Photo by Frank Reitz via Flickr Creative Commons

Enriching the Fresno Poetry Legacy

Organizers of the three poetry events in the Fresno Poets’ Summer Reading Series 2010, have two motives for their efforts: to support the publication of local poets through the Ash Tree Poetry Series of Fresno Poets and to take part in and hopefully enhance the rich poetry tradition that has developed in Fresno over the years.

Who would have thought that a dusty railroad town in the middle of a desert would become a world-renowned center of poetry? But that is just what happened in Fresno. More than 75 poets with ties to Fresno have achieved national or international reputations,
including the poets laureate of two states and a Pulitzer Prize
winner.

It is possible that the Fresno poetry tradition may go back as far as 1923 when William Saroyan, a 15-year-old high school dropout declared he was going to be a poet. Though Saroyan was later known more for his fiction and his playwriting, it could be said that his early inclination toward poetry was one of the first evidences that Fresno was a place that inspired the poetic imagination. Maybe it was the unabated crystalline view of the Sierra Nevadas, or the abundance of agriculture, the weather or the “sidewalks that rolled up at dusk,” giving creative minds more time to focus on their art.

In Saroyan’s case, his uncle, Aram, was able to convince the editor of an Armenian newspaper to publish some of his nephew’s novice poetry. After this early recognition of his talents, Saroyan went on to his greatest success in other genres and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his play “The Time of Your Life,” but all indications are that he began as a poet.

About the same time as Saroyan was becoming a sensation on Broadway, William Everson, the son of the Selma city clerk and the town’s municipal band director, had a quasi-religious and poetic experience in the Fresno State College Library while reading the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Everson then became a poet (also a grape farmer, printer and World War II conscientious objector). In 1951, he joined the Dominican Order and became “Brother Antoninus.” He was a leading figure in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s and was later poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz. He published more than 24 books of poetry.

Although there may be some disagreement about whether Saroyan and Everson were prime movers in the beginnings of Fresno’s poetry history, there is no debate about the importance of Philip Levine’s role in bringing about an explosion of poetry upon his arrival at then Fresno State in 1958, via Detroit, the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and a one-year Stanford Poetry Fellowship. With his colleagues and friends Peter Everwine and C.G. Hanzlicek, Levine established an undergraduate poetry writing program that turned out numerous highly respected poets.

One Fresno State graduate, Greg Pape, became two-time poet laureate of the state of Montana, and another, Lawson Inada, served as poet laureate for the state of Oregon. Levine won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his book The Simple Truth. The poetry writing program he established at Fresno State (now CSU Fresno) has evolved into the master of fine arts in poetry program, run by Connie Hales and Tim Skeen. A brief laundry list of notable Fresno poets who were students at Fresno State/CSU Fresno includes Inada, Pape, Larry Levis, David St. John, Gary Soto, Roberta Spear, Luis Omar Salinas and Brian Turner.

Poet Chuck Moulton founded the Fresno Poet’s Association (FPA) in the 1980s. Originally as much a social organization as a literary one, the FPA provided opportunities for local poets to gather regularly at the old Wild Blue Yonder nightclub in the Tower District. Readings were later held at the Fresno Art Museum, Bonner Auditorium. In 1994, Hanzlicek became the director of the FPA, bringing poets from across the country for readings. Hanzlicek retired as the FPA director last year, and the Association is now directed by poet Peter McDonald, dean of Library Services at CSUF.

David St. John, a Fresno native and graduate of McLane High School, Fresno State and the University of Iowa, is another poet with Fresno roots who has gained an international reputation. In recent years, he has embarked on a project of editing The Ash Tree Poetry Series of Fresno Poets in an effort to further enrich the Fresno poetry tradition. The series is published by the nonprofit literary press Tebot Bach. Funds raised at the three readings this summer will support publication of more Ash Tree Poetry Series volumes.

All but one of the poets published to date in the Ash Trees series were included in the seminal Fresno poetry anthology, Down at the Santa Fe Depot, 20 Fresno Poets (1970), a volume that, along with Levine’s rising stature, put Fresno on the national and international poetry map. The Ash Tree Series has published the work of B. H. Boston, Michael Clifton and Sam Pereira. A new volume by Glover Davis entitled Spring Drive will be out this fall.

The Poets of Fresno: Summer Reading Series 2010, featuring 21 poets with Fresno roots, is bound to add a memorable new chapter to the colorful and distinguished history of Fresno poetry.

The readings will be held on the fourth Tuesday of June, July and August at the Revue Cafe‚, 920 E. Olive Ave. Starting time is 7 p.m. Admission is a $5 donation at the door.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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