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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Fresno Is The Land Of Poets

(Charles Nadeau/Flickr)

(Charles Nadeau/Flickr)

Dozens of American cities are naming their own poets laureate.

Some of these cities are no surprise, for example Los Angeles has a poet laureate and the New York City borough of Brooklyn — known for its artistic residents — has a borough poet.

But then there is Fresno, an agricultural city in the dusty, flat central valley of California.

It might be the last place one would associate with arts and culture, but a number of poets from Fresno have become successful and influential in the literary scene.

“She was able to rent a house and we stayed here in Fresno. For that level alone, I’ve always been so incredibly grateful to the city.”

The United States Poet Laureate Philip Levine and California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera are both from Fresno. Gary Soto and Iraq veteran Brian Turner have also had much success.

Now, the city has its own poet laureate in James Tyner.

Hard beginnings in Fresno

Tyner’s path to poetry wasn’t an apparent one. His family was homeless for the first part of his life in Los Angeles.

“We were pretty poor so we were bouncing from family to family and my mom was originally from here, so when we ran out of money and were sleeping in the car, she finally decided, ‘you know what, let’s restart,'”  Tyner told Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti. “First house I ever lived in. She was able to rent a house and we stayed here in Fresno. For that level alone, I’ve always been so incredibly grateful to the city.”

Many of the poems Tyner writes are about his experiences growing up in poor neighborhoods. (See his poem “After Jumping Some Kids and Taking Their Money, 1988″ below.)

Fresno Poet Laureate James Tyner (left) is pictured with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. (Courtesy James Tyner)

Fresno Poet Laureate James Tyner (left) is pictured with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. (Courtesy James Tyner)

Tyner came into books by accident. He was playing Dungeons and Dragons as a child, and was taken by the monsters.

It led him to books about mythology and fantasy, and his tastes continued to develop and mature.

“I would collect books and just hide them sometimes from my mom, even. I just had tons of them all over the house,” he said.

A city full of poets

“There’s just this amazing trend — amazing writers — so many good people coming out,” Tyner said of Fresno.

At the same time, the city itself may not recognize it.

“Those who live here are always looking north or south, meaning we’re looking toward San Francisco or we’re looking toward L.A.,” Tyner said.

When Fresno resident and 2011-2012 U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine won a Pulitzer Prize, “it was in the back of the paper,” Tyner said.

“I’m not putting anybody down, it’s just that’s kind of how we see ourselves. We’re a very sports-driven town. We’re very physical, very driven people in that sense, and I think sometimes we forget the literary.”

Poems by James Tyner

After Jumping Some Kids and Taking Their Money, 1988

We buy Cheetos and Fanta
with the money we stole.
Took it as they cried,
pried it loose with kicks to stomach
and stomps to the face.
Fingers grow orange
from the powder of our breakfast
and stomachs pop out
between ribs and belt buckles
as the soda slides down.
And Whooser laughs,
cheese staining his teeth,
his breath coming heavy
through busted lips.
I laugh also, lips stinging
from salt, from blood,
from smiles as we eat.
This is what we are given,
the children of the ghetto,
this is what we inherit,
a breakfast of chips,
skin pocked with dirt and scabs,
backs resting loosely
against graffitied alleys
as we laugh at fights,
at money stolen,
at the blood that drips loosely
down my left arm
and puddles.

Credit: From “The Ghetto Exorcist” Reprinted with permission from Autumn House Press.

At a Barbecue for R.C. One Week After He Is Out of Iraq

He laughs and tosses back
another shot of whiskey.
There are questions about cousins,
how is Lisa doing, she still drinking,
did Eddy finally marry that big
bitch, heard Monica is in L.A. now.
I fill him in, crack open another beer
chaser, and tell what stories I can.
I am light here, keeping things brief,
smiling, avoiding the heat from his skin,
the pocks and purple circles
that tighten his face, mar it.
A curl of scarred flesh lifts up
from the collar of his shirt,
hanging like a question
I can’t ask. And suddenly the food
is done, barbeque finished,
mom calls out to get the kids
ready to eat, and his face fills
with an emptiness, jaw loosens
and he is muttering now, about kids,
something about so many goddamn
kids. He asks me if I know what
the color of brains really is,
and I answer that the ribs
are getting cold.

Credit: From “The Ghetto Exorcist” Reprinted with permission from Autumn House Press.

Hear Tyner read his poem “Fresno, California. 2013″

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