Poet Al Young sings the praises of California

August 10, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

"Berkeley: A Literary Tribute" is a collection of short pieces from 47 poets and writers associated with the city on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. It includes bits by known and unknown Berkeley writers from Philip K. Dick to Jack Kerouac, from Suzanne Lipsett to Alice Kahn and happily it includes two poems by Al Young.

Young was born in Mississippi in 1939 and grew up in Michigan where he began his undergraduate career at the University of Michigan. He completed his degree at UC Berkeley.

"I emigrated here -- to California -- at age 21 in 1961," he told a group of book-lovers this summer at UC Davis.

Now 58, he has made Northern California his home for more than 30 years.

During that time, he has written innumerable poems and articles, four novels and four musical memoirs including 1995's "Drowning in the Sea of Love."

For Young, words and music go together like Berkeley and free spirits. When he gives a poetry reading he is likely to break into song.

"I was one of the first to run out to California in the early '60s," he said, interrupting himself from his poems to talk to the audience. "A lot of people in Midwest thought California was a place of evil." He didn't.

"My California fixation began by reading Henry Miller and John Steinbeck," he said.

Young said his flight to California came as a response to the eternal yearning of all Americans to be somewhere else, to follow the American Dream.

"It's the American condition," he said. And something about California struck him as being a suitable alternative to Ann Arbor during the Eisenhower era.

The Beat Generation was developing during the San Francisco renaissance. The action was on the coast. Young said that African-American poets were writing, too, not as a community but as individuals.

"Poets are only people," Young reminded his audience. They have to write. "The stuff of poetry is life itself...they often see what we would never dream. Black Californians have been writing and publishing in California as long as there has been a California," he added.

But he is the first to add that he is more comfortable in Northern California than in Los Angeles.

"L.A. still baffles me even though I've spent a lot of time there primarily as a screenwriter in the late '70s and early '80s,'' he said. Plus, there are a number of other Californias in addition to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

He has written poems about them all - the cities, the small towns, the farms.

"Beyond the coastal areas is another country," he said. "They are the middle wests, they took me back to my childhood on my grandparents' farm."

California also has a tradition of violence and intolerance and faces a very fragile future. He has written poems about the imprisonment of black males and conjugal visits.

One of his poems in "Berkeley" is "Herrick Hospital, Fifth Floor" and it's dedicated to a musician friend who "overdosed on blackness." This is how it begins:

"Well, so you've gone & overdone it again,
overdosed yourself this time on Blackness;
locked between Blue Cross nurse-padded walls,
the unreliable air outside & beyond
shot up with softening Berkeley sunshine."

Young, who is a popular figure at writing conferences across the county, also read an essay taken from his personal journal. This entry, Nov. 5, 1986, describes a day Young spent in Los Angeles, specifically, a drive he took from Malibu to his hotel downtown. Along the way he picked up a young British woman who was hitchhiking. It turned out that she, too, was a writer. The essay was lovely -- descriptive, warm and amusing -- and can be found in a collection called "The Writers' Journals" edited by Sheila Bender, published by Delacort Press.

Young may not understand L.A., but he seems to love and appreciate the people who live there. Possibly he developed this skill as a result of living for many years with the free spirits that abound in the Bay Area.

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