Kevin Young is a poet, and he is familiar with the power of metaphor. He has spent some time thinking about its possibilities and its dangers, but he laughs when I tell him that he has become a kind a of literary benchmark for the Harvard community.
"That I am a successful young writer is a weird though," he says. "On paper I am sometimes surprised. I would reluctantly say I was successful. Mostly other people tell me that."
But however often he balks at the idea, Kevin has become a metaphor for literary achievement. He is the standard by which many writers in this community measure themselves. Even professors use him as a measure. One teacher in the Creative Writing Department told me, "We should all be as talented as Kevin, but we're not, so don't worry about it."
In his four year here, Kevin has won virtually every poetry prize the University offers and a few outside awards as well. In his first year, he won the Academy of American Poets Prize. In his junior year, he won the Horeman Prize from the Creative Writing Department. As a senior, he won both the Lloyd McKim Garrison Prize for Poetry and the Hoopes Prize for his thesis, a collection of poems titled "Most Way Home." He has twice placed in the Harvard Advocate's poetry contest, and once placed in The Independent's He has published his poems in the Advocate, The Harvard Quarterly, The Harvard Gazette, The Fifth Floor Journal, Padan Aram, Outlook and Diaspora. He also edited the 1991 edition of Let's Go USA.
During his junior year, Kevin joined the Dark Room, a collective of Black writers based in Boston, and travelled with them on their reading tours. That year, he was also selected for Bucknell's Seminar for Younger Poets and received a Ford Grant to reasearch one of the Beat Poets in San Fransisco. Recently, he has begun to publish outside of Harvard. He has published twice in Callallo and has poems forthcoming in the Graham House And Kenyon Reviews. And after graduation, Kevin will study poetry for two years on a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where he plans to publish his thesis.
But Kevin is cagey about all these titles and wary of what they represent. "Being Harvard's Young Black Poet is really frustrating, mostly because of the Harvard part, honestly, not because of the Young or Black," he says. "It says something about [Harvard's] inability to provide a community of writers."
Kevin spends a lot of words tempering his achievements, locating them in certain programs or contexts or communities. When he talks, he talks with a sense of indebtedness to other works and to other writers, to teachers and students. There are footnotes in his speech; he reminds me to ask him about the poets he has read, and quotes a friend in Adams House as carefully he would such poets as Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, or Rita Dove. He is almost fastidious in acknowledging his influences. "I'm not a T.S. Eliot--I know where I came from," he says. "A lot of different places," But at the same time, he distances himself from labels of membership.
Though I have been friendly with Kevin for nearly four years, I still do not understand where he is from. He tells me he was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, but moved to five different places before his family settled in Topeka, Kansas, where they have lived for more than a decade now. He occasionally calls himself a "kid from Kansas, "but when I ask him if he really is a kid from Kansas, he equivocates. Kevin uses the term Kansas loosely, which is the way he uses most terms, as if objects were interesting only in their metaphoric possibilities. "As soon as I say I'm from someplace, I don't feel like I'm from there anymore. I guess it says Kansas on my driver's licence," he says. "You know my thesis is called 'Most Way Home'. Either that's where I want to be or what I feel. I say I'm from Kansas, but I'll probably never go back there. In 10 years, will I even say I'm from there anymore?"
But Kansas is where he started writing poetry, in a summer school class at Washburn University in 1983. It was a class for young writers, and the students began by writing the kinds of adolescent fiction they themselves read. The class was taught by Thomas Fox Averill, the mentor whom Kevin dedicated one of the poems in him thesis. "We wrote those 'Create Your Own Mystery' things, you know, where someone would write the first chapter, and you would write the next one, "Kevin says. Later in the class, they began writing poetry. "All the fictions I wrote [Averill] took [to xerox], but that didn't surprise me as much as when he liked my poetry, when he read it aloud in class."
After that summer, Kevin says, he began writing short, anguished lyrics with what he describes as an alarming regularity. "I was writing poetry like crazy--I was writing like two poems a day," he says. "I think my parents thought it was phase and I didn't." In the summer of 1985 and 1986. he attended Duke with the Talent Identification Program. There, he studied psychology, writing, music and fine arts. "That was a really formative thing for me," he says. "I didn't study poetry in the program, but I was around a lot of people who wrote poety". It was his first meaningful experience with a writing community, and when I ask him if he knew then that he wanted to be a writer, he shrugs. "Someone should have asked me then," he says. "I guess I felt like I should be doing this, like I do now It's just something I do."
In his senior year at Topeka West High School Kevin stated a literary magazine. He still cannot say whether or not he liked it there. Instead, he calls it one of the best schools in Kansas, praise which soon begins to sound faint when tempered with his qualifications. "Did I like my high school--well, it was the home of the Chargers," he tells me. "I'm not sure I can answer that well. I was definitely ready to leave--I don't know how much of that was Topeka."
Growing up, Kevin spent a part of each of his summers in Louisiana, where his mother was raised, and in the summer before college, he began to recognize it as a locus for his poetry. In the summer of 1988, he says, "I fell in love with [the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet] Rita Dove." He read and re-read her collection titled Thomas and Beulah, and then began to listen to his family's stories in a way he hadn't before, with a historic and poetic ear. "I realized I could write about my family, that it was a valid thing to write about," he says. It was then he began writing the material which he would later develop and expand into his thesis. By the time I met Kevin in September, 1988 at a Padan Aram recruitment meeting, he told me with some certainty that he was a poet.
In "Most Way Home," Kevin dedicated one poem to his father and one poem to his mother, and each had to do with their individual childhood experiences. Writing about a family is a complex issue--it raises questions of public and private, of distance and of love--and I ask Kevin whether or not his parents live his poetry. "I don't think it's a matter of like of don't like, but more that they are involved in it. They are engaged by it, and often surprised," he says. "they tell me things, stories about their childhood and stuff, and I use them....I think they see now when my brains start cooking."
Kevin dedicated "Most Way Home" to "my family, blood, adopted, imagined." I ask him how he feels about the weight of Black history, if his work is a kind of homage to all those he includes in his extended family. But it is a question that sometimes makes him impatient. "There's a lot of that burden of representation," he acknowledges. "A lot of times, you become an authority you didn't want to become." He sees that expectation forced on Black artists in a range of media, from film to literature, and he says he sometimes find it stultifying. "How can I represent all of Black history in a poem?" he ask a me. "If you ask something of The Invisible Man That you don't ask a Bight Light, Big City, that's a problem."
Most of the poems in "Most Way Home " are shorter lyrics. Of the form, Kevin says, "What I'm interested in is what it can do in discrete moments." When he describes his thesis, he say, "It's not like a collection of my best poems. There's a movement." There is a movement." There is a movement through his family's Southern history, but it is a movement through a larger history as well. The material for a few of his poems are salve narrative and documents; the introductory poem of his thesis is an advertisement for two lost slaves, titled "Reward," and the closing poem is a "Letter to President Jefferson, Care of Our Forefathers." In the final poem he writes: