[a]very r. young has a way with words. He is an award-winning composer, visual artist, teacher, producer, and co-director of the Floating Museum. And now, he’s Chicago’s first poet laureate.
Born in Chicago, young grew up in the Austin neighborhood. A second-generation Chicagoan, his grandparents and great-grandparents were all from Lexington, Mississippi.
He expressed an interest in prose in the third grade and honed many of the skills that would prepare him for his future successes by involving himself in creative writing and art clubs at school. young attended Hanson Park Elementary School and Mather High School and graduated with a BA in English from Loyola University.
young burst onto the open mic scene in the mid-90s and moved audiences with a wide array of thought-provoking poetic works often delivered in song, such as “Resurrect Fred,” a homage to Black Panther and slain civil rights leader Fred Hampton.
He would spend the next two decades teaching, sharing, and spreading the joy of poetry to children and adults through vocal performances, films, recordings, and published poetry.
When he’s onstage, his powerful voice fills the room and his impassioned words serve as a testimonial that speak to the realities of the Black experience. His infectious gospel sound moves the listener to action.
Established this January, the Chicago Poet Laureate Program was designed to increase awareness of Chicago’s historic contributions to the literary arts. The program aligns with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Chicago Public Library and was developed by the Chicago Public Library, the Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, and the Poetry Foundation.
A review committee of experts, writers, educators, and advocates from Chicago’s creative community scored nominee applications, conducted interviews, and prepared recommendations of three ranked finalists for final review and appointment by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. On April 24, young was announced the winner.
young will serve a two-year term, during which he will write new poems, create a public program series, and serve as an ambassador for the city’s literary and creative communities. The appointment comes with a $50,000 award.
Following the news of his appointment, the Weekly caught up with young to ask him about the relevancy of poetry, the magic of his craft, and how it all began.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The first book of poems you read was I Am The Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans by Arnold Adoff. Who introduced you to the book in the first place?
That’s a deep memory. It was at the library, I believe, is where I first saw the book. It was either at the library or my uncle gave it to me…No, because my uncle gave me Before the Mayflower. It was the library where I saw I Am the Darker Brother. This is so funny, the things you start to recall once you’re asked a more specific question. I believe the librarian at the time, Miss Thompson, she would do all of the fixtures or the displays at this particular North Austin branch, and she was putting out these books.
It was just something about the cover. The cover is way different than it is now. I forget whose artwork it was that was on the cover, but it was just like a sketch. Like what I call Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River,” but it wasn’t Paul Robeson. It was a Negro. It was just a sketch of a Negro. You know, whatever: Negro man… but kinda like this ivory book with this like copper or ink sketch and I Am the Darker Brother and I thought it was a novel, but she was like, “No, these are poems.” And I was like, “Okay,” and I just started reading poems. I just liked the poems—specifically Sonia Sanchez. I fell in love with Sonia Sanchez and Mari Evans, more specifically, but definitely Mama Sonia.
What struck you the most about those particular authors?
Mama Sonia was definitely the way in which she was spelling out “black”. I mean, to this day I spell it b-l-k, right, but that was what I thought was symbolic because Baba Haki (at the time, Don L. Lee) wrote a poem about, you know, he was cool, and towards the end of the poem he’s talking about all about him being cool, cool, you know, icebox cool. The last line of the poem is like, ‘to be black is to be very, very hot.’ So, right then and there, I understood the omission of the “a” and the “c” in the word was an intentional omission of those two letters. Look, I’ve been a nerd all my life. I totally dug it. Even as an eight-year-old, it blew my mind. Your calling is your calling.
What is the hardest part about being a poet?
The hardest part about being a poet is getting yourself in a position to dedicate the necessary time it takes to actually do the craft. I don’t know no other way to do poetry but to be still and listen, and write it down, type it out, or whatever people choose to do. And the hardest part is really finding a way in which to get yourself, your life into a position where it’s what you can literally do.
I was just telling this to another poet yesterday when he called me and was like, “Hey, um you know I need to finish some work.” I said, “Well, look, it ain’t gonna get done until you do it, and I can’t tell you nothing mo. Ain’t gon’ get done.” When I was figuring out that neckbone was even gonna be a book and that I had like a hard deadline, I was like, “Okay, I’ll give it four hours from 12am to 4am. Okay. I’ll go to sleep. Then I’ll go out into these streets the whole day and do everything that I’m doing and that book was like, “Okay, if you say so.” neckbones just kept saying, “Go to bed, go to bed! Look here dude, if you want me to show up, you gotta cut all that off and I promise you if you cut it off, I’ll come. But I know what kinda life you’re living. I know you can’t be up in the mountains too long… and you crazy to think that you can write a book and you live on a main city street with all these cars and trucks passing by.”
And I said, “Okay, this is what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna go,” and just like the book said, it came and I was cool. So that’s the hardest part but once that happened, I’m trying to tell you, Dee, once it happened it sent the message to the universe: oh, this dude needs just to be writing. What else could this dude do if all he had to do with his life was write? Or had at least the capacity to go somewhere for an extension of time and really focus on his writing and create…and then he could go back and jump into the world and do what he does because he really did take the discipline to go somewhere and write for about a month, about six weeks or so. And, the Universe said, “Oh, this is what he needs, and this is what the universe has provided.” And now that I’m poet laureate, it is expected for me to write something, to create something and the Universe said, “We gon’ give you some mo’ time to do it.”
But really to answer your question, the hardest part is really getting yourself in a position where you can just do the work. You don’t feel like you have to work another job to pay bills. [It’s] giving you a space where your talent makes room for you. Getting yourself where you understand your value, so you don’t have to accept a gig just to accept a gig. You know what I’m saying? You should be doing nothing for exposure. You should be doing everything with a plan and that is what I would tell anybody.
In a world where there is so much unrest, violence, social injustice, and racism, where do you think poetry fits in?
Poetry is the reminder that things are beautiful too. Not just fucked up, but beautiful too. Even if it’s a poem about the fucked-up shit… what’s that line in a poem, it has something to do with the fact that, you know, Black people can take—we flip murder sites into installations. We ‘shole know we can do that. We can mark a space with teddy bears and flowers, and candles and totally beautify that space aesthetically. And we understand what that means but what we also understand is what we’re looking at. We’re looking at people say whoever just got shot and murdered here is worth this level of reverence, is worth this level of ornament. And, just like the three wise men and the shepherds came and gave all the frankincense and myrrh and all the other gifts to Christ when he was born, we ‘gon lay things down to let somebody know that somebody lived, not just died. This is a place where, yeah somebody died here, but that person lived, had a whole life, and a whole bunch of people now that’s mourning ‘cause they love him. Or they feel for those that love him or love them. I’m talking about the boys and the girls.
What are some of the benefits of exposing young people to poetry?
If I send you this poem that this young lady sent me. She’s a young lady from Hyde Park High School. I was performing “emmett (til da remix)” at the poetry festival at the Logan Center on the South Side. And I’m in the piece asking who’s gonna write for Emmett? Who’s gonna write a poem for Emmett? Kids are raising their hands and I said to (I know the teacher, a good friend) one of the teachers over at the school. And I was like, “Hey, whoever writes a poem about Emmett Till, send it to her, and then she’ll make sure that I get it.” And she emailed me probably Monday, she emailed me this poem. My God! Hmm, hmm, hmm! The psychological benefit, ‘cause you know I’m an educator. I’ve taught consultive-ly what is the real benefit in the midst of their development. Especially when you’re talking about somebody between seventh and twelfth grade, a lot of what they’re going through is self-inspection—what about me is or ain’t what everybody else around me is doing. The focus is on me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. And it’s necessary because if you don’t figure you out, you don’t figure out what to do in the world.
Poetry is a way in which young folks are figuring themselves out. ‘Cause, if you don’t do that, you ain’t no asset to the world. No shape, form, or fashion. You know, I like to tell people I live by design, and poetry and art and the exposure to the arts, in general, is the only time in their school day where whatever they think about a thing matters above anything else. All of that other instruction and pedagogies are theories which people made up years and years and years ago. Shakespeare was written years and years and years and years ago. The Old Man and the Sea was written years ago. Romeo and Juliet. All of that. James Baldwin. All of that was written years and years and years ago. And it had nothing to do with them.
When you give a person access to their voice, they learn to start making decisions on how they’re going to move and navigate through the world. They make the decisions. You give them the power to design who or what they will be. They get to do The Glitch and The Matrix and be who they say they will be. Or who they say they are.
Is there a story behind spelling your name in lowercase letters?
Yes. bell hooks and e.e. cummings and other authors who put lowercase letters. I saw bell hooks and then I was like, okay, that’s what I want to do. And, then that’s when I learned the other ones that did it. A lot of journalists and editors, you know, it gives them headaches like it’s my problem. Madonna’s not a proper name but that’s what y’all write in the newspaper. Madonna. So it is what it is. Stop trippin’…You know, all a poet can do is write what comes out of their hand. Nothing that you create can come out of anybody else’s hand.
How long have you expressed your name in lowercase letters? At what point did you make the changeover?
See that’s a very good question because it all kinda happened at once. ‘Cause, Smokey, who was my poetic partner at the time in the group we called Innervisions—after Stevie Wonder’s album—she wrote on a sheet of paper ‘avery r. young’ and I believe she wrote, ‘avery r. young’ because understanding me and my personality, even if I would have just heard ‘avery’ (and most of the time, I am the only ‘avery’ in the room just in general). And, so, had I heard ‘avery’, I would have just thought it was just somebody named ‘avery’ would have just kept lollygagging and probably would have just walked up out of the store. But when I heard ‘avery r. young’, I was like “oh that’s me,” and, I just was like, I’m gonna do this lowercase. ‘Cause, I’m looking at the open mic list and everybody’s kinda writing their name, you know, in the standard American English usage but then when I wrote my name in lowercase lettering… it stood out, even on the open mic list. It was just something I did so my name would stand out on the list of other poets.
You can learn more about avery r. young at averyryoung.com.
Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accounting manager in Chicago. She has a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. She last wrote about the Harper Theater reopening for the Weekly.
The correct spelling of Ms. Sanchez’s first name is: Sonia.
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