NEA Big Read
Book of Hours

Book of Hours

by Kevin Young

Not the storm/but the calm/that slays me.

Kevin Young (photo: Melanie Dunea / CPi)

Kevin Young (b. 1970)

"Like Jean-Michel Basquiat said about painting, when I'm working I don't try to think about art, I try to think about life. The job of the poem is to bridge the two, to take us out of the world and hopefully deposit us back unsettled but satisfied." — Kevin Young on

Kevin Young moved six times before he was ten—from Lincoln, Nebraska to Chicago, Boston (twice), and Syracuse, New York—until his family settled in Topeka, Kansas. "We moved cross-country from upstate New York to Kansas in the heat wave of 1980 with two cars, no air-conditioning, and a black dog," he told the New Yorker. "I can still see the infernal temperature of 119 degrees on a bank sign somewhere near Ohio."

Though raised in the Midwest, Young is deeply influenced by his family's southern roots. His parents—his father an eye surgeon, his mother a chemist—grew up in the segregated south, with Young's family history in Louisiana stretching back 200 years. Young spent many days of his childhood summers in Louisiana with his grandparents and extended family, delighting in the food and stories. His paternal grandfather had been a fiddler who played zydeco; Young also grew up listening to soul, funk, and reggae. "I have my late father's music collection, including these great white label reggae 45s where the title, if there at all, is typewritten.... I think listening to King of Rock or Prince's Dirty Mind is where I learned how to put a complete experience together, one that mirrors a really good book" ( It was as a teenager in Kansas that he also enrolled in a summer writing workshop and was surprised to discover that poetry was "something in my own backyard, something I could make out of dirt and air" (Christian Science Monitor).

Young's poetry is known for its blues-infused musicality, and for the breadth of its subject matter, which spans the personal to the historic—equally at ease whether it's exploring intimate feelings of personal joy and grief, delving into the complex legacy and traditions of the South, examining issues of race, or depicting the 1840 mutiny on the slave ship Amistad. Young is also known for his love of southern food, and his writing frequently explores the sense of connectedness and comfort that it can conjure. "I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain," he has said. "And that's where food comes from, and so there's this common link" (National Public Radio). Among the many anthologies that Young has edited is The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink (Bloomsbury).

At Harvard University, Young studied with the poets Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido. During this time, he also joined the Dark Room Collective, a group of African American writers that gathered regularly and started a reading series in a three-story Victorian house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Called a "flash of literary lightning" (The New York Times), the collective eventually included many poets, including 2012 U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. After college, Young was awarded a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, then an MFA in the literary arts from Brown University.

In 2004, Young's father died in a hunting accident at the age of 61. Young has described this time in his life as if he was writing for survival. Years later, he revisited these writings for the Book of Hours, and also edited an anthology of poetry about the grieving process: The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (Bloomsbury, 2010).

Young is a professor of creative writing and English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is also the curator of Literary Collections & the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. He is the author of 11 books of poetry and prose including Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1955-2015 (Knopf, 2016); Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf, 2011); and Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008). His collection Jelly Roll: a blues (Knopf, 2003) was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry. Young's nonfiction book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf, 2012) was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. He is the editor of several collections, most recently The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010 (BOA Editions, 2012). Young's many other honors include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, an honorary doctorate from Beloit College, and an NEA fellowship in creative writing.

Young lives in Atlanta with his wife, Kate Tuttle, a book columnist for The Boston Globe, and their son; his stepdaughter just graduated college. Book of Hours is dedicated to both kids. Young can often be found in his home office, writing amongst the "totems" he keeps on display: blue glass bottles (to keep out bad spirits, a Southern belief); a print of Mr. T in an "Uncle Sam" pose; photos of the conjoined twins Millie-Christine, who were born into slavery and later won their freedom; and a piece of yellow paper that contains a stray poem written by his father (The New York Times). "When I'm in full-on writing mode, and have the day, I try to get in my office around 10 a.m. and stop once 'Judge Judy' comes on at four, when I quit and come down. Sometimes, I leave her on while I edit—if she can make the tough calls, then so can I" (The New York Times Style Magazine).

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