CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
Essay

Fresno Taught Me to Write and Dream

In California's Central Valley, Heat, Exhaust, and Tule Fog Breed Killer Poems

Every once in a while, I remember that I was born on the other side of the world, and it makes sense that I love looking up at the stars. Fresno, California, my home for the last 20 years, is 9,000 miles from my birthplace of Daejeon, South Korea.

As an infant, I was found on the steps of a church. I was adopted, at 10 months old, by an American couple from San Francisco. When I was 26, I moved to Fresno to accept a tenure-track teaching position at Fresno City College. This year, I was named Poet Laureate of Fresno.

More than 90 languages are spoken in Fresno County, where the heat reaches 110 degrees in the summer, the fog in winter softly blankets Highway 99, and we farm 250-some kinds of crops. When I moved here in 1997, I learned about the pillars of Fresno poetry. I felt like I was part of something, and I was. It is a tough city full of grit, but amidst the heat and dust, hard working poets blossom. Here is where I learned to write.

The late Andrés Montoya was my first influence, and the largest. I met him through our mutual friend, author Daniel Chacón. Andrés died at age 31 before his first book, the ice worker sings and other poems, was published. He believed that poetry fueled personal, societal, and cultural liberation. He wrote about the downtrodden, the poor, the factory workers, and the drug-addicted. He beautified what some deemed ugly and taught me that poetry is for all the people around you. I saw what language could do. We talked for hours about poetry, politics, and race. I had found my first brother in poetry.

As an infant, I was found on the steps of a church. I was adopted, at 10 months old, by an American couple from San Francisco.

In Fresno, there are farmers’ markets every day of the week, and in Fresno, you can find poet laureates, and not just local laureates like me. Once I saw Philip Levine at a grocery store and introduced him to my daughter. In a career that saw him named United States poet laureate in 2011, Levine became known as a voice for the working-class, but he was more than that. My favorite of his books, The Simple Truth, taught me there is something extraordinary about ordinary people. I loved his ability to cut to the truth of a good poem or right through the pretension of a bad one, both as a legendary professor who spared no one the truth in his critiques, or in memorable lines of poetry, when he writes, “Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true, they must be said without elegance.” Before his death, in an interview with Bill Moyers, Levine stated that what angered him most was American racism and American capitalism. These were great models for me. I did not know him well, but when we spoke he was always kind to me. His poems and his life are true inspirations.

Juan Felipe Herrera, the current U.S. Poet Laureate and formerly California’s laureate, lives here, too. Once, years ago I saw him in Fresno’s Tower District when his collection Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler had just come out, and I had my copy in the car. I asked him to sign it right there on the street, which he did. Herrera’s playful musicality, his political fierceness, his humility, and his compassionate embrace of all people around the world are examples bar none. Juan Felipe has always been good to me, supportive of my work, and a friend in poetry. We are not close friends, but his poems are close to my heart. I count him as a friend and an important role model. I admire his tireless devotion to social justice through poetry. Much of my poetry and teaching life has been devoted to this, and I have Juan Felipe Herrera to thank for his example.

Two more Fresno poets and good friends shaped me early, and still do. First, Brian Turner served as an infantry team leader in the Iraq, and I met him when he returned home after the war. He was looking for a poetry community, and we found each other. We are good friends, and he always inspires me, with his poems, his kindness, and his humility. His books are about war, the many effects on people here and abroad, and the resilience of the human spirit. I value his calm in the midst of a storm, and Brian’s poems exude this, as well as a great fire of the spirit. He was raised here, and although he now lives in Florida, he is a Fresno poet to the core. I count Brian and the second poet, Tim Z. Hernandez, as dear friends.

I believe that poets who once lived here and leave always keeps a part of Fresno in their heart and in their poems.

I met Tim almost 20 years ago in Fresno. Tim is known for his gritty and beautiful novels, including his historical novel about Bea Franco, the “Mexican Girl” from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but I knew him first from his early poems about manhood and Latino culture that would become Skin Tax. Tim is about hard work, community, and writing killer poems and novels. He shines a light on the small beauty in life to a world often afflicted with disinterest. He now lives in El Paso and teaches at UTEP, but he too is a Fresno poet through and through. Some poets leave after receiving tenure-track teaching jobs elsewhere, but I believe that poets who once lived here and leave always keeps a part of Fresno in their heart and in their poems.

It is an honor to serve as Poet Laureate of Fresno. I have mentioned poets who shaped my work most, but there are so many others—Connie Hales and Larry Levis, others who have advocated for young poets, poets produced by Fresno, students I have taught over the years. I wish I could name them all here.

Poetry is where fires begin and smolder. So it’s no wonder that poets here write killer poems in our unapologetic heat, the exhaust of the traffic, or the dream-inducing tule fog. It’s no wonder that I was born in South Korea, adopted to the U.S., and wound up in Fresno amidst factory workers, war veterans, and farm laborers. It’s no wonder that I learned to write and dream here. It’s no wonder that I love looking up at the stars.