Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kevin Young's Big Books & Extraordinary Publishing Career

If you ever have the opportunity to glance at Kevin Young's volumes of poetry in relation to more than 100 other volumes by African American poets published since 2000, you'll immediately notice Young's books are typically longer than most. In fact, his works are, on average, more than twice as long as the majority.

Most volumes of poetry are slightly under 100 pages. However, Young's jelly roll is 208 pages; To Repel Ghosts is 320 pages; Black Maria  is 216 pages;  For the Confederate Dead is 176 pages; and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels is 272 pages.  Only his first volume, Most Way Home was a more modest affair at 112 pages. But for the most part,  he publishes relatively big books.

The extended page count of Young's books do not necessarily make those works better or worse than shorter volumes. The size of his books do indicate, though, that he tends to work on larger canvases--canvases who expansiveness have made possible by the supportive efforts of his publisher Knopf. Young, by the way, is not the first blues poet to receive significant assistance from Knopf. The company began publishing Langston Hughes's poems in 1926 and went on to support his work for decades. For the last 10 years, Knopf has invested considerable support into Young's career, empowering him to produce expansive volumes of poetry.   

Part of what also distinguishes Young in the densely populated field of contemporary poetry is his ability to assume identities other than poet. He has served as editor for more than five books, and he recently authored the The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness--a scholarly work that is nearly 500 pages making it big like his volumes of poetry. Taken together, the many and large books that he has produced reveal that Young is an extraordinarily prolific (published) author.

There are, I imagine, many prolific contemporary poets out there; however, the limited resources offered by publishers means that considerable amounts of work goes unpublished. Thus, it's been unusual and fascinating to witness Young at work on these large canvases. His career has given me a chance to think about what poets are capable of when they present extended visions, work in multiple genres, and receive tremendous support from institutions.

Related: A Notebook on the work of Kevin Young

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