poetry in the world//and yet//here you are’ — wrote James Brown. What’s it like being a poetry editor and a poet? What keeps you going with all that poetry in the world?

Poetry is something that, like sports, there will always be too much of, but there needs to be too much of it because that’s the only way it can exist meaningfully at all – when anyone can do it. The overabundance is partly why it’s so great when you discover something in the roiling mass of poetry that you love. So that’s what keeps me reading it. That, and my eagerness to see how people are going to end their poems. I love a good ending, and I find good endings hard to write. So I figure, the more endings I read, the more ending-literate I will become.

It’s probably ill-advised to be a poetry editor AND a poet. (Not that I took advice from anyone. I doubt anyone would say, ‘You want my advice? Become a poetry editor and also a poet.’) Maybe it has made me slightly steelier about revising my own poems, and more realistic about how many people are interested in them. But it’s made me a bit self-conscious, because if my poems are bad, then should I really be editing other people’s? No! At the same time, I feel a kind of recklessness. Because there is so much poetry, I think, ‘Well, this must be legitimate after all,’ and I keep on writing it.

How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young is on sale now. p/b, $25.