War and redemption

Kevin Young is a young poet with an impressive resume. As the title suggests, his fifth collection, For the Confederate Dead: Poems, engages directly with American history and poetic tradition. The title poem pays homage to Robert Lowell’s famous poem “For the Union Dead,” which was, in turn, homage to Alan Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

It’s a hefty undertaking. That Young succeeds is testament to his deft hand with language, as well as his immersion in American verse. Young spoke with SN&R by telephone recently about his new book and poetry in general.

Putting Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” and Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” next to your poem is a very interesting way to read them. How do those all fit together for you?

I think about it a lot, but then when you’re writing, you can’t think about that or else you’ll get stymied. For me, the Lowell poem is about excavation and history and exploring the layers of history. I think there are other similarities that I’ve noticed. In Lowell’s poem, there’s the relief sculpture of the 54th regiment, and, for me, it’s this mural in a cafe. So in that way, I guess they have the same themes—with of course the larger themes of race and history and what does it mean to be American and a citizen.

There is an undercurrent of grief in all these poems.

I can see that. I guess I don’t want people to think it is loss in the sense of sorrow. It’s loss in the sense of life. I hope there’s some redemption.

Redemption as in finding your way back. Of travel. Of trying to make sense of maps.

Maps are fascinating. In “For the Confederate Dead,” there’s a reference to the lines on a weatherman’s map—whether it’s a map or our own map—and how those lines don’t really exist. These invisible lines that guide our life work, I think, as a metaphor for race, and also a metaphor for all these differences we mark out that aren’t exactly there. Maps, too, are just beautiful. Maps are guides—though I tend to have a good sense of direction, so I don’t always use them as I should.

Many of the subjects of the poems are public—Jim Crow, the Confederate dead, what it means to be American, 9/11. Yet you manage to build a bridge from the personal experience to the public experience.

I could almost make a statement from your question. One of the things I was interested in this book was—I don’t want to say the public face of grief or loss, but something like that. And at the same time I was aware, or I’ve realized since then, people say that this is such a private book. I think the book appears on both planes and I hope it does for readers, too.

For me, for the poet in general, we’re always going between those poles between the public and the private. I’ve also found that when I think I’m writing a public book, it’s a private book, and when I think I’m writing a private book, it’s a public one. So I think I might have the radar wrong.

But that’s also the direction that you want to be in: If you’re writing a public book and are constantly aware of it as public, you might not be as aware of looking at what’s close to you and asking what’s public in that. For me, I think history is what bridges those things.

History is both public and private; it happens to us individually and we experience it collectively. Something like September 11 brings that home.