On the eve of the launch of her new book of poetry - Magnificent Moon - Hera Lindsay Bird chats with Ashleigh Young about brothers, poetry and her favourite dog.
I always think of Ashleigh Young as a kind of literary triathlete. She was the winner of the 2009 Landfall essay competition, the 2009 recipient of the Adam Prize, and winner of the 2009 Macmillan Brown prize for writers. She’s an essayist, a blogger, and the author of a brand new collection of poetry called Magnificent Moon, being released by Victoria University Press this Thursday, which James Brown describes as “poems of restrained exuberance, which combine a calm voice with attitude and imagination...a world that is advancing toward us at the same time as it is backing away.” She also has a wonderful twitter account, but she describes that as just “treadmilling and angsting.” The title of Ashleigh’s new book Magnificent Moon comes from a poem in the collection titled “Abandoned poem titled Magnificent Moon,” which is borrowed from something Ashleigh’s mother (who she describes as having “a dramatic, exaggerated turn of phrase”) once said; “We have not been sleeping well, as if we sense that all is not well with the land despite a magnificent moon tonight.” Ashleigh says “Ideally, I would like people to read the title in a high, slightly quavery voice.”Look at that MAGNIFICENT moooon."
Someone asked me recently if I knew Ashleigh Young, and I didn’t really know how to answer them, because knowing someone only on the internet still seems like cheating. Everyone’s heard the horror stories about internet romances gone wrong, where the other person turns out to be a sweaty middle aged man from Tucson who spends all day watching exercise infomercials in his bathrobe, and even though I knew Ashleigh through a network of poetry slackers with good credentials (see: twitter) I wasn’t able to shake the feeling, as we were emailing, that one of us was going to turn out to be Barry, the unemployed NASCAR enthusiast from Tucson Arizona.
HLB: When did you first start writing, and what format did that take?
AY: When I was about four or five, I think. I'm not sure why I started. Maybe it was my brothers - both older than me - who read a lot and wrote a lot of stories for school. I wrote terrible stories about two strange men called Pete and Roger ("Pete and Roger go horse-riding", "Pete and Roger build a plane", "Pete and Roger go on dates"), and poems. I also started a magazine specifically for frogs. I believe it was called Froglet. At one point I had enough material to open a library in my bedroom, in which all of the books were written by me. I think more than the books I loved making the little Due Date slips at the back, with the space for the name of the borrower (inevitably one of my brothers or my parents), the date, and a tally for any overdue fines. I am still owed money.
You write in a lot of different formats. You have a blog, a twitter, you’re a poet and you won the Adam Prize for your essay collection Can You Tolerate This? What happened to the book of essays, and why have you moved to poetry?
I haven't really moved to poetry - I'm just doing more of it at the moment, and there is the book, so it seems to be in the foreground, but for me all the other things are just as important (well, maybe not Twitter as much, that's just me treadmilling and angsting). The essay collection was confounded by family issues - I wrote a little piece about it for Booknotes, which you can read here: But the plan is to work on it over the summer. I am still really sad about how it worked out and just need to figure out a way around it.
You were talking on twitter the other day about the unresolved nature of blog posts, in response to someone’s suggestion that you publish your blog as a book of essays. Do you feel like you have different responsibilities in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. Blog posts feel impermanent to me - and I feel like I have permission to be lazy in my thinking sometimes, because it's my blog, and it's self-published - it's like my messy desk drawer. It's just one tiny drawer in the endless set of drawers towering above us and sometimes falling over and crushing us. Also, although I love longform writing, I guess I'm always aware of our doomed attention spans on the Internet; I don't want to wear out my welcome. But with a published essay, specially in print, people have invested a lot more in the work - publishers, editors, reviewers. And a reader's focus is so different when opening a book as opposed to opening a tab. I think they expect a more considered work. Well - I do, anyway. I don't think it would work to turn a bunch of blog posts into a book. It's like when you try to read song lyrics as poems. Something gets lost in translation and it just doesn't work. I think an author has all sorts of responsibilities. Not to talk down. Not to plagiarise. Not to self-indulge. Not to hate their characters. To realise their work as fully as possible, as best they can. But I don't think a writer has a responsibility for how a reader will respond - how a reader's own beliefs or moral, religious, or political leanings might lead them to respond. You can't control that.
When you’re writing, how do you know what’s going to become a poem, and what will be an essay? Is there a fundamental difference there, or do you feel you’re writing about the same concerns, just in stylistically different ways?
How do I know what's going to be a poem or an essay - it's hard to describe. Often an essay idea will be more a grounded idea or question, and there's a logic or semi-logic to it, and I can imagine roughly how it might develop, and there are some things I want to explore within the idea, whereas a poem idea will be more of a fragment - maybe a weird juxtaposition, a funny phrase, an image. And I don't know what it will turn into once I start writing it. I sometimes get the two mixed up though. Once I wrote a poem about a friend of mine, and someone who read it said, 'What is this?! This is an essay.' It was basically prose, but it was trying to get away with being a poem by hamming it up with line breaks and crazy punctuation. That was very lazy. I didn't do anything about it though. I kept it as a poem. I don't know why. It was laziness dressed up as rebellion. And now it's in the book and will haunt me forever.
Do you write with an audience in mind?
Never. An audience at all is the dream. I sometimes worry about who I don't want the audience to be. When I write I have a vague sense of someone listening, scowling at me, who I'm always trying to appease - but I try to be as open as I can, because who are these people?!
I’m interested in the ordering and selection of poems for a poetry book. How did you find that process?
I needed an editor to help me with that, because I wasn't sure how to group them. The poems felt like a single, large, slippery mass to me. The poet James Brown, who reviewed my manuscript, is an extraordinary categoriser, so he and Fergus Barrowman made suggestions for grouping the poems into three sections, following basic themes: Family, intimacy, travelling. But even then, there are poems that seem not to fit anywhere. They're like difficult, posturing teenagers. But they're alright really.
Is there an author whose work you always return to?
It's hard to think of just one. I often come back to the Australian essayist Helen Garner. She feels like an old friend. As does Martin Edmond (his wonderful collection Chronicle of the Unsung is stuck on repeat for me). I always go back to David Foster Wallace's essays too - they are all-consuming, so uncomfortably, constantly alive. And when I've hit a wall in some way, I read Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. And Nabokov. And Geoff Cochrane.
How did doing the MA change your writing process, and how have you found writing post-university?
The MA necessarily changes your writing process because you get to know the people who'll be critiquing you each week. It's hard not to feel self-conscious. You can paralyse yourself with it. But process-wise, it made me a lot more diligent, a lot more driven that year. Deadlines and the prospect of long, uncomfortable group silences are helpful for that. Writing post-university has been tough. I've been in a rut. Sometimes I feel guilty when I write, as if I'm being indulgent, because what's it for? But then I feel worse when I'm not writing. I started a blog partly to counter this.
How do you create new challenges for yourself when writing? How do you make sure you’re not treading the same ground over and over again?
I don't. I'm pretty sure I tread the same ground. I guess I try to tread it from different directions and in different boots and I do "crazy" walks and limps. Sorry if that's a bit vague. I just think my ground is my ground.
Someone (who I can’t remember) once said (much more eloquently) that everyone finds themselves returning to write the same poem again and again. What do you think? And if you agree, what poem is that for you?
I just tried to google the phrase "write the same poem again and again" and came up with a Zen master called Zoketsu Norman Fischer. As well as saying that a poet writes the same poem over and over again, he says: "Writers often have miserable lives because they view their life as material for their art, which is an absolute, and the ethics and presence of the actual life becomes secondary to that." Hmm - I don't think this is the person. Anyway, it's a hard question. I don't know if I agree. In fact I find myself disagreeing purely because I don't like the sound of this Zen master.
I know that I repeat certain images and settings in my poems - there are often trees, dogs, water, birds. I guess there is often a sense of bewilderment. But I'm not sure if similar themes render all poems the same. Then again, maybe in about twenty, thirty, forty years time, I'll look back and realise. "Oh, god. It's the same POEM."
I like the idea of a collection of poems, and beyond that collections of poems, together forming one, giant, monstrous, meta-poem. I like to think that *that* is the poem we are writing.
It seems to me that putting a collection into the world is kind of brave and terrifying. Did you struggle with knowing whether your book was ready?
Haha. It was never going to be ready! It's still not ready, and it's just been printed. But it had been festering away for so long, and there is always more to be written, more to be eked out; there is always more. You always want it to be extraordinary. It's like finally realising that the person you'd had a faraway crush on for years is really just a person, a fallible, fairly ordinary person who burps and farts like everyone else. But even though there is an element of deflation, it's very exciting too, when it becomes real. I also had to trust that Fergus was being honest when he said he thought it was a book.
Are there any poetry movements that you feel really at home with, or changed the way you felt about writing, or do you prefer to read individual poets?
I'm very haphazard in my reading, but I went through a phase years ago, when I was writing a thesis on Frank O'Hara, of becoming infatuated with all of the 1950s and 60s American poets. It almost feels a little bit embarrassing now. Everyone goes through this phase I guess, and some of us never get past it. But a lot of those poets really changed how I thought about poetry. The idea that a poem could be a gift to a particular person, or could commemorate the ordinary world in some way, could include actual people and places and everyday events unreservedly - all of that really opened out the possibilities of what a poem could be. I began to write more people and places into my poems. My family are in there a lot as well, particularly my parents. To be honest, I'm not sure what they think about that. I wrote one about my dad with Brussels sprouts growing all over him, and it was never spoken of. Anyway.
Could you talk a little bit about the amazing cover design? Where did it come from?
For the cover, I wanted a flaming skull. I got a skull that isn't flaming but that I like very much, drawn by my friend Rowan. I got quite obsessed with the question of the cover. (I wrote a little bit about it here). I like the little details that Rowan has sneaked in. The whale, the wind-up hand. Also you will notice that in one eye of the skull, there are two dogs shagging.
What’s your favourite dog?
This is a really personal question. The dachshund.