“For her graphic imagination and her instinct for matching feeling to image, I chose Erica Goss’s poems. It is far easier to describe in language the push-pull and shove of emotional attraction than it is to locate and pinpoint the meaning of feeling in time and space. Put another way, this poet has a gift for putting into vivid word-pictures her passion for life as well as her grasp of its unfolding complexity.”
So wrote Al Young when he chose my poems for the inaugural Edwin Markham Prize in Poetry in 2007. Those three sentences changed my life. As a woman re-inventing herself in her late forties, I simply could not believe my good fortune in winning that contest, but Al’s words about my poems mattered much more than winning. Clearly, he had read my poems, understood them, and, with his phrase “the push-pull and shove of emotional attraction,” aptly described the time of life I was in: pulled in a million directions, between family, school, and work, with the burning need to write.
When I won the contest, I didn’t know much about Al. As I got to know him better, I realized that I was just one of many people who’d received Al’s kindness. He was generous in that way. His optimism was infectious. He made students want to get up and do things, write poems, connect with others. He had an amazing voice, deep and resonant, that made his ordinary speech sound like poetry.
Al accomplished so many things in his life. Born in Mississippi in 1939 to a teen-aged mother, he came to California in the early 1960s, arriving with a guitar and a few dollars in his pocket, along with the phone number of legendary San Francisco poet, Kenneth Rexroth. “Rexroth fed me and then told me I couldn’t stay with him,” Al told me a few years ago. In spite of that setback, Al did well in the Bay Area. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1969, taught at many universities, received the American Book Award in 1981 for his memoir, Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs and in 2002 for The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000, and won just about every major literary award in existence. He married and had a son. He wrote or contributed to over 20 books. And, in 2005, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him the state’s Poet Laureate. Al traveled thousands of miles throughout California as Poet Laureate, once visiting 40 rural communities in 11 days. I’m not sure how he accomplished this—California is a huge place—but his commitment was unshakeable.
My favorite memory of Al is when we both read at the Petaluma Poetry Walk in September 2016. It was a brutally hot day when we met for the final event, Al Young and Al Maginnes’s readings, but we were all worn out and sweaty by the time we got to Copperfield’s Books, the place where the reading took place. I had my new camera with me and had been taking pictures of poets all day. I spotted Al, dressed in a bright pink shirt, as he arrived at the store. After we said hello, I joked that my camera made everyone look ten years younger. “Really?” he said, with a huge smile. “Go ahead, take as many pictures as you like.”
I took a bunch of photos that day, and indeed, 77-year-old Al looks lively and energetic in all of them.
In 2019, Al suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He died on April 17, 2021, at a care facility in the Bay Area.
I’ll remember Al for his deep optimism; for his facility with words; for linking poetry and music, especially jazz; for his sense of humor; for his courage and curiosity; and most of all, for his generosity. Like so many others, I’m so lucky to have known him.
Rest in peace, Al Young. And thank you.
The Alchemy of Destiny
by Al Young
Eternal nights have been known to surface in a day
and never melt away except in quick neglect.
On a blanket of insect sound, under a garden of stars,
night: the side of you that not so much hungers
as thirsts. Years before we left our star-based homes,
ancestral codes were sewn into us, twisted there,
glazed and mapped onto the DNA of our story
beginnings so that we might never forget our origin.
Cricket cricket cricket cricket cricket—language
gauged to soothe while inwardly it startles, then
memorizes its moves. On a planet programmed
for electrifying connections, muted, mutable,
all mood and no work, the alchemy of destiny is prized.
From Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons, Poems 2001-2006, Angel City Press, Santa Monica, CA, 2006.
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