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Young's New Collection Of Poems, Called 'Stones,' Is About Life And Death

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Kevin Young is always writing poems. He has more than a dozen books in his name, including a new collection out today called "Stones." It's about memory and loss, his deep ties to the South and how he stays connected to the past. He told our co-host Rachel Martin that several of his poems were inspired by his visits with his son to the cemeteries where some of their family members are buried.

KEVIN YOUNG: Both my parents are from Louisiana, from northern and southern, which is, like, two different countries sometimes. And so I went with my son, and we were there all together as a family looking at, you know, what was my dad's - some recent; some old - and just going to these two graveyards that contain two histories. And in my father's side, we've been in these parts of Louisiana for 200 years, so there's some very old graves, some carved by hand, as I describe. And of course, because of the segregated South, in a way, these are your own patches of land. But these are really - they're not quite family plots 'cause other folks are there, but they're really church plots and particular and personal, and they go way back. And so I really wanted to capture the feeling of being with him, running around, the sweat, the heat...

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: He's young. How old is he?

YOUNG: In this book, he's really a toddler.

MARTIN: Yeah.

YOUNG: Now he's 15. But I'm sort of going back in time with him to see when he's barely able to speak, but the things he says are so incredible, you know? Like, up, up, more, more - and then, you know, he's literally walking around in these graveyard with people whose namesake he is.

MARTIN: Wow. I will admit that I have a hard time going to cemeteries. And at the same time, I know a lot of people find solace and peace, even inspiration, in them. Clearly, you fall into the latter camp.

YOUNG: You know, there's definitely a sense of duty in the book of visiting. You know, my father had been fairly recently passed away, and my son was newly born, and like I said, he's named after him.

MARTIN: Yeah.

YOUNG: So there was a way in which it was - I don't know if it was consoling, but it was sort of the circles that the stones make, either as stones themselves or dropped in water or the ripple effect. And so there - I felt a lot of ripples in the book, and I really wanted to capture that both in the language, the music of the lines, but also in the imagery.

MARTIN: If you have the book with you, would you mind reading the poem titled "Lilies" (ph)?

YOUNG: Sure.

(Reading) Lilies. Almost June, yet the blooms are already done. Here among my grandfather and four mothers and my father, planted too early. We miss you, brother. He will not see another May, whose colors fiery surround us. And now him, will not know his grandson and namesake ever since cruel April stole him. Father, never will you know how words blossom from my sun this Memorial Day, visiting your stone, hot, up, more, more, he sings. The lilies we leave will tip over in wind, near your name. My son doesn't yet know, though it's his own.

MARTIN: May I ask your son's name and your dad's name?

YOUNG: (Laughter) Well, they share a name, Paul, which is an old family name.

MARTIN: And when did you lose your dad?

YOUNG: 2004. So, you know, the visit was, really, not that long after. And I'd written about him in other books, but this was a - really, a return for me, much like in the process of returning to Louisiana with him and family. And, you know, it was a visitation but also a kind of vigil.

MARTIN: In this exploration of your own kin and kith, you talk about your grandmother. Can you describe her to us?

YOUNG: Yeah. I mean, unfortunately, one of my grandmothers has passed, a while ago, Joycie (ph). But Mama Annie (ph) is still very much with us. She's 98 and doing well. So for me, you know, it was a chance for her in real life to meet my son. But also, she's sort of the matriarch and very much - some of the poems are about - I think it's her 88th birthday and being there and sort of the pleasures and humor of family. And also, you know, the particulars of whether your family's Baptist or Catholic, and that conforms to northern and southern in my case, but also the mix of cultural connections. And the songs people play at a reception sometimes are quite wild and quite different from us singing Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday To You" (ph), which has become a classic where I'm from.

MARTIN: So it's not necessarily an easy song to sing. I love that bit in that poem, by the way.

YOUNG: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But I was, like, trying to imagine a whole family with their own individual interpretations (laughter).

YOUNG: Oh, everyone - I mean, you know, if you go to the picnic, if you go to the cookout, you're going to hear - you know, that's - you got to be able to sing it.

MARTIN: Right. Like, the top note, that - the entry point is tough.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Well, I think, you know - again, what I think the stones represent for me are these kind of stones of culture, these building blocks. Of course, on one hand, they're also gravestones, I suppose. But I also was thinking about, you know, that bedrock of family, that foundation that, for me, Louisiana always gave me and feels transmitted and permanent in this important way. There's a poem where I talk about also going in to the grave-cutter, the person who cuts the stones, and meeting with him. And of course, he's, like, distantly related to me. Of course, we're all cousins, it feels like, in these little towns.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yeah.

YOUNG: But then also, seeing these gravestones that people had made and couldn't pick up, couldn't maybe afford to finalize, you know, and seeing, like, a young person's gravestone or a loved parent. But, you know, grief is like that. It leaves us sometimes unfinished. And I was really, powerfully aware. And stones give us this physical reminder of the ways that we try to make it permanent as well, and sometimes time and wind and weather wears it away, but also, a poem is a way to kind of make it permanent, to make it sing and stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRA STRELISKI'S "PLUS TOT")

MARTINEZ: That was Kevin Young speaking to our co-host, Rachel Martin. His new poetry collection is called "Stones."

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRA STRELISKI'S "PLUS TOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.