Deanna Young

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Deanna Young is the author of three books of poetry, including House Dreams, published by Brick Books in 2014 and nominated for the 2015 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in journals across Canada and received numerous prizes and acknowledgments, including the grand prize in the 2013 Prism international Poetry Contest. Originally from southwestern Ontario, she lives in Ottawa where she co-directs the Tree Reading Series.

 

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Author Questionnaire

When did you start writing?

I started writing near the end of high school. It was for a unit on contemporary Canadian poetry when our English teacher, the extraordinary Ian Underhill, gave us a choice: write an essay on the work of one of the poets we’d studied, or write poems in the poetic of several. I’d never written poetry before but knew instantly that I would do the latter. I guess you could say I’d ‘fallen in love’ with poetry during the unit and so the opportunity to try writing it myself—and to extend the metaphor a bit, to get to know poetry better—was irresistible. I remember analyzing the work of each poet and then attempting to write in his or her style. I drew from my own life experience as I mimicked the voice and techniques of Earle Birney, Al Purdy, Robert Kroetsch, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen and Alden Nowlan. That assignment altered my life, and a couple of the poems even made it into my first book.

Why do you write? Has this changed over time?

Like most poets, I’m enthralled by the material of language—its sound, sense, and even the way it looks, right down to the shapes of letters. So I write for the pleasure of making ‘things’ out of such beautiful raw material: words. Otherwise, I write out of a compulsion to live an examined life, to make meaning/order out of existence/chaos. Ultimately, I think writing is my survival strategy. My reasons for writing have not changed over time and I don’t think they will.

Who are some of your favourite writers? And what do you draw from their work?

The American Franz Wright is one of my very favourite poets. In his 16 books, and counting, he explores matters of the soul and personal suffering—loneliness, depression, the usual stuff! There is a lot of gloom in Wright’s work but ultimately it’s a life-affirming vision. His voice is frank but haunting, and speaks to many of the issues that preoccupy me as poet.

Another of my favourite poets is Louise Gluck, also American. Her book The Wild Iris is possibly (today) my favourite book of modern poetry in English. It’s really a book-length spiritual dialogue involving a gently admonishing god, the speaker, and the plants of a garden. Gluck’s work is highly intuitive and, like Franz Wright, she employs a natural, direct voice to examine matters of the soul.

Jack Gilbert (another American), who died in 2012 at the age of 87, has an uncanny way of framing individual experience (usually his own) within the bigger picture of being human. His “A Brief for the Defense” is a poem I return to every year, if not more often, to remind myself how superb a single poem can be. He didn’t published a lot in his lifetime, relative to other poets, but in my view, most of what he published was brilliant.

Explain a particular poem of yours from a Brick Books publication.

Bonfire

The made-for-TV movie they showed in school
about a mother and kids driving over a bridge in the sun
to a rundown house and splashing each other with paint
to music, is coming true. Though the father there
was dead, where ours is just killing himself slowly
in another town. My new bed is from the Sally Ann.
I spray the iron frame brass and am suddenly rich,
fold a blanket three times, like a charm, and place it
over the springs that claw like fingers from the mattress.
This is where I’ll come to love geometry, discover
modern poetry and lose what we’ll call my virginity.
After a month I look down and my nails have grown.
It scares me to think what I’d be now if she hadn’t
left then. To know what I am. A scorched girl, shame
crackling under my skin, a strong man in a muscle shirt
feeding my sleep with brush. We have no way of knowing,
when we’re young. Only a spark, maybe, that takes,
then rages, keeps driving us toward the door
of a rundown house, ourselves twenty years later.
Struck. Prepared to enter. Standing behind a stroller
before a wall-sized painting of fire by Mary Pratt.
Warming our hands at the edge of art, until fire
becomes paint becomes fire again and our face grows hot.

When my poem “Bonfire” (from House Dreams) won the 2013 Prism international Poetry Contest, the contest judge, Canadian poet Rhea Tregebov, commented on the poem in a short essay. I thought she captured really well how I’d like my work to be read. She wrote: “[The poem] works its quiet way into the reader’s mind, and psyche, without pyrotechnics, but with a nuanced and layered approach to storytelling, an apparent everyday diction, and a complex and demanding emotional and conceptual core.” Now if I could just do that with every poem….

Reflections on the genesis of one of your own poems.

In Her Velvet Dress

Dusk, and an elk comes down to graze
the clipped lawn beyond the hotel dining room.
Chalky mountains defining the distance,
foothills filling with snow and so she has come

for the sugar of grass, confection
of ornamental bushes with their candied flowers.
We fill the huge windows like ghosts
who remember being alive, nostalgic for that other side.

My poem “In Her Velvet Dress” (House Dreams) had a highly unusual genesis for me. I wrote it at Banff when I was there for workshop with Don Domanski. The poems I’d been working on were floundering, meandering, confused (you get the picture), and one day Don said something to the effect of, Just go back to your room and write a short poem, no more than eight lines, and bring it to me tomorrow. The eight lines came out virtually as they are in the finished poem. Even before Don gave the poem his mentor’s rubber stamp the next day, I knew it was a keeper. He’d sensed, rightly, that I needed some kind of limit in order to refocus my mind at that particular time. The other lesson I learned from that ‘assignment’ was that less is indeed often more. A poem must have integrity to be complete. It doesn’t have to be long, or even ambitious. Some poems do take on more than others, but the important thing is for each poem to do what it does well. And stop there.

Study questions on a poem or poems – your own or another Brick Books author.

The Gate (from House Dreams)

At eight iron gates ease open as brown women
arrive for work in skirts. In laundry rooms
they set down handbags, umbrellas, tie on aprons.
They tidy their hair. By nine appliances are humming,
the beds stripped. By ten the baby’s napping
in his stroller on the patio, inside that gleaming cage
cage mopped daily by Carmen. His forehead dewy,
fan stirring the soupy air. At noon the world darkens
and rain falls like windows breaking. The joy is enormous
but over quickly. After, the garden drips and steams
and the afternoon is spent, wasted, in the hunt
for fresh milk shipped in from Barbados, cumin seeds
and shado beni for the evening’s curry. By four,
ice water too hot to drink, left in a plastic bottle
in the truck. At five the heat lies down and we set out
around the block. Carport dogs raise their heads,
monitor our passing. Back at the gate, from ten steps away,
I press the remote, enter swiftly behind the stroller, turn,
and dark is there, a stranger over the wall. I hurry in,
secure the deadbolts and the padlocks. Fix myself
a tall rum punch. With dinner, a glass of red. Another
once the kids are in bed. Lights out, I part the drapes.
Giant pearls—snails the size of tennis balls adorn the lawn.
Fat queens in trailing gowns. You are in Peru or Argentina,
Carmen gone back up the starry mountain to her home.
Now arm the system and count the beeps until we’re safe.
Squirrels in the attic of my chest, moth-mind flitting
around the green, beady eye of the panic button.

  1. Where is the poem set? What are some of the words that indicate this setting?
  2. The poem describes a typical day in a particular setting.  Is there a turning point in the poem, and if so where?
  3. What is the dominant mood in the poem? What words or images contribute to this mood?

Clothed in Darkness (from House Dreams)

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,

“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
—Richard Wilbur

That summer you’d wake early in the belief
that something waited out there for you.
The dog’s eager circling as you pulled on dusty jeans
from the floor and crept downstairs. The door’s
complicit click as it shut. Sky pink along the horizon,
you’d cut across the field toward the neighbours’
wooded lot. And there they were one morning,
he opening the coop to let the hens roam the ditches,
unlatching the gate to new pasture for the sheep,
and she naked to the waist. Her white arms slack
from the shoulder, head fallen back to receive
the sun’s bloom across her chest. You looked
severely away, but continued hard toward the bush
still clothed in darkness. Dog charging ahead
along the slight path you’d worn together since
the start of spring, the new routine. Your rubber boots
glossed with dew, grass shards sticking as you waded through
the fog’s low boil. In the chill woods, a schoolyard chatter
of birds unseen. And from the rafters of a spruce
somewhere near the centre, a Barred Owl
called out his bold offer to cook for you. The brown eyes
of a bearded man seen once in a restaurant window.
To find him again and for him to see you. Day coming on
fast now, the dam broken, light plunging through
the ragged canopy, shimmering limit of that other world
you lived in those mornings, unmissed and alone,
not far from home.

  1. The poem begins, “That summer you’d wake early in the belief/”. Where does the protagonist keep going “that summer” and why?
  2. Discuss the imagery in the poem. What words reinforce this imagery?
  3. Discuss the poem’s narrative point of view. How would a first-person point of view influence the poem? Would it make the poem better? Why or why not?

How to Be Free (from House Dreams)

The summer I was twenty I ate my way
through shifts at McGregor’s pub
while my roommate slept her way
through teams of mean young men,
her mind a mess of Ayn Rand and Anaïs Nin.
I loved her smarts and psychic gifts
but sadness destroyed our friendship.
On the ferry back to the mainland
at the end of August, I met a man too kind
to touch me, though I practically begged.
He saw through to what I really wanted
and stood beside me at the railing
as the sea rose and fell in heaving sobs.
We hugged goodbye at the terminal
in North Sydney, and, boarding the VIA train,
I vowed to eat only apples the next three days,
thereby losing ten pounds by the time I reached
home. By Halifax, I was living on coffee
and Kit Kats again. All the way from Montreal
I could see Ontario waiting, with its arms crossed:
Finally free, and all you can do is let yourself go.

  1. How does the poem’s title relate to the body of the poem? Is it a good title? Why or why not?
  2. Explain the line that begins “He saw through to what I really wanted/”. What does the speaker mean by this?
  3. Discuss the use of humour in the poem. How does the use of humour affect the poem’s voice and what does it tell you about the speaker?

Books:

Reviews:

House Dreams

Recordings:

Interviews and Readings:

From Other Publishers:

  • Drunkard’s Path (2001) published by Gaspereau Press
  • The Still Before a Storm (1984) published by Moonstone Press

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