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Kevin Young, poet and Emory University professor, writes movingly about food

Credit: Tod Martens

Credit: Tod Martens

I’ve really enjoyed reading “Dear Darkness” (Knopf, $26.95) — the latest collection of poetry from Emory professor Kevin Young (left). The book is a meditation on the death of his father, but within it are odes to the Southern foods of his Louisiana family. I think it’s some of the best food writing out there. Here’s my story that was published in the print edition of the AJC on Oct. 4.

In 1996, The New Yorker ran a large photo and a short profile of the young poets of the Dark Room Collective — a Boston-based group of African-American writers that had formed nearly a decade earlier at Harvard for readings, study, discussion and mentoring. The profile claimed this group “could well turn out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance.”

Two of these poets are certainly well on their way toward creating an Atlanta Renaissance.

Standing on the far left in the photo are Natasha Trethewey, who went on to win the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and Kevin Young, author of six collections of poetry.

Though not as well known, Young is making a name for himself with his impressive body of work, including his latest release, “Dear Darkness” (Knopf, $26.95), a meditation on death, loss and the ritual of food in families. Young, like Trethewey, teaches in the creative writing department at Emory University, where he also curates the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.

Now 38, Young has won many awards and fellowships, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for “Jelly Roll, ” a book of poems about the blues.

“Kevin Young represents a new generation of not just African-American literature, but contemporary literature, ” says E. Ethelbert Miller, the director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center.

“I like his intellect and the very strong spoken-word element in his writing, ” says Miller. “Kevin Young also engages his readers and forces them to work. Within 15 years, he’ll be a very serious candidate to be poet laureate of the United States.”

From his office on the top floor of Emory’s Woodruff Library, Young oversees the 30,000-volume donation from Raymond Danowski — thought to have been the largest private collection of poetry when he gave it to the university in 2004.

Young came the following year to oversee this candy shop of verse. It contains many treasures, including a first edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass, ” one of 11 copies of William Carlos Williams’ first book, and a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” that had belonged to Anne Sexton and is filled with her handwritten notes.

“We also have probably the best [W. H.] Auden collection in the world, ” Young says, walking through the two rooms that exhibit a small fraction of the collection. “We’re working on a plan to display more of it.”

In person, Young has an affable, loose-limbed manner. He slings a man-bag over his shoulder, wears dark-framed glasses and sports a small beard that hugs his chin like a clamshell. Married to academic editor Kate Tuttle, Young splits his time between Cambridge, Mass., where his family still lives, and Atlanta. He hopes to move to Atlanta full-time within the next year.

Though Young channels the voices and locutions of his extended Louisiana family in his poetry, he speaks with the flat vowels and cadence of his Topeka, Kan., childhood, where he was one of the few children of color.

Yet the syncopated rhythms of blues and jazz and the cadences of African-American storytelling percolate through the writing in “Dear Darkness, ” which contains poems of all shapes and formats, some as short as two lines.

The book, Young says, “was a way of talking about my father passing away without saying it.” His father, Paul, died in a hunting accident in 2004. While the event itself is referenced obliquely in some of the poems (and in the picture of his father holding a rifle on the back cover), the emotions of grief and mourning, and the events of the funeral come through in high relief.

So does the food. “There’s this tradition of the repast in African-American culture, ” says Young. “My relatives were cooking with a giant grill buried in the yard, and I remember how important and healing it was. It’s a ritual, and poems can have the same [function], ritualizing pain and remembrance.”

Yet humor, fed by appetite, comes through in many of the poems — in particular the odes to iconic soul food dishes and ingredients.

“I hadn’t seen anyone praise pork and collard greens, ” says Young with a laugh. “It’s about celebrating the overlooked, that’s what an ode can do.”

Like the great writer of odes, Pablo Neruda, Young address the object of his celebration like a listener. In his “Ode to Pork, ” Young writes:

I know you’re the blues

because loving you

may kill me — but still you

rock me down slow

as hamhocks on the stove.

Anyway you come

fried, cued, burnt

to within one inch

of your life I love. Babe,

I revere your every

nickname — bacon, chitlin,

cracklin, sin.

In addition to his writing career, Young has been a prolific editor of poetry collections. His next project is an anthology of contemporary elegies, “The Art of Losing, ” which will be published by Bloomsbury USA in early 2010.

He is also on the hunt for good fried chicken in Atlanta. “I haven’t found anybody who makes it better than my Auntie, ” he says. Reading about his family’s cooking, you don’t doubt it.

One comment Add your comment

bettyjoan

October 6th, 2009
11:17 am

Very nice profile, as always. I had the pleasure of taking a creative writing class from Professor Young when he was teaching at UGA, and his insights stay with me to this day.