Abe Louise Young '99
Abe Louise Young ’99, was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. A Sophia Smith Scholar in Poetry and a dynamic presence here on campus, Young was involved in the founding of the Poetry Center and served as assistant to its first director, Elizabeth Alexander.
After leaving Smith, Young earned an M.A. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, taught writing at Loyola University in Chicago, and went on to complete an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James Michener Fellow. She has published poems, essays, and reviews in many journals and anthologies. A gifted poet herself, Young is two-time winner of the Academy of American Poets Anne Bradstreet prize, as well as runner-up in the Ellen LaForge memorial Poetry Competition, and was awarded the Nell Altizer Prize in Poetry from Hawaii Review. She is author of a poetry two chapbooks, Ammonite (2008) and Heaven to Me (2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in Witness, Verse Daily, Narrative Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and The Nation. Among her prizes are the 2017 Vilcek Prize from the Bellevue Literary Review for “Poem for a Friend Getting Lighter and Lighter,” selected by Kazim Ali and a Grolier Poetry Prize.
A self-described social change artist, Young has conducted writing workshops with diverse constituencies in more than 30 states, including residents of public housing and gifted high school students, and has won enthusiastic reviews for innovative teaching on the college level.
She has worked on a wide variety of story-based social change projects, including Jailhouse Stories: Voices of Pre-Trial Detention in Texas; Queer Youth Advice for Educators: How to Protect Your LGBTQ Students (Next Generation Press); and she created and directed Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History Project. Young has also worked as an oral history consultant for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Danish-American Dialogue for Human Rights, interviewing Holocaust rescuers whose stories were contributed to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
Currently, Young serves as Executive Director of Education and Training at Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children) and Co-Director of Prizer Arts & Letters, a center for socially engaged arts and literature in Austin, where she makes her home. During her 2018 visit to Smith, Young will also mount an interactive exhibit, Poet to Poet: A Friendship in Letters, in the Campus Center’s Nolen Art Lounge. This installation of intimate letters between Young and Alan Shefsky showcases outrageous verbal play, naked honesty and the process of two people becoming life-long confidants using words and art, in the 3,000 letters and ephemera they exchanged until Shefsky’s death from brain cancer in 2014. The exhibit also includes a wall of letter-writing prompts and stationary supplies and envelopes that invite visitors to write letters themselves.
I am eleven in Gulfport, Mississippi, buried in sand.
Two girls squat & build a hill over my body, talk
without looking at me. I anticipate every handful
of sand before it drops. Joy twists my face
and I squint to conceal it. I feel like a glass
of frothy milk drained empty by a straw.
The sky rolls slow & a pelican flies over. The sound
of its brown wings flapping is like girls walking
in new stockings, thighs chafing.
My heart pounds in its dark cave. Sand falls,
soft rain. Tiny mites & broken shell
pad the length of my limbs. I feel my vulva:
hot, anchoring, my body being built here:
my pelvic bone, my thighs with their columns of muscle,
my almost-breasts, my collarbone, my hair spread out
in a fan behind my head, my feet ticklish, hands
pressed to my sides. Under the attention of girls,
their fingers grasping & measuring handfuls,
bringing heat to me. I surrender. I am an altar.
At the center, I lie in their touch entire. I lie there
until I forget, fall asleep, wake up alone with dry lips,
sunburnt face, the loud beat of ebbing waves.
I lie there in hunger and shame for ten years until
I rest under the weight of another female body
whose volume equals mine, whose bones float & balance
at the axis of my pelvis, whose breasts flatten against me,
whose skin radiates heat, who touches my toes
with roughened feet, who runs fingers over my ribs,
along my legs with a fine salty grain. I float
on the voices of girls, the sky filling my lungs; I float
touched & isolate until they are done, until they are
done, & want to do someone else.
At twelve, I became an astronaut
reaching out with huge gloved hands
and red tunnel vision toward the moon.
The completely full moon, the whole moon
with no end in sight, round abandoned moon,
voluminous milky moon, powder keg, blind crater,
volcano, jumping with cows moon, moon without flag;
I was hungry for the whole cold, distant, unreliable moon, my
lost, longed-for, luscious, silk-lined moon, my unattainable,
faithful, private moon, moon without man, tidal, hovering,
mercurial, tender, trusted moon, menstrual, dream dial
moon; I lumbered toward it night after night in the puffy
white suit, hearing the roar of my own secret heavy
breathing, my eyes smarting, embarrassed and
failing until suddenly, floating, pulsing, unable
to rest or breathe or land, in one movement
I reached out and found it:
a live breast in my hand.
From HEAVEN TO ME (Headmistress Press, 2016)
September 1, 2005
Earth yanks me to her mouth
O plantation-cracked patch your oaks flip moss like long wigs
my city bleeds at the sacrum of the state
anxious panic Lake Pontchartrain: our flood is full
dirt can drink remove our rocks and shelters
mud mother, hold us in your nest a bed of stares, of useless keys
floating swampgrass muskrat nest plastics factory pitcher plants
miles of spilled oil in the center of Chalmette
winds begin and clamor forty thousand voices
the water the water
add essential oils to the river cedar longleaf pine blackstar
add your hair to the history hide
police suicide hotel ants eat alphabet
whose ways are set? haiku hep rage hands ghostly, an identity
grow hurricanes inside a country with a gastric lock and key
Keep out rescue vehicles Big Daddy
bodies swell in the gutter blue light from a church window
falls on hands Monique’s babies float downtown on a box spring
Carl saves a dog snagged on the barbed wire fence just
below the waterline on Broad Anonymous drowning in jail cells
A black lab tries to feed Joe’s family on the roof
drags a deer from the floodwaters, hoof in jaws
Earth, please give me your metabolism to stratify time
give us our levees and absorb our crimes
our Mississippi is a honey colored curve an embryo a bend
liquid quiet radiating crystals at the core
mother ocean was here she gave her grief a name
superdome a crushed monument lost chambered nautilus
curled inward opening like a trumpet
and the drums begin and the tambourines and trumpets
City in a handbag, centuries lost in a locket land ammonite
do not do nothing with your boxes of mud leaves ovaries
lifetimes braided in place see the bricks and remember which slave
families made them pre-emancipation aprons
demolished homes and sodden wool reconstitute the tribes
petroleum-sodden cranes and golden nutria black crows and
bottle caps impatient, merciless, tender City sit on the side
of the river feed the wanderers brass keys
New Orleans is spread out over America in pockets of memory
everyone paddled but great-grandmother fell
please make us believe change is half-possible
From AMMONITE (Magnolia Press Collective, 2008)
My heart hammers in its medieval flood plain.
An angel is helix made flesh and so I’m restless,
wind billowing wool between my legs.
I remember that my face was cupped and my curls were coiled
by an unknown artist, calloused hands turned me
out of linden with chisel and gouge. Angels are without
pride, without kin, without pronouns or possessions, but
I hold a twisted column and will never let it go.
Is it a lever to keep God from having a seizure?
This tree limb in my hands is just the visible story.
I’m hung on a white wall for all perpetuity but
with three more branches could rough out a room
with a dirt floor and in would crawl a refugee mother
to nurse her baby in safety. Sew an old torn glove
of a cloud overhead to hide the moon’s belly.
See, I am just one among many witnesses
sworn to stillness, attending scenes, staring impassively,
yet I still have a comment on life. If granted permission,
I would gently lift the struggle from any animal’s back.
(from The Map of Every Lilac Leaf: Poets Respond to the Smith College Museum of Art, 2020)
Poetry Center ReadingSummer 2007