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California Poet Laureate Al Young's 'Blues'

Al Young took to writing poetry, as he describes it in one poem, "to make out the sound of my own background music."

He's now the poet laureate of California, celebrating National Poetry Month with a collection called Something About the Blues.

Though he's lived in California for decades, the 68-year-old poet was born in rural Mississippi and had the good luck to find himself in one very special classroom in the second grade.

In the segregated South of the 1940s, Young attend a black-only school. "At the Kingston School for Colored, we put a lot of emphasis on things that would be now called African American, on Negro literature and Negro culture," he tells Renee Montagne. "So we memorized poems by people like Langston Hughes, of course, and Paul Laurence Dunbar."

Young moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1960, "under the sway, all of the hullabaloo. The Beat Generation was sounding its horns ... and there was just a lot of romance about it." He had $15 and a guitar.

Young's poems touch on not only blues and jazz music but also, not surprisingly, life in California. In "Watsonville After the Quake," he writes about the Mexican immigrants forgotten in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In "Blues My Naughty Poetry Taught Me," Young observes the state through the window of an Amtrak train:

Sea-fences, industrial wash-ups, slushy tracks and rickety light: skies so soulfully watercolored you'd have to be an arts commissioner not to see it. Seen across the Bay through trees and the undersides of freeways San Francisco looks lonely at the end of one bridge and the beginning of another...

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