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Gary Soto: California Poets Part 5, Four Poems

Gary Soto

December 22nd, 2022

California Poets: Part V

Gary Soto

Four Poems

Stranger on the Commuter Train An artist type in dirty jeans And a sweatshirt that blazes the face Of Whitney Houston, mid-career, Totters down the aisle Of a rolling train, Hand on every other loopy overhead rope. He stops, considers my wife, Sees that the seat next to her is free. He sits. From across the aisle I’m thinking We’ll, he likes what he sees, A well-dressed woman, hair done nicely, Bracelet, necklace with its own teasing shine, A clutch purse as soft as a well-behaved kitty. And I like what I’m seeing, My wife getting hit on. I stand, legs wide to keep my balance Against the train’s sudden shift— It’s a gripping drama for me. He asks my wife, You going to work? She looks at him, turns the page Of her magazine she’s reading, Says, No. The train rushes through a tunnel. He asks, What kind of work do you do? My wife ignores him. The train comes out of the tunnel. He asks, Guess what I do? My wife looks at him, Says, I don’t want to have this conversation. He nods his head, Pulls at the front of his T-shirt Until Whitney’s face stretches like taffy, He gets up, hand clutching the rope above him. The stranger turns and looks at me, Our eyes red from what we overdid last night. He’s a painter, I’m a poet. I want to tell him, She’s not talking to me either.

Career Change During the Pandemic I tell my wife that I intend to study medicine. From her end of the couch She says, not looking up From her sewing, Think of the wounds that will never close. I sip my wine, sip a second time. I clear my throat and speak up— I plan to specialize in pediatrics. She says, Leave the children to their band aids. No, cardiology in a spic-and-span room. She says, That’s right, pull the heart out And replace it with a ham hock. Immunology has new areas of growth. She says, OK, spell that word. She bites her thread, bites a second time. Picture me as an anesthesiologist. She says, Think of your patients sleeping Until Jesus tickles them awake. Ear and toe specialist at Stanford Medical. She says, You mean ear and throat—right? I stall, I reflect. Isn’t it ear and toe, A top to bottom annual checkup? I sip my wine—sip, sip. I take off my reading glasses And the lenses flash another idea. I got it, I say, Psychiatry in a tall phallic skyscraper. She laughs and says, You can be Dr. Whacko And the patient at the same time. A podiatrist with a small office in a strip mall She says, The patients arrive walking And crawl away With their toes trying to catch up. I like my chair, The halo of lamplight over my shoulder. I pour myself another glass of wine. I slap my thigh. I know, I say slapping the arm of my recliner, liposuction. I know, she says, How about a male girdle? I stall. I think, My wife is not encouraging. She doesn’t even look up From her handiwork— Needle goes into the fabric, Then out of the fabric, Like surgery, I think. What is she making anyhow? I watch my wife sew, Thread in, thread out. How sweet, a lab coat for our doctor daughter. She looks me up and down, Hugs herself. Guess again. A poet’s straightjacket, A one-size that fits all.

Inflation Artichokes have spiked in price, kale and spuds, Bags of frozen peas, Chicken thighs, chickens breasts, Domestic wines, beer and sparkling water, Dented cans of tuna that were once 3 for $2.00— Now, what, three bucks apiece? The roll of quarters from the bank teller? The coins did just that, rolled away. Life is costly, so costly. Things go up, mostly. On my couch, with a deadly book On the lives and times of right-wing Vikings, I glance down at the windless sail of my crotch. I think, Dick, penis, cock, swashbuckling seven incher! Do what the spuds are doing, Inflate, stand up, show thyself, Cast a shadow on the wall, And be the rumor that the old guy with a dead lawn, A scholar of sorts, the one who has increased his currency, Is keeping up with that pound of hamburger And closing in on a T-bone steak!

Thinking about Hemingway Africa in ’32, Spain in ’36, France a decade later And then Cuba, Where he purchased a boat Rigged with a single sail, with a motor perhaps, And learned to tie knots In the failing light of a picturesque harbor. Fingers, he was all heavy fingers. His typing was like the pounding Of elephant footsteps, rough and loud. He carried in his big river heart all the elephants He ever shot at close range. He was a writer with a story to declare. In his fifties, he stepped into the surf And roared at the surf. He launched his boat near the end of his life. He had duty to snag a fish That was not a fish But a metaphor, man and the sea Light caught on the sea, The struggle of landing a big one, etc. Hemingway got me thinking About the flavor of metaphor On a clean, white plate.


August 23rd, 2023

Californian Poets Interview Series:

Gary Soto, Poet, Novelist, Playwright, Memoirist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Tell us how you began.

GS: I began not unlike how other poets and writers do, that is, by discovering the truth and beauty in literature. For me, the book was Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which spoke to me in a way in which I identified with the characters and place. The novel, as we know, is set in the Salinas Valley with slices of the gray breezes of Monterey. The year of discovery was 1968. I was sixteen years old.

DG: You studied with Philip Levine, who, I understand, was a demanding and stern teacher.

GS: Studied? The students of the early 1970s at Fresno State didn’t study. We took classes! We piled up units to get our degree then headed out of town—laugh here, please. But about Levine . . . yes, he was an uncompromising teacher but very funny as he slashed and burned our poems. We laughed along and learned by listening. I was full of self-doubt, of course, as I was the first in my family to go to college. I took two classes from him; in all he looked at about eight poems. I grasped his intentions and was very much a driven soul. I lived for poetry, I wrote poetry, and began to publish as early as 1973.

DG: Who critiques your poetry these days?

GS: My wife is the first reader, then poet Christopher Buckley, an amigo from our college days when we were in the MFA program at UC-Irvine. He’s a slash-and-burn critic—tough on me. It’s essential to have someone like Chris.

DG: Your first book The Elements of San Joaquin was a pioneering book in Chicano literature. Would you explain, please?

GS: The early poets of el movimiento—the political movement that began as an agricultural protest—were loud and rhetorical. Instead of that, I wanted to call up place, that is, the San Joaquin Valley, my valley. It was a strange moment for me. In 1972 I was twenty, finally unfolding, awake. I began to see the valley in a new light and began to document it through poetry that was descriptive and small, small in that I wanted to document streets, rocks, fences, tumbleweeds, grapes, plums, irrigation canals, hoes, shovels, etc.

DG: You have a new book of poetry out this year. I understand that it began as a challenge.

GS: The book is Downtime from Gunpowder Press—excellent people there—and it was written in a rush from October to December 2022. During these months I challenged myself to write a hundred poems in a hundred days. In the end I wrote 116 poems. Of course, there were clunkers—lots of them that I fed happily into the shredder—but I managed to harvest 46 poems to make up this collection. Downtime was an in-your-face reply to Covid-19 when poets and writers had not much to do.

DG: Aside from poetry, you also write fiction for middle graders and young adults.

GS: I have written numbers of books for these age groups. My new middle-grade novel is Puppy Love and it’s a romantic narrative in which holding hands is about as risky as it gets. This is a sweet novel, which I admit is sort of corny. However, I have written serious and complex stories and novels for these age groups as well. Many of them have a Raymond Carver-ish understatement and sophistication.

DG: You have worked in almost every literary genre. Now you have your hand in filmmaking? What’s that like?

GS: The film is Buried Onions, which is based on my novel of the same title. It’s about gang life in Fresno, and there’s plenty of gang fighting in my hometown. For the most part the film is finished. We’re tinkering with it, thinking about the music and distribution. Fingers crossed on this project.

DG: Do you see any parallels between working on a film and working on poetry and fiction?

GS: No, I don’t. Filmmaking is about collaboration—actors, director, cinematographer, producers, sound engineer, boring things like insurance, catering, etc. Poetry and fiction are always solitary creations. You get coffee, eat toast, and get to work. It’s you and the pencil and pad—or computer.

DG: In the 2023 memoir titled What Poets Are Like, you speak—often frankly, often humorously—about the poet’s diminished status in today’s society. Is there a role for the poet?

GS: Absolutely. I’m proud of our country’s poets. Each one of us is putting to use language—fresh language—that is contrary to the language bantered about in the media. Have you listened to the songs on the radio? How about politicians summoning up their careers? I tried my best to read President Obama’s memoir and, while I admire the man, I was bored to tears by the uneventfulness of the prose. I didn’t bump into one interesting phrase. The prose reads like a long memo.

DG: Can you say anything else about What Poets Are Like?

GS: Yes, it’s out of print, which makes me wonder if poets, generally, are out of print! It’s OK to laugh here. But truthfully, we’re involved in literature and most citizens that we encounter daily have never met a published poet. We’re an oddity.

DG: You have written about the joy of meeting people.

GS: I’m not sure if “joy” is the correct word. But I think I know what you mean and will say that in my search for joy I don’t stay home a lot—well, maybe these days, in what I hope is the aftermath of Covid-19—but prior to this national emergency I was out of the house and busy going to plays, symphonies, concerts, art exhibits, gardens, lectures, historical homes. I self-published a book called Sit Still! A Poet’s Needs to See and Do Everything. I got dressed up and went out to visit the world.

DG: Can you describe one of these joys?

GS: I recall being in a foul mood, as if I had swallowed a dark cloud, and was walking around Berkeley, directionless, when a ragged convertible Volkswagen came chugging up the street. The VW stopped at the corner, which allowed me the chance to study the driver. He was ragged as his VW, gray hair in all directions, an unshaven mug. And in the passenger’s seat was a dog—a collie—that had his head tilted backward while eating an apple, eating in such a way that the apple rotated he slowly consumed it. The pooch then turned his attention to me and recognized one sad, undecorated poet. At this sighting—me, in other words—he let some of the apple fall from his chops. That apple, with doggy slobber, was a gift for me. In his way he was trying to make me happy. Now there was a joyful moment.

DG: Living Up the Street, a prose memoir, is about your childhood in Fresno. It’s also about your Mexican American identity. How would you describe this book, which appears to engage readers after nearly forty years since its publication?

GS: All poets visit childhood. All of us have small damages, some spurts of happiness, intrigue, etc. This tidy little collection is at times comic and other times not so comic. It was a favorite in composition classes as the pieces—twenty-one of them—are relatively easy to imitate. There is racial identity in the prose that, like Grapes of Wrath, spoke to the readers.

DG: People often make the case that writing comes “easy” for those who are prolific. You have written forty-plus books. Does writing come easy to you?

GS: Yes, it comes easy for me, but the revision part is often cumbersome. I have written plays—six in all, four of which have had degrees of success—and the first drafts were a cinch. However, the revisions were monsters. I’m thinking of In and Out of Shadows, a musical about undocumented youth. That took two years to write, two years for a ninety-minute production. In turn, my one-act The Afterlife took another two years. The Afterlife, by the way, is a play about teen murder and teen suicide, and it was commissioned, meaning that I had to do it since I had cashed the check that got me going. This play was performed at California high schools where there had been suicides. It touched a lot of young people. And it was a play that could have run longer except Covid-19 shut down the theaters. I recall the day it closed in Oakland, California, a gentleman my age—70—came up to me and said, “My boy jumped from a window.” What words could I offer?

DG: What are you working on now?

I finished in five weeks a middle-grade novel called Gormax. It’s been bought but won’t come out until spring 2025. It’s a novel about two boys, age twelve, who form a rock group named Gormax. They’d heard of John Cage, the classical pianist who is known for the 1953 piece 4’33” in which the maestro sat at a piano and did, seemingly, nothing. He then stood up, bowed to the audience, and created musical history. The two likeable boy rockers in Gormax imitate John Cage. They become a worldwide sensation for all of four months, then disappear. I had always wanted to be a rocker. This novel allowed me the chance to stand up on the stage. It was a fun novel to write.

Author Bio:

Gary Soto’s most recent book is The Afterlife, A Play in One Act. His young-adult novel Buried Onions is scheduled for film production in late spring 2022. He lives in Berkeley, California.


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