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 16th installment features a special author: the late Andrea Mortimer Rhoads.
Andrea was born and raised in Madera, California, spending her youth surrounded by the rich agricultural landscape of the central San Joaquin Valley. She was educated at Fresno State, going on to teach English, French, and creative writing at area high schools. She later returned to her alma mater to pursue her passion for poetry and earn her Master of Fine Arts degree in 2006. Her writing drew from her childhood memories and family, art and religion, and her reverence for the natural world.
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Andrea’s death; she passed away July 24, 2014. Her debut chapbook of poems and short essays, “The River: Reflections on Life and Poetry,” was published posthumously in 2017 by Tourane Poetry Press, an independent press based in San Jose, California. Tourane is a project of Vuong Quoc Vu, who studied poetry alongside Andrea and is also a Fresno State MFA alum. A native of Saigon, Vietnam, Vuong lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but his heart is still in the Central Valley.
In a June email interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Vuong about his deep connection to Andrea’s poetry, the process of pulling together a posthumous collection to honor her, and how Andrea’s work fits into the tradition of Fresno writers.
When were you in the Fresno State MFA program, and what genre did you study? You were in the program about the same time as Andrea Mortimer Rhoads, right?
I was in the Fresno State MFA program from 2003 to 2006 with a concentration in poetry. Yes, I was in the program at the same time as Andrea and a number of very talented poets. I may be biased, but I’d like to believe that it was its own golden age of poetry at Fresno State. The writers and caliber of writing I encountered were astoundingly good.
I remember that your particular cohort in poetry felt very close, even back then. Can you describe the connection?
I can’t say that we were any more or less close than any group who share a common interest — a deep passion for poetry — and had gone through the challenges, rigors, and amazing experiences of a writing program. You can’t help coming out of the MFA experience at Fresno State without some kind of affinity for your colleagues. I, for one, have the utmost respect, admiration, and fondness for my colleagues. Every time I go back to Fresno, it feels like a family reunion for me.
Andrea passed away in July 2014. What about her work and your relationship with her drove you to publish a posthumous chapbook of her work?
From the very first workshops I had with her, I was a fan of Andrea’s work. As a writer, she was very generous and adventurous. You didn’t get any half-hearted poems from her. She tried her hand at many forms and kinds of poetry and voices — translations of French poetry, ghazals, villanelles, narratives in the persona of a Japanese geisha, and more. But what always captivated me most were her poems about her childhood along the San Joaquin River.
There was such clarity of vision and glowingly warm nostalgia when she wrote about the seasons of the river, its flora and fauna (she was such a keen observer of the natural world), and especially, the people who populated her memories. In essence, those poems embody and exemplify what I think of as “Fresno Poetry,” the kind of poetics that is grounded in the landscape of the Central Valley.
I didn’t want her writing to be lost with her passing. I wanted to put her writing out into the world because it deserved to be read and shared. Also, I was hoping to publish her work as a kind of immortality, to keep her alive somehow through her poetry.
Did parts of Andrea’s posthumous chapbook grow out of her Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, “River, Rock, Pomegranate”? What was the process like, taking what was her thesis and making it into the chapbook?
Quite a lot of Andrea’s chapbook grew out of her thesis manuscript. When I decided to publish the chapbook, I sent out a call for her work. Sadly, there was not a lot published in her lifetime. Also, our cohort had saved very few poems from our workshops, so, for a while, the project seemed doomed because there was not a lot of Andrea’s writing available. It just makes you wonder what will be left of your life and work after you are gone.
It wasn’t until Angela Chaidez Vincent gave me a copy of Andrea’s thesis manuscript, “River, Rock, Pomegranate,” that I had a substantial number of poems. Pilar Graham then followed up with some gorgeous essays that Andrea had written for a creative nonfiction course. Those essays eventually became the backbone of the chapbook.
As for the poems used, I included only those that were about her childhood and coming of age in the San Joaquin Valley. This is why I entitled the chapbook “The River,” in reference to the San Joaquin River. It was a recurring image and theme in her autobiographical writing. Her thoughts seemed to always return to the river.
In the chapbook’s acknowledgements, you give special thanks to the poets Angela Chaidez Vincent, Pilar Graham, and Megan Bohigian. Describe their roles in the assembly of this project.
I absolutely meant it when I acknowledged that the chapbook would not be possible without Angela, Pilar, and Megan. They are my muses, all three poetry goddesses. Not only did they provide the material for the chapbook — the poems from Angela, the essays from Pilar, the beautiful cover photograph from a friend of Megan’s, Juliana Harris — they helped with editing and revisions, and the support and encouragement that I received from them was sustaining and affirming.
In the end, it was all for one and one for all, because we were all doing this for Andrea. And in turn, her writing exemplified us, four Fresno poets.
What would you hope readers take away most from Andrea’s posthumous collection?
From her chapbook, I want readers to take away Andrea’s voice. I can still hear her voice; every time I read her poems, I hear the soft and measured eloquence of her voice. I want to keep that voice alive. Andrea was such a talent, was such a kind and beautiful person. She was one of us, the best of us.
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.