By Megan Cole
Monica Youngna Youn was a grade-schooler in Houston when she first encountered a book of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and felt “the click”—that pivotal moment in every poet’s life, she says, when they read something so powerful that “there’s no going back.” After feeling “the click,” one can never live without poetry again.
Over the decades of her life following “the click,” through career changes and familial expectations and bouts of self-doubt, poetry has indeed remained central to Youn’s life. The associate professor of English has since published four widely acclaimed books of poetry, including her newest release, From From (Graywolf Press, 2023). The roots of From From weave through Youn’s life—a life spent balancing external expectations with the unwavering pull of poetics.
Early life as a scholar/lawyer/poet
Though poetry has consumed her since childhood, Youn never believed she could make a career of it. In college, she briefly considered majoring in creative writing, but her parents “graciously helped me make the choice to major in pre-law instead,” she laughs, “by absolutely refusing to contribute one cent” to her tuition if she chose to major in the humanities. Still, Youn continued working on her poetry as a creative writing minor, unable to give up her art completely.
Upon graduation, she received a Rhodes Scholarship and, no longer in need of her parents’ financial support, chose to pursue a graduate degree in English literature at Oxford University. It was there that Youn began publishing poems in magazines and establishing her literary reputation.
At the time, though, Youn only viewed her Oxford years as a brief interruption of her actual career. Immediately after earning her M.Phil in English, Youn enrolled in law school “fully intending to be a lawyer.” However, she found herself “completely miserable, because I had totally stopped writing.”
Seeking sustenance in writing…no matter the cost
“At that point, I found myself seeking the kind of sustenance that only comes from writing, and eventually, I just had to provide it for myself,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘My life is incomplete and I’m really hungering for creative engagement,’ and I knew then that I had to pursue poetry no matter the cost.”
At the insistence of her roommate, Youn applied on a whim to the prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing—an honor held by writers including Raymond Carver, Ken Kesey, Jesmyn Ward, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith—and ended up receiving it. As a Stegner Fellow, she finished most of the manuscript of her first book, Barter (Graywolf Press, 2003).
Accepting the famous fellowship was a “big risk,” Youn says, because it required her to turn down a federal appellate clerkship she had received at the same time—“a huge deal, which made my law school and my parents furious.” Worse, she found herself saddled with $180,000 in student debt—a bill that poetry alone couldn’t pay.
To pay off her loans, Youn spent the next nine years working as an election lawyer in private practice. It was a “legal dream job,” but it could not compel her to give up on her poetry career. Between her 80-hour work weeks, she was penning poems on vacations and in her (increasingly scarce) downtime.
“It was workable, but grueling,” Youn says. “It took having enough faith in myself that I continued—though I sometimes wanted to give up and say, ‘I’m just going to veg out now.’”
Youn notes that writing “on the side” of a demanding full-time career is common practice for emerging writers, “particularly for immigrants and the children of immigrants.” Novelists Min Jin Lee, Akhil Sharma, and Chang-Rae Lee all worked in finance while they built their literary careers, and the list of similar cases “goes on and on.”
“You can’t just pursue writing, because you’re trying to fulfill your family’s expectations, and sometimes even trying to support your family, but that’s not your whole life,” Youn says. “If you care about writing enough, and if you make room for it in your life, then you can make some kind of literary career happen.”
While balancing poetry and law, Youn managed to publish another book, Ignatz (Four Way Books, 2010), a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. After its publication, she began receiving offers to teach poetry at universities, and cobbled together enough classes as an adjunct that she was able to leave law and pursue poetry full-time.
The slow burn of poetry
While lecturing at Princeton University, Youn finished her third book, Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016), which won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the best poetry books of 2016 by The New York Times, Washington Post and BuzzFeed. Literary honors continued to pile up—she’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as prizes and fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Rockefeller Foundation and more. In 2021, she was hired with tenure to teach poetry at UCI.
“It’s incredible to write and teach poetry almost exclusively, but I do miss being a public interest lawyer at times, especially around elections,” Youn says. “That’s when I feel like I might be doing more visible good in the world, as opposed to poetry, which does have an impact, but is more of a slow burn. Poets have to remind themselves that if someone reads a poem and then does something, rather than the poet doing something directly, there’s still an impact,” she says, “even if it’s difficult to trace.”
The desire to make an impact—if only by giving voice to an under-examined feeling—partially motivated Youn’s newest release, From From. The book is about “deracination,” says Youn, or the process of “being uprooted, particularly racially uprooted, and made alien to one’s home culture.” It is titled after a question that Youn says every Asian American gets asked throughout their lives: “Where are you from…? No—where are you from from?”
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Youn grew up in Texas with “almost no relationship to Korea,” she says. “I don’t speak Korean, I can cook very little Korean food—and not well—and I feel like the only person alive who doesn’t even watch K-drama.”
Yet, she remembers, as “often the only Asian kid in the class,” everyone around her assumed that she was culturally Korean, though she had little sense of what that meant for her.
“I didn’t have this kind of ‘authenticity core’ that a lot of people think about when they think about racial identity,” Youn says. “I always felt like there must be more people like me, people who are recognizably ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic,’ but who don’t truly feel a sense of belonging either to their supposed ‘homeland’—which in many cases they’ve never even been to—or to America, which defines them as belonging to a particular racial group and applies certain preconceptions to them.”
She began writing poems for the book during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, “because the sudden extra visibility the election gave to those of us who are racial minorities really made me sharpen my thinking about race and identity.” Youn continued writing the book during the COVID-19 pandemic, and through the acts of anti-Asian violence that followed it.
“Now, especially, it feels crucial to sustain multifaceted conversations about race and identity,” Youn says. “I’m not a public intellectual, I’m not a legislator, I’m not a politician—but I am a poet, and to the extent that I can, I always want to engage in those important and sophisticated conversations through my poetics.”
Youn has continued writing poetry throughout her life, she says, to contribute to such conversations, to render abstract feelings legible, and to make whatever social impact a poem can make. But above all else, she writes because she must. As Rainer Maria Rilke—the writer who first made poetry “click” for Youn— wrote, each poet has to “admit, in all honesty, whether or not you would die if you weren’t allowed to write…Dig deep down into yourself for the answer. And if it is yes, if you can meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life around that necessity.”