I've relinquished my role as poet in the Bay Area. I cringe at the suggestion of participating in public readings. I don't involve myself in writing conferences, mentoring, bookstore signings, or answering letters that involve questions like, "Where do you get your ideas?" I've failed in all of these.
I revisit two occasions: the first in San Francisco, where I read poems about our daughter, Mariko, then age nine. Sensing that I wasn't reaching the audience—all fourteen in folding chairs—I read next about Fresno and straight-ahead Highway 99. I made references to working in fields, to Cesar Chavez, canals, and pesticides. I failed so totally in reaching my audience that some of them got up and walked away, across the dirty carpet and into a dirty street (the bookstore was on Valencia).
At the end—there was an end, thank God—a Chicano with a droopy, gray-tinted mustache rose like King Kong and with a wrench-thick finger asked, "What has been your contribution to Chicano literature?" The tattoos on his throat jumped, and spit actually shot out of his mouth. Hatred blew across the room. Hatred because I was wearing a new wool coat and my shoes were not scuffed by hard living? I swallowed a mouse of fear, noticing that the remaining crowd was small enough to fit in a van. My spine straightened.
I answered, ''I'm the first Chicano to write in complete sentences, ese." We poets will stir up hate, and confirm rumors that we are untamable loudmouths, drunks, hit-and-split artists. ("Hey, you got my check? I got to go.") We try to bolster our egos by telling ourselves that the world is stupid. We survive on silence, as if we're wearing Bose headgear 24/7.
Second, I recall my pal Gerry Haslam, fiction writer and essayist, and our pairing at Barnes & Noble in Jack London Square in Oakland. It seemed an appropriate pairing, Gerry from Bakersfield and me from Fresno. Gerry suggested dinner. Dinner with Gerry and his wife, and my wife on my arm? I couldn't say no to that. Dinner was Chinese that evening, something like famine relief, the lazy Susan spinning like a merry-go-round. We scraped every last noodle onto our plates, had orange slices and fortune cookies for dessert.
We strolled from the restaurant to the bookstore, lit brightly as Disneyland at dusk. But unlike Disneyland, there were book lovers among the shelves. We were greeted by an assistant manager, female, whose bright face was lit like Disneyland as well. She pumped our hands and led us to the alcove where Gerry and I would wow the crowd. Two dozen chairs were set neatly in rows, but no one was in the chairs.
"We have ten minutes," the assistant manager remarked gleefully—the girl just bubbled. She looked down at one of the biggest wristwatches I have ever seen, its numbers like the top of an optometrist's eye chart. It was 6:55—we didn't have ten minutes! When the loudspeaker called, she hurried away in long scissoring steps.
My eyes roamed over to Gerry, who looked at me, each of us thinking, Oh, one of those evenings. By this we meant a small crowd, with one or two people ambushing us with a multipart question. But this evening would be different, as we soon learned.
The assistant manager returned. I could see by her watch that it was now after seven. She suggested that people were having a hard time parking. In minutes, though, they would come through the door, lots of them, some jogging and with reasonable excuses for their tardiness. She painted this Rockwell portrait with a smile.
At fifteen after, Gerry and I positioned ourselves at the front of the alcove, neither of us happy but both of us resolute. Our wives had drifted over to the magazine racks (my wife would be the one thumbing through a fashion magazine). Gerry outlined, only to me, his plan for a biography of S.I. Hayakawa. I provided him with the libretto of Nerdlandia, which would be performed at high schools in the Los Angeles area the following year. We continued detailing our writing projects to each other until our audience appeared—in the shape of a gentleman in an overcoat. His appearance silenced us. Minutes had been scrubbed from our lives—what should we do now? I could feel the man staring at our backs. Five minutes marched off the clock, then the gentleman tapped Gerry's shoulder. He asked, "When does it start?"
When does it start?
Understanding my cue, I stood up swiftly, took my place behind a skeletal podium, like a game-show host, and with my New and Selected Poems in hand, announced, "An early poem of mine." I saw a need in the gentleman's face for poetry. I thought, OK, I'll give him poetry. I fanned a few pages, creating a wind resembling applause. I turned to a short poem called "The Gold Cannon," an unfamiliar and strange effort about the death of my father. I licked my lips and began. I was tripping horribly through the second stanza when the gentleman waved a hand and said,
"Stop, stop, I'll buy the book."
Gerry Haslam didn't read that night—or at least not his own work. The chairs remained empty and our spirits dampened. As we approached the exit, I noticed no sales staff behind the checkout counters. No one was buying books on this clear autumnal evening, and no one was reading. The big clock on the wall read 7:48. Fame had come and gone, and we were out the door.
* * *
About the Author
Gary Soto began writing poetry in 1973 and published his first book, The Elements of San Joaquin, in 1977. Since then, he has published twelve other full-length collections, including New and Selected Poems, a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Award. His most recent poetry collection is Sudden Loss of Dignity (2013). With his wife, Carolyn, he lives in Berkeley, California.
What Poets Are Like:
Up and Down with the Writing Life