2023 Contest: Interview with Poetry Judge Gary Soto
Gary, you’ve been writing for around 50 years. Can you tell our readers how you started in poetry?
I took a nighttime poetry writing class at Fresno State. Philip Levine was our teacher. He was funny and tough and immeasurably important. He looked at four poems of mine, fall 1973, and offered up helpful line-by-line suggestions. I listened up. I was a fast learner. I went about writing, age twenty-one, and was soon publishing in literary magazines, including, I believe, the first issue of Black Warrior Review.
The Elements of San Joaquin—your first book of poetry, 1977—was written when you were young. It was pioneering.
By pioneering I suspect you mean that it changed the landscape of Chicano poetry. I’ll agree. Without denigrating the Chicano poets of the 1960s—el movimiento—who were loud and full of anger and wholly non-specific, I woke up to my surroundings, that is, the San Joaquin Valley and its vast agricultural fields, fields that I was part of, and my wife was part of. I was moved by place as I drew upon my surroundings—“drew” might be an apt word here. Unlike the early Chicano poets, I was an image maker. For me, rhetoric was unspecific anger.
You write for all ages and in all genres. What’s been the most challenging genre?
Easy answer—musicals. I’ve written two musicals and the one that stands out is In and Out of Shadows, which was staged with commercial success—I got paid!—and some critical fanfare. The musical was about undocumented youth—dreamers, we call them. It was very moving for me, that is, because of the audience response to it. I recall a group of folklorico dancers from Modesto, California who traveled by car and public transportation to see the musical in San Francisco. They danced for me, in full costume, on the sidewalk in front of the theater. I have never received such praise. Que viva directora Laura Malagón, who has become my number one fan.
What’s been your favorite honor?
You mean the dog that was named after me? I have a poem about that and a minor story of how a teacher, also a fan, came up to me with a cartload of my books, all tattered, all read, all with cookie crumbs between the pages. She wiped her brow, caught her breath, and said, “You’re my favorite children’s author ever.” She explained that she named her dog after me—”Soto.” When I asked, “What breed is this pooch?” I imagined a husky, a pit bull, a rottweiler . . . But, no, it was a Chihuahua with crooked teeth and a non-stop bark.
You’ve written many books for middle graders and young adults. You said, “My job is not to make the characters perfect.” Could you elaborate on this?
Easy answer again. I can’t think of one writer who conjures up perfect people. Madame Bovary, Ana Karenina, Holden Caulfield—all imperfect. My characters are also imperfect. I think of my story “Sorry, Wrong Family,” about a girl, age twelve, who feels that her family, unlike herself, is without grace. There’s an adage that “happy literature has no history.” I would agree with this and would agree that most poets and writers are drawn to the imperfect.
You’ve encouraged Chicano writers. Could you speak more to this?
In the 1970s I did the Chicano Chapbook Series, which fostered young Chicano poets of the time, poets like Sandra Cisneros, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Luis Omar Salinas. I abandoned that series and then reintroduced the series in the 1990s. I published twenty-four chapbooks. If you have any copies, they’re worth mucho dinero!
You said that you found no one was writing for Mexican American youth. And that you accepted the challenge to do something about that.
That’s pretty much true. Publishing is a beast. It’s difficult to find a publisher—we all know that—and in 1988 I thought that I would do something about the absence of Mexican American youth in literature. I wrote a collection of stories—Baseball in April—and sent it around, hinted to literary agents to that the collection was great, etc. It was rejected by all publishers until Harcourt Brace, now HarperCollins, accepted it. They didn’t have much hope for it, seeing that it was a collection of short stories—and stories that featured Mexican American kids. My advance was pitiful. To date it has sold a million copies and several of the stories have been anthologized in countless textbooks.
What’s your impression of children’s literature?
I would advocate for realism, for writers to become more attuned to image making and fresh phrasing. For me the best piece of writing for young adults is the late Victor Martinez’s Parrot in the Oven, published in 1993. It has a traditional structure that regards family. However, his writing is so individually rendered that you savor his phrase making. This is the only young-adult novel I’m envious of. And Victor was from my hometown of Fresno and, it so happens, a student of Philip Levine.
It seems you shy away from the literary world.
So true. I find that my engagement with public school youth is my literary calling in life. I can’t tell you how moved I’ve been in presenting to youth. I gassed up my car and did my traveling. I think I have been to every town and city in California.
You’ve also done films.
Yes. I did a couple of short films in 1990s—they’re not very good—and am now working on a feature-length film based on my novel Buried Onions. It’s filmed, it’s nearly at a place where it can be shared. The work has been immense and worrisome, worrisome because it was filmed during the pandemic. Also, there are a couple of other film options, but again my lips remain sealed.
What’s been one of your most difficult literary projects?
My most challenging effort—aside from In and Out Shadows—was a one-act play called The Afterlife, which was about teen murder and teen suicide. I worked very hard on this play, which was commissioned with foundation money in place. It was staged and ready for a long run when the pandemic hit. It disappeared like a ghost, March 2021. It was a play with heavy subjects—teen murder and teen suicide. I recall a parent coming up to me after a performance and saying in a soft voice, “My son jumped from a window.” He turned and walked away, like a ghost.
It appears that you’re a very independent poet and writer. Who offers you feedback?
My long-time friend Christopher Buckley, who uncapped his fountain pen in fall 1974. He’s ruthless in a slash and burn sort of way. And, of course, there is my darling wife of forty-seven years. She’s a very good reader. Otherwise, I don’t know any other poets and writers—is this a good thing? Probably.
For our final question, what projects are you working on now?
A middle-grade novel called Gormax, which is about two goofy boys who form a soundless rock group. The novel touches upon John Cage and the theory of silence in music—look into the history of Maestro Cage’s music. It’s a fun novel. It’s about how temporary art can be—famous one month, forgotten the next, and then reinvented the following month.
I also have a book of poems published this year called Downtime. It is a book in which I challenged myself to write a hundred poems in a hundred days. In the end, I wrote 116 poems. More than sixty were stinkers, but I did manage to pull out forty-six poems worthy of publication. Not a bad average. With that collection I’m batting 348, with a couple of solo homers.