Each week, WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.
“Do people in Portland eat grits? I hope they do.” – Kevin Young
Some say poems should be recited; some say mutely read. From what I'd heard of poets who tried it, I held with those who won't abide it. But then I happened to sit in on a reading by Kevin Young
, and now…well, now I'm not so sure.
For those who don't know, Young (pictured above at his Portland event) is a 28-year-old badass poet who's gotten more recognition since he graduated from Harvard University than most milquetoast rhymesters will see in a lifetime.
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Young is the award-winning author of six books of poetry; his work has appeared in the National Poetry Series, The New Yorker
, The Paris Review
, and Ploughshares
. He's currently holding down a gig at Emory as a creative writing professor and curator of their poetry library.
Young stopped by Powell's on Hawthorne this Sunday (Oct. 12) to promote his newest collection, Dear Darkness (Knopf, 196 pages, $26.95)
. Variously set in Nashville, Las Vegas and Louisiana, it depicts a world both quaint and ominous, in which broken-down heirlooms and comfort food evoke deceased relatives and friends. To quote from Young's elegy to Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line,” his newest book is “sadder than a wedding dress in a thrift store”—and just as funny, especially when the author returns to a favorite form:
“I thought I was done with blues poems,” quipped Young. “But the Blues come back for you, I've discovered.”
For an audience of 19 Portlanders, Young read selections from Dear Darkness
and For the Confederate Dead
, including “Uncles (Blood),” “Inheritance,” “On Being the Only Black Person at the Johnny Paycheck Concert,” “Immunizations (Lively Up Yourself),” “Catch a Fire,” and “Ode to Cushaw.”
In between poems, the author offered up a few autobiographical goodies. According to Young, “Immunizations (Lively Up Yourself)” was named for the shots he had to get before flying to Kenya for the funeral of a friend, author and editor Philippe Wamba
. Later, he made an explicit connection between the grieving process and the yen for Southern comfort food. “It's ontological,” mused Young. “Is there such thing as a grit?”
But by far the best thing about the reading was the way it made Dear Darkness sing. Rather than the gravelly baritone that I expected, Young narrated in a high tenor, like a Baptist preacher simultaneously assuring his congregation of the existence of the promised land and secretly despairing of it, himself. In poems like “Catch a Fire,” his voice was full of kitchen sounds, crackling like bacon grease on a hot frying pan, howling like a teakettle just beginning to boil. Finally pronounced, Young's wacky enjambments began to make sense, and the author even—on two occasions—broke into song.
In a short Q&A, Young offered insights into his creative process, quoting Ralph Ellison's famous summary of the Blues' animating paradox, the desire “to finger its jagged grain.” Then, after signing a few autographs, he left. Not bad.
Frankly, I'm beginning to think that for their illustrative quality and sheer performative thrill, poetry readings are also great, and will suffice.
To whet your appetite for Young's next Portland reading, here's a poem from Dear Darkness
, titled “Inheritance.”
The battered black box I brought
Kevin Young Reading
from my grandmother's house
held yellowed bills, receipts
for seed, chicken feed, and envelopes
full of promissory notes—
my inheritance held
in a box held together
tape, and more tape, browning
the metal, hinging it shut.
on what bloomed inside
among the muggy smell
of old paper, and loans
long since forgiven—the seed
bought against earnings
in Sunset, the mill
FOR UNATTENDED COTTON
LEFT IN THE YARD
My grandfather's signature
few carbons held—
most bore the John
Hancock of some boss
I picture like death
or debt, looming—
misspelling Da Da's name.
Both, we hope,
are final—or is it only debt
that lives on
forever? I owe
them my life, my grandparents
who fought the elements
and the earth to raise me up,
and us, planted the seeds
of cotton, of promise
no box, nor coffin, can contain—
though this black,
broken, unlocked box, secured
and scarred by tape,