Issue 99 |
Spring 2006

About Kevin Young

Walking through Kevin Young's house outside of Boston is like taking a physical journey through his poetry. Something of a collector, he's filled his home with old books and photographs, contemporary art, vinyl records, and other cultural memorabilia. "I'm a pack rat," says Young. "I keep everything." It started when he was a kid, collecting comic books, many of which he still owns. And though the impulse has matured to include signed first editions by Langston Hughes, for example, there seem to be equal parts reverence and playfulness in the accumulations of objects that decorate his living room, or how he's equally at home discussing the Harlem Renaissance as he is, say, the X-Men.

Young puts this inclusive mentality to good use in his poems, which are kinetic and vibrant, ambitious book-length sequences that take on personal and public histories, and often sing themselves through other art forms. It's easy to see them taking shape amid the tumult of influences that comprise his individual universe. He seems to think in books, which might be one reason why his collections resemble novels, both in length and in scope. "I've tried to write short poems, or short books," he says. "It's not just the depth, because you could write a ten-page deep book, but that sense of trying to get the world into the book that I like." Simply put, there are no other contemporary poetry books on the shelf quite like his.

Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1970, but moved with his family several times before they settled in Topeka, Kansas, where he remained until college. A lesser individual might consider this an inauspicious beginning, but far from decrying his Midwestern background, Young asserts, "I think there's a lot of interesting history regarding Kansas, both its history as a state and being a free state, and also just in general its cultural history—Langston Hughes grew up in Kansas, in part, and Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka. There's this connection I feel to the black folks who live there." Young was turned on to poetry in his early teens by a creative writing teacher, whom he still calls a friend. "We all had to write a poem, and he sort of anonymously picked mine. And then I just couldn't be stopped; I just kept writing them," Young says. That initial precociousness would come to define his career. Since then, he's led a kind of charmed existence, studying with Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido at Harvard University, being awarded a Stegner Fellowship directly out of college, and then going on to earn his M.F.A. at Brown University. While still at Harvard, he also became a member of the Dark Room Collective, an influential group of young African-American writers in Boston who hosted readings and dedicated themselves to advancing the work of their members. To date, Young has published four collections of poetry, with two more on the way, and edited three anthologies. A fourth anthology is due out soon aswell. Young's first collection, Most Way Home, was selected by Lucille Clifton for the National Poetry Series, and later won Ploughshares's John C. Zacharis First Book Award, achievements all the more remarkable considering the bulk of it was written while he was still an undergraduate. He's won numerous other honors for his writing, including the Paterson Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship, and he's been named a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the James Laughlin Award, and the National Book Award. Since his third book, his publisher has been Knopf, the most prestigious house in the country. All by the ripe age of thirty-five.

In his first collection, Most Way Home (1995), Young explores his own family's narratives, showing an uncanny awareness of voice and persona as he enacts the lives of people from the rural South whose stories he grew up listening to. In the process, he adds a layer of richness into his own poetry that he'd later refine and redevelop in other books. "I feel like a poem is made up of poetic and unpoetic language, or unexpected language," Young says. "For me it all started with the way people I knew and people in my family talked. So there was a way of trying to get at that —how do people speak, and that kind of vernacular. And then I think there are many other vernaculars, whether it's the vernacular of the blues, or the vernacular of visual art, the sort of living language of the everyday. That's what I'm really interested in. And that isn't always easy. It isn't always simple language. Sometimes it's quite jarring and strange. That's what I like in life and poetry, that kind of playfulness that exists, I think, in language and life as well. Hopefully the poems capture that."

Young's next three books formed what he calls "an American trilogy" entitled Devil's Music, with each individual volume finding its vision in the archetypes of other art forms—from the paintings and lifestyle of Jean-Michel Basquiat in To Repel Ghosts (2001)through the blues of Jelly Roll (2003)and into the noirish underbelly of Black Maria (2005). "I wouldn't say I was necessarily just interested in these other art forms, whether it's the blues or film noir," Young says. "I was really more interested in the icons of that, and the structure, and how you can play with the structure to get at, I wouldn't say deeper meanings, but some of the similar kinds of meanings." Titled after one of Basquiat's paintings, To Repel Ghosts follows not only the life of the artist but also delves into the lives of various Basquiat subjects, allowing Young to extend his commentary to figures beyond the scope of Basquiat's immediate circle and circumstance. When questioned about the book's structure—dividing the poems into different album sides—Young responds, "Something I felt I shared with him was this love of records and vinyl. I felt like Basquiat had read the same comics that I had, that we had grown up with sort of the same junk culture. So the record was a way of honoring that." Always one to reinvent, Young recently published a "remix" version of To Repel Ghosts, which reassembles the original manuscript into a slightly more slender, "more danceable" length. It's further incidence of Young playing with genre yet creating a document that is, in the end, wholly serious.

If To Repel Ghosts was a personal response to a public figure and the social issues he faced, Young's third book, Jelly Roll, treads back into more personal territory. A sequence of love poems, many titled for a type of song or piece of song structure, the collection finds Young speaking perhaps most directly to the reader. It's easily his most intimate book. Young himself acknowledges the tricky nature of personal versus public narratives, saying, "Those things are slippery, because you write what I thought was a personal book. Though Jelly Roll was very full of persona and play, it can take on a public life that you don't know of. And then a book like Ghosts, which for me was really public, people like in a personal way that I have no relation to."

His latest book, Black Maria, is his take on the iconography of film noir. "I think film noir gets at some notions of despair and nihilism and American-ness and darkness that I was really interested in," Young says. The language in these poems becomes more staccato, almost gritty in their formal tensions between the short lines, wordplay, and emotion hiding behind a veil of toughness. Originally conceived as a part of, or even an extension to, Jelly Roll, the poems that became Black Maria branched out to include other characters and story arcs, and they soon will have a life off the page, as a stage play. One imagines the film version: continuing levels of ironic homage. Yet despite all the play with genre, there's an emotional core to the book. "These two lost souls are looking for each other in different ways," Young says. "It's telling a personal story, though not an autobiographical one."

When not writing, Young keeps busy as an editor, exercising his intellect and aesthetic through the work of other writers. In 2000, Young published Giant Steps: The New Generation of African-American Writers, a 364-page anthology that collects the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction of twenty-five African-American writers born after 1960. Blues Poems followed in 2003, and Jazz Poems is forthcoming this year. Young also edited John Berryman: Selected Poems (2004), the first new selection of Berryman's work in over thirty years. It's this editorial vision that also makes him in many ways the ideal candidate for his current position, as curator for the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University, a 75,000-volume collection that is the largest private collection of English language poetry. It's a veritable playground for someone with Young's sensibilities, a treasure trove of rarities, juvenilia, and one-of-a-kinds. Among its many gems is a first printing of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, valued at $160,000. If this position alone seems like enough to build a career on, it will only further verify speculation that Young is one of the busiest poets around. How he can write the books he has under his workload is testament to sheer will and, it seems, faith and patience. "For years I just wrote whenever I could and how I could," he explains. "I try to write more regularly now, but I don't necessarily. I tend to write in bursts. So I won't write for weeks, or even months, and then I'll have a jag where I'll just be writing quite a bit. I'm so used to it now that I don't usually try to freak out during the fallow times. You know, life intervenes." To wit, in the past year he has switched jobs from Indiana University to Emory, gotten married to his longtime girlfriend, Kate Tuttle, bought a house outside Boston, and moved in with Kate and his stepdaughter, Addie. He commutes between Boston and Atlanta.

He has two major projects on the horizon, a book each of public and private elegies. "I'm always trying to change and write something new," Young says. Like his previous work, the boundaries will undoubtedly blur and at times break down. A long sequence in the book of public elegies will address the death of a close friend on the first anniversary of 9/11. "I guess in the new stuff, I would say it's very different," Young maintains. "It's hard to describe in the abstract, but I feel like the work has changed. But elegy is that combination of the public and the private: mourning a private loss but trying to write about it in a public way. And hopefully if there's anything useful in it, it might provide solace to others."

Robert Arnold is Managing Editor of Ploughshares. He cofounded and edits the online literary journal Memorious.