"The first decade of my publishing I was always being put in this bag of accommodationists, a nice way of saying 'Uncle Tom.' They thought I was too sweet and nice. And then after about 15 years, I was reading that not only is Al Young a black poet, he's one of the blackest.
"I realized that what I'd learned from Chuck Berry years ago is true. Chuck Berry used to deliberately put out fictitious images of himself to all the fan magazines. In one magazine he would represent one thing, to another he would represent something else. And he thought it was fun.
"So I kicked around like that. Now, as you probably notice, my poetry has become rather formal. I work with structure and traditional forms. I try to give the appearance of not doing that, as I think the secret of writing a good sonnet is to make it not seem like a sonnet.
"Norton is going to bring out an edition of my new and collected poems, if I ever get it into them. I've got it sitting over here on a stool. I keep adding to it. And they want to bring out a new and selected musical memoirs. So nice things have happened as a result of a disappointment. And it's ironic, because right now all of my poetry is officially out of print.... Creative Arts had it and they bit the dust, as of last year -- went belly up. So it's an interesting period."
"Why do you think that California chose black men as poet laureates?" (Quincy Troupe was named before Young.)
"I thought about that too. The four contenders when I was being considered were Wanda Coleman, Carol Muske-Dukes, and Jose Rodriguez. When the governor talked to me about politics, and he spoke extensively about that, I told him that I was political and would get even more political, because these are dark times that we're in right now. I was pretty sure he was going to select Carol Muske-Dukes, because she was the least political.
"I found out since that it was the California Arts Council's assembly committee that chose me, and the committee was headed by Robert Hass.
"So it's all been quite something. And here's why I question the black male consideration. The selection came about not only by the committee's recommendations, but it was open to the public, through Poets and Writers . People actually submitted votes. I keep running into people who say, 'I voted for you.' Largely, people on campuses cast votes. But it was one of those things where I was glad all those years had gone by in which I had been on the circuit and appeared in different places."
"In a way, don't you think it's good that you've never had a regular full-time teaching job?"
"Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I can say things that many poets would not say and my idea is, 'What can they do to me?' For example, I was invited to take part in Laura Bush's National Book Festival, September 24, the same Sunday Cindy Sheehan marched on Washington. It was massive. I mean, half a million people showed up for that. It was reported in the press as 100,000. And it coincided with the National Book Festival because we shared the same space on the mall.
"Sharon Olds, as you'll recall, had sent a letter to Laura Bush, really telling her what she thought of her and declining the invitation. The letter was published in The Nation , which urged all invitees to cancel. Well, I love Sharon, but at the same time I think it's more important to be engaged than disengaged because you don't get to say anything. If you're not on the bus, you can't call the stops. And so I said exactly what I wanted to say at that venue. I went to a party afterwards at a private residence in Georgetown. Nobody would talk to me.
"After about 35 minutes, I called a taxi and went home. I felt good to have said what I said in the form of a poem and in the form of a commentary from the stage to a large audience."
"How did the audience respond?"
"I would say two-thirds were on my side. It was important to be at the center of that kind of power and arrogance. Just to see what it feels like, beyond headlines and sound bites. There is an arrogance. But there's this fear that shoots through it that I connect with, going all the way back to when I first went to college during the McCarthy era. Everyone is scared, but they won't be toppled from their silence."
"What do you do to comfort yourself?"
"Right now, I practice more and more giving -- just what can I give? And that seems to do it. Whether it's in the form of writing or actually helping others, or whatever I can do to forget about myself in a society that's largely 'on the take.' I think it's killing us, this business of 'thinking of the other.' Thinking there is such thing as 'the other,' and then, 'How much can I get out of this?' It's awful."
"Compassion seems out of style."
"Oh, my goodness, yes." Mr. Young added then that there is a mean-spirited atmosphere around that is equivalent to what is happening to the hurricane evacuees.
"I've lost my hometown. Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is no more. I have the Google alert out on it, and they send me news several times a day of what they're trying to do. I have not been back for years. But I keep in touch with what's going on there. The Delta area, in general, my first decade was around there."
"What was the first poem you memorized?"
"Paul Lawrence Dunbar's 'In the Morning,' which appears in his Songs of the Lowly Life ." Mr. Young recited the poem:
'Lias! 'Lias! Bless de Lawd!
Don' you know de day's erbroad?