Ed note: Kevin Young gave wonderful reading on Monday at the 92nd Street Y here in NYC. He read new poems plus selections from his books, which you can buy here. Here's David Lehman's introduction:
Good evening. It gives me enormous pleasure to introduce this reading by Kevin Young, for in addition to admiring his work as an editor, a curator, a writer, and above all a poet, I have been lucky enough to collaborate with him on two very different projects, about which I will leave you in momentary suspense while I list a few of his accomplishments, as is customary on such an occasion.
By his titles you shall know him. Kevin Young is the author of books of poetry entitled Dear Darkness, For the Confederate Dead, Jelly Roll: A Blues, and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels – and as the list suggests the history and culture of black Americans figures very significantly in his creative and professional work. He has a natural flair for the noir in more than one sense. I first encountered Kevin Young when he was writing film noir poems and editing his turn-of-the-century anthology Giant Steps named in honor of a jazz composition by John Coltrane and introducing us to “a cross-section of cutting-edge black writers,” including, among the poets, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Harryette Mullen, Natasha Trethewey. Nothing if nor prolific, Kevin has edited anthologies of jazz poems, blues poems, and a selected edition of John Berryman, the white poet who dared to adopt a persona in blackface for his most original work, The Dream Songs.
Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, Young’s 2011 collection, is characteristically greater than the sum of its parts; it is unified in tone, style, subject matter, and ambition. Young comes at you in the form of a minstrel show in one poem, a hymn in another, proverbs and prayers, diary entries and letters, to look at the 1839 slave-ship mutiny with the multiple perspectives the truth calls for. And at the same time he was writing Ardency he was editing The Art of Losing, an anthology of poems of grief and healing. The elegiac impulse is strong in his own recent poems, such as the brilliant selection chosen by Langdon Hammer for the current issue of The American Scholar. These are poems that deal with that gravest of one-time events in the life of a man, the death of his father. In such a one as “Wintering,” the palpable chill of death makes the poet wish “to be warm -- & worn -- // like the quilt my grandmother / must have made, one side / a patchwork of color -- // blues, green like the underside / of a leaf – the other / an old pattern of the dolls // of the world, never cut out / but sewn whole – if the world / were Scotsmen & sailors // in traditional uniforms.” The quilt as a metonymy for art is what turns metaphor into truth. Mourning “is just / a moment, many, // grief the long betrothal / beyond. Grief what / we wed, ringing us.”
The first time Kevin Young and I collaborated was on January 4, 2007, when we agreed to take part in what Ken Gordon, of Quickmuse.com, called a “special serial agon.” Kevin and I were given four prompts and asked to write poems in response, with a limit of fifteen minutes per prompt, and with each keystroke preserved in real-time. Among the prompts was a quote from the then-recently deceased James Brown: “The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” We wrote poems based on the line, which both of us endorsed, with qualification and elaboration, and I was delighted to hear the quotation once again at a reading Kevin gave from his new award-winning prose book, The Grey Album. On that same day we also wrote poems prompted by quotes from or about three other notables who had just died, Saddam Hussein, Gerald Ford, and Robert Altman. You’ll find it on the net: go to Quickmuse. Our poems also appeared in New American Writing.
In contrast to that improvisatory collaboration of simultaneous verse-making, the second time Kevin and I worked on a project together was the year he made the selections as the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2011, of which we are both I think justly proud. During that period we met, either by plan or serendipitously, at a Boston hotel, a New York art gallery, a London airport, and a café off an Atlanta road named after the fellow who pursued the Fountain of Youth and discovered Florida instead. It was a pleasure to work with him – and to celebrate life and art with this man of extraordinary intelligence, energy, ambition, and a contagious joie de vivre, a particular joy in living that stands behind even the darkest of his elegies.
-- David Lehman