In preparation for her Insights design lecture on Tuesday, March 18, Martine Syms sent poet Kevin Young five questions, one for each lesson in his book, The Grey Album, published by Greywolf Press. From the description of his book: “… [The Grey Album] combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, ‘jazzing.'” In her new talk “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” Syms will describe her connection with the black radical tradition, using Young’s influential ideas as a framework to understand her own design practice and strategies of code-switching. Please enjoy.
What we claim, we are.
Martine Syms: Super curator Hans Ulrich Obrist always asks “what are your unrealized projects?” I prefer your formulation because it acknowledges the presence of absence. Tell me about your shadow books—the unwritten, the removed, and the lost.
Kevin Young: Regarding my unwritten books: given the seventeen books I’ve published, including the edited ones, there aren’t so many. Whenever I do do a selected poems, there will be some outtakes, but there’s more like unfinished projects or sequences (smaller than a book), willfully abandoned or adapted. There are always poems I pull from a book, and these may or may not live again one day–but to make the cutting easier, you tell yourself you could always resuurect them if you wanted.
That said, most of the actual unfinished projects are prose. These I still have hopes of picking up and finishing when time permits, so I don’t think of them as shadow books yet!
Accepting even the stranded, strange, and seemingly illegitimate is the black elder’s aim.
Martine Syms: In The Grey Album you write, “Elsewhere is central to the African American tradition.” However, from Ralph Ellison’s 1948 essay Harlem is Nowhere to the “nowhere shit” of the Black Arts Movement to Afrofuturism’s dislocations, Nowhere also haunts the black imagination. What is the relationship between Elsewhere and Nowhere?
Kevin Young: Great question; I once had an idea of Nowhere in The Grey Album, based on Langston Hughes, but it fell out. It should probably stay out, for now.
Martine Syms: June Jordan says that “Language is the naming of experience and, thereby, the possession of experience.” I’m interested in the way that the black vernacular creates ambiguity. Throwing your own question back at you, does the dialectic between dialect and standard language ever resolve itself?
Kevin Young: I hope it’s clear (especially from the Dunbar chapter) that in the end I don’t believe there’s an actual dialectic between the vernacular and the standard–just as I don’t believe that there’s such thing as a “standard language.” Besides, if they were to box, the vernacular would win.
Not only does the tradition ennoble those who come after, but by following in it, one honors those who went before.
Martine Syms: The loop is a fundamental idea in modern thought. As my friend Andy Pressman once wrote, “See: cinema, Varese’s siren, okay and then jump ahead to animated gifs.” If the mash-up is the defining innovation of our generation, how does memory affect time?
Kevin Young: (See illustration at top of the post.)
Tradition is what we take, but also what we make of it.
Martine Syms: Mass media allows for narratives—and subsequently, ideologies—to be industrialized. Postmodernity enables an incredible circulation of images and narratives about the past. Can you talk about where this intersects with blackness and “how each makes the other possible?”
Kevin Young: I understand the conception of “mass media,” but am far more interested in popular culture, that thing made by both individual and collective producers with an audience (as in jazz). I think it clear from the book that I think bebop, for instance, a fruitful postmodernity, which quotes and reconstitutes, but on its own terms (indeed, on terms meant to be exactly counter to the industrialization you mention). Whether it achieves that counternarrative or not remains to be seen, but I don’t think is settled.
To put it another way, whose postmodernity do you mean? In Charlie Parker’s, or Adrian Piper’s, or Public Enemy’s, I think there’s a self-consciousness that can be strange (and for some strained) but also quite freeing. I love such a pomo’s noise, and its aspiration toward what I call in the book, yearning. This, blackness makes possible. Though there is of course a way in which blackness for certain postmodernists becomes merely a symbol of such yearning (rather than black music being a vehicle to express it). John Berryman, whom I admire (and who’s from Minnesota), comes to mind in this way, but that’s another story–one which I tell in some of in my past work on him, but that I expect to return to soon.