Soto provides a voice for his work at the Residence Center

By The Columbia Chronicle

Gary Soto, winner of the 1998 Pura Belpra award, claims he started writing poetry because of love. The poet, who spoke on Dec. 3 at the Residence Center, described his first declaration of love as painful. “She was sitting there eating a sandwich, going munch, munch, munch. I can’t remember her name right now but I remember I asked her, ‘Do you love me?’ She quickly replied, ‘no.’ I needed something to help me get over it.”

Soto’s painful introduction into poetry began an award-winning career as a poet and writer. Soto is now one of the country’s most accomplished and widely-read poets. He has written prose, plays, poetry and young adult books. The most popular of his young adult novels is “Jesse,” a story of the United Farm Workers; he has won numerous awards for his first published work, “The Elements of San Joaquin.” His other young adult works, like “Taking Sides,” “Pacific Crossing,” and “The Skirt” also have a great following. He has written a libretto called “Nerd-Landia” for the Los Angeles Opera. His autobiographical work,

“Living Up The Street,” won the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation. Of his nine poetry collections for adults, the most notable, “New and Selected Poems,” was a 1995 finalist for the L.A. Times Book Award. Soto has also appeared in various literary magazines such as The Nation, Plouqshares, and the Iowa Review. He was honored with the Bess Hokin Prize, the Levison Award and was featured in Poets in Person by Poetry Magazine. Soto’s most popular adult poems are “Too Many Tamales” and “Oranges,” which reads as follows:

Light in her eyes. A smile

Starting at the corners

Of her mouth. I fingered

A nickel in my pocket,

And when she lifted a chocolate

That cost a dime.

I didn’t say anything.

I took the nickel from

my pocket, then an orange,

And set them quietly on

The counter. When I looked up,

The lady’s eyes met mine,

And held them, knowing

Very well what it was all about.

Columbia students heard this poem and various others, delivered in the author’s quirky voice. The giggling poet explained that he was born and raised in Fresno, California and has since then become an Admiral in the Royal Chicano Navy known as the SacraAztlan. According to Soto, SacraAztlan consists of 35 writers and poets. Jokes aside, Soto has the third largest readership of a poet among Chicanos, the first two being Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros.

Soto, who depicts himself as a professional writer who works until noon, said that every writer struggles for material. “In your mind you begin with your experience,” he said. Soto described his writing style as “a coming of age style…I try taking the movies to the streets.”

Soto claims that writing wasn’t as easy when he first started. “I was very shy as a writer. I was scared of making grammatical errors. I slowly got better and better. It started with very short poems and eventually they got very long.”

Soto’s writing (or maybe it was his reading) -convinced students at the reading to buy his books, which sold out in 15 minutes. He advised aspiring writers and poets to “look into yourself if you can. Painful experiences heal you.”