Presenter of the National Book Awards

2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Poetry

Monica Youn

Ignatz

Four Way Books

Interview by Jean Hartig


Jean Hartig: What was your response to Ignatz being named a finalist for the National Book Award?

Monica Youn:I had just gotten off the plane from France and was frantically checking my e-mail in the passport line—which you’re not supposed to do—because we were in the middle of an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court. (I’m an election lawyer, and right now is our crazy season.) While I had been in the air, my work e-mail had racked up dozens of messages about the case, but there was one from an old acquaintance saying “congrats on the NBA!” While I was puzzling through this (National Basketball Association?), my cell phone ran out of batteries. By the time I checked it again, standing next to a power outlet in the baggage claim, I was able to check my personal e-mail, to find hundreds of congratulatory notes. I wish I could say I did a little dance or something else endearing, but I think I was too jet-lagged—I just stared. But I should note that I was especially pleased to hear that one of my former poetry professors, Jim Richardson, is one of my co-nominees.


JH: The figure of Ignatz has echoes of politician, of cowboy, of patriarch, of criminal (to name a few of the archetypes I sensed). Were there any cultural figures that inspired different incarnations or visions of your subject?

MY: The book is structured as four landscapes—desert, freeway, ghost town, and forest—and each of these landscapes has an associated aspect of Ignatz—the beloved, the hero, the villain, and the fugitive. I borrowed quite broadly from various cultural traditions in order to add resonances, either sonic or narrative. Thus, “Afterwards Ignatz” echoes the language of Beowulf; “So Sweetly Slumbers Ignatz” references an episode in Beroul’s Romance of Tristan, and “Invisible Ignatz” was inspired by the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor. Other figures appear in cameo—Kim Philby, Peter Pan, Michaux’s Plume, Ali Baba, Marcel from Belle de Jour, Phineas Finn, Genji, Iceberg Slim, Fraser’s Flashman—the list goes on.


JH: How did your study of law inform the multifaceted examination and exposure of Ignatz?


MY: There’s at least one process that constitutional law shares with romantic obsession—the process of reification, by which a beloved concept may find its individualized meaning dissolving through its application to an infinity of situations. Even as the Supreme Court this year made a fetish of the First Amendment by holding that it protected the freedom of “speech” of nonhuman corporations, so the lover makes a fetish of her beloved, imagining him in turn as lover, hero, villain, fugitive…. The beloved—law or lover—is emptied of meaning, of uniqueness, a mere figurine set against a variety of backdrops. Several perceptive critics noted the extreme impersonality of Ignatz as love object in the book—this is how obsession dissolves the features of its objects, which, as Nietzsche puts it, become “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

In a more literal sense, my extremely limited exposure to criminal law gave me the experiences that turned into “Ignatz at the _____ Hotel” and “Ignatz Incarcerated”—the former from my review of an interrogation transcript in a death penalty appeal, and the second from a visit to San Quentin to look into allegations of excessive force in solitary confinement.

JH: Ignatz sometimes seems to swell, embodying something beyond the corporeal, more of an elusive cultural dream or perhaps “hope” itself. Did you find yourself returning to any particular watchwords or abstractions like “hope” when writing the book?

MY: The word that kept recurring was “helpless,” which appears multiple times in the volume, and which, oddly, was a word I associated far more with Ignatz than with the supposed victim, Krazy. Despite all his professions of disregard, each strip finds Ignatz searching out Krazy, knowing that his arrival on the scene will provoke the response that will justify the brickbat rejoinder. Like any lab rat in a Skinner box, “The Subject Ignatz” finds that the repetition is itself the addiction, entirely apart from the supposed reward. The glazed look common to a gambler pulling a slot machine lever and to a mouse pushing a button with its bruised nose is the same look of exhaustion worn by the lover who finds obsession pulling him or her through the cycle once again.

 

Jean Hartig is the author of a poetry chapbook, Ave, Materia, and the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.