Kevin Young on ‘Ardency’


At Work

Photograph by Kate Tuttle.

In Ardency, the poet Kevin Young chronicles the experiences of fifty-three Africans who mutinied aboard the Amistad slave ship in 1839. After killing two of their Spanish captors, they sailed up the coast of the United States, only to be intercepted by a naval brig and thrown in a Connecticut jail. Their case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the earlier court’s decision: because the international slave trade had been abolished, the men and women aboard the Amistad were not legally slaves and thus had been illegally captured. They were entitled to use force to secure their freedom. The Amistad mutiny would be one of the many events that gave the abolitionist movement traction leading up to the Civil War. In this book, Young conjures their voices in letters, poems, and songs, documenting their violent capture and eventual return to Africa in 1842. Young has tangled with the complexities of American history in his six previous collections, including For the Confederate Dead and Dear Darkness. He recently edited the anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing and is finishing The Gray Album, a nonfiction work about music and history, forthcoming from Graywolf next year.

You spent twenty years working on Ardency. What originally drew you to the story of the Amistad?

I stumbled on letters the Amistad prisoners wrote from jail. I was struck by their poignancy and how the prisoners spoke in this new language of English. But I was struck by what the letters didn’t say, what was permitted of them to say, and, then, what they did mange to say because of or despite those limits.

What was so great about working on this book was that no one knew about it. I didn’t know if I was ever going to do anything with it, but I knew that there was this story I wanted to learn more about. Also, I knew that I wanted to write in the voice of Cinque, who led the rebellion, but wasn’t ready to write in his voice yet.

There are many strangely beautiful phrases in the letters—“be my dear benefactory,” “Cold catch us all the time,” “I am your perfect stranger”—that have the urgency of someone really trying to master the language.

Master is an interesting verb. They had masters who bought them in Cuba and forged documents giving them new identities saying they were born in Cuba. Though he international slave trade was illegal, you could still purchase slaves who were born into slavery. So they were learning English to become free, but there is a sense in the letters that they are trying to free themselves from English.

Another thing that strikes me is how they talk about Christianity.

They are wrestling with it. When they say we believe in this, is it because they really believe or because they are writing to their patrons? I certainly think if you were taken to a foreign land and told you have to learn this language and this God, you might just say, Sure. Because it might get you free.

But also: the enslavers were Christian. What does it mean to say you are on the side of justice when you are enslaving a people? Obviously the ironies are there and the Amistad rebels are very aware of them.

How did you become able to write in Cinque’s voice?

Well, I had to be a better writer. I didn’t want it to sound slapsticky. The basis of the book is a deep music. For me that always meant the Negro spiritual. Capturing that is no joke; that’s real music of pain and exile and triumph, so to be able to write that, you have to know what you’re doing.

In the most recent issue of Poets and Writers you describe the voice of Cinque as being somewhere between a deejay and the Black Monks of Mississippi.”

I did? I don’t remember saying that! I don’t know if I think that’s true. His voice is a lot of other voices, which is related to the DJ aesthetic. I really think of him as a choir director and a chorus of one.

Either way, you’re interested in the DJ aesthetic in your other work. In 2004, you published a remix of To Repel Ghosts, your collection about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. How do you understand the remix as it applies to poetry?

It took a while for anyone to want to publish To Repel Ghosts. I thought people would want to publish a three-hundred-and-fifty-page book about a dead painter, but they didn’t. When it came out I was pleased, but had spent so much time on it that I had thought of this whole other way to do the book. It’s not that different than Walt Whitman publishing different versions of  “Song of Myself.” I certainly didn’t want it to replace the original and that’s the nice thing about the remix. You can have both. I have no plans to remix Ardency.

There’s something obsessive about remixing a 360-page book. Ardency also has an obsessive quality to, as if it is driven by a need to catalogue every aspect of the Amistad case. Is obsession part of your process?

Definitely. In a long poem or a sequence of poems, you’re trying to formalize your obsessions and give them a shape and a name. The key is to realize if the connections you are making are ones with resonance. That is something a DJ does. A DJ draws a connection between two seemingly disparate things and says, “Look, they are alike. You can dance to them.”

Good DJs, are, in a way, obsessed with history. They’re always digging through the crates, looking for that lost sound. I’m thinking of J Dilla pulling a sample from a 1972 René Costy recording or “Claire” by Singers Unlimited.

Oh yes, of course. I’ve been writing recently about old-school and golden-age hip-hop for The Grey Album. The book goes from slavery for the present and considers both music and literature. I realized I had a lot to say about hip-hop as something that answers and re-asks many of the questions posed by the spirituals and the blues.

I can’t imagine the book without thinking about Notorious B.I.G. or “King of Rock,” by Run-D.M.C. I was always going to write about Ms. Lauryn Hill and OutKast, but now I’ve added more about the the blues, punk, literature, and what I call “the end of the record.” Plus, the tunes are also great to listen to and write to.

You’re also a record collector. Do you have an especially prized record in your collection?

One of my favorites is by this San Francisco punk band called The Offs that I found one day when I was walking down the street. Basquiat did the cover and this guy was selling it for a dollar. It was 1992 or 1993, it wasn’t like you could find this sort of thing on the Internet. I showed it to my friends and they didn’t believe me.