The poet and curator on expanding autobiography, the importance of elegy, and the centrality of blues to experience.
It may be that Kevin Young’s poetic sensibility—his focus on remembrance, his affinity for the blues—was shaped by his exile from the South. A prolific poet and editor, Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1970, to Louisiana natives who had migrated north to pursue studies in medicine and chemistry. Although the family moved frequently and settled in Topeka, Kansas, when Young was ten, his first collection of poetry, Most Way Home (1995), selected a winner of the 1993 National Poetry Series by the poet Lucille Clifton, conjures the rural South, where he spent part of every summer with his grandparents. These annual sojourns immersed Young in a tight-knit, working-class, African-American community whose rich vernacular, country customs, and particular pain infused his verse.
Since that debut, Young, a protégé of Seamus Heaney as an undergraduate at Harvard, has published seven volumes of poetry and edited eight anthologies—of jazz poems, blues poems, grief poems, and food poems, among others. He also established himself as a formidable critic with The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012), a book of essays on modernism’s indebtedness to black culture, winner of the PEN Open Book Award and a New York Times Notable Book.
In his poems, Young displays stunning linguistic virtuosity, channeling a prodigious range of voices and personas, from mutinous slaves in Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (2011), winner of an American Book Award; to the snappy-sharp tones of bluesmen in Jelly Roll (2003), a finalist for the National Book Award; to the staccato rhythms of film noir in Black Maria (2005); and riffs on the fast, furious life of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in To Repel Ghosts (2001). A protean poet, Young seems to be able to access the entire feast and famine of black American history and render any part of it as song.
Book of Hours, Young’s latest collection of poems, published this year by Knopf, is a departure from his previous work. Moving from the historic and cultural to the deeply personal, it chronicles Young’s grief over his father’s death in a hunting accident in 2004, and the rapture and anxiety that accompanied the birth of his son two years later. With taut elegance and candor, Young exposes his internal life at the very moments he is knocked off balance.
Young is also active as a scholar and curator. A professor at Emory University in Atlanta, he oversees Emory’s Literary Collections, participating in the recent coup that won the university Flannery O’Connor’s much-coveted papers, and curates the 75,000-volume Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, considered the most important modern English-language poetry archive in the world. Young acquired Lucille Clifton’s papers for the archive about a decade after she recognized his promise; in 2012, he co-edited The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, a posthumous anthology of Clifton’s work.
I spoke with Young at a church near his home in Atlanta, where the nation’s largest indie book festival, the Decatur Book Festival, is headquartered. Throughout our long conversation, Young doodled and made notes in a small notebook, as though his creative energy required continual expression.
—Parul Kapur Hinzen for Guernica
Guernica: In your previous collections, you seemed to be investigating blackness through others’ experiences. In Book of Hours, the vernacular voices you adopted in the past are gone; rather, you describe your own profound experiences of your father’s death and the birth of your son. About mourning your father, you write: “How terrible / to have to pick up / the pen, helpless / to it, your death / not yet / a habit & try to say / something other than / never, or hereafter…” Was it harder for you to get at these more intimate poems than your previous poetry? Was there a shift in how you approached the writing?
Kevin Young: You soon realize when something big like that happens, you’ll always be writing about it in some way or another. I think the hardest thing was not to write, not picking up the pen. That’s the poet’s impulse.
Jelly Roll to me is a personal book, but it’s not an autobiographical one. It’s about that kind of “I” as “we” that makes up the blues. The blues are in this book, but it’s in a tone I see as serious, somber, yet sometimes able to laugh, almost gallows-humor style. I had written about my father’s death before in Dear Darkness. To return to it you have to do something different. There were stories I wanted to tell, moments I thought were illuminating. A book of hours is a medieval daybook of prayer. This is kind of a daybook of grief.
There were things I wrote in the immediate aftermath that were just survival.
Guernica: Did you write these poems very soon after your father’s passing?
Kevin Young: To be honest with you, I don’t remember when I wrote them. It sounds strange, but I feel like they were always written. I remember fighting with them, but I don’t remember the timing. They were hard to write.
But certainly I started the poems in earnest a couple of years after [my father’s death]. There were things I wrote in the immediate aftermath that were just survival. You just write because you do. At the same time, I was trying to not remember but to relive, hard as it was. I wanted that kind of immediacy in the book itself.
Guernica: What made you decide to juxtapose the two events in one book—your father’s death and your son’s birth?
Kevin Young: I was trying to write about my life and that’s how my life was. Art is so conscious, but it also has an element of unconsciousness that carries you past those decisions. And if the decisions are right, they seem obvious afterwards, or inevitable.
Guernica: You mentioned that there were stories you wanted to get down. In the poem “Charity,” you recall going to pick up your dead father’s dry cleaning. Almost everyone has to deal with the clothes of a family member who has passed away. In another poem, you describe going to an eye doctor who doesn’t realize she’s filling in the place of your father, who was an ophthalmologist. How much of writing poetry for you is memorializing the everyday?
Kevin Young: It’s never one thing. I think certainly my father dying and his dying so suddenly made every hour feel very marked and heightened. But it’s filled with everyday things. And I feel life is, and mourning is, and so is death.
To me the transformative moment of twentieth-century poetry was to say the everyday was poetry. And how do you make the everyday as extraordinary as it can feel? That lyric moment that is transformative but isn’t accompanied by fireworks or off-screen music? That’s the ethos of the poets I admire greatly and believe in, from William Carlos Williams to Gwendolyn Brooks, to Seamus Heaney and Lucille Clifton—both of whom I had long-standing connections to.
To me the everyday is filled with extraordinary things. I also think the opposite is true, that poetry can take extraordinary moments and have us be able to put our hands around them, make them tactile and immediate. It’s both the raising up and reckoning with, wrestling to the ground, these kind of larger forces.
Guernica: Racial identity is in focus in your earlier poems, whether about a slave revolt or the indignities your grandparents suffered in their small town in Louisiana. In Book of Hours, racial issues don’t often surface, and if they do, only subtly. We don’t learn that your wife is white or your child biracial. In remembering your father, you don’t describe his identity as a black man in America. Are these deliberate omissions or did race seem irrelevant to these events?
Kevin Young: I don’t think either. A poem called “Jaundice” is explicitly about color. It asks over and over, What color should you be? That seemed like an interesting, open‑ended question, not just of my son, but of the whole book—a larger question about color and race and culture. A lot of those questions are also foregrounded in The Grey Album, a prose book I was writing at the time. If I think back to my first book, Most Way Home, the last section is called “Beyond the Pale,” which has a lot of resonance. I wrote the book pretty young—I was twenty or twenty-one when I finished most of the poems—and I wanted there to be a black protagonist, who was sometimes called “You.” I wanted it to be matter-of-fact that he was black. He was traveling. He was seeing things, and saw things in a particular way, but he also saw the multitude. It was inherent. That’s what I would say [about Book of Hours]. It’s not so much that race is avoided or that it’s subtle, it’s just inherent.
To render a blues you don’t have to say “‘I,’ by which I mean a black person.” It’s just a different, broader “we.”
Guernica: There’s great musicality in your writing. I read that you write to music and have 15,000 songs on your iPod.
Kevin Young: No. It’s more like 35,000.
Guernica: Are you always listening to music when you’re working?
Kevin Young: Or watching TV. I like a little white noise. Sometimes, if you’re looking straight at something, you can’t see it as well. It’s like looking at an eclipse. You’ve got to have that mirror to see it right.
It’s the same reason why poets write in standard form. You’re thinking about the rhyme instead of the emotion. It’s a way of taking you out of yourself a little bit, out of your head. That’s the irony of writing. It’s mental, but it’s also really physical. It’s really about the body, especially a poem. If you’re too much in your head, it can be hard. Something has to get you into the flow, that thing outside yourself.
To me poetry is a kind of music. It aspires to that, but also transcends it. The music of the poem is in the words. It’s not behind the words or in front of the words.
That said, the writers I like, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, have that musicality even in their prose. You’re trying to capture that outer music, but really also an inner music. How the poem sounds is how the poet or the speaker or the “we” is thinking.
The blues are the foundation of American music, full stop.
Guernica: The Grey Album’s subtitle, “On the Blackness of Blackness,” could almost be rewritten as “On the Blackness of America,” since the book makes a great claim that American modernism springs out of jazz and the blues. What brought you to consider black music as the basis of the modernist literary aesthetic?
Kevin Young: For me the book started out being about the blackness of American culture and that idea of blackness being central. But, at the same time, why was it so unread? Misread? There’s a refrain in the beginning of the book, “Is it better to be unread or misread?” Those are both bad choices, of course.
I was thinking about the idea of “storying” and the codes African-Americans created and disseminated, ways of making meaning through masking. It’s a hidden history, but also a history of hiding. I wanted to expose both those things.
When someone like [historian and scholar] Peter Gay publishes a book called Modernism and there are no black people in it, it’s pretty bizarre. I want to write against that elision, because even when I’m sitting down to read Eliot or William Carlos Williams or Pound, there is blackness being appropriated or masked or thought about, sometimes parodied and mocked, but it’s there. It’s hard to think of a famous white modernist who doesn’t engage [with black culture].
But by the end of the book, I realized I was really trying to write about the blackness of blackness. What makes blackness black? What made it unique? What were its qualities?
For me, it comes back to that centrality of the blues to experience. The blues are the foundation of American music, full stop. And American music, through jazz, and even now through hip-hop, is influential worldwide.
Guernica: What are the pleasures of writing essays and criticism as distinct from poetry? Does prose engage a different thought process?
Kevin Young: It’s working much the same way a curator does. Writing prose is quite creative, but it’s a way of making a different kind of connection. For me, some of it is still intuitive, and then it’s like, “Why do I see these two things connected?”
I’m finishing a new prose book now. It’s much less of a history. The Grey Album was about the good side of lying. This is the bad side, the new book.
Guernica: What is it about?
Kevin Young: It’s a little early. I’m shy about saying, but, like The Grey Album, I talk about lying as a rich tradition in African‑American culture. I end up calling it “storying.” When we were kids, you couldn’t say to an adult or even to a kid, “Oh, you lie.” You’d say, “You story.” I take that as a way of thinking about this “storying” tradition of African‑American culture, of telling tales, but also wordless tales, like the way that Louis Armstrong’s solos tell a story.
The interconnectedness of the poetry world or the world of writing or the world, period, is really interesting.
Guernica: You’ve edited eight anthologies. What drives this impulse to collect and sift through the words of others?
Kevin Young: You learn how to organize an anthology much the same way as if you were doing a magazine, which I used to do in college. It has the same energy. You learn to find connections. Working on blues and jazz poems [for Blues Poems (2003) and Jazz Poems (2006)] sent me into the archive in a different way. I tracked down poems that otherwise would have been hard to find. I spent a lot of time in Indiana University’s Lilly Library and in Harvard’s Houghton Library.
The archive is always there for you. Now, working in archives at Emory, I try to honor that and find things that suggest connections for researchers and scholars, but also for students and visitors. The interconnectedness of the poetry world or the world of writing or the world, period, is really interesting.
Guernica: You’re in charge of both the poetry collection and the literary collection at Emory.
Kevin Young: Yes. One is the Danowski Poetry Library and that is chiefly books, but it also has manuscripts, objects, and [books] that aren’t poetry. The collector, who was here in Atlanta, Raymond Danowski, spent twenty-five years trying to assemble every edition of every poetry book in English worldwide, and he largely succeeded.
I love that it has no school or no emphasis. It’s really all of poetry, which includes the counterculture. Poetry exists in newspapers. It exists in lots of places. So how do you capture that? The archive seemed to me a wonderful way to do it.
Guernica: The notion of “multitudes” surfaces in your essays, echoing Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes.” You’ve said that jazz contains multitudes and the blues contains multitudes. Writing about the poet Lucille Clifton in your afterword to her collected poems, you argue, “Clifton’s poetic self embraces its multitude through the metaphor of family.” What kind of argument are you making for black culture by attaching the world “multitudes” to it?
Kevin Young: For me it’s the sense of an “I” that’s a “we” that I mentioned before, which I think is central to understanding the blues and why they’re so effective and so loved. When I listen to the blues, I feel better even though this person’s singing about misery or laughing about misery, laughing to keep from crying.
And how does that work? Jazz, obviously, is a series of solos that create a group. It’s a song made up of discrete parts that have a greater whole, and some would say that’s part of a democratic ideal. We each bring this sound that’s our own, and there’s a music that comes out of seeming dissonance.
In The Grey Album I joke that I was looking for a unified theory of black culture. If you look at Lucille Clifton’s work, you can see that kaleidoscopic quality. Take a poem like “won’t you celebrate with me,” where she’s thinking that every day something has tried to kill [her] and failed, and she says, “born here in babylon / both nonwhite and woman.” It is such a specific poem. But there’s something about that shared “I,” and in her case, a lowercase “i,” that is so powerful. The specificness of her vision is part of the breadth of it.
And this is true of someone like Seamus Heaney, too. When he’s writing about his family farm in Derry, I realize he could be talking about my family farm, or the land we lived on in Louisiana and still have. It’s been there in the same parish for something like two hundred years. There’s a real rootedness in what he’s talking about. It’s important to my poetry—that idea of a place—which isn’t so far away from the idea of multitudinousness.
Guernica: Do you feel black writers have an obligation to the black community, to highlight injustice and bring social problems to the fore?
Kevin Young: I think that’s an old frame for what’s now a very complicated question. We’re in this weird world of people not understanding institutional [racial] problems. And [by] “people” I mean white people in this instance.
What’s exciting to me about writing is that you can write anything. Lucille Clifton has a great poem where she says something like, “i could write about trees.” And then she says, “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” I love that idea because she’s expressing the complexity of this [situation]. I can see a light in which a book like Book of Hours is a mourning song for a black father. You could read a lot of these things politically and, I think, quite usefully. It’s like an electron. You observe it, and it’s in two places at the same time.
Guernica: In your anthology Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers, which appeared almost fifteen years ago, you introduced a slate of young black writers. You wrote that the protests voiced by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s were taken for granted now, and black writers had moved beyond that to the “new thing.” Do you have a clearer impression of what that “new thing” is today in black writing?
Kevin Young: It’s a question of being able to write about history. I think that’s very important. Elegy is very important. And imagination. The question of imagining a new self, a new nation—I think that’s central. All of that is concerned with form—how to render that in form.
What strikes me is the boldness of these forms. Someone like Colson Whitehead is able to write a zombie-novel-kind-of-bildungsroman that doesn’t really build to an epiphany. He’s able to take the detective novel and turn it inside out. He’s able to write an epic. He writes essays that are sort of prose poems. He’s able to do this, and I think it answers all the things I’ve just mentioned.
But as much as I’m interested in newness, I’m also interested in continuity. It’s partially how you make it new, but also how you understand where you’ve been.
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