KYoung headshot

Kevin Young

Distinguished Poet
National Book Award Finalist

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Elegy & The Art of Losing
  • Poems of Praise
  • The Amistad Rebels
  • The Blues
  • Rare Books and Literary Archives

“Tender, sassy, and just plain cool.”-Billy Collins

“[Young] has a distinctive and unforgettable voice, virtuosic style, and mature command of his material….A marvelous poet.” -Booklist

“Like any great blues, Young’s is universal.”-Time Out New York

Born in 1970, Kevin Young is widely regarded as one of the leading poets of his generation, one who finds meaning and inspiration in African American music, particularly the blues, and in the bittersweet history of Black America. Lucille Clifton said of Young, “[His] gift of storytelling and understanding of the music inherent in the oral tradition of language re-creates for us an inner history which is compelling and authentic and American.”  His many books of poetry include Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf, 2011); Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008); For the Confederate Dead(2007); and Book of Hours (2014). Black Maria: Poems Produced and Directed by Kevin Young is a “film noir in verse,” a playful homage to the language and imagery of Hollywood detective films. The title, Black Maria, is vintage street slang for “police van” and “hearse,” as well as the name of Thomas Edison’s first film studio. The poems follow the adventures of two characters, the private eye AKA Jones, and the femme fatale Delilah Redbone, through “a maze of aliases and ambushes, sex and suspicions, fast talk and hard luck…”

Young was a 1993 National Poetry Series winner for Most Way Home, which also received the John C. Zacharis First Book Award of Ploughshares magazine. Other collections include To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor (2001), a poetic tribute to painter and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a finalist for the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets; and Jelly Roll: A Blues(2003), a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Young is also the author of a non-fiction book, The Grey Album(Graywolf, 2012), winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. In 2013, Young won the PEN Open Book Award for The Grey Album. Judges said, “Like Duke Ellington’s fabled, Harlem-bound A Train, Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness propels us across a panorama of African American history, creativity and struggle with a lightning-brisk brilliance and purpose. Here’s what happens when an acclaimed poet makes his first foray into nonfiction: madcap manifesto and rhapsodic reportage create a formidable blend of scholarship and memoir that tackles cultural and personal history in one breath. Young goes far beyond just being a documentarian of American Black identity-he shows us how Black identity is indispensable to American culture. “

Young is the editor of The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010 (BOA Editions, 2012); The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink (Bloomsbury, 2012); Best American Poetry 2011; and The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, one hundred and fifty devastatingly beautiful contemporary elegies that embrace the pain, heartbreak, and healing stages of mourning (2010).

Young’s poetry and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, and Callaloo. His awards include a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. Young is currently Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and English, and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University.​

Kevin Young is the author of Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad RebelsDear DarknessFor the Confederate Dead; Book of Hours and the ‘film noir in verse’ Black Maria. Young was a 1993 Nation Poetry Series winner for Most Way Home, a finalist for the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets for To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Jelly Roll: A Blues. Young is also the author of a non-fiction book, The Grey Album, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the 2013 PEN Open Book Award. He is the editor of several collections, most recently The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010  and The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. Young is currently Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English, and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University.

BOOK OF HOURS (Poetry, 2014)

“If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one.” -Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A beautiful book of both grief and birth from the award-winning poet whose work thrills his audience with its immediate emotional impact and musical riffs. A decade after the sudden and tragic loss of the poet’s father, we witness the unfolding of his grief. “In the night I brush / my teeth with a razor,”he tells us, in one of the collection’s piercing two-line poems. Young captures the strange silence of bereavement: “Not the storm/ but the calm/ that slays me.”But the poet acknowledges, even celebrates, life’s passages, his loss transformed and tempered in a sequence describing the birth of his son: in “Crowning,”he delivers what is surely one of the most powerful birth poems written by a man, describing “her face/ full of fire, then groaning your face/ out like a flower, blood-bloom,/ crocused into air.”Ending this book of birth and grief, the gorgeous title sequence brings acceptance, asking “What good//are wishes if they aren’t/ used up?” while understanding “How to listen/ to what’s gone.”

THE GREY ALBUM (Nonfiction, 2012)

“Kevin Young’s The Grey Album is a page-turning dynamo” -Yusef Komunyakaa

Taking its title from Danger Mouse’s pioneering mashup of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ The White Album, Kevin Young’s encyclopedic book combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical choruses to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, “jazzing.”What emerges is a persuasive argument for the many ways that African American culture is American culture, and for the centrality of art-and artfulness-to our daily life. Moving from gospel to soul, funk to freestyle, Young sifts through the shadows, the bootleg, the remix, the grey areas of our history, literature, and music.

A chorus of voices tells the story of the Africans who mutinied on board 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. In “Buzzard,”the opening section, we hear from the African interpreter for the rebels, mostly from Sierra Leone, who was jailed in New Haven. In “Correspondance,”we encounter the remarkable letters to John Quincy Adams and others that the captives wrote from jail, where they were taught English and converted to Christianity. In lines profound and pointed, the men demand their freedom in their newfound tongue: “All we want is make us free.”The book culminates in “Witness,”a libretto chanted by Cinque, the rebel leader, who yearns for his family and freedom while eloquently evoking the Amistads’ conversion and life in America. As Young conjures this array of characters and their music, interweaving the liberation cry of Negro spirituals and the indoctrinating wordplay of American primers, he delivers his signature songlike immediacy at the service of a tremendous epic built on the ironies, violence, and virtues of American history.

HOMILY (an excerpt)

The living thing I loved. Stood
and breathed in. Breathed.
They came, the breaths, often

in home’s hills,-they came not at all
in that hold, crouched cramped
cattled-Death came for us

among the moaning the rattling,
the men ghosting, wails
of the women, our children quiet . . .

No child should ever say
such quiet. Be loud!
Death there like a sweetness:-

a hum, a milk song each child
grew hush for.

-from Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels


I wouldn’t be here
without you. Without you
I’d be umpteen
pounds lighter & a lot
less alive. You stuck
round my ribs even
when I treated you like a dog
dirty, I dare not eat.
I know you’re the blues
because loving you
may kill me-but still you
rock me down slow
as hamhocks on the stove.
Anyway you come
fried, cued, burnt
to within one inch
of your life I love. Babe,
I revere your every
nickname-bacon, chitlin
craklin, sin.
Some call you murder,
shame’s stepsister-
then dress you up
& declare you white
& healthy, but you always
come back, sauced, to me.
Adam himself gave up
a rib to see yours
piled pink beside him.
Your heaven is the only one
worth wanting-
you keep me all night
cursing your four-
letter name, the next
begging for you again.

-from Dear Darkness


Quite difficult, belief.
Quite terrible, faith

that the night, again,
will nominate

you a running mate–
that we are of the elect

& have not yet
found out. That the tide

still might toss us up
another–what eyes

& stars, what teeth!
such arms, alive–

someone we will, all
night, keep. Not

just these spiders
that skitter & cobweb,

share my shivering bed.