Jazzing it up
California Poet Laureate Al Young performs in South Pasadena after his statewide tour
By Julie Riggott 04/26/2007
California Poet Laureate Al Young is on the road for his “Top to Bottom” statewide tour. Traveling in a nine-passenger van with jazz musician Dan Robbins and Ray Tatar of the California Arts Council, Young is making three stops per county at libraries, elementary and high schools and colleges, reading from his new collection, “Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons: Poems 2001 – 2006.”
Forget the outdated notion of the background jazz player accompanying the beatnik poet. Young takes his performances to another level with the UC Santa Cruz-educated Robbins on acoustic standup bass.
“We're collaborators. Dan Robbins is a first-rate musician,” Young said from a hotel room in Barstow after a performance at Barstow Community College. “The way it works is that sometimes we'll have a set piece where he knows what he's going to do; he'll open up with something perhaps and I'll fall in with a poem. Other times, we sort of play each other. That is, he'll hear something interesting in what I'm reciting or reading, and he will sort of drift into it and add things, and I will pause and let him make emphases or do things that are complementary to the poem.
“Sometimes I'll leave out text because I don't have to say things because they've been said musically by him,” he added. “Other times, we'll exchange things: I'll read a passage, then he'll respond to it and vice versa.”
Young, an award-winning poet who got his start as a musician in the late '50s in New York playing folk, blues and jazz on guitar, also sings popular standards during the reading: “I Thought About You,” “Quiet Nights,” “All the Things You Are,” “I'm Old-Fashioned.”
“We did ‘Route 66' yesterday for the first time just because we were in Barstow, and Barstow is in a lyric of that song,” Young said in his deep, strong voice, adding that each show is unique because of those improvisations.
Given his approach to readings, it's not surprising to learn that Young has also written three memoirs on music as well as liner notes for jazz CDs, and often makes musicians — everyone from Lionel Hampton and Elvis to Mozart — subjects of his poems.
But more importantly, his poetry has been compared to music. Take these opening lines from “The Alchemy of Destiny” included in “Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons,” his first collection since being named California Poet Laureate by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005: “Eternal nights have been known to surface in a day / and never melt away except in quick neglect. / On a blanket of insect sound, under a garden of stars, / night: the side of you that not so much hungers as thirsts.”
“Poetry and music are one and the same, really,” Young said. “You can play a song anywhere, and people will get something out of it — but when you start using words, people can't understand the words, and so that limits it. But you're still dealing with melody and rhythm and harmony.”
Those elements give Young's poetry freshness and universal appeal, and his literary influences are definitely global: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, the poetry of the Bible, Federico García Lorca, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Pablo Neruda.
Born in Mississippi, Young has spent most of his life in the Bay Area, where he graduated with a degree in Spanish from UC Berkeley. He was Edward B. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford and has received numerous prestigious honors as a writer, including two American Book Awards and the Pushcart Prize. But he adamantly believes that “poetry belongs to the people.” His intention has been to separate himself from the “drier, academic ‘I dare you to understand what I'm talking about' style of poetry” that he says “has taken refuge in classrooms” in the last 50 or 60 years.
“Poetry is a vast universal language that records history, that commemorates, that actually interacts with nature. Our ancestors used poetry to try to control the weather, to try to control birth cycles,” he explained. “Of course, all the sacred books of the world are composed of poetry, and that served very practical purposes remembering things. For example, ‘30 days has September, April, June and November' and so forth. And in ritual worship, I know that in Judaism prayers are composed in poetic song so that they can be memorized.”
Tatar said the “Top to Bottom” tour of the state is a direct extension of Young's philosophy that “poetry is for everyone.” In keeping with that theme, the tour emphasizes rural areas from Mendocino County to San Diego County. The California Center for the Book and California Arts Council are sponsoring the readings and lectures to celebrate National Poetry Month and National Library Month.
But we city dwellers aren't completely neglected: This weekend he visits South Pasadena and Los Angeles.
Though Young says poetry can't help but be political — subtly or overtly as in some of his own poems in this collection — it should also bring people together.
“What good poetry says, when it opens the doors to the heart, soul and mind, is that we must affirm that we have more in common than we differ,” he said. “Poetry is a glue; it pulls people together.”
Al Young will appear at 7 p.m. Friday at the South Pasadena Public Library Community Room, 1115 El Centro Ave., South Pasadena. This event will feature the Suezenne Fordham Chamber Jazz group. For more information about this free event, call the library at (626) 403-7330, or visit the California Arts Council Web site: www.cac.ca.gov . On Saturday and Sunday, Young will participate in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Visit www.latimes.com/events for details. To order “Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons,” visit www.angelcitypress.com .