Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Robert Vasquez

As with Diana Marie Delgado (who has written a stellar introduction) and Eduardo C. Corral (who has contributed a gem of a blurb), the work of Robert Vasquez has always been a touchstone for me. In my editor's note to Braille for the Heart, I talk about first encountering his poems in an anthology edited by the late Ernesto Trejo and Jon Vineberg. The volume was called Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets and was published in the mid-eighties by Gary Soto. I remember reading in his biographical sketch that he was about to start an MFA at UC Irvine.

He went on to become a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and eventually published one of the most underappreciated books in Chicano/Latino poetry, let alone American poetry: At the Rainbow (University of New Mexico Press, 1995). It belongs right up there with Elements of San Joaquin and Emplumada. I discovered it in the poetry room at City Lights Books in San Francisco shortly after it was published while I was home for a visit one Christmas. I bought the book, took it back to Spain, and read it---again and again.

When I moved back to California from Spain, I found myself at UC Davis (1998-2000) pursuing an MA in English. Among the bonuses of being on the Davis campus was finally getting to spend some extended time with Francisco X. Alarcón (I'd only known him as his distant translator), who taught in the Spanish Department. And then the following happened: somehow I found out that there was going to be the possibility of inviting a visiting poet for a term in the winter of 2000. The first name that came to mind---for me anyway---was Robert Vasquez's. He was someone whose work I'd been admiring for years and years, but who I'd never met. So I brought his work to the attention of the Director of the program. He liked it, and suggested that, as a first step, we invite him to give a reading. We did, he gave a reading, he met the Chair, and the following winter he came and taught two workshops: one graduate and one undergraduate.

As I've said in private to a number of people, it was one of those cases where a writer whose work one really admires also happens to be a very nice human being. He was, and is, also well and widely read where contemporary American poetry is concerned. Once, during our workshop, we were discussing a passage of a poem that didn't seem to be working and Robert encouraged the author to have a look at Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" and then began to recite from memory the passage he had in mind. When he gave his reading at UC Davis the previous winter, he opened his reading by re-citing, also from memory, a favorite poem of his by Richard Hugo.

In short, it was a privilege to have him on campus for those ten weeks. It was primarily because of this experience, and for the admiration that I had for his work, that I chose him to be the inaugural judge of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. It also helped that, like Andrés, Robert grew up in Fresno, and still made (and makes) the California Central Valley his home.

I've been talking to Robert for the last few years about doing a chapbook of his work. He's the first to admit that he's a slow writer and it seemed to me that a chapbook would be a nice intermediate step before completing what we many of us hope will be a another book---soon.

But there is another reason why this Momotombo Press title is special.

Stay tuned.

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