Ep 09 – Askew Poetry Journal, The Fresno Poets


Welcome to Askew, I’m Phil Taggart. This edition of Askew features the Fresno
Poets. In 1958, Philip Levine came to teach at Fresno
State College. Levine, along with Peter Everwine, Charles
Hanzlicek, Robert Mezey, Corrinne Hales, Juan Felipe Herrera, and others, then mentored
and nurtured a generation of writers who have helped shape the world of American letters. We’re going to attend an historic poetry
reading at the Fresno Art Museum and we’ll talk with David Oliveira, who is also a Fresno
Poet and edited with Christopher Buckley and M.L. Williams the heyday publication
How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets. On today’s show, we’ll hear Philip Levine,
Suzanne Lummis, C.G. Hanzlicek, David Dominguez, Jean Janzen, and
we’ll start with David St. John reading Anastasia & Sandman by the late Larry Levis. The last time I was on this stage was to read
with my friend Larry Levis, and he was my closest friend for almost 30 years. David Oliveira asked me to read this poem. It’s a long poem so take a deep breath. It’s called Anastasia & Sandman. [Music] The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy. I refuse to explain. When the horse had gone the water in the trough,
All through the empty summer, Went on reflecting clouds & stars. The horse cropping grass in a field,
And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real
Than the mist in one corner of the field. Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that
matter. Members of the Committee on the Ineffable,
Let me illustrate this with a story, & ask you all
To rest your heads on the table, cushioned, If you wish, in your hands, &, if you want,
Comforted by a small carton of milk To drink from, as you once did, long ago,
When there was only a curriculum of beach grass,
When the University of Flies was only a distant humming. In Romania, after the war, Stalin confiscated
The horses that had been used to work the fields. “You won’t need horses now,” Stalin
said, cupping His hand to his ear, “Can’t you hear the
tractors Coming in the distance? I hear them already.” The crowd in the Callea Victoria listened
closely But no one heard anything. In the distance
There was only the faint glow of a few clouds. And the horses were led into boxcars & emerged
As the dimly remembered meals of flesh That fed the starving Poles
During that famine, & part of the next one– In which even words grew thin & transparent,
Like the pale wings of ants that flew Out of the oldest houses, & slowly
What had been real in words began to be replaced By what was not real, by the not exactly real. “Well, not exactly, but. . .” became the
preferred Administrative phrasing so that the man
Standing with his hat in his hands would not guess
That the phrasing of a few words had already swept
The earth from beneath his feet. “That horse I had,
He was more real than any angel, The housefly, when I had a house, was real
too,” Is what the man thought. Yet it wasn’t more than a few months
Before the man began to wonder, talking To himself out loud before the others,
“Was the horse real? Was the house real?” An angel flew in and out of the high window
In the factory where the man worked, his hands Numb with cold. He hated the window & the light
Entering the window & he hated the angel. Because the angel could not be carved into
meat Or dumped into the ossuary & become part
Of the landfill at the edge of town, It therefore could not acquire a soul,
And resembled in significance nothing more Than a light summer dress when the body has
gone. The man survived because, after a while,
He shut up about it. Stalin had a deep understanding of the kulaks,
Their sense of marginalization & belief in the land; That is why he killed them all. Members of the Committee on Solitude, consider
Our own impoverishment & the progress of that famine,
In which, now, it is becoming impossible To feel anything when we contemplate the burial,
Alive, in a two-hour period, of hundreds of people. Who were not clichés, who did not know they
would be The illegible blank of the past that lives
in each Of us, even in some guy watering his lawn On a summer night. Consider The death of Stalin & the slow, uninterrupted
Evolution of the horse, a species no one, Not even Stalin, could extinguish, almost
as if What could not be altered was something
Noble in the look of its face, something Incapable of treachery. Then imagine, in your planning proposals,
The exact moment in the future when an angel Might alight & crawl like a fly into the ear
of a horse, And then, eventually, into the brain of a
horse, And imagine further that the angel in the
brain Of this horse is, for the horse cropping grass
In the field, largely irrelevant, a mist in the corner
Of the field, something that disappears, The horse thinks, when weight is passed through
it, Something that will not even carry the weight
Of its own father On its back, the horse decides, & so demonstrates
This by swishing at a fly with its tail, by continuing
To graze as the dusk comes on & almost until it is night. Old contrivers, daydreamers, walking chemistry
sets, Exhausted chimneysweeps of the spaces
Between words, where the Holy Ghost tastes just
Like the dust it is made of, Let’s tear up our lecture notes & throw
them out The window. Let’s do it right now before wisdom descends
upon us Like a spiderweb over a burned-out theater
marquee, Because what’s the use? I keep going to meetings where no one’s
there, And contributing to the discussion;
And besides, behind the angel hissing in its mist
Is a gate that leads only into another field, Another outcropping of stones & withered grass,
where A horse named Sandman & a horse named Anastasia
Used to stand at the fence & watch the traffic pass. Where there were outdoor concerts once, in
summer, Under the missing & innumerable stars. When I– Well, anyway, when I got to Fresno
State, there was a class I was– I needed an English class, there was a class called Poetry
Writing, and it was taught by Philip Levine. Although I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t
know that when there to tell me, and he wasn’t famous then except in the English circles. He had had only one book that had come out
several years before from a small press. He was a great teacher. It’s hard to explain why he was such a great
teacher, but I knew after that experience that this was the best teacher I ever had. I learned so much about poetry, about how
to appreciate poetry, how to tell if something was good from something that wasn’t good,
and he did this with lots of humor. I mean, every class was an entertainment. I also was in a class that included Larry
Levis. It was his last class with Levine at Fresno
State, and other people, Bruce Boston, Greg Pape was there, Omar Salinas came in and out
of class, and these people were already wonderful poets. The things I was writing were silly and– and
easily– easy to criticize. How Levine would teach is that we would turn
in poems to him each week, take it to his office, and his secretary would type them
up and mimeograph them, you know, that’s how we did things in 1967– and during
class we would receive a packet that had all of the poems that had been turned in during
the week. Then then Phil would sit in front of the
class, at a desk, and he would talk about one of the point– he would start with at the
beginning and read the poem first, and he read it as if it had– if it was his poem. So his voice, you know, was– it’s just
a wonderful voice for poetry. When he finished reading, everything sounded
like it was made out of gold, and then he would start talking about it. Sometimes he would look at the backside of
the piece of paper and see that it was blank and say, “You know, this is the best part
of this poem.” He was, you know, he was hypercritical, but
not in a way that was cruel and in a way that constantly guided you toward what was good. He wanted you to be as good as he was. He didn’t want you to write ‘just good’
poetry, he wanted you to write the best poetry, and that’s what he instilled in us and in
all of us, I think. We all came away– all of us feeling the same
way, even now when we get together and talk about it, we all still have that same– that
same passion. I’m going to read a poem by a remarkable
woman who was one of my best students and certainly one of the most remarkable women
Fresno has given us, Sherley Williams. It’s called The Wishon Line. The end of a line
is movement the process of getting
on, getting off, of moving right along The dark corridors
of the hospital swallowed him up
(moving right along now– from distant
sanatorium to local health care
unit– the end of that line is song:
T.B. is killing me We traveled some
to see Daddy on that old Wishon route
but the dusty grave swallowed him up, These
are the buses of the century running
through the old wealth of the town, Huntington
Park, Van Ness Extension the way stops of
servants; rest after miles of walking and
working: cotton, working grapes, working hay. The
end of this line is the County: County
Hospital, County Welfare. County Home–
(moving right on– No one died of T.B.
in the ’50s; no one rides that Line for free. Dear Homeboy
There’s a stealthy, sort of leopard- Like knocking at my door
Tonight I half Wish were you, but the sky’s
Grainy violet and no one’s out there Loitering darkly like a dent. Know what’s going down? Total eclipse of the moon,
Kid– it’s pretty dim Out, just
The gas station’s block Of light like the landmark
At the world’s End: Jump off here. If you were there you’d use it
To check out your reflection In the hood of someone’s car. You’d use the neighbor’s zinnias
To wipe the street life Off your feet, you’d use
Your condition as an alibi, It couldn’t have been me, man,
I’m, like, dead! You’d consider knocking, take on
That shrewd look you always Got to hide a mind just half
Made up, one hand idly Questioning the spot
Around your ribs where blood Streaked out onto the asphalt
And turned black, looked Black, in the liquor store blur
And bulb of ambulance. Look
Up: a tablet dissolving in blue Mist, or mauve. The moon’s half gone– I
Know the feeling, sure. And you,
You’re gone more. Well, there had been two Fresno anthologies
in the past. One in 1970 called Down at the Santa Fe Depot. It was a remarkable anthology. It was just a confluence of wonderful circumstances. David Kherdian and Jimmy Baloian were the
editors. David Kherdian publish– was a publisher. He had his own press and Jimmy Baloian knew
all the poets at Fresno State and so they, you know, they got together and created this
anthology. It turned out later that, you know, half of
the people in the anthology went on to national reputations. So it was just, you know, circumstance and
and good luck. Then the next anthology came out in 19–
1987, called Piecework, and it included the next, basically the next generation, and Levine
was included again, Charles Hanzlicek was included again, but basically it was another
generation of poets and many of these poets also went on to big reputations. David St. John and Jean Janzen, Dixie Salazar,
Jon Veinberg. Just amazing that there would be so much poetry
coming from the Valley. Well, so a number of years had passed and
there was now a new generation and plus the old books had been long out of print, and
I wanted to have a new anthology. One selfish reason was I wanted to be in it. I asked my friend Marty Williams, who was
a graduate of Fresno and from the much later generation than me. If he would help me and he said he would and
then we asked Chris Buckley, another friend, and he agreed to help, and the three of us
made up a wonderful team. We really worked as a– as a team and pulled
it together. After I graduated from the University of California
at Irvine with a degree in comparative literature, I came back home and worked in a sausage factory. We we spent a lot of time sitting on the curb
and staring at the 99, saying to ourselves, I’d rather be there going someplace else. Until
the factories rose up around us and we couldn’t see the freeway any longer. Highway 99. One evening, for a fresh carton of marcoli
German Sausage And for a silver thermos filled
With bitter black coffee, The crane operator agreed to lift Guillermo
High above the cracked asphalt of 6th Street, High above Roeding Park,
High above the water towers, High above even Marcoli Sausage. Guillermo shed his bloody apron,
His cotton smock, his hairnet, Dropped his green hardhat on the concrete
slab, And stepped onto a small
Plywood platform he and the operator rigged, Gave a solid two-thumbs-up,
And grabbed the thick cable of the crane. The crane operator pulled down carefully
Two tight green-knobbed levers, And I watched Guillermo lift off the ground
and sway in the breeze. When I was six years old, I once climbed the
magnolia Because on Christopher Columbus Day
The teacher said, The world is round, A confident declaration that found no home
in my logic, For even from the tall magnolia,
The world looked flat as my hand. I scoured the city, longed for the earth’s
arc, And after the dark tide of the dark night
rose and then fell I continued the search because
The stars guided wise men home. But while under the spell of the August evening,
I discovered not the world’s edge Nor the terror of a thinly branched treetop
bending Side to side like the masthead of a pilgrim
ship From the top of the magnolia,
High as telephone poles along Sherman Street, Amid the city yearning for land,
I spotted the dark walls of Foodland Market, Red Hart Pharmacy, and Beverly’s Fabric
Shop: The places I hated most, I then knew,
Loomed only two blocks from my bedroom window. I declared myself captain of a boat,
A captain fit for a gold compass, the parched scrolls,
And fit for the starboard side view of The evening earth when the blue water slept,
And the magnolia blooms filled my palms with the scent of lemons. It was the end of an overtime shift
That dragged meat-heavy into Friday evening And the darkness that hides the dead. The dark reeked of blood
And buried the men who filled Their hearts with thoughts of extra pay
Never worth an hour of the work, And the men sat slumped in their small cars,
And their dark heads were hung low, And their groaning was dark,
And their tired sour breath stank of the dark. Guillermo, high in the air as
The giant boom could reach, The white of his eyes alongside
The white emerging moon, Standing on the platform and scouring the
city, Holding his arms out like wings
To balance his weight in the wind, His mouth locked agape and his whole torso
Bobbing up and down, Guillermo, Possessed by the force of creation,
Pointed at the sunset glowing down the highway, A cement spine that left industrial Fresno
and throbbed with life. My poem is entitled Broken Places. We know that the mountains
Can’t heal us, even as they stand Beside us, serene after their own
Great upheaval. And from the deep, The hidden springs rise. “For my irregular heart,” my father
Said, soaking in the sulphurous pool, The rain sizzling around him. On the other side of the world
Mitsuko and I strip and scrub Then enter the tranquil heat. Like sisters, no need to speak, For the water has claimed us,
Holding us above the rush Of the river. All of us shipwrecked,
Clutching what we can, No cure except the final one. But here, for awhile, our bodies release
The secret aches. Holding nothing
But water in our arms, we lean Against the split and tumbled sides
Of rocks, here where the mountain’s heart Spills out, holding us in its own
Broken place, the mists rising. I was going to read my terribly depressing
poem on turning 55 but then I decided to pity you and read instead a poem called Egg. I’m scrambling an egg for my daughter. “Why are you always whistling?” she asks. “Because I’m happy.” And it’s true,
Though it stuns me to say it aloud; There was a time when I wouldn’t
Have seen it as my future. It’s partly a matter
Of who is there to eat the egg: The self fallen out of love with itself
Through the tedium of familiarity, Or this little self,
So curious, so hungry, Who emerged from the woman I love,
A woman who loves me in a way I’ve come to think I deserve,
Now that it arrives from outside me. Everything changes, we’re told,
And now the changes are everywhere: The house with its morning light
That fills me like a revelation, The yard with its trees
That cast a bit more shade each summer, The love of a woman
That both is and isn’t confounding, And the love
Of this clamor of questions at my waist. Clamor of questions,
You clamor of answers, Here’s your egg. It’s called Red Is Always Twilight. Sitting again, hours at a stretch, while my
brother squints, Jabbing at the canvas where
My face begins to sprout in shades of persimmon and milk,
I’d like to know How I first awaken in his mind before the
lines arrive To arrange themselves. The sliding door is open, and outside, sun
flecks a pair Of wooden chairs
Slathered in whitewash. This afternoon, I listened absently
To the faint plosives of rain Opening on the rooftop, his brush scratching
dry muslin as he Explained his theory
Of color. Myself, I think red is always twilight–
embers that Crumble, winter coming on
In black silhouettes. Or I will look at yellow and still,
Sometimes, see Stephan’s hair: bright Reedy clumps that came away in his mother’s
hand when she’d Pet him– 13, brain mushrooming
Tumors the size of thumbs, pushing his eyes finally blind. I remember he’d fight
Sleep unless the drapes were open and his box of sky there. Boys, we three
Talked of lights in his forehead then as glass tubes of an old radio
That pulsed and crackled faintly Until they sipped a whole darkness. After that my brother
Never had a friend. And I
Have felt a certain swift and painful shyness overcome me when
I love another creature. I suppose
Blue is just the hard mothering of atmosphere and light
Falling into everyday without question. It’s out there now, behind the peak of the
house, behind my Brother’s head, swirling with the
clatter of pigeons Circling, there in the coming dusk, the one
fat palm that fronts The property. I’d want the true
Plum-green shimmer of their smooth Victorian bellies
Somewhere in the work I’d do, if What I made were pictures. I’d paint a white star in the corner
Of my brother’s eye, a tiny spot that pulls
The full spectrum in and gives it back, the furious silent desire
That’s in all things before they calm and pass. Hoped you enjoyed a look and listen to the
Fresno Poets, and it might be a good time to pick up the Fresno poet anthology How Much
Earth. See you next time on Askew.

2 thoughts on “Ep 09 – Askew Poetry Journal, The Fresno Poets

  1. My Reservoir Of Love

    By McQueen Dorothy L.©️

    My affair to monomaniacal
    My hopes to love my impeccable one
    My faith to exploit my love seems cynical
    Diabolical people, embrace your last laugh
    Ignoring me, slandering my name
    Taking my reservoir of love in vain
    Straight through Great Saphenous vein
    What a range, long route to my heart
    Smart, but unintelligent to God’s catalyst
    Manifestations by Angelic Analyst
    The guards over my reservoir of Love
    Not a barricade of hurt but pure intentions of the Lord above

  2. See part 2 of this Askew recording at: https://youtu.be/hVguobwe_MQ

    Includes readings by Dixie Salazar, Loren Palsgaard, Debra Deakin, Peter Everwine (reading Robert L. Jones), Lawson Fusao Inada, Luis Omar Salinas, Corrinne Clegg Hales (reading Michael McGuire), James Baloian, Beth Webster, Soul Vang, and David Oliveira

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