Wednesday, April 8, 2009
In 2005, you were appointed Poet Laureate of California by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Muriel Johnson, Director of the California Arts Council, said of this appointment: “Like jazz, Al Young is an original American voice.” How does it feel to be compared to a whole genre of musicâ€” especially jazz?
AL YOUNG: It made me feel wonderful to take in Muriel Johnson’s sweeping assessment of me and my work. The spirit of music haunts my writing, and jazz is both centripetal and centrifugal to my poetry. By this I mean that, while jazz and its spirit provides me with a powerful esthetic and cultural center, jazz idiom also needles and nudges me to keep taking leave of dogma and orthodoxy. I was lucky to grow up with music. Many will tell you – and I’ve said it myself – that poetry and music are kissing cousins. Actually, the two are altogether inseparable.
We’re talking about sound of course. The difference between them is that language, unlike music, carries the burden of denotative meaning. It’s the difference between saying a word and sounding a note. In babyhood we rediscover the musicality of poetry. “Hey diddle diddle, / the cat and the fiddle,” the nursery rhyme goes. The recitation of “nonsense” verses thrills us immeasurably. “‘T’was brilling and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” sings Lewis Carroll in his beloved Jabberwocky (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There), “All mimsy were the borogroves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.”
Sound and sense are always at odds. Centripetal. Centrifugal. Jazz, I’ll say. In poetry, I can always count on a center from which I’m free to take leave. By the same coinage – the flip-side, as it were – the homebase is always there, welcoming my return. Theme and variation, melody and improvisation – the jazz esthetic makes it all possible. That Muriel Johnson glimpsed and overheard all of this going on in my work still makes me tingle and smile.
And smiling (and tingling) is always a good thing! I agree: poetry and music are kissing cousins; sometimes when Iâ€™m reading poetry (not out loud), the reading experience either begs for music or is made more pleasant if I am listening to musicâ€” especially jazz. Letâ€™s stay then, for now, on the subject of music. I’ve always wanted to ask a poet this question: thereâ€™s a Duke Ellington album titled â€śA Drum is a Woman.â€ť Is drum a woman?
AL YOUNG: Proponents of E-prime, a mob of language vigilantes who persuasively ride shotgun on the verb to be, could step in here and make a splash. The poet in me automatically begins to re-title this astonishingly artful Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn piece, which is part jazz ballet and part concert. Drum As Woman â€“ thatâ€™s how I mightâ€™ve renamed it. But, hey, this isnâ€™t what you asked. So hereâ€™s what I think the composers intended. While some who know only the music and the evocative title of this work may conclude that these two males saw females as beatable instruments â€“ or, worse yet, as objects â€“ I would rush to point out that â€śA Drum Is a Womanâ€ť always struck me as a spiritualized metaphor for the struggle between time and timelessness; silence and sound; to be or not to be. The pause between beats that defines any rhythm works the same way as background or negative space in a drawing or painting. I could argue that Ellington-Strayhorn arrived at their title to express the idea that women â€“ who may be more closely and consciously attuned to circadian or biological or natural rhythms than men â€” carry the beat for our species. The seasons, the tides, phases of the moon, dawn and dusk, summer and winter, autumn and spring, the shedding of leaves in fall, spring blossoms, death and rebirthâ€” such eternal verities prompted the title and sub-motif of Dancing, my very first poem collection. As quiet as itâ€™s kept, these cycles continue to drive and inspire not only my poetry, but poetry all over the world. Remember, too, that we not only play and listen to drumbeats; we feel them as vibration.
Iâ€™m glad you mentioned your first poem collection Dancing. Can you share with us one of your favorite poems in Dancing? Why?
AL YOUNG: First of all, I must say that, in view of where our planet now stands ethically, “Dancing,” the book’s dark multi-sectioned title poem seems to hold up remarkably. Of course I was channeling, as it were, the prevailing zeitgeist of the late 1960s. So much of United States history, relatively recent history included, gets shredded and buried in the ravages of the 24/7 news cycle. The apocalyptic tone of the title poem contrasts sharply with the overriding optimism and hopefulness that characterizes much of my philosophical and esthetic outlook. For this reason, I would have to say that “Dancing in the Laundromat, or Dust: An Ordinary Song” sticks to me still.
As an ongoing patron of neighborhood laundromats, I became conscious decades ago of the altered state we enter while we’re standing around or sitting in a coin laundry, washing clothes. For one thing, the rhythms and tonal cycles of the machines themselves induce a kind of hypnogogic state. For another thing, we â€“ and here I need to shift persons â€“ that is, I not only begin to look at my own garments as comical, or maybe as serio-comic objects; I see everyone’s clothing and linen from an altered perspective. The most hilarious example of this occurred several years back, when I found myself among a group invited to spend a week at Naropa as guests of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. New York-based poet David Henderson shared a duplex with me. Allen Ginsberg lived down the hall. We all met up one afternoon in the residence hall laundry, where we’d each decided to launder our workshop, leisure and reading-lecture clothes. I had actually gone down to the ludicrously costly organic market to purchase my earth-friendly laundry detergent. Rather than let David and Allen hit the machine-dispensers of unfriendly soap, I shared the good stuff with them. Eventually Allen asked if he could put some of his things into the dryer with mine. David got in on this, too. “Sure,” I said, “that way we’ll save money and energy, too.”
Later that evening â€“ I think it was a summertime Friday â€“ I was standing outside my quarters, talking with David about everything in the universe, which tends to be the cross-referential way he and I always talk. Suddenly Allen, all decked out in Bermuda-like shorts and socks, emerged from his room and approached us. When I saw he was wearing my socks, I lost my cool. “Allen,” I said, “those are my socks you’re wearing. I must’ve folded yours by mistake.” “Yes,” he said, laughing, not missing a beat. “I know, but I like your socks. Do you mind?” And off he stepped to some reading or gathering awaiting his arrival. Allen’s cavalier attitude unsettled me. Eyeing my displeasure, David Henderson said, “I know how you feel, man. You don’t want them gay Jewish socks. You want your Brother socks, right?”
Well, that’s the kind of consciousness visits to laundromats induce in me. Thirty years would pass between the time I composed the poem â€“ around 1968, I think â€“ and the night this sock mix-up would jump out. But the spirit of the poem embodies a continuum that still asks: “What is it we wear that never needs washing? / What is it we wear that never wears.” The other day, carrying out some badly needed spring cleaning, I came across a sealed manila envelope that I’ve clearly identified in Magic Marker ink: ALLEN GINSBERG’S SOCKS. If celebrity fetish capitalism is still around when he matures, my son Michael might be able to sell these socks for fun and profit, as we Americans say. Dust and ordinarinessâ€” that’s the poem’s theme. All over the world people love it.
Brother socks! Oh, what a wonderful recollection about the Laundromat! The Laundromat is poetic in itselfâ€” the need for quarters, the shoving the clothes in, the heat of the clothes coming out of the dryer, the people just coming in & the people just leaving, the cars out front with their trunks open; thereâ€™s a lot of material for poetry there.
Now, speaking of material for poetry, can you send us out with an answer to this question: there is a Langston Hughes poem called Daybreak in Alabama that begins: “When I get to be a composer/I’m gonna write me some music about/daybreak in Alabama…â€ť Is there a place somewhere on earth where daybreak there would inspire you enough to “write [you] some [poetry]â€ť about it?
AL YOUNG: Langston Hughes’ “Daybreak in Alabama” first reached me in the form of a song by pianist-vocalist Bob Dorough. It was 1959. The album was Jazz Canto, a collection of poetry & jazz from Pacific Jazz Records in Los Angeles. I was enrolled at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. We’ve entered the emotional zone of geography. I played the thing over and over again. Dorough, who attracted jazz attention when he sang on two Miles Davis albums, also drew national acclaim from an educational TV show he conducted with bassist Ben Riley: Schoolhouse Rock!
I was always struck by the creative image that Hughes’ poem evokes of using music to transform the traditionally racist, segregationist, Ku Klux Klan-plagued into a setting where black and white people could peaceably and humanely dwell and interact. Some make-over! Such is the magic of poem-making, and such was the genius of Langston Hughes.
As for a place today, where daybreak would inspire me, I would have to say right here where I sit at this moment, which happens to be Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area. It just so happens I’m monitoring (is that a funny word, or what?) a rainy daybreak as it unfolds, shade by shade, black and gray turning blue, sky by sky. I think it was St. Augustine who reminded us that every point in space is God-centered. While this may have seemed quaint and lofty back when he set this down on paper, the digital, screen-haunted world we now inhabit reminds us that what we used to regard as peripheries no longer apply; the center is everywhere. And so is the darkness. That we â€“ human beings, I mean â€“ slaughtered far more than 100 million of our own kind during the 20th century tells us how sick and unconscious our behavior has become planet-wide. And now we’re dead set on killing off the planet itself. I write and speak daily against this staggering ignorance, which still supports an economic system that deems it perfectly OK to steal and sell water, one of life’s essentials, to the poor. Torture, physical and mental, prevails. The trashing of future generations is condoned and taken for grantedâ€” and all for what? Money. We’ve even taken to calling money wealth. Wealth is community, health, friendship, creativity, shared love, promise and hope, spiritual unfoldment.
And so it is that I’ll keep on smuggling out my message that human beings are in essence divine, and I’ll do it in the form of poetry, almost making my poems as song-like as I can. How about “Daybreak All Over” as a working title?
Â© Michelle McEwen
David Henderson |Â Â Â© Christopher Felver/Corbis
Allen GinsbergÂ Â | Courtesy Photo
Al Young is the author of more than 22 books, including Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Still and Frames (The Jazz Photography of Charles L. Robinson), Something About the Blues: An Unlikely Collection of Poetry, Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons: Poems 2001-2006, The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000, and Heaven: Poems 1957-1990. Widely anthologized and translated, his work has carried him throughout the world (Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the whole of the United States), and earned him praise from Jane Hirshfield, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the New York Times. A beloved teacher, Young has taught writing, literature and creativity at Stanford, the University of California at Santa Cruz, San JosĂ© State University, and the University of Michigan. From 2005 through 2008 he served as poet laureate of California. The Sea, The Sky, And You, And I, his second poetry & jazz CD, came out this year from Bardo Digital. For more information, click here.