RWW Soundings

Glimpses of the God: A Conversation with C. Dale Young, Recipient of The Stanley W. Lindberg Editor’s Award

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C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young can’t eat before a reading, especially salads; he can’t help but listen in on conversations; he smiles as he reads; he rereads novels such as Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment to remind him that things don’t always work out the way we want. He is confused by pickle-flavored potato chips and thinks that, “poetry is the greatest diva of all.” A doctor, Young is never without his bedside manner, his voice warm, even his hand gestures reassuring. In RWW Director Rick Barot’s introduction to Young’s work, given before the poet’s reading at this past summer residency, he proclaimed Young’s work “a celebration of the life around us.”

C. Dale Young can’t be summed up with just one title—doctor, editor, and teacher all apply. He practices medicine full-time, was the Poetry Editor of the New England Review for nineteen years, and he teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program. As an author, he has three poetry collections: The Day Underneath the Day, The Second Person, and Torn. Young is the recipient of numerous awards such as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. His poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. He lives in San Francisco with his life-partner, molecular biologist and composer Jacob Bertrand.

Recipient of the Stanley W. Lindberg Editor’s Award, Young gave a reading and a craft talk during this year’s summer residency. Knowing I would have the chance to interview Young after residency for this issue of Soundings, I realized I could stage the opportunity to go beyond a two-person interview, and invite a small group of people who were learning about poetry to ask questions, as well.

I teach an Introduction to Literature class at Tillamook Bay Community College. Our college is small, one of the smallest in the state of Oregon. My literature class has less than ten students, with most of them taking the course for an elective credit. Many of them have not read much, if any, poetry. Many haven’t ventured far outside of Tillamook—a town situated in a county with a population of 40,000. They work here and have families here.

In preparation for inviting my students to have a conversation with Young, I asked them  to contemplate the act of writing, working full-time, and the role of literature in our lives. I asked them, “Is poetry still important?” Most of them stalled, glazed over, and a couple of them looked nervous—like they were going to make a move for the exit so they could avoid having to answer the question. One asked if he was being graded.

Giving them the opportunity to ask a published poet questions, though, was more than about why poetry matters; it was a chance for a handful of students to peek over the edges of our small town into a bigger world, an opportunity to look into the wider role that poetry and art play in our lives, to explore what it means to be a writer in a busy world—and a chance for them to ask the questions.

So I gave them a selection of Young’s poems, asked them to look him up, to do a little bit of research on his life and his work, and then come to class with questions for the writer, poet, doctor, and man who moves between his profession and art with the seeming ease of a shape-shifter. It was an opportunity to have an intimate (albeit email) conversation with a writer whose poetry illuminates our common humanity, and who asserts that the teaching and study of writing is keeping art alive.

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Class: How did you discover that you were a writer and a doctor? How does each profession feed the other?

C. Dale Young: I have, from a young age, always loved both Science and Literature. In college, I double-majored in Molecular Biology and English. I knew early in college I wanted to be a physician. I survived a terrible accident, because of doctors and their skills, and wanted to do something like that. I had no idea I would ever become a writer. I took a poetry workshop in my junior year of college because I had friends taking the class; I loved it. I knew by the end of the workshop I would never stop writing. I decided to study creative writing in graduate school because I felt I owed it to myself to try. I was accepted to both the MFA Program and medical school and got a deferment from medical school to do the MFA. So, I went from undergraduate, to creative writing graduate school, to medical school.

Both things involve being attentive to particulars. But I don’t really feel as if either writing or medicine fuels the other. Medicine is my profession. Writing is my calling. I can imagine not practicing medicine, though that would be hard for me. I cannot imagine giving up writing. As I have said to others, it is a thing I cannot not do.

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Class: Callings seem to require some level of commitment and/or devotion to the craft. How do you find time to write? Do you have a certain time of day or place to write?

CDY: I actually don’t have very much time to write. The practice of medicine takes up close to 85% of my time. Most years I only draft four poems. This year, because I am in the home stretch of finishing up a novel, I have only drafted one poem! I have no set time to write. I work piecemeal. I sometimes write early in the morning before I go to work. Many times, my writing happens on the weekends. With poems, I can come back countless numbers of times in small blocks of time. This has been harder with the novel because it requires bigger chunks of time to get things done. Commitment and devotion are not quite the same thing. One involves merely putting in the time. One requires desire.
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Sydney Elliott: In her craft essay, “Between Havoc and Responsibility—Good Lord, What to Do?” poet Fleda Brown writes, “You feel an urgency. There’s nothing to be done but to write the poem, write the novel. You feel the back and forth of losing and gaining control of the language, the image, the whole thing.” When you think of havoc and writing, what comes to your mind?

CDY: I don’t think I have ever thought of or used the word “havoc” when thinking about writing. But I am fascinated by it now that it has been called into being. I tend to think of writing as two things, the drafting (or getting down the draft) and the revising (what I think of as the actual act of writing). The loss of control you mention, for me, happens in the drafting, in the getting it down. But it is the revising, where one brings to bear all the things one has learned to transform the crude materials. Many seem to think these two aspects of writing are very different from each other, but I see it all as one process. This brings up something else for me, though. Many seem to think of writing as a profession, as something one takes one’s self  from the world around them, in order to accomplish it. But again, I see it all as part of one process. I tell my students the following tale/fable/anecdote to get at this, even though I am not sure it completely does:

I see a grove outside a temple. In this vision, if you can call it that, the temple is somewhere in Southeast Asia. And the grove is more like a jungle. An old man sits on the steps of the temple. Day after day, I go to the temple, but the old man tells me I should be in the grove clearing the leaves from the pathways between branches. At first, I think this old man is crazy. But after years and years of going to the temple, I become frustrated. No matter how many times I light the incense or clear the steps of the temple, I never glimpse the god.

Years go by. I go often to the temple. I do what I think I should be doing. After all, the temple is where one finds the god, right? Finally, I stop and speak to the old man, who asks me why I come to the temple, asks me what it is I am looking for there. I tell him I am looking for the god, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. And when he hears this, he laughs. He laughs for a long time. It is then he says that the temple only prepares you to see the god, but one never finds the god in the temple.

I leave the temple, and as I am walking, I see the grove/jungle. I walk into it and notice there are leaves and debris everywhere. It is a total mess. And I remember the old man from years previously telling me to clear the leaves and trash. So I start. From that point, time after time, I go to the temple and then the grove. One day, as I am clearing leaves, the wind picks up and the branch above me moves suddenly. A flash of light passes and I see a sandal in the sky. I have glimpsed the god.

One can take one’s self away from life and hope to become a writer. One can sit at the typewriter or computer day after day, and all it does is help prepare one to be a writer. But, see, it is when you are living your life, when you are clearing away the debris and trash that one glimpses the god. Inspiration comes at the oddest moments. All we can do is work hard, clean the Temple steps, and light the incense: we do these things to be prepared. As Ellen Voigt’s essay in The Flexible Lyric points out, it is the life we live that gives us the materials for our images. I would argue it also gives us our diction and our syntax, with syntax being the primary way we demonstrate a thinking mind within our poems. In other words, the life is inextricable.
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Class: Finally, what advice would you give someone who discovers writing is his/her calling?

CDY: Read. Read as much as you can, not just contemporary work but across the centuries. Read outside of our culture via translations. Read everything you can. For people drawn to fiction, I tell them to also read poetry, plays, everything. For those drawn to poetry, I tell them to also read short stories, novels, plays, everything.

The recipe for being a writer is:

1. Read
2. Read
3. Read
4. Write
5. Read
6. Read
7. Revise what you wrote and then REPEAT.

Some speed up their process by entering MFA programs, and I know doing that helped me. But MFA programs aren’t required. What they do is allow you time to read and write and expose you to other writers who can expand the things you have read and are reading. Even to this day, I am constantly reading. I really do believe most writers are people who loved reading books so much that at some point the only way to love them more was to write books as well.

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While my students have moved on to Fitzgerald and Welty, our class discussions are now infused with the framework of the temple and the gods. Now, when my students read they no longer see just words on a page—they see the writer behind those words. They see how a poet is also just a human—a person who might be a student, who might be someone with a job and family. From this, they also see possibility. They see someone they can be.
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I would like to thank the following students at Tillamook Bay Community College: LeAnn Males, Tia L. Harrison, Nadine Sumner, Stephen Arnesor, Taylor Stafford, and Brittany Hurlimann.

–Sydney Elliott

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