A conversation with Ashleigh Young
Good poems make their own logic
Ashleigh Young is a poet, essayist and editor. She is the author of poetry collection Magnificent Moon and essay collection Can You Tolerate This?, both published by Victoria University Press. She also writes at her blog Eyelash Roaming.
Ashleigh was the recipient of the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize in Nonfiction, and was recently announced as the Poetry Editor for The Spinoff. She lives in Wellington.
Do you remember the first piece that you published, and who published it?
It was a poem called ‘Winter and Spring’ and it had lines like ‘Winter is a fish, rustling around in the powerlines’ or something. The metaphors were kind of mangled. Spring was a bird (‘when his beak is closed, it’s night time’ – very weird, when you think about it). I’d figured out that if you say that one thing is like something else, your teacher will say, ‘Excellent.’ The poem was in Learning Media’s Journal of Young People’s Writing in 1994, when I must have been about ten. It was incredibly exciting to have a poem published, and I became insufferable – I started sending off loads of poems and stories to Learning Media, trying to get published again. They sent me gentle rejection notes that said nice things about my horse drawings.
What came first for you – prose or poetry?
Stories did, because that was what I was reading. My two older brothers and I all valued stories highly. Stories were entertainment and escape, especially scary or funny stories, and stories with heroes. You could impress people if you wrote a story that had twists and turns and funny characters based on people in real life. Many of the stories I was reading and writing were quite masculine, somehow: things were action-packed, there were plane crashes, most of my characters were boys or men or monsters. I think I started trying to write poems when I was around seven or eight, which must’ve been when my grumpiness and self-isolating tendencies started kicking in. It had something to do with music, with wanting to recreate the quality of a song.
When you look back at work that you published as a young(er) author, is there anything that you learn from it?
Yes. I used to over-describe things, often at the expense of anything really happening. I fixated on imagery – I’d get stuck on describing small things over and over, trying to make them as vivid and atmospheric as possible. And not even very significant things! I’m talking about a lightbulb or a fence or a tyre or a literal flea. It took me a while to learn that this was boring – there was a sort of stasis there, a vacuum. Not even a vacuum; a vacuum-cleaner bag. Less needed to be described and more needed to happen.
Another thing I can see when I look back, especially at my poems, is a compulsion to convey my sadness. The over-description was often in the service of the sadness. But sadness just isn’t that interesting – at least, not when it isn’t transformed in some way, not when it isn’t driving something forward, not when there’s nothing else going on. Sadness is usually boring: harsh but true. Unfortunately happiness is even more boring. I will always have emotion in my writing – I could never be a David Sedaris type who never writes about feelings, who finds people who talk about their feelings boring – but it’s interesting how hard it is to know how to use emotion as a creative driver rather than an all-consuming flood. Maybe I’m just saying nonsense.
In your non-fiction writing, your subject most often is yourself – you write about your life openly and vulnerably, without the veil/filter of fiction that many writers adopt. How did you come to this as your preferred prose form?
I can’t say why exactly it feels right. It’s often so risky. But it feels like the most natural place for me to be writing from. I like the feeling of speaking to somebody as myself. In my book Can You Tolerate This? I was also trying to write myself out of confusion about my childhood and my family and myself. I didn’t achieve that – perhaps I confused myself more – but I liked trying.
Nonfiction has veils and filters just as much as fiction, though, so there are still plenty of ways to hide. Openness and vulnerability are not a given. The veils and filters are the words themselves. They’re the things you choose to leave out and bring forward, the way your portray yourself, the way you soften or sharpen. The difference is that I’m writing directly from my life and the people in it, so those veils and filters become political.
You’ve quietly built up one of New Zealand’s best online collections of writing on your website, Eyelash Roaming. How does online writing work for you – do you use it for experimentation, for the immediacy of publication, or other/more purposes?
A blog is old-fashioned, but I like doing it, when I remember to do it. Often I’m experimenting, and the post isn’t meant to be read as finished or even very good. Other times I have no idea where else the piece might fit and it’s easier to just put it on my own site. I also really enjoy – maybe too much – having control. I get prickly when my work appears somewhere and they’ve taken things out that I meant to be there. On your own blog you can keep everything in, with no arguments, for better or worse. (That’s also why it’s risky; it’s easy to post something lame, and I’ve done that lots of times.)
In addition to your own writing, you’re an editor for Victoria University Press – how does working with other writers in this way affect how you approach being edited in your own work?
It might have made me easier AND harder to work with, as a writer. It’s made me a lot more receptive to editors’ suggestions, and grateful for them. That’s because editing can be quite hard work – you have to be frank and forthright at the same time as diplomatic – and I really appreciate it when an editor has good suggestions and is friendly. But I also speak up, now, if there’s a change that feels off. One editor I worked with wanted to change the word ‘fringe’ to ‘bangs’ and ‘biscuits’ to ‘cookies’. I had a visceral ‘Arghh’ response because vocabulary feels personal to me, and specific to a place and time. At the very early stages of my writing I never would’ve spoken up, because I thought editing was just rules and you were either right or wrong. You couldn’t have biscuits as well as cookies. Now I know it’s a whole bunch of negotiations and check-ins, like tapping knees with a hammer.
What’s the best and worst feedback you’ve received as a writer?
This is a tough question, because I find feedback terrifying and I prepare for the worst at all times. Sometimes I go on Goodreads and torture myself (‘This book is TOO personal!!!!’). But it depends how you define best and worst. I remember Fergus Barrowman once queried something in an old poem of mine that was going to appear in Sport. He said something like, ‘I don’t know if “slooped” is a word?’ The line was something like, ‘He had shoulders that slooped.’ He was right: ‘slooped’ was not a word. So now, whenever I’m not sure, I always check that the word I’ve used is... a word. And that I’m using it properly. I know this is beyond basic. But man, I get so many words wrong still.
The most useless feedback is always when someone says that they dislike something but without saying why. There was a guy in a fiction workshop years ago who would often use the word ‘twee’ about my stories, and he’d always say it with great satisfaction, like he’d finally found this magical, perfect word that encapsulated my work. I think he was right: I was writing a lot of extremely twee stories then. But that didn’t make the feedback or his delivery of it any less annoying.
You’ve also recently been announced as the new editor/curator of The Spinoff’s Friday Poem, a fixture of the week for many poets and lovers of poetry. How are you going to approach the task of editing the series? What sort of qualities do you look for in a great poem?
It’s hard to single out individual qualities, because good poems make their own logic. For me it comes down to simple questions, like: is the language doing something unexpected? Is there a tension of some kind? Does this voice stay with me? Do I want to read this poem again? Is there a dog in it? The last one is negotiable.
I read lots of poems and I know pretty quickly when I like a poem and want to share it. But I also want to push myself beyond that immediate liking – I want to stay as open as I can to work that challenges me. I think that’s how you grow as a reader and a writer and, in turn, how our literature gets richer and more diverse.
Talking about New Zealand writing in a recent interview, you said that ‘a big part of our future writing is in young women’. Can you expand on this?
I was (and am) struck by how many young women are writing now, how there’s a feeling of possibility, and personally I find that exciting. I think often each of us is listening to hear ourselves, or to hear a smarter, bolder version of ourselves. But also – as soon as you single out one group there’s a risk that you’re not hearing others. Maybe my statement was reductive (as statements tend to be when you’re asked to comment on ‘the future’ of anything. I blame the question!). New Zealand writing, especially poetry, is so much more populated now, and more and more people can find a place, or make one. There are so many different futures, depending on what you are listening for.
Who are your favourite young New Zealand writers at the moment?
Argh! I might get in trouble. However, I’ll restrict myself to a handful.
I really love Sam Duckor-Jones’s poems, and everything Sam does.
Gregory Kan! essa may ranapiri! Freya Daly Sadgrove! I am really fond of Erik Kennedy’s poems.
Oscar Upperton’s poems are totally mesmerising to me.
I’m really excited about Rose Lu and her essays.
I’m a big fan of Eamonn Marra’s short stories and everything that Eamonn does.
I think we’re lucky to have people like this writing and being around right now. I’m glad it seems to have become more acceptable in literature to be a fan, a fangirl. Has it? I think it has.
What’s next for you – is there a project (or projects) in the near future?
I have a collection of poems called How I Get Ready coming out this year with VUP. I’m also going to start writing a fortnightly column for Canvas magazine in February. I had a suspicion that I might end up writing a column, and I’m worried about how it’s going to go once I’ve exhausted my single topic of my cat Jerry. I’ve also been busy with editing work – I’m working with the musician Shayne Carter on his autobiography Dead People I Have Known, and soon I’ll be working with Rebecca Priestley on her amazing memoir about Antarctica. I don’t know what nonfiction I’ll write next, although I know I want to write about animals. A part of me says: don’t add to the insurmountable pile of books in the world until you really, really have something to say.
If you could go back in time and give young writer Ashleigh one piece of advice, what would it be?
This has nothing to do with writing but maybe it sort of does: doing that dance with the puppet monkey at the talent quest was a good idea, not a bad idea, and I’m very proud of you.