Editor’s Notes: This is Episode 11 of the Fresno Poets Archive Project. It features Jon Veinberg, recorded in the fall of 1985 at the Wild Blue Yonder nightclub in Fresno’s Tower District. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by undergraduate student Marisa Mata in Fall 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.
The idea for Marisa’s essay here was inspired by a piece written by Christopher Buckley in The American Journal of Poetry. Writing about a time in his late 20s when he came to Fresno to teach, Buckley remembers his friendship with Veinberg, Luis Omar Salinas, Leonard Adame, and other poets. Buckley writes:
Often the group of poets would gather at my house late afternoon for a beer. As the light began to fade, we’d start thinking of dinner as I did not always have provisions on hand. We’d then start peeking into our wallets to see who had any money and count up our collective cash. We needed $4.95 a head plus tax and tip to hit the chicken dinner at the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant. Usually we had to count down to the change in our pockets to cover Omar and Leonard. If things totaled up favorably, we headed down to the best dinner we knew. Half a perfectly cooked chicken, but first all the extras: bread, a plate of celery, carrots, olives and salami, then salad with shrimp and potato salad, or if it was Friday, the rice and clams, my favorite, (tongue on Thursday’s, Veinberg’s favorite) then soup, then the huge half of chicken. We ate everything brought to the table and were often full by the time the entre arrived, and so most of us left with a white plastic “doggie bag” of chicken—no money left to be waylaid by the long beautiful bar and a snifter of Fundador—looking like thieves in the night, bags in hand slipping out the front door into the night.
Marisa decided to create her own night at the Santa Fe Basque to honor Veinberg.
By Marisa Mata
For the Fresno Poets archive project
I hand my copy of An Owl’s Landscape to my writer friend Beth and wait as she reads through one of Jon Veinberg’s poems. I hear a train going by. There’s a family behind us singing Happy Birthday. A band is playing by the bar and people are getting out of their seats to dance. Their laughter filling the space between the beats of the drums. It’s hard for me to imagine Veinberg here, at the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant, with his friends, talking about poetry.
Beth looks up from the book with wide eyes and says, “Wow. That was intense.” A lot of Veinberg’s poems are like that, I say, at least from what I’ve read. He has this way of taking beautiful things and turning them on their head. He makes them haunting. And he always draws you in line by line, leaving you with much more than what you were expecting.
The waiter sets in front us a platter of chicken and the biggest salad I’ve ever seen, and Beth and I talk about our days at CSU Summer Arts, where we first met last year. We talk about the writing workshops we’re in now, the ideas we have for future writing. We talk about our favorite writers, and I find myself talking about Veinberg again.
“Did you ever get to meet him before he passed away?” Beth asks me. No, I say, but I’ve been thinking about how crazy it is that he used to come here while I live just a few blocks away. How he could have been here talking about poems while I was down the street learning to ride a bike. How we were literally so close but never crossed paths. But I did dream recently that I met Veinberg—I had gone to a reading of his and I went up to him afterward. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we laughed a lot.
Beth and I start to share more personal things with each other, and I think of how I only ever open up like this with other writers. How there’s some sort of special bond we all have with each other.
The Santa Fe Basque bar is full and more people are dancing as we eat dessert. People are filling the tables around us. Through all the voices and laughter and music, I can hear the horn from another train passing by. And in this moment, it’s easier to imagine Veinberg here with other poets—sitting around a table of food, sharing poems line by line.