On the Books: Steven Sanchez

Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The seventh installment profiles Steven Sanchez. He is the poetry editor at Word Riot and his writing has appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod, Crab Creek Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Cossack Review, and others.

In a January phone interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Steven about writing what feels grounded, discovering “gay poetry” online, and discovering the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race in his own work.

When were you in the Fresno State MFA program?

I was in the program from 2011 to 2014, and I studied poetry. I did end up taking one extra semester, so I graduated in December 2014 instead of the previous spring. I wasn’t comfortable with my thesis and where it was at in the spring semester [at the end of the third year], and I really wanted to spend that extra time during summer break revising and going over everything.

Even after summer was over, I still wasn’t happy with it, but I was … happier? I thought, I’ll just send this in and then I’ll keep working on it after I graduate. It did sink in for me that I could keep working on it and revising it. It didn’t have to be a finished product for the thesis. It’s never going to be a finished product. Even now, I’m still revising and tinkering with the poems.

That revision paid off, obviously, because your manuscript went on to win the university’s Outstanding Thesis Award for all of Fresno State, a rare honor for a thesis from the College of Arts and Humanities. [Two previous Fresno State MFA alumni – both poets, James Tyner and Michael Maniquiz – have also received the award in recent years.]

Yeah, that was a real surprise. I felt truly honored.

What were your first thoughts when you learned that your first chapbook, “To My Body,” would be published?

My first reaction was shock. I was actually out at the time and decided to check my email, and I’d gotten a message from Anthony Frame, the poetry editor for The Indianola Review. He had taken one of my poems a few weeks before and then he emailed me. He said, hey I really liked your poem, do you have a chapbook that you’d want to submit to me? He was starting up a chapbook press with Glass Poetry.

And I was like, oh wow. It totally caught me off guard. I hadn’t even submitted my chapbook anywhere or anything. So it was a complete surprise. Anthony was super awesome and a super nice and helpful editor too, which made for a good experience.

What else about Glass Poetry Press and their work has felt like a good fit for your chapbook?

Glass Poetry was originally an online literary journal. They had taken a brief hiatus, but they still had the links and the poems up online. Anthony said hey, take a look at these poems we’ve published, then tell me if you’d like to submit your work here. So I took a look at the poems and I really loved how physical and grounded they were. It reminded me a lot about what I value in poetry myself. I realized quickly that I did want to submit my chapbook there, and I was excited to have them publish it.

Recently, Glass Poetry Press revised their online journal component too. So now they’re a chapbook press and an online literary journal again, which is great.

When you say that the poetry they published felt grounded, what does that mean to you?

For me, something I picked up a lot in the Fresno State MFA program, was I found out that my favorite poems are very physical. They have, as faculty Tim Skeen would say, at least one foot on the ground. So it could go a bunch of different places, but there’s always something that puts you back on this planet, back on Earth, back in the physical body that you can always relate back to. It wasn’t always getting caught in your head but there’s something tangible that you can hold on to in the poem, which is something I love in poetry.

Did you find that you were already writing that way, or did you start writing more that way when you came to this idea of being grounded?

I don’t know. When I first started writing poetry as an undergrad, that was sort of the style we were learning from. A lot of other Fresno poets write like that too, and I really liked that style so I tried it out. Later, when I entered the MFA program and started trying to figure out really what I wanted to do, I kept relying on a lot of those poets to be models. Tim’s work, Connie Hales’ work, other poets doing similar things.

In my earliest work as an undergrad, there was one poet, Rafael Campo, who completely changed everything for me. It was the first collection of poems I read that made me cry. He’s a Latino poet and he’s also queer. What was really powerful about his collection is that in his profession outside of poetry, he’s a doctor. So a lot of his poems dealt with the body, from his collection “What the Body Told.” It talked about the way that the body is read, sociologically and historically, and how people have to live with those implications placed on them.

Those are heady things to talk about, right? They could be super lofty and not grounded at all. But because all of his poems were revolving around the physical body, over and over and over again, it was really powerful seeing how something so lofty could be so grounded, so tangible and so relatable to me. He was also the first queer poet of color I had ever read, and his poems made me feel validated in writing more about my own experiences.

Do you remember what class you learned about Campo’s work in?

It was just on my own, reading. I actually did an Amazon search for “gay poetry” and I found it, with a few different collections and anthologies, then I went from there.

So, you literally googled “gay poetry” on Amazon?

Yeah. [Laughs]

That’s amazing. Now I’m trying to imagine someone pre-google and how they would find that information.

That’s what’s kind of terrifying about it. I wouldn’t have really made those connections otherwise. Basically, a lot of what I’ve learned has been through google searches, and then from there I’ve reached out to certain poets and I’m like, hey I really love your work. Then that’s how I find other poets. I learned a lot at Fresno State of course, but a lot of my discoveries happen like this online, outside of the classroom.

Did parts of your chapbook grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, “Phantom Tongue”? If yes, what was the process like, taking what was your thesis and making parts of it into what became “To My Body”?

Probably two-thirds of the chapbook poems were from my thesis. When I was solicited for the chapbook, I had to think: What are the really small things I want to focus on from the thesis? Because it talks a lot about race, sexuality, family relationships, religion. There’s so many different things going through it, so what do I focus on from here?

I ended up sitting down with it over the course of a couple weeks, trying to figure out which poems seemed to like, speak to each other. What I ended up finding out is that a lot of my poems that dealt with my own physical body and my own attitudes toward my body seemed to be the ones that could stand alone the best. I ended up going through the manuscript finding the ones that talked about my body, my resistances to my sexuality and my racial identity, and also my kind-of acceptances. Those became the poems I put in the chapbook.

Your full thesis manuscript was 53 pages. How many pages did the chapbook end up?

About 20 pages or so, a little under half of what my thesis was.

I know the chapbook talks about your sexuality, as a queer poet. How do you identify in terms of race and ethnicity, and how does that fit into your work?

I identify as Chicano and as Latino. A lot of what my poems have dealt with so far, that I’ve written about, is growing up. I resisted that part of my identity a lot because my mom experienced racism growing up. We live in a culture that perpetuates systemic racism too, and we soak things up like sponges. Even if we don’t have the words to articulate what we observe, we are still observing it and internalizing those lessons.

I remember growing up and talking with my friends who happen to be White, my mom would get really excited talking about them. Like, oh tell me what you did with them, what’d you guys play and stuff. She would always mention those aspects to people she’d talk to, when she talked about my friends, and I internalized that. It wasn’t actually until I entered the MFA program when I realized, oh shit, this is a really big issue I have with myself. I have this internalized racism that I didn’t even know existed.

So, a lot of my writing now, when I talk about race, is to sort of untangle that internalized racism. Where it comes from, how you deal with it, and if you can ever get rid of it fully.

Considering sexuality and race, how did you decide on the chapbook’s title, “To My Body”?

In one of my last semesters, in workshop, I submitted a poem called “An Apology to My Body,” and it talked about the things I imagined doing to my body to make it pass as White. But I never actually said “I’m sorry” in the poem, like any actual formal apology. That was one of the comments that one of my peers gave me. “There’s not actually an apology in here.” [Laughs]

Did you intend for there to be an apology, in the poem?

Originally, I had written a version where there was one line that said I’m sorry, but then I was like, no, I don’t want that in there. So I took it out, but I kept the title. Then it felt to me like one of those things where I guess it wasn’t really an apology but more like a justification, but you still can label it an apology. So I kept the title [of the poem] as-is.

When I put the poem in my chapbook, I didn’t want the whole chapbook to be read through that lens, exactly. I wanted it to be more directly addressing the issues surrounding my body that I’ve tried to start dealing with. So I ended up just calling the chapbook “To My Body” and left out the apology part. The poem “An Apology to My Body” is still included.

Outside of writing poetry, what work are you doing to make a living?

I’m teaching English composition right now at Fresno City College and at College of the Sequoias in Visalia. Recently, I left working at Starbucks. I was balancing three jobs for a while, and it was overwhelming. I worked as a manager at Starbucks for almost six years. It was my grad school job and I was really grateful for it because it gave me a lot of extra time to focus on my writing while I was in the MFA program.

The teaching so far has been fun. The hardest thing I’ve done, teaching wise, is recently when I taught at the COS Hanford campus for the first time. I realized there that a lot of the students have the same sort of mindset that I did when I was their age, in regards to race and sexuality. It broke my heart because I could see myself in them. But it also encouraged me. I’ve got to find these essays and I’ll reach out to you, to tell you the things I wish someone would have told me. Whether or not I got through to them, I don’t know. I’m hoping that maybe someone got something from it.

One thing that I remember very specifically now, from grad school, was taking a course with literature professor Samina Najmi. We read an excerpt from “Hunger of Memory” by Richard Rodriguez. At that time, I was like, whoa, there’s someone who wants to be straight and White like me. [Laughs] I know it’s really fucked up to think about it that way. But it made me feel validated, my experiences, to read it in Rodriguez.

Now when I look back I think, wow, that was a really powerful moment for me because that made me realize that I could have my own experiences written about, people who’d actually publish them and read them too. I’m past that point in my identity crisis now. [Laughs] But that was one of the more transformative moments for me in my education.

What else about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you?

One of the first things that comes to mind is all the friends that I made, the community that I felt like I was a part of. It was really supportive and encouraging. It made me feel that I could write about what I wanted to write about. Whenever I faced that self-doubt, or even when comments from outside the program seemed to feel not so helpful, they were there to lift me up. They said no, keep writing, keep doing, push forward. I’m really grateful for my friends and my mentors who were there. Especially faculty Connie Hales and Randa Jarrar, who are both very adamant about you telling your story because it’s important.

In terms of opportunities, a lot of the things I’ve done in the program and since the program, I would never have done without it. Like the Lambda Literary Foundation writers retreat or Canto Mundo or the Tin House Summer Workshop. I had no idea that those even existed until I started talking to people in the program. So for me it was really eye opening, not just the writing and craft aspects of the program, but also, I don’t know, the networking?

Like it opened you up to a broader world?

Yeah, the broader writing world. I could access that and be a part of that broader writing world too, which was really helpful.

You took the initiative, though, to seek out those opportunities once you heard about them, right?

Yes, absolutely. Once I heard about them from friends, they were the ones who were like, hey, you should go and apply to this. And then I looked it up. It was helpful being in a community of writers who were doing the same things alongside you, pursuing publications and fellowships and opportunities like that, people that sort of fed into each other, a more supportive environment.

I’ve talked to people, actually, from other programs who’ve felt like they were more competitive rather than supportive. That seems really strange to me. I didn’t feel like that in the program at Fresno State. I don’t understand why it would be different.

When I was in the program, everyone in Fresno I came across felt really grounded. There wasn’t, at least from my perception, that competition. Maybe it’s just the working-class aesthetic that seems to fuel a lot of Fresno writers. It felt like everyone was really approachable and relatable, even though I was super shy and didn’t like talking to people at first. But I sensed that if I did, it would be fine.

To you, what makes a “Fresno writer” or that Fresno aesthetic you’re describing?

What comes to mind is something Connie Hales said in a class. She was making a joke out of it. She said, yeah, I didn’t get to call myself a Fresno poet until I lived here for twenty years or so. [Laughs] Which I thought was funny, right? Thinking about identifying a poet in terms of the time lived here.

But more than time, though, it reminds me of an essay, or maybe a speech, that Phil Levine wrote, talking about how he taught at all these Ivy League schools and other high-ranking, prestigious universities across the country. And then he said he preferred working with the poets he taught here in Fresno. What might explain why, he said, is when he critiqued a poem at one of the other schools, they cried about it or took a huge offense to it. But when he critiqued the poems of people at Fresno State, he said they would take the criticism and say, okay fine, I’ll fix it. And then they would go and revise it and make it a really good poem.

In Fresno, like in Detroit [where Levine grew up], we’re kind of like underdogs. People joke sometimes that Fresno is the armpit of California. It’s almost like we have to prove ourselves extra. Maybe that’s part of what it is, that willingness to sort of push through and try something out. I am always prepared to fail. I never think anything I write is going to be good or find a home. But I’m like, screw it, I’m going to try it out anyway and see what happens.

Maybe that’s part of what it is. I think another part of it too is that a lot of Fresno writers write so much about the people that live here and their experiences, the working people they’re around, and I think that’s important. There’s so much humanization of people who aren’t normally talked about in the larger literary landscape, and that goes on in a lot of Fresno writing.

What’s your next writing project?

I started working with my editor for my next chapbook that’s coming out, scheduled for August 2017 from Agape Editions, an imprint of Sundress Publications. It’s called “Photographs of Our Shadows” and we’re going over line edits now. Then at some point soon, I’m also going to start working on line edits and revisions with my editor for my full-length collection, “Phantom Tongue,” which is coming out in 2018 sometime, from Sundress.

It’s kind of a relief. Now, pretty much everything I’ve written in the program that I wanted to use has found a home, or it’s going somewhere. I can almost completely leave all those poems behind and start new projects. I’m working on poems about experiences I’ve had that before I wasn’t quite comfortable approaching yet, but now I’m a little bit more prepared to. We’ll see where that goes.

I’ve written a couple poems already, and they’re very different from what I’ve written before. I’m scared, but at the same time, I guess that’s a good thing to feel when you’re writing because it means that there’s something at stake.

Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the Creative Writing Program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.


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