Kevin Young On Blues, Poetry And 'Laughing To Keep From Crying'
In Kevin Young's new collection, Book Of Hours, poems about the death of his father appear alongside poems about the birth of his son.
He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that, in a way, those events were the anchors of his life.
"It was a way of just writing about what had happened and also the way that the cycle of life informed my life, from death to birth to ... a kind of rebirth that I felt afterward."
Young is a professor of creative writing and English at Emory University, where he's also the curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a collection of rare and first editions of modern and contemporary poetry. He's the author of seven previous poetry collections, including Ardency: A Chronicle Of The Amistad Rebels and Jelly Roll: A Blues, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
On his poem "Charity," about getting his father's dry cleaning after his death and giving his clothes to charity
I wanted him to be whole again. Obviously I couldn't have him here again, but I wanted all those parts of him, almost like [Egyptian god of the dead] Osiris, or something, gathering all of those pieces of the dead and putting them back together. It seemed somehow important, if only for the act. Of course, I gave them ... away, and that was kind of also another point, to have them live on, a bit like we all wish our loved ones who are no longer with us might.
On his poem "Bereavement"
I really wanted to capture ... the blues; the way the form of the blues fights the feeling of the blues in the way that the kind of rhyme in the poem fights this chaotic feeling. And even words like "colossal" and "forgetful," they don't exactly rhyme but they really have this kind of ... connection with the consonants in the poem. And I also wanted that kind of repetition, that feeling of sameness, of dailiness, of anticipation, even — which is what I think rhyme can create.
On writing while mourning a miscarriage
I think the hardest thing, really, is trying not to write. There's a real desire as a poet to make a poem and you're almost just writing for survival right after. You don't know anything else.
It'd be like a swimmer: You'd go for a long swim — it's what you know. At the same time, you know you're not going to achieve something. At least I felt that way.
It really wasn't until later [when] I wrote some poems, as I said, that kind of broke the dam of that. ... They were a way of looking to the side. But to write directly about it, it really took some time.
On growing up in Louisiana, then becoming a writer in Kansas
For me Louisiana was mostly family when I was there. We hardly left; there was no need to. ... We hardly left the front porch. You would just sit and folks would come by and it was really old school in that way. People would go visiting. That's what you would do — they would visit us. It was both another world and also my world, if that makes sense.
My father, everyone just called [him] "Brother," and so that was his nickname, that was his identity. And I was "Brother's son." And that quality was really reassuring and it was about rootedness. It still is for me. Everything you see, someone you know [owns]. And where my father's from, they had been there about 200 years, so it seemed really American ...
Then as a writer I never saw that in the literature. I didn't see it in the way that I felt it, let's say. Which isn't to say there weren't other people writing about it; I just think especially as a young writer being in Kansas and trying to start to write I hadn't seen that. ... The poems in this new book really are about place in many ways.
On how music influences his poetry
I think music is poetry in the sense that I think the condition of poetry I'm going for has some qualities of music that it aspires to. I also think what I love about poetry is the way that music is in the poem, is in the words themselves. It's not behind it, it's not in front of it — it is it. Music and the blues, they have taught me a lot. I think in this book, Book Of Hours, there is this blues sensibility. There are moments of humor even in the sorrow and I'm really interested in the way that the blues have that tragic-comic view of life — what Langston Hughes called "laughing to keep from crying."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Poems about the death of his father are followed by poems about the birth of his son in Kevin Young's new collection "Book of Hours." We invited him to read and talk about some of these poems. He's the author of seven previous poetry collections, including "Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels" and "Jellyroll," which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
He's also edited eight books of poetry, including "The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing," "Jazz Poems," "Blues Poems" and "Giant Steps: The New Generation of African-American Writers." His collection of essays, "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness," was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Young is a professor of creative writing and English at Emory University, where he's also the curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a collection of rare and first editions of modern and contemporary poetry.
Kevin Young, welcome to FRESH AIR. How far apart was your father's death and the birth of your baby?
KEVIN YOUNG: About two years.
GROSS: And how did you decide to use those two incidents in your life, one tragic and one beautiful, as the anchors of your book?
YOUNG: Well, they were sort of the anchors of my life, in a way. So it was a way of just writing about what had happened and also the way that the cycle of life informed my life from death to birth to in a way a kind of rebirth that I felt afterwards.
GROSS: Well, I want to have you read a poem about the aftermath of your father's death, and this is called "Charity." And if you'd like, you can introduce it for us before you read it.
YOUNG: Yeah, this poem is called "Charity," and it's a poem about all the kind of aftermath, as you said, of his death and all the daily things that seemed so important and then also seemed so unimportant. Things almost flip-flop for you, and it's about trying to sort of track down his dry-cleaning.
(Reading) Charity. So many socks. After the pair the undertaker asked for, I picture them black beneath the fold in your open casket, your toes still cold. What else to do? Body bags of old suits, shirts still pressed, long johns, the unworn, unwashed wreckage of your closet, too many coats to keep, though I will save so many. How can I give away the last of your scent?
(Reading) And still, father, you have errands, errant dry cleaning to pick up, yellow tags whose ghostly carbon tells a story where to look. One place closed for good, the tag old. One place with none of your clothes just stares as if no one ever dies, as if you are naked somewhere, and I suppose you are. Nothing here. The last place knows exactly what I mean, brings me shirts hanging like a head, starched collars your beard had worn.
(Reading) One man saying sorry, older lady in the back saying how funny you were, how you joked with her weekly. Sorry. And a fellow black man hands your clothes back for free. Don't worry. I've learned death has few kindnesses left. Such is charity, so rare and so rarely free. But on the way back to your emptying house, I weep. Then drive everything, swaying, straight to Goodwill, open late to live on another body and day.
GROSS: So reading that poem, I kept thinking about why you'd want to track down your father's dry cleaning after he was dead. Why did you feel that that was important?
YOUNG: I think I wanted him to be whole again, you know. Obviously I couldn't have him here again, but I wanted some - all those parts of him, I mean, almost like Osiris or something gathering all those pieces of the dead and putting them back together. It seemed somehow important, if only for the act, and then of course I gave them right away away, and that was kind of also another point, to have them live on, a bit like we all wish our loved ones who are no longer with us might.
GROSS: So you had to give away his clothes. You had to figure out what to give away and what to keep. Were you alone in making those decisions, or was - did he have a wife? I know your parents were separated, but did he have a wife? Did you have siblings who shared in those decisions?
YOUNG: No, I'm an only child. So it was pretty much on me. I mean, that isn't to say I didn't have support, but, you know, I did have to make those decisions and some of them quickly like, you know, decisions about, you know, donating his organs and things, which seemed strange but seemed also part of that same kind of resurrection and rebirth.
GROSS: In giving away or throwing away or deciding what to keep of all of your father's stuff, did it change your whole attitude toward possessions and how much you want to own and what you want to keep and what you want to just kind of get rid of while you're alive?
YOUNG: It's an interesting question. I work in archives, and both in terms of my own writing, and also I'm a curator, and so I always think about that. And I am afraid I tend toward the keeping. I always joke I come from a long line of pack rats, so I get it honest. And he was no exception. But I also - I think the things that were very important to me were really small things: his Mickey Mouse watch, you know, things like that that become sort of totems, if you will.
And I think that's what changed for me. It wasn't sort of the big things. It was really the little things that I wanted to keep.
GROSS: Well, in addition to giving away his clothes, you gave away his organs. And I'd like you to read an excerpt of your poem "Solace," and I'm going to ask you to read the excerpt about donating his organs.
YOUNG: OK. (Reading) Yesterday I had to phone her, my lover, calm as I could and say above the static that my father was gone but not quite. First I must give his body, grieved for, away. Hello, this is Sara. We harvested your dad's liver, which tested fine. This morning it went to a 26-year-old who needed it. One kidney went locally. It was a match. The other I'll know tomorrow.
(Reading) Do you authorize the skin? Yes. The lungs? Yes. The heart? Yes. The epidermis? Yes. The bone? No. A small intestine? No. The cornea? Yes.
GROSS: Do they ask about the small intestine? Did you just decide not to give that, or is that...?
YOUNG: They ask about everything, and...
GROSS: How did you decide the no with the small intestine?
YOUNG: I don't know. I'm only laughing because I can't remember. You know, it was so intense a moment. You know, and one doesn't - you know, I wish I could answer better that one.
GROSS: Do you know if he wanted his organs donated?
YOUNG: I do. My father, you know, was the first in his family to go to school, and he went all the way to become a doctor, you know. And so I think that was very important to him. He was an eye doctor, a surgeon. So, you know, the cornea seemed really important. But I - you know, because he was an eye doctor, I had always seen, you know, growing up him watching surgery, you know, at breakfast, which was quite strange.
So for me that was really intense, the things about the eyes. And, you know, I felt like it was going to live on, you know, and I think that's really important. I think he would've wanted that, and I didn't have any doubts about that. It was - didn't make it any easier.
GROSS: Do you know who were the recipients of his organs?
YOUNG: I actually don't. I think that was one place I couldn't quite go and find out. And, you know, they're very great about that. And, you know, I myself am an organ donor. I think it's really important. But
I actually don't. I think that was one place I couldn't quite go and find out. And, you know, they're very great about that. And, you know, I myself am an organ donor. I think it's really important. But I just couldn't go to find out and discover. But, you know, I'm sure they think about it as much as I do.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Young. He has a new collection of poems called "Book of Hours." Kevin, let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Kevin Young. He has a new book of poems called "Book of Hours." And the anchors of the book are poems about his father's death and poems about the birth of his son.
I want to ask you to read another poem about your father's death. And, you know, we've talked about you had to give away his clothes. You donated his organs. And this is the book about the dogs he left behind in the kennels that he had for them. And this poem was originally published in The New Yorker, right?
YOUNG: Yeah, that's right.
GROSS: Do you want to, before you read it, set it up for us?
YOUNG: Yes, it's called "Bereavement." And in it I was really trying to find a form and a metaphor for the feelings of grief and bereavement specifically. What was it like? And these dogs, which were true, and which I had known and loved, you know, seemed this apt metaphor. This is an excerpt of "Bereavement."
GROSS: 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 are fed. Their grief is colossal and forgetful. Each day they wake seeking his voice, their names Spy, Dusk, they seem to unremember everything. To them even hunger is a game. For that I envy.
You know, in your poem about your father's dogs, you ask yourself if they know that he's dead. And that - I never thought of that before, you know what I mean, when you die does - your animal knows you're not there, but they don't have a concept of dead. Had you thought about that before your father's death?
YOUNG: Never. I think really that experience, you know, I barely knew. You know, I was trying to grapple with it, and you know, that's something that's great about dogs, I think, is their living in the moment but also their sympathy, their empathy, their connectivity. So I was really trying to capture that and the ways that it felt different from how I felt, as you note, but then also the ways I was, you know, envious of how they could be in the world.
But they still seemed to miss him. You know, they still seemed to certainly seek that dailiness that my father had with them.
GROSS: What did you do with the dogs?
YOUNG: They went to good homes. That saint who came by took one of them, and the other one went to another good home. So that I'm happy about.
GROSS: Can I ask how your father died? I know it was an accident.
YOUNG: Yeah, my father died in a hunting accident. And, you know, it - he grew up on a farm in the segregated South in Louisiana, and he had hunted his whole life, and that's how they ate, you know? And growing up on a farm, that was really his connection to the land and to the past and to how humans had eaten for hundreds of years.
So after he died, I thought a lot about, you know, this idea of the happy hunting ground or, you know, Egyptian notions of the dead, as well as, you know, Southern traditions of - funereal traditions. Song and food really became important to me after he died.
GROSS: Was he shot by a friend he was hunting with?
YOUNG: Yes, it was an accident. So, yeah...
GROSS: Did you know that friend, and did you talk to him?
YOUNG: I did know him. I really didn't talk to him after, but, you know, I forgave him for what was just an accident. For me, you know, I wasn't really worried about how he died, just that he died. And I think that was really what the book is about too, is really about that grappling with how anyone you know and love dies, but especially if they die suddenly, all the things that are said or not said and sort of the dailiness of that.
I really wanted to capture a kind of day book of grief, I suppose.
GROSS: How old was your father when he died?
YOUNG: He was 61, which, you know, is pretty young. You know, you don't know how much longer he would've been with us. So that's really hard sometimes. But, you know, it's coming on 10 years, and that seemed really important to me for the book. I mean, it'll be 10 years next month. And so for me, that was really symbolic for the book.
GROSS: It being a sudden death, were there - did you feel like there were things you so much wanted to say that you'll never get to say?
YOUNG: Well, I was fortunate. I had had a great talk with him, you know, just a few days before, at Easter time. And so apart from its significance, and I think there's a poem called "Easter" in the book, it was also just, you know, refreshing to talk with him in such a kind of casual, friendly way. You know, so I felt in that - I felt lucky in a strange way that I'd had that chance to say just normal, everyday thinks and also to say I love you, which, you know, fathers and sons sometimes don't always say enough.
And so that was really great, given the circumstances.
GROSS: So your new book is - has a lot of poems about grief and mourning. One of the poems of mourning is for the miscarried baby, the miscarriage that your wife had. And it's a really good poem. I'd like to ask you to read it. Is that OK? Do you mind reading that?
GROSS: I just wanted to say, I - I know there's a lot of poems about grief and mourning, but they're good poems, and we've all been there. And if you haven't been there, I hate to put it this way, you will. You will go, and it's nice to know there is good poems out there.
YOUNG: Well, thanks. I - you know, I think miscarriage is something people don't always talk about. So it really for me helped frame what happened after, which was the good news of a child.
Miscarriage. One week after, we make love again for the first time, hopeful you're healed. And the wind still loud against new windows, the day dances around us into dark. What remains besides pain? How to mourn what's just a growing want? The baby books put away, the hand-me-downs we'll never hand. The heat shutters on, and against your chest I nod off, hearing your lone heart whisper uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.
GROSS: How long after the miscarriage did you actually have a baby?
YOUNG: Man, I don't exactly recall, not soon enough, you know, but soon enough that we were, you know, felt really blessed and lucky.
GROSS: How soon after the event that leaves you mourning do you actually sit down and write a poem, do you actually feel capable of writing one or even interested in writing one?
YOUNG: I think the hardest thing, really, is trying not to write. You know, there's a real desire to, as a poet, to kind of make a poem. And you're almost just writing for survival right after. You don't know anything else. It would be like a swimmer. You would go for a long swim. It's what you know.
At the same time, you know you're not going to achieve something, at least I felt that way, and it really wasn't until later, you know, I wrote some poems, as I said, that kind of broke the dam of that, and about food, and they're a way of looking to the side. But to write directly about it, it really took some time.
I was trying to remember how long, a few years, but I have that kind of raw material from right after. And so they're really not poems, I hope, of memory so much as poems of the moment and those moments right after. And there was an immediacy I wanted, but I also wanted to capture a form, let's call it a music, that kind of fought against those feelings, those rawnesses.
So there's a lot of rhyme and structure that I really wanted to apply, and that's what I hope makes it a poem and not, you know, just this raw experience, which tend to overwhelm one.
GROSS: Kevin Young will be back in the second half of the show. His new collection of poems is called "Book of Hours." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with poet Kevin Young, author of the new collection "Book of Hours." It's his eighth volume of poetry. He's edited seven collections, including "The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing." His collection of essays "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness," was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Young is a professor of creative writing and English at Emory University.
So we talked earlier about how, you know, your book is anchored with poems of grief for your father and poems of joy when your son is born. But there was a moment of fear when your son was born and had jaundice. And I just want you to read an excerpt of that poem. It's - there's some really nice, you know, scary, but nice descriptions in there. So would you mind reading an excerpt of that?
YOUNG: Not at all.
GROSS: And I want you to introduce it for us.
YOUNG: You introduced it so well. It's simply called "Jaundice." (Reading) It's hard being human. This morning yellow overtook you, a thousand yolks broken beneath your skin. Splotches of red, and you, not rousing, drowsy, listless. Your head dips like a drunk or a duck in a shooting gallery. Wrung, we ring and bring you to a doctor whose worried, brown face; I try hiding from your mother. She weeps over your body, modeled, bare, losing weight. You're black, burnt looking bellybutton, even your feet flushed. What color should you be? Hard to say, my black-eyed Susan, barely born.
GROSS: You know that line: What color should you be, is the line that you later repeat. What are the layers of meaning that line has for you?
YOUNG: Oh, I mean I think it's about, you know, humanity, you know, like the beginning of the poem says. It's about race, I suppose. But it's also just about, you know, newness. You know, what should this being that you've birthed - or if you're my wife, you birth - be? You know, you're trying to find everything out at once and it can be so overwhelming. And all those layers I think were so important and, of course, you're just terrified. And I know, you know, other people will experience those feelings too and so I was just trying to capture that bewilderment - which isn't all bad, but also has that scary edge to it.
GROSS: Your baby made a full recovery from the jaundice?
YOUNG: Perfectly fine. Playing football, then catch just yesterday.
GROSS: Good. You've written, it's hard to resist writing about fatherhood but I actually don't as much now directly. That can get weird, like you're not having the experiences with your kid as much as poeticizing him or her. Can you expand on that?
YOUNG: Yeah. I mean if you were playing catch and then ran back in and started writing catch poems, I don't know...
YOUNG: ...something missing. For me it was, you know, honestly, I almost decided as soon as he was sort of starting to talk that's when I would stop the poems. I don't think I thought that so consciously, you know, they say wonderful things that you say and go rush and write down. So it's not like, you know, that doesn't continue, but for this book I really wanted it bound by that feeling. And, you know, that said, it was life way before it was a book. You know, when I wrote the "Jaundice" poem, initially, I didn't know what would happen. And so it was only looking back that I was able to kind of turn it into a poem and make it something in the sequence that was about moving forward and moving on.
GROSS: Your father was a doctor. Was your mother a doctor too?
YOUNG: My mom's not a doctor of medicine, though she does have a PhD in chemistry and I think was the first black woman to get a PhD from the University of Nebraska in chemistry, certainly. And so, but growing up, they didn't talk about that. I mean we just thought about home and Louisiana and those, that deep, deep country, which I love so much and is, you know, that red clay that's part of my growing up. And though I didn't, you know, ever live there, but their growing up and my whole family lives there. And they both had come from, you know, similar backgrounds and so I really applauded - later I came to understand all it took for them to carry all that with them as they moved around the country and did these different things and, you know, made my life and our lives possible.
GROSS: How do they feel about you becoming a poet?
GROSS: Because you know how it is, like so many people want their kids to, you know, have the security of a real job.
YOUNG: Yeah. I don't think my mom...
GROSS: ...it's not the most lucrative thing. Like you're lucky, you teach, you teach at Emory University so your, you've got that job. But you wouldn't necessarily.
YOUNG: Yeah. No, I think my mom didn't breathe a sigh of relief 'til I finally got a job, though I had a book and, you know, had other things, I think that was a real relief.
GROSS: You've written a lot about music: jazz, hip-hop, blues. Do you think music has influenced your poetry?
YOUNG: Absolutely. I think music is poetry in a sense that I think the condition of poetry I'm going for has some qualities of music that it aspires to. But I also think that what I love about poetry is the way that music is in the poem, is in the words themselves. It's not behind it. It's not in front of it. It is it. And music and the blues, they have taught me a lot and I think in this book, "Book of Hours," there is this kind of blues sensibility. I mean there's moments of humor even in the sorrow and I'm really interested in the way that you can - the blues have that tragicomic view of life - what Langston Hughes call laughing to keep from crying. So there was really that sustaining quality, that philosophy - if you will - that the blues provide.
GROSS: Your book is called "Book of Hours," and the final poem in your book is titled "Book of Hours." So I want you to explain for us what a book of hours is.
YOUNG: Well, I realized that it sounds like o-u-r-s, like our book, which I actually kind of love. But it also is, you know, a book of hours, h-o-u-r-s, which is, you know, a little devotional book people would have made. And they, people probably know them from their beautiful illuminated letters, and they were have this kind of intimate quality though, of prayer and psalm and I wanted to really capture that kind of intimacy, but also that almost more literal meaning of hours and days and moments in the process of grief and joy.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to read from the final part of the title poem, "Book of Hours." But before we do, I want to say the first time I read this poem I was worried you were dying.
YOUNG: Oh no.
GROSS: That's probably not the reaction you wanted me to have, right?
YOUNG: No. I didn't but, you know, I suppose it's about risk. It's about - I don't know, for me it's more about resurrection. Maybe you have to go through that first phase in order to find that rebirth phase. But it has its quality. I mean in the beginning of the poem I say, what good are wishes if they aren't used up? And for me that was really some kind of motto toward the end of the book and the end of that process, I suppose.
GROSS: So would you read the end of this for us?
YOUNG: Yes. Yeah, this is toward the end of the poem. And the beginning part is imagining what's a beloved - the you in the poem - who's both real and imagined, will think or feel upon learning that the speaker has died.
GROSS: You could see why I thought you were dead. Not dead, but dying.
GROSS: You could see why I was worried about you.
YOUNG: Well, we're all I suppose, you know...
YOUNG: ...but no, only in that way.
YOUNG: (Reading) Other arms will lift you up - I know, carrying you crying to my grave. The weeds and weather will sing my name. Look away. Let them let me down without you watching. Sunflowers, their heads seek the sun - or been without one even after cut, angling in the water toward what brightness we borrow. It's a death there is no cure for. Life, the long disease, if we're lucky. Otherwise, short trip beyond and below. Noon, growing shadow, I chase the quiet 'round the house. Soon the sound, wind, wills its way against the panes. Welcome to the rain. Welcome the moon's squinting into space. The trees bow like priests. The storm lifts up the leaves. Why not sing?
GROSS: You know, most of our conversation has been about grief, with poems about grief, so like why not sing doesn't seem to be a bad note to end on end and interesting note for your book to end on.
YOUNG: Yeah. I mean I think for me - if anything - it's a bit like the end of Whitman in the sense of the same wish, you know, he's imagining one day I'll be part of the grass and look for me under your boot soles, that that will be somehow redemptive. And so, I don't know, singing is the closest I can come to that feeling of, not a song, just of the self, but of, you know, why not sing now? Why not raise our voices in praise or however we think of it? And for me that was really the end of the book always and I was glad it made it there.
GROSS: Well, Kevin Young, thank you so much for talking with us.
YOUNG: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Kevin Young is the author of the new collection of poems, "Book of Hours." Coming up, we remember biographer Justin Kaplan, who also edited two volumes of "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations." He died Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.
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