By DONNA URSCHEL
U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic hailed the 2008 Witter Bynner fellows as young poets who are “hip, savvy, smart, imaginative and, consequently, completely unpredictable in their poetry. They’re also very good.”
The two poets, Matthew Thorburn, a business-development writer, and Monica Youn, an attorney and creative-writing professor, both from New York City, accepted their fellowships at a Library of Congress reading on March 6. They each received a $10,000 award, provided by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry in conjunction with the Library of Congress.
Every year the U.S. Poet Laureate selects poets of distinction who are not yet widely known for the Witter Bynner fellowships. The award program is in its 11th year.
“It’s always nice to give out money,” Simic told the audience. “Sometimes reporters will ask me ‘who are these angels who give out money to unknown poets?’ They can’t figure it out, and neither can I. They are really angels. What generosity! What a terrific idea!”
When he introduced the fellows, Simic said, “I like poets who have read everything. Well, give the impression they have read everything, at least read poetry written in the last 150 years. I like poets whose attitude is critical and downright irreverent.”
Simic then described what he liked about Thorburn and Youn. “Thorburn’s first book, ‘Subject to Change,’ is really terrific,” said Simic. “The titles of his poems are pure delight – ‘Portrait of Former Lovers in the Spare Style of the Past Century,’ ‘For Friends Who Are Married and Expecting More Babies’ and ‘The Critics Interrupt Their Interpretations of ‘Un Chat en Hiver’ for a French Lesson.’”
Simic explained, “Thorburn has some of that playfulness of Wallace Stevens, and what I really admire about Thorburn is that he can do a lot of different things well. His poems are wry, surprising, jovial and a little mysterious. He’s a superb poet of love and writes about family and friends.” Simic described Thorburn’s poems as “distinctive, intimate and, above all, memorable. Despite all that, they’re well-constructed.”
Thorburn is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the MFA program at The New School in New York City. He works as a business-development writer for an international law firm in New York. His poems have appeared in “The Paris Review,” “Poetry,” “The American Poetry Review” and other journals. From 2000 to 2004, Thorburn founded and co-edited the poetry journal Good Foot. His work has been recognized with the Mississippi Review Prize and the Belfast Poetry Festival’s inaugural Festivo Prize.
At the event, Thorburn read 14 poems, six from his book “Subject to Change” (2004) and the rest from a new manuscript called “Like Luck.” An unusual piece from “Subject to Change” was a prose poem in three parts titled “Variations:”
The hills fall away to a shallow gully, bent reeds yellow and green, and so there must be a hint of water there.
In the Tuileries women wear scarves against the brisk fall morning, don’t linger long. But the flowers still bloom. Oranges, reds: heart-colored
I see in its leaving why you loved
In describing Youn, Simic said, “She is a skeptical, intelligent, high-spirited voice, alert and sharp. She is engaged by everything from Korean history to the subjugation of women and the torture of children and the history of a comic strip.”
Simic added, “What she does is take the lyric poem beyond its traditional form and re-invent it, and in the process she reminds us what imagination and playfulness can accomplish in poetry.”
Youn is an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and an adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University. She is the author of “Barter” (2003). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the “Norton Anthology: Language for a New Century.” She earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton, a master’s of philosophy from Oxford and a law degree from Yale.
Youn is working on a second volume of poetry titled “Ignatz,” which is based on “Krazy Kat,” the classic comic strip created by George Herriman that ran in U.S. newspapers from 1913 to 1944. In the strip, a naïve cat is crazy in love with a disagreeable mouse called Ignatz. “There’s a goofy desperation to the way love is portrayed,” Youn said.
Youn read 13 poems about Ignatz from her upcoming book. Some of the titles included, “Letter to Ignatz,” “The Wedding of Ignatz,” “Ignatz Infers,” “Ignatz Pop Quiz,” “Invisible Ignatz,” and “Ignatz Domesticus.” She also read four poems from her first book “Barter.”
The last poem she read was called “Ending” and contained only seven words:
Freshwater stunned the beaches.
I could sleep.
For further information on Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, the fellowships and the poetry program at the Library of Congress, visit the Library’s Poetry Web site.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.