The PEN Pod: The Power and Immediacy of Poetry with Kevin Young
Early next year, Kevin Young, poetry editor at The New Yorker, will take on yet another day job as the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He is also the editor of the new anthology, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. Kevin joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss exploring the poetry of African American writers, the intersection between poetry and museums, and what it’s like becoming a museum director during a pandemic and period of social upheaval. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Kevin begins at the 13:10 mark).
Congratulations on the directorship of the museum! How do the worlds of poetry and museums intersect for you?
They overlap quite a bit. I was thinking about this—as I have to almost daily—because to me, one of the exciting things about the museum is the way it’s able to tell the story of African American culture and experience and history, and make it what it is, which is central to the American experience. That telling of a story may seem far from poetry, but it’s what I do a lot in my own work—thinking about those lyric moments and telling those stories in my prose about African American culture and life.
To me, that storytelling is really at the heart of a really good museum, and the National Museum especially has done such a beautiful job. It’s not just a story—it’s also these lyric moments, these moments of transcendence, that it captures really beautifully. From seeing a photograph of Harriet Tubman—one of the first photographs known of her, which is beautiful. I happened to have seen it in a separate context before, and just to hold the book that this photograph was in is incredible. Now, anyone who goes to the museum can see it up close. Making this available to everyone is really part of the specialness of the museum, and poetry, to me, is for everyone too.
“There’s a way in which the stories that African Americans tell are ones we’ve carried in our bodies, and poetry does much the same.”
The museum is free; certainly you should support your local poets and local vendors, but there’s a way in which poetry is something that we carry in our bodies and the experience of the museum—whether it’s online or now you can go in person, they have timed tickets and safe entry and all that—that I think really has a physical component to it. There’s a way in which the stories that African Americans tell are ones we’ve carried in our bodies, and poetry does much the same.
You’ll be taking on this role at the museum as its second leader in its young history. But, you’re joining in the midst of this incredible explosion of activism, especially against anti-Black violence, also amid a pandemic. How do you plan on embracing those challenges?
The museum is young in being open, but it’s not young in conception. It’s a century old in that way—and the Schomburg too, where I’m currently director, is a century old, almost 95 years old, too. In a way, this wish to understand, comprehend, collaborate with, and contribute to Black culture, was much longer than that. But I think institutionalization is a century in the making—both at Schomburg and at the Museum in a certain sense—and I think that they have shared missions in that way. What we’re all facing and being affected by these twin pandemics of racism and COVID, which provides the Museum with a good opportunity to chronicle that.
How we do that is one of the questions I think is facing us. Some of it is through collecting some of the objects that they were already doing around the protests. But a lot of it is telling that story of this past summer, and into this fall, as well as contextualizing it. What the museum does well, is shows you that this doesn’t come out of nowhere, that there are centuries of activism and resistance and also of oppression and difficulty. Those kinds of forces come to bear more recently, but they have a long context in history, and that continuity is what the museum can help us understand and help us deepen our understanding of each other.
“What the museum does well, is shows you that this doesn’t come out of nowhere, that there are centuries of activism and resistance and also of oppression and difficulty. Those kinds of forces come to bear more recently, but they have a long context in history, and that continuity is what the museum can help us understand and help us deepen our understanding of each other.”
On that continuity side, this makes me think of obviously this book—this collection is a multisensory, multivocal epic. As an editor, how do you curate and craft that kind of collection, that spans such a broad era of history and a broad moment of life for so many people, in the same way that maybe a museum faces that same challenge?
I think it’s a challenge and an opportunity—the hardest thing about doing African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song was really making it as short as it is, even though it’s a thousand pages. It could have been twice as long, and at one point it probably was—cutting it and revising was part of the process, but it was also a process of going out and searching and discovery. What I want is for readers to come to the book with that same sense.
There are poets they’ll know—poets like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks—who are taught often, but we have to remember, they weren’t always taught and they weren’t always seen as central as they I hope are now. But at the same time, there’s lots of discoveries. There’s poets like Fenton Johnson—who’s one of my favorites—who wrote prose poems in the teens, the 19-teens, that is. Here, we have a poet who’s thinking about the blues, that blues aesthetic, and thinking about poetic form and experiments and all these things that I think speak to now. He has a famous poem—famous for poets—called “Tired” that’s sometimes anthologized, but I want to include all of the prose poems that he is known to have written. Unfortunately, there was a fire, and he lost that whole manuscript. The only things that exist were ones he published, and I don’t know of them appearing in a century, and here they are, all together. I want readers to discover that in the ways that the writers intended—we have a lot of longer poems that we tried to include; if not the whole of them, then significant excerpts. I think showing the kind of epic struggle and the epic song of African Americans was the goal of the anthology. And indeed, you’re right—that’s a goal of the museum too, is to show that American epic, which I think is very much an African American epic.
“I think showing the kind of epic struggle and the epic song of African Americans was the goal of the anthology. And indeed, you’re right—that’s a goal of the museum too, is to show that American epic, which I think is very much an African American epic.”
We’ve talked to so many authors for this podcast, and so many of them say that they’ve turned to poetry in the last seven months of this pandemic. Why do you think that is?
I think that poetry offers a response and a humane response, and one that is our humanity upfront. It’s our love of language, our need for connection, but also it dances with silence in a way. Not all art forms do that—certainly Twitter don’t, and television, which I love, doesn’t provide you that same ability to think, reflect, and meditate. But also music, it provides music. For the music of the moment, I think poetry addresses much better than any other art form. As the poetry editor of The New Yorker, I see it every day, every week, and we’re able to have someone write a poem about George Floyd and the week after he’s murdered, to print it. I think that immediacy of poetry is really coming across, and that’s true in whatever people are writing about.
I think there’s poems we published that I took well before quarantine that speak exactly to the moment. I think that’s because, on one hand, poets are kind of prescient and prophetic at times, but I also think that writing about things deeply and honestly means they last beyond that moment. Poetry is that unique place where eternity and the immediate moment meet. Poems are able to carry that toward the future. When you read a poem by Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, you’re transported in time. I often say that poems are the best form of transport. They change us, they move us, and they move us across time and space. Suddenly, for that moment of the poem, you are that lyric “I”—you’re that somebody else, and you’re in someone else’s shoes, and very little else does that. Nothing does it the same way, or I would say as well as poetry does.
You’ve touched on this idea of poetry being transportable and reactive to its moment, and blending that into your career and what comes next with the museum. How do you think the museum is going to need to—even with timed ticketing—reckon with social distance and maybe not welcome as many people through its doors as it usually could? How will you expand its mission and outside of the physical walls?
I think it’s doing a good job of stepping into this cautiously and carefully, but also thoughtfully. That’s part of what the Smithsonian has done, and they’re doing it in a way that I think is really smart. It has to be distanced, but people are also in need of this culture that is there for them. I think it’s something I think about in my current role too—how do we provide access to people in this moment? There’s ways we’re doing it electronically and digitally, and at the museum, they’ve always been doing that digitally. Secretary Lonnie Bunch, who ran the museum and is now the secretary of the Smithsonian, says it was a digital museum long before it was a physical one. It was online in a place that people could get that information and see those objects and connect the stories to their own stories, which is really important, and I see that continuing.
“When you read a poem by Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, you’re transported in time. I often say that poems are the best form of transport. They change us, they move us, and they move us across time and space. Suddenly, for that moment of the poem, you are that lyric ‘I’—you’re that somebody else, and you’re in someone else’s shoes, and very little else does that. Nothing does it the same way, or I would say as well as poetry does.”
I don’t think we’re going to end up in a place where the digital and the virtual—especially around events—is going to go away, even if tomorrow we were able to open and there were vaccines and everyone was safe. I think we’d still have this digital world that we realize now means that someone can be several continents and an ocean away, and tune into your event. That broad tent of access is here to stay, and it’s something the Smithsonian does so well and the National Museum especially. I’m excited to continue that and see what we can do.
Some of it we don’t totally know yet. I know that I didn’t know what Zoom was seven months ago. There’s things that we can do to connect with each other. The important thing is that people are looking for human connection, and sometimes that’s in person—and there isn’t a substitute for that, but there is an amplification of what we do online and digitally. I’m really interested in especially the Black digital future, but also the digital present. African American contributions to that are wide and many—let’s figure out how we can archive those, continue those, and amplify those too.
Lastly, what are you reading right now?
I have a bunch of things I’m reading for a project I’m working on. But, as a book nut and collection, I read something here, something there. The books I’m looking forward to reading are Eddie Glaude’s book on James Baldwin, Begin Again. It’s sitting right here next to me, and a lot of it was conducted at the Schomburg Center where Baldwin’s papers are. So, that’s next on my “outside of what I’m writing” reading list. But whenever I do say, “Oh, this is outside,” I suddenly ended up having to think about and write about it, and so, I’m excited to hear Glaude’s take on everything.