A Profile of the Poet Kevin Young

In Ploughshares, a profile of the poet Kevin Young.


Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1970, but moved with his family several times before they settled in Topeka, Kansas, where he remained until college. A lesser individual might consider this an inauspicious beginning, but far from decrying his Midwestern background, Young asserts, “I think there’s a lot of interesting history regarding Kansas, both its history as a state and being a free state, and also just in general its cultural history—Langston Hughes grew up in Kansas, in part, and Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka. There’s this connection I feel to the black folks who live there.” Young was turned on to poetry in his early teens by a creative writing teacher, whom he still calls a friend. “We all had to write a poem, and he sort of anonymously picked mine. And then I just couldn’t be stopped; I just kept writing them,” Young says. That initial precociousness would come to define his career. Since then, he’s led a kind of charmed existence, studying with Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido at Harvard University, being awarded a Stegner Fellowship directly out of college, and then going on to earn his M.F.A. at Brown University. While still at Harvard, he also became a member of the Dark Room Collective, an influential group of young African-American writers in Boston who hosted readings and dedicated themselves to advancing the work of their members. To date, Young has published four collections of poetry, with two more on the way, and edited three anthologies. A fourth anthology is due out soon aswell. Young’s first collection, Most Way Home, was selected by Lucille Clifton for the National Poetry Series, and later won Ploughshares’s John C. Zacharis First Book Award, achievements all the more remarkable considering the bulk of it was written while he was still an undergraduate. He’s won numerous other honors for his writing, including the Paterson Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship, and he’s been named a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the James Laughlin Award, and the National Book Award. Since his third book, his publisher has been Knopf, the most prestigious house in the country. All by the ripe age of thirty-five.