YOUNGIAN VERSE: Gary Young has developed a distinctive style of prose poem.'You have to be much more subtle' to write a good one, he says.
Poet, teacher and artist
Gary Young embraces his role as the first poet laureate of Santa Cruz County
By Stephen Kessler
LAST YEAR, when my friend Gary Young received the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award, given annually to a "midcareer" poet, I couldn't help wondering why the PSA had named such a prize after a poet (the English Romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley) who had died at age 29. Shelley was a reckless genius, famous not only for his passionate verse but for his revolutionary politics and scandalous conduct, who drowned in a boating accident off the coast of Italy.
Gary, at 58 a devoted family man, generous teacher, highly skilled artisan and letterpress printer, master of many arts fine and domestic, seemed to me one of the least Shelleyan poets I know. Then I remembered that in his late 20s he could easily have gone the way of the star-crossed youth snatched by the gods in the first surge of his creative career: he was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma and given just a few months to live. "I was just hoping to live long enough to see my first book published," he told me the other day.
After elaborate surgery and a long recovery, Young somehow put himself back together and has proceeded to produce an astonishing body of work that is still in progress: poetry books, artist books, broadsides, anthologies, visual art, a publishing imprint and a constantly expanding brood of students and former students he has initiated into the dangerous pleasures of education.
Now, after the Shelley prize and before that the William Carlos Williams Award for his trilogy No Other Life, after the NEA and NEH fellowships, the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize, the James D. Phelan Award and his various other honors, Gary Young was named this past January poet laureate of Santa Cruz County, the first local bard to be so honored.
I asked him how this compares with his other laurels. "When I measure it against my other awards or honors, it's not as hefty a prize, and yet it's starting to feel more important, even to me, as I see what it means to other people," he said. "My father, for instance—he couldn't care less about any prize I've won. This? It's a big deal to him. And this has been happening a lot."
Teaching as he does at both UCSC and Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory, it's not as if he needed another job, but Young is now gamely engaged in a variation on Shelley's idea of poets as the "unacknowledged legislators of the world"—or in this case at least a lobbyist for poetry in the public sphere. As a poetry official with the county's imprimatur but without much of a budget or staff at his disposal, he has ambitious plans, over the next two years, to put poetry posters on the buses, organize noontime readings at the public libraries, lecture in schools and do what he can to make poetry even more visible and accessible than it is already in this city and county teeming with poets and readings and publications.
I asked him how he accounts for the all-around poetry explosion of recent decades. "I think the academy is the main engine of that," he said. "There are 350 MFA programs in the country churning out MFAs by the thousands every year. They don't, most of them, become professional poets, but they write and they teach and they teach workshops, and I think it's just become more available.
"We don't think twice about Sunday painters and amateur painters; there are millions of people who paint—look at the art-supply stores—and many of them, maybe even most of them, are fairly accomplished."
In Young's view, this proliferation of "amateur" poets and poetry is healthy for cultural life. "Music was always that way until the invention of recorded music; everybody played, and some people were amateurs but extremely talented. Most were adequate, and happy to be," he said. "And so, God bless people who write poetry, and let's hope they buy poetry books and read poetry and that it brings them some joy, because that's what it's supposed to do, what it can do."
In his own writing he has gone from a technically skilled if formally conventional verse to a distinctive style of prose poem that looks simple on the surface but is in fact very tricky and idiosyncratic. In Young's hands the simplest observations can open into unexpected depths, often revealing a spiritual dimension in the most seemingly ordinary phenomena: kids playing soccer, the cooking of dinner, a mockingbird's song, moonlight through the redwoods, a wild mushroom.
Putting his own mark on a form that goes back through Baudelaire in the 19th century all the way to the ancient Chinese masters he reveres, Young has earned a lot of respect in the literary world and a certain amount of controversy as well for trafficking in an oxymoron: prose poetry. In the prose poem, absent the formal framework of lined verse, Young says, "You have to be much more subtle" to create the kinds of linguistic tension and compression characteristic of poetry, "and it's more difficult to achieve." But that's one of the things he likes about the form. "And there's something charming about writing poetry that some people don't think are poems," he adds, laughing.
Asked about the slim material rewards of poetry, he replied, "If you're an artist, your reward is just being able to do the work." And yet paradoxically, at this peak of his artistic accomplishment, he has less and less time for writing amid his other duties. He laughs this off, too. "I feel like I had my retirement in the first half of my life, and now when everyone else is retiring I'm starting to work.
"But also at this age if I don't write every day, or even every month, I don't feel like I'm depriving the world of some aspect of my genius. It's not as important to me right now as teaching kids and doing these civic and educational things. I get a lot of pleasure out of it, and after working at this for 40 years I know a lot and don't mind giving it back."
Printing, says Young, has been essential to his development as a poet: "If I have written anything of value, a lot of it is because I became a printer. It allowed me to think about poems as objects, as things, and encouraged me to think of poems as something made, where you would set it in type and feel it in your hands; and the fact that it's physical, just the fact that you're using your body, is a real corrective to staying in your head."
He told me that when he started out he didn't expect much. "I didn't know what to expect. I just wanted to see where what I wanted to do would lead me, and 30 years ago if someone had said, 'You'll be the poet laureate of Santa Cruz County,' I would have laughed."
GARY YOUNG launches his term as poet laureate with a reading Sunday, April 18, at 6pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. He will be joined by Ellen Bass, Robert Sward and Stephen Kessler for brief readings and a panel discussion about poetry and community. Music provided by ZunZun. Free. (831.427.2227)
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