The U.S. Census is silent on the matter, but the published-poet-per-family index in America is sure to be infinitesimally small. Alas, throwing off the curve is the Young family of Bonny Doon, which weighs in at a robust three out of four.
For the first time ever, celebrated UCSC poet and fine-art printer Gary Young will share the spotlight with his two adult sons, Jake Young and Cooper Young, both of whom have published books of poetry just like their dad. (Wife and mom Peggy Young will be providing moral support). The event, to be held on Friday, Aug. 7, is part of the Zoom Forward virtual literary series hosted by Jory Post and sponsored by the literary journal phren-Z and Bookshop Santa Cruz.
Gary Young has been a prominent figure on the local literary scene for decades. So it’s hardly a shock that Jake and Cooper, having grown up in a household that would regularly host nationally and internationally recognized poets, would develop a love for poetry as well. But the sons, more than a decade apart in age, have put their own distinctive stamps on the family business.
“They don’t have similar styles,” says Gary of his sons, “except insofar as they both adhere to the belief that poems should not be puzzles, and that you should be able to understand a poem. I’m sure they’ve heard me rail against the ‘put it in a blender and throw it against the wall’ school of poetry their whole lives. So they have that aesthetic in common.”
Jake Young has taken this literature thing to heart in his academic career, having earned an MFA at North Carolina State under celebrated poet Dorianne Laux, and then a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in English literature. In what began as a hobby and slowly evolved into one of his great life passions, Jake developed an interest in wine—having grown up right across the street from Bonny Doon’s Beauregard Winery was certainly a big influence—that led to becoming a certified wine specialist. In his most recent book of poems, 2018’s American Oak, from Main Street Rag, the richness of viticulture plays a starring role in the themes of his work.
“The ancient Chinese used to say that wine is liquid poetry,” says Jake, “and that poetry is the wine of the mind. There’s this parallel that’s long been recognized, and part of that has to do with the transformative properties of both poetry and wine. Both can be intoxicating—not in the stumble-down-the-street sense, but in a real sense of rapture, being caught up in the moment, of living in a sense of wonder that both wine and poetry bring to us.”
Cooper Young’s association with poetry comes from an even more counterintuitive angle: mathematics. At 21, Cooper is set to pursue a doctorate in mathematics from UCSB in the fall. He says he was drawn to poetry naturally, and not through any overt influence from his father.
“He didn’t push poetry on me at all,” says Cooper, who recently graduated from Princeton University. “As I was growing up, poetry was always Jake’s interest. I was more of a science/math kind of guy. Then college came around and freshman year, I was looking for a fifth class. I figured I ought to know a little bit about what my father and my brother had dedicated their lives to. So I enrolled in a poetry class. And I really dug it.”
That interest eventually led to the publication of Cooper’s first book of poems Sacred Grounds from Finishing Line Press earlier this spring.
The new book came about after a pilgrimage the youngest Young took in 2018 to Japan to follow in the footsteps of 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho, wandering from city to city guided by the old poet’s journals. “It took me two months,” says Cooper. “And it was the closest I’ve ever felt with my family. My brother, my mom and my dad were all there with me for the first couple of weeks, and that was the first time I was writing poetry.”
Cooper Young says there is much more overlap between his passion for poetry and math than meets the eye. “I think there is an overlap in the beauty of them both. I think the most elegant proofs are the clearest, shortest, most concise. They don’t have a lot of extra fluff to them. And the poems that draw me to them share those same qualities.”
As a mathematician, he says poetry works in a kind of symbiosis with math. “They balance each other out. If I get too into a problem with either numbers or words, I can switch to the other and it gives my brain a whole new way of working.”
At the Aug. 7 event, Gary Young will be reading from his latest work of prose poetry That’s What I Thought from Persea Books. He says he’s not concerned about being upstaged by his sons. In fact, he’s used to it.
In the 1990s, when Jake was a toddler, the young boy created a series of drawings and stories that his father, a master printer by trade, turned into a little book with the nonsense title A Aga. (“When someone asked me what ‘A Aga’ meant,” remembers Jake, “I just said, ‘It means A Aga.’”) A bit later, when Gary was trying to interest a publisher in one of his books, young Jake’s book caught the publisher’s eye instead. A Aga was published in 1994, when Jake was about 6. He was celebrated with a book signing at Bookshop Santa Cruz.
“The truth is,” says Gary, “he got a better contract that I did, and I’ve published nine full collections and about 20 chapbooks. He had me beat out before he was even out of grammar school.”