Kevin Young

Kevin Young

“rested on our tongues before the story of ships, before words new as worlds, tribes turned to regret—you can hear it—the steady hum of cuz”

Kevin Young
Photo: C.B. Claiborne, 2004

At the time of the 1994 Conference, Kevin Young was still new to the poetry scene. Kevin Young studied with Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido at Harvard University, where he became a member of the Dark Room Collective. He later was awarded a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford and earned an MFA from Brown. He has written many poetry collections, his first being Most Way Home, which was read from during the 1994 Conference and selected for the National Poetry Series by Lucille Clifton. Among his later publications, Blues Laws was a candidate for the National Book Award. His Book of Hours was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize for Poetry. In addition to his poetry, he is also a nonfiction author. The Grey Album (2012) won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Open Book Award. In 2017, his other non-fiction book Bunk received a plethora of recognition, including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Nonfiction as well as being named a New York Times Notable Book and a “Best Book of 2017” by NPR and many other publications. He has edited many poetry collections, including The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton (2012) after her death. Since the conference, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, named University Distinguished Professor at Emory University, selected for Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and served as Poetry Editor of the New Yorker.

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This is for Tonia who learned to ride
a boy’s bike at four, filling its basket
with a Chihuahua smart enough to open
doors—this is for Angela who taught me
to kiss but denies even remembering it—
for Big Red, born the color of Louisiana 
dust, the rusty dirt we blew up
come Christmas when fireworks stands
slanted like makeshift roadside mangers. 

This is for two sides of one family,
two towns full of folks I’m related to
or soon will be, summers finding girls
cute till someone says That’s your cousin,
boy, then not looking again—this is for
all those odd names, Kiris & Makarios, 
Omar & Cheryl, even for Jarvis
who broke toys I was too old to own,
then asked Who broke dat car?

to throw me off his trail. For Nikki
who cried whenever I did, sad
for the world’s aches, mine, who worried
aloud in the movie that Indiana
Jones would get deaded till I explained
he can’t, he’s the hero. This is for Keith
in that unsunned room he hanged

himself like the paintings he masterpieced 
& my grandmother’s wood-paneled 
walls still keep up—for his little sister Jamie
pigtailed & crying at his grave, begging 
her brother back—Jamie who once refused
to sit by me, the older cousin never seen
before—Jamie who wouldn’t eat

crawfish until I peeled some & she warmed
& laughed & ate & informed a roomful of family
Kevin’s my cousin—yes Jamie, I am yours
& Phyllis’s & her baby Brittany’s
who ain’t a baby no more, just a womanish 
four-year-old going on forty—I am cousin 
to her little brother who carries Keith’s name,
carries this word, cousin, that once

rested on our tongues before the story of ships, 
before words new as worlds, tribes
turned to regret—you can hear it—the steady hum
of cuz, say it till it buzzes the blood, gathers
like the wasps who kept returning, pressing
against screens in my grandmother’s gaping house
no matter how often we let them out.