Kevin Young is the author of Dear Darkness,
Kevin Young, Dear Darkness
© Knopf

For the Confederate Dead,
Kevin Young, For the Confederate Dead
© Knopf

Black Maria, Jelly Roll, To Repel Ghosts, and Most Way Home.

His poetry and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Callaloo, and many other journals. He is the Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.

Kevin Young

posted Oct 6, 2009

Kevin Young writes the kind of poems you want to give to those people who claim they just don’t “get” poetry.  Like a good sleight-of-hand trickster, he crafts poems that remain engaging and accessible without compromising complexity of language and style, bringing to mind Wislawa Szymborska’s lines, “Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words / then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” He’s as comfortable composing lyric love poems rife with the melancholy humor and word play of the blues as he is a sobering first-person account of one southern family’s post-slavery migration to a freedman settlement in Kansas. His subject matter is wide-ranging but never tedious or self-indulgent.  Steeped in Americana, it should be required reading for all bored high school history students. His latest book Dear Darkness tackles the universal subjects of family, place and loss through a mixture of elegy, ode and the blues—three forms that live comfortably in his ever-increasing body of work.

Mary Donnelly

spacer 20x20*spacer 20x20

What strikes me immediately about your work, no matter the subject matter or form, is your incredible comfort with vernacular language. You yourself have said there are many vernaculars—and in the case of your work one could point among others to those of the blues, of the South, of contemporary pop America, and even in one of your books, of snappy detective novel noir. But in each case, it is this emphasis on conversational speech that makes your work so infinitely readable and accessible. Are there writers—poets or otherwise—whose language has been particularly influential?

I still do think there are many vernaculars—I like poets who not only master one, but can also have a range of tones and voices in their work, even in one poem. Gwendolyn Brooks, I believe, does that; so does Yusef Komunyakaa and Rita Dove. But, of course, before them stand Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston, who manage brilliantly to reengineer how we look at language. I also admire John Berryman, who doesn’t necessarily do it with actual spoken language, but with an artificial, strange, stilted one. This can be great too.

For me I guess the vernacular isn’t always spoken—I love, for instance, those hand-painted signs or church signs with their sayings and misspellings. There’s a poem in For the Confederate Dead that’s more or less just found language like that—in fact, since my second book To Repel Ghosts, I think I’ve had one or two found poems per book as a kind of recognition of the poetry that’s already out there. Sometimes it’s the poet’s job just to uncover it, to reify it or deify it by placing it between covers.

At the same time, despite its plainspoken language, your work never lacks the intricate rhythm and sound that distinguishes poetry from prose. Your third book Jelly Roll is made up almost entirely of love poems written in an updated, linguistically-playful blues form. The poems demonstrate so well the emotional power of rhythm in poetry and, with it, poetry’s direct link to music. Like a solid double album, the pain and emotion just keeps flowing, dragging the reader happily along for the ride. Are there specific musicians or musical styles that helped influence your growth as a poet? Are you a musician yourself?

I am not a musician—people often ask me this, and I’m not sure why—especially because if I was a musician, that’s so much cooler, why would I be a poet? Though there’s that thing that if someone writes well, a fiction writer or a musician say, people declare that he or she is a “poet.” This is frustrating, needless to say—you work all your life to craft actual poems and all the poetry belongs to Bob Dylan. Who I love, by the by, I just don’t feel he needs to be a poet for me to love him, or justify my love (to quote Madonna, qua Lenny Kravitz, which I never thought I’d do).

I love music—I write to it. I have a wide, wide musical taste and as of this writing 14,394 songs on my computer. That said, I haven’t yet put the Albert Ayler records I bought the other day onto the computer, so that will almost round me off to 15,000. (Ayler’s songs are long, though there are only a few songs each album. And yes I still buy CD’s, at least for jazz, mostly for the liner notes.)

I did just get back from a Tin House writers workshop, where we played a lot of poker, and during one session my good friend Colson Whitehead played a nice mix of underground stuff, very classy; the next night I tortured everybody with my “Guilty Pleasures” mix that is indeed some really bad arena rock like Billy Squier. The songs weren’t all good, but delightfully bad—and certainly memorable. And besides I won some money that night.

As I said, my taste ranges—you can’t have that many songs and not have it be that way—from hip hop to post punk, roots blues and even country. I grew up listening to soul, funk, and reggae so that’s one of the many places I live. I have my late father’s music collection, including these great white label reggae 45s where the title, if there at all, is typewritten. I guess you can tell from my writing that I grew up loving albums, and I still call them that. I think listening to King of Rock or Prince’s Dirty Mind is where I learned how to put a complete experience together, one that mirrors a really good book. It need not be themed or anything, just tight and just right.

Each book in your American trilogy Devil’s Music centers around a very specific theme: To Repel Ghosts is a monograph and elegy for the 80’s art star Jean-Michel Basquiat; Jelly Roll, a poetic encyclopedia of 20th-century American music; and Black Maria, a film noir in verse. In each case, which came first, the poems themselves or the concepts?

Also, you are incredibly prolific—6 books before the age of 40 on top of busy teaching and curatorial responsibilities. What is your work style? Do you tend to tackle one project at a time? Or are you always writing singular poems, working on multiple projects, returning to old work for revision?

I tend to work on many things at once, which used to bother me but now I see as just how I work and even an advantage in some ways. If something’s a dead end, which happens a lot, I can pick up some other poems or what have you. But definitely the poems come first and the books later; I don’t think of them as projects but poems.

They also evolve out of each other: I was writing the Basquiat book and it was mostly done, and had become this massive long poem, and no one wanted it. Or they liked it but balked. Because it was also a “public” book, one purposefully without an “I” in it at all, I started writing the more “personal” poems that became Jelly Roll. At first it was just a clutch of 15 or so heartbreaking poems, with all this weird syntax—though I always knew it would be subtitled “a blues,” I didn’t know if it was a series or a section of a book or what. Only when I set it free, and really started thinking about the form, did it become a book. It too grew a bit long before I cut a lot of the poems—some even good poems that didn’t fit, or were redundant, or didn’t move the whole in the way that even some of the smaller poems did. 

That’s the hard but important thing: if you seed enough you have to be willing to yank the weeds. And even a plant that’s too close to the house or whatever. Sometimes these stray things have later lives, but not always. One day some may see the light.

I’ll tell you another secret: Black Maria, the noir in verse, originally was just a few poems that were part of Jelly Roll. The detective voice just came, that first line of what became the book—“Snake oil sales / were slow”—and it seemed so blues-based that I first had it in with the Jelly Roll poems. But after a while the whole manuscript got unwieldy, not only the length but the mix of voices. I was afraid to split them, but my readers, Colson included and my good friend Richard Nash [former editor of Soft Skull Press] said why not? so I pulled them out. And then Black Maria, to quote Topsy, jes grew.

Considered together, your poems are refreshingly versatile—at one end is this strong emphasis on language and rhythm, as exemplified in Jelly Roll—at the other is a seamless comfort with historical and personal narrative, as in your fifth book For the Confederate Dead. Do you reserve specific styles for specific subjects?

I think that certain subjects demand certain treatments. It’s a real combo platter: including what you are interested in then, and what the poem and its subject are interested in. Your job is to find that out, and to fit or discomfit that in your poem.

I try very hard not to think about style when writing. Like Jean-Michel Basquiat said about painting, when I’m working I don’t try to think about art, I try to think about life. The job of the poem is to bridge the two, to take us out of the world and hopefully deposit us back unsettled but satisfied. I think some poets get stuck in the former, the taking out of the world, crafting style as hardship beyond the material. But also readers sometimes are only interested in the being “satisfied” rather that unsettled—ignoring what Berryman says in the Dream Songs that his poems are meant “to terrify and comfort.” A good poem does both.

I fear younger poets worry overmuch about style—style changes, tone is constant. “Make your tone your own,” I want to say. The style will come. So too the subject matter, which you can’t force or cast about for, but get obsessed by like a lover.

That’s what Jelly Roll is about I suppose, how the blues form—different from style; I hate the word “bluesy”—can contain these contradictions of loving and fearing, of wanting something so bad that can destroy you, or that you in the end destroy. I was interested in getting at the essence of the blues, not to replicate what others like Hughes have done so well. For me this meant revisiting the form—but also capturing how indeed I heard the blues, the country blues specifically, which is filled with frets and starts and hums and stutters. That was the tone I wanted.

Your poetry is filled with so much history and culture (art, music, sports, film), particularly about the African American experience. It’s the type of poetry—and I mean this as the greatest compliment—you could give teenagers to read and they’d actually be interested. Who is your ideal reader? Is it someone who shares your background? Or someone lacking the knowledge of the history and culture you often write about? In other words, do you see yourself as an educator, as well as a poet?

Well, I am a professor though I don’t often think of myself as “an educator”—I’m a poet who teaches, which is to say, what I teach isn’t just poetry but how to read in the broadest, deepest sense. It’s that reading—of culture, of history, not just of words—that I worry we’re losing as a populace. This is something I’m writing about now, actually.

But that’s in prose—which I think serves to answer that educational question you ask much better. Prose can do that. Poetry is better for evoking, for reminding, for agitating—for placing us back in moment or time when the full range of the human experience can be felt. And because the lyric is made up of moments, it can really go to the heart of the experience—can show us, again, something we either don’t know or remind us of what we’ve forgotten. Think of a poem like Rita Dove’s “Parsley” about the mass murder of Haitians by the Dominican dictator Trujillo, “for a simple, beautiful word.” This dramatizes the experience in a few words far more than prose can (at least till Edwidge Danticat or Junot Diaz get hold of it.) This is why I still believe in what a poem can do.

A poem can send you out of and back into the world, like I said. And sometimes forces us to rethink that world, and maybe to learn more about it. But poems aren’t public service announcements: I mean, when I started the Basquiat book, To Repel Ghosts, it wasn’t because I wanted more folks to know about Basquiat; it’s because I wanted to find out more myself. And about the self. And then I stuck with it because Basquiat was a way of learning about history, not just his own—he taught me about the boxer Jack Johnson, taught me to think more about the pop culture and great junk culture that we both seemed to have loved as kids, from comics to the dumb ads for “trick black soap” that came in them. It’s funny though, I’m not sure I could write that book now that he’s much better known. When I started, people often scorned him and scoffed at the idea of his brilliance—in that way, I feel something like an educator, but more like… a prophet. That’s a joke—it’s more like being an underpaid psychic!

We don’t often think of poets as researchers as much as conveyers of emotion or inner thought. Your fifth book, For the Confederate Dead, contains a wide range of biographical figures—Gwendolyn Brooks, Booker T. Washington traveling abroad, Lionel Hampton in Paris. Another series in the book, “Nicodemus,” relates, through dramatic monologue, a freed slave family’s migration from the rural south in search of a better life in Kansas. What sort of research do you do when tackling historical subjects?

Research for a poet is tricky—you need to know a lot, but not too much. You can have research overload. I tend to read a lot about a subject in any case, but you don’t want the facts to compete with your vision; you also don’t want your vision to cloud the facts or get them wrong but clarify them. My father-in-law is a historian, so I take the idea of history quite seriously—it is a field, with practices and verifiables that make up good research.

With Basquiat, for instance, at the time I was writing (the early to mid 1990s) there wasn’t much written on him yet, and far less that was good. This let me do my own thinking, own reactions—and besides, I ended up writing on his work, not his life strictly speaking, though the work is the life in many ways.

I suppose I think of the poems as riffs, so that can be freeing. But with Lionel Hampton, say, it isn’t that he’s a historical figure trapped in some book, he’s a real person and musician whom I had the good fortune to see play. That poem is not only true, but really happened, if you understand what I mean. I merely had to have the ability to get it down right, which no matter how you do it, research or experience, is the hard part. The poem, as Robert Lowell says, isn’t just the record of an experience, but an experience unto itself.

There is a refreshingly anti-narcissistic quality to your work. Take, for example, the section in For the Confederate Dead titled “African Elegy”, where you begin with two poems about 9/11 and then move into a long series about your close friend, the young writer Philippe Wamba, who died tragically in a car accident in Kenya while visiting family and researching his next book. These poems, like so much of your work, feel deeply personal yet about something much greater than the self. Do you feel this is an important trait in a poet, the ability to move outside of pure autobiography even when the subject matter is highly personal?

Absolutely. “African Elegy” I really wanted to be about my friend, but also to stand as a kind of monument—to have this formal quality, a bit spare at times, like each word was carved in stone and precious. Words are, after all, precious—especially when dealing with loss—but you could easily have an outpouring that felt also appropriate to the feeling of grief, but that’s not what I wanted here. The feeling seemed to require something of restraint.

In that case too there was the strangeness of his having died on the year anniversary of September 11th, so it wasn’t far away. But I wanted the poems to necessarily deal with public and private grief. All elegies do that I think. At least the good ones.

Your latest book, Dear Darkness, blurs the line between elegy and ode (with a good measure of blues thrown in) to address the sudden and painful loss of both your father and your grandmother just months apart while celebrating with fondness the legacy of your large extended family in Louisiana. What is it that draws you to forms like the blues, the elegy, and the ode?

Great question—odes seem to do something so powerful, which is address something outside of the self, and directly (or something unusual or tongue-in-cheek about the self, like Neruda’s “Ode to Laziness”). I love that about Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Ode to the Maggot” say, which I remember some of us in the Dark Room Collective reading in a litmag and passing around admiringly back in the day.

But while I had started on a few odes in the book, the bulk of them I wrote after my father’s death, which was sudden and troubling in its circumstances—afterward I was adrift and poem-less for some time. Which is understandable. And then, after a few months, all at once I wrote “Ode to Pork,” a poem about something taboo but familiar—like death, I suppose—and in praising the pig, while also being honest about it, I think I was able in some small way able to compose an elegy for my father. “I know you’re the blues/because loving you may kill me” the poem says.

That same session I want to say seven or more of the food odes just came, a flurry, an outpouring, a gift. (These now form the bulk of the third section of Dear Darkness.) As I wrote and wrote the odes seemed to get closer and closer to the real subject of the poems, which is elegy, though I treasure the ways even the ones that aren’t obviously about his death actually are, and the way the ones that are obviously about him—mostly those written later—and all the other family members I lost right after are also about something else, hot sauce or pepper vinegar. That’s what food I think can do, and I suppose odes—tell us something about the culture without beating us over the head.

The blues I’ve come to realize is that mix of elegy and ode, being both mournful and full of praise. So all three forms seemed to coexist well together to make up that book. But it wasn’t as conscious as I am making it out, it was just what I had to write.

It seems important to note that cooking and the blues are both in their ways folk forms—and just as with more strict metrical forms, where worrying about end-rhymes can help you forge a poem that exists on many levels, I see now how folk forms helped me to talk about something in a way just as powerful. Form, I often tell my students, can save you. Sometimes you just have to find your own.

Odes are traditionally tributes to lasting, tangible things—Keats’ Grecian urn, Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge, and, in a hat tip to Neruda’s wonderful odes to everyday things, those in your own book like “Ode to My Scars,” “Ode to My Feet,” “Ode to Pork.” But some of the foods praised in the book, particularly in the end section “Young & Sons’ Bar-B-Q Heaven,” are both themselves and stand-ins for people in our life. “Ode to Barbecue Sauce” is a beautifully sad reminder that the concoctions your father labored over can never be recreated (“Too busy/to write down & now/all our answers are maybes”), just as your grandmother’s lost recipe for Creole corn stew, like her, is mourned in “Elegy for Maque Choux.” Were these odes an easier entry for you into expressing grief? Into discussing your roots, in general?

You’ve done your research! Most people don’t know maque choux or cushaw, foods I think are part of my heritage and that are rare enough even for me to have them only rarely.

I’ve thought a lot about food lately, and its meaning—but at the time of the writing it just seemed right, the poems themselves a kind of comfort food. Actually, the “Elegy for Maque Choux” was a poem I didn’t want to write—no elegies, I take it, are planned—I literally wrote and read it as a eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral. She died only three months almost to the day after my father, to me clearly of a broken heart. That’s a poem I can’t read aloud again.

So the poems are, like food, things made and remembered but not always reexperienced, at least by me. I thought of the food odes as a way of returning south or conjuring those I’ve lost, and alternatively as poems about hunger: for more, for my loved ones’ return, for life as it once was.

While there is much sadness in Dear Darkness, there is also a great deal of humor, particularly in some of the odes and the blues sprinkled throughout. While not exactly lighthearted, the blues poems contain wryly self-deprecating lines that, in keeping with the musical form, could only come out of the mouth of a down-and-out sadsack: “My guard dog’s got laryngitis/& knows just one trick—/how to let folks in.” (“Hard Headed Blues”) or “I showed up for jury duty—/turns out the one on trial was me.” (“Black Cat Blues”). And some of the ode poems take the reader on a satirical road trip through America. Two of my favorites are the hilarious back-to-back poems “Ode to the Midwest” and “Ode to the South,” with classic lines like “I want to live/forever in a Christmas sweater/a teddy bear nursing off the front” in one and “It’s not the heat it’s/the hospitality” in the other. Is this mixing of humor and gravity something you felt vital to the book? Necessary in any full-length book? (Makes me think of a good piece of music—how it moves along emotionally, rises and falls, with moments of relief in the midst of melancholy.)

This latest book I suppose reveals the extent of my blues aesthetic—the title even does that dance of the tragic and the comic, or at least between despair and praise. The humor comes from trying to deal, from that idea of “laughing to keep from crying” as Langston Hughes reminds us is one definition of the blues. Or, like I quote in my Blues Poems anthology: “The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad”; also, “The blues ain’t nothing but a bad woman feeling good!” So I hope the pleasure goes in both directions, from despair to joy to back again.

You had a recent poem in The New Yorker entitled “Crowning”- a beautiful, tense, wild poem addressed to your child during the moment of birth. If dealing with the loss of your father (and your grandmother, as well) sent you on the ancestral journey of Dear Darkness, has becoming a father made you think more about the future? Has it changed your subject matter?

Fatherhood’s great—I’ve been a stepfather for a number of years, so I had some experience already. But seeing someone being born is its own amazing experience, though of course my wife did the hard work on that one. I think she’d say I was a good coach, and DJ, me and the music urging her on. And right after my son was born—9 pounds, 13 ounces mind you— the music of “Crowning” seemed to come in.

I should say though I had been already writing poems about the pregnancy, which was an equally amazing experience. (Some of these recently appeared in the Georgia Review.) Especially because pregnancy too has its own lingo, which I love. That’s why in part the poem’s called “Crowning” though I was also thinking of Basquiat’s crowning those he loves. It’s hard to resist writing about fatherhood, but I actually don’t as much now directly—that can get weird, like you’re not having experiences with your kid so much as poeticizing him or her. It’s best as a fact than as a poetic focus for me.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished editing an anthology of contemporary elegies called The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, which is out March 2010. It goes from Auden to the present, and I hope not only has us rethink the elegy in our times, but also provides some comfort to those in need. Which, I should think, means all of us. It’s the kind of book I wish I had when my daddy died.

I’m also working on a book of poems and trying to finish a critical book on music and poetry, and the African Americanness of American culture.

And lastly, as both a poet and a teacher, are there trends or changes you’re seeing in American poetry these days that seem particularly exciting? Any way in which poets are taking from the old and making something we haven’t seen before?  

I like to think the Poem—I mean the poem we’re all collectively writing—is changing for the better. I think there are some exciting young poets, and some poets my age who aren’t so young anymore, but who really haven’t gotten their full due. You’re starting to see them percolate—I’ve been happy to see Brenda Shaughnessey, Natasha Trethewey, Campbell McGrath, and the Dickman Bros., all the poets I love and look up to, getting more and more recognition, even the big prizes. These are writers who I think write based on what they see, who don’t impose a style on their material—for whom experimental and establishment are fluid terms, not some set thing. This fluidity I think has become an important development, and a recent one—the old camps, often holdovers from the 60s, whether confessional or language, Black Arts or beyond, seem over determined and even limiting from such a distance.

I think all poetry aspires to the condition of song. And for a while we had forgotten that—you saw a real emphasis when I was first writing, on story. But the lyric, of course, is poetry meant to accompany the lyre, has the intensity and logic of music. The challenge for some of us is how to reconcile lyric with epic, to combine the intensity of lyric with the scale of epic…It’s a small but significant distance between story and song, but I hope in some small way I’ve contributed to the change over.

Mostly I say, just write the poems you must write. And then write some more so you’re ready; it’s a marathon, not a foot-race, so you have to train. Then buy a book, go to a reading, expect the unexpected—and poetry will surprise you.