California Poet Laureate Al Young's 'Blues' Al Young took to writing poetry, as he describes it in one poem, "to make out the sound of my own background music." Now California's poet laureate, he writes about the blues, jazz and life in the geographically and culturally diverse state.
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California Poet Laureate Al Young's 'Blues'

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California Poet Laureate Al Young's 'Blues'

California Poet Laureate Al Young's 'Blues'

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Al Young took to writing poetry, as he describes it in one poem, to make out the sound of my own background music. He's now the poet laureate of California, celebrating National Poetry Month with a collection called "Something About the Blues."

Though he's lived in California for decades, All Young was born in rural Mississippi and had the good luck to find himself in one very special classroom.

Mr. AL YOUNG (Poet laureate, California): I had a second grade school teacher. Her name was Miss Chapman and she made us memorize poems regularly. I think everyone was up - about every two weeks you had to get up in front of the class.

And remember, this is the segregated school system of the 1940s. So that at the Kingston School for Colored, we put a lot of emphasis on things that would be now called African American, on Negro literature and Negro culture and so forth. So we memorized poems by people like Langston Hughes, of course, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

(Reciting poem) Lies! Lies! Bless the Lord! Don't you know the day's abroad? If you don't get up from there, you scamp, there'll be trouble in this camp. Wash your face, comb your head, look just like a featherbed. Lord have mercy on our souls, don't you dare touch them rows.

That's Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Lies." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The title of the poem is "In the Morning."]

And, of course, Miss Chapman coached us in body movements and gestures and all that. And she said, You're Negro and so you're going to have to be twice as good as white folks to come in second.

(Soundbite of laughter)

She prepared us.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. And then on another level that little poem you remember is also just plain good advice for little kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOUNG: Yes. That's right.

MONTAGNE: Comb your hair. Don't look like a featherbed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Let's have you read one of your poems that would hark to at least that place, I'm not sure about the time. It's called "See, See Moon."

Mr. YOUNG: (Reciting poem) "See, See Moon." See, see moon. Oh, see what you done done. Or is it done did? I don't know the right way to talk to you no more. Nor do I care that you don't answer me. I've walked into rooms, their windows overflowed with light and fresh air and understood how big plugs of skylessness can get translated into versions of illusion. Blinded beauty in all its fullness. But when the blues over takes you, every little once in a while, blue-gummed moon all explanations fail it seems. But no, the blues by any other name would be just as funky. Why should it be so difficult to pen the color of your sorrow.

I don't think I've ever read that poem aloud before.

MONTAGNE: The last lines are, why should it be so difficult…

Mr. YOUNG: Yes.

MONTAGNE: …to pen your sorrow.

Mr. YOUNG: Yes.

MONTAGNE: And that's the beauty of poetry, of course. You don't have to answer the question. You just have to pose it and…

Mr. YOUNG: That is - in fact, I tell my students - I get that from the great late Richard Hugo. He wrote a little book on how to write poetry, and one of the things he says is if you ask a question don't answer it.

(Soundbite of laugher)

MONTAGNE: You came to San Francisco - the Bay Area - in about I think 1959, 1960?

Mr. YOUNG: 1960. I came out under the sway, all of the hullabaloo. The Beat Generation was sounding its horns and all this. And there was just a lot of romance about it. So I came out here with $15 - or something like that - and a guitar. And I'm still here.

MONTAGNE: That actually for the time sounds just about right. A guitar…

Mr. YOUNG: That was just about right. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: …and $15 in your pocket. You have a poem set in a place that's in the country, although in it's on the coast of California. It's Watsonville After the Quake.

Mr. YOUNG: Yes. "Watsonville After the Quake" is self-explanatory. The title tells you why I wrote the poem. And there's a back-story to that, too. A bunch of poets decided to go and do a benefit reading for the victims of the earthquake of 1989. And a lot of the community from Santa Cruz that was going to go down and do good works didn't show up. And so you had a lot of poor Mexican farm workers who came for the first time to a poetry reading. And when it was collection time, the hat went around and the victims themselves put money in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I thought it was quite lovely.

So this is "Watsonville After the Quake."

(Reciting poem) Whose tents are these? What's with these shop parking lot and alleyway families peeping around the raggedy backs of undemolished fronts? That brown-skinned kid on a grassy patch along main catching a football and falling with joy on the run, is his family up from Mazatlan, up from Baja or Celaya or edges of eternity?

Network TV didn't do this news up right. For all their huff and puff and blow your house down, the mediators of disaster and distress didn't find this sickly devastation sexy. Besides, who's going to cry or lose sleep over a spaced out, tar-paper, toppled down town by the sea, brown now with alien debris.

MONTAGNE: That, of course, isn't the entire poem, which one can find at npr.org.

You're the poet laureate of California, but your poems don't exactly - or at all times - celebrate the state.

Mr. YOUNG: Oh, no.

MONTAGNE: You rather bring it into poetic relief.

Mr. YOUNG: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Given the size and the disparities that exist in California from, you know, the beach to the snow…

Mr. YOUNG: Yes.

MONTAGNE: …in an hour. The desert, the mountains, the redwoods, and then the people - I mean, don't even start.

Mr. YOUNG: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Are there a couple or so lines of poetry that you've written that you think speaks to that?

Mr. YOUNG: Yes. These are lines from a poem called "Blues My Naughty Poetry Taught Me," written on the Amtrak coming from Seattle, I believe, back into California.

(Reciting poem) Sea-fences, industrial wash-ups, slushy tracks and rickety light. Skies so soulfully water colored you'd have to be an arts commissioner not to see it. Seen across the Bay through trees and the undersides of freeways San Francisco looks lonely at the end of one bridge and the beginning of another.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Al Young is the poet laureate of California. More of his poems are at our Web site. And his new collection is called "Something About the Blues."

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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