On a dreary day in 2004, poet Kevin Young spent the afternoon driving from one dry-cleaning business to another in Topeka, Kansas, performing the unpleasant errand of picking up his recently deceased father’s clothing.
“There’s this single-mindedness you have, that you want him all whole again,” says Young, whose new collection of poems, “Book of Hours,” explores many such moments, when everyday tasks become suffused with the pain of enormous loss. In 2004, Young’s father died in a hunting accident; the poems explore the many aspects of accepting that death, from the moment he got the news to the strangeness of returning to his daily routine and even to the birth of his son two years after the tragedy.
“It was unexpected and hard to reckon with,” says Young. “No one wants to write an elegy. But when something like life happens to you, how can you not write about it? The key is how do you write about it? Those are the hard questions I think.”
In “Charity,” a poem about that day he collected his dead father’s clean clothes, he writes of the business owners’ kind words about his father and their small but touching gestures of declining payment for their services. “I’ve learned death has few kindnesses left,” he writes.
Such is charity — so rare
& so rarely free —
that on the way back
to your emptying house
“That was so important to me in that moment,” says Young. “That’s really what some of those poems capture: those daily stakes … They’re poems about dealing with the everyday things we don’t always talk about in terms of grief, but also trying to find meaning or metaphor in those experiences.”
Finding meaning and metaphor in life experiences has been an on-going theme in the work of the prolific writer and Emory creative writing professor. “Book of Hours” is Young’s eighth book of poems, and he is the editor of eight others, including “Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels,” which won of a 2012 American Book Award, and “Jelly Roll: A Blues,” a finalist for the National Book Award. His book “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness” won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and winner of the PEN Open Award. The San Francisco Examiner called him “one of the most talented poets in the United States.”
Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and much of his early life was spent traveling from place to place as his parents pursued their educations and early career paths. Young’s father was an ophthalmologist and his mother a chemist. Both of his parents had grown up in rural, segregated Louisiana, and they were both the first in each of their families to attend college.
When Young was 10, the family settled in Topeka, Kansas, where Young’s father opened a private practice. But he made frequent visits to rural Louisiana where he spent time with extended family.
An only child, Young describes his childhood as full of “a lot of music and a lot of talk and affection and love.” His parents were not poets, but one side of his family were preachers, on the other were musicians.
“Between preaching and music is poetry,” Young says. “That’s how I like to think of it.”
By age 13, Young began writing poetry after taking a summer writing workshop for gifted students at Washburn University. As an undergrad at Harvard, he began writing the poems that would become his first collection, “Most Way Home.”
“I realized I could write about Louisiana and my family and their childhoods and their lives,” he says about the poems in that first book. “That was a really important revelation for me. Until then, even though I lived in Kansas, I was writing poems about the sea.”
He credits Harvard professor and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who wrote about life in rural Ireland, for encouraging the young poet to write about his family’s rural background.
“He was a great teacher,” says Young. “Poets work with words, but they’re writing about life; I think that’s what he helped me understand.”
In some ways, Young’s admiration for Heaney has come full circle. Heaney died in 2013 at age 74; Young is curator of Emory’s 70,000-volume poetry library, one of the largest privately held archives of 20th-century English language poetry, which includes an extensive collection of Heaney’s correspondence, rare books and manuscripts.
“One can only aspire, but as a teacher I hope to have a little of that touch Heaney had,” says Young. “I want to convey to my students the long haul, the daily pleasure and the daily task of poetry.”
And in that task, Young has some good — and familiar — company. In the 1990s, Young was part of a circle of African-American writers called the Dark Room Collective, which New Yorker magazine said was as important to American letters as the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Among the collective was a young Natasha Tretheway, now poet laureate of the United States and also on the creative writing faculty at Emory. It’s fair to say the magazine’s prediction is unfolding accurately.
“She’s one of my old friends, 20 some years at this point,” says Young about Tretheway. “It’s great to see her do so well.”
A lover of jazz and blues, Young imbues his work with a musical quality, and it’s apparent in the tones, riffs and rhythms of “Book of Hours.”
“To me the blues are that tremendous gift, thinking about the tragic and the comic together and the ways they interact. Laughing to keep from crying,” Young says. “I hope there’s a kind of poetry-music in my work. It’s an approach, a way of thinking.”
It’s that mix of laughter and tears, humor and pain, the mundane and the sublime that becomes the frame for exploring Young’s grief for his lost father.
“I hope in the end it’s not a depressing book or a sad book, which isn’t to say it’s an easy fix,” he says. “It doesn’t suddenly make the experience better. But having written about him, it does make it slightly different. I hope other people are, if not comforted, then accompanied in those feelings.”
Kevin Young. Reads and signs “Book of Hours.” 7 p.m., April 7. Free. Carter Presidential Library & Museum Theater, 441 Freedom Pkwy, Atlanta. 404-865-7100, www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov