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 Field, Pablo Neruda, W. 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.