Tuesday, April 14, 2015

National Poetry Month—Gary Soto, Poet of the Fields and Barrios

Gary Soto reading at the California Poets Festival in 2006.

The sunbaked valleys of Central California produce a lot—or did until the current epic and extended western drought—of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and even cotton.  But it has not known to be hospitable to poets.  To thrive there a poet must be a hearty weed with deep roots, luck in evading the hoe, and a resistance to the poisons meant to enforce a productive uniformity.  Gary Soto must be that weed.  He flourished against all odds to tell the story of his people and their time and place.
Born in Fresno on April 12, 1952 to Mexican-American migrant farm workers Manuel and Angie Soto, his father died when he was only four leaving his mother to raise him alone.  He worked beside her in the fields from a young age and following the crops changed schools frequently.  Although bi-lingual circumstances made him an indifferent student, certainly one who showed scant promise or much encouragement.

Soto in childhood with his mother and siblings from his web page.

Yet somehow while he was in high school he encountered writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jules Verne, Robert Frost,  and Thornton Wilder.  He fell madly in love with language and particularly poetry.
It was a struggle, but he completed studies at Fresno City College then transferred to California State University, Fresno.  By the happiest of circumstances, Soto fell under the tutelage of Philip Levine, a professor of English and writing who was a noted poet of his native Detroit, the auto industry, and its workers.  Transplanted to agricultural California, Levine passed on chances to move to more prestigious university hoping to encourage working class poets with brown skin to find their own voices.  Later Levine would become Poet Laureate of the United States.  In Soto he found just the kind of young talent he was dedicated to nurturing.

Soto graduated from Fresno State in 1974, the first member of his family to complete college.  With Levine’s encouragement he went on to graduate studies in writing poetry at  the University of California, Irvine, where he was the first Mexican-American to earn a M.F.A. in 1976.  He cited as his inspirations the novelist of magical realism Gabriel García Márquez and contemporary poets Edward Field, W. S. Merwin.

Soto and wife Carolyn Oda.
In 1975 Soto married Japanese American Carolyn Oda and together they have raised one daughter, Mariko Heidi Soto.
Soto’s first poetry collection, The Elements of San Joaquin, won the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum in 1976 prior to its publication in the Pitt Poetry Series in 1977.  His second collection, The Tale of Sunlight  in 1978, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.  His work reflected the daily experiences of Chicanos which he presented without varnish, judgement, or preaching.  “As a writer,” he said, “my duty is not to make people perfect, particularly Mexican Americans. I’m not a cheerleader. I’m one who provides portraits of people in the rush of life.”
Meanwhile Soto went on to an accomplished academic career of his own teaching at the  University of California, Berkeley and a University of California, Riverside, where he was a named Distinguished Professor.  In addition to his poetry Soto branched out in several directions.  Beginning with Baseball in April he has written 21 books for older children and youth including Too Many Tamales, The Pool Party, and Marisol  in the popular American Girl series.  He also has produced a bi-lingual series of Chato books for young children about a “real, cool cat (gato), a low rider from the barrio of East Los Angeles.

Soto's acclaimed collection for young readers.

His work in children’s lit helped him branch out into film producing The Pool Party and The No Guitar Blues which was adapted from a story in Baseball in April.  Soto received the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Film Excellence from the Association for Library Service to Children for his production work on The Pool Party.  He also became Young People’s Ambassador for the United Farm Workers of America, introducing young people to the union’s work and goals.
He has also written several volumes of adult memoir stories.  In 1985 Living Up the Street received the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award.  He turned playwright with Novio Boy in 2006.
But Soto remains best known and most honored for his 14 collections of poetry.  Among his awards for poetry are the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature, the Author-Illustrator Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association, the PEN Center West Book Award for Petty Crimes, Discovery/The Nation Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize,  and the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine, The California Library Association’s John and Patricia Beatty Award (twice), a Recognition of Merit from the Claremont Graduate School for Baseball in April, the Silver Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California, and the Tomás Rivera Prize.
Soto has retired from teaching to dedicate himself to writing.  He lives in Northern California but still spends much time in both Fresno and Berkley. His web site can be found at http://www.garysoto.com .
If the following representative poems seem a bit obsessed with money counted out in coins and crumpled dollar bills I assure you that all of his work is not.  But in lives lived always on the very edge, those pitiful small sums seem so important.
A Red Palm
You’re in this dream of cotton plants.
You raise a hoe, swing, and the first weeds
Fall with a sigh. You take another step,
Chop, and the sigh comes again,
Until you yourself are breathing that way
With each step, a sigh that will follow you into town.

That’s hours later. The sun is a red blister
Coming up in your palm. Your back is strong,
Young, not yet the broken chair
In an abandoned school of dry spiders.
Dust settles on your forehead, dirt
Smiles under each fingernail.
You chop, step, and by the end of the first row,
You can buy one splendid fish for wife
And three sons. Another row, another fish,
Until you have enough and move on to milk,
Bread, meat. Ten hours and the cupboards creak.
You can rest in the back yard under a tree.
Your hands twitch on your lap,
Not unlike the fish on a pier or the bottom
Of a boat. You drink iced tea. The minutes jerk
Like flies.

It's dusk, now night,
And the lights in your home are on.
That costs money, yellow light
In the kitchen. That’s thirty steps,
You say to your hands,
Now shaped into binoculars.
You could raise them to your eyes:
You were a fool in school, now look at you.
You’re a giant among cotton plants.
Now you see your oldest boy, also running.
Papa, he says, it’s time to come in.
You pull him into your lap
And ask, What’s forty times nine?
He knows as well as you, and you smile.
The wind makes peace with the trees,
The stars strike themselves in the dark.
You get up and walk with the sigh of cotton plants.
You go to sleep with a red sun on your palm,
The sore light you see when you first stir in bed;

—Gary Soto

The Mission Tire Factory, 1969

All through lunch Peter pinched at his crotch,
And Jesús talked about his tattoos,
And I let the flies crawl my arm, undisturbed,
Thinking it was wrong, a buck sixty five,
The wash of rubber in our lungs,
The oven we would enter, squinting
---because earlier in the day Manny fell
From his machine, and when we carried him
To the workshed (blood from
Under his shirt, in his pants)
All he could manage, in an ignorance
Outdone only by pain, was to take three dollars
From his wallet, and say:
“Buy some sandwiches. You guys saved my life.”

—Gary Soto


The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
in mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

—Gary Soto

How Things Work

Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother’s violin.
We’re completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child
Perhaps, a belligerent cat that won’t let go
Of a balled sock until there’s chicken to eat.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things just keep going. I guess.
            —Gary Soto

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