Cassie Pruyn

Andy Young Interview


Poet Andy Young lives in New Orleans, where she teaches at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and at Tulane University. She also translates, with her husband Khaled Hegazzi, Arabic poems into English. A graduate of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, she is the author of three previous chapbooks and has been widely published both in the United States and abroad. Young’s first full-length poetry collection, All Night It Is Morning, was published in 2014. The poems in this collection, rich and unflinchingly honest, transport us to places we may never have been before, while simultaneously illuminating the essential experiences that unite us all.


Originally from West Virginia, you’ve spent most of your adult life either in New Orleans or in Alexandria, Egypt, where your husband and his family are from. You have, so to speak, “a foot in both worlds,” or in several worlds. And you’ve talked some about what it means to be a witness to others’ sufferingin the context of the Egyptian Revolution, Hurricane Katrina, and the perils of coal miningand of the so-called “poetry of witness,” which is how poetry that concerns itself with “the political” is often categorized. Can you talk more about the gap between the observer and the observed, and what role poetry plays in that distance? What has poetry meant to you, as both an insider and an outsider?


Art, in general, and poetry, in particular, has helped me to see connections between people in faraway places, with completely different reference points, who experience some of the same reactions to extreme events. This first became obvious to me in talking to two different people from Beirut in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They seemed to “get” what it was to be attached to a broken city and landscape better than I did. A few years ago, a poem of mine about a mining accident (not included in All Night It Is Morning) was used in a flamenco play that focused on miners in southern Spain. The poem has nothing to do with Spain; it’s entirely centered on a family story from southern West Virginia. But somehow that narrative—so specific and referential—made sense in a completely different context. I found that encouraging and also validating for what I was exploring in my work. Of course, I continue to try to learn from the way poets I admire approach their subjects. The way Komunyakaa blends grounding narrative and lyric transcendence in Dien Cai Dau, for example, or the way Seamus Heaney puts modern conflict in dialogue with the historical and mythic in North. Or the way Paul Celan braids language with terror and lyricism in “Deathfugue.” How Mahmoud Darwish testified, through the personal and the metaphorical, the ongoing disaster of his people. Or Claudia Rankine in her poem “Backed Up in the Soul” (which is included in her new book Citizen, though with a different title) implicates the reader with refrain and the acknowledgment of suffering seen through various screens. I can’t do any of that as masterfully as these poets. But I try to continue to learn from them (and others) to add these approaches to my mental tool box of what can be done.

As far as distance goes, I think a lot about the idea of distance from an event and the role an observer can play in the telling. How does one avoid being a voyeur or an exploiter of another’s suffering, for example? How does one acknowledge his/her point of view, and is that necessary? “Witness” often implies a kind of objectivity that I don’t really believe in, and it can also invite speculation about the authenticity or authority one has to address a situation. It seems to me that, as long as you manage to live through and to tell something, you will be, to some degree, a “witness” of it. But the proximity to event often brings with it a kind of authority and even, at times, a culpability, as in the case of photojournalists who are criticized for capturing events instead of intervening. One method I began to see in some of the poems I admire that respond to extreme events is the acknowledgment of distance through the naming of an actual lens (such as in Rankine’s poem) which explicitly questions the frame through which we see things.


Aside from those you just mentioned, tell us about other artists who have inspired you, either in the writing of this book or at other points in your career.


The poems in All Night It Is Morning span a very long period of time if I look at when I wrote the earliest and the most recent poems. But some of the abiding influences I can think of (and I’m sure I’m forgetting many) are Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats, Naomi Shihab Nye, Galway Kinnell, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Yusef Komunyakaa. I fell in love with the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet in more recent years. My teachers at UNC and at Warren Wilson also shaped me: Marianne Boruch, Daniel Tobin, Maurice Manning, David Baker, Michael McFee. Though I don’t know as much of their work (partly due to what is available in translation), Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, and Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm have influenced me by showing me a way of approaching poems that feels, to me, in intimate dialogue with everyday things and people while also luminous and transcendent, almost ecstatic at times. I think this kind of utterance is an ideal to me, to remain grounded in a poem while also reaching these sometimes operatic pitches, and the fact that it can come through in translation is amazing.


I loved learning about the role of poetry and street art in the Egyptian revolution from your 2013 essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books. In the essay, you talk about poetry’s role in creating continuity between past and present conflicts, and the way the protest chants themselves are short, lyric poems “that lose a great deal of their music in translation.” In places experiencing great suffering and unrest, poetry can be a real, almost tangible power. Tell us more about how you see poetry fitting into these moments of upheaval. Did you see this playing out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? And discuss, if you will, why you think poetry is less a part of our nation’s discourse than it might be in other places.


Poetry was one of the first things to come back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It became really clear that there was a community of poets and that we needed each other, and each others’ poems, to make sense of what happened and was happening. I remember trying to track them down when I was somehow made the conduit for small poets’ grants, and how wonderful it was to hear where we all were, to see so many trickle back into the city or reach out from wherever they were. I remember one of those first readings, seeing so many familiar faces that, perhaps, I’d taken for granted before, all showing up in that still, tragic void and beginning to speak again. U.S. culture, even, turns to poetry when we need meaning in difficult times. People read poetry at funerals or in the wake of a disaster. Of course, poetry is part of the everyday discourse of many other cultures. In Egypt, there are many people, even people who can’t read, who quote poetry, who don’t see it as relegated to some academic venue. I’ve seen that in Ireland, in Mexico and El Salvador and Nicaragua—poetry on the walls of airports, in festivals and on people’s lips. Why we don’t feel that same need for it here is a great mystery to me, and I can only speculate that it has to do with the way we distract ourselves from meaning or human connection with consumerism or other expressions of comfort that we are often lucky enough to have. But upheaval unearths the desire to connect and vocalize our humanness, and upheaval happens and is happening, even here, and this is often when we see the poetry bubbling up.


In a recent interview, you talked about your struggle to find the right structure for All Night It Is Morning. For the most part, the poems in this collection are set in three distinct places, but you didn’t organize them along those lines. Instead, you opted for the interesting juxtaposition that can happen when you put a poem about the geography of motherhood next to a poem that takes place in Tahrir Square. What were some other curatorial or formal ideas you tried out? How was your struggle to find the right constraints specific to this book?


I tried many different things, constantly laying the pages out and taping them in different configurations all over the wall. There were colored marker divisions, piles, and lists galore. For months. As you mention, I did not want to divide the book according to geography, which seems to be one of the more superficial ways we categorize people and experience. Instead, I aimed for a structure that emphasized what is shared between us. The five aubades (traditionally defined as poems or songs announcing the arrival of dawn and which lament the parting of lovers whose union is somehow forbidden) divide the book. This structure, as well as the title, grounded the collection in one of our most universal experiences: that of light, and the arrival of morning. From there, I tried to divide the poems among the sections in such a way that no geography became dominant in any of the sections. I wanted image, emotion, voice, form, even sound, to be what connected the poems most of the time, so I tried to subvert the easy categorizations according to place and subject that can happen (in other words, I wanted to thwart a reader who might think “oh this is the Hurricane Katrina section” or something). I think this is what makes the book both interesting and also challenging or even alienating to some readers. I want to challenge the reader to look beyond the comfortable boxes we might put a poem, or person, or experience, into.

As far as the specificity of the struggle to this book—larger structures are not my strong point; they have never come easily to me. I tend to see things through a zoom lens, with the details and minutiae blown up. So the bigger picture is always a challenge. That said, the three chapbooks I did before this were far easier to put together because, by their nature, they were project books. Each had its own theme, and that made it much simpler to figure out how to structure them. This project, being a full-length book, as well as being a book that is particularly wide-ranging in scope, was a big challenge for me.


Talk more, if you will, about your decision to focus on aubades as a poetic form in All Night It Is Morning. Aside from the arrival of dawn, aubades sometimes signal the necessary separation of lovers at daybreak. There is such rich tension in your ideas about the universality of morning’s arrival—and the hope inherent in that—and the idea of having to separate from someone once the sun clears the horizon. Was that tension part of what drew you to the form?


I was just reading Dunya Mikhail’s new book (translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid) and saw these lines: “on the first morning/of the new year/all of us will look up/at the same sun.” Such a beautiful idea, and so simply put, and I think it gets at some of what I was trying to do with the aubade. Each one is set in a specific place—New Orleans, Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo, the body of the mother—and yet they are all talking about the sun rising, as it does and has done for everyone throughout place and time. I think the aubade form works really well for the tension you are talking about—the ways we connect and also the ways we separate. I also like the aubade’s tradition of having a sentry present, someone who watches out for the lovers so they are not caught. All of these elements are really important to me: the connection; the necessary separation because the connection is somehow forbidden; the allies who facilitate the connection by watching our backs; the love that transcends whatever power tries to keep us separate; light itself. I think these elements cover a lot of what I think and write about.  


Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. She earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poems and reviews can be found in AGNI Online, ENTROPY, and The Double Dealer, with work forthcoming from The Normal School, 32 Poems, Blue Lyra Review, Lunch Ticket and The Los Angeles Review.

Andy Young's first full-length collection, All Night It Is Morning, was published by Diálogos Press in November. She currently teaches at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and at Tulane University after working at the American University in Cairo for the last two years. A graduate of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, her writing has also been published in three chapbooks, in publications in Lebanon, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, and in U.S. publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Best New Poets, Callaloo, Guernica, and the Norton anthology Language for a New Century.