In Tune with the Blues: A Recovered Interview with the Late Al Young, Former California Poet Laureate of California
By Persis KarimJune 10, 2021
PERSIS KARIM: Tell me that story about when you actually met then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and he officially shook your hand as poet laureate of California in 2005.
AL YOUNG: Right away, he offered me a cigar. When I explained that I didn’t smoke, the governor said, “I hope you don’t mind if I do.” He lit up, leaned back, and cut straight to the chase. “Mr. Young,” he began, “why in the world would you want this job? It’s fairly demanding, and it certainly doesn’t pay much.” I had already learned that the poet laureate’s salary boils down to $5,000 a year. Hardly enough to live on. I would be expected to attend six official functions over a two-year period. Moreover, I would be expected to come up with a major project. To a stalwart, longtime freelancer like me, the salary didn’t sound bad. My son Michael later pointed out that I would only be earning $416 a month. “Dad,” he said, “that’s no money!” “Maybe not,” I told him. “But how many poets do you know who get paid $400 a month? Why, that’s $100 a week for being a poet.” I told him, “It would be an honor, and it would also provide an opportunity to give something back to a state that has given me so much. As you know, governor, I emigrated from Michigan to California when I was barely 20.” When I look back at all of the opportunities I’ve enjoyed here, I smile. My creative and intellectual life has certainly flourished in my adopted state.
The governor savored his cigar and listened. Suddenly, he asked: “Mr. Young, what are your thoughts on poetry and politics?” “Well,” I said, “they definitely go together.” “How do you mean?” “Poetry is about everything really.” “Are you political?” he asked outright. “Very political,” I said, “and I intend to get even more political.” “Why is that?” “Because these are very dark times, governor, in case you haven’t noticed.” We went in and out of that groove for several rounds, discussing other matters and then returning to poetry and politics. We talked, for example, about the elaborate vetting the selection committee had given my file and public records. They had called the Department of State to verify that I had actually visited all those countries under their diplomatic auspices — Yugoslavia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, the Czech Republic, India, Bangladesh, Germany, Kuwait, Italy, Kuwait, Bahrain. They had telephoned every university and college, where my biography states I’ve taught. They’d checked with foundation officials at Guggenheim, Fulbright, the NEA, Woodrow Wilson, and Lila Wallace to make sure my résumé was truthful. They had even put in a lot of time trying to verify the claim that I had received two Pushcart Prizes. A massive manila envelope had arrived at my home, which turned out to be a detailed record of my credit history and my standing. I was glad to have paid off all my credit cards early in this century. I mean, I was clean!
“Let’s talk about one of your poems,” the governor said, pulling from his notes the text of “Conjugal Visits,” a ballad I composed in the voice of a woman who paid monthly visits to see her husband imprisoned at San Quentin. Based on the experience of a non-traditional student enrolled in a class I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz in its Community Studies program in the 1980s — and at a time when administrators at San Quentin were experimenting with humane conjugal visits, the poem has become popular. I remember how it made me laugh out loud when I was writing it in London, where I spent a lot of time during the late 1990s. Governor Schwarzenegger began to recite by heart the core of the poem, the lines that go:
All these Black men crammed up in jail,
all this I.Q. on ice,
while governments, bank presidents, the Mafia
don’t think twice.
They fly in dope and make real sure
they hands stay nice and clean.
That chump-change Reece made on the street
— what’s that supposed to mean?
Having quoted these lines, the governor pushed his pages aside and leaned across the desk. “You wouldn’t think I’d like a poem like this,” he said. I assured him that he’d taken me by surprise. “Well, first of all,” he said, “I follow hip-hop. And, Mr. Young, I, too, am for prison reform.” I understood the subtext of the poem I’d written to be the colossal sums my state and country can raise to keep a single man or woman locked up or locked down. Tuition at Stanford, for instance, runs close to $40,000 a year. Prisoner maintenance is running close to $50,000 per inmate now. Meanwhile, here in California, and all around the country, schools, community services, social services, arts programs of every kind — they’re all being cut. No funds available. I knew what “Conjugal Visits” was advocating by way of prison reform, but I wasn’t sure what my governor meant.
While the blues and music have been a constant theme and trope in your work, Something About the Blues dedicates itself to the sound of the blues almost as a return to origins for you. What is it about the blues that has such a hold on you, on Americans?
Your question leads me into so many juicy directions. That’s because you can look at it from so many angles: musically, socially, sociologically, psychologically, aesthetically, regionally, and culturally. It’s dizzying. Let me say I hear, feel, see, and experience the blues as culture, as the glue that holds together all of America’s music.
I came into this world in 1939 on the Gulf Coast, Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Born at a time when the world was moving into the kind of institutionalized darkness that characterizes the present, how can I not be conscious of the cultural implications and effects of the blues? That might sound strange to younger readers, but let me explain. While I always did engage myself with everything going on around me, I was aware, even as a small child, that something odd was taking place. The United States formally entered World War II after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, so that coastal air raid alerts colored my opening years. At the sound of the air raid sirens at night, my father and mother obediently turned off the white incandescent lights and lamps. Dad, an avid tinkerer and mechanic, set up special lighting fixtures with blue bulbs for such emergencies. I loved the light those bulbs made. Blue cool things; everything changed color. The mood of our little house softened. When we kids played on the floor, when our parents listened to records or blues tinged with music on the radio, it all felt perfect. This is the sense in which I literally associated the blues with an actual color and the mood it cast. My father loved Woody Herman — “the band that plays the blues” — and later, my mother, much later, explained that she and my father had tried to shelter their children from what she called “the real blues.” She thought they were too rough, too crude and low class for kids to hear. So the blues we heard in our house were toned down. It was okay for the bands to play the blues, or for Johnny Mercer to sing “Blues in the Night,” or for all those people who want to play boogie-woogie on the piano. But the nasty, get-down-in-the-alley blues — she didn’t think it was anything we needed to hear. Still, whether I heard it played with words or not, the powerful, sneaky force and tone of the blues affected me early and deeply.
It sounds as if music was your entry to poetry, and the blues was a very specific entry into your own musicality as a poet.
Yes, blues are a kind of vernacular music — the term pops up routinely these days at a time when so much about culture is closely studied and scrutinized. Bluesologists, ethnomusicologists, and others with an academic or, in any case, professional interest in the blues, seem practically chock-a-block. But, growing up in the small-town and rural South of the 1940s and 1950s, the separation between the ways people actually spoke and conversed and the way they sounded when they sang everyday music or the blues was only scrim-thin. And musical categories were blurred. Sure, I read the word “Race” on the labels of some of the 78rpm records in the unruly collection my dad had built up. An early reader, I thought it meant music you could run and race to. But the hillbilly record, the smooth pop records, the classical records, and the gospel stuff was mixed in there, too. I got the idea that music was something like the talk I heard all around me; it was all kind of mix-and-match. You said things and you played; you listened and you memorized.
Can you talk a little about your own background with music and how it informed your interest in poetry? And do you think the delineation of these two artistic genres is artificial, or are they merely siblings in a family of art?
Like my father, I played tuba, later studying trumpet in high school. At college — the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor — I took up guitar and singing. It proved lucrative. My Friday night gig at a coffee house, the Promethean, earned me $35 to $40. My room rent was $35. I usually gigged Friday and Saturday nights. You can do the math. I was doing all right. I worked, too, in bands that included folk guitarist Bill McAdoo, guitarist-trumpeter-clarinetist Felix Pappalardi (he later founded the 1960s band Cream), Joe Dassin (he became a national hero and matinee idol in France, where his New York–born movie director father, Jules Dassin, had taken refuge during the grueling McCarthy era), and Bernie Krause. Bernie, a guitarist and keyboardist, took Erik Darling’s place in the Weavers, the folk-singing group co-founded by Pete Seeger. He later hit it big with Beaver & Krause. Now he is one of the world’s leading recordists and archivists of natural sound. If you Google all these guys, you’ll get the idea that each of us considered songs to be a form of poetry.
I remember doing a gig with Joe Dassin for which he trained me to sing the French lyrics of the great Parisian songwriter-philosopher Georges Brassens. Joe usually worked with his French friend, Alain Giraud, who couldn’t make the gig that night. Above all, Brassens’ songs were poems — straight up and lovely. Memorizing them gave me the same pleasure as memorizing the words to one of the bluesy chain gang work songs that folklorist Alan Lomax had recorded live at Parchman Farm, the infamous Mississippi penitentiary: “Well, Katie left Memphis / with a hundred men. / When she got to Nashville, she didn’t have but ten.” Now, is this beautiful poetry, or what?
Don’t forget that even as late as the middle of the last century, households thought nothing of sitting out on the front porch or the front steps or out in the yard, if you had one, to sing and make music. Somebody might know a few chords on a guitar, or you’d wrap some wax paper around a comb and make a kazoo you could hum into and play. Or somebody might take an oatmeal box or some pots and pans and play them like drums.
And so there is a lot of natural crossover between written poetry and music?
Because we largely study and regard poetry as text, as written symbols on a page or screen, we’ve forgotten that it begins with the body and voice and physical movement. Poetry, song, and dance share a common, ancient origin. It all fits together. You moved and stepped and swayed and spun to chanted words, to melodies. Clearly our ancestors didn’t get poetry or their ideas about poetry from a college classroom or a writing workshop. And, I’m convinced, they knew a whole lot more about the healing and curative, the instructional, preserving, and transforming powers of poetry than we do today.
Can you tell me more about your own origins as a musician?
When, as a child, I realized that music layered and lay at the heart and soul of everything around me, I knew life had to be worth living. Mind you, I arrived at this realization in the middle of the 20th century, when ordinary, everyday people still sang and played music to entertain, console, celebrate, affirm, and express themselves. And sacred idiom was something else again. You didn’t routinely walk around with an iPod in your pocket and an earbud planted in your head. At every opportunity, we made our own music — for better or worse. How can I forget the warm, muddy morning I got baptized? No sooner had we kids popped up from beneath that river water, dried ourselves off and dressed, than the preacher let us back into the church, where a playing band up near the pulpit awaited us: saxophone, trombone, trumpet, piano, drums.
What was that song the band played to greet us back into the fold when we re-entered church that morning? Was it “The Old Rugged Cross”? No, it was “Amazing Grace,” Englishman John Newton’s 1779 hymn, which has become a perennial. Of course I didn’t know then what I know now about John Newton, a slave trader, who said the words to the hymn came to him in the wake of a storm at sea during which one of his shipmates was washed overboard. Newton understood that he had been saved by the grace of God. All the same, it would be years before he abandoned the slave trade to publish his lyric and enter the clergy. He had to first make sure his money was straight. I grew up in the clutch or clutches of such abiding musical traditions. When it came to public speaking and writing, our teachers emphasized eloquence. Somehow it didn’t take me long to understand that eloquence and rhetoric could quickly turn corny if you didn’t have a good ear.
As I’m writing — be it poetry, fiction, an article, an essay, a letter — I sound out the words once I’ve set them down. It helps me measure meaning, texture, rhythm, and sense. Not surprisingly, I’m always listening for musicality. By “musicality,” I mean the time-breathed physicality of melody. I lean toward the melodious. Once I tap into the melody, harmony, and counterpoint fall into place. I’m not talking just about patterning the words themselves, but the ideas or emotions they wish to express as well as the tempo and key of the whole piece to which they’re dancing.
I wonder what made you choose to be a poet instead of a blues singer?
Singing is something I have always done. It’s how I got through college. After I moved from Michigan to the West Coast — Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Fresno, San José — I continued singing. But all the while, I was writing. I thought of myself as a writer. From grade school through adulthood, I have always edited publications — the school newspaper, the college literary magazine, my own underground journals in the 1960s, and later, working with Ishmael Reed, the multicultural arts magazines known as Yardbird Reader and Quilt. What nudged me from coffeehouse and nightclub performances as a singer and guitarist was the fact that you can stay at home and write. Unlike a performance artist or a photographer, you don’t have to be present on the scene. You didn’t have to endure drunken requests night after night or hear anyone shouting, “Play ‘Melancholy Baby’!” Also, as awful as the literary life can become, showbiz life seemed worse. Back then, writing seemed the dignified, soulful way to go. You must consider, too, that in the 1950s and 1960s writers were still cultural heroes; it was in the 1970s, rock and pop stars had firmly replaced novelists, essayists, journalists, and poets.
I know besides your interest in music, jazz, blues, you’ve always had a keen interest in politics. How has politics found a natural ally in the blues?
Politics will certainly give you the blues, especially if you’ve been around for as long as I have. Remember, too, that I dwell in the United States. For all the talk you hear these days about a post-racial America — and all you creative writing majors can take note that I am expressing a point of view — very little here has changed since the days of Huckleberry Finn. Notice that the imperial occupations the United States stages at great expense to taxpayers “inconvenience” people of color: brown people, black people — rarely Europeans anymore. Just as we dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and not on German or Italy, so we’re torturing and slaughtering civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bombing Palestinians in Gaza. Did the United States government look the other way while thousands perished in New Orleans? What does Hurricane Katrina have to do with terrorism, which used to fly by the name of communism? Celebrated, award-winning former poet laureate I may be, yet when I go out for an after-dark stroll, I’m sometimes regarded with suspicion and sometimes with fear. Young women and some men will often cross to the other side of the street at my approach. Is this enough to give anybody the blues, or what?
How does race play into both your interest in music and your awareness of what has become of the United States in the past several decades?
How can any person of color not know that race is pretty much on people’s minds all the time in the United States? If, for example, the governor of California appoints me the state’s poet laureate and my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, waits for three years before running an article recognizing me as such, then what am I to think? If no one at Stanford University, where I taught for the better part of a decade, says anything at all to me, then what can I conclude? Race is elementary. The free labor that got our country off to its giant start is also known as slavery. What a legacy! What doesn’t get mentioned by its right name in this national scenario is capitalism. To make capitalism work, you always have to have a bottom dog, someone working for next to nothing; a nigger, as it were. Look around us. Who’s working for next to nothing? Where are your affordable products manufactured? If coffee beans grew in Europe, would the industry that gives us lattés and cappuccinos on demand go on proliferating so recklessly? As an African American writer, I experience the world differently than other writers. What I bring back from this experience I like to think may be of value to others interested in human culture.
What is the most exciting thing you see happening now in American poetry?
The academy has practically annihilated the technique and spirit of the lyric as it legitimized prose. To me, too much contemporary poetry is actually prose chopped up into skinny lines, but when the lines are breathable, they’re comfortably deliverable. So maybe I’m the one with the problem. As I’ve said already, I like to err on the side of music. Maybe it was smooth-talking, long-winded, leaf-stroking Walt Whitman who sent American poets off in this prosaic direction. I always thought Whitman picked up his breathless licks from the Old Testament and the Bible. Never having been a member of any inner circle, I find it impossible to theorize meaningfully about what’s going on in contemporary United States poetry, much less fathom it altogether. I do know, though, that the baby buds of poetry bloom and blossom and flourish, and that poetry moves — and, to quote Kenneth Rexroth in a distant interview with poet David Meltzer, “usually it moves on.”
As a teacher and mentor, what’s your sense of what is possible as a poet and in representing poetry as one branch of artistic creativity?
Long before Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointment, I had more or less taken it upon myself to spread the good news, the gospel that is poetry. For some reason, I have always wanted people to understand that we are far more than mechanisms encased in flesh. The very air and light surrounding us is alive, not only alive with energy, but also alive with meaning. Poetry, of course, distills such meaning. As poet laureate, I traveled the length and breadth of the Golden State, making sure to get to farming and rural communities, meeting citizen artists, performing my work, reminding Californians that poetry is crucial to human survival.
Although you are principally a poet, you’re also a novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. Can you talk a little about the ways these genres bleed into each other? And what are you working on that is not poetry now?
Basically it goes like this: when I have to express something that takes place in time, I usually resort to prose narrative — essay, anecdote, fiction. To express what takes place outside of time, poetry becomes the vehicle. Of course, poetry needn’t always be cast in lines and stanzas; sometimes it takes on the disguise of prose. The test always is to read the page aloud. Do I wish to dramatize, analyze, sympathize? Am I telling a story or tapping back into the ecstatic? I’m always making choices. Whenever what I have to say falls to poetry, a bell sounds and I hear in my pulsating head the sound of an orchestra tuning up backstage.
Although you hail from a different part of the United States, you’ve made California your home. How does California find its way into your soul, your music, and your poetry? Do you consider yourself a California poet?
Having lived here since I became of legal age, I am indeed a California poet. What does this mean? What is California? For many, the answers to such questions go back to 1849. The Gold Rush — does this stand for California’s beginnings? How about the Mexican Empire that preceded the Gold Rush? What about Spain? What about the indigenous peoples who loved and cared for this remarkable land before it was invaded and appropriated? Mountain, ocean, desert, flatland, big rivers, streams, waterfalls — this is the California I know and love and ponder continuously. Naturally, I write about it by name. But always, it is present in my work the way footprints or breath-prints are present, the way the heart that beats still lives. In future, if they ever look at the breadth and depth of my work, readers may get around to measuring and assessing my affection for California. Contemporarily, when I point out that California itself is named after a fictitious Black woman, an amazon, that the cities of San José and Los Angeles (El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula) were founded by Spanish speakers whose ethnicity would today be considered Black — well, today, hearing this, people either laugh or shake their heads in confusion.
What do you see taking place in the blues and poetry scene today that interests you, and how do you see the blues as a continuous, if not essential, influence in your writing?
The Blues Don’t Change is the title I gave the New and Selected Poems collection that Louisiana State University Press brought out in 1982. Like all poets, I have a hard time resisting wordplay when it throws itself at your feet. Is the verb “change” transitive or intransitive? Let the reader decide. When the late blues master Albert King sang “The Blues Don’t Change,” he was praising the staying power and cold-blooded permanence of the blues and the blues state of mind. I borrowed King’s song title and boogied on off.
Blues, long recognized as America’s root music, seeps into all creative music, no matter the genre, growing out of the United States. The blues root is radical; it’s an irreducible radical, as they would say in math. You can’t break it down any further. It’s the nit and grit of American music: a pentatonic cry that shoots out pellet-like through every musical idiom we call American — folk, spiritual, gospel, work-song, pop, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, soul, funk, rock, country, bluegrass, classical, jazz, and the ever-shifting fields, meadows, and gullies of actual blues songs.
In addition to being what mathematicians call an irreducible radical, the blues can also behave like a free radical. In biochemistry, as you know, a free radical is often depicted as an unpaired electron that runs rife through a chemical environmental hooking itself up, desperately, recklessly with paired electrons, thereby causing rust, explosions, cancer, we don’t know what all. Whenever I think about the US giving the blues to the rest of the world, this image comes up. I can’t help it; I’m still a poet. Blues singers will come and go, but the blues — that primal attitude and situation — will persist for as long as people keep on acting human and acting out the human condition. I could say the same for poetry.
Do you mean that poetry speaks to some kind of basic human function or need? A kind of song of the human condition?
Poetry is, well, radical, too. You can’t make it behave and move in the straight line you want it to move in. Because it’s alive, poetry is unpredictable. Right now, all over the world, young people are writing poetry like crazy. Not only writing it, but emailing the stuff, posting it on websites and blogs, printing up homemade chapbooks and getting them around, recording CDs and MP3s of poetry, packing into poetry clubs to catch and do spoken word, poetry, conscious rap, and straight-up page-to-stage poems. There’s plenty that needs to be said. I read and listen to as much as I can of what’s going on right now. Sure, the English and writing teacher in me sometimes wants to grab some of the young and wannabes and explain to them that line breaks aren’t about typography, or that declarative statements one after the other do not a sound poetic statement make, or that prose is prose, or that a keen feel for rhythm and an ear for musicality will often trump the overpowering urge to rhyme like a giggling fool with hiccups. But when I listen to what they have to say, so many young street and unacknowledged poets give me goosebumps. Poetry and its soulmate, music, flow freely through the veins of the young, our true and only treasure.
Persis Karim is a poet, editor, and professor at San Francisco State University where she holds the Neda Nobari Chair and directs the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies.
Banner image: "Untitled" by Rookuzz.. is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.
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