Sage Rush

ae garyyoungThe wisdom of poet, artist and printer Gary Young is in high demand

‘If you’re not risking your life,” Gary Young says without irony, “then do something else. Poetry is a long distance race, and I’ve managed it by sheer perseverance.”

Young—Santa Cruz poet laureate, master of the prose poem, tireless UCSC teacher of poetry and book arts, director of UCSC’s Cowell Press, and literary mentor to countless high school teens—has built and rebuilt his cozy house in the redwoods more than twice (storms, falling trees, earthquakes, etc.). He has been honored by the Poetry Society of America, and won grants from both the National Education Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His friends know him to be gracious and generous. A man who escaped early death. A non-irritating sage, a caring father.

Young is selecting typeface for a book he’s designing as I perch in his memorabilia-lined study. The book has been commissioned by some other poet. “It’ll be printed in Italy,” he says with noticeable relish. What Young makes are books—choice, beautiful, and handmade books. Collecting his own poems, or those of another—along with small, abstract woodcut images he creates—he sets the type and prints the books on handmade paper.

Young’s workload continues all summer. “Two books for my own press that have to be done,” he says, twirling around from his large-screen iMac. “There are translations from the Japanese to finish up.” Young looks serene, but he’s a machine (that’s a poem). UCSC lit classes, Cowell Press book arts, Kirby prep school. “My first week of summer vacation I helped a student print her wedding invitations.”

He writes poems longhand in little tan Moleskine notebooks. He pulls out a drawer filled with them. “That’s the way I’ve been doing it for 40 years.” The words go into the computer. “I print them out and then edit.” He edits ruthlessly, with red pen. Or blue if he’s using his Montblancs. And he favors Bembo and Bodoni fonts. Poets can be quite OCD, as it turns out.

How does he know when the poem is finished? “I always know when it’s done,” he smiles politely, as if I have asked a stupid question. “At a book sale at the Santa Ana library he bought “a copy of The Jade Mountain and a book of English poetry.” That long-ago purchase set a tone for his life’s work. “I wanted to be a Chinese poet,” he chuckles. “In 1990 I won a big prize and started making a name for myself. I got an NEA grant.” His book No Other Life was released. “But I’m not the schmoozing type. I’ve always been distrustful of ambition. I was always oriented toward the work, not toward being famous. I’m never smarter than when I’m writing a poem. The poem is smart.”

There was a ten-year lapse until his next book of poems, during which time he concentrated on printing. “I became known as a printer-book-artist,” he notes. “I just don’t fall neatly into a single camp.” Four presses sit downstairs in his printing studio. He brings out work for me to admire. Broadsides, handmade books, colored woodcuts printed on paper so thick you could spread butter and jam on it and call it toast.

His Greenhouse Review Press has published dozens of broadsides over the years, illuminated with Young’s expressive woodcuts and typography. These days he teaches small groups of lucky and grateful students. Intermediate and advanced poetry, plus senior projects. And classes in book arts, “plus a lot (his eyes roll heavenward) of independent studies.” Shaping his own programs for the past ten years at UCSC has allowed him to continue his own artistic quest while putting two sons through private schools. “I serve at the discretion of the Provost,” he reminds me, but he hopes to continue with the Cowell Press for a few more years.

When Young was 28 years old, he was given two months to live. Melanoma. Many surgeries. “Even so,” he grins, “I always assumed that I was going to live.” He did, and he moved from Southern California to Bonny Doon, where he’s lived ever since. It has helped him deal with an arduous schedule and economic uncertainty. “I live out in the woods,” he explains. “And I get up every morning and feed my fish.” Young has built three stone-ringed koi ponds near his house. “We move too fast. I can’t do this forever.” A few months ago Oregon State University had a colloquium on Young’s work. “I did a reading, a press demonstration and a workshop on printing broadsides.” He is energized by work.

In 2011, Young was invited to Japan to translate poems by Zen master Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. “He was Steve Jobs’ guru, a founder at Zen Center and Tassajara—a really brilliant guy. So I went to Tokyo, and then into the mountains, sitting zazen at 4 a.m. We talked, we went to temples. I stayed in private homes—a rare thing in Japan—and spent the last two weeks working on the translations.” Young knew the language, “the daunting part was making sure I didn’t miss the Buddhist elements.” The book, Precious Mirrors, with the Zen master’s calligraphy on one page and Young’s translations on the facing page, will be released this year.

“The only time you live is now,” he smiles, Buddha-like. “Poetry is like a bull. You have to learn how to ride.” Bull writing, I think to myself. “It can kill a man.” Young just keeps on outliving death.

Find out more about poet-artist-printer Gary Young at gary-young.net. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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