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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:
Master. I do not have you the way I hate those I loved who went on and died too early for me to tell them. What I nurse for you is pity...
Know that today I am free. Know that since then I have fucked dead men for less. Know that today your blood thins in the fists of our children, lets them burn in the summertime, and keeps them working in the houses among women.
My kin may never know what lies trapped within the amber of their skins. My children may never know the silver faces of their father kept deep within change pockets, and this ignorance may be their small curse. I just pray you will always know why.
But Kevin resists calling any of his poetry documentation of slavery. "I didn't represent all of slavery. I could never represent all of slavery--on one can. But I can write about the legacies I know and cast light on the lager thing," he explains. "I think I can write about larger issues through the personal, and I don't think that's representation."
In poetry, there is an exactness of language which Kevin claims forbids extrapolation. "I think poets are very careful in their writing, "Kevin says. "It's not like you have Camille Paglia disease, where they can take you out of context." But Kevin is also aware of the cultural possibilites of poetry, and the legacy of the epic which will explain and contain all of a people's history. Epics have become something of a phantasm. Kevin says, "There's this attitude that some poem is going to come along and save our lives, that it will be the perfect poem. That can't happen." It can no longer happen because plurality has become preventative. As Kevin says, "I don't think any people are as monolithic as the news would have us think."
In his sophomore year at Harvard Kevin refounded Diaspora, which billed itself as "The Journal of Black Thought and Culture. "The first issue of Diasporawas impressive both in its scope and size. The magazine was 95 pages and contained student works as well as an interview with Angela Davis and a feature on new Black filmmakers. "You couldn't do 'Black Film' in an issue, because it just got huge--you couldn't fit it all," Kevin says.
"I think people were surprised by the diversity of voices in Diaspora.It was a big magazine," Kevin says. But he notes that people would have been less surprised in a school which was not so predominantly white. "It's a Black literary magazine. It's a strange beast at Harvard," he says. "[At Black colleges,] people can have a lot of different identies without being kicked out of the Black sphere." Kevin notes that in other categorical literatures, such as women's writing, "Diversity becomes a clearer issue."
But often, literature and demographics are antithetical. In literature, personal experience supercedes objective classification, and metaphor can create its own categories; the poet Sylvia Plath can write that she "may well be a Jew." But after 20 years of the Derek Bok Plan, demographics have become our university mascot. Kevin calls the new housing system "a nightmare." If the end goal of nonordered choice is a neat breakdown of quotas, Kevin questions the methods for calculating the figures. "Who do they look for in counting diversity? They can't see diversity in an artistic community or in a Black community," he says. "What did they read me as? A Black man? A poet?"
Kevin believes that non-order choice will weaken the fabric of the artistic community considerable. He says that under the new system, he would not have been able to do many things he once did at Adams, where he organized a house reading series called "Night People," and learned to use the Bow and Arrow Press. Before partial randomization, Kevin says, Adams House was "a more vital place. It makes sense that Seamus [Heaney] is in Adams House. It wouldn't make any sense for him to be in Kirkland. And it's no accident that Master Kiely was in the English Department. There was support of the arts. You got to pick your own niche, and there were tons of niches...."Whatever problems I had with Adams, those were my problems, and I got to choose them. It felt like a community."
Kevin's concern with community extends back to his first year here. By late September, he and I started The Fifth floor Journal, an umbrella arts organization for first-year students. He now says he sees the literary community collapsing in on itself. "I think there used to be more of a literary community. When we had The Fifth Floor Journal, that was a big influx into the literary community," he tells me. "Now it's just shrinking back to the AdvocateInevitably, it'll burst open again."
The uniqueness of Kevin's' sucesses lies in the channels he has chosen for his writing. As he says, "I was always looking for new ways to get stuff out, my stuff or other people's stuff." He says that many people expected him to be on the Advocate board, or a member of the Signet Society. But he was neither. "The Advocate publishes its own people," he says. "If you just look at the Advocate, you would think the literary community is very small. The problem is that the Advocatealso thinks it's very small." Though the Advocate published each poem he submitted to it, he says e knows that many of the other poems that the magazine rejected ware very good. "People came up to me complaining that their work hadn't been published in the Advocate. And I want to say, 'Why didn't you submit to the New Yorker?Maybe that was your mistake."
Kevin is assured by his successes in a way many young writers are not. He can be as cavalier about the literary establishment outside of Harvard as he is about the one inside. He sometimes preaches something close to literary revolution. "Don't we have to change [the establishment]?" he asks me. "Then don't worry about it. Even if we were all published in the New Yorker, would that be the point? You're missing the point if it's a new driver driving the same old truck. you can do alternative thing and have them be accepted, not necessarily by other people, but by yourself." Kevin was a member of Padan Aram poetry board, and he says, "That's where Padan Aram failed--it wanted to be another Advocate.. It doesn't really even exist anymore,"
What Kevin calls "the failure of Harvard to provide a community of writers" compelled him to join the Dark Room. He met Thomas Ellis in the Grolier Bookshop, and Ellis and Ellis introduced Kevin to the group after reading some of Kevin's poetry. Kevin states that mission of the Dark Room is to create a community "to help young writers while honoring our living ancestors." In connection with the Dark Room, Kevin has repeatedly travelled to New York where he read at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the St. Mark's Poetry Project, and mosaic-Books. "I can leave Harvard, but I can never leave the Dark Room," Kevin says. "If Harvard was its own island, things would have been harder."
Both the readings and the Dark Room meetings have been meaningful in shaping Kevin's ideas about his responsibilities as a poet. "I guess part of the job is bringing poetry to other people. That's what we do in the Dark Room," he tells me. "I guess part of it is to make it not seem like this strange or elitist or even mystical thing. I mean, I'm just a kid from Kansas."
Kevin says that he is aware that poetry has become something of an academic property. he admits that it has become the most esoteric of all the genres, and the least widely read. He sees this academic hierarchy as somewhat ironic, because 'it's the backward order of what people give money to. You don't become a poet to make big bucks. I can walk always down the street."
Kevin views his poetic reponsibilities as a poet as educative. At Harvard, he has read with the Nightpeople, the Quarterly, and Adams House. He also once read to a crowd of 1200 people in Memorial Hall at the 1990 Cultural Rhythms Festival. And while he was in San Fransisco, he read at two local cafes. He enjoy the audience feedback, when he actually gets it." But I hate when people s me what a poem's about. I usually just say, 'What do you think it's about?" he says. "Really, I don't know if I could tell you what it's about, or it might not even be about that anymore... There are as many rights as there are people. There are only a few wrongs."
"[Poetry] is not this superstitious, magical thing--it needs to be demystified," Kevin says. "When people read poetry, they can understand it. The problem is that people is that people have these preconceptions that they won't understand it." He draws analogies between appreciating poetry and learning to read. "It's like anything, and it's be a pretty scary world if we all stopped trying before we could do something. I never thought what I did was different from what anyone could do or would do."
Kevin ridicules the ideas that poetry is merely an act of inspiration--he complains that the Wordsworth stereotype of poets composing as they wanders the misty moors still predominates. On average, he spends about four or five months revising a poem. He describes the process as "the words [lifting] off the page." Most of his poems take their true from in revision. "You want to put the lid on [a poem], but it keeps knocking the lid off," he says. "Finally, the words just kind of get stuck."
When Kevin talks, it seems as though he is constantly revising himself. he tugs at his the top of his hair as though he were waiting for his last declaration to reverse itself, as though he were waiting for repeats questions before he answers them and he always seems vaguely dissatisfied with the answers. When he defines poetry, he says, "I think it's work. Is it art? I think it's best described as a vocation." He decides, finally, that it is something he works at. "I guess most people would say that I write a lot.. You're only a poet after you're finished a poem. Before that, you're just writing."
It is only with considerable practice and with nearly nine years of writing that Kevin has mastered the act of confidence. "It wasn't until last summer that I accepted I might be good at it," he says. "I was writing despite myself."
Poetry is ambition for language, and Kevin has his own ambitions for the medium. "I think poetry is political and useful and fascinating, " he tells me. When I ask him if he ever question the social value of literature, he answers immediately. "[Poetry] is not something that's taking away from service--I think it's problem of liberal guilt about writing, and I just don't feel that," he tells me. "I mean, both my parents are in health care. They do service all day, but that doesn't mean that they don't want to come home and read my poems."
The glitch in writing poetry, then is the problem of finance. When I ask Kevin if he plans to be a poet supporting himself with his writing alone he says, "I don't think there is any such beast. Even Seamus [Heaney] teachers and lectures." He laughs when I ask him if he wants to be famous. "Do I want to be famous? Well, I'm not going to be rich In a way, it's reassuring that no one cares about poetry," he answer. "But I'd like to be know, and to keep writing think if I said tomorrow 'I'm going to stop writing poetry." comes whether I like it or not, and I've learned to like it."
We talk then for a while about the lost writers we know, about students we have met who freelanced for a year before surrendering to law school, or students who abandoned writing before graduate. I hate when people stop writing. It's always sad," he tells me. "It's more than the economic times, it's conservatism, blah, blah, blah.. Sometimes, I'm surprised I'm still doing it."
But ultimately, Kevin is a symbol of being found. Of creating a home for himself and for his family and for other readers and writers in poetry. Of using words to give identities and ideas a place. And then the publishing and the prestige become incidental. "On planes and shit, when people ask me what I do, I say 'I guess I write poems,"" he tells me. "And they say, 'Oh, do you do that on the side?" On the side? What is that ? write poetry, and then I live on the side."
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