Seattle Arts & Lectures' events are notoriously stodgy affairs. Don't get me wrong: The readings are usually amazing, and Seattle is lucky to have a singular organization like SAL, but seriously: Where are all the young people at? Dean Young is one of the finest poets to come through Seattle in several years, with work that speaks right down into the gullet of the contemporary. I bet his reading last Tuesday was for you, and I bet you missed it.
Is it the large, dark theater with lettered seats, the gauntlet of ticket takers, the elderly audience dressed in evening wear? Just because it's Benaroya doesn't mean it can't be edgy. Or maybe it does. In any case, Young himself never lost sight of the special absurdity that is a poetry reading in a concert hall. He segued to the Q&A saying, "I will read one more poem. And then I'll go sit in that chair, and Rebecca will come out and sit in the other chair, and you'll be able to look at our crotches." Sure, the almost constant chuckling of the audience made me nervous and hardened my heart to the jokes that really were funny (and there were a lot of them), but Young's reading still felt so personal and urgent. I hope his poetry becomes a touchstone among this generation of iconoclasts, because he's one of the poets today who can really love you back.
I knew a guy who went to a SAL reading featuring Gary Snyder, a famous 1960s beat poet, and asked if he had any advice for a young writer. Snyder's response was—delivered without a shred of amusement or sympathy—"Get a job." Dean Young, while putting it a little less pithily, seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of monolithic American writers and their enthusiasm for the next generation. Or rather, to make the distinction he himself emphasized, this generation, because we're already here.
During an interview before the reading, Young said of today's sickly poetic zeitgeist that its "constant diet of doubt and of irony leads to a sort of affectlessness... [that has] turned poetry into a language game, rather than a question of a spirit alone in the cosmos."
But mitigating this criticism was Young's belief that younger writers are overcoming the phobia of their own sincerity to make work that reinvents the medium without castrating it. "The younger poets I've seen are concerned with the urgency of being alive right now as well as being utterly involved in the interrogation of poetic means. And I think one of the things they're doing is going through irony, and not trying to dodge the various manners and demonstrations of irony in relationship to poetry, and not letting that become a kind of faithlessness. I think people are starting to believe in poetry again." So what was his advice for new believers?
"Do whatever you can to maintain your spirit. And I think that's one of the biggest challenges to any artist, to maintain your spirit. That means finding ways to survive, financially, that don't murder your soul."
What about spending 40 hours a week in a cafe making lattes for assholes? Does that murder your soul?
"I don't know, it could be inspiring. It's not working for Standard Oil."
It didn't matter that Standard Oil would never have me—I felt buoyed and self- righteous, ready to crank out some truth and beauty. Yeah, the poetry was awesome, but what's that got to do with the price of tea? Afterward, my friend said of Young, "I don't know if he's a great poet, but he makes me want to write," which seems to be all Young was asking for, anyway.