Kevin Young

NEA Literature Fellow
Kevin Young

Photo by Kate Tuttle

Transcript of conversation with Keven Young

Keven Young:

Once I thought everything has a soul

Then I learnt only the fool fears the tree--

It is empty--

So too the wind that sends it which

way & that--

Now I know God is such a wind

from which we are rent--

The heavens take the tree

from the tree-- leaf by leaf--

Being gone, taken, is what means Heaven--

It is full--of wings--

A music of what is missing

since nothing but men have souls

tho, it appears, not many.

That was poet Keven Young reading "Ash Wednesday" a poem from his new book, Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Born in 1970, Keven Young has been called the poet of his generation. He's written six full-length books of poetry, most with a unifying theme. He uses and extends elements from film, art and fiction. His book Black Maria, for example, is film noir in verse, but his interplay with music and musical themes runs like a line throughout all his poetry. His book of poems, To Repel Ghosts: The Remix, is labeled as a "double album" In Jelly Roll: a Blues, Young draws inspiration from music, Dixieland, cantata, rhapsody, of course variations of the blues. In his latest book, Ardency, Young gives us the history of the famous Amistad rebellion and subsequent trial in a chorus of voices. He conjures a mixture of history and music, interweaving spirituals, halting in eloquent English from African voices, lamentations, and the formal words of 19th century grammar texts. The result is a monumental work that in beautiful and searing language reveals much about the complexities of American history. Keven Young has won many awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches creative writing and English at Emory University. I recently spoke to Keven Young at the Association of Writers and Writing programs conference in Washington DC. Ardency had just been published. I asked Kevin to tell me about his latest book.

Keven Young: It is a long poem, epic poem. And I think I sort of discovered in writing it the difference between the two. And about the Amistad Rebellion in 1839 that took place off the coast of Cuba, led by Cinque. And the men, mostly men, from the Mende people of East Africa, Sierra Leone, were the-- involved in the rebellion. And the ship, Amistad, then rerouted by night. They tried to sort of steer east toward the rising sun, and the would-be slave owners who they had spared because they didn't know how to navigate would steer by night using the stars trying to get back to some shore. And they ended up off Long Island, funny enough. They traveled all the way, and wound their way up where U.S. sailors found them, and they were thrown in jail. And they were trying to decide whose property were they, essentially. But abolitionists took up the case and they argued it, including John Quincy Adams, who helped argue it in front of the Supreme Court that they should be free. So such an important American case, but also an international one.

Jo Reed: How did you decide to write about the Amistad rebellion?

Keven Young: Poems evolve. I don't feel like I choose them, they just come to me. In the case of "Ardency" I was--just came across, you know, I can't believe it but it was 20 years ago, these letters written by the Amistad from jail. The Amistads, I should say, they were often referred to by name. And I was really struck by the power of their words, and the eloquence of what they said and what they didn't say, and of what they couldn't say. They weren't able to say, "Get me out of here immediately," they had to sort of plead their case, and also in some ways they prevailed upon a kind of liberation theology that they had in a way created, I feel like. You can see in the letters in taking the teachings they were given by the abolitionists who sort of at the same converted them to Christianity, and then also taught them English. So there was a simultaneity of that, and also they're in jail. So it seemed so symbolic to me of a kind of larger African American experience. And they were able to speak about what's happening to them without saying it in many ways, and I think that's a really, a powerful art.

Jo Reed: It's so interesting, because when you think about language can conceal as much as it reveals.

Keven Young: Absolutely. Especially the vernacular. I think African American vernacular English is so much tied up in that. So the book, I don't think I was very conscious when I first, excuse me, was writing the poems, but I think looking back that's what struck me. I was really just blown away by their language and their inventiveness, and you can see it in some of the poems, I think.

Jo Reed: Would you read for us, please?

Keven Young: Sure. It's a big book, so it can be hard to pick what to read. But maybe I'll read this first letter written by it was actually a young boy named Kalle, and he learned English fairly quickly. And this is a letter he wrote.

It's called "Westville," which is the name of where he's writing from. And it's dated October 30th, 1840. It's addressed to Louis Tappan, who was one of the chief abolitionists and supporters of the case. "Westville."

"Dear sir, Mr. Tappan. I want to tell you something. I going to write you a letter. I will write you a few lines my friend. I am began to write you a letter. I bless you because I love you. I want pray for you every night and every morning and evening and I want love you too much. I will write letter for you from that time. Jesus began to preach and say repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. My dear friend I thanks you a plenty because you send me a letter and I thank you for it, and I want pray for you every evening every night, and every morning by day and by night, and His always. Mr. Tappan, love us. Pray Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be. I want to tell you something. I have no hat. Dear sir, I write you if you so please and so kind I please you, that I please you, let me have a hat to cover my head, that I please you, dear friend. I tell you some thing. I please you that you have let me a Bible. And, my friend, I want you give me a hat, and I thank you a plenty, and I have no Bible and hat both. My friend, I give you good loves. I believe you are my friend. My sir, I want you tell your friends my good loves. I want love all teachers who teach me and all my people good things about Jesus Christ, God in heaven, and everythings. I bless them that teach me good. I pray for them. I want write some, your name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive, forgive our debtors. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever, Amen. Oh, Lord, my friend, I write this paper to you, because I love you too much, my sir. I want to tell you something. When we in Havana vessel, we have no water to drink. When we eat rice, white man no give us to drink. When sun set, white man give us little water. When we in Havana vessel white man give rice to all who no eat. Fast he take whip you. A plenty of them died, and Havana men take them, put in water. I try to write letter of paper for Mr. you. And Jesus said unto him, 'No man, having put his hand to the plow and looking back if fit for the kingdom of God.' My friend, I am stop writing your letter. Gone to you a letter. My name Kalle. I am your friend. I give you this letter."

Jo Reed: The repetition that moves throughout that is very, very powerful, as is the language itself, and it's so visual, Kevin.

Keven Young: Well, you can see this young boy writing this thing, and what he's saying, "Give me a hat." That's so heartbreaking. It's such a simple, strange, but necessary request. Imagine being in the colds of Connecticut for the first time. But also it almost all seems prefaced to that last part where he starts talking about being in Havana vessel, and what it means to have been sort of stolen and sold, illegal I might add. The international slave trade was illegal then, but it was, of course, still going on. And just that sort of a form of testimony that requires all that other, not just pleading but the other kind of declaration or something that he's saying to me that somewhat conflating Tappan, and this God he started hearing about. But then also saying something really powerful there at the end about, "No man who hold his hand to the plow and turns back." It's almost like a kind of wrestling with this idea of who's fit to be saved and who's not that I think is really powerful.

Jo Reed: I wonder if there's a way that poetry like yours reveals history in a way a straight historical narrative doesn't...if it reveals the truth behind the facts.

Keven Young: Well, one hopes in some way. I mean, I guess that's not my goal writing the book. I think I want to say what they had to say and see what they had to say, some of which they had said already, and some of which was just imagining and identifying with the feelings of being in a strange land in a strange time, in a strange tongue. And I think that alienation may be-- you can maybe feel in some way. And certainly I hope in the poems you can feel.

Jo Reed: There's a musicality in your poems, there's a rhythm. It's almost like the rhythm of somebody talking.

Keven Young: Sure. Well, for me, I was always interested in the rhythm, rather, than say the meter. I mean, to me, the spoken aspect of speech is what determines the line to me, or rather the line sometimes determines the speech. So I was really interested in the music, the phraseology, if you will, of the line, and it's something I try to drum into my students. And also having studied with Denise Levertov, the poet, who really writes about organic form, and the nature of the line, and the line break and likens it to the musical score. She used to say, "The page is a score," over and over again. And I think between those two ideas of listening and the sort of lineage of the poem as a spoken thing, I think that's where some of my line come from.

Jo Reed: Your poems have a way of wedding music and history.

Keven Young: Well, I hope so. The question of sort of music and history I think are so important to understanding the poem as an idea, but also us as people in the world. It's sort of what I turn to, to help understand the world when it feels it's falling apart, or-- music soothes one, it brings one through things. At least it has for me. And it's also provided a structure, I guess, for me for my own poetic music.

Jo Reed: It's interesting, because you think of music as being the expression of the inexpressible in some ways. And the thing that's so tricky about poetry is that poetry does the same thing, only poetry really does need to find the words.
Keven Young: Right, or at least find the form. In many ways I feel like the form carries so much of the weight in a poem, obviously. But I think we sometimes forget that. And certainly my students starting out, I try to get them aware of the big structure, how it can solve a lot of the problems, that if you feel like you're just trying to get a word down can-- you can get lost in the weeds or the forest or the trees. And, I don't know, I really think it's an important thing to keep in mind, at least for me. And especially with this new book, Ardency, I was really interested in using the form, that big structure to help reign in this large thing about America, and faith, and violence, all these kind of big questions. It really required me to have this kind of form throughout. So it has all these sort of sevens and threes in it, you know. It has--the first section is 21 poems, the second section is 14 poems, and then I really wanted sort of seven big sections for last libretto section. And then it got violent, of course, because I had these sonnet sequence at the end. So I was always really interested in that kind of use of numbers in order to kind of help me think about this process.

Jo Reed: When did you first decide that you wanted a writing life, or how did that life come to you?

Keven Young: Brutally, and <laughs> it's one of those things you-- it's like being called to something. It's a vocation. You don't have a choice, really. Funny enough, I just saw my first writing teacher from when I was 13, just literally here at the conference. And it was terrific to see him. We've kept in touch over the years. But I was literally 13, took a class. We had to-- his name is Tom Avril. This was in Topeka, Kansas. We took-- I took a summer class, and we had to write little stories, and little poems and things. And he was just reminding me I wrote a poem, which I would describe as awful, about a tomb in a Egyptian sort of mythology. So I suppose I was always working out history or something. But I remember he would pass back the poems that he maybe liked but not worth discussing without your name on them, like the next day, someone would type them up. That was almost more of a thrill than if it had your name on it, because it was like a secret thrill. And I think that that kind of taught me something that I didn't feel ready to let go of, and so I just really kept writing and writing. And but of course I didn't realize I was preparing for a writing life. I thought that's what you would do. Everyone wanted-- why-- if you could make a poem why wouldn't anyone want to, I think I thought. And it was really only I'd sort of probably halfway written, or written half of what-- the poems that became my first book, that I became comfortable or started to think of myself as a poet, even though I just had to tell these stories about my family, in that case, in Louisiana, and how my parents had grown up, and how my grandparents had to.

Jo Reed: Stories about the old days.

Keven Young: Yes, and people always were coming up to me and saying, "How did you know that," or-- and I think that's why I think I felt comfortable being able to write about the Amistad in some ways, because there was always this active imagination and identification in one's writing.

Jo Reed: Why poetry rather than fiction? Because I could see you going in either direction.

Keven Young: Well, I wish, yeah. I chose poetry for the money, actually.

Jo Reed: Oh, yeah...

Keven Young: You know, I guess I picked the wrong on that. No, honestly, I think I had a poet's temperament. I would sit down and write a story and I would get past the first-- to the first page and I would want every word to be right, and significant, and have weight. And I think that's part of it. And some of it is just the music. I love that about the poem.

Jo Reed: And you mentioned this with your first poem, the Egyptian poem, many of them have this play between myth and history. You seem to sort of like towing around that intersection. Talk about that a little bit.

Keven Young: I think it's just part of the writing. I mean, in this book, Ardency, I was really interested in getting the history right so I could talk about, I guess, the music of the moment more, and the emotion of it. So I really wanted a kind of accuracy in it, but I also called it a chronicle because I wanted to have that feel of almost like those new world chronicles that people wrote where they said, "There's a tribe over there that has four heads," or "Their stomachs have their mouth on them," or some strange kinds of imaginings that seem to me so tied up in the new world. And that kind of idea of a whole hemisphere of magical strangeness I think lurks behind the idea of a chronicle. So that's not here, exactly, but I wanted it kind of echoed. And I guess I also just wanted the operatic quality of the experience. So that, to me, meant I-- conceived of Cinque's long section as a libretto, but also I guess speaks to this idea of, if not myth than history as a big H.

Jo Reed: This could be jumping the gun, but do you think about this as an opera, I mean literally?

Keven Young: Often, yeah. And I've thought about-- I've talked to people about working on that. So hopefully one of these days something will happen like that.

Jo Reed: Because as soon as you said that, I immediately got a picture in my mind. I thought, "Oh, wow, that really could work."

Keven Young: Yeah. Well, we'll see.

Jo Reed: You've had performance on your mind in the past; with your book Black Maria...a film noir in verse, the jacket says produced and directed by Keven Young.

Keven Young: Yeah, I think that's on there somewhere. Well, and that became a play not through my workings, but through the Providence Black Reparatory Company. And I was so pleased that they did that, and moved as well. It was a strange experience to sit in the audience and hear your own words read or spoken by--and sometimes chorally by these people on stage in ways I would have never imagined. And half the time I was, "I wrote that?" And I feel like they really pulled out the humor at times in the book, and then also the dark sort of undertow at times.

Jo Reed: Poetry to me seems one of the most paradoxical of all the art forms. Because on one hand it's the most interior, I think and the most solitary. And at the other hand it often has a quality of performance, because there's readings. And it requires two impulses at once.

Keven Young: That's well said. I think so. I often find that the books I think of as private books are more public for people, and the books I think of as public are often quieter and more personal in some ways. So I think even for writers they don't always know what is going to connect. I had a recent poem published about hearing my son's heartbeat for the first time in utero. And I've been struck by how people responded to that poem in a personal way, because it seemed sort of personal for me, but then it was-- I don't know. It always had this mix of feelings. And I think you're right, that poems are often jostling between these poles.

Jo Reed: Did you have a moment when were reading something and you looked at the page, and it was this moment of realizing-- having a writer make you realize what words could do?

Keven Young: Yeah. I think the first book I really loved in that particular way, I mean, I would sort of, I was in Kansas, a kid in Kansas trying to read a poem. So I would go into the bookstore, which was like a B. Dalton kind of, almost like airport-like bookstore, and just get whatever they had. And so I read very eclectically which I think has served me well in some way, just even as a teacher. I would read very-- sort of whatever was on the shelf that was new where I-- new to me. And, but at a certain point I came across "Thomas and Beulah" by Rita Dove. And that was such an important book. I remember reading in a magazine, I think it might have been Essence magazine, my mother's subscription to that, that she had won the Pulitzer Prize. And I thought, "How come no one had come to my house and told me that this black woman had won the Pulitzer Prize." And so I ordered the book, I think, and certainly sought it out. And reading it really taught me a lot about history, and also personal history and how to interweave those two, and the drama of language, I suppose.

Jo Reed: Earlier, I was talking to another poet, and she said that she didn't like taking literature classes. She took a lot of political science and a lot of history she said, because literature classes tended to make her look at literature as a critic rather than as a creative person. I wonder what you think about that?

Keven Young: I don't know if I agree necessarily. I can see why someone would say that. I try to read as a reader, and also read as a writer. I mean, they're not so different. One has to sometimes sit down and say, "What do I like?" It's really hard to write a good review, for instance, as opposed to a bad review. A bad review, it's pretty easy to say. But it's hard to say, "What works really well about this thing," Because then you're also a little bit exposed. But I like "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," and this is why it's hard to name the possibilities or the ways things work for you. I do think that, from teaching creative writing classes and teaching poems in there, that students often are thinking in a critical way, and sort of in a negative sense of critical. They're often just trying to get at what's wrong, what's not working. And sometimes you have to get them to try to read as, a little more generously. And that's really how I try to get people to read in both senses their own work, because you can learn from even things that aren't going right in your work. But also just reading for pleasure is a kind of generosity. You have to bring something to the page or the piece. And too often I "The feelings I'm having the writer is putting there," and sometimes they're your own reaction to, and connection. And the best literature I think requires you to kind of breathe into it and give it this life.

Jo Reed: Kevin, thank you, I know you're really busy. Congratulations on your new book.

Keven Young: Thank you very much.

Jo Reed: Thanks. That was poet Keven Young. His latest book is Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. The music is excerpts from "Some Are More Equal," an improvisation performed by Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber from the cd, Oil.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U–just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, NEA Jazz Master and recent Guggenheim Fellow, Randy Weston

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Poet Kevin Young talks about his book, Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels. [23:45]