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Interview pt.1 | Interview pt.2 | Review #1 | Review #2

Reprinted with permission of the Bloomsbury Review

A Lyrical Legacy: Part 2
An Interview With Poet, Essayist, Novelist & Memoirist Al Young
By Ray González

As stated in Part 1 of this interview [September/October 2001], Al Young is one of the most prolific and determined writers I have interviewed. A dialog with Al Young is a delightful adventure in the life of writing - not simply a focus on how the artist is doing or what kind of attention he has received lately, but a conversation about ideas and language. His many books of poetry, fiction, and essays present an intricate and passionate view of American life that goes beyond the norms of African-American literature.

Readers from various cultures feel at home with a Young poem or story. He has an uncanny way of incorporating a vision into his books that does not separate races, but presents a panorama of contemporary life where the turmoil and triumphs of individuals impact an entire world. We can call it universal, but that overused term does not do justice to Young's long career. His writing certainly arrives from personal experience, autobiographical memory, and political conflict, but the voices and characters he brings to life never seem to be held back by artistic or social boundaries. There is a confident clarity in how he writes, and this atmosphere is transformed by his fictional characters, the many voices in his poetry, and his groundbreaking nonfiction on music. His focus is resolute, encompassing the joys and pains of who we are as a people. Most of all, an Al Young book is a gift of light that most writers spend lifetimes searching for.

The Bloomsbury Review: Your memoirs on music, Bodies & Soul, Things Ain't What They Used to Be, and Kinds of Blue, are considered by many critics to be classics in their field for the way they fuse jazz and popular music with autobiographical writing. In Things Ain't What They Used to Be, you state, "What I tried to do in these books was to take a piece of music and conjure in prose, in one form or another, what the music meant to me." You admitted this was a difficult way to write because "music is so private." There must be at least 150 essays among those three books and, in one introduction, you say writing them was a "way of remembering." What were you trying to remember, and how do you see this large body of writing on music today?

Al Young: Well, that body of writing goes on growing. Whatever it is I was "trying to remember" continues to haunt me. Invisible worlds-music opens us up to invisible worlds. We enter those worlds, and those worlds enter and inhabit us. There's a reason that when you go to a reggae concert or a reggae festival such as "Reggae on the River," put on every summer here in northern California in Humboldt County-"Sponsored by the Growers" the quivering banner at the entry reads-people are kind and decent to one another. Reggae festival staffers confiscate alcohol at the gate, but they look the other way on, shall we say, herb paraphernalia. A dude who looks precisely like a Hell's Angel may bump against or collide with you at a reggae event. But chances are he'll say something like "Oh, hey, excuse me, brother. I'm sorry. Did I hurt you? I'm-I'm a little stoned. I'm sorry." At a gospel festival, substances and substance abuse don't even fit in with the music. Blues festivals will be liquor-driven. I am not qualified to comment on hip-hop or rap audience behavior. But I can tell you that rock and heavy metal concerts can be dangerous or injurious to your personal safety, while classical or jazz events tend to be predictably stable and safe. From evidence I've gathered, these invisible worlds are real; they genuinely exist. The music itself has a great deal to do with shaping the behavior of its listeners. Behavior of course becomes an expression of values. As you can see, I am perfectly capable of getting up and going to bed with this subject at the center of my mind.

Like all writers, I wince and shudder when I read my old stuff. "Oh, how could I have been so dumb?" is a common reaction. But the minute I began composing the so-called musical memoirs, I knew I was tapping into something special, pioneering some largely unexplored literary terrain. But there I lurked, another settler/explorer, perhaps. Surely, ancient or traditional peoples doubtless know more than we do about the untrackable or untraceable psychological effects of music. And live music must certainly register differently than canned varieties on our varieties.

TBR: Your new book of poetry, The Sound of Dreams Remembered, contains poems from the last 10 years. There are many poems about music and musicians, but also very personal poems about relationships, love and sex, and family. In the poem "Adagio" you write,

And where in this spring of sleepy dread
does love live now? In the breathing
mausoleum of that space you call heart?
In the slow-voiced poet part of you, perhaps?

Is the poet who writes out of pain and doubt the same one who celebrates music?

AY: Yes, this poet, this social construction known as "I," still suffers from pain and doubt. If that isn't a human tendency, then you can hand the world over to the Bush cartel and Dick Cheney, and let them construct "clean energy" nuclear power plants all up and down the country. Thanks to poetry and creative imagination, hope is alive, and so is unmediated communication. Time Warner, Disney, Fox, Westinghouse, and General Electric haven't yet figured how to make poetry pay off. But they're working on it, I'm sure. Having said that, I must tell you a story:

Back in 1999 for the Rhino Records CD Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers (Black Poets Read Their Work), which came out in 2000 and to which I contributed three tracks, I was also an annotator. At one point, the album producer, Rebekah Presson Mos-by, telephoned me with a critical problem. "Gwendolyn Brooks wants $5,000 per track," Rebekah told me, "and the budget won't allow it. What'll we do? She's got to be a part of this or else the whole concept is dead." "Let me try contacting her," I said.

I did just that. I wrote Gwendolyn Brooks a real-time letter (she was a woman who took buses instead of airplanes, and who didn't believe at all in any device more high-tech than the telephone). I explained that without her the album would be virtually bankrupt. I asked if there were any chance she might reconsider her asking fee of five grand per recorded poem.
Brooks-whom, by the way, I did not know personally-wrote back right away. In her message, composed on a Hallmark card, she asked if I were, in fact, Al Young the poet. On the chance that I might very well be Al Young, she went on to say that, yes, there was one condition under which she would readjust her fee. She would be willing to accept the same fee that Al Young was receiving, provided I could officially verify the figure. Of course I wrote back to explain that she, after all, was the great Gwendolyn Brooks, that she obviously merited far more from Rhino than I was getting. At the bottom of my note to her I had jotted my phone number. One dawn thereafter, Gwendolyn Brooks telephoned me. I still kick myself today that I didn't have the foresight to tape - record that conversation. But, to be fair, she had jarred me from the middle of a dream.

"The reason I asked for so much money," she explained, "is that these big multinational record companies, when they approach artists, always make out like they don't have much money. There was another recording company that wanted to use some of my material, and they were offering $50 per selection. So, to test them, I asked for $5,000 per poem. And do you know they shifted just like that. 'OK,' they said, '$5,000 it is, then.' That is what they ended up paying me."

"Well, Ms. Brooks," I said, "I can assure you that Rhino is far from being a multinational corporate record company."

"Al," she said, "I will take your word for it." Gwendolyn Brooks signed the contract; the CD came out. (It was the second successful CD that Rebekah Presson Mosby had produced for Rhino, the first being In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry, a smart-selling, boxed four-CD set for which I had also penned liner notes.) So Gwendolyn Brooks signed-much to the relief of Rhino execs, who personally signed their thanks to me-and days later Rhino was acquired by Time Warner.

TBR: In the "Straight No Chaser" section of the new book, there are highly political poems set in Bangladesh, China, Spain, Africa, and other countries. Has traveling around the world given you a different sense of the role of the poet, even the role of African-American writers within and outside their own country?

AY: Let's put it another way. There really is no way that poetry can avoid being political. Doesn't the fact that we live at a time when American poets (and writers in general) feel no urge to address anything but their art, their craft, their careers mean something? When on late-night television some carefully orchestrated pootbutt stand-up or starlet appears to be plopping down on the sofa to chat casually with Jay and David, what they really go on and on about in depth and at length are their careers, right? That tendency is culturewide, societywide, systemwide. That term "systemwide" was broken to me one freezing, late-night July hour in Bloomington when I phoned a hotel management and physical plant to find out if there was any way I could bypass the thermostat and turn up some heat. "No," my representative stated. "I'm afraid the air that's freezing you is systemwide."

In their public talks and lectures, many poets speak of poetry, influences, craft, strategy, technique, and language-anything but life. While it's true that some professional writers I know do not have lives, even though careers can sometimes seem like lives, the writers who have something else going on besides writing are the ones who've always drawn me. When poetry and fiction writing became an academic candidate in our country after World War II, it became possible to write almost exclusively for an audience made up of creative writers and their associates. When the literature board at UC Santa Cruz, where they used to have a creative writing major I continuously opposed, asked me to design a course addressing the importance of reading to writers, I came up with one called Art and Trash. In it we would look at fiction by Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, Anne Rice, but also fiction by Charles Johnson, John Updike, James D. Houston, Richard Wiley, Toni Morrison.

The idea was not to go in declaring any given work art or trash, but to read the list in a tongue-in-cheek manner, discuss them each, and see what fell out. The point evolved that our best writers were once our best storytellers as well. The advent of creative writing caused a split. Now we have bestselling authors who can barely grunt, much less write, but who do know how to dish up the ingredients for a meaty story. Then, too, we have pyrotechnic whiz-kid authors who can write rings around their professors, but who haven't done diddly.

Because the audience for "haven't done diddly" writers no longer knows much about the world that preceded its own time, any rant I might try to get going here seems specious. Once you get the chance to globetrot a little - and I was lucky to get tapped for USIA gigs long before Jesse Helms in 1999 almost single-handedly put an end to that form of cultural exchange - your whole world opens up. In the United States, it isn't always easy to talk about incidents of travel. American acquaintances will often tell me, "I want to hear all about your trip to the Persian Gulf, but not tonight; I have to tape this episode of Survivor". More importantly, journeyman writers used to view travel as indispensable to their education and all-around development. This is no longer the case.

When I tell students and other audiences about the line I borrowed from the poetry of Radovan Karadic, who hosted me and American poet Susan Ludvigson in Sara-jevo back in the mid-eighties, I first have to explain that he was leader of the Bosnian Serbs who is still at large. Karadic is, moreover, a war criminal wanted for crimes against humanity. It was he who coined the phrase "ethnic cleansing." But back when he was charming me and Susan, he was, like William Carlos Williams, a doctor-poet who loved reciting and translating poetry. In Heaven: Collected Poems 1956-1990, you will find a line in a poem called "Moonlessness," composed in Belgrade, that goes:

You, you, there you go again
disappearing on me, moon,
& on the ripest of days
right smack dab in the middle
of all-autumn.

The "all-autumn" phrase comes from Karadic, who explained by saying that the day he had in mind wasn't one that still had any hint of summer or any hint of winter in it, but was autumnal all the way. Susan Ludvigson's thoughtful essay on our encounter with Karadic and his poetry appeared last year in Ohio Review. The point she makes, and the point I'm usually trying to make, is that we automatically think of poets and artists as being warm and fuzzy. The truth is that Hitler wanted to paint, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, was a failed novelist, playwright, and liberal journalist.

TBR: Your latest project as an anthologist was coediting The Literature of California: Writings From the Golden State. Besides the new century, why is the collection necessary now, and how can readers outside of the state not take this massive book as "regional" writing?

AY: First of all, the very use of the term "regional" spins discussions about literature into a questionable direction. I used to teach summers at Bennington College, at the Writers Conference, and paying a visit to Robert Frost's grave in North Bennington was always a must-do. After I had hung out in New England long enough to familiarize myself with place-names and flora and fauna, it struck me that this was all the same local stuff we'd been soaking up in Frost's poems, going all the way back to high school. In fact, eastern imagery and reference in general, and the New England varieties in particular, had long intimidated me and other midwesterners, southerners, and westerners. It was like when I lived in New York and realized that a lot of the short stories and cartoons I used to graze in The New Yorker were really rooted in an identifiably "regional" subculture. Since then, I've never forgotten that one person's subculture is another person's culture. Or, as George Bernard Shaw used to say, "A language is a dialect with an army behind it." I think that's what he said.

When you speak of California, you're talking about a state that was actually named in a novel before it was even "discovered." When, in 1510, Garcí Ordoñez de Montalvo published Las Sergas de Esplan-dián (Esplandián's Exploits), he brought his heroic buffoon of a knight, Esplandian, to an island called California. He wrote, "Know then, that on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California, very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise, and it was peopled by black women, without any men among them, for they lived in the fashion of Amazons."

Their queen was Calafía. You see her depicted in the great seal of California. When Ishmael Reed, Simon Ortiz, Victor Hernández Cruz, Shawn Wong, Bob Calla-han and I named the anthology Calafía: The California Poetry back in 1979, we meant her. Montalvo even goes on to describe all the gold that lay around the island's steep cliffs and rocky shores. The novel was, for its day, a best-seller in Spain. If you were literate and hadn't read the book, you had, as we say, missed the boat. When Cortés reached the Baja coast, and later when Juan Cabrillo and his expedition forces moved the exploration northward in 1542, the fix was in. There was nothing else to name the place but California. Like Britain in times that predate the Roman Empire, California was widely accessible by sea, but it was also a major stopping-off point. That is, people came and went.

For Spain, then for Mexico - and our history books pretty much skim over or write Mexico out of California history nowadays, but they won't be able to do that for much longer - California was also a place where you sent criminals. If you got busted and sentenced in Spain and later in postcolonial Mexico, you could either go into a local jail and rot or you could go to this wild place thousands of miles away and become a working colonizer. We all know that the British banished the criminals, proven and accused, to places like Australia. And the United States itself - 70 percent of us are the descendants of slaves, indentured servants, migrant workers, immigrants, refugees, and criminals. To bear this one fact in mind is one way of staying sane in America.

All of this is compressed in our literature. So California, which, for all of its current energy problems still fuels around one - eighth of the U.S. economy, is significant enough as a region that a two-volume anthology devoted to its literature would certainly appeal to nonresidents. Don't forget that the Gold Rush of 1849 was a global happening, you might say. From China, Japan, Australia, Europe, Latin America, from all over the rest of the continent, people flocked into California to strike it rich. And it's that dream-and-nightmare, boom-and-bust dynamic that gives the best writing about California such wide appeal. By the way, the book is moving, even in Europe. And Maxine Hong Kingston, Jack Hicks, and James D. Houston have only thus far published the first volume.

TBR: Your numerous books, projects, and travels illustrate the life of one of the most confident writers I have ever seen. By this I mean that, regardless of genre or topic, your work reflects a certain self-assurance in a tough world. What has it taken to write like this for several decades, and which Al Young voice is the one you really want to hang on to?

AY: Thanks for making that observation, even though my own journey through the literary scene has been anything but easy. Maybe toughness has toughened my attitude toward it. Careerism-that's the identifiable monster. I was brought up to believe that in the arts you weren't competing with anyone but yourself. You yourself get in the way of your own creativity. Living in a star- and celebrity-fixated nation, we make the literary scene, the poetry scene into a little scaled-down model of show biz. Then, too, I never forget that this was once a country in which it was forbidden for slaves to be able to read or write and unlawful for anyone to teach them. It wasn't until way past the middle of the 20th century that American literature came into its own. Up until then, British literature was the measure. English departments were prejudiced against Ameri-can writing. I came up through a hardscrabble literary scene. When Ishmael and I and others founded the journal Yardbird Reader, then Y'Bird and Quilt back in the early 1970s, we were addressing a need. It was then widely believed that you had to be white to write, and the whiter you were (or made yourself out to be), the better your writing. We described our preference for those journals that are multicultural.

We had noticed that America was rich in multiculture, even though the poetry and fiction that drew serious attention were overwhelmingly by and about white people and Jewish Americans who the Jewish sociologist Herbert Hill says were in the process of "becoming white" right around 1960. Since then, "multicultural" has become a pejorative term or, in any case, a source of great contention in academic and other official circles. You hear people say, "Well, do we want multiculturalism and diversity, or do we want to maintain high standards?"
I've always loved genre-jumping. Generally speaking, if I'm dealing with a subject that isn't particularly space- or time-driven, I approach it through poetry. If time becomes the driving force, I know I'll have to write a story, a novel, a memoir, or an essay of some kind. By and by you discover that so-called nonfiction, like poetry, is also fiction. Whenever you select details and leave out others, you are fictionalizing; you're making it up.

I'll sometimes rock and roll with students about this. "But this really happened," some new writer will declare. "Yes," I'll say, "but you've had to skip over a lot and leave things out. Or else you've fastened onto particular details and sequences of events and omitted others. That's the meaning of fictionalizing. The Latin root is fictio, which is a shaping, a feigning, a molding. You're fashioning something; you're making it up. If any story could ever be totally told, you would have to consider the vast multiplicity of takes, of viewpoints.

Horses and dogs and cats and fish and birds and even trees and stones have viewpoints on specific events. Besides reading about the infamous "Trail of Tears," Navajo writer Luci Tapahonso tells a story about Indians marshaled by the U.S. Cavalry to go on a forced march that led them into a river, where many drowned. In the 20th century, Luci visited that river and, through a sequence of unusual events, concluded that the river remembered what had happened.

It is such stories and poetry-spoken and written-bequeathed to us by those who preceded us, ancestors, that continue to shape and temper the ways we experience ourselves and the world. One of my favorites was Gwendolyn Brooks. Attending a Brooks reading, you never knew what you were going to hear. As a poet she was free enough to work in black vernacular, in the most exalted formal English, in received forms (sonnets, ballads, blues), in narrative, in lyric outbursts, tragedy, comedy, the local, the universal. Gwendolyn Brooks was the complete poet. It never occurred to me that I wasn't free to be the complete writer. But I never forget what Derek Walcott told me many, many years ago, "In America they like you to do one thing."

INTERVIEWER: 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 sssociate professor of English at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Phil Stohr ©2001

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