When PEN Award-winning poet Kevin Young was asked to write an essay on artist Renée Stout’s show Tales of the Conjure Woman, currently hanging at the Halsey, a certain shadowy historical figure — or actually two — came to his mind: The Two-Headed Nightingale, a.k.a Millie-Christine, a.k.a. Mille and Christine, two 19th-century African-American conjoined twins who sang and performed around the country.
For Young, the sisters offer an intriguing glimpse into the possibility of two natures existing in a single body, and vice versa — just like Stout’s adoption of an alter ego named Fatima Mayfield, a hoodoo-practicing healer that inhabits Stout’s mixed media works. “I’ve known about them [Millie-Christine] for a while, and I’d written some poems about them,” Young says. “When I first saw Renée’s work, the poems sort of spoke to me in a way that the paintings also did. So it seemed to have a connection. I think her work explores doubleness.”
Young is no stranger to writing about art, having completed a book of verse on the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and written numerous works of poetry and prose on artists like Laylah Ali and Kara Walker. “Obviously poetry and art have a long history and connection,” he says. “It’s about discovering something … when you’re writing an essay, or in this case poetry and essay combined, you’re trying to create the same feeling, but also explore and explain fully in small print what you see happening and what you discovered in the art.”
That’s especially apt with an artist like Stout, whose work explores this idea of conjure, of transforming one thing into another, and creating something new out of a bit of root, a pair of earrings, and maybe most importantly, words. Poetry is itself a type of conjuring. “I think poetry is a way of writing something down that sort of completes or casts a spell or makes something happen or just provides the kind of beauty and adjustment — that counterpoint — that conjure can sometimes provide,” Young says. “There’s a visual aspect to conjure and I think that’s what Renée is capturing. At its best moments, poetry has sort of that visual immediacy as well. Poetry shapes language, and I think that’s important too.”
Working with a body of visual art often provides at least a loose structure, which — like any boundary — can be incredibly liberating. It can force an artist to explore ideas more deeply, or in new and different ways.
You can see this at work in the poems scattered throughout Young’s Stout essay, which, like Millie-Christine, Stout’s work, and Stout herself, have their own sort of doubleness. In one, for example, he asks: “Ever if /One day she died, /before I, /Would I perish too?” We could be hearing one (or both) of the twins speaking. But it could just as easily be Fatima Mayfield, wondering what would become of her in a world without Stout.
By day, Young is a professor at Emory University, where he also curates the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library and the school’s Literary Collections. The treasures he works with regularly include a first edition of Leaves of Grass signed by the original owner, numerous limited editions by Langston Hughes, and Anne Sexton’s personal, annotated edition of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, not to mention the archives of literary greats like Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie, and Alice Walker. But it’s his most recent acquisition for the university that undeniably has the biggest wow factor. “I just acquired Jack Kerouac’s typewriter,” he says.
For his reading at the college, Young will present both poems from the Tales of the Conjure Woman exhibition catalog and new works that will appear in his forthcoming book Book of Hours. “They’re about life and death and rebirth,” he says. “Someone called it a ‘daybook of grief,’ but on the whole it’s about culture, history, and passages.”