Kevin Young perfectly illustrates poetry’s enduring vitality — and his new book reveals exactly why. A survey of American history through the “intimate eye” that only poetry can provide, Brown pinpoints pop-cultural touchstones and their impact on how we live. Young evocatively describes how Public Enemy’s politically charged anthems like “Fight the Power” served as the soundtrack to his college parties, and how Prince’s Purple Rain still brings to mind a harrowing high school experience. His poems, on their own, pierce in their wisdom; together, they connect to form a vibrant tapestry of black life.
Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker, has been publishing collections for two decades. A National Book Award finalist and recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship, he made a splash last year with the prescient Bunk, a comprehensive volume on real instances of “fake news.” Brown represents Young still breaking new ground, albeit subtly. It’s divided into “Home” and “Field” recordings, contrasting portraits of his coming-of-age in Topeka, Kansas — the place where poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes once lived — with the pivotal time-markers that surrounded it. The effect is a book that reflects Young’s creative evolution, fusing the personal with the historical.
Young spoke with EW about his new collection, from its inspiration to its political underpinnings, as well as his broader ideas on poetry’s social value in the here and now. Read on below, and purchase your copy of Brown here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you conceive this collection?
KEVIN YOUNG: It’s a book that’s been brewing for a while. The title poem is one I’ve been trying to write for some time, about growing up in Topeka, Kansas, and going to the church that Rev. Brown of Brown v. Board [was at]. His daughter Linda played piano and organ in the church, and so to have that connection to history always struck me as something worthy of a poem, but also of that time in my life … I was also interested in the intersection of the public and the private. The ways that these bigger forces of history get played out in individuals. In this place, I really wanted to think about what Kansas meant and what history and I had to say to each other.
Virtually of the poems are set in Kansas, and you explore its rich history.
I had moved a lot when we moved there. I think I’d moved five times before I was 9, or six times before I was 10, or something. When we got there, it was different from where else I had lived, if only because of, I think, how old I was. They’re coming-of-age poems, I realized. The poems tell one side of that story, which was the community of black folks — which has a bit of a tradition in Topeka. Langston Hughes was in Topeka years later … There was this kind of connection that I realized later, to poets and black artists in particular. On the other side, there are some of the questions of not belonging that come up in the book — and racism.
Your last book, Bunk, about real instances of “fake news,” is also deeply historical, but nonfiction and heavily researched. What’s the attraction to looking toward the past?
I hadn’t really thought about them together in some sense. I was working on them around the same time. They seem intertwined in some way, but they were also a relief from each other. I would turn to the poems in order not to be thinking of the history of fakers, and then I would turn to the fakers in order to think about these broader ways of looking at history. What a poem can do is provide you this intimate eye that, for the length of a poem and hopefully a little bit after, can provide testimony or a point of view. The poem which starts the collection has a speaker who’s talking about moving north, and all of the reasons one would move away from the South. It’s not clear if the person moves north or west or midwest. The Great Migration underlays some of that. I always felt connected to that tradition of migration and exile. It was a very personal connection. While certainly there were personal aspects of Bunk in my knowing fakers over the years, it’s just a very different register. In Brown, I’m not only trying to talk about these larger forces — though if I am, it’s through the intimate eye.
In poetry, I think history happens — it’s part of what I turn to to understand. But it’s what we all turn to, or should. We’re in a moment, now, where I think people are understanding that historic forces are at play even if we aren’t aware of them. It might be good to be aware of them. I don’t think I was so conscious of that when I was writing. I really was assembling this like not quite a museum, but like an exhibit of these folks — some were in my voices, some were in these other voices, and some were my reactions to these other voices. Someone like Arthur Ash, I just grew up with this picture on my wall of this great tennis player and champion. It was really important to me, seeing him there and feeling connected to him. I wanted to write about that.
Talk to me a little bit more about your view of poetry’s social value.
A poem can provide testimony, a poem can provide solace, it can provide a connection. But it also can provide a sense of something you knew was there, but you couldn’t quite put into words: I think they can often articulate for you — and this is as true for the poet as it is for the reader — something you didn’t quite know. That sense of mystery, but also of revelation, is what I turn to poems for. They’re able to embody experience. We need more and more of that. We need that intimacy because for all of its seeming connectivity, I feel like a lot of the other forms — whether it’s social media or the internet — pretend to give you intimacy but really don’t. I’m not saying I don’t like those forms, but poetry provides a really different attachment. There’s something about the kind of time travel that a poem can provide. It can take you to somewhere else — a culture far from you, a language far from you, but suddenly you’re there. You’re that person, seeing with that person’s eyes. I think that’s really tremendous. Even things like cinema or more traditional history can’t quite do that.
You’ve been publishing collections for decades. How has your approach to and idea of poetry evolved?
I’m in an interesting position now, where I get to see some of the best poetry around being poetry editor of The New Yorker. I’m really aware of how hard it is to write good poems, but how many people are engaged in it and really seeking out their way and their voice and their communities. I don’t take that lightly … Another thing that happened for me is I thought I was done writing about my son and his journey, but I realized a lot of what happened with him was really connected to my childhood. It was really the story of two childhoods. That helped me understand him better, to see the ways that some of the things that happened to me were still true.
I was also writing when Black Lives Matter was moving to the fore, and there were a lot of feelings of young black men and boys. You can’t help but think about that as well. To write about Emmett Till and his murder, and not write about these other things — to have a book about childhood and to end it with Emmett Till, I had to understand some other aspects of childhood, and I ended up writing other poems that connected the two.
This, fundamentally, feels like a coming-of-age collection, as you said.
The book changed when it used to be divided between these “public” poems and the “private” ones. It became a book when I realized those things were intimately connected, when I realized that these poems about my son growing up were also part of this story.