BIOGRAPHY | FAQ
Photo: Joseph Robinson
Born May 31, 1939 at Ocean Springs, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast near Biloxi, Al Young grew up in the rural South of villages and small towns, and in urban, industrial Detroit. From 1957-1960 he attended the University of Michigan, where he co-edited Generation, the campus literary magazine. In 1961 he emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area. Settling at first in Berkeley, he held a variety of colorful jobs (folksinger, lab aide, disk jockey, medical photographer, clerk typist, employment counselor) before graduating with honors from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in Spanish. His marriage in 1963 to technical writer and editor Arline Young was blessed with one child: their son Michael, born in 1971. From 1969-1976 he was Edward B. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford near Palo Alto, where he lived and worked for three decades. In the Y2K year 2000 he returned to Berkeley, where he continues to freelance.
Young has taught poetry, fiction writing and American literature at Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Santa Cruz, U.C. Davis, Bowling Green State University, Foothill College, the Colorado College, Rice University, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, the University of Arkansas, San JosĂ© State University, where he was appointed the 2002 Lurie Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, and Charles University in the Czech Republic under the auspices of the Prague Summer Programs. In the spring of 2003 he taught poetry at Davidson College (Davidson, NC), where he was McGee Professor in Writing. In the fall of 2003, as the first Coffey Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, he taught a poetry workshop. From 2003-2006 he served on the faculty of Cave Canem‘s summer workshop retreats for African American poets.
His honors include Wallace Stegner, Guggenheim, Fulbright, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, the PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction, the PEN-USA Award for Non-Fiction, two American Book Awards, two Pushcart Prizes, two New York Times Notable Book of the year citations, an Arts Council Silicon Valley Fellowship, the Stephen Henderson Achievement Award for Poetry, Radio Pacifica’s KPFA Peace Prize, the Glenna Luschei Distinguished Poetry Fellowship, and the Richard Wright Award for Excellence in Literature. At its May 2009 commencement, Whittier College conferred on him its highest honor: the Doctor ofÂ Humane Letters degree. On October 4, 2011 at the University of North Carolina’s Historic Players Theatre, Al Young received the 2011 Thomas Wolfe Prize.
Young’s many books include novels, collections of poetry, essays, memoirs and anthologies. His work has appeared in Paris Review, Ploughshares, Essence, the New York Times, Chicago Review, Seattle Review, Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature, Chelsea, Rolling Stone, Gathering of the Tribes, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, and the Oxford Anthology of African American Literature.
In the 1970’s he wrote film scripts for producer Joseph Strick, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor. In the 1980’s and 90’s, as a cultural ambassador for the United States Information Agency, he traveled throughout South Asia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. In 2001 he traveled to the Persian Gulf to lecture on American and African American literature and culture in Kuwait and in Bahrain for the U.S. Department of State. Subsequent lecture tours have taken him to Southern Italy in 2004, and back to India in 2005. His poetry and prose have been translated into Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, German, Urdu, Korean, and other languages. Blending story, recitation and song, Young often performs with musicians. In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him Poet Laureate of California.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Why do you post so much stuff to your website?
As the incoming poet laureate, I was asked to declare a project. The idea I proposed was a website that would serve as a resource for students, teachers, aspiring writers and people all over the world. The Governor’s Office and the California Arts Council liked this idea. The CAC supported the project so wholeheartedly that they went out and raised enough funding to make it happen. Clearly, my interests are diffuse. Sometimes I think I might have been one of the last liberal arts students from the University of Michigan who was taught and trained to mine and synthesize a range ofÂ disciplines for information. Some natural science, some social science, math, history, philosophy, literature, language, music, the arts — everything, absolutely everything interests me. This used to be true of writers in general. Not anymore. Writers major in writing, whether or not they go to school. History majors study history. Taxi in the influence and techniques of controlled mass media, then you begin to understand why I tend to see so-called attention deficit disorder as a mass phenomenon. At the heart of the problem is the emerging dearth of curiosity, a sense of wonder. Why look up at the actual moon when you can Google it? I post to my site everything that interests me, stuff that I think might open the minds of visiting viewers — or, better yet, prompt them to think, reconsider, or question.
Who are your favorite writers?
In Contemporary Poets, put out by St Martin’s Press, Al Young says his poetry is “characterized by a marked personal and lyrical mysticism as well as a concern with social and spiritual problems of contemporary man in a technological environment that grows hourly more impersonal and unreal. My favorite themes are those of love, the infinite changeability of the world as well as its eternal changelessness, and the kind of meaning (both private and universal) that flowers out of everyday life. My influences in general have been Black culture and popular speech (Southern rural and urban U.S.) and music.
“‘Al goes on to put his finger on some of those influences,’ Brother O.O. Gabugah tells us: ‘African American folk and popular music, Caribbean music of both English and Spanish speaking peoples; American Indian poetry and song; Hindu philosophy.’ And when it comes to talking about poets he admired and maybe learned a little something from, the list of names he dropped includes the poetry of the Bible, Li Po, Rabindranath Tagore, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Federico GarcĂa Lorca, early T.S. Eliot, Leopold Senghor, NicolĂˇs GuillĂ©n, Blaise Cendrars, Kenneth Rexroth, LeRoi Jones, Nicanor Parra and Denise Levertov.’ From knowing him, however, I could add plenty other names to that list, even tho I know how much Al hates putting lists like this together. The worst thing you can ask him is who his favorite poets are. He probably wouldn’t mind if I just squeezed in Omar Khayyam, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Lee Masters, Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, Gabriela Mistral, e.e. cummings, Kenneth Patchen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Julia Fields, Bob Kaufman and Victor HernĂˇndez Cruz.
Who drew the portrait of you that graces your website?
Theresa D’Onofrio, the California Arts Council‘s graphic design specialist. She oversees the publishing of CAC brochures, reports and publications. Theresa also oversees elements of CAC web site design.
Â© Carolyn Clebsch
When did your appointment as State Poet Laureate end?
My extended term as poet laureate expired in October 2008. Some history: On June 11, 2002, Governor Gray Davis appointed Quincy T. Troupe to the position. Mr. Troupe briefly served without Senate confirmation. In 2005 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed me California’s first official poet laureate. It took the state senate 15 months to confirm my appointment, which they did in March of 2006. For this reason, 15 additional months were appended to the appointment. On November 13, 2008 Governor Schwarzenegger appointed Carol Muske-Dukes to succeed me as California’s poet laureate. Professor of English and Creative Writing at USC, she is a first-rate poet, essayist and novelist who will bring to the position fresh energy, vision and panache.
Do you think writing can be taught?
No, I don’t. However, a skilled, sensitive teacher may be able to usefully advise a gifted or talented aspiring writer. I never tire of reminding students that you are never competing with anyone except yourself. There is, too, a period in the development of a writer in which, like musicians, you build up a dependable, personalized store-house of phrasings and licks acquired through reading, listening and note-keeping. Sometimes I think it’s almost impossible to discourage a strong-willed, talentless student. And I have lived long enough to see mediocre writing students from my classes and workshops triumph in their persistence while the gifted fall by the wayside.
What’s the big deal about creativity?
Discovery — this is the “big deal” about creativity. “The purpose of all art,” as American essayist-novelist-playwright James Baldwin famously observed, “is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” Ordinarily we do not see or feel beyond what we’re accustomed to seeing or feeling. Artists — by modern tradition, anyway — keep one foot in the beyond. This is why creative people often appear to be “ahead” of their time when, actually, they are very much of their time. When in 1985 Canadian poet-novelist Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, could she have been consciously or deliberately predicting the theocratic threat to North American democracy that would emerge in the 21st century? Open-minded and inwardly passionate, the creative person — artist, scientist, teacher, parent, auto mechanic, hunter-gatherer — explores and plunges ahead to find out what waits at the top or bottom of the steps, or just around the corner.
Photo: Al Young
Haven’t the movies and hi-tech media supplanted books, the printed word, and old-fashioned storytelling?
Yes and no. Bombarded with graphic and visual imagery, many people, who do their reading on-screen, regard printed matter as an adjunct to watching something. Because it is easy to confound data and information with knowledge, training routinely passes for education. Giving thought to some matter or problem isn’t the same as following instructions or acting on orders or command. The reason I have dutifully hyperlinked so many of my literary references in this biography and FAQ page is that I would be naive to expect viewers who didn’t grow up with books in a bricks-and-mortar library as I did to know much of anything about writers or cultural movements or historical developments to which I so casually and matter of factly allude as I speak. When an unaware viewer clicks into a link, she or who may glimpse a bit of what I’m talking about. We dwell in an age when books are respected (even people who don’t read often ache to write a book), but film and video is revered. I’ve lived long enough to know a lot of stuff I think needs to be passed along to others. Figuring out how best to do this forces me to experiment. The human voice and vibratory frequencies we emit without knowing it play a big role in oral storytelling; not the funded kind. The listener, the reader, the viewer — each of us becomes an irreducible and essential part of the storytelling process. So, re-phrasing this answer to this question, I would say: No and yes. No good story ever needs to wait around for somebody to film it.
Haven’t search engines replaced reference books?
For the well-trained but not necessarily educated of the wired world, the answer of course is yes. But it’s harder to flip through a search engine than it is an actual reference book, which, like the plucking of a Tarot card, sometimes results in a stunning, serendipitous result. As the early dialectically sensitive film editors of Russian used to note: Two opposing images, or two opposing ideas create a third.
Do you think of yourself as a Black writer, or just a writer?
Both — and then some. These momentary identities we take on have fascinated me all my life. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois‘ landmark study of Negro Americans, the eminent sociologist and social activist spoke of “double-consciousness,” as he famously put it. To be Black and American and to hold fast to both identities — that was the catch, that was the trick. Yet in this web site of mine you’ll find Al Young referred to as a Mississippi writer, a writer with roots in Detroit and Michigan and the midwest, an international traveler, a mystic, a realist — the transmutations roll on. After Luciano Federighi began to translate novels of mine into Italian, I traveled to his lovely country to give readings and to perform. Sometiems the posters advertising my appearances would refer to me as a Black writer, other times they would refer to me as Jazz writer. Curious, I asked Luciano what lay behind such terminology. He smiled and said, “If we advertise you as an American writer, perhaps a few people will come. If we say Black writer, then more people may show up. But — and this was 20 years ago — if we say Jazz writer, then a lot of people will come to see you.” As the current poet laureate of California, I understand perfectly.
Photo: Mary Beth Barber
What is your advice to a writer who is just beginning?
Read, read, read. Listen, listen, listen. Observe, observe, observe. Think, think, think. Imitate, imitate, imitate. Review, review, review. Reflect, reflect, reflect. Compare, compare, compare. Look at things from the viewpoint of others, especially from the angle of those whose behavior and beliefs you neither understand nor respect. Get on good terms with the dreamy side of yourself: the side that blooms and blossoms mornings, the side that sheds the burden of “you” (the all-controlling ego-self) that lets go when it’s time to nap or fall asleep. I love to take notes when I find myself in these mind-states, even while the pen or pencil is falling from my grasp, or the keyboard grows difficult to navigate. Dictating into a tape or digital recorder, I know I’m going to hear my voice lose track of what I think I wish to say. Keep diaries and notebooks with yourself as audience. Write to the eyes and ears of the someone or someones you think you know. Never forget that storytelling and poem-making is natural, but there is nothing at all natural about writing; it is an acquired skill. If you don’t practice singing, if you don’t practice on your saxophone, your viola, your guitar, your trumpet, you lose your chops. Listen, listen, listen some more. Read, read, read some more. Learn from this and from everyone and every moment of what you’re conditioned to think of as “your” life. Like a stand-up impersonator, learn to speak and write in as many voices as you can handle. Revise with joyfulness, paying close attention to the order in which you have set down words. Thoughtless syntax taxes readers’ patience as it sabotages the sense and meaning of what you intend to say.
Why are you so hard on present-tense narration?
Temporal perch is the term I’ve invented to describe how the teller of a story stands on a given shore, or in a given place, facing or reflecting upon the on-rushing stream of time. Traditionally, stories are served up in past tense. Something has happened, and now I, the teller, am going to narrate it. Looking upstream and downstream and right where I stand, I’m going to tell the story artfully, strategically and dramatically, omitting certain details for now and bringing them in later when they will serve dramatic purpose. The idea is to hold rapt the listener or reader. As the story flows unfolds and flows, sometimes I might have to swim or rush back downstream to fill you in on some events or information you need to to make sense of what is ongoing. Restricted to the present-tense, a story needs a skillful and artful writer to give listeners and readers the impression that the present action or situation has blossomed meaningfully from seeds sown in the past. Present-tense narration, used unskillfully, resembles script directions or, worse, steam billowing up from a lidless, boiling pot.
Why do you say the first-person I-voice is a fiction?
While we do know about the unreliability of the first-person narrator, we don’t always recognize that there is actually no such thing as an I. It’s a social construct. The I you think you are boils down to a combination of ideas you have about yourself tangled up with ideas about yourself that community and society feed you. This so-called I is always changing, too. The notion you have of yourself in 2010 differs from the notion you clung to in 1999. We like to think of ourselves as being sealed up in skin. I always think about the food, the water, the clothing, the shelter, the heat, the services, the care, the wonder, the love, the reassurance, the air, the light, and everything else I need that this I in itself simply cannot generate. Ancient ancestors of ours understood this. Capitalism can’t afford to have us grasp it. We sell this gorgeous planet right out from under the feet of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How pathetic and destructive to buy altogether into the concept of I and me and mine. Poetry, music, drama and all the arts tell us over and over how intimately and intrinsically interwoven we are. That’s why, when I write or speak, I wear the I-voice as a loose garment.
Why have you written so much about October?
I love October, the sound and rhythm of it. I love all the amazing adventures and misadventures I’ve experienced in this exquisite turn-around month, when summer turns autumn, sometimes with a whisper of winter. In this hemisphere, October takes from us time and light, but stores them for April retrieval. October teaches me what Ralph Waldo Emerson learned from watching the movements of a little bird: There is a beyond beyond all beyonds. Eventually I’ll come out with a whole book called The October Variations.
Why do you always say fiction, so-called non-fiction (memoir, autobiography, biography and history) are all fiction?
Once you select from a memory or experience certain details, but leave out others, then you are fictionalizing. you’re making it up. In even the most painstakingly researched and documented narratives and accounts, this is how the story goes. The root problem of course is language itself, which snaps off into disjointed fragments a “reality” that seems to be staggeringly continuous. With this in mind, I enjoy the challenge of getting at truth through speech that crackles and bristles with inspiration and imagination — and this holds whether I’m telling a story or making a poem. Fiction comes from fingere, which means to fashion, to make, to make up, to give shape. I learned this in the Latin class I took back at UC Berkeley in the 1960’s. From fingere we also get figment, figure, feign, and effigy. By now you get my drift.
Leaving Santa Barbara
“The purpose of all art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” — James Baldwin