Fresno poet Gary Soto's book reflects upon his life

The Fresno BeeAugust 17, 2013 

Fresno author Gary Soto has written about a host of topics related to community, family and place, through the prism of his Mexican-American heritage. His latest book examines those themes on a personal level.

"I have reached an age and situation that will make a poet ponder his or her career," Soto says.

Most who reach such a moment can merely sit and reflect on the events that have made up their life. When you are a best-selling author like Soto, you write a book. In "What Poets Are Like: Up and Down with the Writing Life" (Sasquatch Books; $15), Soto looks back at the threads of highs and lows that came together to make up the fabric of his much-heralded life.

The book, a collection of 60 short essays, will be released Tuesday through amazon.com and barnesandnoble. com.

Part of the 61-year-old Soto's reflections deal with the influence growing up in the Central Valley had on him. Had he not been born and raised in Fresno, he wouldn't have become a writer.

"Growing up there allowed me to ride bikes and my skateboard. Swim in canals. The music at the time was so powerful and provocative from Simon & Garfunkel to Donovan. The music of my generation, the '60s, was very moving for me," Soto says.

He learned while attending Fresno State and Fresno City College how to take those outside influences and funnel them through words. Soto has deep memories of Fresno State professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine, with whom he took two courses in fall 1972 and 1973.

Soto says Levine helped shape his sense of poetry.

"He was a nuts-and-bolts sort of teacher who went line by line explaining the faults of a poem. I took what he told me to heart and ran with it," Soto says.

Levine provided the mechanics Soto needed. But it was another who gave him the inspiration to write.

His first work of poetry was sparked while Soto was a student at FCC. After a girl he liked didn't return his affections, Soto published his first poem, "The Little League Tryouts," in the college newspaper.

From those early metered words, Soto's gone on to decades of writing success. Four million copies of his work have been sold.

Among the books he's penned are 11 collections of poetry and more than 35 books for young readers. His work has earned him a long list of accolades: a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award; the U.S. Award for International Poetry Forum; winner of the Bess Hokin Prize, the Levinson Award; the Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation; and the Author-Illustrator Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association.

What has earned him so much applause is how Soto has been able to create in his writing vivid images of family life in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods often darkened by the realities of poverty and racism. It's his children's books — often tackling the same tough themes — that earned him the most attention.

As Soto looks back at events in his life that served as the bases for most of his work, it's clear it wasn't success that resulted in his writing "What Poets Are Like: Up and Down with the Writing Life." The self-examination was spawned by the award-winning author being dropped by two publishers.

"It was no fault of theirs, only the economy. There's been a real decline in the distribution and displaying of books," Soto says. "It bothers me as a collector of books that they are going away. I'm the last man without a cell phone. I'm a bit of a dinosaur."

No matter how the book is delivered, taking a hard look at one's life seems daunting. Soto found the process freeing.

"I was consumed, on fire with this book," he says. "There were times when I was laughing at myself. And then there were times when I looked at things very seriously. I am already working on a follow-up collection."

In the prologue, Soto explains that he writes about like-minded souls, rubbing elbows with celebrities, living in London, Fresno and Berkeley, friends and Carolyn, his wife of 38 years. He describes himself as "a poet who feels like all the others — mostly ignored."

To some, the book may look as if Soto is a poet of sour grapes in some of his reflections. But he learned a long time ago not to worry about what people think of him as long as he writes about matters worth discussion and further observation.

Soto continues to embrace poetry as a way of making those observations, despite the literary genre being dwarfed by the other writing styles. He finds that poets are the most candid of all writers.

He also describes the role of a poet as someone who paints portraits.

In hindsight, the portrait painter Soto became started when he was a child of working-class parents growing up under the harsh Fresno sun. It's only in retrospect that he understands how those hot, dry days, when he used pinto beans as toys and pondered the effect of a burning sun on plant life, were preparing him for a career that's lasted decades.

"There are a lot of great writers in Fresno who have been ignored," Soto says. "There's just some element in Fresno that grows poets."


MEET THE AUTHOR

To see a sample of what sparked Soto to write "What Poets Are Like," visit the Gary Soto Literary Museum at Fresno City College. Soto will offer free tours at 3:30 and 4:30 p.m. Aug. 27. For more information, call the CC activities office at (559) 265-5711.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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