Kevin Young: Q-and-A
We cannot write about America without writing about race. That seemed to be a feature of all the poems in the “Americana” section of the book.
That’s an interesting observation…That you cannot separate American history from race. That’s interesting.
To me, that section was, I felt, the freest, because the towns are made up. But even when you have a made-up town, Southern or American, you have a sense of—I wouldn’t necessarily say “race”—but of history. For instance, “Guinea Gall,” which was about imagining a sort of heaven, based on a folk-tale of a town called Guinea Gall—which is both a story and a sort of imagined afterlife. So there’s imagining this sort of afterlife that’s not so much about race as about family. I would say it is more about imagining redemption.
You’ve got a poem in there that’s about getting lost while trying to find a town called Paradise.
[Laughs] That’s about Howard Finster, the folk artist. He’s got a place near Rome, Georgia, called Paradise Gardens. So that’s literally about trying to find his place. I wouldn’t try to find it at night. We were trying to get there in daylight to see him. But of course, there are larger implications, and that’s one of the best things about poetry. I happen to like that poem.
It may be taken literally, but that business of getting lost on our way to Paradise is in many ways the story of America. One of the things that strikes me about all of your poems is the presence of visual arts and music. How does this work for you?
Music is something that poetry is related to, so in that sense—It’s not so much that poetry aspires to be music, though some have said that. It’s that poetry already has the music in it. The music is made with language. I like that about a poem—that’s what makes it so enriching.
I listen to music as I write. I find it inspiring and helpful, especially because poetry is often seen in a different way from music, as a separate art that’s only for certain people and I don’t think people feel that way about music. It’s accessible. Anyone can sing—they may not sing great, but “American Idol” has proven that everyone at least thinks they can sing.
I wish that people felt that way about poetry. You don’t have to be perfect in your poems, but you can write them, and feel them, and share them. You can enjoy them. I like that idea.
I think that poetry is intimidating for people in a way that music is not. We can understand that there are really talented musicians and then still be able to enjoy singing in my car. That mix of voices is important.
For me, there’s also a visual element to poems that I think is really important. But I also feel like, in a weird way, that I work more like a visual artist. I wouldn’t ever claim to be one, but I like how artists have this messy studio full of all their ideas. They often work in series; they can work really big and really small.
This book, for me, was a nice mix of longer—big—canvases and then smaller, intimate drawings. Sketches, even. I like that freedom. And I’ve written a book about a painter [To Repel Ghosts, Young’s book about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat]. So I feel connected in that way, too.
For instance, “The Ballad of Jim Crow” in this new collection, is in some ways a traditional narrative poem, but it’s also got an element of the traditional musical ballad, where you might have forty different versions depending on the region you were in and who was doing the singing.
Right. I definitely wanted to have a kind of folk-ballad feeling. It sort of stemmed from my last book—a film noir in verse [Black Maria]—there was a character who came up who was a killer, who filled the role of the assassin in film noir. He was interesting to me in that he was both creepy and mysterious. He had a lot of aliases—Dr. Death or Dr. Red, and one of them was Jim Crow.
So I thought, what if Jim Crow was a real person? What if he was a killer—and of course, actually, he was. Obviously, Jim Crow killed many, literally and emotionally. So it was interesting for me to conjure up a past for him as a person, but also as a legend—as you mentioned, a song that there’d be many versions of, that would be sung in many different ways.
Like one of the versions of the John Wesley Hardin songs.
Yeah, like that.
I was also very taken by the poem “Incident” in this new collection, which takes its title from the Countee Cullen poem of the same name. The Cullen poem is short and works like a gut-punch, while this one is kind of long and rangy. You say in the notes that this is “one man’s true story.” How did this come about?
I was riding around Baltimore in the car with this guy and he was just talking about the places we went past and about his life. It just struck me, the life he’d had and the things he said. I wrote it to give voice to the moment. I loved what he said—and what the poem said—about “Is Baltimore in the north or the south?” So then we’re going back to these ideas of lines, the ones you don’t see. Technically, Baltimore is below the Mason-Dixon, but there’s this kind of interesting mix that he’s talking about.
Jim Crow—as we were talking about earlier—Jim Crow wasn’t the same everywhere—there were different rules, depending on where you were. He describes these elaborate rules and then this surviving, above-it-all beauty that he has that I really like—I really respond to it.
I like that in all the figures that appear in the book, whether it’s Gwendolyn Brooks or Garcia Lorca, or someone like Marian Anderson.
Is “Post-scripts” specifically a 9/11 poem? That first line, “The world is a widow,” is breathtaking.
Thank you. Yes. I wrote it in the days and weeks afterwards. I think a lot of us where trying to wrestle with how to put that moment into words, or those feelings. A lot of my friends live in New York. I happened to have turned on the TV between the first plane and the second plane hitting, so I was watching TV when the second plane hit. It was a strange unfolding on that day for everyone. I guess I was trying to capture the complexity of that moment, so “Post-scripts” is directly about that.
Then my friend died on the one year anniversary of 9/11. And so it was strange to have these set of poems—these elegies for him—but that also felt about grief in general and that I hope speak to a broader grief.
Often the only way to gain entry to something so large is through the personal.
Coming to this book as someone who’s read widely in your work and in other poetry, as well as in history, I saw For the Confederate Dead as a book that was very much broadening your vision to a more public view. It has so many points of entry.
I hope so. I wanted this book to be different as much as I wanted it to be…just a book. I wanted it to have many sides. When I read a book, at least with books of poems, I pick them up and just start anywhere. I don’t necessarily start at the beginning and read to the end. I flip around. I hope there’s a feeling of many centers in For the Confederate Dead, though for me, the beating heart of it is “African Elegy.” I can see how people read that as personal, but I really wanted to make a kind of monument for my friend who died. So I was aware of trying to broaden it. I think elegy is this kind of private/public thing.
It really does cross boundaries in that way. The only way that it works is to tap into the shared experience of grief, but at the same time, in order to function as an elegy, it has to be personalized. One of the things that worked for me, without knowing the person, without knowing the details, was the inclusion of the Bob Marley songs as titles. That is one advantage to music that’s quite familiar is that it creates a tone, helps to set expectations.
The danger of course is that, when I sat down and thought, I may have to write on “Redemption Song,” that’s pretty scary because that’s such a beautiful spiritual. I hope I did okay, but what I was trying to get at was that feeling.
I love how, in Marley, you can get at the way the spiritual and the physical are all mixed together and there’s a real kind of redemptive quality to that. I think it’s in the epigraph—“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” And there’s the physicality of hitting, but also the idea.
All of the music has that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” quality. Who am I quoting? I can’t remember.
[Laughs] I don’t know that one either.
But with Marley, there’s that combination of the call to arms and the celebration of life. And the poems carry that sense as well.
Yeah. Well, at least I hope so.
Here in Sacramento, we have a wide range of poetry venues and styles, ranging from hip-hop, spoken word and performance to more traditional poetry. As a teacher, how do you approach poetry with your students? Is it a “find your own voice, find your own space” thing?
I think “find your voice” can be a little over-determined. I think that, as William Stafford said, you already have your own voice. I think the point is more to set free the voices that you have—which are many—and sometimes contradictory, and sometimes formal and sometimes sassy and sometimes down-home and sometimes uptown. I think that we contain multitudes and you should be writing with that in mind. I don’t think you should decide too early—and as a teacher, I try to encourage my students not to decide too early—what kind of poet they are.
The more I write, the more I think of poetry—I don’t think so much in terms of accessibility or academic—as of necessity. I think necessity is a much more powerful and useful way to think of poetry. Poetry is necessary and the poetry that I admire is necessary—not in the sense that poetry is always serious, because sometimes it’s necessary to laugh. There are a lot of different sides to thinking about the pleasures the poem provides and some of them are difficult. Some of them are about tough topics, whether it’s about loss, or about something that’s even harder to articulate.
But I try to focus on writing the poems you have to write and not worry about anything other than making them as good as possible. I think that is something that we all benefit from.
There are two questions that I always ask before I let poets go because they send me in directions that I might not otherwise go. The first question is: Who do you read that you feel more people ought to read? That’s neglected?
The first name that comes to mind is Bob Kaufman, who is a black Beat poet, born in New Orleans, lived in San Francisco. He was mostly an oral poet, but he has several books. Many people say he’s the person who actually coined the term “Beat.” He’s someone who—there’s a street named in San Francisco named for him, but I think there should be streets named for him in every city in the country. I think he’s a weird, funny, interesting, surreal, beautiful poet. That’s who I would say today.
Thanks! The second question is: What are you reading right now?
I wish I was—I’m not reading that much except kids’ books [Young is the father of a toddler son]. I like Hop on Pop—Dr. Seuss—a lot better than Green Eggs and Ham. I can’t really read that any more. It gets old.
That’s mostly what I’m reading. But there’s some interesting stuff out. My editor, Deborah Garrison, has a book called The Second Child out that is really good. But she’s my editor, so I’m really biased.