Kevin Young on the Intersection of Poetry, Museum Curation, and Hip Hop
In Conversation with Paul Holdengräber on The Quarantine Tapes
Hosted by Paul Holdengräber, The Quarantine Tapes chronicles shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing. Each day, Paul calls a guest for a brief discussion about how they are experiencing the global pandemic.
On Episode 192 of The Quarantine Tapes, Paul Holdengräber is joined by Kevin Young. Kevin is a poet and the new director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. As the museum prepares to reopen this spring and approaches its fifth anniversary later this year, Kevin talks about what the museum means to him, as a museum director and as a poet.
Paul asks Kevin about the collection of poetry he edited, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. They unpack the similarities between poetry and museum collections and discuss some of the art and objects on display in the museum. Paul asks Kevin what artifacts he would save from this moment and Kevin talks about some of his influences from his hometown of Topeka before ending the episode with a moving reading of two of Kevin’s poems.
From the episode:
Kevin Young: It wasn’t really until I got to college and started realizing that poetry wasn’t what I used to think it was as a teenager, but that it was very much the mud and the dirt, things of Louisiana where my family was from, both sides of my family, and that trying to write about how they told stories, how they talked about what happened and what they didn’t say. Because I think you’re right on the one hand, that history is meant to combat silence. But I think being a poet, you sometimes need to work with silence. You sometimes need to represent it, a little like Miles Davis playing those notes and also playing that silence, too. Combining the silence and the sound is part of poetry.
Sometimes I think people, when they confront a poem or are confronted by it, think only of the words. You have to think of the white space around it and the moment, the line breaks, the pauses, the caesura, that the poet is trying to get us to think about. If it was hip hop, we’d call it the breaks. In a museum setting, you were talking about these rooms that one moves through. I think those leaps, those breaks happen in the museum. We have spaces in order for people to—you know, sometimes you have to gather yourself a little bit. It’s a big, beautiful, poignant, powerful story. And moving through it in space with others, too—that’s part of the pleasure of visiting, is that community that gets established every day.
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Kevin Young is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. As the nation’s largest museum dedicated to telling the African American story, the 19th and newest museum in the Smithsonian complex welcomes two million annual visitors and engages an international audience through world-class online programming and digital access to its collections. Young holds a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard College and a Master of Fine Arts from Brown University. He has held a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and a NEA fellowship. Director Young is active across the art and cultural community. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2020.