The Poet at Work: A Profile of Kevin Young

Clint Smith
From the November/December 2017 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is located at the intersection of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. It is eight blocks from Langston Hughes’s famous brownstone, seven blocks from where James Baldwin once attended high school, and a three-minute walk from Zora Neale Hurston’s former artist-collective residence. It sits directly across from the Harlem Hospital Center and is surrounded by an array of delis, bodegas, and brownstones—quintessential emblems of Harlem that drape the neighborhood’s landscape. 

After stepping off the subway, I walk fifteen feet to the right and purchase a chicken-and-rice meal from the shawarma cart that is parked near the sidewalk in front of the center each day. I sit on one of the benches in front of the building as cars glide down Malcolm X Boulevard, their music thumping with enough bass to shake the street. 

Mid-chew I look up and see Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight, surveying a table of used books. The moment is almost too prototypically Harlem to be true. Here is one of the preeminent black artists of our time—and one of the most critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood—quietly perusing used books on Malcolm X Boulevard as passersby bustle along without saying a word to him, as if he were simply a fixture of the Harlem ecosystem. The Schomburg Center is, in many ways, the central home to the culture that Jenkins embodies, and its new director, the poet Kevin Young, sits at the nexus of participant and purveyor. 

When I step inside the Schomburg, I am escorted to meet Young in a small conference room with a dozen chairs, two square tables pushed against each other, and three rectangular windows that overlook a small courtyard. Young walks into the room with a stack of papers and several books with innumerable dog-eared pages. He moves with a sense of self-assuredness that one would expect from someone with his résumé, but counterbalances it with a disarming sense of humor.

Today he is wearing a light-blue oxford shirt with its sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows. The screen of his watch flickers as he moves his hand during the conversation. The ID at the end of his black lanyard is tucked into his left shirt pocket as if he didn’t want you to know that he is the director of the leading research center for black culture in the country. His thick, black beard is flecked with subtle streaks of gray, and he often runs his fingers through it while his other hand rests on the opposite arm. His hair is closely cropped on the sides, but the top of his head abounds with tightly coiled black curls that sprout up along his scalp. His glasses are round and thick and black and slide from the bridge of his nose when he laughs, which he does often, in a way that invites you into the conversation. I’m here to talk to him not only about his position at the Schomburg Center but also about his new role as poetry editor of the New Yorker as well as his new book of nonfiction, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, published this month by Graywolf Press. 

I first met Young two summers ago at the Cave Canem retreat—an annual weeklong workshop for black poets that serves as a refuge from the predominantly white literary spaces we spend most of our time in. Many of the fellows came from MFA programs and workshops where, as Junot Díaz put it in his 2014 treatise in the New Yorker, “the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight, and male.” 

I was not in an MFA program myself but had taken a poetry workshop as a small weekly reprieve from the datasets and statistical analyses of my own graduate studies in the sociology of education, only to have a similarly disillusioning experience as the only black person in a room full of mostly white writers. I talked to Young, for example, about how I had written a series of poems in the voice of my barber and didn’t bring any of those poems into the class because I didn’t want to endure the stress of navigating a scenario where my workshop mates had to decide how to engage a poem laden with the N-word. He laughed in the way some people do to signal that they understand—that they really understand—and nodded. “Cave Canem exists because of that need,” he said. 

At that first meeting, the gap between us couldn’t have felt wider. I was a twenty-something-year-old poet and graduate student who had not yet finished a draft of my first manuscript. I was simply thrilled to have even been accepted to the retreat. Young was a Guggenheim fellow and the author of ten poetry collections, including Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf, 2003), a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and a book of nonfiction, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of the PEN/Open Book Award. He was a professor of creative writing and curator of one of the most impressive literary archives in the country at Emory University. All that by the age of forty-six. And yet he was so different from what we imagine our preeminent literary figures to be. There was no bravado or pretense. There was no condescension or sense of snobbery. My first memory of Young is seeing him playing pool with poet Major Jackson in the lobby of the dormitories where we were all staying. He snacked on a bag of chips between shots, and when I walked in he looked up and asked, “You know how to play?”

That week, as Young led our workshop, it was clear that the collective project we were all embarking on was about far more than what we were putting onto the page. It served as reaffirmation that our work, our experiences, and the cultural idiosyncrasies of our voices were not something that should be compromised in order to be part of the literary community, but something that meaningfully contributed to its terrain. For many, it is often the only reminder they receive. “I think [Cave Canem] often serves as a healing place for folks,” Young says. “It helps focus the tradition that has always been there.” 

More than simply being a space of healing, Cave Canem, Young points out, has fundamentally transformed the landscape of black literature since it was founded two decades ago. He is adamant about this point. 

In the past decade alone, for example, there have been four black winners of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry—Tyehimba Jess (2017), Gregory Pardlo (2015), Tracy K. Smith (2012), and Natasha Trethewey (2007)—as compared with three winners in the previous eighty-five years of the prize combined. Smith and Trethewey would go on to serve as poets laureate of the United States. Both of their first books were published after winning the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Young was the judge who selected Smith’s debut, The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press, 2003). 

“It’s just like this unprecedented thing,” he says, leaning back in his chair, soaking in the realization as if having it for the first time. “Obviously not all of that is because of Cave, but Cave is part of what I would call the Renaissance of Black Letters, and it’s one that I think the Schomburg can be, and should be, at the center of.”

For young writers, part of Young’s approachability stems from his recognition that not so long ago he was also a young writer attempting to find a literary community. The community he found would be both personally and artistically transformative. 

In 1987, Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis, who would soon become friends and peers of Young’s, hopped in a car and drove from Boston to Harlem to attend James Baldwin’s funeral. The prophetic luminary had died in France, but his body had been brought back to the neighborhood of his birth. His community wanted to give him a homegoing celebration imbued with Harlem’s unique character and give so many of those who loved him most an opportunity to say goodbye for themselves. At the funeral the young writers encountered figures like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka, all of whom spoke at Baldwin’s service and all of whom represented the pinnacle of African American letters. Baldwin’s death was made especially difficult for the young writers who trekked from Boston not only because they were mourning the death of a distinguished black literary figure, but also because they never had the opportunity to meet him while he was alive. As Young puts it, they “swore to themselves that they would not let another black writer die without having met that person and connected.” As a way to remedy that problem, Strange and Ellis, joined by their friend Janice Lowe, started a reading series in which they paired young emerging black writers alongside their more established counterparts. The group became known as the Dark Room Collective and held the reading series in an old Victorian at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where several of the young artists lived. 

Writers like Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, and Yusef Komunyakaa made their way through the Cambridge residence—metal chairs unfolded across wooden floors and couches slid against the walls to make room for the guests who had come to see these literary forebears alongside their progeny. 

Young, then an undergraduate at Harvard studying under the likes of Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido, remembers attending some events there, before he became an official member of the collective himself, and being stunned at the sight of two hundred fifty black people packed into a single room—sitting on floors, peeking around corners, holding their breath—listening to poetry. “I think it spurred a community,” he says, pausing, reflecting on the word. “It spurred the writing community in Boston, which was really interesting then but probably was whiter than it knew, to really think about itself in new ways. It was important in that way.”

He must see it in my face as he describes how the series unfolded because he smiles knowingly as I share how shocked I am that a group of relatively unknown aspiring writers could get some of the most important artists of the day to show up and read at their house—for free. Young says that they simply wrote to them and said, “Hey, we have this thing and it’s special and we get this many people and we can get you great dinner.” “And folks came out,” he adds. “It was both a different time and also it’s an eternal thing that if you provide the space and build it,” they will come. 

After Young joined the group, the collective began traveling to venues beyond the Inman Street house to read their work. They read in other places throughout Boston and then across the country. “We’d read in a bar in Miami or we’d all get in a car, and me and Major [Jackson] had the cars and we’d drive,” he says with a laugh. “We’d drive to D.C. and sleep on people’s floors. Even then I knew it was a particular moment in time.” 

There were many poets who weren’t formally in the collective but whose presence and friendships shaped the distinctive literary sensibilities of the group. Among them was Elizabeth Alexander, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a current professor at Columbia University, and someone to whom Young felt particularly close. Alexander recounts with nostalgic tenderness the moment she met Young and another young undergraduate writer at Harvard, both of whom were in the nascent stages of their literary careers. 

“I read on Harvard’s campus through the Grolier Bookstore when my first book of poems came out in 1990. There were these two adorable, alive young men listening very, very carefully and they came up to introduce themselves afterward—Kevin Young and Colson Whitehead,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “Kevin sent me copies of the literary journal he edited and told me about younger writers who were his friends and comrades. We talked about writers and poems we admired and loved.  Later on, we sent each other manuscripts—we’ve been good book editors to each other. Now we text to make each other laugh.”

There is a photograph of the Dark Room Collective taken in 1996 that serves as an illuminating artifact of the time. Seven of the members—Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Nehassaiu deGannes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, and Adisa Vera Beatty—are sitting on a New England beach, some looking off in different directions, some looking directly at the camera. The photo is in black and white, and the young writers each appear to be wearing a mix of black, white, and beige clothing so their bodies blend into the sand. Young sits between Jackson and Trethewey—looking directly at the camera—his full beard then a tightly groomed goatee, the tight coils of hair on his head and a flock of thin dreadlocks falling down just past his shoulders. 

The very existence of the photo and others like it—color coordinated, posed, pensive—captures the group’s youthful ambition. Even before they achieved such high standing in American letters, they understood themselves as something worthy of being documented, archived. 

The collective would dissolve in the late nineties as its members transitioned to graduate school, new jobs, and opportunities to pursue their work full-time.