Arts Listings

Cal Poet Laureate Al Young and Barry Gifford Read at Moe’s on Monday

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday August 17, 2007

California Poet Laureate Al Young and well-known novelist and screenwriter Barry Gifford, both Berkeley residents, will read together in a felicitous doubleheader at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Ave. this coming Monday, August 20, at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Mondays at Moe’s series coordinated by Owen Hill. 

“I first met Al in 1970 when we read together at the Sonoma State Poetry Festival,” recalled Barry Gifford, “that was the weekend Ronald Reagan closed all the college campuses, so we had to move the reading to a barn on a farm nearby. I’ve stopped doing a lot of readings, but Owen called me and said Al had asked if I’d read with him at Moe’s, so I’ll make an exception. And since it’s a poetry reading, that’s what we’ll read!” 

Al Young remarked, “Barry and I have read together before, and it’s always been a hit, taking turns reading ... it’s always uproarious. He writes about eccentric people in weird situations, so people expect me to follow suit! I don’t—but my voice seems to compliment his.” 

Better known for his prose and screenplays, Gifford has published a fair-sized poetry bibliography, including some unusual editions which Moe’s will have on sale. A current publication is Las Quatras Reinas/The Four Queens, a bilingual edition from Mexico City (also published in Madrid), with photos by David Perry with whom Gifford worked on Border Town. 

“The translations are by Lara Emilio-Pacheco, daughter of the well-known Mexican writer Jose Emilio-Pacheco,” said Gifford. “It’s my first full-length bilingual poetry book, though I’ve been translated before, especially into French, by Nouvelle Revue Francaise.” I’ll read some other poems; it’s not often I’ve the chance to read poetry. And I never know what mood I’ll be in! But it’s a good occasion, and I’m glad the series with Owen has been ongoing.” 

Al Young will read from his new collection, Something About—“poems and prose poems centered around blues and jazz themes in particular. There are a lot of new and some older pieces in the book, which Source Books asked me to put together. Those themes run so heavily through everything I write, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.” The collection includes an audio book with both solo readings and readings backed by a band, including saxophonist Ralph Jones (”who played with Cannonball [Adderley]”), Detroit pianist Kenn Cox, Edwin Livingston on bass and Charles Eisenstadt on drums, performing at CalArts to an audience of high school students. He’ll also read from Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons and The Sound of Dreams Remembered, which won the American Book Award in 2002.  

“I sometimes get asked when I’m going to come out with a real book—meaning another forgettable novel,” Young said. “It lets me know just what the questioner thinks about poetry. It’s in poetry that the most important things get said. I’ve yet to hear somebody read from a novel at a wedding or a memorial service. Our society today is so narrative and graphic-oriented. And serious poetry is now mostly academic. Most poetry is personal narrative written in skinny lines. And then there’s vernacular poetry, hip-hop and performance poetry, which is unpredictable, always doing something strange—like blues, the irreducible radical in American society. You never know where it’s going to go.” 

Some of Gifford’s out-of-print poetry books will be available at the reading. “Barry opened up his archive,” said Owen Hill. Gifford explained, “When a poetry press sells, say, 500 copies, they don’t know what to do with the rest, so they give them to me in a box. Al’s published lots of books, and his house is filled with them. When he schleps off to Pakistan or someplace, it’s with a bag over his back like Santa Claus! I write poetry when it comes to me, then throw it in an envelope ora box. I don’t know what’s going on in poetry now. It’s receded back into the hands of the academics. Al and I are certainly independents.” 

Al Young will also read Sat. Aug. 25 at the Berkeley Jazz Festival.