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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2003

IU Feature: A blues story

Poet Kevin Young finds success in the music, people that provide soundtrack of America

"I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street ... (Those songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."

-- Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Kevin Young is a man on the move.

The 32-year-old Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University Bloomington has criss-crossed the country so many times he could write road maps for Rand McNally. Born in Nebraska, he moved with his family six times before he was 10. He has lived in Topeka, Kan.; Cambridge, Mass.; Athens, Ga.; Providence, R.I.; San Francisco, Chicago and, currently, Bloomington.

Two years ago the Village Voice called Young a "writer on the verge," and in 1998 Swing Magazine named him one of the most powerful people under the age of 30 in the United States. His first book, Most Way Home (1995), was a selection of the National Poetry Series. His second book of poems, To Repel Ghosts (2001), based on the works of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was a finalist for the James McLaughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His poetry and essays have appeared in The New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. Earlier this month he was named a Guggenheim fellow, one of 184 chosen from over 3,200 applicants.

And the beat keeps going.

Young's rollicking new collection of blues-based love poems, Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003), was hailed as "a versatile tour de force" by Publishers Weekly. Like any great Robert Johnson or B.B. King recording, it contains a mixture of humor and sadness, love and loss, sexiness and sorrow. It follows the classic blues trajectory -- the excitement of falling head over heels in love, followed by anger, disillusion, heartbreak and, ultimately, redemption. Consider the leap from "Cakewalk," in which Young sings,

Baby, you make
me want

to burn up all
my pies

to give over
an apple to fire

to "Litany," in which he laments,

The apples
have not kept

their promises
grown rotten

& ran, skins
bled into brown

Thus far, Young's career path has experienced very few blues. Yet the poet's well-worn walking shoes remain rooted to the ground. "I don't think about it (success) too much," he said. "It's nice to be recognized, but it's like (the late poet) William Matthews said, the term 'famous poet' is an oxymoron."

Young is flattered by comparisons to the legendary Langston Hughes, the first writer to combine the blues and poetry. Comparisons aside, it's fair to say that Young's poetry -- with its blend of bluesy riffs, soulful lyrics, humor and irony -- has upheld a powerful literary tradition. "Hughes stressed that as a black poet you should write about the beautiful, but also the ugly, too," Young said. "He believed in writing about the whole experience, while understanding that doing this might not just upset white folks, but black folks, too. He wrote about low-down folks even though there was the pressure not to talk about that sort of thing."

Young hails from a Louisiana-based family of preachers, musicians and storytellers, and, while at Harvard University, studied with the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. All contributed to his natural gift to spin a rousing, spirited tale as well as to recreate authentic historical accounts of popular American figures such as the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. In his 350-page epic (he calls it a "double album"), To Repel Ghosts, Young paints his own lyrical picture of the enormously gifted Basquiat, who burst onto the New York creative scene with his raw artistry in the 1980s before dying of a drug overdose in 1988. In recalling Basquiat, Young also invokes the lives of several other black celebrities of the modern era including Charlie Parker, Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali, Jack Johnson and Richard Pryor.

The poems in Jelly Roll: A Blues are "more personal" than those in the Basquiat work and more deliberately organized to fit within the classic blues framework, Young said. The book chronicles a doomed love affair, but it's not strictly autobiographical, he said. In fact, like the blues themselves, these poems can be funny and often uplifting. Young is careful to point out that the blues is more than feeling down. "It's not just about spilling your guts," he said. "It's also about performance and the craft of standing back and letting the story unfold."

Young's talents have pushed him to the forefront, earning him praise from critics, scholars and peers. "Kevin is an absolutely original poet, a musician of words, always surprising," said Tony Ardizzone, director of IU's Creative Writing Program. "Like Muhammed Ali at his prime, Kevin's work sometimes floats like a butterfly and sometimes stings like a hive of bees."

Young's next target is editing an anthology of blues poems that will feature a diverse range of poets, from Hughes to Gwendolyn Brooks. After that, he promises a much different work, which he will use part of his Guggenheim fellowship to fund.

"You've got to be willing to experiment, to try new things out, to test the waters," Young tells his students. "There are so many lively, important and beautiful stories to tell."

In short, you've got to keep on moving.