INTERVIEW: Sharon Bryan

Sharon Bryan has earned two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in poetry and the coveted Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the author of the acclaimed poetry collection Flying Blind (2003), as well as the collections Objects of Affection and Salt Air.

Bryan often travels the country as a visiting professor, and she taught two graduate classes at California State University, Fresno, this past spring as the University’s distinguished visiting writer in residence. Her recently completed fourth book of poetry, Stardust, is forthcoming.

On the eve of her departure, MFA poet Emily Tallman interviewed Bryan about her impressions of the Fresno literary community and her favorite moments from the Spring 2006 semester.

What were your impressions of Fresno before you came here?

I had no idea Fresno was close to Yosemite until I was flying in (passenger, not pilot) over the snowcapped mountains. I didn’t know what to expect, since I’d never been in this part of California before, but other Californians usually curled their lips contemptuously when they mentioned it: it’s not on the coast, it’s hot and dry, agricultural (boring).

The only person who had mentioned Fresno favorably was the poet Glover Davis, one of my colleagues at San Diego State when I taught there last fall and in 2003-04. He’d gone to school here and loved the place, and he and his wife Sandy moved here about five minutes after he retired. It seemed like an odd choice, given what I’d heard.

But the mountains were the first surprise, and when I got to my rented house in Fig Garden, I had another pleasant surprise–a lovely neighborhood. After that, it was one happy discovery after another. Southern California looks pretty–but looks seem to be everything there, from obsession with plastic surgery to (un)dress styles. The “culture” felt very alien to me there.

What did you think of Fresno and the city’s writing community after you arrived?

Fresno immediately felt like a real, funky place with real, funky people. I immediately agreed with Glover and Sandy: I’d rather live here. I also like Fresno’s size. Though I’ve always loved big cities, and would be happy spending part of each year in Manhattan, I’ve discovered that a smaller town is a much better place for me to write–big places, or small places with big personalities, get in the way.

Fresno has turned out to be an ideal place to write, since poetry is in the air here, and is highly valued. There are very few places in this country where that’s true. It’s like going to Grolier Bookstore in Cambridge, the only all-poetry bookstore in the country–heaven for poets.

Ever since I was a grad student at Iowa I keep looking for the kind of immersion and ongoing poetry conversation I had there, and Fresno is one of the two best places I’ve ever been for that. The other was Houston (everyone warned me how ugly it was before I got there, but there were appealing neighborhoods there, too), which is the largest creative writing program. The community here seems to be inclusive, supportive, non-hierarchical, diverse, and active. I think it’s rare to have university and town poets as part of one larger community.

What did you like most about teaching at Fresno State?

Everything about being here has been a great gift, from my amazing students and colleagues and other writers, to the time and urge to write (I can do that pretty regularly if I’m teaching two classes, but not when I’m teaching three), to walks in my neighborhood, to the friends I’ve made: Connie and John Hales, Franny and Phil Levine, Chuck and Dianne Hanzlicek, Peter Everwine, Steve and Ewa Yarbrough, and on and on.

I’ve been teaching as a visiting writer since 1993, which means I don’t exactly have a home. I felt welcomed and at home here from the day I arrived.

What were some of your most memorable Fresno moments during your stay?

Favorite moments–that’s hard. The MFA convocation reading, where the feeling in the room was powerful and moving. Shopping at C’mon A My House with Megan Bohigian. Every single meeting of my Tuesday night form and theory class, which was thrilling–one night we stopped at 10 p.m. and then talked for another 15 minutes at the door because no one wanted to leave.

Going to a bird sanctuary northwest of here with Chuck and Peter. Eating Fanny’s persimmon pudding. Talking to Phil. Finding out that Connie’s grandfather planted the poplar trees that whispered me to sleep in Bauer, Utah. Talking to Ewa about Polish poetry in translation. Listening to Steve’s great stories; reading his great novels and stories; eating his lamb.

Dave Hurst getting a tenure-track job. Hearing Chuck’s stories about Tomas Transtromer–another one of my favorite poets. Lunch at the Chicken Pie Shop. Shopping at Trader Joe’s. Hearing the train whistle at night.

Life and poetry are completely interwoven for me here, not separate strands. Robert Frost has a line in “Two Tramps in Mudtime” that I can’t quite quote, about merging his vocation and his avocation “until the two make one in sight,” and that’s the vision (of more than one kind) that always shimmers on the horizon for me.

There’ve been so many wonderful moments I know I’m leaving out dozens–or as Carl Sagan says, “billions and billions.” It has been a joy, and I hope everyone will stay in touch.

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