Kevin Young takes over as New Yorker poetry editor
Twenty-five years ago, Kevin Young was a standout Harvard College senior and a soon-to-be published poet. In a 1992 Harvard Crimson profile, Young mused about joining the literary establishment one day.
“Don’t we have to change the establishment?” wondered Young, a member of the legendary African-American poets’ group known as the Dark Room Collective. “Even if we all published in The New Yorker, would that be the point?”
That was then. In March, the 47-year-old Young was named poetry editor of The New Yorker. (Point taken, one might say.) It marked the latest career milestone for the poet, essayist, scholar, and editor, who formally took over the magazine job earlier this month.
Reached at his office at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which he directs, Young called the New Yorker appointment a “big honor,” if not an ironic one.
“It’s really an exciting moment for American poetry, and I want to capture that in the magazine,” said Young, who will divide his time between editing, running the Schomburg Center, and pursuing his own writing projects.
This autumn is an unusually busy one for Young, who spent many of his formative years living and studying in Greater Boston — his mother, Azzie Young, has run the Mattapan Community Health Center for more than two decades.
Besides joining the magazine’s staff as its first black poetry editor, he is celebrating this month’s publication of his latest book, “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.” A deeply researched look at the origins of American fakery and its homegrown hucksters, from P.T. Barnum to the actors of the present day, the book was long-listed for a 2017 National Book Award.
“Bunk” is Young’s second major work of nonfiction. His first, “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” won a 2012 PEN Open Book Award.
He has also published 10 volumes of poetry, edited eight others, held a tenured professorship at Emory University (whose poetry library he curated), and garnered numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and induction into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
In addition, he has taught at, and strongly supports, Cave Canem, a Brooklyn literary support organization for African-American poets, which along with its precursor, Cambridge’s Dark Room Collective, helped spark the current renaissance in black poetry that includes such writers as Pulitzer winner Tracy K. Smith, MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine, former US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, Young, and others.
Young’s resume made him an outstanding choice to succeed poetry editor Paul Muldoon, according to New Yorker editor David Remnick.
“I didn’t hire Kevin as a symbol,” says Remnick. “I hired him because he’s a fantastic poet; he knows how to run something; and, by reading [poetry] anthologies he’s edited, I knew he has very broad and catholic tastes. In order to do this job, you can’t just publish the same half-dozen poets over and over.”
As Remnick notes, his magazine receives hundreds of poetry submissions weekly, only a tiny fraction of which get published. It is also one of the few general-circulation periodicals that still publishes serious poetry, period. With the editor’s job, therefore, comes an obligation to showcase new talent alongside established stars such as Jorie Graham or Frank Bidart.
Young’s connections to the magazine run deep. He first published in its pages in 1999 and, as a child growing up mostly in the Midwest, he devoured “The New Yorker Anthology of Poetry,” captivated by poets as diverse as Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and James Dickey.
His parents operated in a different world professionally, however. His father, Paul Young, was an ophthalmologist with a degree from Tufts Medical School. (He died in a 2004 hunting accident.) His mother is a PhD chemist who earned a master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Since 1996, she has run the Mattapan Community Health Center, which under her leadership opened a sparkling $34 million facility in 2012.
An only child, Kevin Young was a toddler when his parents first lived in Boston; they later settled in Topeka, Kan., for much of his childhood. According to his mother, while his precocious literary interests may have been obvious, making a career of them was hard to foresee.
“Yes, it is a surprise in some ways,” she admitted. “But we always supported his interests and later discovered his gifts.” Regarding his time in Boston, before and after college, she added, “Kevin got some of his strong wings here.”
At Harvard, Young quickly made his presence felt, earning a slew of undergraduate poetry awards while studying with Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, among other mentors. Meanwhile, he befriended such talented young writers as Colson Whitehead, a future Pulitzer-winning novelist.
Heaney in particular “was incredibly supportive — and incredibly inspiring in the sense he talked to me about his life as a poet,” Young recalled. “When I got to [Harvard], I knew I loved writing poetry but didn’t know I could make a life doing it.”
Support flowed both ways, notes Whitehead, whose best-selling novel, “The Underground Railroad,” was among last year’s publishing phenomena.
Young was “already a superstar” when the two met at Harvard, Whitehead recalled, while he was struggling to find his way as a writer. Young, who edited a campus literary magazine, not only encouraged Whitehead but published one of his early stories. The two remain close friends, regularly spending family vacations together. (Young is married to Globe book columnist Kate Tuttle.)
Whitehead predicted Young will flourish in The New Yorker job.
“Kevin’s his own man,” said Whitehead. “He’s never adhered to one camp or school. He respects both tradition and the voices that disrupt it.”
Young’s first book of poetry, “Most Way Home,” was largely written while at Harvard. It was published as he was completing a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and master’s degree at Brown University. Subsequent collections have continued to explore experiences and themes drawn from his family life — including the death of his father and birth of his son, coming two years apart — while incorporating historical, musical, culinary, and pop cultural references in novel ways.
Among his other books are “Jelly Roll: a blues” (a 2003 National Book Award finalist), “The Book of Hours,” and “Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1995-2015.”
At Emory, where he taught literature and creative writing for a dozen years, Young curated the Danowski Poetry Library, a world-class collection of first and rare editions. He moved from Atlanta to New York last year to run the Schomburg Center.
“Bunk” is the latest byproduct of Young’s scholarly pursuits. At once timely and unsettling, it examines today’s post-factual world through the lens of racism and racial stereotyping while postulating that race may well be “the most insidious American hoax of all.”
“It isn’t just that the hoax is predicated on race,” he said. “It’s that race itself is predicated on hoaxes and levels of fakery. And that should concern us.”
Young will be at the Harvard Book Store on Dec. 7.