The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Kevin Young
Kevin Young is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose. A poet, editor, essayist, and curator from Topeka, Kansas, his numerous awards include the Paterson Poetry Prize for his poetry collection Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003), the 2015 Lenmore Marshall Prize for Book of Hours (2015), and the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for The Grey Album (2012). He is currently a professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University. In August 2016 he was named the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
In June 2016, Young visited City of Asylum for Cave Canem’s annual retreat and poetry reading. In this interview with Sampsonia Way, he discussed his literary and musical influences, his current projects, and his role in carrying on the storied African-American poetic tradition.
Can you begin by talking about your early influences as a poet?
I think I was really influenced by a lot of poets, especially Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, who were poets who had lived in Topeka, Kansas, where I had spent high school. But I was just as influenced by the music of growing up and the music my parents played. My father especially loved music and I still have all his vinyl records, which is great. So everything from Jimmy Cliff, to Willie Nelson, to things like Earth, Wind & Fire and the soul music of the seventies and sixties. But also a real range of music, which I really appreciated and I like in poetry as well. But I think I was also influenced by the sort of music of history and knowing in Kansas that there was this strong history of anti-slavery and race in music. Whether it was Coleman Hawkins coming from Topeka or Kansas City jazz, that rich tradition sort of came to infuse me.
If I thought even earlier I’d have to talk about my grandparents and my family in Louisiana, where both sides of my family are from. My grandfather was a musician before I was young. He stopped playing at a certain point but I still have his fiddle and it’s now on the cover of my selected poems. So for me, that was really a way of thinking about that music of my childhood: some of which I heard, some of which I wasn’t fortunate enough to hear, but all of which was there in either its sound or its silence and influenced me.
How did poetry become a good conduit for you to talk about music?
It’s a different kind of music, poetry. Sometimes in a poem you have to talk about what you love. African-American poetry has had a long history of engaging with the blues or the spirituals or the music around it: jazz. I really feel fortunate to be in that tradition and to carry it on.
I was writing my second book, which is about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and that very much had a kind of jazz feel, at least to me. Also hip hop a little bit because he was ten years older than me but had grown up with hip hop, much as I had. He even produced an early important hip hop record called “Beat Bop.” I was also writing these more personal poems which became Jelly Roll: A Blues and I saw the blues as a personal form, as a way of talking about big public things but in personal terms. And there were love poems; they had a sort of “off-beat”—in all senses—sound, and the blues were really perfect for that.
How have recognition and awards changed your own perception of your work?
Oh, I wouldn’t know. I still can go to Chuck E. Cheese without any problem. I mean I think recognition is nice but I usually am trying to write the next thing. I’ve been laboring for a few years now on a nonfiction book and that seems to be much more the issue — like “I got to get back to this book,” and “How am I finding time?” and worrying about other things. But it is always nice to get recognized and I’m really happy that, especially Cave Canem, I think, has changed the landscape and there’s been so many numbers of people who’ve been winning awards. And I feel fortunate to have been up for a National Book Award years ago and now I’ve just sort of toiled and worked and tried to hope that people read my work.
Could you say a little bit about the nonfiction book that you’re working on?
It’s about liars, and it’s really big because there are a lot of liars. I’m trying really hard not to write about the presidential election, because it’s filled with such concerns. I’m interested in hoax memoirs. I’m interested in imposters.
It follows on my first nonfiction book, called The Grey Album, which is very much about the good side of lying — lying as a kind of tradition and a form of improvisation that I call storying. So, I trace this storying from slavery to the present, from the spirituals to hip hop, and try to understand how it works.
Who is one historical figure you want to write about that you haven’t yet?
Well, I’ve always wanted to write about the fact that Linda Brown of Brown v. Board —the decision from the Supreme Court that helped desegregate, as much as we have, the United States—played piano at my church. That her father, who was sort of one of the faces of the lawsuit—though there were obviously a number of plaintiffs—was the reverend at this church. It was before my time, but his picture was still there in the vestibule and was a reminder of the connection of not only this community but sort of the nation and justice. So, I was happy that I finally recently wrote a prose piece that did talk about that and talk about moving to Topeka when I was ten and sort of what that was like. But I’m hoping to get that into a poem as well.
What poets do you think everyone should be reading right now?
I mean I hope people are reading any poets and coming to poetry. I love the work of Tracy K. Smith, who I’ve known a long time, and who has written great prose as well as poetry.
I’m going to name you three women poets. Elizabeth Alexander, who has a terrific book, The Light of the World, a memoir about losing her husband but also about life and love. She’s a terrific poet who, as you know, read at Obama’s first inauguration.
You know, I think there’s many more young poets — which is one of the great things about Cave Canem is getting to know them and see what they’re up to — and I hope people also take a look at those poets.
Can I name one more? Can I cheat? The other poet I would point to is a poet who’s no longer with us, named Christopher Gilbert. He’s a terrific poet who died too young and he only published one book. It was sort of a cult classic and it’s been reissued with his never-published second book. The new book is called Turning into Dwelling and it has an introduction by Pittsburgh’s own Terrance Hayes. The second manuscript was really great and it’s just a shame it never saw the light of day. But I’m glad it is now and people should run out and get that.