NewsPoet: Kevin Young Writes The Day In Verse

Mar 30, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 11:22 am

Today at All Things Considered we continue a project we're calling NewsPoet. Each month we bring in a poet to spend time in the newsroom — and at the end of the day, to compose a poem reflecting on the day's stories.

Tracy K. Smith kicked off the series, and last month Craig Morgan Teicher joined us in the studio.

Today poet Kevin Young brought us the news in verse. Young is the Atticus Haygood professor of creative writing and English at Emory University in Atlanta. His latest book is called The Grey Album: On The Blackness of Blackness. He is also the author of Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels.

Kevin Young sat down with Audie Cornish, who noted that he might just be the perfect person for this assignment: In his latest book he calls himself "a poet and a collector and now a curator."

It certainly helped him jump into the rhythm of the day at All Things Considered. Cornish said that Young took careful notes at the morning meeting, while the staff pitched ideas. "People seemed very calm about it," said Young, even though they had "a spy in their midst."

But Young couldn't rely only on his background — he had to get familiar with the day's news as well. He explained that one segment in particular caught his eye. It was an unusual story that imagined what might happen if Texas seceded from the U.S.

"I had spent last May in Texas, living there and writing," Young said. He built on the story's theme and began to imagine the challenges of creating a new currency and a new anthem.

Later he combined it with a different news story — this one detailing the demise of the Canadian penny. "Somehow trade relations with Canada seemed to play in," Young said.

When asked about the words he used in the poem, Young said he had been thinking about the idea of "cleave." "It's a self-antonym — a word that [also] means its opposite." It's a concept that is featured in his latest book, and the idea of Texas splitting fit right in.

Young also says the poem is about loss. "The death of the penny became the death of other things, and a way of mourning something perhaps more grand."

All Things Considered's NewsPoet is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Finally, this hour, some news poetry. Once a month, we give a poet the unenviable task of composing verse based on the day's events and the stories in our program. Our NewsPoet spends the day with us, sits in on our meetings and observes the whole process of putting a show together. And today, we're joined by Kevin Young, in from Atlanta. His latest book is called "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness." Hello, Kevin.

KEVIN YOUNG: Hello there.

CORNISH: Now, in this book, you actually call yourself a poet and a collector and now a curator. Is that what you saw your job as in our meeting this morning?


YOUNG: More a note taker and sort of a spy, you know, which I - was a great role to have. I think there's this long tradition of verse journalism from Gwendolyn Brooks to Muriel Rukeyser, who was a big inspiration to Adrienne Rich, who just died. And that tradition I sort of felt myself in today.

CORNISH: And I gather you were inspired by more than one story in the show today, which has to be a record. One of them, the disappearance of the Canadian penny and our story imagining what might happen if Texas seceded from the U.S., already, an imagination...


CORNISH: ...story, but you ran with it.

YOUNG: That's right. I had spent last May in Texas, actually, living there and writing. So it was really a story that caught my eye.

CORNISH: And the Canadian penny?


CORNISH: Those things don't seem like they go together.

YOUNG: Well, the Texas story is about starting this new Republic of Texas, and I started thinking about their currency and then also thinking about, you know, the idea of - what would this new country's anthem be? And somehow, the trade relations with the Canadian penny that is no more seemed to play in.

CORNISH: All right. Well, let's take a listen to your poem, which is called "Anthem."

YOUNG: (Reading) Life is a near-death experience. You can go to hell. I'm going to Texas. It costs more than a penny to make a penny. A dollar for your thoughts and a dream. People have to breathe where they live. A town big as her hair. Aren't there more worlds than three? Texas is finally free but not its lunch. Cleave can mean to sunder or to meet. The threat must be imminent. Look and see - the daffodils, the rain sage upright, the high desert, fire warnings, the scorched trees. Cloven, clove, clave, cleavage, cleft. Every day's a lottery. Hoods, blood. The death of the Canadian penny means we all may need to round up. Leaves, left. Bereave, bereft.

CORNISH: That's the poem "Anthem," written today by our latest NewsPoet Kevin Young. So what it's like hearing it now? Anything strike you?


YOUNG: Well, I was thinking a lot about this idea of cleave and something that's a self-antonym. It's something I talk about in "The Grey Album," just this idea of a word that means it's opposite as well, you know, that has two meanings. So I was thinking about cleave and this idea of Texas splitting and then something else sort of meaning us there too.

CORNISH: Texas is finally free but not its lunch. I like that line.


YOUNG: Well, yes. They made clear that, you know, there would be no more free lunch if Texas became a republic.

CORNISH: And the title "Anthem," tell me more about that.

YOUNG: Well, I think it's as much musical set of connections than just an idea. And an anthem can carry you along, and that's some of what I want to do is carry us along through these news stories. Some were about loss, it seemed to me. And the death of the penny allowed us to mourn about something in a way to the side of all the other mourning we're doing or not doing.

CORNISH: That's Kevin Young. He's this month's NewsPoet. Kevin, thanks so much for coming in.

YOUNG: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: Kevin Young's latest work is nonfiction. It's called "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness." It's out now. And you can read the poem he wrote for us called "Anthem" at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.