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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with Thomas Wolfe Award winner Kevin Young

Photo Courtesy of Susan Irons.

Kevin Young is the author of 11 books of prose and poetry. Two of his books, "Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995-2015" and "Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News," have been longlisted for National Book Awards for poetry and nonfiction respectively. Young is also the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and is the incoming poetry editor at The New Yorker. He was recently awarded the Thomas Wolfe Prize for his writing and will receive the prize and speaking at UNC on Tuesday, Oct. 3 in a free event open to the public. University Editor Leah Asmelash spoke to Young on his accomplishments thus far and how he manages his time.

The Daily Tar Heel: What are you looking forward to with your visit to UNC?

Kevin Young: I’ve never been here before, actually, so I’m looking forward to the campus, which I just got to. It looks beautiful, and it’s nice to be at an esteemed school with a great creative writing tradition, and the Thomas Wolfe Prize is a real honor.

DTH: Paul Muldoon held the poetry editor position for a decade, and now you’re taking it over. How do you plan on making your mark as poetry editor? What things do you plan to do differently, or do the same?

KY: Well, I’m really looking forward to continuing work of nearly a century of great editors. The New Yorker published me pretty early on and it still remains a really important venue, and so I really want to honor that tradition, but of course I want to think about representing the whole of poetry. We’re in a really exciting moment in poetry I think, with a lot of new voices. A lot of the breadth of American poetry is really impressive right now, and I’d like to sort of capture that in the magazine as best we could.

DTH: You’ve written on cultural critique before in your last nonfiction book, and you’re back again to the nonfiction world with "Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News," which seems really timely. What inspired you to approach the subject of fake news, and why did you decide to explore this in a work of nonfiction rather than poetry?

KY: When I wrote "The Grey Album," which is my previous book, I was really talking about the good side of lying and this is the bad side of lying. But it also just, what I’ve found always fascinates me, some of my things that I talk about at parties, or just parts of conversation, but then I was always struck by, when people sit down to write about them in the past, they always seem to think they were about fact or fiction and this made up a blurry line idea. I really couldn’t stomach that because it was clear to me that they were about something deeper and something more important, and I also wanted to know why are they happening now evermore frequently. And I both wanted to figure out if that was indeed true, which I suspected, and I think is true, and then also wanted to talk about what they were really about and why now. And then you know, the world continues to change as it always does, and some of those questions became even more pointed. And I think we have cut a name for what was happening between truthiness and fake news, I think there's a lot of be said and learned.

DTH: I know "Jelly Roll" was a finalist for the National Book Award, but how did you feel when you found out Bunk was on the longlist for a National Book Award? Are you anticipating it?

KY: I’m looking forward to the announcement, but who knows. There’s a lot of great books on the list, and I’m just happy to ... it’s really an honor to be on the long list, but it’s especially exciting because I was on the longlist last year for poetry, so to be on it in another genre is pretty cool.

DTH: Your plate is extremely busy, as director of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, books/poems you’re writing and also soon as editor in a month. How do you find time for reading? I know that’s something a lot of college students always complain about.

KY: I feel like students have more time perhaps than they think (laughs). And I also think a lot of is just habit. If you get in the habit, especially as a young writer starting out, of writing every day, of reading a little, just reading in those off moments, just carrying a book with you. You can read at the bus stop or in between classes, or in these moments where you can return to the world of words. I think that’s really important. And carrying a notebook, those things I think my students don’t do because they’re used to writing on devices, I think it can be really helpful to have something on hand that you can write in or about. For me, I try to do that just naturally. When you’re writing nonfiction it can be a little harder, you have to sort of be in one place at least long enough to kind of get back into the work, especially with a big book like "Bunk." But, I've been doing it a while. That’s the goal, is figuring out the balancing. 

DTH: You write a lot about the African-American experience, how does your poetry influence your research with the Schromberg center connect? Do they influence each other?

KY: If you’re writing especially about history, you have to have a certain amount of research in your poems. I think the key is knowing when to stop with a poem, because you don’t want to know so much that the poem becomes an essay. You want to be able to kind of imagine, say, a voice or picture something. That leaf of imagination is what the poem, especially the historic poem, does really well. And even a personal poem can involve sort of a, if not research, then an exploration of self and one’s own time and place. That can amount to research. 

But at the same time you have to give yourself that room. For me I’ve always edited things and done research, whether it’s for prose or poetry, and it’s just a natural extension of the process to me, and I think it is for a lot of people. It’s not just always thought about or talked about. I think it’s really important, and of course a research library like Schonberg is a place where it keeps these things safe for you should discover them. 

What’s amazing is, at New York Public Library, someone just discovered an essay by George Moses Horton, who I think actually used to come here to UNC in the 19th century. He was a slave and a poet, and he used to get passes to come here and he would write poems on demand and stuff. And they just discovered an essay by him in the archive. Obviously it’s been there for like 150 years waiting for someone to discover it. That kind of discovery and realization is really important. Horton is one of the poets who I think is a really fascinating figure to me, to write about slavery while still in slavery, which Phillis Wheatley did before but he published his book in the South. He’s a fascinating figure and that kind of research, if you don’t know about Horton, you have to do a little research and who knows what you can discover.

DTH: I wanted to talk about diversity in poetry. On the public stage it’s been dominated by white voices and, especially now with you taking on such a big and public role, why is diversity in poetry important? 

KY: A big question. The answer is self-evident, the reason American poetry is so strong right now is because of its diversity. And the plenitude of voice, who are saying really interesting things in new ways often, it’s because of the diversity and it’s because of the efforts of groups like Cave Canem, … these groups that are, poetry groups, that are in some ways challenging who’s speaking but also sort of changing it, and just really providing forums for people to get heard on their own terms as well as provide support for publication and exploration of self and nation. In this moment of a lot of discussions around say race or gender diversity or all these things, the poets are sort of leading the way and have been there first and been there longest, writing out of selfhood and writing out of an expansive American eye and to sort of turn to that is really important.

DTH: UNC has a really great creative writing program, and some really great poets among its faculty that we students are lucky to have. Do you have any tips for college age poets, how to improve their writing?

KY: I think you have to write, write, write and read, read, read. Maybe you have to do that in the reverse order, especially if you’re writing more than you’re reading early on, I think that can be tough. And you should read everything, you shouldn’t decide too early what you’re going to like or fall in love with one school or another. You should read the poets who are here, there’s a lot of great ones, and find ways you can interact with them in class, at a reading. Making yourself part of that process I think of reading and hearing readings is important. And if you can find a community around that, then you’re in big luck.


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