Episode 7: James C. Baloian, DeWayne Rail, and Friends

Poet James Baloian reads in Fresno in 1984. (Screen shot)

Editor’s Note: This is Episode 7 of the Fresno Poets Archive Project. It features James C. Baloian, DeWayne Rail, and friends, recorded in October 1984 in Fresno. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by undergraduate student Marisa Mata in Spring 2017. Marisa grew up in Fresno and she knew she wanted to be a writer when she was 7 years old. She’s a junior studying Linguistics and Creative Writing at Fresno State. She reads and writes every day to continuously learn and improve her work. Some of Marisa’s favorite authors include Toni Morrison, Anne Lamott, and John Hales. She writes for the Fresno State Alumni Association, and she plans to write books and become a literature and writing professor.

By Marisa Mata
For the Fresno Poets archive project

A friend once told me that they’re scared of writing, because writing is permanent—once you write something, anyone can see it and there’s no going back.

But I think the permanence is what makes writing so important. It gives us the ability to transcend time and space and circulate not only contemporary stories and poems but everything that has been written since long before our time. Through writing we find that our experiences, thoughts, and emotions are shared. Writing connects us to one another. When I spoke to the poet James C. Baloian, he had similar thoughts.

Baloian’s grandfather was a writer, and that fact illustrated for him the power that writing can have. In a phone conversation, Baloian said to me: “I was fascinated by my grandpa’s thoughts on paper and how much people looked forward to it. He could bring people together; I wanted to do that.”

“Lanzo Prepares for Marriage” is one of the poems Baloian reads in this video, recorded in October 1984, and its vivid imagery and use of humor bring the entire audience into laughter and good spirits. I learned this is one of the earliest drafts of his more widely known poem “The Armenian Wedding.”

When I asked Baloian why he revised the poem so much, he said: “I do a lot of editing; my poems change constantly. I go through my books every three to four years. … I don’t know if it’s because the world changes or we change, but I see things that should be there or should be removed, maybe made into new poems. That’s one of the beautiful things about poetry—it’s not set in stone. It can be reinvented.”

I used to believe, like my friend, that writing was permanent. It wasn’t until I talked with Baloian for this project that I even thought about revising my writing that I considered “finished” years ago. In working on restoring this tape, my eyes were also opened by the poet DeWayne Rail, on to how a reader’s feelings towards a poem or poet change with time and gained experiences.

As I studied Rail and his poems for the first time, I instantly felt connected with the sense of longing I found in his writing, the longing for something, someone, somewhere. While I felt at first connected to Rail’s work, I didn’t feel as connected to it as I did with Baloian’s. But that began to change as I listened to Rail’s reading in the video, as I heard him in his own voice.

Hearing Rail, a longtime writing instructor at Fresno City College, talk about the inspiration for his poems—hearing the confidence he had, hearing the tone and rhythm he carried through his reading—brought another layer to his work that was missing when I first read it. After watching the video a few times, I visited the Special Collections Research Center inside the Henry Madden Library to read his book Going Home Again.

As I sat alone in Special Collections it seemed as if time had stopped. The room was eerily quiet and magnified the sound of me turning the parchment pages of Rail’s hand-bound book that was published almost 50 years ago. It was unsettling and I wanted to leave, because the pages were so stiff that I was terrified of ripping them. But when I came across the poem “Dead Reckoning,” which had the elements I had originally connected with, in my mind, as I read the words on the page, I could hear Rail’s voice reading the poem—the pauses he would take, the syllables he would stress. And I spent the next hour completely enveloped in his poems and the world he was able to create for me with his words.

When I read the last poem, I closed the book and broke the silence in the room. I whispered to myself, “That was so beautiful.”

Editor’s footnote: The location of this reading is unknown. The two community readers recorded at the end of the evening, identified in the video as Vicky Gonzalez and Tom Martinez, are also a bit of a mystery. When consulting with Baloian, Rail, and Professor Emeritus C. G. Hanzlicek, none of them could place the reading or remember much about the two readers. If you have information that would add context to this recording and blog post, please contact communications staff Jefferson Beavers.

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