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with permission of Ray González (RG), Poetry Editor of The Bloomsbury
Review, where this two-part interview first appeared appeared (Sept-Oct
2001 and Nov-Dec 2001)
A Lyrical Legacy:
When we look back at 20th-century American literature, Al Young will be seen as a writer whose contribution is major and profound. As one of the most prolific, unrelenting, and musical voices of our time, Young has created a body of work that paints a picture of who we are as a nation and how our complexity takes us beyond national borders as members of a global literary community. Through several decades of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, Young has taken the American experience and created a world that transcends divisive political, racial, and cultural barriers that often keep U.S. writers inside strict boundaries. As he stated in an interview with Morton Marcus, "I'm aware of the injustices and oppression, and the misuse and disuse of human beings by other human beings, but I like to think that one person operating in a private life, interacting with other people, is having an effect on the totality as well."
The totality of his vision of America is reflected in his writings on jazz. Author of four books of essays on music, Young is a master at reflecting on how the musical impulse is the beat of writing and the lifeblood of individual imagination. His novels are as moving and masterful as James Baldwin's or Toni Morrison's, but they sustain the African-American experience by bringing both the universal struggles and triumphs to the forefront. Young's poetry is an extension of his love for jazz, his rhythms weaving around images and perceptions of an experienced world traveler.
Young was born in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in 1939 and lived his first 10 years in the rural South. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1969. He has taught at more than two dozen universities across the country, including Stanford, Rice, and the University of Michigan, and has toured the world as a visiting writer for the U.S. government. His writing has received an American Book Award from The Before Columbus Foundation, a PEN/Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction; a PEN/USA Award for Non-Fiction; New York Times Notable Book of the Year citations in 1970, 1980, and 1988; an Outstanding Artist Award from the San Francisco Arts Commission; as well as National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim, and Fulbright Fellowships. In recognition of his overall achievements, he was given the key to the city of Detroit in 1982. He lives in Berkeley, California. This interview was conducted in May 2001.
The Bloomsbury Review: In The Geography of Home, an anthology of California poets, you state you have "to stay in shape, keep my chops up" for poetry. What do you do to stay in shape, not only for poetry, but for the many kinds of writing you do?
Al Young: For years now I've been saying that poetry is to the rest of writing what the piano is to all of music. By this I mean that some knowledge of poetry or skills acquired by composing poetry can put any writer in an advantageous position. Poetry sweetens the tongue, deepens heart, and expands the mind. Just as a singer, a cellist, a trombonist, a saxophonist, an arranger or composer can sit down at the keyboard, then sound and observe all of the chordal and harmonic relationships crucial to a given piece of music, so a novelist, an essayist, a journalist, a technical writer, even a writer of annual reports, may draw richly from the conventions and techniques of poetry.
As for keeping in shape, listening seems to do it for me. Recently I was listening to a young composer talk about what she termed "global listening." By this, I took her to mean the kinds of textured sounds you become aware of in any environment when you actually pay attention. Of course, paying attention used to be a big part of any writer's life. Fran Leibowitz quips that one of the problems some writers have with composing dialogue is that they think waiting is the opposite of talking. Funny, yes, but it makes a big point.
To listen is to deepen and expand. From my own parental experience and from reading the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, surely best known for his studies of children and cognition, I learned that the principal occupation of an infant from, say, the age of six months up through age two is listening and observing. How else would a child pick up on how to sound or behave? For me reading, too, is a form of listening. Years and years ago I read a book on writing by the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. In it he spoke extensively about his own for-mative development as a poet. While he was composing "Cloud in Pants," one of his sensational early poems-attacked and admired by turns-he realized he had been building up a storehouse of phrases and "licks." Reading and listening poets, like toddlers, move through a stage that finds them acquiring vocabulary (vocabularies, actually), concepts, accents. Of course I borrow the term "licks" from music, from the jazz and pop lexicon. That is precisely what you do as a musician. Long before you "find" your own voice, you try to play the very stuff you hear and like or love. You don't really "find" your own voice; your so-called voice flowers from this process.
TBR: You also say that "language all by itself is like a whisper without a listener. When artists, especially poets, start slinging around their intentions and projections, look out." California is full of language poets and literary theorists. Where does your approach to writing fit amidst the notion that California writing has to be so cutting-edge and avant-garde?
AY: From the time gold was discovered in California back in 1849, California has been viewed as a place where people go to remake themselves, to start all over, to test out new ideas, new ways of living or being. As we understand all too well by now, the California dream can turn nightmarish. So within the very confines of this vast settler nation, there has been yet another frontier to tame and to settle. One of the lines that sticks with me from Jack Kerouac's tricky Mexico City Blues, the book-length poem he composed on drugs and drink in Mexico back in the fifties, goes like this: "America is a permissible dream/if you remember that little ants have Americas/and mules in misty fields have Americas." I'm quoting from memory. So America's America-mythically anyway-has always been California.
Even by the middle of the 19th century, people were itching to get away from the straightlaced East and the repressive Midwest. As late as 1960, when I began to move to the San Francisco Bay Area (I did it in stages), it still wasn't considered good social form for San Franciscans to ask newcomers about their past. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, just moved out here. He had a hit called "Cold Sweat" whose lyrics begin: "I don't care/About your past;/I just want/Our love to last." Well, until recently, that was very much the California way, especially in the north. Historian Kevin Starr says that to understand California, you have to remember that embedded in its DNA is the Gold Rush.
One of the things that attracted me about the Bay Area was the so-called Beat movement, which shook literary circles while I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Like other literary classmates and associates there - X.J. Kennedy, Marge Piercy, Thomas McGuane (whom I would later meet at Stanford, when we were awarded Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowships), future screenwriter David Newman, Keith Waldrop and his future wife Rosemary Waldrop, and Janet Coleman, among others-I was devouring the pages of Evergreen Review. At the same time that I was reading and listening to everything, Dylan Thomas' Caedmon recordings and a poetry and jazz vinyl album called Jazz Canto on the Pacific Jazz label hooked me up nicely to all the aural and oral poetry I'd been hearing all my life. Composer Gordon Mumma, jazz players in bloom like Bob James and drummer Omar Clay-I hung around with them, too. It was the excitement of all that intellectual curiosity and association that I brought with me to California once I decided that New York wasn't for me. How dumb can you be and still call yourself a writer, huh?
"Oh, Al, you're so square and wonderful," a young woman told me at a Berkeley party one night while we were dancing. It must've been 1963. Up until then, I'd always believed I was hip. She got me thinking. She was right. When I got right down to it, I was square indeed. It was squareness, I realized, that kept me from going over the edge. From my midteens upward, I'd been drawn to Bohemian circles, fringe groups, the offbeat, outsiders. But I didn't then grasp that there's truly a big difference between being an outsider and being hip. The two can go together, but that can't be assumed.
The poetry influences I grew up with were such that all my life I have sought to communicate. Self-expression just doesn't cut it for me. From my southern upbringing-and all that oral storytelling and recitation you've heard about is no joke, it is unforgettably for real-I formed the idea that a poem, a story, a statement of any kind was not complete until somebody got it. And only in my immature and unformed state, thinking seriously about becoming a writer, did I buy into the notion that if what you wrote was hard for people to get or figure out, then it was automatically good. That was the message implicit in modernism. You can catch it in full drift in a line from the former LeRoi Jones' Grove Press novel, The System of Dante's Hell. At one point Jones' cryptic, Joycean narrator says, "I'm the nigger Stan Kenton." That's complicated, laughable.
By the early 1950s the jazz Stan Kenton's all-white band performed was believed to be intellectual, abstract, way-out. Some of the charts were so intricate; you had to be pretty heavy to get it. That was the idea anyway. And if you happened to be African-American or, as they then said, Negro, then whew! That meant you must be exceptional, really out there, deep. We come, then, to the idea of the Deep talking to the Deep that has all but run official literary culture off the streets here in the U.S.
I came to reject cults or sects or schools of writing. Some writers speak or sing to me; others do not. That's pretty much it. Either it works (communicates) or it doesn't. Generally speaking, the more self-consciously stylistic a poet or fiction writer becomes, the sooner I lay aside their work. Since we now dwell in a technocracy where "downtime" no longer exists, I choose activities carefully. Cutting-edge, avant-garde, literary theory-it was all going on in English lit way back in the 18th century. That was a time when critics and theorists were all penning and publishing doggerel and strutting around as if they were better than the writers whose creative output provided them with something to analyze and criticize.
As early as 1759, Laurence Sterne was knocking out Tristam Shandy, his crazy-ass, garrulous, first-person novel packed with such pronouncements as "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me." For me Sterne still cuts a whole restaurant full of contemporary, puffed-up literary dandies. Blank pages, missing chapters, wild transitions, and cantankerous authorial intrusions-he got it all down before the novel as a form had even gone legit.
What a nerve you've touched! What a deliciously provocative question. This leads into some of the stump speeches I've been giving all up and down the globe over the past 20 years. Poetry from the beginning has always belonged to the people, to everybody everywhere. The Stanford poet Ken Fields once told me the first poem his daughter composed when she was three. "One two/Barbecue" was how it went. Driving one night, driving from the mountains with my son Michael, then three, in the backseat, I looked back and saw him point to all the lighted homes scattered in the valley below and heard him say: "Daddy, what are those? Stars on the ground?"
It wasn't all too long ago that the idea of a "professional" poet jelled with society. Poetry is a part of being human. Or, better put, to be human is to know how poetry means. Surely we see now that computers don't know much about it, but society's getting to be so computerized so quickly that even poetry, fiction writing, storytelling-the best of it occurs between two people directly, I believe. In real time. Beyond a circle of friends who share certain emotional measuring points, experiences, intimacies, and time spans, poetry thins.
and posing-and here I might as well be talking about the whole celebrity-woven
fabric of the American poetry scene. In settler countries like the U.S.,
Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Australia, artistic focus is directed toward
originality rather than tradition. The reason is obvious. Colonization
is socially and culturally disruptive. Coming and going, the emigré
and the immigrant trash tradition. So we get Ezra Pound's old cry of "Make
TBR: You have published books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and edited anthologies and written linear notes for jazz collections. Is there a grand vision of life that ties all of this work together, or is it difficult for a multigenre author to summarize his work of a lifetime?
AY: Derek Walcott once inscribed a book to me thusly: "For Al Young with sympathy." When I asked him why he'd written this, Derek said, "Because in the United States, they like you to do one thing, and one thing only."
My suspicion is that
my versatility has cost me a lot of dues in this writing profession. Novelists
often tell me how crazy they are about my poetry, and poets love my prose.
It gets wild. Growing up, I always had the idea that if you called yourself
a writer, then you ought to be able to write just about anything, and
do it ably. In the fifties, while I was still in my teens, I did a lot
of hanging out during my junior high and high school years down around
Wayne State University in Detroit. Those were days I still deem precious.
Whether I grasped it or not, I was reading everything I could find or
that anyone would hand me. The Detroit Public Library, the main branch,
was my home away from home. Right across the street stood the Detroit
Institute of Arts with its impressive collections of paintings and sculpture.
That was where I first saw the original frescoes Diego Rivera had done
under WPA sponsorship during the thirties.
All through those
adolescent years I would hang with friends and spend as much time as I
could down around that area. There was the Detroit Historical Museum on
the corner. The big deal there was they had a replica of the streets and
scenes that figured big in old early Detroit history. Regularly we would
walk around the Historical Museum and make up stories to ourselves about
what it might've been like. Sometimes we kids would picture ourselves
as white, sometimes as black, and sometimes as Indians. When I look back
now, I'm amazed now at how socially and psychologically astute we were.
"Man," Leon Reynolds or Roland Navarro or some other sidekick
might quip as we wound our way down some 19th-century set, "I betcha
it just wouldn't do to be a spook or a Mexican back in them days!"
While I was still a freshman there, a graduate mathematician pal named Bruce Bevelheimer (he loved James Joyce and could quote long snatches of Finnegan's Wake by heart, and he loved William Carlos Williams) sat down and wrote a letter to Williams, who was still alive in 1958. On his M.D. office stationery from Paterson, New Jersey, Williams wrote Bruce back a typed letter that opened something like this: "I'm glad you took the time to sit down and write. Don't take the literature professors too seriously. But do pick up anything they leave lying around, and run with it." When Bruce showed the letter to me, I copied it out by hand.
TBR: You started as a musician in New York, playing guitar in clubs in the late fifties before eventually moving to California and publishing your first book of poems. How did you make the transition from being a musician to being a very active writer?
AY: For one thing, I always remembered how my father-a bassist and tuba player in and around Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s-always told me how he hated seeing so many of the guys he played with die young-stupidly, needlessly. He didn't drink, didn't smoke; he was in it for the music, for the fun and thrill of playing. I loved performing. Singing, accompanying myself on guitar-that was the thing. It was the folk era. I interpolated a lot of jazz into the folk and blues stuff I was doing. Work came steadily. In college I picked up $35 a night working at The Prometheus, an Ann Arbor coffeehouse. If I worked Friday, Saturday, and sometimes Sunday night-well, you can figure. My room rent was $35 a month. You get the picture. I felt rich. Books, record albums, new clothes-no big deal. In 1957, tuition for in-state students at U of M was $75. When two years later it jumped to $125, students and parents were in an uproar. With the late Perry Lederman, the obsessive guitarist and a buddy, I traveled to New York and Boston, playing in clubs and coffee joints. I wish I hadn't been so snobbish about taking pictures back then. I missed a shot that would've had me working across the street from the Gaslight on Bleecker Street, where the unknown Bob Dylan was testing his chops.
I didn't always like being present, being in the club, up there on the stand. There were always drunks, jokers who really did want to hear "Melancholy Baby." Having thought of myself as a writer since grade school, where I edited the school paper, I always knew there was another way out. And what I loved about writing is that you don't really have to be in front of a live audience to make it happen. You can mail or e-mail it to your prospective audience.
TBR: You acknowledge the richness of storytelling in your family and its influence on your work, how life in Mississippi and Detroit shaped the way you hear and use language. Do you think the value of storytelling has been lost among younger generations of writers who are too in tune with the Internet or the competitive environments of creative writing programs?
AY: Of course that's another complicated complex of questions. I like it. Yes, storytelling-hearing outstanding stories and storytellers as a child-has played a huge role in making me want to write. That I learned to read at three is important to consider, too. I have often stated that I was blessed to have spent the better part of that opening decade on earth in Mississippi and on my maternal grandparents' farm. Good talk and conversation were almost the coin of the realm. People took you at your word, so your word meant a lot. In a farm community that, even by the early 1950s, still lacked running water and electricity and had very few automobiles, verbal communication was crucial. Talking and listening, listening and talking were highly developed skills and arts. What I've always liked about good storytelling is that it's about language and sound, richly analogous to music. Moreover, it is participatory. The problem I have with professional storytellers of today-you know, women and men who get NEA grants to tell stories at an appointed time at, say, a public library or community center-is that their texts are fixed in stone. In real-life storytelling, listeners often interrupt a speaker with facts and insights or with laughter or astonishment. This alters the flow, the direction and shape of the story. Years and years ago I read Richard Ellman's biography of James Joyce in which he talks about how Joyce, with a copy of Dubliners hot off the press, pays a visit to the aged W.B. Yeats. This was the period that sees Yeats working very closely with the Irish Folk Theater. Joyce, cocky and full of himself, couldn't fathom why someone as brilliant as Yeats would "waste" his time working with folk sources. Further, he told Yeats that nothing in his book of stories comes from the so-called people, that every idea in there sprang from his own head. By Ellman's account, Yeats flipped through the freshly inscribed copy of Dubliners and shook his head at the scores of citations he'd glimpsed that confirmed Joyce's wrongheadedness. Yeats decided to address the incident in his journals intended for posthumous publication. In that entry he states that the folk will always be more sophisticated than any studied, deliberate artists. For one thing, as folk stories are told from one audience to the next, details and plotlines and outcomes are often violated expressly if such a variation or deviation helps storytellers make their points dramatically. In this way, folktales enjoy an unpredictable vitality and dynamism that "captive" texts do not. I think I'm remembering Ellman's text correctly, the spirit of it anyway. One of the surest signs of life is unpredictability. You can be certain that I do think about this in this era that sees us moving doggedly, illogically toward total biological and social control.
Having taught creative writing and concepts of creativity in one form or another at intervals since the 1960s, I can say that MFA programs in themselves are not the problem. Authentication-to use a peculiar yet now perfectly understandable Internet term-is the problem. Many think that they automatically become writers by dint of a master of fine arts degree. I make it a point to tell students to forget it. You learn to write by writing and reading, by reading and writing, then by overwriting everything you've ever read or written. Is that crazy and accurate enough, or what?
Ray González received the 2001 Minnesota Book Award in Poetry for
Turtle Pictures (University of Arizona Press). Forthcoming books include
The Ghost of John Wayne and Other Stories (University of Arizona, October
2001), The Hawk Temple at Tierra Grande (poetry, BOA Editions, 2002),
Circling the Tortilla Dragon: Short-Short Fictions (Creative Arts, 2002),
and The Underground Heart: Essays From Hidden Landscapes (University of
Arizona, 2003). He is associate professor of English at the University
of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
The Sound of Dreams
Al Young is a poet who encompasses everything Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg celebrated and lamented about America. This collection from the previous decade is for the new century; its poetry is a place to learn about ourselves as a culture and as voices of a global community. Young's poems about John Coltrane and Billie Holiday go beyond the influence of legends to create a fresh tension between jazz and written language. He writes of his love of music and of our obsession with history, politics, and the realities of the last 100 years. Reading his work unleashes every memory and emotion of romance, human hurt, and conflict.
To experience an Al Young poem is to praise the difficulties and rewards of searching for personal identity. In "Faith," he writes, "Faith knows how to imagine what's timeless/by what is timed. Faith carries the sun/inside itself and shines it out in the dark." Young's writing also takes us beyond our national boundaries to show how poetry is an international language, a global beat he keeps through his travels around the world. In "Distances," the traveler admits, "The distance anywhere-from birth to death,/from sit to stand, from heat to holy snow-/invents itself, unravels as you go." This book is what American poetry is all about. The gathering of three collections into one means we have a voice and a vision that knows exactly what we want. -RG
This monumental undertaking has become a best-selling book for the University of California Press. Volume 1 is a milestone in documenting and presenting the literature of a state that has produced great authors-John Muir, Ambrose Bierce, Mary Austin, John Steinbeck, Josephine Miles, Nathaniel West, and others. From stories, legends, and myths of indigenous tribes to the work of Chester Himes, it presents American literature as the western experience of diverse people. -RG
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