Editor’s Note: This is Episode 3 of the new Fresno Poets archive project. It features Robert Vasquez, Gary Soto, Ernesto Trejo, Leonard Adame, and Luis Omar Salinas, recorded in November 1989. Background research and closed captioning for this video was compiled by undergraduate student Naomi Carrillo in Fall 2016. A native of Five Points who grew up in Fresno, Naomi is a senior studying English Literature at Fresno State. Her favorite authors include J.K. Rowling, Jane Austen, and Maya Angelou, and her love of musicals has led her to become obsessed with the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Naomi plans to pursue a career in book publishing.
By Naomi Carrillo
For the Fresno Poets archive project
Robert Vasquez. Gary Soto. Ernesto Trejo. Leonard Adame. Luis Omar Salinas.
These men are five Chicano poets whose roots are in the Central Valley, and whose poetry I was not familiar with until my involvement with the Fresno Poets archive project.
The reason I chose to work on this recording was largely because of my uncle. This past summer, I had taken the “How Much Earth” anthology with me on a family visit. My uncle passed by and asked what I was reading. I told him about the project and how I was assigned to read a lot of Fresno poetry in preparation.
“Is Soto in there? Gary Soto?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure, as I hadn’t gotten far into the book quite yet. I gave him the book and told him that he was free to go through it and check if out. Whenever we had talked about literature in the past, he always mentioned one of three names: Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, or Gary Soto. They were “real” literature, he said. He and I rarely agree on much and don’t share similar tastes, so I doubted I would feel the same. But I had never read any of Gary Soto’s stuff. I wanted to see why my uncle liked his work.
I quickly realized why he would be one of my uncle’s favorite poets. Soto’s poems are hilariously honest. While introducing him in the video, Chuck Moulton describes Soto’s poetry as dynamic and straightforward, and I agree. The other reason—perhaps the most important one—is that Soto is relatable. My uncle often tells us about his days working in the fields, about what it was like growing up as a Mexican kid in America. Soto’s poetry is reflective of these experiences, and I constantly found lines that reminded me of my entire family. There were even some lines that I related to, things that reminded me of my own childhood.
When given the list of videos that needed to be captioned for this project, I saw one with Soto in the title, and I said I would take it. I was curious to see if Vasquez, Trejo, Adame, and Salinas would speak to me, too.
The first step was to watch the reading and transcribe what I could hear. Then came the research.
I spent hours browsing databases and websites for poems. When I reached dead ends, I hit the library and went through piles of poetry books. Title changes were possible, so I flipped through the pages and tried to find familiar phrases instead. At one point, I think I had over twenty books stacked on a library table. I needed to double-check about four times, because what if I missed it the first seven times? Yes, I am one of those people.
As it turned out, one Soto poem I was searching for was never published, so my credibility as a researcher remained intact! (I did the best I could with the transcription on my own.)
Up until my involvement with this project, I’ll admit that my experience with published poetry had been limited. You might ask how that’s possible considering I’m an English major, so I feel like I should clarify. I’ve only ever experienced poetry in a classroom setting. I did not get the chance to immerse myself in it with a curious mind. It had been pushed into my arms. My stubborn nature demanded that I leave poetry in the academic sphere and never bring it home. The reality that I would be graded on my response to poetry was a connotation that I couldn’t bring myself to unlearn, especially since analyzing poetry was not a skill that came naturally to me.
But then I stepped out of my comfort zone with this recording.
Poetry needed a fair chance at reaching my soul or affecting my heart, just like all other forms of literature have been able to do.
After this experience, I no longer run away screaming at the thought of reading poetry for enjoyment. Through this project, I’ve gained an appreciation and respect for poetry that never knew before. By stripping away academic expectations, I prioritized how poetry really resonated with me as a human and not as an academic.
I heard the lilt of Vasquez’s voice as he recited his poetry, a lilt so different from the one he used to crack jokes for his peers in the audience. I witnessed the way Soto brightened a room with his charisma and humor. I saw the ease with which Adame revealed his innermost thoughts and experiences, creating wide contexts for his poems. It was an honesty that I found refreshing and endearing.
I came into this project with an open mind and a desire to lift other people’s voices back into the world, to pull them out of the confines of dusty tapes that were stacked in a closet. I did not expect to find echoes of their voices in my own.