Chicago’s inaugural Poet Laureate avery r. young is as remarkable, and multitudinous, and mesmerizing, as the city itself. His poetry is equally generative and multifaceted, and extends far beyond specific boundaries of language, music, performance, and visual art. At an essential level, young is both a remarkable individual, impassioned creator, and committed collaborator whose impact is immeasurable, and singular.
During the course of this exhilarating conversation, young touched on his influences and his approach to the arts, and whether or not you’re from the Windy City, you’ll want to follow what he does in and for the city, in and for the arts. And if you haven’t read Gwendolyn Brooks’s Blacks, pick up a copy. It’s one of my favorite compendiums by another poet who made an indelible impact on Chicago and beyond.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Would you talk about Chicago’s contemporary poetry scene, whether it’s writing, readings or hybrid events?
avery r. young
In Chicago, and many other spaces, the contemporary poetry scene is full of human beings who like to share their craft and change the social injustices and cultural-ignorance they encounter on a daily basis.
Be it open mic, onstage at the MCA, or what many publishing houses in the city, the poetry shared and/or printed is meant to inform the public about the many narratives that go un-heard in this city.
The contemporary poetry scene in Chicago is full of unsung heroes, it is full of folk trying to “get on”, and it is also full of people that see the spaces that they convene as sanctuary. The poets gather in potter houses all over the city. Be it a reading at PoFo or at the Open mic at Soul Restoration, people gather in spaces to be affirmed and the poems happen in these spaces to be heard!
That is the beautiful and often times, murky duality of a poetry “scene.” In one entity or person, there are two things happening. One is the poem that needs to be heard, and two, the person rendering/sharing the poems needs gratification. To be liked, honored, and maybe praised. Or lots and lots of money. Or lots and lots of people to see them. Clap at them. Embrace them. Know their name and their work, but more so their name! For real, for real.
And that’s cool. When people know your name, you matter more to them. Trust!
What about Chicago informs who you are as an artist? What kinds of collaborations have nurtured your vision and projects? What do you still seek to do?
avery r. young
For me, growing up in a Black household that was Baptist and at the same time very aware of what was happening in the secular world, and being educated and socialized in spaces that were diverse in color, creed and identities, only pronounced the distinctions in how I was experiencing life and all the modifiers I carry with me through it. These distinctions inform me the most as an artist.
I keep saying where I grew up in Chicago. The West Side, and more specifically the North Austin neighborhood, I got a chance to walk up or down North Avenue on any given Sunday and experience a magnetic street score!
The Bobby Blue Bland from the tavern, Herb Kent and battles from the laundry mat, the ‘Jesus is a rock in a weary land,’ coming out of the store front, the ‘Dope Man, dope man, you think you’re slick …’ coming out of somebody’s Bonneville. There were so many sounds. So much imagery. So many narratives nestled inside of this urban landscape. A mighty-mighty metropolis. The men and women behind the counters of the record and liquor stores are the poets! Whatever I am doing through my work, is presenting how they sounded and felt to me growing up. I am weaving a quilt of experience, witness, study and imagination to tell folk to Keep on Pushing!, just like Baba Curtis did.
This is how Chicago informs my artistry and my life!
As far as collaborations that have nurtured my visions and projects, I think a thing and I get it done. What I can’t physically do, I hire a person who can, and the idea is produced. I don’t enter any door alone. There is a whole bunch of folk, both here and long-gone entering the space with me.
I have more things to do. Books to write. And operas. And plays. And records. And sculpture. I am continuing to do the work I do with language. I am continuing to find the spaces a poem can be housed that is beyond page.
What are some of the programs and partnerships you’re envisioning as Poet Laureate?
avery r. young
I am hoping for myself and all other poet laureates who will follow, that the tenure is a means by which they get to create a new work and the visibility of that new work, centered on a narrative this city, is heightened.
The Laureate is more celebrated and elevated, then designated and be-labored with performing tasks that many organizations/people are already doing. I am hoping to be able to build a platform that supports folk artists and the everyday people of the city to really tell the stories attached to this city.
Hoping these stories are on billboards, in our schools, within the conversations and consciousness of the people in Chicago and beyond.
I want the programming to give other artists some international experience, and the great citizens of city the chance to write epic poems together.[[[ In my Oprah Winfrey voice ]]] You get a line. And you get a line!
‘Cause with your line, you’re documented. With your line, you matter.
Might we talk about your collection neck | bone visual verses, which is multidimensional and uncategorizable, sonic and in motion. In the forward, you talk about “My blk-maleness in the shape of a box” referring to the container Krista Franklin created for you, which also relates to the collection overall. The box implies both a way of safekeeping, of protecting the inner core, but perhaps also a closed area from which one must be released, or outgrow. How does that relate to your poetic self and vision?
avery r. young
That is a very interesting interpretation of what the framing the work with the box implies.
Simply put: the box was a gift. And it is my work as an artist to present us as the gifts we are to each other, and the rest of the world.
The box is a gift that can be anything! Doesn’t even have to be a box. It could be what it is and that is a multi-dimensional sculpture! You can look at it, around it, and inside of it!
It’s a gift. And neck|bone at the end of the day is about receiving all the experiences as gifts. And receiving them enough to be one!
I just had a celebration of my life the other night. Birthday dinner, some folk were there. Other folk were not. But everyone there would attest to what they, and many others would say, I am some value to them and the city.
It’s hard to receive that. I am bashful as hell in the reception of accolades. But I kept hearing how I show up. My gift to folk and their gift to me was presence. How we show up!
That box you talking about aint about safekeeping or protecting an innercore. That box is about, “Look. Here you go. I love you so much, I made you this!”
That is what is happening with neck|bone. “Hey y’all, I love us so much, I made us this. Y’all love me so much, y’all made this [me].”
What this means as a collection of poetry is that poems don’t always have to go LEFT to RIGHT. Words aren’t always made up of letters. Poems are literature, but the word literature has the word ART in it. Poems are art too!
And then understand that poems are art, poems don’t have to be giving the task to tell the truth. They can only present a perspective. You put two poets in front of a car crash, you are supposed to get two encounters of the same situation. If two poets write the same poem, then one might as well go be a dancer with Ailey. There is another gift one of those poets aint really figured out for themselves.
neck|bone, like that box Krista made, could only come of the hands of the creator. And I think that is also the point of framing that book with that memory. neck| bone is also a gift that says, “HEY YALL. YOUR HANDS!”
You’re a pure multi-hyphenate, spanning the visual, verbal, written and performative worlds, living in a city that embraces all aspects of artmaking. The kind of fluidity you practice feels particularly responsive to our times: as fragmented as our lives are now, your creative work collages a variety of voices and media. It’s the opposite of the distancing aspects of society and social media. Even though there’s no one directive—it creates multitudes—underlying all of the most difficult issues you explore, there’s also a sense of joy. Such experimental prowess speaks of a deeply-held and practiced philosophy and craft—you have to know what you’re doing in order to deconstruct and reconstruct as you do. How do you decide what to work on next? Do you approach new work from a personal imperative or within a larger context?
avery r. young
I figure out what I want to say and I follow its instructions on how it wants to be heard / seen / experienced.
I give my list a to-do list.
And I get to the work of checking it off.
I knew my first complete volume of poems was not going to be a collection of traditional verse. I know I am more than a poet. Although I consider it all poems, I know I am more than a poet. I believe a poem shared must also leave a bit of the body on the floor/ altar. I worship when I perform. You really just let me come in my own way.
People want the poet laureate to read poems that I just wrote for them, but if they really want to experience avery r. young, who just so happens to be the inaugural Poet Laureate of Chicago, they gonna get praise!
There are so many aspects of your work to focus on, but I’d love to hear more about The Floating Museum. It feels especially poetic in the way it engages with space, and motion, and unexpected contexts. I particularly appreciate how your approach to unusual positioning sparks newness.
avery r. young
The Floating Museum. The work I get to do with committee. The work I get to do that advocates for the body inside institutions, communities and folk who want pretty new shiny things they register as art.
It’s the work I get to do alongside 3 fabulous brothers, along with several others that say what if we imagine a thing done differently. And sometimes the different doesn’t consider the body and/or human that has to do it—and I have make it my task inside that work to always say “WAIT A MINUTE. THERE IS A BODY THAT MUST BE CONSIDERED LYING RIGHT OVER THERE!”
It is that consideration that propels the imagination even more! The new must include care.
Or else, it ain’t new at all!
What are you reading, watching or teaching? How does that impact your own work? Who inspires you?
avery r. young
I am re-reading Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks because I have to come up with the prompt that will get a city to writing together.
I am a new member of the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and a part of our orientation is reading the work, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music by George E. Lewis.
This reading of Blacks will have an impact on the work I do as the city’s Laureate and the overall program, but it’s too early in the game to really answer that question. I am reading the AACM book to understand and gain knowledge on the organization and experimental music in America. Same as Blacks, too early in the situation to articulate that.
Where do you go in Chicago to lose or find yourself?
avery r. young
There is never a point in time or place I want to ever not know where I am. I don’t lose myself ever. My whole life work has been entering every space my whole self.
I shaped a kind of living where I don’t have to go anywhere to hide from the life I crafted with my own two hands.
I am constantly present. Whenever I can’t be, I know I need to go somewhere and lay down.
neck|bone visual verses
By avery r. young
Published June 15, 2019
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.