An Interview with Natalie Young
by Nick Avery
Natalie Young is a founding editor and graphic designer for the poetry magazine Sugar House Review. She received her BFA in art and an MFA in creative writing. Natalie works as an art director for an ad agency based out of Salt Lake City. Her poetry has been published in Rattle, Los Angeles Times, South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Green Mountains Review, in Rock & Sling 9.2, and elsewhere. I recently reached out to Natalie over email.
Nick Avery: Natalie, thank you so much, again, for agreeing to do this interview. I first encountered your work while I was laying out issue 9.2 of Rock & Sling and absolutely loved how your Monster poems signified a complex and imagined world. They almost seem to fall within the fantastic subgenre. I was wondering if we could start out by talking about the Monster poems. What was the impetus behind these poems? Why conceptualize this myth to delve into the larger concepts—as you detailed in your contributor’s note—of faith, environment, history, and religion?
Natalie Young: I do have a propensity toward fantastical and speculative fiction. So it will come as no surprise that I’m a fan of The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, super heroes, fairytales, etc. The initial concept of the monster came from the graphic novel The Lagoon by Lilli Carré, given to me by a friend. I loved the illustrations and the haunting idea of the lake monster, but I finished the book and wanted more information about the monster. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Thus, my monster of the Great Salt Lake was born.
This is the first series of poems I’ve written. In the beginning, it just seemed like a good exercise to establish a setting and characters and see what would happen. I didn’t intend to write so many poems about the monster, nor the series as a whole, but they just kept coming. This series has allowed me to establish a world and characters based in both reality and fantasy. The setting creates the time and space to delve into the themes you mention above. These themes have always been a part of my poetry, but somehow, they are less invasive when explored through this fictional world. Which is what myths do, right? They convey big ideas through a story, rather than a sermon.
NA: Let’s continue with the Monster poems for a moment. How do you see place and space functioning within this trilogy? I mean, because on some level the Monster is an alien, an orphaned creature that occupies a given environment. At the same time, I can’t help but feel the loneliness the Monster experiences in these poems. Does a division exist, then, between the Monster and place?
NY: It was a conscious choice to keep the poems almost exclusively set in Utah. This limited the space my characters inhabited, and it was a space I am both familiar with and connected to, having lived in Utah my whole life. The monster’s space is even more contained, living solely in the Great Salt Lake. Having a limited and known landscape makes it easier to establish the fantastical elements—like aliens living on earth and a lake monster that’s been around for centuries—while at the same time being able to deal with the realities of Utah’s culture, history and environment.
The monster is definitely lonely. He’s the only one left of his kind and has lived through vast amounts of time. You hit it spot on when you say he is an alien—not a space alien, but an alien in his own home, which is a sure division in space, place, and identity. His home is shrinking, the lake just keeps getting smaller, while at the same time, human civilization keeps expanding and he’s in the middle of it, but not a part of it.
NA: In “What She Misses About Being Mormon,” you write about the comfort that comes from community, rituals, and certainty. Yet, the subject of the poem acknowledges that hymns are what she yearns for after leaving the church. Why hymns? Is there a connection to be made with this type of song and poetry, or is this a slight overreach on my part?
NY: It’s kind of a bizarre thing, right? There are a number of amazing things a person can get from organized religion, but this character misses singing hymns the most? She’s found new rituals, new community, maybe given up on certainty, but she can’t replicate the experience or feeling of singing with an entire congregation. It’s a combination of the familiarity of notes and words sung again and again over the years and making a collective noise.
Hymns definitely have a close link to poetry. Several commonly sung Mormon hymns were written by Eliza R. Snow, (one of Brigham Young’s wives), who was a poet.
NA: Ok, last question about the Monster poems. In “Pretending to be interviewed” you utilize the structure of an interview—sort of like what we’re doing now, oddly enough—to explore the Monster’s inner thoughts. Why create this simulated dialogue that occurs between the Monster and, presumably, the Monster? Additionally, from a composition standpoint how did the writing and formatting of this poem differ from your other Monster poems?
NY: I wasn’t sure the format would work, but I liked the humor and absurdity of it, as well as what it could convey about the monster. How lonely or bored does one have to be to conduct an interview with one’s self, and then end the interview because it’s too emotional?
None of the other monster poems have any first-person narrative. In fact, none of the other poems in the series do either. So, while it’s absurd in concept, it allowed me to write directly from the monster, to give the monster an actual voice. The questions are written pretty cut and dry without much poetic language, split up by line breaks. The monster’s answers start out very short and reveal more as the interview moves along.
NA: I’d like to move from here to questions about writing as a career. At Whitworth University, there’s a huge push for students to find their vocation and calling. Do you see poetry as your profession at this point in your life? For that matter, what do you think a career poet looks like in 2015? I guess what I’m really trying to get at is this: What do you see is the role—if there is one—of the poet and do you conform to this position?
NY: Robert Frost said, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” I would guess most poets would agree, perhaps in large part because it’s so hard to make a living as a poet. I got a BFA in art and my day job is graphic design. I’ve always loved visual art, but it’s my profession now; poetry has become more of my passion. I went back to school to get an MFA in poetry, and it was what I call a “selfish degree.” I did it because I wanted to get better at reading and writing poetry, not because I wanted to use it as a career path. I realize I’m in the minority of people who are “serious” about writing poetry. In recent history, the typical path for someone who wants to be a career poet is to teach poetry and/or related studies, usually at the university level, and then, theoretically, have time and resources to write. But with a saturated market of talented, educated poets and most of the new positions now being adjunct—with no benefits and low pay—I think something’s going to have to change. There’s no reason a poet should feel like he/she needs to be so intimately tied to academia. There are other ways to create and be a part of a poetic community.
I don’t know if I subscribe to any certain role for the poet. Some people say it’s to speak the truth, to declare it to the world, and certainly, I acknowledge that poets have risked much and played an integral part in certain histories, and that shouldn’t be downplayed. I do believe that poetry can be an amazing tool for healing and change, both for the writer and the reader.
NA: Why did you choose Rock & Sling for these particular poems? What other publications do you frequent—either for reading or for submitting your own work?
NY: I was first exposed to Rock & Sling when I met Thom Caraway at AWP and we set up an ad trade for our magazines. I was immediately taken by how beautiful the journal is, both design- and content-wise. I felt like this batch of poems fit into Rock & Sling’s aesthetic of faith.
There are too many publications that I admire to list here, but a few include: burntdistrict, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Tampa Review, Jubilat, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review and Smartish Pace.
NA: This issue was interesting for our staffers because we received a number of submissions concerning Utah and Mormonism. At one point we started to joke that 9.2 would be known as the “Mormon issue.” Two weeks ago I mentioned to one of our editors that I’d scored an interview with one of the issue’s Mormon poets, a comment she was kind enough to admonish me for—considering that there is a lot more to a person’s poetry than a particular tradition or religion. I was wondering if you could comment on this idea, that is the concept of what makes up a person’s poems. Do you think that poetry is forged by those conversations we have about things like whether or not someone’s Mormon or do they stem from universal ideas?
NY: I don’t consider myself a Mormon poet, but I can’t deny that my poetry is influenced by my experience and identity of being raised Mormon, both as part of the religion and the culture. I think poetry is forged by the culmination of experiences in a poet’s life, including religion and universal ideas.
Sugar House Review just celebrated its five-year anniversary. In those five years of reading many, many submissions, I’ve seen an incredible universality in what people write—for better or worse. Every community seems to have a current flowing through it that individuals tap into consciously and subconsciously.
NA: This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask our Rock & Sling contributors, since I, myself, have spent such a long time trying to navigate the subtle line that exists between the two: Where do you think the rift—assuming there is one—liess between faith and religion? More importantly, how do you see life operating within their structures?
NY: I think that every religion requires faith, but faith doesn’t need religion. Faith and religion can be a beautiful combination and provide things we mentioned earlier—answers, community, ritual—but I don’t trust blind faith. There have been too many tragedies throughout history spurred by blind, absolute faith. Faith seems stronger when it works through some doubt and allows for others’ faith.
May Swenson, who also grew up Mormon in Utah, said that poetry replaced religion in her life. That is how I feel as well.
NA: Where do you find the motivation to write? Where do you start when you get an idea for a poem? At what point do you recognize a poem for what it is—either good or bad? Ok, so that was more than one final question, but if you could indulge me, I’d appreciate it.
NY: My motivation to write comes from my love of words, the need to write as a form of therapy, spirituality, and accomplishment, and it’s become a habit. I feel off-center and guilty when I don’t write for a while. I get inspiration from reading, not just poetry, but all kinds of books and magazines, weird news stories, other art forms and just daily life.
In the last few years, I almost always start a poem by handwriting a really rough draft in a notebook. I leave it for a while, let us both have some space, and come back to it a few days or weeks later and sort of edit on top of that draft—crossing things out, writing new things in, drawing arrows to move lines and words around. The next step is typing it up on the computer, but I don’t do that unless I have a fair idea of what I want it to be. So I guess it’s between paper and screen where I usually recognize my poem.
Nick Avery is a senior (’16) at Whitworth University where he studies English literature and writing. He is the assistant managing editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal housed at Whitworth, and the poetry editor of Script, Whitworth’s student-run, undergraduate literary journal. When he isn’t frantically running around the English Department, Nick can be found reading David Foster Wallace or writing creative nonfiction. Nick plans to attend graduate school once he completes his B.A. at Whitworth.
Image is from kristalco.com