Poet, loves biographies, food books

Kevin Young

Kevin Young.
Kate Tuttle
Kevin Young.

Award-winning poet and essayist Kevin Young called Boston home for years and, in fact, his cellphone number still bears the 617 area code. But now he is claimed by Atlanta, where he teaches creative writing at Emory University and curates the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume collection of rare poetry books. His latest poetry collection, “Book of Hours,” his eighth, is just out.

BOOKS: Do you have favorites in the Danowski library?

YOUNG: I love the first edition of Hart Crane’s epic poem “The Bridge,” which was first printed by the Black Sun Press. It includes the first-ever published photos by Walker Evans. We recently got the first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Before City Lights published it, Ginsberg typed it up and mimeographed it. That’s the true first edition. There are only 20 to 25 known copies. Ours was folded and mailed.


BOOKS: Do you worry people will forget about the importance of books as objects?

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YOUNG: Yes, but it’s funny to see how easy it is to remind them of that. I find my students are easily drawn to seeing that books are unique, that one copy is not like another. They are living things that people mark up and make their own.

BOOKS: Have you come across notes in the margins by writers that floored you?

YOUNG: We have Anne Sexton’s copy of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection “Ariel” — I think it was for a review. She was friends with Plath. She’s marked it all up and is clearly dialoguing with the late Plath. It’s really haunting. Along the margins of the poem “The Rival,” Sexton wrote in the margins, “To death.”

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?


YOUNG: I just finished Walter Kirn’s “Blood Will Out” about his friendship with Clark Rockefeller, which I liked. I’m reading Sharon Olds’s “Stag’s Leap,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry last year. That’s a beautiful book of loss, survival, and the ending of a 30-year marriage.

BOOKS: Since you write a lot about food do you read about it?

YOUNG: Yes, but more about its cultural and justice aspects. I love John Egerton’s books about Southern food. It’s inspiring to a lot of writers. I’m rereading that now. I have a lot of cookbooks. When my father died, I inherited all his cookbooks. Maybe 50. We have so many that some are packed away. He was a very good cook, the kind who would have three open at once and from the three create one thing.

BOOKS: Do you read about music?

YOUNG: I do. I loved the biography of James Brown called “The One” by R.J. Smith. I knew his music but not so much about his early life, which was a tough one. I also love cultural books about music. I read a ton of those, like Angela Davis’s “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” and Amiri Baraka’s “Blues People.” That was a touchstone for a lot of people I know.


BOOKS: Do you read fiction?

‘I loved the biography of James Brown called “The One” by R.J. Smith. I knew his music but not so much about his early life, which was a tough one.’

YOUNG: I don’t read much fiction. My biggest reading is nonfiction. I also read poetry, often returning to the same poets, such as Pablo Neruda, John Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks, a real array . My nonfiction reading is about seeing what’s new, what’s out there.

BOOKS: What other nonfiction subjects draw you?

YOUNG: I love biographies, especially of artists or cultural figures. I loved the biography of the painter Willem de Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. I remember lugging that 800-page hardcover around on planes.

BOOKS: Who were the poets you read that made you first think of being a poet?

YOUNG: I read whatever was around in the bookstores growing up in Kansas, which wasn’t much. The Beats, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, E.E. Cummings. Then later I read Langston Hughes. I just read everything. That’s why I love the poetry library because it’s not devoted to any one school of poetry. It shows the breadth of poetry and that breadth has always excited me.


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