Poets & Writers Literary Roundtable meetings are great opportunities to connect with fellow presenters, presses, teachers, and writers. They bring together people from all aspects of the local literary community to share ideas, news, and resources, and possibly form partnerships. It's also a chance for members of the community to learn more about P&W and how its Readings & Workshops program might support their literary events. Brandi M. Spaethe, program assistant at P&W Readings & Workshops (West), blogs about a meeting in Fresno, California.
When I went to the Poets & Writers’ Fresno Roundtable meeting on March 27, I was excited to return to the place where I received my MFA in poetry last May. One thing I told Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of the Readings & Workshops Program (West), on the drive up was that not only does Fresno have a rich poetic history, but it also continues to be home to a strong and diverse literary community. It’s a place where inhabitants stick around because they are passionate about their projects and the city. Fresno is a place that wants to be loved.
In attendance was Fresno’s poet laureate, James Tyner, who runs a reading series at the Gillis Branch Public Library in Fresno. Tyner was elected Fresno’s first poet laureate in the fall of 2012. S. Bryan Medina came to discuss his new baby, the Inner Ear Poetry Jam, which features slam poets in the area. Medina told us that the slam community in Fresno has been alive for roughly twelve years, a fact not widely known. Michael Medrano, who was a P&W writer-in-residence for the Readings & Workshops blog in July 2013, has been an important member of the local literary scene with his Random Writers Workshop series that meets monthly in Fresno. Others in attendance included an agent, local literary enthusiasts, and a new member who had recently relocated.
One question we all wanted to explore: What drives Fresno's passion for the arts? What is it about Fresno that attracts writers? Well, it’s not a glamorous place. Fresno is very much a working-class city, they agreed, a place about work. Former United States Poet Laureate Philip Levine has spent a number of years teaching, writing, and living in Fresno and is well-known for writing about Detroit's working-class. This city is a realist city. Its faults are right on the surface and many of its citizens come from blue-collar backgrounds. A strong work ethic, a powerful drive, and sweat breaking over your back can remind you that you're human. That your body is capable of affecting and destroying and building again—if you spend enough time in Fresno you can see it. You can see it in the poetry.
The other thing that drives Fresnans is that they must fight for the arts. Cindy Wathen, treasurer at the Fresno Arts Council, shared with us that there’s just no budget for the arts, thus all efforts are grassroots. A few attendees spoke out about how fighting for your art creates a strong sense of identity, a sense of ownership and pride that comes with building your own establishment. As the largest Central Valley city, Fresno boasts a variety of agricultural communities, folks who have watched the land change and bear new fruit each year, some natives working directly to cultivate the crop. The arts, too, are nourished in this way.
One thing I noticed about my own time in Fresno is how separate the university and the locals were in their literary endeavors. Often the local writers would host events and some students would come, and vice versa with the MFA student events through Fresno State, but crossover was rare. There exists two camps: the nonacademic writer and the academic writer. "In what ways can the two come together?" we wondered. What are some events we'd like to see in Fresno that might bridge the gap? Some suggested a writers conference inclusive of non-academic writers, others mused that a retreat or publication would be a good addition to the scene. Annual show? Fringe festival? Excitement began to build in the room.
Fresno has been a poet’s place. It still is a poet’s place. Folks often forget about it, and the city itself has developed a reputation in the nation for being something that it’s not to the native. There’s a real sense of community there.
I am sitting at the dinner table, rolling a hot dog
into a corn tortilla, boiled beans and white rice,
the air growing smokey from the tri-tip barbequing
outside, my cousin bringing in a plate of pan fried
noodles from the place down the street.
I am home.
I am Fresno.
—James Tyner, "Fresno, California. 2013."
Photo: Fresno Roundtable Attendees Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald