Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Notations on Kevin Young

Kevin Young (source, NY Times)

Kevin Young's new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News was released yesterday. He and his work have been receiving extensive coverage. I provide a roundup of several pieces here.

Among contemporary black poets, Young has not been the top "award-winning poet" (a label that, whether folks like it or not, has been defining the landscape of American poetry for a few decades now). He's behind several people, including Elizabeth Alexander, Rita Dove, Marilyn Nelson, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Terrance Hayes, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Nonetheless, Young has distinguished himself with productivity and placement. Since 1995, he's published 10 volumes of poetry, edited and co-edited 8 books of literature, edited a book on the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, and published two expansive nonfiction works.

Want a full list? Peep this: Kevin Young's Books. Most award-winning poets produce primarily poetry, so Young, hardly the first or only writer to do so, has also distinguished himself by producing nonfiction and also doing editorial work. This month, he began duties as the poetry editor for The New Yorker.

What about among black men writers? These days, folks in my circles express varying degrees of annoyance that Ta-Nehisi Coates is treated as "the only one." I understand the routes of their frustration, and Coates is by far the most widely covered black writer today (See here, here, and here). Having said that, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad quietly reached close to a million copies sold within a year of publication. That's a really unusual feat. While the receptions for Whitehead and Coates are unparalleled, Young is nonetheless being covered in a way that is rare for an African American man writer, especially one who is primarily been known as a poet.

For many good reasons, gender constitutes a dominant frame in African American literary studies. So folks tend to concentrate on black men vs. black women issues. Like, are Coates, Whitehead, and Young receiving this attention because they're black men? Well, yeah. Further, for the last two decades, we've witnessed a tremendous, and I'd say unprecedented level of output from a somewhat large group: Black men writers and creativity, 1995 - 2016.

Hmm, but the gender frame doesn't adequately explain why the careers of Coates, Whitehead, and Young outpace hundreds of other black men. Also, what if we treated socio-economic issues among black writers with some seriousness? In this case, we'd note that relatively few black poets with Young's elite educational background delve into folk culture to the degree he has, and at the same time, we'd note that relatively few of the people who delve deeply into folk culture have been so closely aligned with elite institutions (i.e. Harvard and The New Yorker).

The gender frame does not fully explain why publishers of contemporary fiction have, for the last several years, been investing so much more of their resources in African women writers over African American women writers. I'm obviously not saying we should avoid gender. Far from it. I'm just concerned about some of what we've been overlooking, downplaying.

Too, I've worked with a large number of black men college students over the years. I've had to constantly give thought to their similarities and many differences. Along with works by Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka, Tyehimba Jess, Nas, and Jay Z, I've shared poems by Kevin Young with my groups of first-year black men every year. For more than a decade now. They've enjoyed the humor in Young's poems like "Bling Bling Blues" and "Black Cat Blues." At the same time, we've all been moved by Young's painful and powerful poem "Bereavement" about giving away his father's dogs, after his father dies. Young's signature short lines have also made the look of his poems easily recognizable for my guys on the identification exams.

Overall, Young's volumes of poetry are longer (typically twice as long) than volumes by his contemporaries. Yet, his lines are marked by brevity. As I noted a few years back, Young has short lines & big books.

Kevin Young

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