Reviews/Interviews Editor M.E. Silverman interviews History, Advice, and Other Half-Truths author Shana Youngdahl.
Shana, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. Tell us, how would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet? What else should people know about you?
Where is this room? I’m much more practiced at introducing myself to a room of people far less likely to want to hang onto my every word when they first meet me—that is to say I’m a professor of first year writing and (sometimes) poetry so my daily audience is often skeptical. I welcome a tough crowd with enthusiasm and I try desperately not to bore with stories of my two beautiful daughters or geographically confuse with too many references to moving around of my twenties. I’m a native Californian who currently lives in the mountains of Western Maine.
Both of your poetry books (Donner: A Passing and History, Advice, & Other Half-Truths) are about the West. What is the attraction to the subject matter? Can the readers expect your next book to be about something similar or different? Explain.
I’m interested in the way our truths are impacted by the stories that surround us, the ones we retell to our families and also the ones that are forgotten, misplaced, and reassembled—I struggle with how we put the fragments together and also where truth comes from–the history of the West in particular is fraught with the hand of Hollywood so much so that what we know as fact is always overshadowed by images of Paul Newman on a horse about to spit. Why the west was my mythos for these two collections is more personal—I grew up in a town called Paradise, California. Hiking and exploring the canyons around my home was a favorite pastime. We would discover all kinds of refuse from the mining era on our explorations where we also contracted mean cases of poison oak. Yearly our town celebrated the gold rush with an event called “Gold Nugget Days,” and once there was even an actor from the T.V series Paradise (supposedly based on our town) who came to this parade—so here you see the idea of a historical blends with the continued creation of the mythology of place. As I grew I became interested in what type of reality that creates and what alternatives there might be.
Next up is a chapbook from Miel Books Winter/Window (September 2013) which is much more about the future and mothering. The poems are more physical, and while history isn’t excluded from the poems it appears in a more braided way: where past, future and present dance around inside the same poem. There is more winter in all my new poems—as an ex-Californian I can’t escape that. I try not to obsess about it too much but the fact that snow is expected through March and not shocking in May is completely antithetical to my early experience. I can understand it physically and geographically but a piece of me is so thrilled by these kinds of local differences that landscapes and the history and future of the land currently holds a very important place in my writing.
You clearly did research for this book? How much time did you spend doing so and what were some of your sources?
Yes, thanks for noticing! It is hard to say how long I spent doing research for the book because the book itself was written over several years and then reorganized and reformed over several more. I found Marilyn Yalom’s History of the Wife to be a really interesting read and was very inspired by what I learned in her book. Directly, there is a book called Petticoat Prisoners that I discovered when at a writing residency at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The prison poems came from tales recounted in this book. The 1900 help-manual What A Young Wife Ought To Know a popular, though radical (anti-corset!) book for the time, spurred the project in the first place.
You mention the prison poems which I love as a thread in the first section. It was a little disappointing not to see more in the other two sections. Was that a conscious choice and what was the thought-process behind it?
Yes, it was. There were several reasons for it. One in early versions of the manuscript had a few more of these poems but some of them weren’t working. As I’ve mentioned I need to connect somehow with my subjects and sometimes I liked the story of a woman but I didn’t connect in a way that would yield a decent poem. As a result, I only ended up with five of these. In earlier versions of the manuscript they were spaced throughout the manuscript—and that is because my earlier ideas of structure actually had more to do with formal conceptions of the poems than of thematic ones. I remember thinking that I wanted to write a book that starts out with a fairly straight-forward narrative delivered in an expected way and then I wanted the narrative to break down, the structures to overlap, the voices to blend together somewhere in the middle of the book and by the end I wanted to see the poems form a reassembled braided narrative that appeared like the ones toward the beginning but somehow changed as a result of the voices in the middle. I abandoned my focus on this structure when I completely rewrote several of the poems in the manuscript that were important to that kind of organization. In the end, all the these ended up in the first section because they more “history” than “advice” or “half-truths.”
I confess to not being a fan of the American West in movies and books, yet I cannot stop reading these poems, which in so many ways reminds me of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. How do you “find” the narrative personas when creating such (in a sense) stories?
Thanks again, that is a nice comparison. Going back to the earlier question, it was my goal to try and engage that idea of the American West but to do so in a way that gave voice to those not usually central to the Hollywood narrative of the typical Western novel. In order to find the personas I needed to have a connection, and generally that connection was through gender. The west represented liberation and enslavement for many women. At the time I was writing most of the poems I fell in love and realized that despite all we know about marriage (a lot of times it ends, it’s wasn’t always great for women) it was an establishment that I wanted to enter. I needed to find out why, and so I looked for the stories of women. I needed to speak to the bad and the good. I needed to engage the past before I went into my own future.
A lot of writers wrestle with the question of manuscript order. How did you organize and decide which poem went where?
The order was the final key to this manuscript. When I first sent it out it got several bites but no takers. In the next three years I reordered the manuscript several times finally getting it to its current order. The key with this book was the title change. The poems all felt like they belonged in the same collection to me—so many addressing a more distant history, and many addressing a more personal history of growing up in California in the 1980s and 1990s. I needed to figure out how to braid all this together with the marriage theme. I finally realized that I was writing about myth and history and how we use these things to guide our lives or to instruct others in the form of advice. Once I found the title then I organized the poems based on where I felt they most fit—under the category of history, advice or “other half-truths”. Of course, I think these three categories really over-lap quite a bit but that is implied in the title too.
In your dedication, you say your mother taught you to “love language and history.” In what way? And how does this influence and develop the layered voices within your book?
My mother is a writer of creative nonfiction in the historical sense. When I was five she received a grant to work on a project on Women in World War Two. I was lucky enough to go with her to interviews with some of these women, and I was even more fortunate to observe her weekly writer’s group when they met at our house. I learned from her that writing is hard work. Her World War II book went to many publishers and still has never seen the light of day. She did write a book about a pioneer family in Idaho and finished it when I was in High School. Because of my mother’s love for history and her persistence in the face of regular rejection I learned very early that the stories of others are important, and that if you have a calling to evoke story you should do it, no matter what.
Some of the poems and their matter-of-fact way of reporting death and atrocities seems, to me, to be a little heavy for the oral tradition that comes from reading these aloud. Can you tell me about audience reaction and feedback from having read these poems at various readings?
I’m not sure exactly which poems you’re speaking of here. I can say that I do have some poems in the collection that I don’t usually read aloud. They feel more grounded on the page to me. That said, one of these poems, “Annie Florence Bruce”, I read recently because a student said it was her favorite. One of the other poets who read that night, Annie Finch, said it was this poem that she found most interesting. On the flip side I have some poems I almost always read, and the reaction to them is generally positive. Perhaps, though, those who think it is complete crap aren’t the one’s engaging me after the reading!
“Annie” is part of the prison series which I love, but my favorite poem is “Whisper on the Oregon Trail” with its matter-of-fact voice and heart-wrenching details like ‘cracking’ and ‘wet-dirt’. Do you have a favorite poem and if so, which one and why?
I have two favorites. The oldest poem in the book “Big Nose Kate Muses About The Freckles On Doc Holliday’s Shoulders”, and the newest poem in the book, “Carl Jung Is Building Sandcastles”. Kate is strong but also very wounded. I connected with her deeply when I wrote the poem, and I found inhabiting the persona so liberating that the rest of the persona poems followed close behind. Her mythology was elemental for me. I needed her deeply. I suppose the same could be said about Carl Jung Is Building Sandcastles, which I wrote when my oldest daughter was about six-months old. I hadn’t written anything for the first six-months of her life. I didn’t have time to read, or think. I was with a baby all the time. I started reading about Carl Jung who I’d somehow missed in my education and I resonated with so many of the ideas. I was thinking, because of the birth of my child a lot about how history and time work, and as always about the power of stories. This poem gathers several half-truths from my history and my husband’s and creates a myth for our daughter about her birth. In a sense, the poem does what I hope the book does as a whole, and also what my newer work is doing—that is braiding the myth of history with the future. So without Big Nose Kate the poems of the book wouldn’t have been writing, and without Carl Jung I wouldn’t have seen how they all fit together.
Again, thanks, Shana, for both taking the time to answer these questions and for writing such a wonderfully powerful book. As you know, the museum of americana is dedicated to showcasing work that repurposes, reinvents, and re-envisions elements of Americana. My final question is to ask: What do you believe to be the role of Americana in History, Advice, & Other Half-Truths?
Americana is the mythology that is both challenged and created by the poems in this collection.
Thanks for taking the time to interview me and review the book!
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Shana Youngdahl has received a grant from the Iowa Arts Council and a residency at Devil’s Tower National Monument. Her poetry has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Shenandoah and Margie. She holds a BA in English from Mills College and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Minnesota. Youngdahl was born and raised in Paradise, California and currently lives with her husband and two daughters in Maine where she is a lecturer at the University of Maine, Farmington.