Kevin Young's official job title is longer than some of his poems. In addition to being the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University in Atlanta, he is also curator of both Emory's Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume library with the herculean task of archiving every edition of every book of poetry published in English worldwide during the 20th century.
Young's first book of poetry, "Most Way Home," was selected for the National Poetry series in 1993. His 2003 book, "Jelly Roll," was a finalist for the National Book Award. "Book of Hours" (2014) was winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize for Poetry from the Academy of American Poets. Young's nonfiction book "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness" was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012. His latest book, "Blue Laws," is a collection of work from the past two decades.
Young is sponsored by Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Literature and Language.
Your new book is a selection of poems from your first 10 books, as well as a number of uncollected poems. Why the title "Blue Laws"?
I was thinking a lot about those outmoded laws all over the country, but especially in places I have lived, like the South and New England. Sunday sales of drinks is one, but also, "You can't shoot across the river on a Sunday." There are all sorts of funny, obscure laws. But I was also thinking about the blues and their influence, which is something I write a lot about.
Did you select all the poems yourself?
Yeah. I talked with friends and my editor about what to leave in here or there, but I went through the selection. I've been thinking about it for a while, to have something portable [containing] the different sides of my work. But also I want to honor that blues tradition and blues through-line and how some of those uncollected poems and outtakes fill in between the books.
What was that process like?
It can be kind of strange. It's sort of looking through old photos; you recognize yourself but sometimes you look different. But also I was pleased to see the ways in which there were continuities and things I recognized. Some books, it's harder than others because I have some long poems, like "To Repel Ghosts," which is about Jean-Michel Basquiat, and "Ardency," about the Amistad rebellion. It's pretty hard to show what those books are like because they're kind of wild, long books on purpose. Those have a different second life than a book like "Black Maria," which has a theme but is a kind of film noir in verse, and it turns out that having 20 of those is really interesting, at least to me; it tells a kind of story within a story.
Different books do different things, but hopefully it's a good introduction and makes people want to read the other books. But I also wanted this book to have its own integrity and own completeness.
There are more than a dozen poems included from your first book, "Most Way Home," written when you were still a student. Can you tell me about the writing and reception of that first book?
I wrote it as an undergrad mostly. I think I wrote three more poems afterwards. So I wrote it pretty young. But I also was very much not writing about my life then; I was writing about my parents and my grandparents and life in the rural South, and the way of life they lived — which I had grown up seeing and visiting them in southern and northern Louisiana, but which was disappearing in some ways. So I was trying to capture that. I don't know if I could have said that then, but I was trying to capture that before it changed. It very much was about the foodways and folkways and the way of talking that were there. And then it also had poems that were about this more modern eye walking around and driving around the country and seeing what was there.
I know a lot of people don't love their first books anymore — they're embarrassed of them or something — but it's a different book for me. It was pretty tight and taut, and I felt like I was channeling these voices of my family. It was nice to see those alongside my more recent poems.
You went to Harvard, where you studied under Seamus Heaney. How did he influence your writing?
I have an elegy for him in the book in "Blue Laws." I feel like his biggest influence had to do with how to be a poet in the world and how to be generous and allow yourself that space to write. That a "poet" is something you could be. I didn't know that firsthand, and to see it up close was really wonderful. I think that was his biggest influence on me.
Looking back, too, he wrote in his first book, "Death of a Naturalist," about rural Ireland and growing up on a farm. And so for me, there was this kind of "put your bucket down where you are" quality that helped me understand you could write about your life and your family and your past, and that this could be noble and the stuff of poetry.
You don't only write poetry. Your nonfiction book "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness" was widely acclaimed. Are there things you can get at in prose that you can't in poetry?
I think so. You can write about ideas in a different way. I think poems do contain ideas, but they also contain music. For me, "The Grey Album" was a way to explore music from the other side — music as an idea — and trace that through time, through the centuries.
It took a long time for me to write that book. Early parts of it were from many, many years before. It took about 10 years. It was a way of getting at some of the concerns I'd had and that come up in my poetry, but also a way of talking about these broader ideas and talking about Langston Hughes and a poet named Bob Kaufman.
All of this makes me wonder: Did you come from an especially literary family?
No, not really at all. I came from Louisiana roots. (That's my grandfather's fiddle on the cover of the book.) I came from a very musical family on my father's side and then preachers on my mother's side. I usually say that between the two is poetry, to me.
My parents read and were the first in their families to go to school. They instilled that in me. But it was not at all literary. It was only when I got to college that I knew people could be poets or that people had parents who were poets. That really blew me away. To me, that was all new.
You recently had a poem printed in the New Yorker, "Money Road." It described a trip through the Mississippi Delta, through the landscape in which Emmett Till was murdered. Tell me about that trip.
I've been to Mississippi a number of times, but I don't know if I'd been to the Delta proper. I was writing about the Delta in part for an oratorio I wrote for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It's actually going to be [presented] at Carnegie Hall on April 4. It's called "Repast," like the meal after a funeral. I was thinking a lot about justice and loss in a different way, a more historical way. Then to drive that landscape — it was so visceral. If you've been there, you can see that it's not just a question of history, it's a question of the present. Emmett Till's death resonated historically but it still resonates now. I guess that's what struck me and what I was trying to capture in that poem. History is still with us, the past isn't even past. But also, that landscape feels very haunted.
Is that poem indicative of what you are working on these days?
Yeah. I have poems that return to the South, but also return to the landscape and to history with a capital "H." But I'm always interested in exploring the personal in that sense. I find that when I'm writing about the historical, it becomes very personal; and when I'm writing about the personal, it becomes historical. That's kind of the dance the work tries to do.
One last question, since this is leading up to the Literary Festival: Some poets prefer not to read their poems aloud, but you seem very engaged in giving readings. Why are the performative and oral aspects of poetry important to you?
I think that's where poetry starts; it's where it started. To me, a poem comes alive when it's read. It needs breath to fully embody itself. I think that's the one thing I miss about people not memorizing poems the way they used to. You would carry that in your body, and that's where it lives. It becomes a physical thing.
Young and poet Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, will appear on a Literary Festival panel at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Christ Episcopal Church.