Young, Al(bert James)

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YOUNG, Al(bert James)

Nationality: American. Born: Ocean Springs, Mississippi, 31 May 1939. Education: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (co-editor, Generation magazine), 1957–61; Stanford University, California (Stegner Creative Writing Fellow), 1966–67; University of California, Berkeley, A.B. in Spanish 1969. Family: Married Arline June Belch in 1963; one son. Career: Freelance musician, 1958–64; disc jockey, KJAZ-FM, Alameda, California, 1961–65; instructor and linguistic consultant, San Francisco Neighborhood Youth Corps Writing Workshop, 1968–69; writing instructor, San Francisco Museum of Art Teenage Workshop, 1968–69; Jones Lecturer in creative writing, Stanford University, 1969–74; screenwriter, Laser Films, New York, 1972, Stigwood Corporation, London and New York, 1972, Verdon Productions, Hollywood, 1976, First Artists Ltd., Burbank, California, 1976–77, and Universal, Hollywood, 1979; writer-in-residence, University of Washington, Seattle, 1981–82. Since 1979 director, Associated Writing Programs. Founding editor, Loveletter, San Francisco, 1966–68. Since 1972 co-editor, Yardbird Reader, Berkeley, California; contributing editor, since 1972, Changes, New York, and since 1973, Umoja, New Mexico; since 1981 editor and publisher, with Ishmael Reed, Quilt, Berkeley; vice president, Yardbird Publishing Cooperative. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968, 1969, 1974; San Francisco Foundation Joseph Henry Jackson Award, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1974; Pushcart prize, 1980; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1982. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. Address: 514 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, California 94301, U.S.A.



Dancing. New York, Corinth, 1969.

The Song Turning Back into Itself. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1971.

Some Recent Fiction. San Francisco, San Francisco Book Company, 1974.

Geography of the Near Past. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1976.

The Blues Don't Change: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Heaven: Collected Poems, 1956–1990. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1989.

Straight No Chaser. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts Book Company, 1994.

Conjugal Visits: And Other Poems in Verse and Prose. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts Book Company, 1996.

Recording: By Heart and by Ear, Watershed, 1986; Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers, Rhino/Word Beat, 2000.


Screenplays: Nigger, 1972; Sparkle, 1972.


Snakes. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1970; London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971.

Who Is Angelina? New York, Holt Rinehart, 1975; London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1978.

Sitting Pretty. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1976.

Ask Me Now. New York, McGraw Hill, and London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980.

Seduction by Light. New York, Delta, 1988.


Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1981.

Kinds of Blue: Musical Memoirs. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1984.

Things Ain't What They Used to Be: Musical Memoirs. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1987.

Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs, with Janet Coleman. Berkeley, California Creative Arts, 1989.

Drowning in the Sea of Love: Musical Memoirs. Hopewell, New Jersey, 1995.

Editor, with Ishmael Reed, Yardbird Lives! New York, Grove Press, 1978.

Editor, with Ishmael Reed, Quilt 2–3. Berkeley, California Reed and Young's Quilt, 2 vols., 1981–82.

Editor, African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York, Harper Collins College Publishers, 1996.


Bibliography: In New Black Voices, edited by Abraham Chapman, New York, New American Library, 1972.

Critical Studies: "Reader's Report" by Martin Levin, in New York Times Book Review, 17 May 1970; "Growing Up Black" by L.E. Sissman, in the New Yorker, 11 July 1970; "Jazzed Up," in the Times Literary Supplement (London), 30 July 1971; "Artistry and Theme in Al Young's 'Snakes'" by Douglass Bolling, in Negro American Literature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), 8, 1974; "Search for 'Soul Space': A Study of Al Young's 'Who Is Angelina?' and the Dimensions of Freedom" by Elizabeth Schultz, in The Afro-American Novel since 1960, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer, Amsterdam, Gruner, 1982; The Writer's Mind: Interviews with American Authors edited by Irv Broughton, Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1990; Music As Medium for Maturation in Three Afro-American Novels (dissertation) by Michael Charles Carroll, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1992.

Al Young comments:

I see my poetry as being essentially autobiographical in subject matter and detail, characterized by a marked personal and lyrical mysticism as well as a concern with social and spiritual problems of contemporary man in a technological environment that grows hourly more impersonal and unreal. My favorite themes are those of love, the infinite changeability of the world as well as its eternal changelessness, and the kind of meaning (both private and universal) that flowers out of everyday life. My influences in general have been black culture and popular speech (southern rural and urban U.S.) and music in particular (jazz, Afro-American folk and popular music, the music of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, which defies categorization, Caribbean music of both English- and Spanish-speaking peoples), American Indian poetry and song, Hindu philosophy. Some poets I admire and have consciously learned from: Li Po, Nicolas Guillen, Rabindranath Tagore, the poetry of the Bible, Federico Garcia Lorca, Kenneth Patchen, Blaise Cendrars, early T.S. Eliot, Rimbaud, Brecht, LeRoi Jones, Mayakovsky, Denise Levertov, Léopold Senghor, Kenneth Rexroth, Cervantes, Diane Wakoski, and Nicanor Parra. Besides being as necessary as food, water, air, sunlight, and sleep, poetry is my way of celebrating spirit, in all of its infinite forms (charted and uncharted), as the central, unifying force in creation.

*  *  *

Al Young's 1976 book Geography of the Near Past contains five poems satirically representing "art as a hustle." Purporting to be dictations by O.O. Gabugah, "a militant advocate of the oral tradition," the poems are full of posturing and the rhetoric of racial politics. Technically facile, they ridicule not the literary method of poets like Gabugah but rather their dedication to the notion of art as weapon. Nothing could be further from the practice of Young himself, who calls poetry a

magic wafer you take
into your mouth
swallow for dear life

To Young poetry is a means "to swim against / world current / knowing it to be as much a dream / as it is drama on the highest stage." The trick is to know that "each universe is only / an evershifting sea / in the surfacing eyes of former fish." Inevitably, then, poetry for Young takes an autobiographical subject seeking authenticity in the flux of process.

A first step occurs in poems of controlled focus, where accidental details of ordinary life gain meaning by association. The sequence of a day's ordinary events becomes a love letter in "Dear Arl," and in "A Dance for Li Po" bringing home groceries stimulates reflection on the variety of good places the poet has been over the years. The continuity of associative time converts memory into the principle of a fluid reality in "The Song Turning Back into Itself." Here the images of circling in time and space lead into a statement of the power of song to create new versions of love and loneliness while also organizing past experience of those states. There is, too, the sense, shared with musicians, of the capacity of art to generate identity through the expression of a lyrical mysticism. It is appropriate that the sequence concludes with a jazz-inspired flyaway song in which the poet soars over rooftops.

As though for the time being his aesthetic needs no further statement, Young's poems in Geography of the Near Past return to detailing the small incident so that he can plumb it for significance. A series of poems on the cities of Manhattan, Boston, Providence, Detroit, and Denver relate moments of intense feeling, with the verse renouncing commentary or explication in favor of the re-creation of a moment's mood. The moments are brief, the mood without ambiguity, but there is no mistaking the effect. It is that of poetry performing its ancient function of discovery.

Young's writing reflects his ear for and practice as a jazz musician, and many of his poems attempt to translate blues and jazz into language. What he calls "a laughter in the blood that dances" in his collection The Blues Don't Change is manifested as spontaneity, freshness, and a kind of improvisational spirituality. Humor and light rhythms infuse his sensuous attention to words.

Young's grace and scope of subject have vastly increased with the progression of his career. In the nearly three hundred poems gathered in Heaven: Collected Poems, 1956–1990, the geography reaches from Detroit to Stockholm, Los Angeles, Mississippi, Poland, Paris, and Brooklyn. The first poems reflect Young's early concerns—"dilettante" militias, jazz, and the basic distinctions between black and white experience: "When white people speak of being uptight / they're talking about dissolution & deflection / but when black people say uptight / they mean everything's all right." The unlimited range of Young's heart shows through in every broad and affectionate gesture he makes toward the world. For him the way through barriers and rejections born of difference is by love and acceptance: "Nor must you let the great haters / of our time / rattle in your heart." Young claims as influences a wildly diverse group, including Li Po, Nijinsky, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Frank O'Hara, and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Through great attachments and confluences this poet has established a generous voice of the collective that shines with rhythm and expanse.

—John M. Reilly and

Martha Sutro

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Young, Al(bert James)

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