Poetry for Southern California






Al Young—On Absolutely Everything

Suzanne Lummis talks to California’s Poet Laureate Emeritus

Five Poems by Al Young

Poets, lovers of poetry, if right about now you’re in the mood for a poet whose writings express a kinship with music—not only jazz, not only Miles Davis, Benny Carter and Billy Holliday, but mariachi and marimba, and Mozart— and who, furthermore, can move smoothly from sonorous recital into song, then take note: Al Young will be reading at Beyond Baroque, Saturday, October 16, 2010, 7:00.

If, on the other hand, you favor a sort of pan-prismatic poetry that sweeps across history touching on events political and personal, imagined and autobiographical, and that rises from the environs, the landscapes, of various regions, Mississippi to Detroit, Italy to Yugoslavia, San Francisco to L.A.—you’re in luck. Al Young will be reading at Beyond Baroque, October 16, 2010, 7:00.

But now it is late August and I’m talking to Al—at a round walnut table, in the handsome new domicile of Heyday Books, University Avenue, the Bay Area, Northern California, the West.

I drove up from L.A., but Al Young traveled much farther, from Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast, near Biloxi, where he was born in ’39, and from there to Detroit, where he did some more growing up and graduated from the U. of Michigan, and then, in ’61, to our current whereabouts, Berkeley.

I’m thinking his passion for language, reading, and music came along well before he entered the university.

Al Young: That’s right. I began reading at age three, and the love of words and music have never been separate. The first sounds I vividly remember were crickets, frogs, cicadas, and the scratch and pop of my father's 78 rpm phonograph records, and the hiss and fade of late-night big band remote broadcasts from up north: Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw. And I came from a huge family of storytellers—everyone had a different style. They’d get up in the middle of the narration and actually walk like the person they were describing. It was storytelling and it was theater. That combined with my early love of reading. These two worlds were always fascinating to me. The world that was on the page, that lived in your imagination, and then just listening to people tell those stories. And then the dramatic results of those stories. In other words, you’d hear about people from your elders and then when you met the person who was the subject of those stories you’d look at them and… (laughs)

He has a rich laugh and laughs often. He gives one the feeling that life might be pretty good after all. Small wonder that Heyday Books editor Malcolm Margolin said to me shortly before Al’s arrival, “Al Young is one of the joys of my life.”

His poetry takes a stand against injustice and the more adverse consequences of capitalism, but in the main seems to rise out of love. Think of that. How is this possible?

Al Young: I think it has to do with my first decade—I grew up in a small community in the South, among every variety of mankind you could imagine, good people and really bad-news people. But even the bad-news people were connected to the community in such a way that you couldn’t discard them—you had to take their acts and deeds and words into consideration. Because we lived in a vacuum—though we did have radio—but other than that, everything was pretty much word-of-mouth and moved in slow motion. So in that decade, in that setting, I had the time to think about a lot of things, and talk to a lot of people. It was a real cross-section of humanity. Nazis and crackers on the same stage.

Oh, neo-Nazis!

Al Young: No, not neo-Nazis. Nazis. But, see, in that region people said Nat-sees. It sounded like gnat. So back then Nazis and gnats were always connected in a kid’s mind. (laughs)

Al’s travels have continued to carry him into the midst of various characters, the sublime, the good, and the really bad-news. In 1984, visiting the former Yugoslavia on a Fulbright Scholarship, he spent some pleasant days with a noted poet, physician and statesman of the region who showed him some points of interest. Al admired many of his writings. Unhappily, a few years later the Serbian poet would emerge as the atrocious Radovan Karadzic, he who coined the era’s least reassuring euphemism, “ethnic cleansing.” Karadzic is currently on trial for massive war crimes against Bosnia Muslims and Croats.

There’s a tendency among some to idealize poets. Maybe they shouldn’t?

Al Young: Big Bill Broonzy had something to say on that topic. Studs Turkel interviewed him, and Studs kept praising the spiritual aspect of the Blues. Big Bill Broonzy laughed. He said, “The Blues is like a knife. You can cut up a chicken with it or peel an apple, or use it to make a nice carving—or you can use to it stab somebody.” So poetry is like that too—it’s like an instrument. And when you study the history of it, you find poets have used it toward different ends.

Al has in fact studied the history of poetry. Now to my way of thinking, there are two kinds of poets. The ones who, when you ask them what poets they’ve been reading lately, look at you like you’ve just inquired about their favorite route across the Arctic Circle via dog sled. Those ones aren’t really poets at all. Then there’s the other kind, the actual poets.

Al Young: When I started to write what I thought was serious poetry—it was awful stuff—I was in junior high and I was playing in the band and orchestra. I thought if you were going to write poetry you had to go to the library, to 811 in the Dewey Decimal System, and get a book of forms, because in music you went through the exercise book to learn to play scales. So I practiced the cinquain, the sonnet… I figured there was a systematic way to learn this.

But at the same time I was engaging in that kind of wild reading—all through high school. My friends and I would take an anthology—Seldon Rodman’s One Hundred Modern Poems—it’d have Lorca, Baudelaire… And we’d get together and try to write like that. I tried to write like William Carlos Williams, Delmore Schwartz, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings…. I got hold of Rimbaud’s Season in Hell. It had the English on one side, French on the other. With that book I was able to teach myself French.

I submit that these artistic and intellectual explorations seem to have done him no harm. Au contraire. (There’s my French.)

For young people who’d like to begin reading poetry, because one is never too young (unless one is younger than three), Al recommends poet Marilyn Nelson’s YA book, Carver, the story of George Washington Carver told through sonnets.

And what did he learn as State poet laureate, I am wondering, in his travels throughout California? What about the great divide, straight along the Tehachapi Mountains, between the North and the South?

Al Young: I actually find Southern California more exciting. There’s an enthusiasm and there’s warmth. I think it’s an energy. Up here we get a lot of the same-old-same-old. And I notice in Los Angeles there are a lot of sharp younger poets coming along.

We in L.A. are delighted to hear this, and enthusiastic. What else did he learn in his poet laureate years?

Al Young: I found out, once again, that everyone loves poetry. It doesn’t matter if you’re at youth centers, or with farmers in Stockton or fishermen in villages. The house was always jammed and people were always lined up and really happy to be there.

Al is not only popular but a populist poet, and, he notes, that may make him suspect in some corners of the academic world, especially those corners reserved for the more disjunctive, syntax shattering “difficult” poetry. And popular as he is, there are other respects, too, in which he doesn’t cleave to current fashions.

Al Young: Poetry's gotten constricted in the last couple centuries. The confessional mode is underfoot. Walt Whitman probably had a lot to do with that in the American context —"Song of Myself". But what he meant by the "self" was something entirely different from what we mean now. Where Whitman embraced and expressed both the individual “self” and the grand cosmic sense of Self, contemporary confessional mode poetry focuses unremittingly on what I would call the Me, the Whole Me, and nothing much else but Me. But poetry is much vaster than that. Traditionally poetry has been about absolutely everything.

However, not all poetry of our times is limited by excessive Me-ness. The “thingy-ness” of contemporary poetry—it’s a word we hear sometimes to describe the best contemporary poetry’s engagement with the tangible world. To be sure, Al Young’s poetry has that—and then some. Call it Everythingy-ness.

For Al Young’s books and publications, and other news, go to: http://alyoung.org/