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From West Hell to East Jesus with Kevin Young

In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook on the WBUR program On Point, Kevin Young was called, at the beginning of the show, an "up and coming" poet. When former poet laureate Billy Collins called in to discuss and compliment Young's work, he corrected the phrase. "I didn't know you were still up and coming," he said. "I thought you'd arrived."

Kevin Young That label probably sticks in part because of Young's age — he's 36 — and his prolificacy: he's written five substantial poetry collections and edited several anthologies. And one of his most impressive characteristics may be his range. His second book was a study of the work and life of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; his third, Jelly Roll, is subtitled "A Blues," and is a hybrid of that musical form and lyric poetry; and Black Maria is a noir detective novel in verse that has been translated into a stage play.

But anyone reading For the Confederate Dead would have to agree with Collins. An elegant, deeply felt, masterful collection of elegies both public and personal — the longest, and perhaps most brilliant and sad, to Young's friend and fellow writer Philippe Wamba, who was killed in a car accident at age 31 — the book also includes a series of ballads about an imaginary personification of Jim Crow, sketches of mythical towns, and poems based on records of Booker T. Washington's travel abroad.

The New York Times Book Review has called Young's work "highly entertaining, often dazzling, and, as book reviewers like to say — but rarely about contemporary poetry — compulsively readable." And it's true — Young's poetry is addictive and musical, hard to put down. Once you do, you'll find it runs through your head like a song. I should also note that Kevin Young was my first poetry teacher, many years ago at the University of Georgia in Athens; it was a great pleasure to see and speak with him again.

Jill Owens: Let's start with a couple of lines from "Redemption Song" in the "African Elegy" section: "Grief might be easy/ if there wasn't still/ such beauty" which I think sums up one of the major moods or themes of the book — we cannot stop living, stop paying attention to beauty, even in the face of tragedy or horror. Those are very personal lines, written about your friend's death, but they could apply to the historical situations you write about as well.

Kevin Young: Yes, I think so. The book takes on a different life when you're out reading, and definitely those lines resonate with me throughout the collection, and throughout other certain points of view. So I think they are also connected to some of the historical poems, and even poems that aren't historical but that have a sort of underpinning of grief. Like the poem, which I think is a joyous poem, "April in Paris," which is about seeing Lionel Hampton with my dad. Both Hampton and my father passed since then, so it's sort of strange to read it, but it's about late beauty, which has become an inadvertent elegy, I guess. Unfortunately, I've had cause to use that phrase a lot lately.

Jill: It's interesting that you describe that poem as joyous, because For the Confederate Dead is a book that includes a lot of intentional elegies, but during the first half of the book, with the possible exception of "Guernica," the tone isn't explicitly mournful. There's a wry, empathetic undercurrent that can almost feel gentle.

Young: Well, that's good! [Laughs] Yes. For instance, the Jim Crow poems — when I was writing them, I didn't want them to be so mean-spirited, but I also didn't want them to be sweet, you know, or innocent. You can't write a Jim Crow poem that's sweet and innocent. But at the same time I feel like now there's a kind of playfulness — you're right, I wouldn't call it joyous, but maybe wry and understanding.

Jill: He's not a sympathetic figure, certainly, but there are flashes of that playfulness there.

Young: Some things the character loves are things we might all love, like a favorite cousin...

Jill: And he sends money home to his mother.

Young: Even though they don't really talk. [Laughs]

Jill: I like the detail of the one coal tooth: "It was all he could/ afford at first,/ & besides, he figured/ with his jaw clenched// tight, playing/ tough, it'd turn/ to a diamond/ soon enough."

Young: Yes. I've got to read that poem; maybe I'll read it tonight. I haven't read it, ever, I don't think. [Editor's Note: He did read it, wonderfully, to much appreciation.]

Jill: The title of the book, and of a poem within the book, is obviously to some degree connected to Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead." How do you see the relationship between that poem and your work?

Young: I try not to be presumptuous and think that mine has some great relationship to Lowell's poem, because I think it's a good and important poem. I do think that they're both trying to get at some kind of mix of history and the personal and also — I don't want to say complicity, but a way in which, in Lowell's poem especially, he is trying to talk about, Where do I fit into this history? He feels drawn to the faces on the television that are challenging and overturning society at the time, but he's also trying to understand the strange transformations that happen around us, like "The old South Boston Aquarium stands in a Sahara of snow now," I think it goes. How his own past plays out within this context.

For me, at the beginning of my poem, there's a sense of where the speaker, the "I" comes from, but then also I think it becomes about the kinds of things that affect us that we don't know about. The invisible lines in the poem — whether they're state lines, or the Mason-Dixon line — these lines are really just made up, but have such a powerful impact.

Quite specifically, there's a description of the mural, which you may have seen in Athens, Georgia, so it's strange to sort of try and write about these things, and also just monuments in general, which are big and everywhere; they're very conspicuous, but as a result, you don't even notice them. I think history can sometimes be like that; it's so big and overwhelming, but it's always underfoot, and we don't totally understand it.

I think one thing image-wise that they share is one of excavation, a sense of history as excavation.

Jill: That image reminds me, too, of Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck.

I loved the section "Americana," which I think just nails our country, and particularly the South, in these descriptions of half-mythical, half-archetypal towns. So some of these town names came from the folklore that Zora Neale Hurston collected?

Young: Yes, she talks about West Hell, and Guinea Gall.

Jill: East Jesus?

Young: No, East Jesus was just a term I loved, as a way people talk: "Oh, I parked out in East Jesus" — way out in the middle of nowhere.

Jill: In what sense did she write about them?

Young: In her book, Mules and Men, she talks about various mythic towns. I don't think she wrote about them in-depth, but more just as places. She talks about West Hell there in the distance, where it's located. But Banesborough, for example, I just made up, and Bedlam is a similar idea, an idea of a place — what would that be like now? In a way the book is interested in that mix of myth and history. I think I'm always interested in that, but it was fun to do it specifically, like with the Jim Crow poems, or trying to write about something like Guernica and make it contemporary.

Jill: I had read somewhere that you were interested in capturing the rhythms of speech in some of your work; it comes out strongly in Most Way Home, but in other places, too. Do you think that's connected to the oral narrative, storytelling traditions of the South?

Young: Yes and no. I didn't technically grow up in the South, but both my parents were from there. It's hard to describe one's own alchemy that makes one into a writer, but I definitely think American language is so interesting, and specifically Southern language and black Southern language; it's hard to separate Southern language from black language.

I also think poetry in general is often about the vernacular. I don't think there's just one, though; there are so many vernaculars, and different books have been interested in different kinds of talk. In Black Maria, I was definitely interested in a kind of artificial patter, the way people talk in detective movies. It's funny because that book's been produced as a play, and I just two nights ago saw the final night performance; it was closing the next day. It's so wild to see people talk in a poem onstage in your patter, to see one's words fly around stage.

Jill: That's got to be rare. I was trying to think of other books of poetry that have been performed as plays, and I wasn't coming up with much.

Young: It's fun, certainly. So I hope it comes to a theater near you. [Laughs] It's also fascinating — I think that's what poetry is. To me, poetry is spoken — not exclusively, but there's a mix of languages in it. That's what I liked about For the Confederate Dead; it has many different tones to it.

Jill: I was rereading Most Way Home on the bus the other night, and as I got off I realized that the beat, the rhythm of your poems had absolutely gotten stuck in my head, and I was walking to that beat. Your poems have such distinctive rhythms; do you scan them at all?

Young: Not traditionally. I'm not good at the traditional scanning thing, but I do — insist is not the right word, but I do concern myself with rhythms and the rhythmic way poems work. I think that traditional scanning for me doesn't really capture the language I'm interested in capturing, which isn't to say someone else couldn't do it or one can't, in meter, but there are so many different kinds of stress. I'm more attracted to someone like Hopkins, who I was rereading recently, and his ideas of rhythm. That said, I think I'm very concerned with beats, and movement, and a mix of fluidity and being able to stop on a dime. Talk and music, too — what I'm trying to do makes use of both of those.

Jill: Your work has often made me think of Komunyakaa's, in part because you introduced me to his work, but also he often writes about music, as well, and you have other similar themes. Some of the characters in Black Maria made me think of his Thorn Merchant poems, for example. Do you count him as an influence?

Young: Sure, yes. I think he's an influence on much of contemporary poetry. I try to have a lot of influences, which is to say not to have one specific influence too strongly; that can end up badly. I'd say the nefariousness of a character like the Thorn Merchant did appeal to me in some way, but there are lots of interesting weird detectives and surreal characters in poetry. Though you don't see many characters in poetry, these days. But I was just as much influenced by someone like Henry from Berryman huffy Henry's travails. For instance, in Black Maria what interested me were all the little subcharacters, which were really fun to play with. Not just the detective and the femme fatale, but also the snitch, and the killer. And the killer then becomes Jim Crow, in this new book.

Jill: Who would you say some of your other influences are?

Young: Langston Hughes, Berryman, Neruda, Lorca — I always forget to mention them, but I love their work.

Jill: Well, now you've put Lorca in the book, so he's commemorated. Komunyakaa also said, many years ago, that he thinks of his lines as complete units, that it's difficult for him to change a word without changing the entire line. Do you see your lines that way, or are they somewhat more flexible?

Young: I do think the line is really the unit, and in the best poems, the line stands alone, and is a generator of the whole. I like to think of it as the atomic level of a poem. So I can see how one has that impulse. I think for me, it's a musical phrase, too. You're trying to get at this sense of the line as a unit, but also of music. I've been told I have short lines, but I never think of them that way. In this new book I don't know if that's as true, but I certainly think the "African Elegy" section contains a very different kind of line than other poems. I think maybe in terms of relation, it's most related to me to "The Ballad of Jim Crow," because both were trying to take these traditional forms like an elegy and be almost formal, in a fractured way.

Jill: The poem titles in "African Elegy" are all reggae song titles, aren't they?

Young: They take Bob Marley songs as their title or subtitle. Some are not as known — I didn't want them to be like the greatest hits, or something. But after Phillipe, my friend, died, as it relates in some of the poems, we sat around and sang Bob Marley songs. It was also one of the few kinds of music I could listen to, so I listened to a lot of it, and it made its way into the poems. Also, the scope of reggae, at its best, is doing what I was trying to do in the poem, which is address the spiritual and the sensual and the everydayness of both.

Jill: Particularly in Black Maria, but in your other work, too, you often invert or otherwise transform a familiar phrase into something new and startling in its element of surprise and precision. (I'm thinking of lines like "Weed em and reap" or "Mousey majorette/ at the used bookstore// who unbuttons her hair/& lets down her blouse.") I'm interested in the fact that it always seems to work, in context; it's surprising and often funny, but never too self-consciously clever; it works in context with the rest of the poem.

Young: Probably it's partially my sense of humor, but partially it's the tradition I find myself in. Jazz, for example, does that a lot, takes a phrase and riffs off it musically. I also think there's something honestly haunting in a cliché, that, when it's broken, can make us think about it more deeply. I have a poem in my second book called "Negative," which reverses all these things that we don't even think about. So much of our language is already received, you know? And there are so many un-thought-about phrases, some of which are problematic. So it's a combination of both playfulness and also a serious way of trying to get us to think about what we think, and what we say.

Jill: You've called To Repel Ghosts, Jelly Roll, and Black Maria a kind of trilogy. Do you see For the Confederate Dead as the beginning of a new cycle or a more singular book?

Young: Now you're going to get me in trouble. [Laughs] I think my next book will be elegies — I think it's too early to say how they're connected. And you're always wrong about your books. I thought of this book, For the Confederate Dead, as a public book, but it has this deeply private poem in it, and it also tries to consider public grief and private grief, and where they meet. Any time you're writing a elegy, you're doing that. The next book has even more elegies and private poems, in a way, but it also has some more playfulness — serious blues playfulness. It's hard for me to say, but I definitely feel that it's a different direction that may carry through — but who knows?

Jill: Which brings me to the fact that you're very prolific. You don't have a secret, I'm guessing, to writing that much.

Young: [Laughs] That's what they say. No, I don't have a secret. I don't drink coffee, so maybe that's the secret. (I shouldn't say that in Portland, of course.) To be honest, a lot of it's just not willed, you know? You're just trying to write, to get down what you have to get down. And some of the artists I admire worked that way. My second book was about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was just painting, painting, painting, so in a way, it seemed like, Why not get some writing done? With that book especially, I didn't want to write a slim volume about this larger-than-life artist. And really, the book is not just about him; it's about American culture, and once you start down that road, there's a lot to be said about black genius, and tragic blackness. I guess I've tried to give myself enough room to explore different sides of the same issue.

Jill: You're on tour for this book, and of course you have been for other books of poetry. Who is the audience? Who comes to poetry readings these days, and has it changed in the time you've been writing?

Young: Whoever shows up. [Laughs] I think the audience has broadened for poetry, if anything. I think people used to be surprised they liked poetry, and now they might not be as surprised. I still think there are preconceptions of what poetry is, and it's often not what I think poetry is. When I was younger, poetry was taught almost as though it was a bitter pill you had to swallow, and now I think it's seen as a lot of different things: expression, and humor, and there are a range of approaches to teaching it, at least.

Jill: What are you reading and what are you listening to, lately?

Young: I'm listening to TV on the Radio, and I like the new Shins record. I kind of like the Silversun Pickups. And, of course, whatever my teenage stepdaughter's listening to.

As far as reading, I just got the new Vallejo, the big collected. I had pulled him off my shelf — I had a few books of his already, and I started rereading those, and then I saw that this big collected edition had come out, so I got that instead. I'm really liking it a lot.

Jill: Have you ever thought about writing fiction?

Young: Yes. Some of my good friends are fiction writers, and I think it takes — I don't think it takes a different brain, but it takes a different mindset, and I also think it takes a different quality of time. You really have to return to it, day in and day out, in a way that, even with a long poem, I think it's easier to get back into a momentum if you're away from it. So I find it hard the way my life is now to sit down and write fiction. But I still write essays, usually one or two long essays a year. Hopefully sometime soon I'll gather those up.

Kevin Young appeared in Portland for the Poetry Downtown series, a program of Literary Arts, on February 20, 2007.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Black Maria: Poems New Trade Paper $15.25
  2. Most Way Home Used Trade Paper $9.00
  3. Mules and Men Used Trade Paper $4.95

  4. Jelly Roll: A Blues Used Trade Paper $10.00
  5. To Repel Ghosts Used Trade Paper $11.00

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