By Tim Simmers
When Marisol Baca studied poetry at Fresno State in the early 2000s, she heard few women of color or marginalized voices in Fresno’s fertile poetry scene.
Even before she became the fourth poet laureate of Fresno last year, the insightful Latina poet and writing teacher took steps to shift that imbalance.
She helped found the Women Writers of Color–Central Valley, a group that gathered together, broke bread and talked about poetry and where to publish their work. The group also welcomed the LGBTQ community.
“There’s a lot more marginalized voices here now,’’ said Baca, a charismatic poetry and composition professor at Fresno City College. “There’s also more publications featuring them.”
Baca is the first woman and Chicana poet laureate of Fresno, a city with a solid national reputation for nurturing and growing poets. Referred to by recent U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera as “one of our Fresno diamonds,’’ Baca doesn’t shy away from women’s issues and the fight for social justice.
In 2018, she toured Southwest border towns with three other women poets giving readings on immigration and migrant workers crossing the border. The group of mostly Chicana writers offered healing poems and stories about their own experience around border issues.
Lately, Baca mobilized to help wildfire victims in the nearby Sierras. She put together “Cloud Writings: Poems for Fire Relief.” The project on her Web site combines the artwork of LeeAnn Dicicco with the poems of nine established Fresno poets. People who donate receive a print with artwork and a poem. Donations go to fire victims.
Baca grew up in Fresno but spent her early childhood in New Mexico near the Rio Grande River around alfalfa fields and the Sandia Mountain range in what she calls a corner of Albuquerque.
She lived in an adobe house her father built with her three sisters, one brother and her mother. Nearby, her grandfather and grandmother lived, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins who had lived there for generations.
Her grandfather read poems of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca to her when she was a young girl, recognizing that she was naturally inclined toward songs and poems. She still counts Lorca as a big influence on her own poetry. Baca comes from a long line of teachers. Her grandfather worked on translations of Lorca and other Spanish poets as a master’s student.
Her father moved the family to Fresno when she was six to take a job as professor of education at Fresno State, where he worked for 23 years.
Baca returned frequently with her family to the homeland she called “an enchanting world.” Later, she wrote many poems trying to remember and recapture her childhood and the traditions of her family there. They cooked with chiles in her grandmother’s small, but cherished kitchen until everybody was crying, and shared traditional food, music and tenderness.
Her father smoked fish in an outdoor oven called “horno,” which she wrote about in her first book of poems, Tremor, published in 2018.
“I wanted to reclaim my roots and hold on to that history,” said the spirited Baca. Her poems are lyrical, rhythmic and dream-like at times. The search for her roots turned into a spiritual journey, she noted.
Baca explored poetry at Fresno State on a scholarship after winning the coveted Andres Montoya Poetry Award, named for the much-revered Fresno poet who died young but influenced many in the vibrant local poetry community.
She embraced the Fresno poetry tradition, a narrative style filled with rich stories of hard work, the land and its fruits and hard times. She studied under Juan Felipe Herrera and the late Philip Levine, another Fresno poet who became a U.S. poet laureate. She referred to Herrera as a mentor, and named Omar Salinas, another legendary Fresno poet, as an influence.
“I find Marisol Baca a most particular person, a poet with meditative insights. Her voice, her various arts are all so unique, spellbinding and filled with sudden simplicity. A ‘cow-head skeleton,’ for example,” said Herrera, U.S. poet laureate from 2015 to 2017 and current poet laureate emeritus at Fresno State.
“She is a seer of sorts, with the ability to trek in deep waters of the unconscious, so distant from the outscapes of turmoil that plague us these days.”
Herrera referred to her “rainy writing and notations into a new time, a different task that comes easy to her magical mind and hands. We’re fortunate to have her as one of our Fresno diamonds.”
While Covid-19 has limited one of her passions about teaching poetry to elementary schoolchildren, she has gone into some classrooms with lessons and poems to read to third and fourth graders.
She wrote her first poem in the third grade about butterflies and still remembers the fourth-grade teacher and poet Jean Janzen who helped open her eyes to poetry. It made her recognize how powerful writing can be for young children. She has created short lessons she wants to bring to young students, and she’s open to receiving requests from instructors to teach a lesson by Zoom or go into a classroom when it’s safe.
Baca has published poems in literary journals such as Narrative Northeast and Riverlit and other journals and anthologies. She also has a master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing from Cornell University, where she studied on a full fellowship. She’s currently working on a second book of poetry.
“Marisol brings a wealth of experience and years of activity in the Fresno poetry community to the role of poet laureate. She’s a uniquely talented poet with particular expertise in women’s and Latinx poetics,” said Lee Herrick, English and poetry professor at Fresno City College, and former Fresno poet laureate. “Few poets know and love Fresno like Marisol. Few poets can write the magical poem she does.”
Baca’s poem “Spiral” from her book Tremor appears on a just-released jazz album by Fresno State music professor Dr. Benjamin Boone called The Poets Are Gathering. “Spiral” is about connecting to the female power. The album contains many poets around the nation and three Fresno poets.
“Spiral” was also nominated for a prestigious Pushcart prize for poetry.
As part of her work as poet laureate of Fresno, she has worked with the Resource for American Indian Needs group at Fresno City College. Recently, she read her own poem at a gathering of the group about the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“Marisol sees poetry as a powerful public resource, available to everyone,” said Connie Clegg Hales, professor emerita of English and creative writing at Fresno State. “It’s a deeply ingrained and vital part of her own social and community activism, and she puts it to use whenever she can.”
Baca lives in the country in Sanger in a little house with her husband on a few acres with a big garden and some chickens.
Tim Simmers is a freelance writer, teacher and longtime Bay Area journalist who moved to Fresno last year.