Kevin Young: “The Beautiful, Needful Thing: 250 Years of African American Poetry”

Kevin Young. Photo by Nick Doll.

By Ariana McLean

Fresh from workshop and an afternoon soaking up the sun, I arrived at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater for the opening night of the 40th Key West Literary Seminar.

After welcoming remarks from Executive Director Arlo Haskell and Program Chair Lori Reid, Dr. Argarita Johnson-Palavicini invited us all to rise for the Negro Nation Anthem. She then proceeded to direct her Ambassador Chorale of Florida Memorial University in an angelic arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which stirred something in me. I hadn’t heard this live in a while, and it brought back memories of singing in choir throughout my childhood and adolescence.

The choir served as a perfect preface to Kevin Young’s address: “The Beautiful Needful Thing: 250 Years of African American Poetry.” He began with a community call to “write the record—or  is it right the record?” he posed. As I took in his words, his oration, telling the (abridged) history of African American Poetry, I hurriedly scribbled down notes, my smile wide and the corner of my lip quivering.

“My stories are tied to the stories that need to be told,” he said. I immediately knew I was in the right place at the right time, and all I could feel was deep gratitude.  I was taking this all in, after a day where I received a stimulating workshop of my own short story, and an inspired one-on-one with our workshop leader Dantiel W. Moniz. Themes of faith, perseverance, and finding joy in the struggle swirled in and around me.

Kevin Young spoke on the process of compiling and editing African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, and how, while the poems were organized chronologically in the anthology, they spoke to one another other “across pages, across generations, across eons.” He spoke on the ties to blues traditions, and those of West Africa. On how cumulatively, the work exists as a conversation covering beauty, injustice, funk, opera, violence, indifference, boredom, joy, celebration, and more. Afterall, “the very act of poetry itself is protest.”

The word that Young came back to several times throughout the night, and which I believe was his thesis for the (living) tradition of African American Poetry, is concatenation.

Young structured his address around the concept of a vessel. Poetry as a vessel. There were the vessels that physically and forcibly brought over enslaved Africans to the Americas. The vessels of David Drake and the Edgefield potters, that today fetch prices representative of “the art they have always been.” Young recited and broke down some of the compiled poetry that David Drake wrote on his pots before they were fired. Work I’d never heard preformed aloud.

“The vessel of poetry is often mysterious,” he continued, highlighting how David Drake’s poetry is mysteriously in conversation with that of Langston Hughes and others. How Hughes was heavily influenced  by his time working as a dishwasher at the Le Grand Duke in Paris, which served as a kind vessel for developing black culture and music afterhours. A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower in Harlem as a vessel, serving as both a “metaphoric and physical space” for Black people and beauty. “There can never be enough beauty, never mind too much.”

The Black body in poetry as a vessel, to which Young delivered Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hips,” inciting snaps and whoops from the audience. He went on to talk of poetry as a vessel itself, a place for a poet to come to and move through; of Clifton’s spirit writing; of the vessel of community; of the Darkroom Collective and Cave Canem; of Emmitt Till and George Floyd.

Additionally, through his oral history-telling, Young preformed the poetry of Robert Hayden, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Bennett, Angelina Weld Grimké, Jericho Brown, and Terence Hayes.

“Poetry by its nature is a form of freedom and the purpose of freedom is to free someone else,” Young concluded.

Seeing and hearing and celebrating the beauty and words of my ancestors, of Black people, was indeed to me “the beautiful, needful thing.”

Ariana McLean is an MFA candidate at Stony Brook University working on a collection of short stories. She is a 2023 Key West Literary Workshop fellow.

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