Issue 71 |
Winter 1996-97

Kevin Young, Zacharis Award


Zacharis Award 
Ploughshares and Emerson College are pleased to present Kevin Young with the sixth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for his poetry collection,
Most Way Home, published by William Morrow. The $1,500 award -- which is funded by Emerson College and named after the college's former president -- honors the best debut book published by a
Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.

Kevin Young, who has just turned twenty-six, was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. An only child, he moved six times before he was ten as his parents pursued educational and professional opportunities. Young spent middle and high school in Kansas, then went to Harvard University, where he took poetry workshops with Lucie Brock-Broido and Seamus Heaney and won an Academy of American Poets Prize. While in Cambridge, he joined the Dark Room Collective, a group founded by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange to support and promote young black writers, artists, and filmmakers.

After graduating from Harvard, Young spent two years as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, working with Denise Levertov, and then received his M.F.A. from Brown University, where Michael S. Harper was a major influence on him. Young's first publication was in
Callaloo, followed by appearances in magazines and anthologies such as
Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Agni, Ploughshares, and
On the Verge.

Most Way Home, his first collection, was selected by Lucille Clifton as a National Poetry Series winner and published by William Morrow last year. Clifton said of Young, "This poet's gift of storytelling and understanding of the music inherent in the oral tradition of language recreates for us an inner history which is compelling and authentic and American."
The Village Voice Literary Supplement commented, "In Young's alchemy, succulent scraps are gathered from daily life, distilled, and emerge, finally, as portable nuggets of home, carried wherever the poet may travel."

The book reflects a personalized, largely imagined view of African American history in this century, loosely based on stories from Young's Louisiana family. It considers the dialectic of home and displacement, and the myths and fierce nostalgia that join the two. The poems are arranged to create a narrative arc: in the first section, a family loses their land and a grandfather dies; in the second, a traveling sideshow comes to town; in the third, a woman recalls her rural childhood; and in the last, more contemporary and urban landscapes are explored. Young adds, "The book's also about the two most important things: food and hair."

Currently Young is an assistant professor of English and African American studies at the University of Georgia in Athens, and he is finishing a new book of poems, begun five years ago, about the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. "This is not biography," Young says, "nor is it hagiography. Rather, I think it's closer to discography, riffing off his work while recording parts of his life. It's a long poem, a jam session in his honor, bringing in many figures from his time and from history, whether they are musicians, graffiti artists, comedians, or, as Basquiat put it, 'Famous Negro Athletes.' " Individual poems from this series have appeared or are forthcoming in
The New Yorker, Grand Street, Gulf Coast, Hambone, and
Global City Review. Young is also featured in an installation called
Two Cents, an exhibit and catalogue of his poems and Basquiat's works on paper. Beginning at the Miami Dade Art Gallery, the installation has been shown in Niagara, Memphis, Tampa, Los Angeles, and, most recently, Austin, Texas.

The Zacharis First Book Award was inaugurated in 1991. The past winners are: Debra Spark for
Coconuts for the Saint; Tony Hoagland for
Sweet Ruin; Jessica Treadway for
Absent Without Leave; Allison Joseph for
What Keeps Us Here; and David Wong Louie for
The Pangs of Love. The award is nominated by the advisory editors of
Ploughshares, with founding editor DeWitt Henry acting as the final judge. There is no formal application process; all writers who have been published in
Ploughshares are eligible, and should simply direct two copies of their first book to our office.