Dean Young is the author of Fall Higher, The Art of Recklessness, The Foggist, Primitive Mentor, Elegy on Toy Piano, Beloved Infidel, Skid, First Course in Turbulence, Strike Anywhere, and Design with X. His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, with several inclusions in Best American Poetry. He has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, and the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the William Livingston Chair of Poetry.

Dean Young

posted Aug 9, 2011

Dean Young refuses to be defeated. Despite a long-running heart condition, Young has authored ten books of poetry, including Elegy on Toy Piano, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Fall Higher. In Young’s latest collection, he pairs absurdity and tragedy, creating moments of comic delight with moving revelations. He was kind enough to take the time to sit down with us (electronically) and discuss Fall Higher.

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The press release accompanying Fall Higher describes the book as “an intimate and imaginative foray into the possibilities of failure.” Since we like to think we know a little about failing here at failbetter, we were curious about your thoughts on comparing “falling higher” with “failing better.”  How do you see the two ideas working with or against each other?

Well, "fall higher" and "fail better" seem to be tumbling from the same attempts. I certainly don't believe in the making of art as a pursuit of perfection, rather the exploration of errors and stumbles, smudges and yips. In The Art of Recklessness, I write about getting better at not knowing what you're doing. The imagination is often after truths that lie outside the possible, the allowable, that seem initially and reveal themselves as roan and lop-sided, even ugly as Gertrude Stein said the new always is. Anyway, what's to lose in a situation where failure is always a necessary component? One might as well bet everything if one is going to make any attempt at all. Which means exceeding and defying any notion of certainty provided by the table manners of craft and all that tinkering, dour nonsense. Art may be made carefully but it's never made by the careful.

"If a form doesn't provide liberation, it's just the display of antiquated handcuffs."

In the opening poem of Fall Higher, “Lucifer,” you state that “There are no transitions / only falls.” Do you see this statement as one of hope, despair, or a combination of the two?

Things aren't usually one way or the other; they're usually both at once. Toxicology and happy hour. I suppose in that line is a sort of resignation (which too I distrust) that has a rhetoric of certainty that seemed fitting to end the poem with.

There are a fair amount of odes scattered throughout Fall Higher – “Irrevocable Ode,” “Omen Ode,” “Infinitive Ode,” and our favorite, “Fucked-Up Ode,” as well as poems with slight meter and rhyme schemes. How do you visualize forms within your own work, or even the work of your peers? Do you see a rebirth of forms within American poetry, or have they never really left us?

There have been poems called "Odes" in previous books too. What occurred to me in writing them is that a poem could have the same subject (ish) throughout the entire poem or that a single subject could command the poem. I suppose this is something most people understand from the get-go but that is often the death of a poem, it gets mired in itself. Maybe this very stricture approached in my way provided me some sense of liberation. And if a form doesn't provide liberation, it's just the display of antiquated handcuffs. Received forms have had something of a rebirth particularly through experimental writing and its debt to OULIPO. With the opening of the field, a fence here and then is quite interesting, something to jump over or mark boundaries and the presence of choice.

In “These End-Stopped Affairs,” you write that sometimes you see yourself “simultaneously baby and old man / oscillating wildly between the poles / of opera and hootenanny.”  How do you maintain that balance between “opera and hootenanny” in your work?

"Stillness is a characteristic of the dead and I figure there's no need to practice being dead – there'll be plenty of time for on-job training."

I wouldn't call it a balance; I'd call it more running from one end of the see-saw to another and back as quickly as possible. Within the idea of balance is a stillness and certainly I admire and perhaps as the days go by into darkness aspire to such stillness to get some sleep but in the meantime I want to record the gusting of the cherry blossoms. Stillness is a characteristic of the dead and I figure there's no need to practice being dead – there'll be plenty of time for on-job training.

The book’s linear notes mention that the poem “Demon Cycle” was written as a part of Christopher Merrill’s Seven Poets, Four Days, One Book project. What was that collaborative process like? Do you feel that projects like this one build a collective voice, or strengthen each poet’s individual voice?

That project was a lot of fun, very inspiring. I loved the quickness of it and the fact that it felt like a team sport without the competition. (Side note: I think because schools have such a tendency to relate physical activity to competition, a lot of kids feel like losers and therefore don't physically use their bodies much – I hated gym when I was in school and it was only in college that I realized the fun of exercise because no one was telling me I lost all the time). I suppose it made all of us in that room glow with a higher wattage, inspired by the activity that we were all simultaneously engaged in – I feel the same way and want my students to feel that way in class.

You’ve been quick to defend graduate programs in creative writing, and adamant in the belief that writing programs create and foster diverse writing.  Do you see any universal thread throughout your students’ work, or are they all radically different from each other?

"[Among poetry students] there is a turning away over the last few years from the more abstract experimental theory-driven "projects" to poems that are more playful and/or emotionally invested."

There is great difference among my students in their aesthetics, practice and poems – in fact aesthetic diversity is one of the things we consider in admitting our classes. There is a turning away over the last few years from the more abstract experimental theory-driven "projects" to poems that are more playful and/or emotionally invested. I feel like the animal has come back in the room a bit more for younger poets and they aren't as austere.

Over the past year the literary community rallied around you, first as a support system, and now as a celebration of your successful heart transplant. What has it been like to have that kind of reaction from your peers, especially Tony Hoagland’s open letter at the National Foundation for Transplants? Has it changed how you look at Fall Higher, which was written before your transplant took place?

I'm greatly humbled and grateful for the help and support I've received over this difficult period. It's been astonishing. And factor into that that someone who I never met gave me his heart (yes the operation cost a lot but the heart itself is a gift), I begin each day with something of a thank you prayer, from an infidel but a prayer nonetheless.

I don't know if it's changed how I look at Fall Higher or rather, what I've been through has changed the way I look at everything so much, it would be hard to particularize a change in regards to one thing. I do sorta like that book; Copper Canyon did a beautiful job with it and the poems inside don't revolt me. I'm glad it's out there. Perhaps one thing I can say is the sort of vitality and energy in the poems I hope to recover.

You once defined poetry a being about “time running out.”  Well, after a having a decade long diagnosis hanging over your head like your self-coined “shadowy concern,” you’ve now got a lot more time on your hands.  How will this impact your work from here on out?

Having a heart transplant isn't a guarantee of longevity; one shoots for the first month, then the first three, then 6 months, then a year, etc. I don't know how it will impact my work but it surely will. I hope everything that happens to me does. So far I can say it's slowed me down and a lot of the new poems I've done are simpler and more direct I think. But I never know what's happening with my poems outside of trying to write them and it's during the writing of each poem I try to make some sort of decision about what the poem is doing, which if I'm lucky will overshadow/form that poem for its duration and there it often ends. I'm still searching and messing about, making wild forays I hope. Time is always running out for everyone although I'll admit everyone doesn't have such huge scars. But one thing's for sure, I don't only want to write from the prospective of those scars.