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The NYPL Podcast

Podcast #124: Kevin Young and Gabrielle Hamilton on Food and Poetry


We are thrilled that Kevin Young will be joining NYPL as Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this fall. His awards and honors include a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. The author of eleven books of poetry and prose, Young joined us at the Library last year for an event with Prune chef and owner Gabrielle Hamilton. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Kevin Young and Gabrielle Hamilton discussing food and poetry.

Kevin Young and Gabrielle Hamilton
Kevin Young and Gabrielle Hamilton

Hamilton spoke of the way that poetry can act as a form of feeding, even as it may be less routinely reached for than actual food:

"Poetry's a hard sell sometimes, whereas the sandwich or the steak frites. And yet what happens is we come to these certain times where nothing works except for the poem. The sort of 9/11s of your experience. You're kind of like, 'I can't walk, talk, sleep, eat.' And then the poem comes in and kind of provides salve... It's a kind of feeding. But, then you know, there's the bad poetry. Whereas a kind of shitty roast beef sandwich works out."

Extending the feeding metaphor, Young discussed necessity, considering how even as food and poetry are sometimes treated with little attentiveness, they correspond with particular life events so strongly that they become near-requirements:

"I think a lot about just that thing: what is necessity? How poetry is a necessity and how sometimes, like food, we take these necessities for granted. Especially here in the States, I think we spend a lot of time not thinking about our meal, not thinking about the words, and you know, it's election season so there's a lot of not thinking about words. And yet, at the same time, we turn to them, as you said, in these really urgent moments. I mean, what happens when someone dies? You eat some food. You hear some poems. You hear verse."

In response to a question about the role of revision, Young related a story about writing after his father's death. He saw revision and improvisation as somewhat entangled in the process:

"I couldn't write after my father died, and then I filled like a notebook and a half. I think I wrote nine [poems] in a row on a flight, and they just kept coming. It was kind of a dam bursting, but it also had a different kind of quality to it. Maybe it was like apostrophe as they say, like direct address to someone offstage, and so it had a different quality... It's sort of funny because we're sort of saying on one hand that writing really is revision, but there is this sort of improvisation, at least maybe they're the same thing somehow. The improvisation early and then the revision later."

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"Especially here in the States, I think we spend a lot of time not thinking about our meal...". Apparently, Mr. Young does not know poverty. Poor people, particularly poor seniors, spend much/most of their time thinking about when/how/what/where their next meal will be. "Especially here in the States" the land that prides itself on its 'exceptionalism', where 'freedom' means you are free to starve to death while the Nation denigrates and demeans you for not being a 'successful entrepreneur' (start-up capital?)/for not having a 'work ethic' (when there are no jobs)/for not working harder (when you are already working two minimum wage jobs).

"...shitty roast beef sandwich..."

For the many people lined up at food pantries (you've seen them, haven't you?) there is no such thing as a "shitty roast beef sandwich". There is only food or no food. Being cavalier about food is not an option.

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