Originally created 06/05/06

In the San Joaquin Valley, poems grow like weeds

FRESNO, Calif. - Work happens here.

Vans full of farmworkers rumble through the darkness before dawn. Produce-laden trucks streak along highways en route to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The mountains surrounding the San Joaquin Valley hide behind a veil of exhaust, dust and soot.

For many born into this bowl-shaped land, there's little time for words, yet poetry grows here like weeds, said Blas Manuel de Luna, who was raised a farmhand and writes poems that are as much a part of the earth as the peaches he used to pick.

His words are straightforward and honest, his themes focused on work and the land. De Luna belongs to a regional school of poetry born in this rural valley that sprawls at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

"You're not deluded about life if you grow up working in the fields," said de Luna. The valley's poets are "no-nonsense people who want to write about what they do."

Like de Luna, many are immigrants, or the children of immigrants - Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Laotian - who came here to pick lettuce, strawberries or plums.

Their experiences often make for poems that are hard to swallow and linger like grit between the teeth, like de Luna's "Bent to the Earth," which he read recently at a high school in Firebaugh, where he teaches English to the children of other farmworkers:

"They had hit Ruben

with the high beams, had blinded

him so that the van

he was driving, full of Mexicans

going to pick tomatoes,

would have to stop. Ruben spun

the van into an irrigation ditch,

spun the five-year-old me awake

to immigration officers,

their batons already out,

already looking for the soft spots on the body

There were no great truths

revealed to me then."

Poet Philip Levine, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his collection "The Simple Truth," moved to the San Joaquin Valley from Detroit in 1958 to join the faculty of California State University, Fresno.

Other poets followed, giving rise to the regional literary movement that continues to flourish, producing the writers Lawson Fusao Inada and Juan Felipe Herrera - who studied under Levine - along with Tim Z. Hernandez and many others.

"This place is very dramatic and uncompromising and vast," Levine said. "When you sit down to write, you think: 'I want to write large to measure up to this.'"

Joyce Jenkins, editor of Poetry Flash, a magazine focused on West Coast poetry, said Levine's writing style meshed perfectly with the valley.

"The valley isn't a very romantic place, or a particularly intellectual place," she said. "Levine's straightforward, honest poetry was a wonderful fit for these kids who were hungry to learn, who were from working class backgrounds. He taught some wonderful poets, who went on to teach themselves. There was a big ripple effect."

Many outsiders still can't comprehend this flat land, where rivers are harnessed to feed crops and poverty sprouts between fields, as a place of poetry.

De Luna's unflinching autobiographical poem "Bent to the Earth" is the hallmark of his first book by the same name, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

The valley is a place where immigrants come looking for a first foothold, a first kid to finish high school, a first house. Along the way, they discover they've become American - sometimes in the funniest ways, as described by Inada, a third-generation Japanese poet born in Fresno in 1938, in his "Trombpoem":

"Right - 1948, and I was a kid

old enough to make morning deliveries

for my grandfather's fish store,

which consisted of, if you can dig this -

since everything's boarded-up or torn-down now -

just being a happy kid out of the camps

with the privilege of going into front-doors

of restaurants of Fresno's swinging

colored section, strolling all

purposeful, proud, and casual

into the kitchen, and handing over a package

in exchange for a sip or a snack -

because all the black, brown, yellow cooks

knew me, and would feed me,

just for making my delivery!"

Others use poetry to navigate the cracks between cultures.

Hernandez, a performance poet whose first book, "Skin Tax," was published two years ago, grew up at odds with the machismo of Visalia's Hispanic community - though not with its music.

With the help of bongo drums and two musician friends, Hernandez recently transformed patrons of a brightly lit Barnes & Noble bookstore in a Merced strip mall into raucous backup singers chanting the chorus of his poem "Mama's Boy."

"They say I'm a Mama's Boy

like it's a bad thing, when all along

I thought that's what a man was....

A Mama's Boy they say,

with hands too soft for picking

legs thin as sprigs of mesquite"

Many of the valley's youth take another way out, joining the military like Fresno poet Brian Turner.

If the isolation of wide-open country made Turner a poet, his grandfather's stories of military adventure gave him the guts of a soldier. But what ultimately pushed him to sign up, like many young people here, was the more prosaic need for health insurance and a steady income.

In Iraq, he was haunted by a landscape that was eerily familiar, where owls rested on grape vines, grasshoppers scratched the dirt, and the world was reduced to stillness. Long hours of boredom were frequently shattered by the violence that permeates "Here, Bullet," a collection of poems for which he won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, given by the nonprofit poetry publisher Alice James Books.

In his "Katyusha Rockets," the two places merge, and for a moment, the war is here, and bombs are falling on a Memorial Day parade in Fresno:

"where lovers and strangers and old friends

entertain themselves, unaware of the dangers

headed their way, or that I will need to search

among them..."


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