I Can Answer That!

When did you start writing?

When I was about twenty, a student at Fresno City College, I liked a young woman on campus. It so happened, however, that she didn’t think much of me. In fact, she told me as much. To repair my broken heart, I climbed the steps of our library and found myself in the poetry section. Youthful me, I believed that poetry would repair my heart. And it did.

So after this heartbreak, you wrote poems?

That’s right. I began writing poetry in spring 1972. I then transferred to Fresno State College and took a couple of poetry writing classes. At first, my poetry was awkward, but the more I read, listened to my instructor, and risked writing, the more I became acquainted with this old art.

You say “risk?” What do you mean by that?

First, in my neighborhood, the notion of writing poetry was unheard of. I mean, our neighborhood was working class—and this meant field work and hard labor. Second, I wasn’t sure if poetry would lead to something good. I was the first in my family to go to college. I had to make something happen for myself.

Do you remember your first poem?

It’s called “Little League Tryouts.” It was a story poem telling of how I try out for Little League but fail to make the team. Failure, I discovered then, often makes us want to express ourselves, and for me poetry was my vehicle.

Do your share your poems for critique?

Absolutely! I don’t know any writers—poets especially—who don’t want others to look their work. It’s the same with me. My first reader is my wife, Carolyn. She has a sharp eye and is candid. We have this routine where she is a horse who nods twice when she likes a poem. Then there is Christopher Buckley, who I met while in the MFA program at University of California, Irvine. He’s not a horse at all. He’s more like a bear. His approach has been slash-and-burn, meaning that he reads a poem line by line and slashes out the bad writing. Oh, yes, Ron McFarland, a poet from Idaho. He’s been critiquing my prose and poetry and has had words to say about a play that I’m working on.

When was your first book published?

My first book of poems was The Elements of San Joaquin, which was written between 1973 and 1975 but published in spring 1977. The poems are about family, landscape, farm work, and the ever-present elements of sun, fog, rain, stars and so on. Wouldn’t we agree that place influences us, and by place I mean where we grow up?

What was your first children’s book?

Baseball in April, a collection of short stories published in early spring 1990. It was an exciting time. For years I was exclusively a poet and with poetry, well, our readership is small. But with prose, particularly prose for younger readers, I was a welcome addition. A good feeling of being included.

And among your picture books, which is your favorite?

Teachers vote for Too Many Tamales, but I go with Chato’s Kitchen, which is about friendship and food. It would have been a great Saturday cartoon.

Why wasn’t it?

Not sure. But the world of animation is an insular world. They’re not open and, therefore, a lot of television cartoons are tame and riskless.

Is your poem “Oranges” true?

Most of it. I did like a girl a lot in sixth grade—her name was Margarita—and we did go on a walking date on the Fulton Mall in my hometown of Fresno. This was around 1965. “Wow!” you might roar. “That was hecka a long time ago!” True, so true. But remember that love over the ages doesn’t change much. You fall in love (and out of love, which is a different story) and you want to splurge on the person you’re with. For me, it was Margarita and my purchasing power of five cents, the cost of a candy bar in the 1960s. If you know the poem, you know that the young man—OK, me!—doesn’t have a dime to pay for the candy the girl has chosen. But the saleslady understood the moment and kindly allowed the boy to buy the candy for a nickel, plus an orange.

So literature can be based on experience?

No doubt about that. I suspect that first books by poets and fiction writers are often autobiographical. You have a story to tell and that story often concerns childhood memories. Later, when I was writing fiction and plays, I had no choice but to invent.

What do you mean by “invent?”

By this I mean that you have exhausted material from childhood and young adult years, and then begin to create stories solely from imagination. You have to test yourself, see how far your talent can take you.

Can you give us an example of an entirely invented world of yours?

My middle-grade novel Mercy on These Teenage Chimps. In this quickly paced novel you have two boys, age thirteen, embarrassed in front of two girls when by the coach caught them swinging from a basketball rim and called them monkeys. Hurt, he boys decide that if they are monkeys then they will live the rest of their lives in a tree. They last one day.

What’s the most unusual creative writing you’ve done?

A libretto called Nerdlandia—and a libretto is an operatic story. I was approached by the Los Angeles Opera and asked if I would be interested in writing an opera. Hey, I told myself, here’s something new! Now this was very unusual because it involved music and singers, plus a staged story.

You mentioned a play that you recently completed. What is it about?

This would be The Afterlife, A One-Act Play, which is about teen murder and teen suicide, and is set in my hometown of Fresno. (The beginning of the play is available to read on this website) In the play the two main characters meet in the Afterlife, which is a place where the dead circle around before they finally—yes, finally—are dead. In spite of murder and suicide, the play is a romantic comedy. The two main characters end up loving each other, and even though their time together is brief they at least experience love.

Why is the play set in Fresno?

Because literature is often regional by nature. Think of Robert Frost and his poetry set in the New England states, or Mark Twain and Mississippi or Wila Cather and Nebraska, or Sandra Cisneros, whose landmark book House on Mango Street is set in her childhood Chicago. They all valued region. Same with me. I think of my forty-plus books, more than half are set in Fresno.

What do people not know about you?

I like to keep quiet as a ninja, silent in other words. That I don’t have a cell phone. Yes, readers, this poet and author doesn’t have a phone other than a landline that sits on a desk. It seldom rings. I like the quietness of my house. The only time I’m really vocal is after my second cup of morning coffee when I crow like a rooster until the caffeine has run its course through my veins.

If you hadn’t chosen writing as a career, what might you have done for a living?

My wife thinks that this a scary thought, but I would have liked to have become a medical doctor. And I would have liked her to become my first patient! She’s so grateful that I stuck to my original plan