Remembering Al Young, a California poet laureate, musician, teacher

Young died at 81, two years after suffering a stroke.

Al Young, a nationally renowned novelist, essayist, screenwriter, professor and poet whom Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed as the state poet laureate in 2005, died April 17, two years after suffering a major stroke. He was 81.

Young, a long-time Berkeley resident whose deep, melodic voice was as smooth as the blues music he adored, saw his work become a permanent feature in the city’s landscape. His poem, Who I Am In Twilight, is embedded in the Addison Street Poetry Walk, right in front of Freight & Salvage. Berkeley also proclaimed Feb. 5, 2013, as Al Young Day.

In 2007, during his term as poet laureate, Young traveled around California, reading his work in 40 rural communities in the Central Valley and mountain areas in 11 days, often accompanied by a musician. For Young, poetry and music, particularly jazz and blues, were intertwined. He frequently wrote while listening to music (he knew so much about music he was almost a music ethnologist, one friend said) and incorporated jazz rhythms into his poems. “He wedded poetry and music together,” said Sharon Coleman, a poet and instructor at Berkeley City College “He brought music to poetry in a very integral way.”

Young’s 2008 book, Something About the Blues: An Unlikely Collection of Poetry, included a CD of Young reciting his poems against a blues backdrop. It was one of a number of Young’s books that expressed his love of the blues and the inspiration he drew from the music.

Young won some of the literary world’s highest accolades, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a KPFA Peace Prize. The Berkeley Poetry Festival presented him with a lifetime achievement award. The New York Times also named two of his books notable books of the year.

A trio of poets: Al Young, Micheal McLure, and Ishmael Reed at the 2013 SF Jazz Poetry Festival.
A trio of poets: Al Young, Micheal McClure and Ishmael Reed at the 2013 SF Jazz Poetry Festival. Credit: Tennessee Reed.

Despite that recognition, Young was not as famous as he deserved to be, said Ishmael Reed, a longtime friend, collaborator and fellow writer. Some of that had to do with the fact he lived on the West Coast, far from the star-anointing powers of East Coast critics.

“He’s probably one of the most underrated writers in the country,” said Reed, who published The Yardbird Reader, a literary magazine that highlighted contemporary Black writers, with Young in the 1970s. “He lived on the West Coast. The people who receive a lot of publicity live in the New York-Washington, D.C. shuttle area. It’s difficult for a writer like Al to achieve prominence with critics who see Northern California as a stepchild of Manhattan.”

Albert James Young was born May 31, 1939, in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He spent his early years in the segregated south where he attended the Kingston School for the Colored. His second-grade teacher, Mrs. Chapman, made her students memorize poetry, Young told NPR. in 2008. “We put a lot of emphasis on things that would be now called African American, on Negro literature and Negro culture and so forth,” he said.  “So we memorized poems by people like Langston Hughes, of course, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Young’s family later moved to Detroit, where Young frequently tuned into the Canadian Broadcasting Company, “which aired jazz, pop, live symphony, plays, documentaries, and, seminally for him, poets like Dylan Thomas reading their works aloud,” according to a profile Don Lee wrote in Ploughshares. That increased Young’s love of poetry and “he began, systematically, to go through the poetry shelves of the Detroit Public Library.” Young began publishing poems and articles in his teens.

From 1957 to 1961, Young attended the University of Michigan, where he co-edited Generation, the campus literary magazine. He dropped out and moved to the West Coast, finally settling in Berkeley. “I came out here with $15 – or something like that – and a guitar,” Young told NPR. “I came out under the sway, all of the hullabaloo. The Beat Generation was sounding its horns and all this. And there was just a lot of romance about it.”

Before returning to school, Young worked a variety of jobs, including as a photographer, warehouseman, clerk-typist, interviewer for the California Department of Employment, and yard clerk for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He also carved out a career as a singer and guitarist, singing folk songs and blues, but later gave up performing professionally.

Young graduated from UC Berkeley in 1969 and started a lifelong career as an instructor of writing, poetry and American literature. He taught all around the country, including appointments at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and many other colleges. He was a longtime poetry instructor at the Community of Writers, a summer workshop started 51 years ago in Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe.

A number of Young’s students praised how he showed them to be their most authentic selves. My “poetry got more intimate” through Young’s instruction, said Vernon Keeve, who took two classes from Young at an MFA program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. “Instead of wanting to hide on the page, Al taught me how to be more authentic. He said to face things that hurt you, don’t run away from trauma on the page.”

Young’s classrooms had the “warmest” feeling, said Keeve. “People cried in the class. Sometimes we cried together.”

Chloe Veylit, who also attended the MFA program at CCA, said Young taught her to slow down and focus on the present. He also encouraged his students to be creative and was thrilled when she wrote a piece from the consciousness of an octopus. “He had this openness, this willingness to pursue things with you,” she said.

Young published his first book, Dancing: Poems (Corinth Books) in 1969. It won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. He went on to write or contribute to more than 20 other books and anthologies including The Song Turning Back into Itself (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1982), Heaven: Collected Poems 1956–1990 (Creative Arts Book Company 1992), The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990–2000 (Creative Arts Book Company, 2001) and more.

Five of Young’s poems were also included in the new Library of America anthology, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. Heyday Books just published Why to These Rocks: 50 Years of Poems from the Community of Writers, an anthology of some of the best work produced by poets, including Young, at the summer poetry workshops of the Community of Writers.

He wrote film scripts for movies starring Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor in the 1970s, said Reed.

Young also wrote the liner notes for George Benson’s 1977 Breezin’ album that won multiple Grammy awards and went quadruple platinum. As a token of its appreciation, the label sent him a fly canary-yellow silk bathrobe with “Breezin” emblazoned on it, according to Young’s son Michael.

Young’s 1981 memoir, Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs, won the American Book Award.

In 1963, he married Arline Belch, a technical writer. They had a son, Michael, born in 1971.  They later separated but remained good friends until her death in 2016.

two men in a band, one singing, one playing the guitar
Al Young and Jim Houston at the Community of Writers conference annual Follies event in 1995. Credit: Community of Writers

Young had a magnetic presence, which Andrew Tonkovich, a lecturer at the UC Irvine department of English, expressed in a remembrance.

“I wanted to be in earshot of Al, as did many. He completely owned the rhythms of humor and idiom and was, of course, a blues man, self-described. Community of Writers participants will recall the elegant wit and jolly subversion of the duet played and sung by Al and the late Jim Houston, his life-long pal and fellow Stegner fellow, with Houston on ukulele and, hilariously, Al on credit card. You cannot make this stuff up.  But they did, together, in their gently class-conscious ditty “White Man’s Blues.”

Friends of Young’s launched a GoFundMe campaign to help with his medical expenses, The family still needs help with funeral expenses.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.