The City of Berkeley, California will honor poet and writer, teacher and essayist, screenwriter, singer and professor Al Young next week. Tuesday, February 5 is Al Young Day in the progressive burg on the East Bay, which is a start, and a great one, for all the guys listed above. Indeed, Young was also Poet Laureate of the State of California, has worked as an editor and activist and musicologist, and so probably deserves at least a week. Poets, said Shelley, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, so it's good and right that Berkeley is acknowledging one of our most important, a legislator of careful articulation, exuberant celebration, urgent historical and cultural memory-keeping and an all-around life force whose voice has shouted, hummed along, led the chorus and yet always sung its own story.
I hope you can tell I am a fan, a guy who lives part-time in a Berkeley of the mind, where poets are revered, while residing in Orange County, which is maybe the opposite of Berkeley. (I travel a lot, in my head. I sometimes explain my little canyon community in the foothills of Eastern Orange County as the Topanga Canyon of OC. Weirdos, real imaginary friends, Fahrenheit 451 talking books. Wishful thinking, but that's the best kind.)
Al Young is a hero of mine, wherever I am! He is a mentor, a political activist scholar jazz-cat who can offer you the “real story” at the drop of an anecdote. It's been this reader-writer's good luck to have sat in on dozens of lectures, poetry readings and round table discussions featuring Al, who is almost always the singular attraction, with something to tell, an analysis to offer, a joke or gossip or quotation or song to offer by way of making his point. He is in some ways an old-fashioned person of letters, which is to say that he has a CV as long as your arm, publication and prizes in every genre, a teacher much beloved and, yes, former state Poet Laureate, appointed by, seriously, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Young is African American. He was born in Mississippi, lived in Detroit, attended the University of Michigan, moved to San Francisco, and graduated from Cal. He went on to be a Stegner Fellow. Along the way, he worked as a singer, disk jockey, medical photographer, in other words, did all kinds of jobs and met all kinds of people, always writing and singing and telling stories, whether for the US Department of State or PEN USA or as an academic fellow for all kinds of academies and institutions.
But I don't think that's why he's being honored by Berkeley, and why you should write “Al Young Day” on your calendar, watch the video clip below, listen to the public radio story, buy and read his books, and maybe share an Al Young poem, as I will in a moment, with a friend, work colleague, fellow student or stranger. No, it's because I can think of few others whose life and work more completely answers the need, urgent and real, for citizen-poet in our gorgeous, troubled, big-hearted democracy. Which needs a poet on a Tuesday, and the promise of laurels for its truth-tellers and music makers.
Sure, Al Young has already been honored, feted, celebrated, including in the civic venue with inclusion of his poem “Who I am in Twilight” on Berkeley's famous and wonderful Addison Street poetry walk, where all kinds of poems are memorialized at your feet. Which suggests another way to be introduced, or reintroduced to Mr. Young:The terrific anthology of poems from that bit of concrete poetry (ha ha), the Walk of Literary Fame near the city's City Hall.
A few years ago NPR interviewed Al on the occasion of a recent collection, a good place to start because it includes a CD of Al doing his thing. The audio clip HERE includes him reciting that poem you can stand and read on the sidewalk, with him talking about his favorite poets, maybe teaching the interviewer a bit about the art of people's poetry vs. Modernist, academic poetry. But check out how Al slides generously into professor mode, albeit in his deep, mellifluous, welcoming voice. Indeed, voice is Al's ace in the hole, or voices. He is a narrator, a one-man chorus. He makes things universal, without compromising on the details. Check out the story he tells about another poem, “Conjugal Visits,” (from a collection of the same name) and how he lives and writes about his progressive liberationist politics, even as an ambassador of the
State. No, make that especially as ambassador of what is best about our state, and our country. So, to read along as you listen to him recite it, here's the poem, which so evocatively answers in the idiom of our original American art form the beauty and horror of our original American sin and makes holy the struggle, in travelogue and simile and image and prayer.
Who I am in Twilight
Like John Lee Hooker, like Lightnin' Hopkins, like the blues himself. The Trickster Sonnet, hoedown, the tango, the cante jondo. Like blessed spirituals and ragas, custom-made. Like sagas. Like stories. Like slick, slow, sly, soliloquies sliding into dramas. Like crime and punishment. Like death and birth. Canal Street, New Orleans. Like the easy, erasable, troubled voices a whirling ceiling fan makes in deep summer night in hot, un-heavenly hotels. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee. Like the Mississippi River so deep and wide, you couldn't get a letter to the other side. Like Grand Canyon. Like Yosemite National Park. Like beans and cornbread. Like rest and recreation. Like love and like. I know we last. I know our bleeding stops.
And here's a short, perfect YouTube video clip HEREof Al at the Watershed Poetry Conference, doing his spoken word blues poetry performance of another piece from Something About the Blues. I love his farewell encouragement to the audience, as he bounces off to the next gig, the next classroom: “Let's go out in daylight and dream the world!” I haven't even mentioned his musical memoirs, including an appreciation of Charles Mingus, or his five (!) novels. A good place to start there is Who is Angelina?, reissued as part of its California Fiction series by the University of California Press. And teachers, students, scholars and lay readers know about and treasure his contributions to the first volume of an amazing popular scholarship project,The Literature of California, a survey of all kinds of traditions of writing across genre and history and culture. There's more, and most of it is documented on his terrific website as Al is the consummate communicator bard, hip about multi-media and photography and blogging, too. All of it is, in his words, “spirit.” If you're anywhere near Berkeley City Hall on Tuesday night, show up to cheer for the people's poet and hear recited the official proclamation. Here's mine: Hooray for Al Young! Hooray for Berkeley and California! Hooray for the Blues!
Something About the Blues: An Unlikely Collection of Poetry (with CD), Al Young, Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 224 pps., $22.95
Addison Street Anthology. The Berkeley Poets Walk, Robert Hass, ed., Heyday, 224 pps., Out of print, but available used.
Who is Angelina?, Al Young, UC Press, 280 pps, Out of print, but available used.
The Literature of California, Vol 1., Hicks, et al, UC Press, 870 pps., $32.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.