Monica Youn, senior counsel in the Democracy Program of NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, was a 2010 National Book Award finalist in the poetry category for her collection Ignatz. Novelist Pat Conroy announced the finalists during an event at writer Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in advance of the November 17 award ceremony.
Given annually in four different categories (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature) by the National Book Foundation, the National Book Awards are among the most prestigious honors in American letters. Previous poetry winners include W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Allen Ginsberg. Each finalist receives $1,000 and a medal. Youn was one of five finalists out of 148 poetry books submitted.
“Many of the effects that poets use are sonic, some are visual, and some are historical,” Youn said in discussing the parallels between poetic and legal writing. “For example, in a poem in this collection I end with the image of an apple, and if you’re a poet using an image of an apple you know you’re not on a blank slate. An apple has resonances back to Adam and Eve, Snow White, any number of other resonances that are invoked when you use that image. Similarly, when you are writing a constitutional law brief and you talk about cruel and unusual punishment or you talk about due process of law or you talk about the First Amendment, you’re invoking all the baggage that those terms carry.”
Youn recalled a “thought experiment” involving the poetry of legal writing that she conducted in relation to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In that text, she said, Kennedy is “using the freedom of speech of individuals as a metaphor for the spending power of corporations. To go through and substitute the phrase ‘corporate political spending’ for the various First Amendment tropes that he deploys throughout the opinion leads you to a much less charismatic argument.”
In the course of her J.D. studies at Yale Law School, Youn became worried by the fact that she had turned away from writing poetry. As a result, she turned down a clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in favor of a coveted Wallace Stegner Fellowship in the Stanford Creative Writing Program. But after being offered another clerkship, this time on the more fortuitously located Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, Youn decided to pursue both law and poetry simultaneously. (She also holds a Master of Philosophy in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.) During the two-year fellowship, Youn completed her first book of poetry.
One pursuit informed the other. “Especially in the preliminary statement of a brief, the cadence and the symmetry and the structure are all things that I keep very much in mind,” Youn said. “You want a good brief to resonate in a way that has some relationship to what a poem does.”
Posted on December 1, 2010