Editor’s Note: This is Episode 1 of the new Fresno Poets archive project. It features a tribute to Ernesto Trejo, recorded in November 1991 at the Fresno Art Museum. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by undergraduate student Makenna Huffman in Fall 2016. A native of Fresno, Makenna is a senior studying English Education at Fresno State. Her favorite authors include Ernesto Trejo, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Frost. She enjoys studying and writing poetry, and she writes the Organized Memories blog. Makenna plans to pursue a career in the healing arts.
By Makenna Huffman
For the Fresno Poets archive project
At one point in the November 1991 tribute to poet Ernesto Trejo, the video camera pans around the audience inside the Fresno Art Museum and it shows just how many people were there to honor and remember him. There were people everywhere; some in chairs, some sitting on the floor, some standing in the aisles, and even some standing in the doorway, spilling out into the museum gallery.
It was amazing to see how many people showed up to remember a beloved poet and friend. I could see the audience leaning in, with all eyes focused on Juan Felipe Herrera reciting Trejo’s work in the original Spanish. Jon Veinberg followed along silently, his eyes fixed on the program in his hands. The only sound that could be heard inside the Bonner Auditorium was Herrera’s voice as he leaned into the microphone. Everyone was completely silent, intent on listening.
I wanted to comfort and reassure everyone there, because the experience of holding back tears while honoring a lost loved one is relatable for me. I understand how difficult it is to write and speak about a lost loved one, but we do it anyway because we feel compelled to. We honor and remember them in one of the few ways we, as poets and writers, know how: through our words.
Watching this scene at the start of the tribute reading, I saw directly how Trejo’s words affected the people in the audience just as it had affected me when I first read one of his poems. In the anthology How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets, Trejo writes:
To everything I’ll close my eyes,
slice the darkness and eat it.
The moment I read these lines from his poem “Today I’ll Sit Still,” I was drawn to Trejo. Reading the poem, I could envision a man tired of life’s responsibilities and deciding to stand firmly and say “no” to everything for a day. Who could not relate to this? One important aspect of poetry for me is relatability, and reading Trejo’s work felt meaningful for me.
Trejo was originally from Fresnillo, Mexico. He took writing classes at Fresno State with Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, C. G. Hanzlicek, and Robert Mezey, all of whom were instrumental in the development of a long line of Fresno poets. Trejo published multiple collections of poems in Spanish, as well as some translations. In 1990 he published his first and only full-length collection of poems in English, Entering a Life, which consisted of some of his old work combined with new.
One aspect of Trejo’s poetry that I love most is that his poems are easy to understand because of the use of everyday language, making them accessible. This type of language gives his poems the feel of listening to a friend tell a story. Trejo’s life was cut short; he died in 1991 due to cancer. His poems, however, will live on, and this tribute video will hopefully add to his history.
In Fall 2016, I had the privilege to serve as an intern for the Fresno Poets archive project. My assignment was to watch several videos of Fresno poets reciting their work, research the poems, and then accurately transcribe the closed captioning. It was so much more than just typing, though.
My first assignment was to work on the Trejo tribute. I enjoy poetry and I love Fresno poets, so I was excited to get started. I had no idea, though, how emotional working this video would be for me. The poets were people who knew and loved Trejo. They recited his poems as well as poems they wrote in his memory with great care and affection. I could see how much Trejo’s work and friendship meant to them and what an impact he made on their lives, just by hearing in their own words how much emotion their voices held.
I have been trying to imagine what it must have been like to be in that room, listening to Trejo’s poems being read aloud, along with poems that were written in his memory. I imagine myself sitting still and just listening. If I could somehow step through the screen and join the audience, I think the only thing I’d be able to do is grip a program in my hands and close my eyes, to really let Trejo’s words, spoken through others, soak in. I’d listen and I’d tell myself that he is not really gone. As long as I can hear the poems, Trejo is not really gone.