Al Young has been a major personality in American letters for the past 40 years. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two American Book Awards and two “Notable Book of the Year” citations from The New York Times. From 2005 through 2008, Young was the poet laureate of California. In addition to poetry, he has published novels, non-fiction, memoirs, essays and screenplays.
In October 2011, just as autumn was beginning to descend on central North Carolina, Young visited the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to receive the annual Thomas Wolfe Prize and give a lecture. During his visit, we sat down to talk about language and literature. With Young’s long history as a writer and an active and much-interviewed poet laureate, I wasn’t sure where to begin the conversation, but his affable personality soon put me at ease. Talking with Young is much like reading his work – like many of his poems, our conversation had a playful, musical quality.
- Heather Van Wallendael
I. POETRY AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE
The Carolina Quarterly: You work in a variety of genres – poetry, non-fiction, screenplays, etc. Is there one form you like best or that works best for what you’re trying to do with your writing?
Al Young: Well the basic tool is poetry. Poetry is to the rest of writing as the piano is to music. I received an insurance form this summer and it was so impenetrable that I had to call a lawyer and an accountant to figure out what it meant. There was a line that started something like, “in order to avoid making a misstep that could lead to a taxable event…” And I’m looking at that and saying, “Why are they talking this way? What’s really going on?” It’s because there’s no poetry. There’s no music. Just legal language that’s deliberately fuzzy, to trap you or to keep you from understanding what’s actually going on. That kind of language pervades our public discourse. People use these horrible phrases: “plausible deniability,” “enemy combatant.” All of these phrases are covering something up. As a writer who loves language and clarity, I find this reprehensible, and I fight it wherever I can.
CQ: Do you think that there’s a form of writing that best speaks to people in general or maybe the American public in general?
AY: There’s never been more interest in poetry than there is now. I’ve watched this over decades. Whenever there’s a time of crisis or a time of uncertainty, people always go back to poetry, which is one of our enduring legacies.
Poetry now is written mostly in the first-person, but this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until the late 1700s and early 1800s, with the Industrial Revolution, that ‘I’ – the pronoun ‘I’ – started to appear big time in poetry. Before that you rarely saw it, because poetry took many forms. It could be an epic. It could be scripture. It could be a history. In medieval European universities you wrote your thesis in poetry, or at least in verse, whether you were writing about scientific things or economic things. To be able to put it in poetry was the measure of really grasping something that is important. That seems fantastical to us now. We’ve become so distanced from that kind of thinking and musicality.
II. A SENSE OF RHYTHM
CQ: You’ve mentioned music a few times now and it’s obviously very closely linked to your work. Do you listen to music while writing?
AY: I used to listen to music constantly when I wrote. But as I grew older I found it to be a distraction. I was paying attention to what was going on [in the music] and I found that to be disruptive. It certainly interrupted the writing process. If I listen to music now while writing something, I do so for a particular reason. Music and language have a lot in common.
The best writers – whether they’re writing prose, advertising copy, political speeches, sales presentations or what we think of as literature – have a sense of rhythm and a sense of melody and musicality. You might not be able to understand what someone’s saying because you’re too far from the speaker, but your ear will pick up the rhythms of their speech. I’ve always been fascinated by that. What happens to me quite often, particularly in carrying out a poem, is I will hear a voice, a kind of muffled voice, somewhere in my head or heart and it’ll be saying something and I can’t hear what it’s saying so I lean in closer to try to hear what’s happening. I hear the rhythm and I hear the rise and fall and I start putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and something starts to come out. It’s always very mysterious. So for me poetry and music are kissing cousins.
CQ: You do a lot of work with jazz and the blues. What is it about those two genres that speak to you?
AY: They were early influences. I grew up in a house that was suffused with music. My father played bass and tuba in bands in Georgia and Louisiana. We listened to a lot of music, and we all sang or played instruments. These were accessible musics. Now jazz and even the blues to some extent have become conservatory musics, meaning people go to school to study them in the same way you study Mozart or Beethoven. From 1918 through around 1950, however, jazz was the popular music of the United States. Importantly, it was a social music – people danced to it. It wasn’t the sort of thing where you sit in an auditorium very properly and give polite applause at the end. That whole context has changed.
I was once on a panel with Ellis Marsalis at a jazz education seminar in Dayton, Ohio. Towards the end of the session, someone asked him how he taught improvisation. He said, “Well, I think we make too much of it as a teachable aspect of jazz. It’s a major part of everyday life.” A journalist asked, “Could you give us an example?” He said, “Yeah, like when we talk.” You don’t have a script. You have a relationship with someone, and you both just make it up as you go along. It is improvised, but it has a structure.
CQ: Do the different types of music that you listen to help to keep your writing new?
AY: Absolutely. For example, like a lot of Americans I came to Indian music in the 1960s, with Ravi Shankar and the other musicians who brought it to the US and the western world. The Indian ragas are these very complex forms. There are morning ragas and late morning ragas, afternoon ragas, evening ragas and so forth. I was at a fancy hotel in India once, and they were playing the evening raga in the morning. So I complained to the management, eccentric that I am. And they said, “You are knowing about these things?” I said, “Yes.” And so they explained to me that for them it was background music, you know, for tourists. They understood the distinctions but it’s gotten kind of blurred with time.
So I started writing about blurred distinctions, and how they can be dangerous because they allow people to think that you can get away with anything. I like order. I like people to be playful and imaginative, but I like to know what game we’re playing. There are many similarities between Indian music and jazz in that they’re improvised, but improvised along deeply structured lines. I think that artists of all kinds have a responsibility to their audience. In M.F.A. programs you never hear anything about audience. I think it hurts the field when you’re just writing for the initiated. I’d like to think that anything that I write could be picked up and understood by anybody.
CQ: You’ve said before that you don’t think writing can be taught. In an M.F.A. program for creative writing, then, what are some key things you think need to be addressed?
AY: Audience is very important. For whom are you writing? I run into many writers who want to write but they don’t read. They’re not interested in reading. Nothing good can come of that. Writers earn their keep and their reputation. Even now, at my age, every day I’m excited about learning a new way to spin a sentence or to not use the verb “to be.” I’m always trying to see what I can get away with in a stripped-down format.
III. ONE WORD AT A TIME
CQ: In past interviews you have talked about the “momentary identities” people take on. What do you mean by momentary identities?
AY: One of the things that I often speak about is the fictitiousness of the first-person ‘I’. It’s the most commonly used pronoun in writing, particularly among people with literary aspirations. I like to remind students when I teach writing and others in general that the ‘I’ is a social construct. You can’t pin it down. The old Zen Buddhist masters would ask their disciples rather disarmingly, “Show me this ‘I’. Give me something I can hold onto.” We tend to be the sum of beliefs that we have about ourselves and things that people have told us about ourselves.
I think one of the biggest problems we face today is this investment in the concept of “the other.” There is no other. The other is us. We are part and parcel of absolutely everything we imagine to be outside of ourselves and around us. This is something I take very seriously. When a writer is working in the first person, one of the ways to accommodate the possibility that this “I” is not necessarily fully you is to write from different “I” perspectives. In other words I write about you from the “I” perspective: what I imagine to be you.
So that’s what I mean by momentary identities. You identify this moment as a student, and then the next moment you’re a customer or a consumer and the next moment you’re a sibling or maybe you’re even a teacher or a parent. We have these different roles that we play. That’s the “I”.
CQ: How does this concept work its way into your writing?
AY: When you read my poetry for example or my fiction. Or even my so-called non-fiction. I always say so-called because there’s no such thing as non-fiction; it’s all fiction. You’ll see that I love taking on different roles. There’s playfulness. If you read a poem of mine that’s a first-person poem, you shouldn’t trust it to be Al Young literally disclosing intimate details of his life, because imagination is what powers that. When you tap into imagination you tap into an infinite resource but if you want to just keep it down to the literal then it’s very limited what you can do. A first-person – any literal first-person – is not interesting enough to sustain very many pages. I mean, you might get one book, but are you going to do this over and over again? You’re that deep and vast and interesting? (Laughs). It’s problematic. I think as a writer you shut down your imagination when you think that it’s all about you—that it all surrounds your experience and your observations.
I wrote a novel years ago, for example, called Seduction by Light, which is one of two novels I’ve published with a female protagonist. I’ve had people come up and say, “Is there something about you that we don’t know?” The concept of being imaginative is so unknown or discouraged now that many readers think that you literally have to have done all of the things that you write about in order to describe them convincingly. I like to turn them on to Dickens or Shakespeare, and let them see how these writers get inside all kinds of psyches and imagine themselves as old, young, rich, poor, ambitious, humble, etc.
CQ: Sounds like a good way to keep everything new.
AY: I just love writing. I got used to seeing my name in print at a very early age because I was always editing the school papers and magazines and all of that. As far as I was concerned, by the time I began high school I was a writer. I remember thinking, ‘okay you’re a writer…what are you gonna do? You gotta learn to write. And because I played in the orchestra at school, I thought I would learn to write the same way I learned music. I got a book of [poetic] forms from the library: how to write a sonnet, how to write a sestina, etc, and I practiced. It takes a long time to learn to be simple and clear, which is the goal I’ve set for myself. I admire clarity. Not simple-mindedness but simplicity, which also has depth.
I’ve been re-reading a lot of Thomas Wolfe recently – Of Time and the River and You Can’t Go Home Again, specifically. He seemed to want to get everything down on paper; he didn’t want to miss one detail. He supposed that if he wrote enough, if he put enough words to paper, then he could capture reality in some way. This obsession makes his writing very tedious for many people. Language works differently from reality. Right now as I’m talking to you, you are digesting your food, you’re growing your hair. But that’s going on while you’re listening to me and then the same thing is happening to me. Language takes place one word at a time, with silence in between. It’s a weird tool to use to try to capture reality. You have to hint at what’s there by what has been left out.
I still believe that the best poetry takes place between two people talking or conversing or writing. The lexicon and the meaning can be very private. We don’t always understand conversations that we overhear, but there’s something very moving about private discourse that I find fascinating. This is why I teach prospective writers to have big ears. Listen. Eavesdrop every chance you get.