Santa Cruz honors its first Poet Laureate
At a book fair in seventh grade, Gary Young purchased Whitter Bynner’s “The Jade Mountain; Translations from the Tang Dynasty,” and Oscar Williams’ “Immortal Poems of the English Language.” Upon reading the books, he decided then and there that he wanted to be a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty.
Although he is not Chinese and does not live 1,200 years in the past, Young has come far in the way of recognizing his childhood dream. On Jan. 26, Young was named the first ever poet laureate of Santa Cruz County.
“What really is important is that the community said, ‘We have marvelous poets here, poetry is important in our lives, it’s important in our schools, it’s important in the community—let’s recognize that,’” Young says.
He sits on a wooden stool above a workbench in his art room. His apron is splattered with greens, browns, and reds and his ink-stained hands move as he speaks. “I think the truth is that just by having decided that the community should have a poet laureate, that did it,” he says. “Anything that I do, and anything the next poet laureates do, is going to be icing on the cake.”
To implement the position of poet laureate in Santa Cruz County, the Cultural Council, Board of Education, Art Commission, and Poetry Santa Cruz all came together in conjunction with the Santa Cruz Public Library System, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and Santa Cruz County Parks.
“The fact that they all thought this was an important thing is actually much more important than my receiving it,” says Young.
Although he has lived, written and taught in Santa Cruz County for 40 years, Young says that being dubbed poet laureate has finally made him feel like a local of the area. As poet laureate, Young is charged with furthering community awareness of poetry as an art form that inspires creativity in children and adults. He has many tentative plans to make this happen, including implementing poetry programs in schools. He also plans to help organize lunchtime poetry readings, as currently most of the readings in Santa Cruz take place at night. “There is a big part of the population, particularly the elderly and the poor, who can’t drive across the county to go to a reading at 7:30 at night,” says Young.
Since 1975, Young has designed, illustrated, and printed limited edition books and broadsides at his publishing company, Greenhouse Review Press. He said he plans to use his knowledge in printmaking to implement broadsides, or illustrated poetry, in city buses so that people have something aside from advertisements to read while commuting.
Young’s own print work is represented in many collections across the nation, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Getty Center for the Arts. “The thing about printing and one of the reasons I like to teach it, is that poets sometimes live too much in their heads,” Young says. “Mucking around in the world keeps you grounded so that when you’re mucking around in your head you don’t take it too seriously.”
Over the course of his career, Young has collected quite a few honors. He received the 2009 Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, previous winners of which include e.e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Creely, among others. He received the Pushcart Prize, and his book of poems “The Dream of a Moral Life,” won the James D. Phelan Award.
After raising two sons in Santa Cruz, the oldest of whom is 22, Young is deeply attached to the region. His poetry often reflects an appreciation of the natural landscape. “We’re at the edge of the earth here. The world ends right over there,” Young says as he points in the direction of the sea. “I live in Bonny Doon so I’m in the mountains where a stream runs by my house. It’s really very elemental, and I love the fact that I live under the redwoods in the mountains and I drive my son a few miles to school, and suddenly I’m looking at the ocean. There are not many places where you can do that.”
Young currently teaches poetry and printmaking at UC Santa Cruz, and the Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School. Teaching is a large part of his art and life. “At this stage in my life I have a lot less ego involved in my own work—I get more excited watching one of my university students ‘get it’ in a poem. It’s really a thrill when you can help somebody turn that light on,” Young says. “I really feel that I was blessed coming here. I got to study with William Everson and was friends with him until he died. He was a great poet and a great printer. I have been given so much by the people that I learned from, and the way I was taught is that you pass it on.”
Young faces a busy horizon in the approaching months. His book “New and Selected Poems” is scheduled to come out at the end of this year, and he is writing a poetry workshop handbook with Christopher Buckely, entitled “One for the Money; The Sentence as a Poetic Form” scheduled to appear in October. Also on the way, he has a book of poems published with the C&C Press called, “New Mexico Journal.”
His Greenhouse Review Press just published a novel by Stephen Kessler, and he is working to publish a book of poems by a fellow from Massachusetts that will appear around late spring. Young will be a featured speaker at The Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, the first week of April.
He says he anticipates a long and healthy future for poetry in Santa Cruz. “Poetry is important in every community,” he says. “The magic of words, of cadence, rhythm—it’s part of our lives. And so much so that I think we take that for granted and we forget just how ubiquitous it is. Being called a poet seems so grand and I would like to kind of drop that down. I really consider myself a worker. The word ‘poet’ comes from the Greek word ‘to make.’ And that’s what we do. We make poems. I think of it in terms of labor touched by grace.”