On October 3, 2017, the Carolina literary community honored poet, essayist, and editor Kevin Young with the 2017 Thomas Wolfe Prize. After a ceremony in which he received this year’s award and Thomas Wolfe Prize medal, Young engaged a full auditorium with a reading of his poetry and creative non-fiction. He reflected on his ties to southern regions while meditating deeply on family relationships and the power of poetry to forge connections across time. Young’s reading also offered a representative cross-section of his work, showcasing both his humor and his capacity to provoke serious thought, especially with regard to what it might mean to cultivate honest and meaningful relationships between our present and past. Part of his reading included an excerpt from his new book of essays, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post- Facts, and Fake News (Graywolf, 2017).
Dr. Mary Floyd-Wilson, Chair for the Department of English and Comparative Literature, welcomed both Mr. Young and his audience. Dr. Rebecca Godwin, president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, reflected on Wolfe’s work, situating Young within the scope of the literary tradition that Wolfe represents. After being presented with his prize medal, Young was introduced by Dr. Michael McFee, who set the stage for the poignant, spirited reading that followed. Earlier that day, Young engaged with creative writing students, generously sharing a lifetime of writing wisdom that no doubt contributed to his appointment as the new poetry editor for The New Yorker.
In addition to his recent editorial appointment, Young is the author of ten books of poetry, including Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995-2015; Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (2011), winner of an American Book Award; and Jelly Roll: a blues (2003), a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize. Additionally, Young has edited eight volumes, including The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink (2012); The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010 (2012), winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; The Best American Poetry 2011; The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing (2010); and two musical anthologies in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, Jazz Poems (2006) and Blues Poems (2003).
Young is the eighteenth recipient of the medal and prize which honor Carolina literary alumnus Thomas Clayton Wolfe (class of 1920), author of Look Homeward, Angel. The Thomas Wolfe Prize recognizes a writer who has made a significant contribution to writing in the humanities and whose work befits the ambition and scope shown by that of Thomas Wolfe.
Previous recipients of the prize include Tom Wolfe, Larry Brown, Elizabeth Spencer, Pat Conroy, Ellen Gilchrist, George Garrett, Fred Chappell, Reynolds Price, Robert Morgan, Roy Blount Jr., Lee Smith, Al Young, Josephine Humphreys, Ron Rash, Sandra Cisneros, Clyde Edgerton, and Jill McCorkle.