Gary Soto visits CSUMB

By Tessa Munson
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HCOM lecturer Rachelle Escamilla with Gary Soto after his reading in the University Center.

On Wednesday, Sept. 26 from 6-8 p.m., author Gary Soto was invited by the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CAHSS) and their School of Humanities & Communication Department’s “Writers on the Edge Series” to come to California State University, Monterey Bay and read some of his work. Soto read excerpts from his work “The Elements of San Joaquin” and “Oranges.”

One particularly expressive line from Soto’s reading “The Elements of San Joaquin” is, “Friends made quickly go away quickly.” This line is telling about Soto’s experiences making friends.

Humanities and Communication instructors Maria Villaseñor and Rachelle Escamilla were delighted to present Gary Soto to the crowd. From the very beginning of Soto’s presentation, he asked attendees not to use their cell phones and especially not to record him. He requested that guests give him their full attention, which cannot be achieved with cell phone use during the presentation.

Soto announced that he prefers to connect with his readers and was more interested in having a discussion, rather than simply reading to his audience for an hour. He expressed interest in the engagement he receives from discussion, as opposed to reading his work to the crowd.

Once Soto opened up the floor for discussion after reading portions of some of his poems, he expressed that he writes best in the morning when he is fresh and his mind is clear. One student asked what Soto is currently working on and he replied that he is mostly focused on essay forms and poetry, although he writes several different genres. He revealed his feelings about his hometown, “Some of us go to heaven, some of us go to Fresno.” He continually pointed out his jokes, which made them even funnier to the audience.

Soto is humble about his accomplishments. In between his reading and question and answer, he acknowledged that while some of his books do very well, he also has stacks of books in his garage that did not do as well. He explained to the young writers in the room that books only stay in print if they do well. If books do not do well, the author is responsible for storing any unsold books.

When asked about his experience with racism and cultural differences, he told a humbling story about when he worked as a gardener. He was working with a client and was asked to give an estimate regarding a new job he was considered for. After discussing that they would go to the new job site and check it out, the client got in their car and would not allow Soto to ride in their vehicle with them to the new job site. The site was just two blocks down the road.

In response to the same question, Soto recounted a time in which he was asked if he was a wetback. Soto described these experiences without a heightened sense of emotion, even as the audience began to gasp and sigh.

Another student asked if Soto’s family was welcoming to the idea of his poetry writing and he explained that his Chicano family knew nothing about writing, as his brother is an artist and his roommate was a drummer.

Soto expressed that for a long time, he would refer to himself as a writer, rather than a poet. He joked that now, he doesn’t tell people what he does and instead says that he is retired. A student asked what changed for him when he began to call himself a writer, Soto replied that he started to carry a book around with him in Fresno, which helped him decide to become a writer.

One piece of advice Soto had to offer students is that revision and peer review are very important. He revealed that his wife is his first editor and editing is a very long process. If he stops writing for a period of time, he notices that his writing skills begin to diminish.

When asked by a student, “Do you have a direction with every poem?” Soto answered, “I don’t often know, but I figure it out a little later…Language is unpredictable.” Soto expressed that we have to go beyond our comfort levels sometimes in order to test ourselves, otherwise we do not advance.

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