Young’s New Poetry Collection Retraces the South

March 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

KEVIN YOUNG: Both of my parents were from Louisiana, rural southern segregated Louisiana, and I often write about that, and that brought me to my new book, “For the Confederate Dead,” which is very much about the South, and returning to the South, and also wrestling with some of the demons of history and war.

I grew up in Kansas. I was born in Lincoln, Neb., and moved around a lot. I do come from a long line of musicians and preachers and storytellers. I think that just growing up in the South like my parents did, that was part of life.

I think the title, “For the Confederate Dead,” is both ironic and also reverent. I think also trying to reclaim that word and change the word “Confederate” a little bit. I guess my new definition of Confederate is the old definition, as in a friend, an ally. I was trying to honor this history, and make up my own Confederates, from Gwendolyn Brooks, who opens the book, to Lionel Hampton, the jazz musician, to my friend, Filippe Wamba, who died.

This is “Redemption Song,” a poem about personal grief but also about the transformative power of beauty and the healing power of time.

'Redemption Song'

Grief might be easy

if there wasn't still

such beauty--would be far

simpler if the silver

maple didn't thrust

its leaves into flame,

trusting that spring

will find it again.

All this might be easier if

there wasn't a song

still lifting us above it,

if wind didn't trouble

my mind like water.

I half expect to see you

fill the autumn air

like breath--

At night I sleep

on clenched fists.

Days I'm like the child

who on the playground

falls, crying

not so much from pain

as surprise.

Finding a middle ground

Writing is a necessity, you know. It's not just fun, though it can be fun, and it's not just torture, though it can be torture, too. I think the point is really to find that middle ground between pleasure and necessity, and for me that's what a poem is.

My previous book, Black Maria, is a sort of film noir in verse. Sometime after I had finished the book I heard from the Providence Black Repertory Company, and I was just thrilled to hear that they were interested in doing it as a stage production.

(My real name's

AKA Jones.


that's what I been told.)

Hey buddy, welcome home--

Murphy bed like a booby

trap, springs shot

My mattress thin as the bills

I once stuffed it with.

I drink a lot

about my thinking problem--


noontime nip--

She my unquit habit.

I think that sometimes there's this war between the page and the stage as it were, and I think for me, a poem does both. It really has a vocal out loud component, and hopefully my poems have that life, but I also think there's something visual about a poem, something about the icon carved into stone.

I can't play any music, so I'm sure that's why I write about music, because I think it's a beautiful solace-producing thing. I think poetry, though, approaches music, and for me, the best poetry has its music in it. It's not behind it like a song where the lyrics are up front and the band is behind, but it's all mixed together.

'April in Paris'

This is taken from "April in Paris" a poem about seeing the jazz musician Lionel Hampton'a few months before he died.

Playing the subtleties

of silence, Hampton traces,

like a government agency,

the vibes--quietly--

his wands a magic,

a makeshift. Arthritic solos

hover like a bee

above the flower, finding

the sweet center.

Two days before Easter, Monsieur

Hampton plays the changes,

offering up

songs read off

a napkin bruised with lyrics:

What did I do

to be so black and blue?

his voice wobbles

along the highway

called history,

flying home.

The sax player stops

between tunes to dab

a handkerchief at the drool

gathering his chin.


care. The mind's blind

alleys we wander down.

This is enough, just--

This is Paris--