Profile with Monica Youn

Monica Youn (Texas & University College 1993) is a poet and will start teaching poetry at Princeton University and at Bennington College in the fall. Her works have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and she has published two books of poetry, Barter (2003) and Ignatz (2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Previously she was the Brennan Center Constitutional Fellow at NYU School of Law, where she focused on election law and First Amendment issues. She holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal, an M. Phil from Oxford University in English Literature, and a B.A. from Princeton University. 

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Monica Youn: New York City is definitely home for me. It’s not where I grew up but it’s the only place that has ever felt like home.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book that you couldn’t put down?

Monica Youn: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. I was so attached to the book that I was rationing it out. Towards the end I’d only allow myself to read five pages each night to make the experience last longer. At the time I was staying at an artist residency in Umbria, in a fifteenth century castle with actual murder holes and arrow slits and a pile of spears in the corner. Reading the book in that environment was perfect.

Rhodes Project: You occupy two different professions that aren’t commonly associated with each other, a writer and a lawyer. Can you speak to how your work as a poet informs the way you approach the practice of the law?

Monica Youn: Just last week I gave notice at my law job, and I will start teaching poetry in the fall at Princeton and at Bennington College. My work as a poet informs my practice as a lawyer in that I think it makes transparent for me when people are employing rhetorical or verbal devices to make a particular point. I notice when a first line of a judicial opinion or of a legal brief is in regular rhythmic meter, which sometimes they are, and also when people take advantage in speeches of such devices as alliteration, anaphora etc.

As a poet I tend to be fascinated by the way in which language is used in the law. You have these nuggets of language, like in the States you have “due process of law” or “cruel and unusual punishment.” These nuggets have accumulated meaning throughout history so that you can’t use them without implying that heritage. It’s somewhat similar to the way that certain metaphors are used in poetry. For example, I can’t use the word “apple” in a poem without invoking all of the symbolic freight of that image throughout literary history.

Rhodes Project: How does your work as a lawyer inform your poetry?

Monica Youn: I have never written directly about legal topics in my poetry – I feel like I have another form of writing that more than adequately takes care of that – but I am currently working on a new book of poems that I have decided to call Blackacre. I’m hoping to make this book my poetic farewell to the law. Blackacre is a legal concept that was coined by Sir Edward Coke in the 16th century. Just as you use “John Doe” to refer to an imaginary plaintiff, Blackacre refers to a hypothetical piece of property. I am using the term in a poetical sense to talk about questions of legacy, landscape and particularly the term “devise”. Creatively a devise is a work of the imagination, but in law a devise is a piece of property passed down by will.

Rhodes Project: You are an expert on campaign finance and election law issues, often discussing the possibly corrupting effect that big money can have on democracy. How do you think those priorities of social justice will remain a part of your work as a poet?

Monica Youn: It is something that I have not yet figured out. In some ways, poetry is a retreat from the world. Auden famously said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” I have always thought that I would be fooling myself if I believed that any poem that I wrote would make a concrete difference to social or economic justice. So definitely the work I do as a poet will be less directly involved in these issues, but I am hoping that given my legal training, I will be able still to get some sort of leverage on socially important issues, whether through teaching or working for a nonprofit. I have also done a certain amount of political commentating in my work as a lawyer and I am hoping that I will be able to keep that up even in my new role as a poet.

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you?

Monica Youn: Politics definitely frustrates me. It is so interesting to see people repeat arguments that they know are fictitious, on both sides of the political spectrum. You wonder what goes through their minds. They know that what they are saying is false, and they continue to repeat it for their own advantage. It must be an interesting thought process that gets a person to that point.

There isn’t really dialogue in politics any more, only a series of monologues. One of the things that I think the Supreme Court did here in the United States is to ensure that whoever has the most money is entitled to buy the stage.

There have been a series of very wrongheaded decisions made in this area in American jurisprudence over decades. We have always struggled with money and campaign speech and how the First Amendment and democracy should best be balanced. The problem is how we conceive of elections. Is speech in an election normal discourse in the marketplace? Or is an election something else? Are there different interests that should enter into what we think of political discourse?


Rhodes Project: Does money speak louder than justice in that context?

Monica Youn: It is hard to think of the two on the same field or even speaking the same language. You see that more and more with cable news these days; what becomes visible or remains invisible is a function of money, as most things are. I’m not someone that is anti-money or anti-capitalist but I do think some more nuanced thinking is required when it comes to money, speech and democracy.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address one issue, local or global, what would it be and why?

Monica Youn: I think it would have to be climate change. It’s not something I know much about, but in terms of sheer impact - whether economic or political - it is one thing that you can point to that is worsening exponentially.

Rhodes Project: What is a memorable learning moment you’ve had recently?

Monica Youn: I am preparing to teach a class on Ezra Pound and I am trying to figure out what it is exactly that Pound did and how to encapsulate that for undergraduate students. I read something that a critic has written, which I think is absolutely true and not many people have said before, is that Pound made the unit of poetry the individual line instead of the individual stanza.

Rhodes Project: What is something that you are looking forward to?

Monica Youn: I am very much looking forward to teaching. I have always pushed poetry to the side. I have done it on my allotted vacation times and nights and weekends. It will be interesting to see what happens now I am making it primary. When people have asked me what I do, I have always said, “I am a lawyer, comma, and also a poet.” It will be interesting now that I can really just say that “I am a poet.”

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