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Gary Soto

1952–

Gary Soto was born in Fresno, California, on April 12, 1952, to working-class Mexican-American parents. As a teenager and college student, he worked in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, chopping beets and cotton and picking grapes. He was not academically motivated as a child, but he became interested in poetry during his high school years. He attended Fresno City College and California State University–Fresno, and he earned an MFA from the University of California–Irvine in 1976.

His first collection of poems, The Elements of San Joaquin (University of Pittsburgh Press), won the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum in 1976 and was published in 1977. Since then, Soto has published numerous books of poetry, including You Kiss by th’ Book: New Poems from Shakespeare’s Line (Chronicle Books, 2016), A Simple Plan (Chronicle Books, 2007), and New and Selected Poems (Chronicle Books, 1995), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Soto cites his major literary influences as Edward FieldPablo NerudaW. S. Merwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Christopher Durang, and E. V. Lucas. Of his work, the writer Joyce Carol Oates has said, “Gary Soto’s poems are fast, funny, heartening, and achingly believable, like Polaroid love letters, or snatches of music heard out of a passing car; patches of beauty like patches of sunlight; the very pulse of a life.”

Soto has also written three novels, including Amnesia in a Republican County (University of New Mexico Press, 2003); a memoir, Living Up the Street (Strawberry Hill Press, 1985); and numerous young adult and children’s books. For the Los Angeles Opera, he wrote the libretto to Nerdlandia, an opera.

Soto has received the Andrew Carnegie Medal and fellowships from the California Arts Council, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Northern California.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Meatballs for the People: Proverbs (Red Hen Press, 2017)
You Kiss by th’ Book: New Poems from Shakespeare’s Line (Chronicle Books, 2016)
Sudden Loss of Dignity (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2013)
Human Nature (Tupelo Press, 2010)
Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)
A Simple Plan (Chronicle Books, 2007)
A Fire in My Hands (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)
One Kind of Faith (Chronicle Books, 2003)
A Natural Man (Chronicle Books, 1999)
Junior College (Chronicle Books, 1997)
New and Selected Poems (Chronicle Books, 1995)
Home Course in Religion (Chronicle Books, 1991)
A Fire in My Hands (Scholastic, 1990)
Who Will Know Us? (Chronicle Books, 1990)
Black Hair (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985)
Where Sparrows Work Hard (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981)
The Tale of Sunlight (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978)
The Elements of San Joaquin (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Prose
Why I Don’t Write Children’s Literature (University Press of New England, 2015)
What Poets are Like (Sasquatch Books, 2013)
Amnesia in a Republican County (University of New Mexico Press, 2003)
Poetry Lover (University of New Mexico Press, 2001)
Nickel and Dime (University of New Mexico Press, 2000)
The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy (Persea Books, 2000)
Buried Onions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997)
Jesse (Scholastic, 1994)
A Summer Life (University Press of New England, 1990; Dell, 1991)
Living Up the Street (Strawberry Hill Press, 1985)

By This Poet

5

Earth Day on the Bay

Curled like a genie’s lamp,
A track shoe from the 1970s among seaweed,
The race long over, the blue ribbons faded,
The trophies deep in pink insulation in the rafters.
Perhaps the former distant runner sits in his recliner.

The other shoe? Along this shore,
It could have ridden the waves back to Mother Korea,
Where it was molded from plastic,
Fitted with cloth, shoelaces poked through the eyelets,
Squeezed for inspection.

I remember that style of shoe.
Never owned a pair myself.
With my skinny legs I could go side-to-side like a crab,
But never run the distance with a number on my back,
Never the winner or runner up heaving at the end.

I bag that shoe, now litter, and nearly slip on the rocks.
Gulls scream above, a single kite goes crazy,
A cargo ship in the distance carrying more
Of the same.

Telephones from the 50s

Nisei, remember the party line?
How you shared the same line,
The same mornings,
The same problems—
My girl is sick, the check was mailed late,
The irrigation pump doesn’t work—
Two hundred for the man to come out.

Life on the nisei family farm… 
If Mrs. Oda lifted the black telephone
And another voice was there,
She set it back into the cradle,
Looked up at the clock,
Maybe folded baby clothes,
Maybe cut coupons from the newspaper,
Maybe ironed a shirt,
Maybe took a broom to the spiders
Near the ceiling.

(Water drip from the kitchen sink,
Tractor roar near the barn,
Dog barking just to bark,
Sunlight hot as an iron on the sill.
She looked at the telephone, looked and looked.)

Mrs. Oda smoothed the front
Of her dress—printed with chickens,
Little white fences, roses faded from the wash.
She could have cooked rice,
Chopped green onions and carrots,
Nappa if one was in the fridge.
Elbows on the kitchen table,
She could have examined her book
Of Green stamps.  

At a quarter to five
She lifted the receiver of the phone.
She called her sister-in-law on the next farm
To say that she had folded clothes,
Ironed and cut coupons,
Swiped the broom at spiders,
And saved the better part of the nappa.

Her sister-in-law would say,
“I did those very things—
Okazu’s for supper.
You could come over
But looks like you’re having the same.”

A Walk through the Cemetery

In memory of David Ruenzel, 1954–2014

I searched for twenty minutes
For my murdered friend’s grave,
A small, white marker,
# 356 it reads. He is not
This number, or any number,
And he is not earth,
But a memory
Of how he and I hiked
Through this Oakland cemetery—
What, six months before
He was shot? We stopped
At the Fred Korematsu stone,
Righteous man, stubborn
Behind bars for refusing
The Japanese-American internment in 1942—
Jail for him, in suit and tie, god dammit.
We righted flowers at his grave,
Bright with toy-like American flags,
And shaded our eyes to follow
The flight of the hawks above.
We left and walked up a slope
And visited a part of the cemetery
Where the Chinese are buried,
A division of races, a preference?
 
Now I’m at his grave marker—
The stone for him has yet to arrive.
His widow lives a mile up
In the Oakland Hills.
Here is truth: she has a telescope
Trained on his grave.
She pours coffee—she looks.
She does the vacuuming—she looks.
She comes home hugging bags
Of groceries—she looks.
Perhaps she is getting up
From the piano, an eye wincing
Behind the telescope.
If so, she would see me
Looking at marker #366—
This plot is available,
Purchasable, ready
For a down payment.
But the first installment
I must pay with my life.
What then? His widow
Will still keep the telescope
Trained on his grave,
Now and then swiveling
It to #366, his friend.
The buzzing bees would languidly
Pass the honey between us.