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Valley of the poems casts a spell Poetry flourishes with the crops in California's San Joaquin Valley page 2

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Date published: 6/5/2006


"This place is very dramatic and uncompromising and vast," Levine said. "When you sit down to write, you think: 'I want to write large to measure up to this.'"

Joyce Jenkins, editor of Poetry Flash, a magazine focused on West Coast poetry, said Levine's writing style meshed perfectly with the valley.

"The valley isn't a very romantic place, or a particularly intellectual place," she said. "Levine's straightforward, honest poetry was a wonderful fit for these kids who were hungry to learn, who were from working-class backgrounds. He taught some wonderful poets, who went on to teach themselves. There was a big ripple effect."

Many outsiders still can't comprehend this flat land, where rivers are harnessed to feed crops and poverty sprouts between fields, as a place of poetry.

De Luna's unflinching autobiographical poem "Bent to the Earth" is the hallmark of his first book by the same name, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

The valley is a place where immigrants come looking for a first foothold, a first kid to finish high school, a first house. Along the way, they discover they've become American--sometimes in the funniest ways, as described by Inada, a third-generation Japanese poet born in Fresno in 1938, in his "Trombpoem":

"Right--1948, and I was a kid old enough to make morning deliveries for my grandfather's fish store,

which consisted of, if you can dig this--since everything's boarded-up or torn-down now--just being a happy kid out of the camps with the privilege of going into front-doors of restaurants of Fresno's swinging colored section, strolling all purposeful, proud, and casual into the kitchen, and handing over a package in exchange for a sip or a snack--because all the black, brown, yellow cooks knew me, and would feed me,

just for making my delivery!"

Others use poetry to navigate the cracks between cultures.

Hernandez, a performance poet whose first book, "Skin Tax," was published two years ago, grew up at odds with the machismo of Visalia's Hispanic community--though not with its music.

With the help of bongo drums and two musician friends, Hernandez recently transformed patrons of a brightly lit Barnes & Noble bookstore in a Merced strip mall into raucous backup singers chanting the chorus of his poem "Mama's Boy."

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