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Valley of the poems casts a spell Poetry flourishes with the crops in California's San Joaquin Valley

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Date published: 6/5/2006



FRESNO, Calif.--Work happens here.

Vans full of farmworkers rumble through the darkness before dawn. Produce-laden trucks streak along highways en route to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The mountains surrounding the San Joaquin Valley hide behind a veil of exhaust, dust and soot.

For many born into this bowl-shaped land, there's little time for words, yet poetry grows here like weeds, said Blas Manuel de Luna, who was raised a farmhand and writes poems that are as much a part of the earth as the peaches he used to pick.

His words are straightforward and honest, his themes focused on work and the land. De Luna belongs to a regional school of poetry born in this rural valley that sprawls at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

"You're not deluded about life if you grow up working in the fields," said de Luna. The valley's poets are "no-nonsense people who want to write about what they do."

Like de Luna, many are immigrants, or the children of immigrants--Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Laotian--who came here to pick lettuce, strawberries or plums.

Their experiences often make for poems that are hard to swallow and linger like grit between the teeth, like de Luna's "Bent to the Earth," which he read recently at a high school in Firebaugh, where he teaches English to the children of other farmworkers:

"They had hit Ruben with the high beams, had blinded him so that the van he was driving, full of Mexicans going to pick tomatoes,

would have to stop. Ruben spun the van into an irrigation ditch,

spun the five-year-old me awake to immigration officers, their batons already out,

already looking for the soft spots on the body There were no great truths revealed to me then."

Poet Philip Levine, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his collection "The Simple Truth," moved to the San Joaquin Valley from Detroit in 1958 to join the faculty of California State University, Fresno.

Other poets followed, giving rise to the regional literary movement that continues to flourish, producing the writers Lawson Fusao Inada and Juan Felipe Herrera--who studied under Levine--along with Tim Z. Hernandez and many others.

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