Kevin Young Is Ready to Engage the Public with Poetry

(A. Scott/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Kevin Young, the director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of the National Book Award long-listed Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Post-Facts, and Fake News, became poetry editor of The New Yorker just this past March. In this profile of Young in Esquire, he talks about the “great hoax” of race, the musicality and influences of his own work, and his desire to engage the public anew with poetry, which he says can “take us out of ourselves and bring us back a little bit different.”

Young claims Lucille Clifton, Seamus Heaney, and Rita Dove as important influences, and says he sees music as the essence of his art. Though his poems do not lack for depth, they rarely scan as difficult, let alone forbidding. He likes puns, and freely borrows forms from other fields (the blues, fugitive-slave posters, film noir). In college, he told me, he realized that “poetry was not this thing in the atmosphere. You have to look in your backyard. That’s the stuff to write about.” At the time, he’d never read a poem that represented someone like his grandmother. “I remember thinking, If I can get her in a poem, then I’ll have done something.” Young began to look to poetry as a sort of archive, vindicating evidence of “family—blood, adopted, imagined,” to borrow the dedication of Most Way Home. In “Oblivion,” he writes what might be his motto, or maybe a fervent dream: “Nothing // stays lost forever.”

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