Capacity Crowd Welcomes Author Kevin Young

Poet Kevin Young talks to students about his craft.A standing room–only crowd of students, faculty, staff, and guests filled Hagerty Lounge in De La Salle Hall last Wednesday evening to meet with award-winning author and poet Kevin Young. Young’s appearance kicked off the 2018–19 MFA Creative Writing and Reading series that welcomes authors from around the world to visit Saint Mary’s for readings, conversation, and community engagement.

Kevin Young is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, newly named a National Historic Landmark; and poetry editor of The New Yorker. He is the author of 13 books of poetry and prose, most recently Brown (2018); Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995–2015 (Knopf, 2016), longlisted for the National Book Award; and Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014), a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize for Poetry from the Academy of American Poets. His collection Jelly Roll: a blues (Knopf, 2003) was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

The campus was abuzz with excitement as admirers anticipated his appearance. Young spent nearly a full day at the SMC campus and gave generously of his time, talent, and intellect. His visit included an intimate gathering with MFA students for casual discussion and a question-and-answer session, prior to the kickoff of the MFA Creative Writing and Reading series later that evening. Young provided his insights and nuggets of wisdom to MFA students who want to journey into creative writing as a profession. “Writing poetry was something I did before I knew I was going to be a poet,” said Young. “Once I accepted that I wanted to be a poet, I felt a responsibility toward getting down things that might otherwise be lost, like writing about my family in Louisiana and writing about the music I loved, from hip hop to blues; and just casting an eye on my music, my history, my generation, and recognizing that loss also comes with a certain age.”

Young revealed more about growing up in the South and how attending a creative writing class during the summer when he was 12 years old changed his life. “I wrote little poems when I was a kid that my mom would type up, and I still have some of those, but when I started writing ‘poem poems,’ I found I couldn’t stop,” he said.

Young was the guest of honor at an informal dinner attended by MFA faculty, staff, students, and board members, where he shared stories from his childhood on how his life was influenced by older Southern family members, teachers, and mentors who recognized his gift of storytelling well before he did. “I took a youth writing class from professor Tom April, and he became my childhood mentor,” said Young. “He helped me discover that I had a poet’s temperament and that I wanted my words to not just be right, but to sound right. We are still friends to this day,” added Young.

At Hagerty for the evening kickoff event, the capacity crowd was all ears as MFA Program Director Brenda Hillman, who holds the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry, formally introduced Young. For the next half hour, Young read from his most recent publication, Brown (2018), and shared the backstory for his readings, providing a deeper level of context and understanding. After selecting a few additional readings from some of his other published works, Young engaged the audience by answering their many questions. When asked about his Saint Mary’s visit, Young said, “I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with the students and was struck by the breadth and intensity and intricacies of their questions. They are seeking the same answers I was looking for as a college student.” He added, “When I was a student at Harvard, Seamus Heaney was one of my mentors, who went on to win the Nobel Prize. Having a great mentor is a must.”

The successful launch of the 2018 MFA Creative Writing and Reading series concluded with a book signing by Young, where he also imparted a final nugget of advice. “It’s important to let in all of the different voices that influence your life. In one’s work, you really want to be able to capture everything from your grandmother’s voice, to your ancestors, and otherwise,” he said. “How do you write about now and also about history? You have to be brave. Being brave is the best thing that you can be.”