So far, the sole constant in the acclaimed career of poet Kevin Young is change.
The award-winning 38-year-old, who will read some of his works at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) on Thursday night, already has six published collections under his belt. His poems peer over the edge of many peaks, always offering something new, and the books reflect his desire to meditate on different topics, from blues music and the weight of personal loss to race, Jim Crow and how a noir-style detective novel might play out in verse.
Young shows no signs of slowing down in his pursuit of new ground — in fact, he is already on the move with other projects, such as editing an anthology focused on grief and completing a book of poems about slavery, which he said he expects to be published in the next few years.
Asked by the Banner during a phone interview if his next book will follow a path similar to his most recent work, 2008’s “Dear Darkness,” Young responded, “I only try to go in different directions.”
The approach has served Young — a native of Lincoln, Neb., with Southern roots and an academic passport bearing stamps from some of the country’s most respected universities — quite well.
His work has earned numerous accolades, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, the 1993 National Poetry Series Award, and recognition as a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
Young’s reading is part of the ICA’s “Words from the Walk” series, presented in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts-Boston’s Creative Writing Program. In addition to hosting the reading, the ICA has also installed the text of one of his poems from “Dear Darkness,” entitled “New England Ode,” on its Hassenfeld Harborway.
Although Thursday’s reading will be Young’s first at the ICA, he’s far from a stranger to Greater Boston. He attended Harvard University for undergraduate study, and now splits his time between Cambridge and Atlanta, where he is a professor of poetry and creative writing at Emory University.
When he lived in Boston full-time, Young was part of a poetry group called the Dark Room Collective, where he said he discovered “a sense of what’s possible in writing and reading.”
The group was also instrumental in building community among poets of color in the Boston area. Although the collective no longer exists, Young said he hopes for a reunion one day.
Throughout “Dear Darkness,” Young confronts loss with humor, walking the line of the careful juxtaposition like a tightrope but managing to maintain his balance. In the process, Young employs various odes to different types of food, evincing an ability to speak about pain with a gentle light-heartedness that recalls the blues music of which he is a fan.
“Part of the blues [is] laughing to keep from crying,” Young said.
One such poem, “Ode to Sweet Potato Pie,” references a number of desserts the narrator enjoys (“Caramel. Coffee cake. … Tough taffy. / Anything with nuts. / or raisins. Goobers. / Even my Aunt Dixie’s / apple pie recipe / or the sweet potato pie / my mother makes sing”) — and one, specifically, that it does not (“Chocolate I don’t much love / anyway”) — before expressing an aching willingness to give them all up “to have you here, pumpkin- / colored father, cooking / for me — your hungry oven / humming — just one / more minute.”
Another, “Ode to Kitchen Grease,” evokes similar sensory memories and melancholy:
Still, some mornings
you drop by, uncool, right after
breakfast’s bacon’s been made —
sniffing around the kitchen
and already asking
What’s for dinner —
and I sure wish you could stay.
The two poems and others like them are among Young’s many tributes to his family and their Southern cuisine. Both of his parents were originally from Louisiana, he said, and his family regularly visited relatives there when he was growing up.
“They were the first poems I could write after my father passed away,” Young said. “[It’s a way to] talk about something to the side of the event. I can write about grits and write about loss.
“Food is a way of talking about lots of issues — from race to memory and ritual,” he continued.
In Young’s family, food signifies more than just the palette; it evokes ritual, like the traditional meal that his family would have after a funeral.
“I like to convey that poetry is part of daily existence, from collard greens to going to the store,” he said. “Sometimes people think about poetry as airy and insubstantial, or only about huge things.”
Kevin Young reads selected works of poetry on Thursday, April 16, 2009, at 6:30 p.m., at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Avenue, Boston.
For more information, visit http://www.icaboston.org.