“Pet Sounds”: An Interview With Stephanie Young

I wanted to write a love poem that didn’t leave out all the problems, that inhabited this form of address to do other things at the same time: music criticism, historical analysis, thinking about gender and labor and real estate,” says Stephanie Young, author of the new book-length poem Pet Sounds. Ahead of her NYC book launch, Stephanie and I got to talking on, among other things, the long-form poem and records that tie themselves to relationships. 

— June Shanahan



June Shanahan: In reading through your book, I kept the title in the back of my mind in order to kind of listen for its germ. The figures of kittens and cats seem to reoccur, as do certain contained bodies of water. It’s also the title of an album by The Beach Boys, no? Before speculating too much, I was hoping you might share some insight regarding how you came to the title Pet Sounds.

Stephanie Young: Yes and yes, or both/and: kittens, cats, the Beach Boys. In a formal sense I think of the book as a kind of concept album like Pet Sounds, a symphonic whole that lets in a lot of sounds and textures as Brian Wilson did. The book samples other songs and poets, and some of the sounds and textures it lets in come from non-human companions (and mammals kept in captivity by humans), the other pet sounds present in the book. There’s also the way Wilson thought of the sounds he included: pet as in cherished, favorite, dear. The book is really a long love poem written to and from the cherished, favorite, dear humans and animals in my life. To the best of my knowledge, non-human sounds appear just once on Pet Sounds the album, a brief moment of Wilson’s dogs barking. Similarly, the album shows up once in my book, an object passed between two relationships narrated by the title poem. The CD you take from your lover when you’re breaking up, the CD you return. (Back when CDs were a thing.)

I also think of the book as responding partially to the title track of Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Dana Ward has written about this I think, in a poem, or maybe it was part of a long symphonic conversation years ago, that is, as a kind of utopian vision. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be together differently, in a world organized otherwise, not destructively shaped by capital, patriarchy, racism, a tangled weave that can absorb and monetize the most utopian of visions, that relies on and creates uneven forms of life. The joke, maybe, is that utopia as imagined by the Beach Boys song is basically heterosexual marriage. When I first started writing Pet Sounds I kept saying, what’s the point of writing a heterosexual love poem at this point in history? Which the poem both is and is not. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where identity categories around sexuality were not so stringent. Maybe we are starting to live in that world a little, I’m not sure. I do know that although my person and I are both bisexual, I would never claim queerness. I’m in a long-term relationship with a cis man, I’m a cis woman, and as Trisha Low writes in her devastating new book Socialist Realism, “In real life, there’s no escape from desire. It changes in the moment, even if identity can’t always bend with it, doesn’t always allow it to. But of course by this logic, even if you identify as queer, maybe the reality is that right now, in this moment, you’re just as straight as you seem. I’m no exception.” The world is still organized to ensure that me and my person move through the day with ease and safety that other bodies and relationships have to fight for constantly. I’m as straight as I seem.

Lastly, I’m amused as I write this by the difficulty of distinguishing between Pet Sounds the album and Pet Sounds my book. So there’s something too about re-inhabiting an epic, masculine work of genius, taking the title as my own, doing something else with it. 

JS: The initial poem, “Congenital,” offers up a sexuality that is always abutted by and seemingly inseparable from industrial contexts. Blowjobs happen against backdrops of container ships, pores are full of data and applications, etc. What do you think the function of the pervasive context of capital is on the sexual act? Or conversely, how do you think the latter might threaten the former?

SY: I hope it is not too obnoxious to quote from your excellent interview with Brian Teare on this site recently, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what he says there, “that my sense of myself as a gay man and my sexual experiences are coextensive with the capitalist industrial culture into which I was born and raised.” While my sexuality and gender are different from Brian’s, “Congenital” attempts to negotiate related territory, the ways that sexuality is never a space that’s free from capitalism’s reach, is in fact inscribed by it at every turn. There is the way too that capitalism makes it hard to understand what is and isn’t one’s desire, how much is preformatted. Capitalism is what enforces heterosexuality, binary gender, the couple form, the nuclear family. I always hear and return to Silvia Federici and Wages Against Housework: “They call it love. We call it unwaged work.” That was written in the 70s and responding to a very specific division of labor, and yet a lot of what Federici writes remains with us: “The second job not only increases our exploitation, but simply reproduces our role in different forms. Wherever we tum we can see that the jobs women perform are mere extensions of the housewife condition in all its implications. That is, not only do we become nurses, maids, teachers, secretaries—all functions for which we are well-trained in the home—but we are in the same bind that hinders our struggles in the home: isolation, the fact that other people’s lives depend on us, or the impossibility to see where our work begins and ends, where our work ends and our desires begin.” Or maybe the Federici feels insistently familiar because I sometimes feel like I grew up in the 50s, with a set of gendered expectations that in no way included what my life became.

At some point there was a poem in the book that quoted from this essay by Maya Gonzalez and Cassandra Troyan: “Romantic love — that which is historically specific to modern property relations — appears as extra-economic affective attachment organized by pre-capitalist forms of bondage. At the heart of true love is a pseudo-refuge from the heartlessness of modern competition, separation and generalized dispossession.” My love feels real, but it’s been naturalized. My sexuality, my body, my relationship—all unfold inside a shape that is a property relation, an economic arrangement preferenced by the government and insurance companies, constrained by a work day that extends into the evening, weekends, my dreams. There’s no getting away, even if I’ve been lucky enough in my longest relationship to feel free inside of sexual experience more often than not.

JS: At one point in Pet Sounds you remark, “the lost objects of breaking up [are] so often music”. Music, being something that takes both tangible and intangible forms, is such a multifaceted loss to sustain. There are so many records that I’m reluctant to listen to anymore because of the contexts they evoke for me. Are there any records or bands that you still find yourself apprehensive to listen to because of a particular break-up? Which records have gotten you through some of the worst?

SY: Totally! I can’t listen to a lot of things from the mid aughts. Faith Evans, The First Lady. Feist, Let It Die. Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go.” Maybe I forget the rest? Maybe I have finally forgotten. Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough got me through everything, a really bad breakup and my father’s death in the same year.

But the other thing I only fully realized while writing this book is that the Grateful Dead forms a strong thread between the two central romantic relationships of my life. Which means that whenever I listen to the Dead I’m in two or more places at once, several pasts and the present. I find it soothing that music can hold both contexts.

JS: Throughout the book, you often speak to a “you” that seems at once specific and intimate while being illusive and kind of amorphous. The “you” could be read as a few different people, or maybe mammals. I wonder if this was intentional on your part or perhaps just symptomatic of the blurring of singular & plural you’s in the English language? What made this type of address feel important to your poems?

SY: I love this question, that the “you” of the book can be read as illusive and amorphous. For me it’s a super specific address to the person I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life with, sometimes living together sometimes not. It’s funny because I’m a teacher and if there’s something I say in the classroom on a fairly regular basis (probably annoyingly so) it’s that pronouns have an organizing function. I think the narrative impulse is fairly strong for most readers, harder to disrupt than not, such that even if a series of poems are addressed to different and distinct “yous” the reader is likely to understand them as a singular figure. But now I’m thinking that perhaps I’m wrong! (Mea culpa to a gazillion students here.) I think of this book as really plainspoken, vulnerable to the charge of being “sentences broken into lines,” maybe anti-lyric at the same time it employs the oldest and most recognizable form of lyric address to a beloved you. I wanted to write a love poem that didn’t leave out all the problems, that inhabited this form of address to do other things at the same time: music criticism, historical analysis, thinking about gender and labor and real estate.

JS: From the onset of this project, was it your intention to write in the long-form or did Pet Sounds kind of grow itself along the way? What particular capabilities, or perhaps frustrations, does the long-form poem present for you as a writer?

SY: It definitely grew itself along the way; I couldn’t see the poem’s horizon when it began. But I’m also given to the long form, to the weaving of multiple strands that always seem to exceed the container of individual poems.

Thinking again too about Pet Sounds the album, there’s maybe an analogy to the “Wall of Sound” production style. I don’t have deep knowledge on this but Wikipedia says Paul Spector explained it this way: “I was looking for a sound, a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record. It was a case of augmenting, augmenting. It all fitted together like a jigsaw.” The long poem can hold a lot together like a jig-saw. Even if there’s always a worry or frustration that not every strand can be held as fully or with as much complication as necessary. If I understand correctly, the Wall of Sound has to do with layering multiple instruments and voices all playing the same thing to create something fuller than one strand could be on its own. This feels similar to the long poem. But the layering unfolds over space, so you just hope something full emerges by the end. 

Actually, this is mostly how I wind up writing long poems. I look up Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound and am reminded that he terrorized Ronnie Spector for six years and withheld royalties from the Ronettes while they were signed with him. They sued in 2003 and got a $3 million settlement which was probably a fraction of what they were owed. It’s impossible to talk about the Wall of Sound without talking about Phil Spector without talking about Ronnie Spector without talking about the withheld royalties.

JS: Whales, particularly captive Orcas, continually rear their heads (and collapsed dorsal fins) in your poems. What is your relationship to whales and how did it begin? Do you have a particular relationship to the sea? 

SY: I didn’t grow up by the sea, and my relationship to it is probably bound up with the ways I mythologized California early on. I’m also easily intimidated by waves. The relationship to whales entered as I was writing the poem. My person was in a play that rewrote or imagined Moby Dick as the story of Paul Watson, who founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and may or may not have been one of the first founders of Greenpeace. He was reading a lot about whales at the time and went to see an exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences where I learned that whales were once a kind of wolf. There was probably a lot more I could have said about whales! I realize it’s a cliché to map human experience onto the largest and most spectacular of mammals but there was a kind of echo I couldn’t stop hearing between the containment of the nuclear family and the violence of their captivity. And the violence and illness that captivity engenders.

Another way to say this: I had the chance to hear Susan Stryker speak last year in the middle of the Kavanuagh hearings, and she reminded us of something that is probably obvious but crucial to remember, that gender hasn’t always been understood on this continent the way it is now, that settler colonialism was (and is) also always a “gender frontier” – a project that imposed a patriarchal man/woman binary just as it subjugated the landscape to extract resources, just as it murdered and destroyed.

JS: There’s a moment wherein we find you in the car driving home to California, thinking to yourself: “I still don’t know anything / except how to feel in the car inarticulate”. As so much of what you do articulate in the book is attached to music, so much is sung and recounted through song lyrics, do you think music might articulate some things that poetry does not, or perhaps vice versa? What do you think they are uniquely capable of articulating when deployed together? 

SY: This is such a smart and difficult question. I do think instruments + voices moving together operate differently, do something else to the listener. You can’t dance to a book, although you can dance to a lot of great music that is also great poetry. Lately I’ve been describing Pet Sounds as a memoir or essay in verse. But the book is also relentlessly uninterested in complicated verse forms, and when it does rhyme is maybe a little obvious, like an uncomplicated pop song. I mean, I wish! I also have a secret hope that the book sends people outside of it to listen to the 1973 version of “Madame George” on T.B. Sheets. Maybe because I will never get over that song, maybe because poetry finally can’t be the song, can’t be its sound. +

Catch Stephanie Young, along with Eileen Myles, Roberto Montes, and Sara Deniz Akant at the official Pet Sounds book launch party, April 26th @ Callicoon Fine Arts, 6:30pm.

Stephanie Young lives and works in Oakland. Her books of poetry and prose include It’s No Good Everything’s BadUrsula or UniversityPicture Palace, and Telling the Future Off. She edited the anthology Bay Poetics, and with Juliana SpahrA Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism. Young is a member of the Krupskaya Books editorial collective.

Pet Sounds is out now! Order your copy here!