Ars Poetica

How I found kinship with poets writing about the culture of my hometown, Fresno.

adornamented hot sauce bottles, teresa flores
© Teresa Flores

“Adornamented Hot Sauce Bottles” (2022).

There was a time in my life when I bounced from place to place around Fresno, not really feeling at home but knowing that I was welcome wherever I stayed. It was the late aughts, I was in my 20s, and I was between lives, transitioning from toiling as a stock person in the Macy’s lingerie department to working as an artist and art teacher. I couldn’t articulate what I was going through, but a couple of my colleagues sensed my struggle and suggested I take a house-sitting gig at their friend’s place. I had no idea what I was walking into.

It was the home of Philip and Frances Levine. Phil was a longtime English professor at Fresno State, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a former U.S. poet laureate. Given his renown, I was expecting their house to be all fancy, but true to Phil’s working-class roots, it was just like those of a lot of Fresnans.

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His wife, Fran, an amazing painter, walked me through their home and briefed me on where to find things, but there was so much more to her welcome. In each room, she pointed out places to sit: the couch, an armchair, any one of the chairs at the dining room table, the backyard, the front porch, even her husband’s office. It was all open to me with the exception of the garage, Fran’s painting studio. Artists’ workspaces can be really private and precarious, so I understood her desire to keep it off-limits. The Levines, I later learned, had a generous practice of opening their residence to writers and artists to house-sit and work in when the two were living in New York for long stretches while Phil taught back East. And in my shifting into an artist’s life, I briefly got to be in that bunch.

Was I intimidated to sit at the desk of a Pulitzer Prize winner? Oh, yes. Did I get the nerve to sit there when nobody was looking? Absolutely. Over the weeks I was house-sitting, I came to realize that all these spaces were actually used by the Levines for deep thinking, writing, and talking. I imagined Fran then, giving the same introductory speech to other artists and poets. Our walk through the house was in fact a framing for the ways that I needed to see and be in the place. In my life before that moment, sitting happened only if I was eating a meal, or in the break room in the basement at Macy’s (no sitting on the sales floor!), or outside of work hours after I was caught up on my errands and tasks. My new life on the horizon required spaces to sit, to think, to create. It depended on them.

Phil wrote about his working-class life in Detroit, but he was also known as a Fresno poet. The only other poet I knew of at that time who wrote about the area was Gary Soto. I was never taught about the Central Valley’s great writers—Juan Felipe Herrera, José Montoya (or any of the Montoya family), Dixie Salazar, Sherley Anne Williams, and many others. Making work about home and place was already at the front of my mind. The hip-hop music I grew up listening to would always center home and place, and I saw it centered again at Fresno State when, as an undergrad, I learned about the legacy of the school’s Feminist Art Program and its founder, Judy Chicago. I knew about the introspection that comes from making work about where you live and where you are from—especially when it came to Fresno. I had already begun to explore those ideas in my own work.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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Around that time, I was also immersed in a crash course on Chicano/a/x history as a new board member of one of Fresno’s longest-standing cultural institutions, Arte Américas. I learned local mural history from fellow board member Nené Casares and artist F. John Sierra, who showed me artists like the Royal Chicano Air Force and Ester Hernandez and their impact on the United Farm Workers movement in the Central Valley. This knowledge helped me situate myself within a community of artists at Broadway Studios, in the city’s downtown, where I met muralists like FranCisco Vargas, Ramiro Martinez, Joshua Wigger, and Robert Amador. At the time, I didn’t know any artists working in muralism who weren’t men, but I later learned of the legacy of Las Mujeres Muralistas del Valle and arts educator Paulette Fleming.

how to jump a fence, teresa flores
How to Jump a Fence” (2012).
© Teresa Flores

It felt like a new wave was happening in Fresno’s mural movement, and the older generation of artists was teaching and collaborating with the new generation, much like in the Fresno poetry community. New muralist voices emerged, such as Adrianna Alejo Sorondo, Andrea Torres, and Ariel Bird, and artists painted murals to define themselves, distinguish the character of a place, and have their voices heard among the voices of mural movements happening around the country. Fresno artists seemed to struggle more for recognition than Fresno poets. It’s hard to get your work out of the Valley if it’s stuck on a wall, but a poem can travel.

One of the poets I met at Broadway Studios was Joseph Rios. In the prologue of his 2017 American Book Award–winning debut collection, Shadowboxing: Poems and Impersonations, Rios writes, “I’m not scared of you mother fuckers,” following with “stuffy L.L. Bean-wearing motha fuckers”—and goes on for four pages to explain how poetry has left entire “neighborhoods, communities, street corners” behind because of the ivory tower it has built around itself. As a poet, he refuses to assimilate into a predominately white canon as taught by traditional academic institutions. Instead, his verse speaks like his “friends/brothers/cousins,” its language clashing against widely held expectations about poetry—its purpose, its sounds, its vocabulary—because he knows well (he’s a handyman with an English lit degree from UC Berkeley) that the two don’t mix. “Think Woody Allen directing Blood In, Blood Out, Philip Levine singing the Isley Brothers,” Rios writes. Philip Levine singing the Isley Brothers! He wrote that line long before we were friends and long before he moved into his house in Calwa, an old Mexican American neighborhood just south of Fresno. And I have to say, the vibe of his house—its DIY renovations (he made over every room himself, and he shared the work in his Instagram stories), the fruit and veggies he grows in the backyard, the many cozy places to sit—reminds me of the Levine house.

It’s this need to not explain Fresno and Chicano/a/x culture and language to anyone who doesn’t understand, and the practicality of the DIY aesthetic, that I connect to most in my own work. But also, doing it with humor. If my drawing How to Jump a Fence had to borrow from a Rios poem, it would call itself Andy Warhol Kickin’ It with Foos Gone Wild. It’s unknown whether Warhol even knew how to jump a chain-link fence, but my work is actually a play on Warhol’s Dance Diagrams. I chart out for the viewer how to jump a chain-link fence, step-by-step. It’s absurd to anyone who actually knows how to jump a fence, because everyone knows you just learn by watching others and then doing it yourself. Googling it or mapping out a diagram feels culturally cringeworthy. It’s the intuitiveness and ethos that can’t be placed into the structure of a diagram, the disregard and absurdity of having to explain yourself, that I’m talking about, much as Rios’s lively language can’t be contained in the structure of a formal poem.

Sara Borjas, who is also from Fresno, won an American Book Award in 2019 for her debut poetry collection, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff. She starts off her poem “Pocha Café” with “Here, we use Cholula, not homemade salsa,” which is pretty much what my mom said to me the other day when I visited her Fresno house.

Pocha Café” explores the nuances of being Mexican American and Chicano/a/x. You know, the timeless struggle: you’re either too Mexican for the Americans or too American for the Mexicans. Well, I was so pocha that I didn’t even know the word pocha until I was past 30. I knew the concept, though, because I had lived it my whole life. In fact, my family is so many generations deep in being pocho that my grandparents would shake their heads knowingly and tell me, “Just be yourself—you’re never going to be good enough for them.” “Them” being Mexicans, and also Americans.

Borjas writes: “Come to Pocha Café and expropriate your Pochaism as an act of empowerment!” Which is what cooking every day with my grandma felt like. She knew all the recipes, knew how to make everything from scratch, and she was tired. And sick. We made albóndigas with ground turkey instead of beef, used vegetable oil in the masa instead of lard, doctored up canned red chile until the bitterness was gone. Maybe other grandmas would hold tight to tradition but not mine. If it meant she could live a little longer, control her diabetes, and spend less time on her tired feet, then she would do it. Her adaptations were a mix of rasquache and pocha, and they translated into survival and joy.

Grandma trained me well. When the time came for me to navigate my own health issues, I knew I could find ways to eat our traditional foods. Like making salsa with red bell peppers instead of tomatoes. I am a whole new generation of rasquache pocha, and this is what inspired me in my ongoing project Experimental Quesadilla Lab. Sometimes our bodies just can’t handle dairy or gluten or acidity. Or we have allergies. When that happens, sometimes we can’t afford to buy the alternatives or they’re not available in our neighborhood. Or they just taste bad. So the lab pops up in different places across California and pulls foods from nearby grocery stores to examine what is accessible and what tastes good. The lab serves as a space in which to reflect on how a person can make the most of what is available to satisfy what their body needs and their heart desires—by making a quesadilla.

portrait of the state of california, september 15, 2021, teresa flores
Portrait of the State of California, September 15, 2021” (2021).
© Teresa Flores

Anthony Cody is another local poet who inspires me. It’s as if we live parallel Fresno lives. We are the same age. We went to school one block away from each other. We have childhood memories of McLane Market and the brave escape artist who got buried alive and died at Blackbeard’s Family Fun Center on Halloween. We saw the smoke from a plane that crashed into the apartments on Olive Avenue. We felt how distraught our classmates were when their houses were bought up and bulldozed to make room for a new freeway.

Cody’s debut book, Borderland Apocrypha from 2020, makes him the third poet from Fresno to receive an American Book Award in the past four years. The question of what’s in the water in Fresno is a book in itself. Cody arranges words on a page in ways I have never seen before, and I feel like that new freeway and its bulldozed houses are partially to blame for that. This poet is tired of borders in the land and tired of the ways poetry can be confined to a page. The book’s jarring layouts guide the reader to discover new possibilities for experiencing poetry. There is no set way to read some of the poems; Cody leaves it up to the reader, making the work participatory, which of course further abolishes the borders of poetry.

We live in a state that was once Mexico, and before that part of Spain, and before that the land of the Indigenous peoples of California (as it always will be). Between my family and the families of all the previously mentioned poets, our ancestors have lived through divisions and transitions that have taken place in northern Mexico, the southwestern United States, and this state over centuries. What we recognize now as California and the borders of its counties contains a load of information about the state’s politics. My painted diagram, Portrait of the State of California, September 15, 2021, juxtaposes two graphics published in the New York Times that reveal where the Republican and Democratic boundaries within the state intersected with the infection rate of the COVID-19 virus on the week of the 2021 California gubernatorial recall election. At the time, the southern and coastal counties stood unified with a no vote on recalling Governor Gavin Newsom and a low virus infection rate. And the inland areas of the state voted yes on the recall while also facing higher infection rates.

We migrate throughout the region as our ancestors have for centuries, for home, love, and opportunities. Although Fresno and the Central Valley are known by many as America’s breadbasket, they are not places where artists are meant to thrive. The art and poetry made in and about the region come from a necessity to survive, to shine a light to others like ourselves announcing that although we may not be clearly visible in the constellation of art worlds on this planet, we remain present. Like our elders—Hernandez, Fleming, Levine, Herrera—and sometimes in spite of them, Fresno artists and poets continue to draw from the city and make spaces in our homes to shift between our lives as workers and as makers of survival.

So here I am, one artist among artists and poets, sitting on my humble patio in East L.A., eating a pomegranate from Fresno and planning my projects for the coming months. My own California is right here, wherever I am, clashing and coalescing.•

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