CALIFORNIA'S POET LAUREATE
Al Young, California's newest poet laureate, and I were talking. I asked if he recalled the first poem he ever read. "That's interesting. I have to go all the way back to the second grade. To Laurel, Mississippi, and Miss Chatman. Yeah, whom I've written about extensively. She made us memorize poems. In those days we would begin our morning with 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' and then we would sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' She actually had us reading African-American poets before there was such a designation. Langston Hughes, and this would have been 1947, and James Weldon Johnson and people like that. And Paul Lawrence Dunbar."
Mr. Young, born in 1938, near Biloxi, Mississippi, was the first of seven children. He explained. "My father, the man whose name I carry, Albert James Young, Sr., actually married my mother when she was pregnant with me. But not by him.
"She had two kids by him and then she had the fourth, my brother Richard -- the actor who committed suicide -- she had him while that father was in the Navy in the Pacific, and so Richard had a separate father. And then she married again and she had three kids, whose last name is Simmons. Interesting, beautiful woman.
"She died at 60. My father, or stepfather, although I think of him as my father, died at 56.
"I haven't really written about my life, memoir-style, sequentially, because it's been difficult to put the pieces together. But the reason I found your question interesting was that my third brother, William, actually went through a sex change and is now 'Michele,' living in Chicago. This is fascinating stuff.
"The family didn't take it well. She more or less appealed to me because she knew that I took a wide view of such things. She knew that my ex and I were living out here, that we were open to that kind of stuff, and so she shared it with us, and we encouraged her to go on and do it because she was so unhappy.
"She tells funny stories. She got mugged in a parking lot. This guy snatched her purse and she ran after him and caught him and beat the shit out of him, and she said, 'How dare you take advantage of a poor, helpless woman?' She's always been strong. I would have liked to have seen the look on this guy's face."
I had heard that the state did quite a background search on Mr. Young, whose politics bend to the left and whose opposition to the United States' attack on Iraq is well known.
"Oh, my goodness, yes. I was vetted mercilessly. They sent me a credit report that was, I don't know how many pages, but it was thick because it went all the way back to the first thing I ever charged. Can you believe that? I was scared when I opened it up and there was no note, nothing. It just came from the state, and it was just a way of letting me know that they were on my case.
"I went to the University of Michigan, quit in my senior year, to the horror of my family. I couldn't stand it. I had come out in the summer of 1960 to the San Francisco Bay area, and it just blew my mind. I just couldn't believe it. I fell in love with it and fell in love.
"In January, I quit school and flew out here and have lived here ever since. It was hard to go back to the Midwest and all that cold and snow. And the attitudes. But, when I was in Ann Arbor, teaching, 1992, I went to the same barber who cut my hair in the '60s, and he said, 'As I recall, Al, you were one of the first people that went running out there to California in the '60s.
"I said, 'Yep.'
"'Well how do you like it now?' They really never give up. They hate people who move to California.
"An English department receptionist, two of them, as I was leaving in '92, I had been teaching there, I had taught there two successive winters, '91 and '92, said, 'Al, can we ask you a question?'
"I said, 'Sure.'
"'You're such a nice guy, how can somebody like you live in California?' And they meant that. They think of it as really an awful place.
"I loved it, my years at Cal. I absolutely loved it, because it was in the time of the Third World strike and People's Park and all of that, and by then I was well into my 20s, and I was a professional student, and I was interested in the things I was studying, and I knew how to do it, and I graduated with honors.
"I majored in Spanish because I didn't want to have anything to do with English departments. I'd made this decision way back after high school. I had been studying Spanish since the seventh grade.
"I got into a graduate seminar on Cervantes when I was a sophomore at Michigan, which was one of the best educational experiences, and it's the way I still teach. I think teaching should be dialectic, dialectical and conversational."
"You're one of those rare poets," I said, "who has always belonged to himself, who's never belonged, for any length of time, to an institution."
"Thank you for recognizing that. It makes a difference, but it doesn't do you well professionally. Because people can't place you, and we live increasingly in an institutionalized structure, and if they can't put you in a box, they don't know what to do.
"I get bounced around. Nowadays I'm getting credit for having been one of the active participants in the Black Arts movement, as that movement was called back in the '60s, when Amira Baraka left Newark and went up to Harlem for a few months. I had nothing to do with any of that.