Gary Soto is one of California's most prolific Chicano poets and writers. He's published some 40 books, including children's books, novels and musicals, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and a Pulitzer. But his roots are as a poet, writing about his experience in the fields near Fresno.
He was just 23 years old when he released his first book, "The Elements of San Joaquin," back in 1977. Some critics have said it changed the course of Chicano literature: making it less rhetorical, more specific. Now, more than 40 years later, Chronicle Books has re-released "The Elements of San Joaquin," with some new poems Soto found in his garage, and some reflections for a 2018 audience.
Soto talked to The California Report Magazine's host, Sasha Khokha. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
These poems include such specific images from your childhood, like licking salt or playing with ants, or things your grandmother said. How do you dredge up those memories when you're writing?
I was trying to provide a portrait of these places that surrounded me and the small things from ants to cans to bottle caps embedded in asphalt. As a poet I thought, 'Well I better show this territory that I live in,' either the neighborhood, playground, the fields, the factories around, the house where we grew up. I really wanted to present that world. For one it meant something to me, and it might mean something to someone else as well.
Fresno now has this famous poetry scene that really was scratched out of the dirt there, with a groundbreaking writing program at Fresno State that still serves a lot of kids from farmworker families like you. Kids whose parents may be pressuring them to earn money, not become a writer.
It's true. I think that my parents really had no notion that I would ever go to college. Having graduated from high school with a 1.6 GPA, my mom would tell me, 'As long as you stayed out of jail you'll be okay.' That was a low-level expectation. [When you've got] young people coming from small towns outside of Fresno, agricultural towns, towns that are isolated, there's a lot of self-doubt. And that self-doubt can be cured when you find other people who are doing the same thing [like writing poetry.]
Having lived in Fresno myself, I love that you write not only about the rural parts of the Central Valley but also about the very urban grittiness of some of its neighborhoods. You grew up on the west side of Fresno. It's always been a very multiracial place. It's grappled with poverty. It's now very industrial.
People have certain notions about Fresno, and it's a lot richer in people-life and complexities. It's a wonderful place. My wife is from there. I'm from there and I do speak honorably of Fresno at all times.
What's it like to look back on this work you produced in your early 20s, nearly four decades later?
I'm surprised. I was awed how serious I was as a young man. I finished the book when I was 22. My attitude was certainly serious. Over the years, my work would lighten and brighten with comedy, and love angles. I looked at this and I thought, this is a very broody young man.
From the title poem "Elements of San Joaquin"
The wind sprays pale dirt into my mouth
The small, almost invisible scars
On my hands.
The pores in my throat and elbows
Have taken in a seed of dirt of their own.
After a day in the grape fields near Rolinda
A fine silt, washed by sweat,
Has settled into the lines
On my wrists and palms.
Already I am becoming the valley,
A soil that sprouts nothing
For any of us.
From "Fresno's Westside Blues"
There's the tinkle of a bell on a store door.
There's laughter coming from Suki's Nails and Feet.
And look at Javier, with glue and paper,
Making pinatas behind a chain link fence --
The beer-bellied Superman will take a birthday beating.
A breeze twists through the trees,
One jammed meter throws up its expired red flag.
When the bell at the Mexican Baptist Church sounds,
Huge black birds feed on dropped churros
They bow their heads and cast shadows over feral cats.
What is meant by escape?
You could be any dog hugging an ancient building for shade.
When you turn the corner, the knife-bright sun ruthlessly cuts
The shadow from your already mangy body.