Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Kevin Young Primer

On February 7, Kevin Young, one of America’s great living poets will be reading at Porter Square Books. This is an event not to be missed for fans of poetry and of contemporary American literature in general. Kevin Young’s style mixes a roots blues sensibility, with the intensity of gospel music, and a broad artistic imagination to produce unique and powerful works of poetry. Young’s collections are usually organized around particular themes giving them an almost novelistic coherence. If you’re not familiar with Kevin here’s a quick primer on his work.

To Repel Ghosts: The Remix, is a poetic reimagining of the life of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat as a concept album. Art, class, race, drugs, painting, and poetry all converge in a powerful exploration of what it means to create.

Jelly Roll was a staff pick here a few years ago. Drawing on the the legacy of the great blues pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, Young invents a shimmying, comic, low-down, and high-hearted language. Discovering Jelly Roll is like passing a random bar with live music and turning in, on a whim and loving it, shaking your head and saying, “Hell, yeah.”

In Black Maria, Young bends another conventional form of expression into a totally new kind of work. Black Maria is a gritty noir movie as poetry collection. A twisting tale of suspicion, passion, mystery, and the city, Young channels the world of detective movies, picking up its lingo and dark glamour in five “reels” of poetry–the adventures of a “soft-boiled” private eye, known as A.K.A. Jones, and an ingenue turned femme fatale, Delilah Redbone. We follow Jones and Delilah through a maze of aliases and ambushes, sex and suspicions, fast talk and hard luck, in Shadowtown where noir characters abound. The Killer, The Gunsel, The Hack, The Director, The Champ, and The Snitch are among the local luminaries and beautiful losers who mingle with Jones and his elusive lady as they stalk one another through the scenes of the poet’s dazzling “treatment.”

For the Confederate Dead, a twist on Robert Lowell’s famous poem For the Union Dead, won the 2007 Quill Award in Poetry. In this passionate collection, Kevin Young takes up a range of African American griefs and passages. For the Confederate Dead finds Young, more than ever before, in a poetic space that is at once public and personal. In the marvelous "Guernica," Young's account of a journey through Spain blends with the news of an American lynching, prompting him to ask, "Precious South, / must I save you, / or myself?" In this surprising book, the poet manages to do a bit of both, embracing the contradictions of our "Confederate" legacy and the troubled nation where that legacy still lingers.

Begun as a reflection on family and memory, Dear Darkness became a book of elegies after the sudden death of the poet's father, a violent event that silenced Young with grief until he turned to rhapsodizing about the food that has sustained him and his Louisiana family for decades. Flavorful, yet filled with sadness, these stunningly original odes—to gumbo, hot sauce, crawfish, and even homemade wine—travel adeptly between slow-cooked tradition and a new direction, between everyday living and transcendent sorrow.

In The Art of Losing, Young has introduced and selected 150 devastatingly beautiful poems that embrace the pain and heartbreak of mourning. The Art of Losing is the ideal gift for a loved one in a time of need and for use by ministers, rabbis, and palliative care workers who tend to those who are experiencing loss.

His newest book is Ardency, and tells the story of the Africans who mutinied onboard the slave ship Amistad. Written over twenty years, this poetic epic—part libretto, part captivity epistle—makes the past present, and even its sorrows sing.

Kevin Young reads with us on February 7, at 7pm.

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