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Gary Young: California Poets Part 4, Five Poems

Gary Young

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Gary Young

Five Poems

Cormorants gather on a mudstone spire, and a blade of kelp, backlit by afternoon light, curls and twists in a glassy wave. Field hands silhouetted against the sea ride their mud-caked bikes from row-to-row laying pipe, while in the distance, cattle graze on the rocky bluffs.

Venus appears above a thumbnail moon. The stars, not yet visible, burn in space. A pink cloud rests on the horizon, lit by the sun that has dropped below the skyline. A heavy mist dulls the moon as a fogbank nestles gray on gray.

The Santa Lucias seem to float on the cold current welling up from the canyon beneath the bay, while clouds at dusk turn the water into a syrup of lavender and plum, the light captured by the swells as backwash swallows each incoming wave.

Gene said, it’s impossible to be honest with yourself; it isn’t achievable for anyone. Our defenses defeat us. The world is incomprehensible. I asked him, is there anything we can believe in? Of course, he said, but it should be something arbitrary. He gazed out the window—ah, clouds.

Stanley Fullerton was an artist and a fisherman. I loved his self-portraits—always in a slouch hat, a pipe in his mouth, and a fish under his arm. Stan collaged nautical creatures out of scraps, and made etching plates from torn bits of netting and tattered rope. When he was a soldier in Korea, he stepped on a land mine and was blown apart. It took two years in a hospital to piece him back together. Stan’s figures were always a little clumsy, and looked bemused, as if they could hardly imagine their good fortune to be rendered whole. Gene admired him.


December 11th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Gary Young, Poet, Editor, Printer, and Translator

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: In 2018, the Santa Cruz Sentinel ran an article about you, and the first sentence of it was “Gary Young may be one man, but he is several artists.” Indeed, you’re very well known as a poet and editor, but your work as an essayist, translator, and visual artist has received less attention. Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve done in this capacity, and how visual art, translation, and non-fiction ultimately affect the writing of your poetry?

GY: I was almost fifty when I first started teaching full time. Before that, I made my living as a visual artist selling prints and artist’s books and enjoying the occasional poetry prize or fellowship. My work is represented in collections around the country and throughout the world: The Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Museum, The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, the The Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques-Doucet in Paris to name just a few. For years, most institutions and private collectors interested in my print work were completely disinterested in my efforts as a poet, and the same can be said of those interested in my poetry: most were indifferent to my work as an artist. It may seem to outsiders that my creative life has been bifurcated, but in truth my work as an artist has informed my work as a poet, and my poetry drives my efforts to create books, broadsides, and other typographic efforts that synthesize these two sides of my artistic practice. The Geography of Home, an early artist’s book of relief prints inspired me to adopt the prose poem as my primary form when I printed a poetic essay in a single line for almost 100 pages on the backs of the prints. My edition of D. J. Waldie’s translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice made me acutely aware of the need for silence around my poems. This list could go on; I don’t think that I’ve printed a single book that didn’t influence my poems in one way or another.

I have published many essays over the years—investigations of fine printing and book arts, essays on prose poetry, and innumerable essays and reviews of books of poetry and essays on various poets. My translation work grew out of my own poetry practice, my interest in Zen Buddhism, and in the poetry of China and Japan. They’re all of a piece.

DG: One of your biggest inspirations is the San Francisco Renaissance poet William Everson, who, aside from being a poet, was also a literary critic and small press printer; indeed, he saw the latter skill as the ultimate realization of what it means to be poet—in the most complete sense. Everson wrote the following in The Poem as Icon—Reflections on Printing as a Fine Art: “My whole attempt in a pluralistic age is to give the book a sacral, holistic character, to recover time with it.” Along with a discussion of how Everson influenced your work, how do you see the future of printmaking in an increasingly digital age, and how, in your view, will this affect the creative psyche of poets?

GY: I arrived at UC Santa Cruz as a student in 1969, and Bill Everson showed up around a year later and served as poet-in-residence at Kresge College. Bill started up his Lime Kiln Press in the University Library, and he taught a remarkable class titled “Birth of a Poet.” Bill stalked the stage, lecturing extemporaneously, occasionally bellowing exhortations, and often falling into uneasy and prolonged silences. The class dealt with poetic vocation, and it had a profound influence on me. It’s interesting in retrospect that I did not study with Bill at the press but came to printing in my own circuitous way. I had started a literary magazine while a graduate student at UC Irvine, and I took a night class at the high school to learn how to print when I returned to Santa Cruz after receiving my degree. I quickly learned the ins-and-outs of offset printing, then I started playing with an old Chandler and Price platen press. Fifty years later I’m still printing letterpress, and teaching others to print as well. My students are drawn to printmaking and to letterpress printing in part because it is a haptic enterprise as opposed to a virtual, digital experience. It’s impossible to ignore digital production (I’ve designed dozens of books on the computer), but the smell of ink and solvent, and the touch of metal type or a carved woodblock rings bells in the psyches of young artists that virtual production can’t hope to duplicate.

I didn’t consciously use Bill as a model, but we became good friends, and I’ve somehow taken on his role as printer and poet at UCSC. I feel his spirit always in my work. Twenty-five years ago, I published an essay, “The Books That Should Be Written,” that addresses in detail my debt to Everson. Here are two paragraphs that give a taste:

“Everson believed that a poem is fundamentally for the ear, and that fine printing creates a poetry for the eye. As an aesthetic creation, the printed poem does sing on the page like a poem in recitation, but it is the body of the poem that concerns me. Incarnation is my true design. Each time I set a poem in type and feel the weight of it in my hand, I realize a consubstantiation, the word made flesh.

As a poet and a printer, I am challenged to integrate contemplation and action. My efforts have been no more than a search for equivalence—poetic utterance and printed page, image and text, body and soul. I approach each book as I would a poem, a sublime articulation.” (Quarry West 32, 1995.)

DG: What’s one achievement you’re particularly proud of as a printer, and one as a poet?

GY: It’s hard to know how to answer your question; pride is an emotion that rarely visits me. I do experience great satisfaction when I’ve created something that I think is working well, or better yet, something that surprises me. The greatest pleasure for me as an artist is when I look at an image that I’ve made, or read a poem that I’ve written, and I ask myself, where did that come from? Who did that? Ego is useful for remembering to put on our pants before leaving the house in the morning, but I think it’s generally a trap for any artist.

The printed book that I’m most fond of is The Geography of Home, which I’ve already mentioned. As for my books of poetry, Days is the one that will always be my favorite. It was my third book, but my first book of prose poems. Most significantly, it was the first book I’d written that felt totally mine; a book that no one else could have written, for better or worse. For that, I feel more gratitude than pride.

DG: You’re well-versed in writers and poets of the Western Canon: Philip Levine, Czesław Miłosz, Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Crane, Arthur Rimbaud, and so on; the work of these poets is special and wildly diverging, but nevertheless uniquely Western. At the same time, you also have an affinity for Japanese and Chinese writers. In 2017, Ninja Press published your collection In Japan, written, according to this UC Santa Cruz article, when you were “working on a book of translations of the calligraphy of the Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa.” With Yanwen Xu, you’ve also translated Chinese poets of the Song and Tang dynasties that were published in The American Journal of Poetry. In this respect, how do the sensibilities and structure of Eastern poetry fundamentally differ from those of the West, but also how are they similar, and what can each respective culture learn from being exposed to each other’s poetry?

GY: Perhaps naïvely, I think that the impulse to poetry is universal, and though every age, every language, and every culture spices the soup according to their particular tastes, we’re all sipping from the same cup.

For me, the biggest distinction between the sensibilities of Eastern and Western poetry involves the relative position of the self in relation to the world and to others. Beginning with Homer and manifested later in early English poems such as Beowolf and Gawain and the Green Knight, the individual is paramount. We see this later in the Romantics and again with the Beats. In the East, the individual takes a back seat to society and family, to the landscape, and to history. These different sensibilities are surely a reflection of the differences between Christianity in the West, and Buddhism and Daoism in the East. These distinctions may be breaking down a bit as cultures mix and merge in our own times, but I think they are still manifested in the way that poets position themselves in their poems.

Structurally, the poetry of the East and the West are only superficially different. The West has the sonnet; the Chinese have the shih; the Japanese the haiku and tanka. Each culture has its urtexts and preferred forms, but each tries to capture in language what most moves them.

DG: Chinese and Japanese poets have an affinity for nature and their descriptions of it are poignant, subtle, and powerful. As a California writer living in Santa Cruz, can you talk about one Chinese writer, for example, whose sensibilities you feel would’ve been particularly well suited to the landscape and character of California?

GY: As someone who’s lived for over forty years in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I often think of the Chinese poets who retreated to the mountains to live and to write. Han Shan is probably the most well-known to Americans, but Yang Wanli wrote wonderful poems that celebrate nature and landscape, and no doubt he would have felt at home here. Li Bai certainly would have enjoyed the laid-back Californian attitude (to say nothing of the wineries and brew pubs), but I think the Tang poet Du Mu would have found life here most convivial. Du wrote shih, but also sensual fu—poetic prose—, and though his poems are tinged with melancholy, I think he would have fit in quite well:

Traveling Through the Mountains

by Du Mu

Climbing a cold, stone path in the mountains, Houses can be seen faintly through the clouds. Late in the evening, I stop my cart to look at the maples, More brilliant than any flower in spring.

(from Taken to Heart—70 Poems from the Chinese, White Pine Press, 2022.)

DG: Which poem about California would you say has affected you most profoundly, both personally and creatively, and why?

GY: There are so many wonderful poems about California—picking just one would be like picking my favorite child, so I’ll give you two. ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ by Robert Hass captures beautifully the physical glories of California, but it also taps into the philosophical and eschatological pressure that comes from living at the edge of a continent, the edge of the world. The other poem that has always affected me greatly is ‘Carmel Point’ by Robinson Jeffers. He also extols the wild beauty of California, then reflects on our human intrusion and suggests that “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little. . .” Jeffers allows for our participation in the beauty of our environment, but he puts us in our place.

DG: In your 2012 collection, Even So: New and Selected Poems, there’s a powerful poem which starts in the following way: “This tumor is smaller than the last one, he said. I’m going to cut it out, and then do my best to stitch you back together.” The work is highly personal—indeed autobiographical—as you’ve stated in another interview. How did this near-death experience affect you creatively, and did your writing habits/sensibilities change as a result? Do you find, also, that in terms of volume, you wrote more, less, or just about the same afterwards?

GY: My appearance was altered quite a bit by the extensive surgery required to remove my first tumor and the surrounding muscle, skin, and flesh, so not only was I forced to confront my own mortality, but I also had to accept that I was not the person that I had been before the surgery. In Waiting for God, Simone Weil says, “A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.” Without warning, I had become that ugly woman, and I was forced to discover and accept who I really was. It turned out to be a gift, one that I would have turned down if I’d had the opportunity, but a gift, nonetheless.

Naturally, this experience changed my perspective on life. I had to confront life’s brevity and its tenuousness, and I was also forced to make choices about how I would spend the little time I might have left. I decided to simply continue with the things that moved me most: writing poems, and printing books. I have never written on any set schedule, and in fact, I seem to work in spurts that have no real pattern. My wife says that I complain about not writing when I’m busy with a printing project, and that I complain that I’m not making art when I’m busy writing poems. That’s a character flaw, I confess, but a modest one.

DG: Your two sons, Jake and Cooper, have both published their own collections of poetry. In a Good Times article you say the following about their work: “They don’t have similar styles, except insofar as they both adhere to the belief that poems should not be puzzles, and that you should be able to understand a poem. I’m sure they’ve heard me rail against the ‘put it in a blender and throw it against the wall’ school of poetry their whole lives. So, they have that aesthetic in common.” Two questions: Along with discussing how they ultimately arrived at poetry, do you find yourself often seeking their advice on a poem, and, likewise, do they sometimes ask you to look at something now and then?

GY: My oldest son, Jake, has always been interested in writing. Even before he started school, he wrote and illustrated stories in my studio while I worked. He even published a book with Chronical Books when he was still in kindergarten. Later, he studied literature and philosophy in college, received an MFA in poetry, and completed his PhD in English and Poetry. He is an extraordinarily good poet and critic, and if I can take any credit for his talent, I’m happy to do so. He just published his third book of poems, All I Wanted. Jake’s younger brother, Cooper, is a mathematician, but he started getting curious about what Jake and I were up to when he was in high school, and so asked me for a few poetry books to read. I gave him books by Rexroth, Snyder, Dickinson, and others, and he got hooked. He received a certificate in poetry at Princeton where he majored in math, spent two months following Bashō’s route through Japan as described in Bashō’s Journey to the Deep North, and published the book he wrote on that trip, Sacred Grounds. He’s finished another manuscript and seems to have no problem combining his mathematics with his poetry.

We do look at each other’s work, and I’m always grateful when the boys give me the benefit of their wisdom.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

GY: I’m currently working on a new book of poems, American Analects. Loosely inspired by The Analects of Confucius, the book revolves around my dear friend and mentor, Gene Holtan, who died about five years ago. I’m preparing a book of translations, Taken to Heart—70 Poems from the Chinese, which White Pine Press will publish next year. I’m also at work printing a few broadsides, and I am putting the final touches on Brad Crenshaw’s Memphis Shoals, an epic poem that I’ll send off to the printers in just a few days.

Author Bio:

Gary Young is the author of several collections of poetry. His most recent books are That’s What I Thought, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books, and Precious Mirror, translations from the Japanese. His books include Even So: New and Selected Poems; Pleasure; No Other Life, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award; Braver Deeds, winner of the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize; The Dream of a Moral Life which won the James D. Phelan Award; and Hands. He has received a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Vogelstein Foundation among others. In 2009 he received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He teaches creative writing and directs the Cowell Press at UC Santa Cruz.


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