Kevin Young: 2015 National Book Festival

from the Library of Congress in Washington DC good morning everybody I’m Josephine Reid I work at the National Endowment for the Arts and I’m here to introduce Kevin Young and let me begin by giving you the skinny on Kevin Young he’s an award-winning poet who’s a professor of creative writing in English at Emory University where he’s also the curator of the Raymond danowsky poetry library his collection of essays the grey album on the blackness of blackness was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award Kevin Young has written eight volumes of poetry and edited eight collections his poetry and essays have appeared in The New Yorker The Paris Review callaloo and many other journals he casts a wide net ranging in topics from jean-michel Basquiat to the food that binds him to his Louisiana heritage to the Amistad rebellion but all this doesn’t tell you what it’s like to read Kevin Young’s poetry he isn’t a musician in the traditional sense of the word but boy does he make music with his words taking vernacular and musical idioms to their poetic limits in ardency a chronicle of the Amistad rebels for example young crafted an American epic that captures the horror of slavery while marking the strength of those who fought and survived it yet while Arden sees poems capture the brutality of the slave trade they’re also identifying the origin of the blues that informs Young’s work we see these blues and Kevin’s latest collection of poetry book of ours book of ours deals with grief mind-numbing grief and it’s slow slow transition to joy it’s centered on aspects of fatherhood from the sudden loss of his own father to the birth and infancy of his child young writes the grammar of grief gets written every day and book of ours begins with profound grief and the mechanical tasks in volved when coping with the death of a parent writing a eulogy making funeral arrangements picking up dry cleaning giving away old suits then he pauses to ask how can I give away the last of your scent yet he does and following his father’s wishes gives away much much more poignant lee jung studies the bereavement of his father’s dogs envying what he terms their colossal and forgetful grief their inability to grasp perpetuity and in the end the inevitability of death which for Kevin is all too apparent and leaves him gasping at its enormity with language that seems to hover between a prayer and a song he constructs a day book of grief that moves slowly painfully into a knowing joy with the birth of his son he endorsed sorrow and comes out the other side and that’s due in no small part to poetry and its ability to bring us out of darkness most of these poems are only a page or two and a few are much shorter but together they create a narrative infused with the rhythms of death birth of life music is in the poems themselves which hover between the Psalms and the blues giving shape to sorrow to the passage of time to letting go and to resilience the medieval book of ours is a devotional book a liturgical day book if you will because it’s an illuminated manuscript though each book of ours is unique even if they contain similar collections of prayers and songs kevin young’s book of hours also combines the particular and the universal he Minds his grief observes his transition from that place and then shares his joy linking them in an ongoing journey composed with urgency and contemplation as the day’s add up with their dozens of daily tasks and by doing this with such acuity he offers us the language the music so many can find when confronted with her own inevitable losses Jung ends his book with a challenge to the reader or perhaps more accurately an affirmation with the words why not sing why not indeed with poets like Kevin Young and collections like book of ours that recognize grief in all its permutations celebrates resilience and demonstrates poetry’s ability to illuminate the darkest and most profound aspects of our lives here’s Kevin Young thank you so much thank you all for

coming out and thanks for that lovely introduction can you all hear me okay good it’s lovely to be here back at the Book Festival we were remembering that I was here I think seven years ago so it’s a real treat to return I thought I’d actually start with some blues some older poems from really a book that came out around that time called dear darkness it’s a book of Blues and elegy in many ways but also of ODEs and so I thought I’d read this blues because it mentions Labor Day it’s called lime light blues lime light blues I have been known to wear white shoes beyond Labor Day I can see through doors and walls made of glass I’m in an anger encouragement class when I walk over the water of parking lots car doors lock when I wander or enter the elevator women snap their pocketbooks shut clutch their handbags clothes plain clothes cops follow me in stores asking me to holler if I need any help I can get a rise I’m able to cause patrolmen to stop and second look any drugs in the trunk civilian teens beg me for green ware to score around here when I dance which is often moon above me wheels it’s disco lights until there’s a fight crowds gather and wonder how the spotlight sounds like a body being born like the blare of car horns as I cross the street on looking slow I know all a movie needs is me shouting at the screen from the balcony from such heights i watch the darkness gather what pressure my blood is under thank you so uh around that time I started writing these ODEs to everyday things Pablo Neruda has his lovely elemental ODEs and in some way I was thinking of them but I was also thinking of my father and the food I grew up eating we were both my parents were from Louisiana and we had okra I’d say every night and sometimes for breakfast and you know my father used to always say you know I guess people call it soul food my father would always say well we just called it food when we were young so I’ll read a couple ODEs this is owed to chicken you are everything to me frog legs rattlesnake almost anything I put my mouth to reminds me of you folks always try getting you to act like you someone else nuggets or tenders fingers you don’t have but even you’re unmanned accured feet tastes sweet too loud in the yard segregated dark and light you are like a day self-contained your sunset skin puckers like a kiss let others put on airs pigs graduate to pork bread become toast even beef was once just bull before it got them degrees but even dead you keep your name and head you can make anything of yourself you know but prefer to wake me early in the cold fix me breakfast and dinner to leave me to fly for you so I read this poem which is from the end of the book and I started writing these ODEs there’s an ode to greens there’s an ode to kitchen grease because I was really you know he had just died and I couldn’t write for a time and then I started writing them and I realized in writing about this food of our childhood or my childhood and our shared past it was a way of you know wanting him getting him back make bringing him close and I food I think does that and so does poetry it can bring us back instantly

with all our senses to a time in a place so this poem is an ode to Buddha you might know that boudin is like a sausage it’s sort of the national food of southern Louisiana it’s almost like fast-food there every sort of corner store has their own it’s quite perfect as a food its sausage casing rice meat spices and if you haven’t had the pleasure I suggest you sample code – boudin you are the chewing gum of God you are the reason I know that skin is only that holds more than it meets the heart of you is something I don’t quite get but don’t want to even a fool like me can see your broken beauty the way out in this world where most things disappear driven into ground you are ground already and like rice you rise drunken Deacon sausages half brother John Boel ayahs baby mama you bring me back to the beginning to where things live again homemade savior you fed me the day my father sat under flowers white as the gloves of pallbearers thrown on his bier soon hands will lower him into ground richer than even you for now root of all remembrance your thick chain sets me spinning thinking of how like the small perfect possible silent soul you spill out like music my daddy dead or grief or both afterward his sister’s my aunts dancing in the yard to a car radio tuned to zydeco beneath the pecan trees so my most recent book is called book of hours and it came out last year and was ten years after he had died and I wanted to sort of return to that moment and explore it sort of feel again and describe again I suppose what it was like what the hours and minutes and days after his passing felt like so this poem is called bereavement bereavement behind his house my father’s dogs sleep in kennels beautiful he built just for them they do not bark do they know he is dead they wag their tails and head they beg and our fed their grief is colossal and forgetful each day they wake seeking his voice their names by dusk they seemed to unremember everything to them even hunger is a game for that I envy for that I cannot bear to watch them pacing their cage I try to remember they love best confined space to feel safe each day a saint comes by to feed the pear and I draw closer the shades I begun to think of them as my father’s other sons as kin brothers in paw my eyes each day for one day the water cuts off then back on they are outside dogs which is to say healthy and victorious purposeful and one giant muscle like the heart dad taught them not to bark to point out their prey to stay were they there that day they call me like witnesses and will not say I asked for their care and their carelessness wish of them forgiveness I must give them away I must find for them homes sleep Restless in his all night I expect they pace as I do each dog like an i roaming

with the dead beneath an unlocked lid my father died in Kansas and I was in Boston in Indiana at the time so it was a lot of flying back and forth and so this poems about the airport was such a strange place anyway but there you are flying and and and thinking of this person who has in effect flown away from you so this poem is called Mercy Mercy online for the plane a woman carried her heart on her lap and I thought could it be yours she held tight it wasn’t her heart yet of course was her future heart I guess soon inside her beating after being dead on the table a minute or two during surgery in a hospital called Mercy for now wheeled alongside her her almost heart sat labeled and tucked in its red chest of ice I thought I could be her holding you hoping there was enough life left in you to help me again breathe I knew full well you were not their father that it was your liver lifted out of you and set like a bloody stone inside somebody else to save after being checked for danger just beyond the glass doors I watched a farmer father and mother send off their plaids son the first time he’d flown everyone wiping their eyes and waving so um when someone passes away or dies that you love you sometimes I have to talk to people are supposed to help you like on the phone these people are horrible so I wrote a poem about them it’s called codicil which as you’ll recall is sort of in addition to a will codicil may God or whoever else spare you the arms of bereavement specialists grant mercy from the team dedicated to your transition in this difficult time yet who won’t tell you a thing and know far less those innocent interminable polite unreachable voices over the phone do not suffer those they are unlike death who does not ask or give one whit for your death certificate they need duplicates of no originals no now three letters of testamentary six pounds of flesh whatever is left hell is not a live voice just listen to our complete menu as our options have changed press one for purgatory – for shame three to get ready for four blame five years of phone calls to sort your death out and one day the avenging angel of telemarketing leaves a message not asking after you but acting as if you and she had spoken today Paul just wanted to get back to you about the cruise my response was what the afterlife must be like quick mean a piece of my mind and passing along no peace just righteousness if ever she called back I said I had kill her and not with kindness as does the phone better to go it alone so the middle part of the book has a slightly different tone I thought I’d read you a few of those poems this poem is called expecting expecting grave my wife lies back hands cross her chest well the doctor searches early for your heartbeat peach-pit unripe plum pulls out the world’s worst boom box mr microphone to broadcast your mother’s lifting belly the whoosh and bellows of Mama’s body and beneath it nothing

beneath the slow stutter of her heart nothing the doctor trying again to find you fragile fern snowflake nothing after my wife will say in fear impatient she went beyond her body this tiny room into the ether for now we spelunk for you one last time lost canary miner of coal and chalk lungs not yet black I hold my wife’s feet to keep her here and me trying not to dive starboard to seek you in the dark water and there it is faint an echo faster and further away than mother’s all beatbox and fuzzy feedback you were like hearing hip-hop for the first time power hijacked from a lamppost all promise you couldn’t sound better breakdancer my favorite song bumping from a passing car you’ve snuck into the club underage and stayed only later much well your mother begin to believe your drumming in the distance our Kansas City and Congo Square this jazz band vamping on inside her so I thought I’d read this poem just called crowning it’s about the birth of my son my wife who’s here is the hero of this poem you should give her a round of applause especially because he was 9 pounds 13 ounces his birthday is tomorrow so he gets an applause to crowning now that knowing means nothing now that you are more born than being more awake than awaited since I’ve seen your hair deep inside mother a glimpse grass and late winter early spring watching your mother’s pursed throbbing purpled power her pushing you for one whole hour to almost three almost out maybe never animal smell and peat breath and sweat and mulch matter and at once you descend or Drive are driven by mother’s body by her will and brilliance by bowel by wanting and your hair peering as if it could see and I saw you storming forth tap roots your cap of hair half in half out and wait hold it there the doctors say and she squeezing my hand her face full of fire then groaning your face out like a flower blood bloom crocus into air shoulders and the long cord still routing you to each other to the other world into this afterlife amongst us living the cord I cut like an iris pulsing then you wet against mother’s chest still purple not blue not yet read no cry’ warming now now opening your eyes midnight blue in the blue black dawn thank you so the rest of that book really talks about the afterlife that afterlife I mentioned the afterlife of grief which I suppose in some ways is life and and dealing with this wondrous thing the birth of a child but also not so long after the death of my father before I sort of end with some of those poems I thought I’d read you some newer poems they’re sort of new to you I have a book coming out in February called blue laws and it’s 20 years of work it’s a selected and uncollected poems I call it so there’s a lot of sort of bonus tracks and outtakes so I thought rather than read some older poems I’d read some of the bonus tracks some of them happen to be a little older so these are outtakes from a book called jelly roll a blues which was a book of Blues based

love poems I keep trying to get away from the blues and it just you know they bring me back in so this these are sort of the love poems of various kinds and I’ll just read a few this one’s called hurricane song hurricane song lady won’t you wait out the hurricane all night and my place will take cover like the lamps and I’ll let you boil my scalp please I needs a good woman’s hands caught in my hair turning my knots to butter all night will turn dawn will lean in too soon you’ll leave out into the wet world winded and alone knowing the me only midnight seas and this one’s called strays strays the moon of you I want to meet far away waning asleep in the Sun of your arms then cold when you’re gone in the dark where we can no longer see I want your hands blurry over me reading the Braille of my body your narcotic touch you are such and such makes me rush home through dark slick streets and hush to our bright to hot house only you sleep somewhere else I miss you like a monument misses its dead the stone heads staring the hands stiff or still half eroded by time tell me and I’ll write what you want near my name and I’ll read about some more recent outtakes everyone doing I write all their one ends up writing sort of I guess what bless you occasional poems poems of place but also of time you know and that’s sort of the things that you can’t always capture in a book at least I can’t so it was a pleasure to go through four blue laws and kind of look at some of those poems so this is a one of them it’s called rapture rapture I want to be awake when the world ends I want to be my friend who rose to an empty house even his grandmother and her Warren cross gone and thought it was the rapture that he hadn’t crossed over let me rip my shirt as he did and tear into the street hollering let me hear only my blood this morning in the rain before the dawn no one on the line later when they return but those I love who left have only gone to the store running errands this errant uh Nebbia life after let what I’ve torn that myself I’m or and be mended and start over like a scar or star so I’ll just end with a few from the end of book of hours this poem is called Memorial Day it’s since we had a little Labor Day it’s Memorial Day in there and it’s about exercising after a certain age in one’s life the pleasure is but mostly the pain of that it’s called memorial day I wake early to join the others dying of sweats or breath trying to return to the bodies we once owed owned slow going on a quick track we orbit the fake grass Sun already high enough to burn the eyes or arms windmilling for all it’s worth we keep finding ourselves in each other’s way silent we spin a kathal Cade

of future pain and then in the blue beside the ring up springs a proper parade traffic lined up and ashen veterans three left bow their heads while names are read is that a prayer I can’t make out above the quick Trinity of rifle fire smoke clouding the air none flinch we keep pace along with our shortening shadows every ache a wish and this last poem is called the mission it’s about the Mission District in San Francisco where I used to live and it also mentions Emily Dickinson and I always feel I have to clarify that I know that she never lived in San Francisco someone asked me after a reading it wasn’t really a question was well you know she didn’t live there right so thank you so much for coming out and listening and we’ll have a little Q&A after this the mission back there then I lived across the street from a home for funerals afternoons I look out the shades and think of the graveyard behind Emily Dickinson’s house how death was no concept but so laughter Souls she Watts pour into the cold New England ground maybe it was the son of the mission maybe just being more young but it was less disquiet and comfort days the street filled with cars for awake children played tag out fun while the bodies stuck in the back the only hint of death those clusters of cars lights low as talked idling dark as the second-hand suits that fathers or sons now orphans had rescued out of closets praying they still fit most did most laughed despite themselves shook hands and grew hungry out of habit evening coming on again the homes clock broke like a bone always red three mornings or dead of night I wondered who slept there and wrote letters I later forgot I sent my father now find buoyed up among the untidy tide of his belonging he kept everything but alive I have come to know sorrows not noun but verb something that unlike living by doing right you do less of the Sun is too bright your eyes adjust become like the night hands covering the face its numbers dark and unmoving unlike the cars that fill and start to edge out quiet cortege crawling half dim till I could not see to see thank you so are there any questions yes I think there’s microphones you might want to or I can repeat your question whatever which comes first the poem or the title is the question it’s a little of both I hate to split it down the middle but for me often a title you almost kind of trick yourself with the title where the title spins off the poem I’m trying to think of examples and none come to mind but say that poem crowning you know it’s hard to say which came first first came to life you know and then you know to try to describe such a transformative experience as birth without being corny you know I love the language of pregnancy and birthing you know that it feels like you entered this world at least for me as a guy who wasn’t aware of some of that that has its own

language I mean it’s also a body language and I guess a poem is almost like that it’s it’s sort of language in some sense but also body language and that kind of transformation can happen in the title but sometimes you know I think like that poem hurricane song I probably had a bunch of title searching for one so you’re lucky if it all comes at once but often it’s a process that comes later yes how’s my family feel yeah they have no choice two good questions I mean some of my family are here you could ask them but you know of course you have to show them your work or at least I did especially those pregnancy poems but you know I think she likes being the star of these poems so that’s a good thing it would be bad if otherwise but you know when something like that happens I think you have to as a writer write about it whether you you know you need to you have to write it doesn’t mean you have to publish about it and for me especially that I didn’t want to write something obvious so I also was really conscious of that and for me it was sort of like a book I made that may never come to pass and it was almost the other way it almost speaks to your second question which is your writing these poems and then you’re like well maybe they have a life you know and so then they it’s almost like everything is an outtake and then sometimes it becomes an intake you know sometimes it lives beyond its utterance and then almost all of my books though they end up longer than some books I usually yank quite a bit and jelly roll was the first one I really was conscious of doing it it’s too long a story to tell now but it’s a good story so sometimes we’ll have to catch up about it but you know I in one night just sort of yanked 20 poems out of it and there’s only a few that are in the book probably four or five that made it back but it’s not like I want them in jelly roll but they have this other life you know so I really love the lives of the poem and sometimes you know having especially been an editor I see like in Lucio Clifton’s work she had a whole packet of poems that she said were poems that really should be thrown away one day maybe and then she could cross that off as like bad poems you know and they’re better than most people’s poems so you know to look through those and get a sense of what’s it mean to have sort of one’s history there was a history that those poems told about Clifton that I wanted to preserve and for me while I wouldn’t say any of them rise to that I wanted to have that kind of feel to yes over here Thanks a reason why yes book of ours that was my yeah the second book I read today it’s my eighth or ninth book I think but anyway the the point of that I think was a that’s how it happened you know he died and then a year or two later my son was born so I really want to preserve that feeling but I also wanted that kind of sense of I guess life in general you know it is death and birth and sometimes it’s birth before death sometimes it’s death and then this afterlife and then I wanted this kind of what came after that you know so I really want to preserve that what it felt like I guess and for me in those poems too I really wanted to capture find all the metaphor within the experience so that’s why I like the dogs I didn’t want to make things up exactly nothing wrong with that it just was for my project for that book was to really try to find metaphor within the experience whether it was the dogs or being on the plane or what have you and within that find meaning and what can seem real senseless so that’s I think why I tried to do that and combine those thank you hey how are you okay sure okay wow that’s big question

time and place I mean I think it’s a really good good thing I mean place is very important to me ever since my first book which was called most way home which was very much about Louisiana a place where I never lived but also where so much of my life was if you know what I mean so we were there all the time in the winter in the summer you know it was just and whenever my parents said oh I’m gonna go home they meant Louisiana and that’s what I thought of but we moved around a lot so place became this important place but also uh was always kind of at a distance that also seemed to me part of the African American experience exile travel migration all these things fit so well with that that it helped me understand I’m you wouldn’t have the blues without that right without that freedom but also that troubled departure so for me that tension is always there in time and in place and the Blues very much speak to that I can’t go far away from them and I had the good fortune to write a poem for the migration series show by Jacob Lawrence that’s in New York right now it’s coming to DC actually I don’t know if it’s this fall or you know winter but you need to see it it’s an amazing show to see all in one place because they’re divided between two museums the migration series and that series I think captures that feeling you know he was someone who had to you know sort of research and talk as as literary as it is anything else all that’s to say that that suite of paintings help me see the way that a poem can function the same way can capture time in place can through sequence give you a sense of not just a point of view but a wide point of view sort of sort of Whitman esque point of view but we might call it lawrence esque thinking of jacob lawrence one last question thank you sure that’s a great question I mean I think it’s the pleasure that also was found in creating you know one is trying to I hope draw connections between these things often disparate a good example for me was after having written many the poems are in this book though I hadn’t published this book yet book of ours I edited a book called the art of losing book of grief poems and that was really important to me it was almost like discovering what I thought after I thought it you know I had already written these poems and read a lot of the poems that became art of losing but I hadn’t put them all together and to put them together and make this what I hope is an artful order an arc to think about grief through someone else’s work was really powerful for me and it’s always moving to me when people come up and say oh that book helped me think about grief in a different way but there’s also a kind of it helps to do that but also when you return to what your own work I think it really you know lets you be both generous to your own work and then also kind of ruthless which that’s a tough line to draw or walk but that’s what you have to do I think as a writer is is especially when you’re writing you have to be you know your best friend you can’t be talking trash about your own work but it’s hard to get that editor off your shoulder you know and I think it’s Richard Hugo who says you know when you’re writing in your room look around look behind you there’s no one else there you know don’t let those other voices in when you’re composing within later you have to go back I wouldn’t say with a red pen but with a green pen or a blue pen and and you have to be you know serious about that returning angel it’s called avenging angel of the editor and I think that you know my wife’s laughing because she’s an editor so but uh editors are the best things in the world and I happen to have a great one both at home but also when with my books I’ve been really fortunate and so I respect the editing as a craft you know and it’s one that were I think solely sorely missing sometimes you know papers or journals will say oh we don’t need copy

editing and then next thing you know the errors are very bad all that’s to say I’m going far from your question only to say that I love that process of editing and it really returns to me something that also writing does and I think the process is a good one I hope mode people do it and really even if it’s your own personal anthology it really helps to think about how do I put these things together how do how does other people’s work speak to me and through me thanks so much this has been a presentation of the Library of Congress visit us at loc.gov