Al Young Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his fiction, Al Young has produced nonfiction and numerous volumes of poetry, the first being Dancing (1969). His twin themes are the American family and individual maturation. Early in the twentieth century, Ezra Pound warned modern poets that music separated from dance will atrophy, as will poetry separated from music. Accordingly, Young’s love of the rhythms of life places music between poetry and dance. His second volume of poems is titled The Song Turning Back into Itself (1971). Here, the singer of life confronts images of a Whitmanesque America less musical, choral perhaps, but certainly panoramic: The singer’s song becomes the poet’s vision. In Geography of the Near Past (1976) and The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems (1982), the music and the dancing continue along Young’s thematic lines of loving and growing. The Blues Don’t Change incorporates musical rhythms and quotations from Chinese poets into a collection of poems designed to dance with “laughter in the blood.” Heaven: Collected Poems, 1956-1990 (1992) presents a chronological time line of Young’s works. Straight No Chaser (1994), not to be confused with the biography of Thelonius Monk with the same title (written by Leslie Gourse), is a tribute to the jazz great as well as homage to Young’s love of music and his own musical career. Conjugal Visits, and Other Poems in Verse and Prose...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

During the mid-1960’s, Al Young founded and edited Loveletter, an avant-garde review that has received awards from the National Arts Council. He was the West Coast editor of Changes and in 1975 was guest fiction editor of the Iowa Review. With Ishmael Reed, he founded and, for a time, edited the biennial anthology Yardbird Reader and Quilt, pioneering multicultural arts journals, and he was coeditor of Yardbird Lives! (1978; with Reed).

A selection of Young’s poems and an introductory essay are included in the 1979 anthology Calafia: An Anthology of California Poets. Calafia is a widely recognized project that examines the poetry of the West Coast, with recognition of a regional tradition extending back through the nineteenth century.

Young was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow in 1966 and in 1969 was the recipient of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for his first collection of poetry, Dancing. The California Association of Teachers of English selected Young to receive a special award in 1973. Young was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1974, has been a Fulbright Fellow, and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1968, 1969, and 1974. In 1980, he received the Pushcart Prize for poetry, and in 1982, the Before Columbus Foundation Award.

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Al Young is known primarily as a poet and novelist; his novels include Snakes (1970), Who Is Angelina? (1975), Sitting Pretty (1976), Ask Me Now (1980), and Seduction by Light (1988). He has also published short stories in Changes, Chicago Review, Encore, Essence, Evergreen Review, Journal of Black Poetry, Massachusetts Review, Place, and Rolling Stone. He wrote the introduction to Yardbird Lives! (1978), a collection of writings that he and Ishmael Reed compiled from the biennial Yardbird Reader. He has written several screenplays, including “Nigger” (unpublished) based on Dick Gregory’s autobiography, a film script for his novel Sitting Pretty, and the script for A Piece of the Action (in collaboration with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier).

Young has also written a series of autobiographical anecdotes, in Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs (1981), each of which is organized around his response to a specific song or musical performance. The title piece, for example, begins with his meditation on Coleman Hawkins’s 1939 performance of “Body and Soul.” Bodies and Soul was followed by other “musical memoirs,” including Kinds of Blue: Musical Memoirs (1984), Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs (with Janet Coleman), and Drowning in a Sea of Love: Musical Memoirs (1995).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

For his first collection, Dancing, Al Young won the National Arts Council Award for poetry and the Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation in 1969. In 1968, Young received a National Arts Council Award for editing. In 1970, his first novel, Snakes, appeared and was praised for its authentic portrayal of a young man, addicted to jazz, growing up in urban America.

Young received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1975. His considerable work on small literary magazines includes founding and editing Loveletter (an avant-garde review of the 1960’s), editing Changes (for the West Coast), and coediting, with Ishmael Reed, Yardbird Reader. He cofounded the Yardbird Publishing Cooperative and continues to work actively in small-press publishing.

In the 1980’s, Young turned increasingly to writing nonfiction, often on the subjects of music and film. He has received Wallace Stegner, Guggenheim, Fulbright, National Endowment for the Arts, and Arts Council Silicon Valley Fellowships. He earned a PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction, the PEN-USA Award for Non-Fiction, two New York Times Notable Book of the Year citations, two Pushcart Prizes, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1982 for Bodies and Soul and in 2002 for The Sound of Dreams Remembered, the Stephen E. Henderson Award in 2006, Radio Pacifica’s KPFA Peace Prize, the Glenna Luschei Distinguished Poetry Fellowship, and the Richard Wright Award for Excellence in Literature in 2007. Young served as California’s poet laureate from 2005 to 2008. In his last year as poet laureate, he traveled throughout California, visiting small liberal arts colleges under the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows Program. In 2008, he received the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Bell compares Young’s Snakes to 1960’s novels by Gordon Parks, Kristin Hunter, Rosa Gunn, Barry Beckham, and Louise Meriwether.

Broughton, Irv. The Writer’s Mind: Interviews with American Authors. Vol. 3. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990. Contains a rare and enlightening interview with Young in which he explains his poetic philosophy. This source is widely available and is useful to undergraduate as well as graduate students. A good overview.

Coleman, Janet, and Al Young. Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts, 1989. Not much has been written about Young, therefore, Young’s own memoir becomes essential for understanding his life and work.

Davis, Thadious M., and Trudier Harris, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 33. In Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. This reference provides a cursory glance at Young’s career as a postmodernist writer on the American scene. The citation itself is brief yet helpful to place the author in the mainstream of contemporary writers of various ethnic backgrounds.

Draper, James P. Black Literature Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Most Significant Works of Black Authors over the Past Two Hundred Years. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Contains a fifteen-page chapter on Young that includes...

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