Looking for surprise
A conversation between Oklahoma State Poet Laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish and The New Yorker Poetry Editor Kevin Young
Kevin Young is a writing Renaissance man. He is the poetry editor for The New Yorker, editor of several anthologies, author of many books of poetry and nonfiction, a multi-award winner and finalist, and a curator, and he teaches writing at Emory University. Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet, writer, director of the Red Earth MFA program, and the current Oklahoma State Poet Laureate. She has published several books of poetry, won the 2010 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry, the 2010 Western Heritage Award for Poetry, and the 2010 WILLA Award for Poetry from Women Writing the West. See them both at Tulsa LitFest.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: Kevin, thank you for visiting with me. I edit a small press and have edited a couple of anthologies in magazine issues. How does your editing process inform your writing, and vice versa?
Kevin Young: I think that in both of them you’re really looking to get surprised and perhaps pleased. [W]hen I’m looking [at a poem for The] New Yorker … I’m really looking for poems that say something in ways that only they can. I try to judge each poem on its own merits … but I also must say, in terms of The New Yorker, I really rely on that element of being surprised and moved and changed by a poem. I think that for me, my own writing, I want that surprise, I want to discover along the way what I’m thinking, how I feel, also sort of get down the music in my head. And if you’re able to do that as a writer, I think you’ve accomplished a great deal.
Mish: You write in multiple genres—some writers say jumping genres is a way to cleanse the writing palate. Others say the topic theme determines the genre or that themes run across their genres, that genre choice is more about choosing what kind of exploration or theme feels appropriate at the time. How does writing in different genres work for you?
Young: I don’t think it’s cleansing the palate at all for me. I think they do different things, and I turn to nonfiction as a reader but also, I think, as a writer, when I’m interested in tracing an idea and understanding more about a time. In the case of “Bunk” I was interested in tracing the history of an idea or the idea of history across time, from P.T. Barnum to the present, and understanding it through the lens of a hoax and understanding what it taught us about our time and then. It seems to be very different than poems, but in my very first book I write about a local fair, and I’m certainly interested in these questions of spectacle and display and entertainment and identity; all that, I think, plays into my work. So it’s not like those things don’t cross the genres, but it’s very different approaches and very different goals. [In my] latest book of poems, “Brown,” I was really interested in trying to capture a different kind of history. So it’s hard for me to say that one is history and one isn’t. They both are interested in it, but I think in poetry I’m interested in the music of history and the history of music.
Mish: That’s well said. I was going to ask you a little bit more about “Bunk,” your new book about hoaxes, hucksters, humbug, plagiarists, forgeries, and phonies. It sounds like something that would be a lot of fun to research, though it might not have been something fun to discover about America and Americans—but did you enjoy doing the research for this book?
Young: I think it was compelling. Sometimes the reading wasn’t always pleasant because I was reading about some of the worst tricking and human behavior—and that goes for the hoaxers, but also this broader thing that I came to understand was that the hoax was often predicated upon race. And so trying to read through that wasn’t always enjoyable. I think it was always compelling, though, and really led me from one thing to another. I was really struck by the connections that I found, and that kept me going, I think. It was also a question of discovery, because a lot of the books I had to track down. I was really intent to read the books in their original form. A lot of times hoaxes get expunged from the record or pulled off shelves, and I really wanted to track down those often rare copies and see what people claimed at first and what, in most cases, were best-sellers or widely believed or accepted, only to turn around and be sort of disproved. So I really wanted to understand that gap that sometimes was left by the hoax.
Mish: It’s a fascinating project. Your poetry covers a wide range of themes: the blues; loss, grief, and healing; American places and concepts of home; film noir; race; cultural icons; genius—and on and on.
Who are your writing idols? Who has inspired you?
Young: Langston Hughes is a huge important figure for me—just the way he was able to write in the blues form and capture jazz and really be a pioneering voice, but also his humanity and humor—and I think Gwendolyn Brooks for much the same reason, the way that she was able to capture life in the city and life sort of behind the scenes. I think both are really hard to do, and her music is just unparalleled. But I think in a book like “Brown,” I talk about Arthur Ashe and Hank Aaron, sports heroes who I think go well beyond sports, and also figures like James Brown and John Brown, who kind of helped name the book. I should say that just yesterday Linda Brown of Brown v. Board [died], and she helps name my book, too. I knew her growing up in Topeka … I’m deeply aware of those advances that she helped to bring about and the way that I can write about them. I’m glad I did. I do feel sort of honored that I was able to write about it, but I certainly wish she was still with us, and my thoughts go out to their family.
Mish: I’m sorry you had that loss. Which emerging poet should we be reading now?
Young: I think that’s a hard question for me because it sounds like I’m playing favorites. You know, I’ve really been struck by a number of poets who I wasn’t aware of, and not all are emerging. Some are poets who have been writing a long time but [are just] coming across my desk. I would say people should look at The New Yorker and see what I picked. I’m really interested in the real range of writing that’s happening now. There’s poets like Danez Smith, [who] wrote a tremendous book last year that is still making waves, and a poet like Layli Long Soldier, who was a finalist for the National Book Award and just won the [PEN/Jean Stein Book Award]. She’s written a terrific book, and these are just some people who I think are amazing voices, you know, early in their writing or publishing life, I should say, that I think we should pay attention to.
Mish: Thank you for answering that somewhat difficult question. If someone asked, “Why should I read or listen to poetry?,” what would your answer be?
Young: I see you left me the tough question for last. I mean, it’s tough and it’s easy. I have a couple reactions. One is if someone asks me that, I think it would be like saying, “Why should I like music?” Why would you cut yourself off from beauty and from this other way of being? I was taught poetry horribly in school, as if it was sort of a quiz that I didn’t understand, and I think if we think of it more as music it might help us understand the ways that it can soothe us, it can fire us up, it can comfort us, it can provide a language to something we didn’t know we felt. Poetry thinks about history in an intimate way and can help us understand history up close. We need more of that, especially now.
Mish: Yeah. Well, I think that was a great answer. Thank you so much. I look forward to meeting you in person in Tulsa and to hearing you read. Your ode to Southern Foodways—that series of poems has kind of changed my writing, actually, so I just wanted to thank you for that.
Young: Oh, well, thanks. Looking forward.
An Evening with Kevin Young
Fri., April 20, 7 p.m.
OSU-Tulsa Auditorium, 700 N. Greenwood Ave.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Oklahoma Poet Laureate, & Woody Guthrie Celebration feat. Poetic Justice
Sat., April 21, 7 p.m.