April 22, 2016
Today we are meeting on the concrete steps at the Santa Fe Train Depot in Fresno, California. Twenty-one living writers and seven forbearers. We’ve agreed to meet up to re-create a photograph that has been legendary since it was first taken in 1970. Many of us weren’t even born then.
The original photograph, taken by Tom Peck, graced the back cover of an anthology of “new voices” at the time, titled “Down at the Santa Fe Depot: 20 Fresno Poets.” The editors were two Armenian-American poets David Kheridian, and James Baloian. The photograph includes a handful of poets who would later go on to become influential in American letters: Philip Levine, Omar Salinas, Lawson Inada, and William Saroyan—perhaps Fresno’s most internationally recognized writer. In the photo, the group looks aloof, casual, and yet, at least for writers in Fresno, this single image has become somewhat iconic. At the time they were first, second and third generation Chicanos, Armenian, Japanese, and anglo. American writers, all of them.
David Kheridian: “The idea for the photo came from my understanding that place was one of the most critical elements in the nature of poetry. The word itself, when used to name a person or place, became the very embodiment of that thing. This is the power that poetry can convey: the microcosm when named becomes the universal, spring to life.”
What brought us together is Fresno’s first ever LitHop, a day long gathering of more than 100 writers in over 30 venues. It’s the brainchild of Lee Herrick, Fresno’s current Poet Laureate. If not for this event, there would’ve been no other reason to get us all into one place at the same time. We had to seize the opportunity.
Today, as each of us begins to arrive, despite the rain, there is an electricity in the air. At first it’s me and Michael Medrano. But then Brian Medina shows up, and then Joseph Rios shortly after. He tells us he just got in on the Amtrak from Los Angeles. Says he wouldn’t have missed this. Minutes later, stepping off of the local bus, Fresno’s first city Poet Laureate, James Tyner, appears. One by one they arrive, and each time another walks toward us, the electricity grows. We feel it. We’ve all come to this photo-shoot keenly aware of the homage we are paying to our own literary forbearers, and to our dear friends who’ve since passed on. The rain pours harder, and still they come.
Andre Yang swaggers up and slaps hands with each one of us, and then Devoya Mayo and Estela Sue emerge from the behind the building. Because it’s now raining hard, we begin to duck under a tree. But then David Mas Masumoto walks up and he’s carrying a shovel. He’s a farmer after all. And he sees us, and sorta laughs, then tilts his head back and lets the huge drops of rain splash against his face. “This is what we want to happen!” he says. And he’s absolutely right. This agricultural region that has fed and nourished us, that has brought many of our families here in the first place, and that has been in a drought for years, WANTS rain to happen, NEEDS rain to happen. We shuffle out from the under the tree and let the rain come down on us. Since we’re all curious, I ask Masumoto what the shovel is for. He replies, “It’s my work tool. It’s what I do.” Of course it is, we say, having a good chuckle over it. Later on, over beers, Joseph Rios and I will talk about Mas’s shovel. “If Fresno writers have one thing in common, it’s that our books do work. Like Mas’s shovel.”
By 4:45 everyone has arrived. There are twenty-one of us. Anglo, Latino, Armenian, Hmong, Nissei, African-American, Palestinian-American, and Korean. Sometimes, some of us will get asked, why Fresno? Why do so many writers come out of Fresno? I’ve even heard it referred to as “The Fresno School,” which seems kinda funny to me. To my knowledge no one among us has ever taken this question seriously. Sincerely, maybe, but not seriously. What does it mean to have a “school” anyway? The mere thought of any kind of limitation makes me cringe. Limitations are boundaries, borders. And for me, borders have no room in art. A school? Sure, we sometimes share our work with one other, or in small groups over food and drinks, or perhaps a phone call. Of course we champion one another’s work, and celebrate—and we celebrate heartily— when one of us has penned a new book or landed an award. But ask each one of us individually about what makes a place like Fresno a fertile breeding grounds for poets and you’ll likely get a different answer. Fresno, a city of more than half a million people, which consistently ranks first place in nearly every major national survey on topics such as, Worst Cities in America. Worst Pollution in the U.S.. Least College Degrees. Highest Illiteracy. Most Impoverished Counties. Poorest Job Market. And the lists go on. How is it possible that a single region with minimal resources and even lesser hope, has consistently produced some of the greatest literary names to ever have the privilege of occupying space on bookshelves?
Brian Turner’s award winning book, “Here, Bullet,” took the poetry world by storm, because never before had a war veteran wrote so compelling and boldly honest about the realities of war. And then there’s the young Andres Montoya, a friend to many of us, who died at the age of 30, just months before he would get to hold his first book in his hands. He never saw his own first book get published!! We used to say. What a tragedy! But his namesake is now a major award, launching the career of many new talented writers across the country. The Andres Montoya Poetry Prize is synonymous with “new groundbreaking poet rising.” Ironically, no writer from Fresno had ever actually won the award, until this past year. A young, fierce Chicano, who was a student and dishwasher in Fresno, finally brought home the prize. His name is David Campos and the dude has no intention of slowing down. There are others too who’ve paved the way, such as, David St. John, Larry Levis, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, Victor Martinez, Dixie Salazar, Roberta Spear, Gary Soto, and numerous others. This city has produced two back-to-back United States Poet Laureates, National Book Award winners, National Book Critics Circle awards, American Book Award winners, Children’s Book Awards, screenwriters, songwriters, and playwrights. It is for this reason that today we are carrying the photographs of these forbearers. The fiction writer, Daniel Chacon is carrying his best friend, Andres Montoya. The poet, Devoya Mayo is carrying the image of William Saroyan. Poet, Juan Luis Guzman is carrying Larry Levis, because they both hail from Selma. Poet, Kenneth Chacon is holding up the crazy gypsy, Omar Salinas. Estela Sue is holding up her uncle, Victor Martinez. James Tyner is carrying Ernesto Trejo. And I’m holding Phil Levine. Today they are all here with us. In our writing, and in spirit.
What’s going on in Fresno you ask? Maybe it’s the open brooding sky choked out with methane. Or the drought. Or the rain. If there is a school, then the endless fields are our classrooms. Our chalkboards the blank page. Definitely no rulers or other delineations here. Only comradery. Only support, championing the other. We have place in common. We all know its history. How remnants of the dust bowl Oklahomans who came to this great valley to work the fields can still be seen on the faces of the people 75 years later. We don’t have to look hard to find the Armenian bakeries, and the Hmong gardens amidst the concrete and potholes, or the campesinos who still bend and pick like they’ve been doing here for eons, up and down the dogleg of Highway 99. And I think maybe it’s with this understanding that we’ve all taken a kind of silent vow, in one way or another, to write our collective and individual histories and herstories out of the fields, the margins, and onto bookshelves. The Hmong American Writers Circle is probably one of our best examples of this. Up until 60 years ago the people of Laos didn’t even have a written language! They told stories, sang songs, recited poems and tales, and documented their existence in their beautiful art. Poets like Andre Yang, Mai Der Vang, Burlee Vang, Soul Vang, Anthony Cody, are a generation of outriders, beacons for their communities. They are the vanguard, making waves in literary circles across the country, and yet, they are as American as Walt Whitman. In fact, Mai Der Vang just received the highly coveted Walt Whitman Prize! They are all from here. We are all from here. Brothers and sisters in story, word, and community.
If there is any school at all, this is probably it. Poets, novelists, immigrants, activists, all with vastly different ideas and aesthetic interests, yet, all in a kind of unspoken vow to writing as a way to “Live a life without borders,” as the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, recently said. “What’s going on in Fresno, they ask me,” he bellowed to a crowd of more than 400 at Fresno City College, “I tell them, don’t you know? Fresno is the poetry capital of the WORLD!!”
(Bottom row, L – R) Tim Z. Hernandez, Aris Janigian, Daniel Chacon, Kenneth Chacon, Randa Jarrar, Marisol Baca, Devoya Mayo.
(Second row from bottom L – R) Lisa Lee Herrick, Lee Herrick, Michael Medrano, Connie Hales, Soul Vang, Estela Sue
(Third row up from bottom, L – R) Juan Luis Guzman, Andre Yang, Joseph Rios, Bryan Medina, David Mas Masumoto
(Top row, L – R) Steven Church, John Hales, James Tyner
Missing: Juan Felipe Herrera, Margarita Luna Robles, David Campos, Mai Der Vang, Anthony Cody, Sara Borjas, Alex Espinoza, Tanya Nichols, Jefferson Beavers, Mia Barraza Martinez, Liz Scheid-Blau, Dixie Salazar, Jon Vineberg, Marx Arax, Margarita Engle, Blas Manuel de Luna, Destina Unica Hernandez, Michael Jasso, Aideed Medina, Shane Scurvy, Meta L. Schettler…
ALL PHOTOS CREDITED TO VICTOR TREJO, 2016