Issue 60 |
Spring 1993

About Al Young: A Profile


What strikes you first about Al Young is the voice. It's a deejay's voice -- articulate; engaging; most of all,
smooth -- so it's not surprising to find out that for several years, Young hosted jazz shows in Detroit for WDET and in Berkeley for KJAZ, work­ed as a public radio announcer, and performed as an actor on educational radio productions. Music and the spoken word, or "platters and chatter," as they called it in the Fifties, have been abiding influences in Young's life and in his prolific career as a writer. His books include the poetry collections
Dancing, The Song Turning Back Into Itself, Geography of the Near Past, The Blues Don't Change: New and Selected Poems, and
Heaven: Collect­ed Poems 1956-1990; the novels
Snakes, Who Is Angelina?, Sitting Pretty, Ask Me Now, and
Seduction by Light; and three "musical memoirs,"
Bodies & Soul, Kinds of Blue, and
Things Ain't What They Used to Be. He has also written numerous screenplays, such as
Bustin' Loose for Richard Pryor, and edited anthologies and the literary journals
Loveletter and, with Ishmael Reed,
The Yardbird Reader and

Born in 1939 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Young was raised first in Mississippi and then in Detroit, and the contrasts between North and South, the city and country, strongly contributed to his curiosity about the world at large, the mystery of what he could not see. As a child, he and his family would walk down to the Gulf of Mexico nearly every day to get shrimp and crabs, and he remembers being intrigued by the ocean and the boats, "the fact that there was a
beyond." To bridge the distances, he listened -- listened to stories told by his family on the front porch and to music and to the old radio shows, fascinated by every program, even -- much to his grandmother's amusement -- Arthur Godfrey's. When Young was a little older, he lived across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario, and he tuned into the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which aired jazz, pop, live symphony, plays, documentaries, and, seminally for him, poets like Dylan Thomas reading their works aloud. He was already somewhat familiar with poetry -- his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Chapman, had made the class memorize and recite poems every two weeks -- but this was different: "All the energy and little nuances and secret meanings and things that the voice transmits and conveys, I could hear all that for the first time. It came
alive for me." He knew then that it was his destiny to become a poet, and he began, systematically, to go through the poetry shelves of the Detroit Public Library. An insatiable reader since the age of three, Young admits that the worst thing you can do is ask him to narrow down his favorite poets, but he points to Kenneth Patchen and Li Po as two who impressed him early on. Then he mentions Federico García Lorca, early T. S. Eliot, Rabinadrath Tagore, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Leopold Senghor, Blaise Cendrars, the Bible, Nicolás Guillén, Nicanor Parra, LeRoi Jones, Levertov, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Dickinson, Whitman . . .

In his teens, he began publishing poems, stories, and articles. He entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor with the intention of being a literature major, but was immediately discouraged. New Criticism reigned over English departments in those days, and the heavily structured approach took the fun out of it for Young. "I intuitively sensed that that kind of immersion was destructive to the creative urge." Such was his disappointment, he momentarily considered switching directions and becoming a lawyer, as his mother had suggested, since he had "the gift of gab." (Before she died, she told Young she was glad he had not become an attorney. When asked why, she said, "Because lawyers are liars. I wouldn't want a child of mine lying professionally. It's bad enough that writing these books, you use your imagination to the fullest.") What saved Young was a graduate-level seminar on Cervantes he was able to enroll in, although he was only a freshman. The professor, Sanchez Escribano, integrated the
whole of Western culture and history into the study of
Don Quixote, and Young thought, "This is it! This is what college is supposed to be -- kicking back, the deep talking to the deep." At the start of his senior year, however, restlessness overtook him again, and he dropped out. He didn't think he needed a degree to be a writer, and he believed traveling and supporting himself with odd jobs would be more edifying. Other than deejaying, he worked stints as a medical photographer, warehouseman, clerk-typist, interviewer for the California Department of Employment, yard clerk for the Southern Pacific Railroad, lab aide, industrial films narrator, and, with some prominence, singer and guitarist. "I did blues tunes, traditional folk fare," he recalls, "but I would put a little spin on it. Quite often I'd use jazz voicings or inject contemporary idioms." Yet ultimately, he rejected music as a career. Many years later, Young and his father, who had also been a professional musician, discussed why each had quit playing. "He was a teetotaler," Young says. "He saw
his friends getting high and getting killed. Somebody would stab them, or they'd stab somebody and somebody would shoot them -- all that stuff we think of as the colorful jazz life -- and my father thought it was a waste. My version of it was that I literally got tired of going to the gigs. I hated that you had to
be there. It was a drag. You had to put up with drunks and people saying, 'Play "Melancholy Baby." ' "

An astrologer once told Young that he was a classic Gemini, with two strong attributes: one part of him being very public and social, even a performer; the other side private, very solitary and reflective. He decided to pursue his quieter inclinations, and his plan was to go back to school, get his degree at Berkeley, and, for a living, teach Spanish -- which he had studied since the seventh grade -- while writing on the side. Remembering his experience at Ann Arbor, he wanted to avoid teaching literature and creative writing at all costs.

Ironically, he was hired as a writing instructor immediately upon graduation, and over the years he has taught creative writing at the University of California campuses of Santa Cruz and Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington. In addition, he has been a Jones Lecturer at Stanford and a Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Rice University. To this day, he has never conducted a single class in Spanish.

But mainly, of course, he has been writing, interested in how people find everyday worth and love in a technological world that is increasingly impersonal, trying to answer "those big questions that most people leave behind unless they go to divinity school or into ontology: Why the hell are we here? What's the meaning of it?" In his poetry, he tends to concentrate on a single image or issue, "looking at it from the most arbitrary of angles to see if it makes sense." In his novels, he reaches for a broader picture, seeing "how people go through a particular set of circumstances over a course of time and come out transformed or untransformed." And in his musical memoirs, which are collections of autobiographical essays and vignettes, all touched off by associations to songs, he feels the most freedom -- a liberation he likens to Charlie Parker's experience in the early 1940s, when he made a recording of Ray Noble's "Cherokee": "He said he found out that by playing along the higher intervals of the chord
changes to 'Cherokee,' he broke into a completely different range of dimension. He could play what he had been hearing in his head but hadn't figured out how to do on his horn. I feel the same thing when I'm writing about a particular song. I'm not limited by character or plot, and something happens. I can get into a lot of those deeper meanings."

Oddly, Young's versatility has sometimes worked against him. Derek Walcott once inscribed a book: "For Al Young, the poet, with sympathy." Young asked what he meant. "Well," Walcott said, "I feel sorry for you, because in the United States, they like you to do one thing. What they don't notice is that whatever you do, you're a poet, you bring that poetic sensibility to it." There have been other criticisms as well, racial expectations and censures from all quarters, ranging from complaints that his prose style was not experimental and reactionary enough to accusations that he was bourgeois, especially in his musings about the African-American middle class, as if such people did not exist. He parodied the reproaches in a poem called "Your Basic Black Poet": "Why are there oceans in / his poems, sunshine, glacial / journeys toward reunion? / What's the matter with / his diction man he / sho dont sound black? / / Any way you look at it / the dude is irrelevant, / & dangerous to the community."

The pressure on him became so great, and so ludicrous, Young invented an alter ego, O. O. Gabugah, deriving the name from the South African poet Hugh Masakele's album
The Americanization of Oogabugah. (Growing up in Johannesburg, Masakele watched
Tarzan movies, heard "natives" uttering phrases like "Oogabugah, bowa masa," and for a while, actually thought that somewhere in Africa, people spoke that way.) "Fraudulent militant black poetry was starting to leak into the public province," Young says. "There was a legitimate form of social protest, people genuinely writing from their hearts and their guts and their minds for social change, addressing real injustice. And then you had people doing it or trying to exploit it because it was fashionable. The same sort of situation exists today with gangster rap, which has come to be largely consumed by suburban kids, rather than in the inner city, where it's passé. In the early Seventies, black anger was radical-chic and being successfully marketed to whites, and I thought it was time to do what Cervantes had done with the novel of chivalry; that is, poke a little fun at it. I caught hell for it. People liked O. O. Gabugah's poetry, but they didn't know what to make of him. They'd start applauding,
and then they'd say, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute. Are you making fun of the Revolution? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?' " Young recounts teaching at Stanford during that period and discovering that his African-American students, who had been, for the most part, brought up in affluence, were all presenting "rat-and-roach" stories in workshops: "I would ask, 'Have you ever personally experienced the ghetto?' And they'd say, 'No, not personally, but I'm trying to relate to the brothers and sisters.' And I'd say, 'Well, why don't you write about growing up in Connecticut, or going to a fancy prep school as a black person, because I know the pain got to you there, too.' "

Throughout his career, Young has been more interested in how much people have in common, rather than how much they differ, and because of this, controversy always seems to follow him, a fact that is sometimes tiresome, but one that does not entirely displease him. Young -- who devotes about six months of the year to his own writing in his Bay Area home, accepting one-semester contracts as a visiting professor and traveling across the country or overseas, giving readings, the rest of the time -- is working on a new novel called
A Piece of Cake, a sequel to
Sitting Pretty. The main character, Sidney J. Prettymon, who is now in his seventies, wins the lottery. "All of my political detractors can get ready," Young warns with glee. "I'm fifty-three years old, I'm not making a fortune in this business, I can say whatever I want to say. In this one, I'm going for broke."

Don Lee