CALIFORNIA'S POET LAUREATE
Al Young, California's newest poet laureate, and I were talking. I asked if he recalled the first poem he ever read. "That's interesting. I have to go all the way back to the second grade. To Laurel, Mississippi, and Miss Chatman. Yeah, whom I've written about extensively. She made us memorize poems. In those days we would begin our morning with 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' and then we would sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' She actually had us reading African-American poets before there was such a designation. Langston Hughes, and this would have been 1947, and James Weldon Johnson and people like that. And Paul Lawrence Dunbar."
Mr. Young, born in 1938, near Biloxi, Mississippi, was the first of seven children. He explained. "My father, the man whose name I carry, Albert James Young, Sr., actually married my mother when she was pregnant with me. But not by him.
"She had two kids by him and then she had the fourth, my brother Richard -- the actor who committed suicide -- she had him while that father was in the Navy in the Pacific, and so Richard had a separate father. And then she married again and she had three kids, whose last name is Simmons. Interesting, beautiful woman.
"She died at 60. My father, or stepfather, although I think of him as my father, died at 56.
"I haven't really written about my life, memoir-style, sequentially, because it's been difficult to put the pieces together. But the reason I found your question interesting was that my third brother, William, actually went through a sex change and is now 'Michele,' living in Chicago. This is fascinating stuff.
"The family didn't take it well. She more or less appealed to me because she knew that I took a wide view of such things. She knew that my ex and I were living out here, that we were open to that kind of stuff, and so she shared it with us, and we encouraged her to go on and do it because she was so unhappy.
"She tells funny stories. She got mugged in a parking lot. This guy snatched her purse and she ran after him and caught him and beat the shit out of him, and she said, 'How dare you take advantage of a poor, helpless woman?' She's always been strong. I would have liked to have seen the look on this guy's face."
I had heard that the state did quite a background search on Mr. Young, whose politics bend to the left and whose opposition to the United States' attack on Iraq is well known.
"Oh, my goodness, yes. I was vetted mercilessly. They sent me a credit report that was, I don't know how many pages, but it was thick because it went all the way back to the first thing I ever charged. Can you believe that? I was scared when I opened it up and there was no note, nothing. It just came from the state, and it was just a way of letting me know that they were on my case.
"I went to the University of Michigan, quit in my senior year, to the horror of my family. I couldn't stand it. I had come out in the summer of 1960 to the San Francisco Bay area, and it just blew my mind. I just couldn't believe it. I fell in love with it and fell in love.
"In January, I quit school and flew out here and have lived here ever since. It was hard to go back to the Midwest and all that cold and snow. And the attitudes. But, when I was in Ann Arbor, teaching, 1992, I went to the same barber who cut my hair in the '60s, and he said, 'As I recall, Al, you were one of the first people that went running out there to California in the '60s.
"I said, 'Yep.'
"'Well how do you like it now?' They really never give up. They hate people who move to California.
"An English department receptionist, two of them, as I was leaving in '92, I had been teaching there, I had taught there two successive winters, '91 and '92, said, 'Al, can we ask you a question?'
"I said, 'Sure.'
"'You're such a nice guy, how can somebody like you live in California?' And they meant that. They think of it as really an awful place.
"I loved it, my years at Cal. I absolutely loved it, because it was in the time of the Third World strike and People's Park and all of that, and by then I was well into my 20s, and I was a professional student, and I was interested in the things I was studying, and I knew how to do it, and I graduated with honors.
"I majored in Spanish because I didn't want to have anything to do with English departments. I'd made this decision way back after high school. I had been studying Spanish since the seventh grade.
"I got into a graduate seminar on Cervantes when I was a sophomore at Michigan, which was one of the best educational experiences, and it's the way I still teach. I think teaching should be dialectic, dialectical and conversational."
"You're one of those rare poets," I said, "who has always belonged to himself, who's never belonged, for any length of time, to an institution."
"Thank you for recognizing that. It makes a difference, but it doesn't do you well professionally. Because people can't place you, and we live increasingly in an institutionalized structure, and if they can't put you in a box, they don't know what to do.
"I get bounced around. Nowadays I'm getting credit for having been one of the active participants in the Black Arts movement, as that movement was called back in the '60s, when Amira Baraka left Newark and went up to Harlem for a few months. I had nothing to do with any of that.
"The first decade of my publishing I was always being put in this bag of accommodationists, a nice way of saying 'Uncle Tom.' They thought I was too sweet and nice. And then after about 15 years, I was reading that not only is Al Young a black poet, he's one of the blackest.
"I realized that what I'd learned from Chuck Berry years ago is true. Chuck Berry used to deliberately put out fictitious images of himself to all the fan magazines. In one magazine he would represent one thing, to another he would represent something else. And he thought it was fun.
"So I kicked around like that. Now, as you probably notice, my poetry has become rather formal. I work with structure and traditional forms. I try to give the appearance of not doing that, as I think the secret of writing a good sonnet is to make it not seem like a sonnet.
"Norton is going to bring out an edition of my new and collected poems, if I ever get it into them. I've got it sitting over here on a stool. I keep adding to it. And they want to bring out a new and selected musical memoirs. So nice things have happened as a result of a disappointment. And it's ironic, because right now all of my poetry is officially out of print.... Creative Arts had it and they bit the dust, as of last year -- went belly up. So it's an interesting period."
"Why do you think that California chose black men as poet laureates?" (Quincy Troupe was named before Young.)
"I thought about that too. The four contenders when I was being considered were Wanda Coleman, Carol Muske-Dukes, and Jose Rodriguez. When the governor talked to me about politics, and he spoke extensively about that, I told him that I was political and would get even more political, because these are dark times that we're in right now. I was pretty sure he was going to select Carol Muske-Dukes, because she was the least political.
"I found out since that it was the California Arts Council's assembly committee that chose me, and the committee was headed by Robert Hass.
"So it's all been quite something. And here's why I question the black male consideration. The selection came about not only by the committee's recommendations, but it was open to the public, through Poets and Writers . People actually submitted votes. I keep running into people who say, 'I voted for you.' Largely, people on campuses cast votes. But it was one of those things where I was glad all those years had gone by in which I had been on the circuit and appeared in different places."
"In a way, don't you think it's good that you've never had a regular full-time teaching job?"
"Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I can say things that many poets would not say and my idea is, 'What can they do to me?' For example, I was invited to take part in Laura Bush's National Book Festival, September 24, the same Sunday Cindy Sheehan marched on Washington. It was massive. I mean, half a million people showed up for that. It was reported in the press as 100,000. And it coincided with the National Book Festival because we shared the same space on the mall.
"Sharon Olds, as you'll recall, had sent a letter to Laura Bush, really telling her what she thought of her and declining the invitation. The letter was published in The Nation , which urged all invitees to cancel. Well, I love Sharon, but at the same time I think it's more important to be engaged than disengaged because you don't get to say anything. If you're not on the bus, you can't call the stops. And so I said exactly what I wanted to say at that venue. I went to a party afterwards at a private residence in Georgetown. Nobody would talk to me.
"After about 35 minutes, I called a taxi and went home. I felt good to have said what I said in the form of a poem and in the form of a commentary from the stage to a large audience."
"How did the audience respond?"
"I would say two-thirds were on my side. It was important to be at the center of that kind of power and arrogance. Just to see what it feels like, beyond headlines and sound bites. There is an arrogance. But there's this fear that shoots through it that I connect with, going all the way back to when I first went to college during the McCarthy era. Everyone is scared, but they won't be toppled from their silence."
"What do you do to comfort yourself?"
"Right now, I practice more and more giving -- just what can I give? And that seems to do it. Whether it's in the form of writing or actually helping others, or whatever I can do to forget about myself in a society that's largely 'on the take.' I think it's killing us, this business of 'thinking of the other.' Thinking there is such thing as 'the other,' and then, 'How much can I get out of this?' It's awful."
"Compassion seems out of style."
"Oh, my goodness, yes." Mr. Young added then that there is a mean-spirited atmosphere around that is equivalent to what is happening to the hurricane evacuees.
"I've lost my hometown. Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is no more. I have the Google alert out on it, and they send me news several times a day of what they're trying to do. I have not been back for years. But I keep in touch with what's going on there. The Delta area, in general, my first decade was around there."
"What was the first poem you memorized?"
"Paul Lawrence Dunbar's 'In the Morning,' which appears in his Songs of the Lowly Life ." Mr. Young recited the poem:
'Lias! 'Lias! Bless de Lawd!
Don' you know de day's erbroad?
Ef you don't git up, you scamp,
Dey'll be trouble in dis camp.
T'ink I g'wine to let you sleep
W'ile I meks yo' boa'd an' keep?
Dat's a putty howdy-do --
Don' you hyeah me, 'Lies -- you?
Bet ef I come cross dis flo'
You won' fin' no time to sno'.
Daylight all a-shinin' in
W'ile you sleep -- w'y hit's a sin!
Ain't de can'le-light enough
To bu'n out widout a snuff,
But you go de mo'nin' thoo
Bu'nin' up de daylight too?
'Lies, con' you hyeah me call?
No use tu'nin' to'ds de wall:
I kin hyeah dat mattus squeak;
Don' you hyeah me w'en I speak?
Dis hyeah clock done struck off six --
Ca'tine, bring me dem ah sticks!
Oh, you down, suh; huh, you down --
Look hyeah, don't you daih to frown.
Ma'ch yo'se'f an' wash yo' face,
Don' you splattah all de place;
I got somep'n else to do,
'Sides jes' cleanin'aftah you.
Tek dat comb an' fix yo' haid --
Looks jes' lak a feddah bald.
Look hyeah, boy, I let you see
You sha'n't roll yo' eyes at me.
Come hyeah; bring me dat ah strap!
Boy, I'll whup you 'swell you drap;
You done felt yo'se'f too strong,
An' you sholy got me wrong.
Set down at dat table thaih;
Jes' you whimpah ef you daih!
Evah mo'nin' on dis place,
Seem lak I mus' lose my grace.
Fol' yo' hen's an' bow yo' haid --
Wait ontwell de blessin' 's said;
"Lewd, have mussy on ouah souls --
(Don' you daih to tech dem rolls )
"Bless de food we gwine to eat "
(You set still -- I see yo' feet;
You jes' try dat trick agin!)
"Gin us peace an' joy. Amen!"
"I love the featherbed part." "And they meant it. You remember how the feathers would stick to you? Dunbar died a broken man. He died at 33. He was the first American writer to make his living entirely off of writing. Because he wrote novels and journalism and all of that, and he hated it, but he was remembered for his dialect or humorous verse."
"I wonder why you're not more cynical?"
"I just know that there's a bigger picture than we usually enter or are allowed to enter. We're much bigger than we appear to be. I really mean it when I say there is no 'other,' that we're part and parcel of everything that we think we look out and see as objective reality. You would think that people would get this on the basis of the water we drink and the air we breathe and the food we eat. But we don't. Somehow, that's separate -- and I think ancient peoples knew more about this than we do."
The state pays Mr. Young $5,000 a year. "I'm obliged to fulfill six official venues. Two of which I've done this year." Among the six was the Governor and First Lady's Conference on Women and Families. Eleven thousand women attended this thing. It was absolutely amazing. I had to write a poem for that occasion.
"Maria Shriver's office sent me a list of quote, 'words,' unquote, as they call them that the First Lady likes to use when she talks about women and families. I said 'What am I supposed to do?' And they said, 'We were wondering if you could work some of these into the poem?' And I said, 'Are you telling me what to say?' 'Oh no, Mr. Young. We would never do that.'
"I submitted a poem that was rejected. It was a bit too sweeping. I think they thought it was an environmental poem. It didn't specifically address what women have given us.
"Anyway, I called my friend Ishmael Reed. I said, 'What do you think I should do with this?' I was really upset. He said, 'Use all the words.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Use all the words, Al Young style.' And that's what I did, and it was an enormous hit. I was able to say exactly what I wanted to say in a way that they weren't expecting or no one could have expected. It was quite a challenge and quite enjoyable.
"I feel this gives me an ideal position from which to give back a lot to a state that has given me so much. Despite the scarcity that California is experiencing now, it's been good to me. I do the same thing that I've always done. But people pay more attention now, and things are happening. With the new state librarian, we're going to put up a website that will feature not only the text of poems but webcasts and classroom discussion and readings. We're going to get going on that early in 2006."
"I think it's important for children that they memorize poems."
Mr. Young agreed. "You'd be amazed at how that can get you through life. You can just drop into a poem at any time and everything stops.
"I was in Manhattan last year for the National Book Awards, I was one of the judges for poetry. I saw two kids with a boom box that was so huge, they had it on a roller, like a skateboard-type thing. One was pushing it and one was pulling it. I couldn't believe it. This was in Midtown. They were playing something obnoxious, it was the hip-hop thing.
"I said, 'Can I ask you guys a question?' They said, 'What kind of question?' I said, 'You ever think about playing some classical music on that?' They said, 'What you mean classical music?' I said, 'Some Beethoven or some Bach or some Mozart or something like that?' They actually turned it off. They said, 'What?' I said, 'You ever thought about playing some nice classical music on that?'
"'Naw, mister, we ain't never thought of no shit like that. But we might.'" --Judith Moore