The Poet at Work: A Profile of Kevin Young

by
Clint Smith
10.11.17

Young’s life prior to his literary ascent was one of constant movement, expanding his conception of home beyond the limits of geographical location. His mother and father—both of whom grew up in segregated, rural Louisiana and were the first in their families to attend and graduate from college—were studying to become a chemist and an eye surgeon, respectively. As a result, they moved the family around every few years as the two of them pursued their careers. Before Young turned ten years old, he had lived in six different cities. But he always thought of Louisiana, where much of his family remained and where he frequently visited, as home. 

He attended high school in Topeka, Kansas, a place from which few might expect great writers to emerge, though Young points out that among both his heroes (Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes) and his contemporaries (Ed Skoog, Gary Jackson, Ben Lerner), Topeka has produced some of the top literary talent in American poetics. 

Young attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he joined the Dark Room Collective, and in the years that followed, his career, like many of his collective-mates, took off. He was awarded a Stegner fellowship from Stanford before going on to receive his MFA from Brown. He had brief tenures at the University of Georgia and Indiana University before moving to Emory University, where he remained for eleven years and served as curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume collection of both contemporary and centuries-old work. He also served as curator of the library’s Literary Collections, which contains the archival work of canonical writers such as Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, Jack Kerouac, and Flannery O’Connor, among others. 

During this period, Young’s writing was prolific, and his work helped to shape the twenty-first-century landscape of American poetry. He won or was a finalist for some of the genre’s most prestigious awards and served as steward not only to the work of the past—through his work in the archives—but also to the work of the present, editing several anthologies, including The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink (Bloomsbury, 2012), The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Jazz Poems (Everyman’s Library, 2006). Part of what served as a catalyst for Young’s prolific output was the unexpected death of his father in 2004. “I think I realized life is short,” he says. And part of Young’s mourning took place in his work. His books Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008) and Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014) eulogize his father in a series of poems that move between gentle nostalgia and violent grief. 

Last fall Young left the temperate seasons of Atlanta for the dynamism of Harlem to become the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Upon his arrival, he wasted little time ensuring that he would continue to build on the work of his predecessor, Khalil Gibran Muhammad (who left his post after five years to become a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School). Within the first few months of Young’s tenure, the Schomburg Center was named a National Historic Landmark by the Obama administration, and the center finalized plans to acquire James Baldwin’s papers, something that was of particular import to Young both because Baldwin is a son of Harlem and because the nature of our social and political moment renewed public interest in his work. 

“It was very important to me that the papers not just be announced, but be open,” he says. “And so, the day after we announced them, they were open to research service. And the researchers have come in droves to see them.”

The connection to Baldwin is also personal for Young, who says he could not have written his debut nonfiction project, The Grey Album, without the virtuosic guidance of Baldwin’s prose. The Grey Album was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the PEN/Open Book Award, but, more important, it expanded Young’s reputation from that of an acclaimed poet to a distinguished and erudite cultural critic. “Even [for] this new book, in which I think a lot about America and American history and race…his spirit provided an essential guide,” he says about Baldwin. 

Young’s new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, and his new job fit together in ways that have aligned with unsettling relevance. The book traces the history of the hoax and deceit in the American cultural and political life—moving from P. T. Barnum (who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus) in the late nineteenth century to Greg Mortenson’s infamously fabricated memoir Three Cups of Tea (Penguin, 2007) to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech. Young began research for the book long before the assent of Trump into mainstream national politics and certainly long before anyone could anticipate the extent that “fake news” would become common parlance in contemporary political discourse.

But as Young outlines in Bunk, there is a long and often insidious precedent for a society in which facts become secondary. And both through his book and in his role as director of the Schomburg, he hopes to more forcefully push back against the insurgent phenomenon. “Libraries are more important than ever now, because we provide free and accurate information for people across learning levels,” he says. “That’s what we do.”

The greatest hoax of them all, Young believes, is race. No other type of insidiously conjured fraudulence has endured as long and has had effects as deleterious. “I trace the hoax [of race], as an idea and a concept, and one that emerges in the eighteenth century—it isn’t a word until then,” he says. “I came to understand that that’s not an accident. In many ways, some of the aspects of the hoax and its systematic and stereotypical qualities allowed race to become more fixed around the nineteenth century. We tend to think there’s progress and things get better, but there’s a real hardening along originally unclear racial lines—or blurry ones, or ones not fully understood as biological and unredeemable in the case of black people, brown people, Native American people—all of these qualities became more and more fixed for very different reasons but similar ends, which is to justify slavery or displacement or aspects of supremacy.”

Ideas like those in Bunk serve as the bedrock of discourse at the Schomburg, where many black writers, artists, and public intellectuals come to share their work. Part of Young’s commitment as director is to flatten the hierarchies of intellectual engagement. It’s not that he wants to reduce such writers’ standing as thought-leaders in the community—indeed, many of them are his friends and colleagues—but he wants to continue opening up the space for more people to enter it. In reflecting on an event that took place right after he became director, Young says, “The discourse at that event, which was one of my first events as director, was so impressive. Just community folk asking really smart, interesting questions. The way I think of it is it’s not just scholars. Every student is a scholar; every scholar is a student. We have a lot of folks who are doing deep reading who are really engaged.”

Inevitably, the nature of Young’s new job means that he doesn’t have the same chunks of time to write that he once did as a young professor, but he says it’s well worth it. “I get to go to a place, every day, where Langston Hughes is buried and his spirit is felt. That’s amazing.” And it isn’t as if Young feels like he has less writing time; it’s just that now he has to be more purposeful in creating it. “I feel like people have this notion of writing that it’s inspiration-based and romantic. Both little-R and big-R romantic. I don’t think that’s how it works. I think we can put it many ways—perspiration not inspiration—but I think it’s really just being there in your space. It’s physical in order to prompt a mental space, but it isn’t inspiration, exactly. It’s being there and writing.”

I share with him my own struggles of clearly demarcating how much of my time I spend reading and how much of my time I spend writing. That when I do more of one, I never feel like I am doing enough of the other. I tell him how, for different writing projects, like the piece I am writing on him, I attempt to set specific word goals each day but become overwhelmed when I don’t meet them. He balks. “No, God no. You have to just think of it [all] as work. I think that’s the thing that changed for me a long time ago,” he says in the way people do when they’re reintroduced to a habit they attempted to leave behind. “It’s working. That’s why they call it your work.”

Going forward, Young will have to be even more purposeful about making time for his personal reading and writing—this month he begins his tenure as the poetry editor of the New Yorker, the first black person to hold the position. David Remnick, editor in chief of the magazine, gushed over Young’s work as both writer and editor when I called him. The two had met briefly at a dinner party at Elizabeth Alexander’s home years ago, and Remnick continued following, and then publishing, Young’s poetry and essays. “I love his work and have read him for a long time,” he says.

While online poetry journals and literary magazines have provided more and more opportunities for poets to be published, the New Yorker, with its circulation of 1.2 million, remains the largest commercial platform for poets to have their work engage the larger world. “The opportunity to get read at that scale is not a common thing for poets,” says Remnick, who wanted someone in that position who not only understands the role that the New Yorker has played in putting poems in front of those who may not regularly read them, but who would also use the platform to publish a range of different voices. “I think Kevin will,” he adds.

When I ask Young about it, he becomes more coy than he’s been in the previous moments of our conversation. His responses become briefer, as if the opportunity were a fragile vase that the wrong words might break into pieces. “I remember reading the New Yorker book of poems when I was a kid. I’m looking forward to participating in that tradition too,” he says shyly. I try to hype him up. “This is a big deal!” I tell him, attempting to pull something from him that it becomes increasingly clear he is not willing to give. I try again: “When these things happen to you, are you able to step back and say, ‘Man, I am the director of the preeminent center on black culture in the country. I’m going to be poetry editor of one of the most historically renowned literary magazines—”

He leans back in the wooden chair and laughs. “Every night, I say those exact words.”

He then becomes more reflective. “I think you’re busy doing the work of it, but that’s why you have friends, so you can sit back and celebrate or reflect. Also, it’s an actual day-in and day-out thing. You’re trying to get that work done.”

Throughout his career his friends have indeed lifted him up in celebration, and still, they recognize that despite the success he remains the person so many of them knew as an eager undergraduate trying to emerge in the landscape of black literature. “Kevin feels like his same self to me over all these years,” Elizabeth Alexander says. “He has always been prolific, hilarious, omnivorous, meticulous, dauntless, and sure-footed, a lover of black culture in its everythingness.” 

 

Clint Smith is a writer, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, and the author of Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and a 2017 recipient of the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. His writing has been published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the New Republic, among other publications. He was born and raised in New Orleans.

 

Photos: Tony Gale