Mike Young’s poetry arrives like a cannonball. His is not the florid language of angst-ridden nature lovers, nor is it the emotional monologue of slam poets. The Northampton poet’s pieces in his second book, Sprezzatura (Publishing Genius Press), are more like a bubbling concoction of Attention Deficit Disorder, social media and streetcorner philosophizing. The random and surprising rule the day.
In “Remembering the Way You Feel and Feeling the Way You Remember,” for instance, he says: “O the world so much more a hockey rink than the world/ I left when I set the alarm. Between a visit and a vision:/ you musn’t find the crying you hear. I make too many yams,/ and my girlfriend isn’t here.”
In the poem “Can’t Wait To Show You,” Young uses more straightforward language to declare his aesthetic: “When I say I want to fall/ somewhere between a white trash Ashbery/ and a hyper-intellectual Eminem, half the/ time I mean the rapper, the rest the candy.”
That rings true. In a way that is at times reminiscent of John Ashbery’s, Young’s language is fairly ordinary word by word, but the phrases pile up like cars careening on an icy highway, smashing into Frankensteined thoughts. “With rhyme, there’s the sense that words go together because they rhyme. I like to put together words that don’t go together because they sound alike,” says Young. Songwriting is, he says, his “first love,” but for him, writing poems is a much more freeform kind of composing: “The act of trying really hard—in songs, you’ve got rhyme, you’ve got tight structures—trains your mind in a strict way. In poems, I don’t have to do that.”
That allows him to go places, even in a single sentence, that are utterly unexpected: “It’s not that airports charge/ terrible prices for burritos, it’s that death doesn’t/ change anything.” The sense of surprise is never absent for long. It’s so prevalent that it’s not easy at first to see how one of his trains of supercollider thoughts reaches an obvious end.
“I think I know when I’ve ended when I’ve reached this ‘launch,’” Young says. “I like imagining the reader and the reader’s face. I think about the poem having a face, or even a rock face. [At the end] there’s a little tangle, a little haunting.”
This unusual approach to poetry points to the writers Young says he admires most. They include, among others, Frank O’Hara, Frank Stanford, William, Brock, and even his writer housemates (John Maradik and Rachel Glaser). Young is also a participant in a like-minded writing community, both as an author and as a driving force behind NOÖ journal and Magic Helicopter Press.
In Sprezzatura, there’s a thread of more obviously coherent thought that weaves the whole together. A string of poems with the same name—“What’s the Strongest Thing You’ve Ever Felt/ What’s the Strangest Thing You’ve Ever Felt”—offers monologue from, Young explains, characters he’s imagined. Their thoughts, too, are sometimes disjointed, but they provide a respite from the arcana of sentences at odds with each other.
His characters notice unusual things, but talk about them in ordinary ways: “And it’s beautiful to watch the way a cotton tee blusters at the pace of the freeway. Big patch of back skin exposed. And I remember always being shocked by that back skin, even though I see ‘em all the time. Weekend hoggers, breezy on their toys. But no matter how many I saw, I was always whoa.”
The book’s title works well to encompass the restless works inside. “Sprezzatura” comes from Italian, and means something along the lines of careful nonchalance, or the practice of making something hard look effortless. There’s a connotation, too, of hiding behind a facade.
Young knows all that, but he has another reason for choosing it, too: “It sounds like it’s an exciting pizza!”
He likes, he says, the notion of trying to be okay with the stuff of everyday life while realizing, “Wow, there’s this anxiety underneath—there are these big ideas. How are we okay with things when we know and feel how overwhelming these things are?”
At readings of his work, Young says, he tends to make up stories about the meaning of “sprezzatura.” “It usually involves an Italian monk who teaches me about sprezzatura. He says, ‘You’re worried about love, fear, money—I’m chill with that shit.’” He then gets the audience to proclaim their chillness aloud when love, fear, or money show up in the poems.
The mix of everyday and big ideas spills out in Young’s words regularly. In the midst of a tumble of seemingly random thoughts, full of heady smash-ups and four-letter words, you might find a sentence delivering weird wisdom: “Love waits at the back of the crowd until it/ finds you, and then you both have to wait for/ the baggage carousel.”
That mix, which also incorporates the language of computers, texts, and technology, makes sense when Young talks about his roots. “I grew up in northern California, in a pretty impoverished town, Oroville. It was full of things like tribal casinos and meth labs, and there was not a lot going on. It was the beginning of the Internet, so I had the ability to access culture—I wasn’t limited, wasn’t stuck. All my friends were listening to rap and country, talking about tire swings and all that kind of shit. This is when most people were listening to everything except rap and country. People told me I ought to move to New York because I walked so fast.”
Young says it seemed normal for him to be a fan of such disparate things as the band Neutral Milk Hotel and NASCAR. “I’ve always felt a little like an aggressive hick in my heart, whether that comes out or not,” he adds.•
OURS OF OPERATION
I wish the world’s name was “Alas! The world.”
It’s hard to make a hot dog with your heroes.
Run your name with a wishbone
through the river. Any old curtsey
on a jet ski. Let the light through a cloud
of witnesses. The world is the indecipherable
handwriting on the world’s to-do list.
I wish the only place I was allowed to sleep
was in a failed parachute. O stupid contemporary
immune system. O a perfect life of tattoo indecision.
Mike Young is the featured reader at Unbuttoned, Aug. 12, 7-8:30 p.m. (preceded by open mic) at Luthier’s Co-Op, 108 Cottage St. in Easthampton.
Catching a Coyote
A Q&A with Valley and fellow Publishing Genius Press author Christy Crutchfield
Unusually enough, Atlanta/Baltimore imprint Publishing Genius Press is releasing, almost simultaneously, books from two Valley authors, Mike Young and novelist Christy Crutchfield. Both are graduates of the UMass-Amherst MFA Program for Poets and Writers. Crutchfield’s novel, How to Catch a Coyote, is the story of a dysfunctional family in an imaginary North Carolina town. Though its prose is often straightforward, it’s also deeply evocative, and the structure—with jumps in time and perspective—makes for a heady and surprising ride.
Is it coincidence that you and Mike Young, both Massachusetts writers, have books coming out almost simultaneously from Publishing Genius, a non-Mass. press?
Actually, if you look at the catalogue, you’ll see even more Mass.-based or formerly Mass.-based writers, like Rachel B. Glaser, Gabe Durham, and Madeline ffitch. It’s not a coincidence. Part of it, I think, is that there is a certain aesthetic that we have in common, since we all attended the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass-Amherst. While Mike and I don’t cover the same subjects and our tone is very different, there’s an attention to language that I think you’ll find in the work of most UMass grads, and I think that’s something [editor] Adam [Robinson] appreciates.
Your novel’s set in North Carolina—what is your connection to N.C. and the South? I was born and raised in Atlanta, which is a different kind of South, but still very much the South. I don’t think I really embraced being a Southerner until I moved to the Valley, though. Then, I suddenly wanted to explore the world I missed in my writing. I also spent a lot of time in North Carolina as a kid, and I went to college at Elon University, which is in Burlington, North Carolina (well, technically in Elon, N.C.). Most of the students at Elon didn’t leave campus except to go to the chain restaurants, but I became incredibly interested in the town. It used to be a successful mill town until most of the work was shipped overseas, similar to many towns in the Valley. There was really nothing in Burlington when I lived there. It served as a bedroom community for the middle class, and the local friends I made knew they had to get out soon or they’d be stuck there. And right next door was this small liberal arts college comprised almost entirely of transplants.
I based the town of Lafayette, which is not an actual town in N.C., loosely on Burlington.
How did the novel come about?
The novel started as a short story many years ago. I was still living in Atlanta at the time, and my friend told me about her neighborhood’s coyote problem. I didn’t know coyotes were native to Atlanta, but I found out they’re in every state. I had been exploring a story from the point of view of a 9-year-old boy whose sister runs away because of sexual assault in the family, and the coyotes were what the story needed. The boy could focus his fear on them instead of on a situation he didn’t quite understand.
A couple years later, when I was in grad school, I started to explore the characters and the situation further, and I started writing the novel, which became my thesis.
You write from some very different perspectives in the book—was that difficult? Was it something you thought much about?
Writing from different perspectives was probably the most enjoyable part for me. I write fiction because I love to get into other people’s heads. It’s fun to play a part. I’m interested in voice, and I’m especially interested in getting into the heads of unlikable people, people who do the wrong thing. Probably the hardest character for me to write was the mother, Maryanne. While she’s not the worst character in the book, she makes some awful and selfish choices. And I needed to find a way to keep her from being a complete monster. It took me a while and a lot of scrapped chapters to get her right.
Why did you decide to stay in the Valley?
I fell in love with the Valley before I even moved here. I had just gone to an open house for Emerson’s MFA, and it just didn’t feel right for me. The next day, I looked at UMass and knew this is where I wanted to be. What I love about the area is that there are mountains, farms, lakes, and passion for the local community all around you. But there’s also so much culture. You can probably go to a reading every night of the week. Our bookstores have real poetry sections. You don’t have to leave town to go to shows. I live in Easthampton now and am so impressed with the town’s commitment to the arts. I recently I joined the coordinating committee of Easthampton City Arts, which has been really rewarding. I still think I’m going to die every time I drive in the snow, but the fall makes it worth it.•