Published April 21, 2021

Katherine E. Young is the author of Woman Drinking Absinthe and Day of the Border Guards and the editor of Written in Arlington. She is also an award-winning translator of Russian-language poems and prose. In 2016, Young was selected as the inaugural poet laureate of Arlington County, Va. Learn more at Katherine-Young-Poet.com.

Get to know Katherine in this Q&A and then join us on Thursday, April 22 at 12 PM ET as part of our Shelf Life series of virtual events to hear her discuss her work in SHELF LIFE—Worlds within Words: A Poetry Reading.

Festival: What motivated you to become a poet? 

Young: I’ve always been a poet, but I didn’t get truly serious about my craft until I was living in Russia in the 1990s. While there, I spent about two years reading the entire canon of Russian poetry with a teacher, Nadezhda Mirova, who spoke no English. Not only was I learning a great deal about Russian poetry, but I was hearing English differently because I was doing so much work in Russian. And I started writing poems in dialogue with or in response to the great Russian poets I was reading. I still do that.

Who or what are some of your creative influences?

I’m really interested in fairy tales, what they say about our collective loves and fears. Also, my father was a playwright—he was once the playwright-in-residence at UVA, in fact—and I more or less grew up in the theater. The whole notion of performance, including the performance of poetry, fascinates me. And of course, I learn by translating: recently, I was asked to translate a collection of poems by Boris Pasternak, and I learned something important about how to write from literally every line. I came to Pasternak a little later, but some of my earlier influences include Alexander Pushkin, Afanasy Fet, Anna Akhmatova, and also Inna Kabysh, whose work I’ve been translating since the 1990s; among American writers, Elizabeth Bishop and W. S. Merwin, in particular, and I’m always learning something from younger American writers such as Fatimah Asghar and Danez Smith. Also, Scottish poet W. S. Graham. And Joni Mitchell, whose voice continues to pop up in my head when I least expect it.

What was your favorite part about writing your latest poetry collection?

This collection deals with some fairly difficult themes—seduction, betrayal, atonement—themes that go back at least to the Greeks. I had a lot of fun slipping in and out of established literary tableaux that explore those themes, adopting the voices of a talking bear, the minor Madama Butterfly character Kate Pinkerton, and Bluebeard, to name just a few. And I got to indulge my ongoing fascination with the history of science; the book includes a found poem from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that dates back to the 1690s. 

Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?

Anything to do with Russia and the former Soviet Union—I was trained as a Soviet studies analyst back when that profession still existed, and the pull of all things having to do with that part of the world (including the cultures of the now-independent nations of the former USSR) remains strong. My first chapbook includes a poem that compares my grandmother—a farm woman who never left Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley—to a Russian icon. My first full-length book, Day of the Border Guards, was set entirely in Russia and the former Soviet Union. And there are references to Russia in Woman Drinking Absinthe, including a poem addressed to poet Marina Tsvetayeva.

What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers? 

I come out of the Russian tradition of poets speaking truth to power—political poetry, witness poetry, if you will. And I was lucky to serve as my community’s first poet laureate, where I helped organize events that responded to the Charlottesville demonstrations, the Stoneman Douglas shooting, and the 2017 Women’s March, to name just a few. So, I believe very firmly in the power of poetry to speak for the community. But I also want it to be beautiful, artistically powerful. This book is more intimate and narrowly focused than the last one, but it centers issues like trauma and intimate partner abuse in ways that I hope will resonate for readers.

Describe how a book changed your life or perspective.

Not so much the book—although that was pretty life-changing, too—but the character of Margarita in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Margarita leaves a comfortable, predictable marriage for true love, but that love requires her to turn into a full-fledged witch and serve as hostess at Satan’s Ball (which Bulgakov set in Spaso House, the grand Moscow residence where the American ambassador to Russia lives to this day). The scene where Margarita rubs herself with Satan’s cream, strips off all the conventional beauty markers of the 1930s, and flies naked across Moscow, the city I love most in the world, still takes my breath away. I never wanted to be a “conventional” woman—once I met Margarita, I actively wanted to be a witch!

What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?

I’m going to cheat and recommend Look at Him by Russian writer Anna Starobinets, who is well known for writing horror, sci-fi, and books for children, many of which are available in English. Look at Him is her memoir of losing her unborn son; it’s absolutely heartbreaking, and also beautiful and sometimes extremely funny. The book remains quite controversial in Russia because it deals with traditionally taboo subjects, such as women’s agency over their own bodies and the broader topic of emotional and psychological wellbeing in a culture that fetishizes toughness. It’s such a wonderful book that I ended up translating it—it came out last fall. 

What are you working on next?

At the moment, I’m working with a couple of composers who are setting poems from Woman Drinking Absinthe to music. I’m also looking for a publisher for my translation of People and Trees, a proto-feminist work set during and after World War II in Azerbaijan. The author is Azerbaijan’s greatest living writer, Akram Aylisli, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 and who currently lives under de facto house arrest in Baku because the authorities don’t approve of his writing. This is the second book I’ve translated by this magnificent author, who is well known in Europe, but not here. I’m also looking for a publisher for a volume of the poems of Inna Kabysh in my translation. And I’m working on my third collection of poems, some of which explore my childhood as a white Southerner being raised by people actively engaged in the civil rights movement. It’s a busy time!

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