//Poetry Heartland: Fresno’s Vast Literary Heritage & Vibrant Current Scene

Poetry Heartland: Fresno’s Vast Literary Heritage & Vibrant Current Scene

By Doug Cox | bdougcox@gmail.com

As many locals might already know, Fresno and the entire San Joaquin Valley enjoy a rich and highly-regarded literary tradition that dates back to long before California statehood. However, most scholars point to the arrival of Philip Levine in the late 1950s as when our dusty little town made its first marks on the literary map. Mr. Levine, of course, went on to a legendary teaching and writing career, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award before being appointed United States Poet Laureate. Still, the notion that literature in general, and poetry in particular, just started sprouting up around here at one distinct moment does not tell the full story.

The truth is local artists have been working to carve out essential space for our songs and stories for as long as there have been people in this region, but those in academic settings started to take more notice sometime in the mid-1960s. About that time, poets Peter Everwine and C.G. Hanzlicek joined Mr. Levine at CSU, Fresno, who were instrumental in the establishment of Fresno State’s now-acclaimed writing program. By the early 1970s, initial students of these three foundational professors—Lawson Inada, Larry Levis, Gary Soto, David St. John, and Sherley Anne Williams, to name a few of the talented writers drawn to their classrooms—also began publishing in national venues. The landmark anthology Down at the Santa Fe Depot, which featured over a dozen notable Fresno poets, also added to this growing notoriety. Yet, while impossible to overstate the impact of these elder poets, the literary legacy here goes back much further. It deserves a few more brushstrokes to flesh out its full picture.

Since the Yokuts first inhabited the land we occupy today, people in this Valley have recognized the power of poetry and utilized its musical elements to mark significant communal events. Native groups have relied on both song and spoken tales to help convey their origins, histories, and various cultural lessons. Typically accompanied by drums or other instruments and often reserved for religious purposes, local tribes have always valued artistic expression in their ceremonies. This emphasis on language and its connections to the basic struggles and wonders of life is evident even in this brief “Yokuts Death Song”: “All my life / I have been seeking / Seeking.”

Since those original contributions, subsequent writers have added significantly to our shared literary heritage, and by the early 20th Century, local authors were actively changing its artistic landscape. Although not primarily a poet, William Saroyan, our only Pulitzer and Oscar winner, remains one of the most enduring voices of his time. His depictions of the Valley and its people, particularly Armenian immigrants, farmworkers, and other working-class folk, have left an indelible impression that earned him an international audience. William Everson, who also published as Brother Antoninus—a Selma-born printers-turned-farmers’ son who went on to become a poet, an expert printer, and then a Dominican monk—developed a wide readership beginning with San Joaquin, his first book of poetry. Though somewhat underappreciated today, Everson earned his reputation as a profound and prolific poet associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, a precursor to the Beat movement. However, his primary artistic influence was Robinson Jeffers, the fiercely ecologically-minded poet and hawkeyed social-critic from Carmel-by-the-Sea. Jeffers, coincidentally, also took an artistic peek or two at the Great Central Valley from his perch at Tor House, overlooking the Pacific, just beyond those scenic coastal ranges.

From the California Gold Rush, with its prosperous booms and genocidal aftermaths, through generations of enormous and ongoing changes in Valley life, fascinating literary figures have spread across this region in styles diverse as its flora and fauna. For example, Mary Hunter Austin, somewhat controversial now but respected in her lifetime, first gained notoriety with her poems, plays, wide-ranging prose, and forays into loose translations or “interpretations” of Native American songs. Known for her dramatic lectures on Indigenous cultures and how Native rhythms and landscapes might inform modern poetics, her earnest if clumsy linguistic tributes did, at least, help turn the spotlight toward more varied points of view. Arnold Rojas, another intriguing author in Valley lore, was said to have run away from an orphanage in San Luis Obispo at an early age to become a vaquero, eventually making his home near Bakersfield. After herding cattle and caring for horses for half a century, Rojas began publishing vignettes in a local newspaper, later collecting these and other pieces into books that are still considered essential records of western and cowboy life. Perhaps it is these types of simultaneously popular yet fringe artists coexisting in the Central Valley that help us develop new voices and perspectives, a rare characteristic that continues along similar artistic lines today.

It is also perhaps why dynamic teachers like Levine, Everwine, and Hanzlicek have been able to steadily guide so many creative minds into becoming the next wave of Fresno poets to rise to national prominence. It was in collaboration with these creative forces that James Baloian and David Kherdian published Down at the Santa Fe Depot in 1970. Positive reviews of their editorial work generated even more critical buzz, but the ongoing tide of Fresno poets, including Robert Mezey, DeWayne Rail, Luis Omar Salinas, and Roberta Spear, had already risen high. The front cover of this anthology alone, a grainy black-and-white photograph of nearly 20 Fresno literary legends half-loitering on the concrete steps across from the railroad tracks, cultivates this growing mystique and captures an historic literary moment. Read the poems inside, and this book makes us look downright cool.

Helped also in part by later anthologies Piecework, edited by Ernesto Trejo and Jon Veinberg in 1987, and How Much Earth, edited by Christopher Buckley, David Oliveira, and M.L. Williams in 2001, the reputation of Fresno poets continued to garner fresh attention. This Po-Biz level fame and the notion of a vibrant Fresno poetics took stronger hold, drawing even more talented young poets to town. By the turn of the Century, the list of well-known local poets had become remarkable, almost unheard of for a town with a population and university of its size.

Within all this literary momentum came the arrival of Jean Janzen, C.W. Moulton, Greg Pape, Sam Pereira, and Dixie Salazar on the contemporary poetry scene. Followed by Kathy Fagan, Connie Hales, Tim Skeen, Robert Vasquez, and Juan Felipe Herrera, who in 2015 was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, the second Fresno poet to hold said office, making us the only city in the country with that distinction. Then poets Andres Montoya, Brian Turner, and Lee Herrick, our current California Poet Laureate, began to flourish. Then… well, even if the (alphabetical) order is rough and details a bit hazy, you get the picture. Thankfully, new waves of poets keep coming in, as seemingly endless as those rows of grapevines stretching out towards our smog-hidden horizons past the 99.

It is also important to note that not all of this poetic work gets done on a campus. Chuck Moulton, founder of the Fresno Poets’ Association (FPA), a local literary presence known for his enthusiastic introductions of readers at live events, began the FPA as more of a social group for fellow poets that evolved into a lively and beloved set of readings. Under the guidance of Chuck Hanzlicek, who took over as FPA director in 1994, these once nightclub-hosted gatherings found a more permanent home at the Fresno Art Museum and grew into one of the most impressive poetry reading series anywhere in the nation. Footage of vintage readings in this series have been thoughtfully preserved by CSUF Communications staff member Jefferson Beavers and creative writing undergraduate interns. A playlist of readings can be viewed on the Fresno State MFA YouTube Channel as part of their Fresno Poets Archive Project.

Other prominent local literary figures, Bryan Medina and Michael Jasso, carry on this tradition of bringing poetry to the people through live performances, open-mics, and other public events. Medina is an educator, military veteran, former Fresno Poet Laureate, and director of the Inner Ear Poetry Jam, our most well-known spoken-word program for close to a quarter-century. Michael Jasso, a fellow poet, performer, and host of the Loud Mouth Poetry Jam, the popular spoken-word series based out of Visalia for over a decade, is known for similar literary work, volunteer labor absolutely vital to any community.

Megan Bohigian, another distinguished educator and recent Fresno Poet Laureate, understands this necessary work as well as anyone. Bohigian is an active writer and practicing musician who visits local schools and libraries to share both poetry and music. Megan and her husband Ronald Bohigian, founding President of the Fresno Folklore Society, are also Tower Porchfest hosts and participants. In addition to being such an engaged member of the artistic community, Bohigian is also a Committee member for Respite by the River, a locally-focused reading and music series held on the beautiful grounds of the River Center near the San Joaquin River Parkway. Guests are encouraged to bring blankets, lawn chairs, and a picnic-style dinner to enjoy an hour of local music, followed by an hour-long reading showcasing a local author. Respite by the River’s season runs from April to October, with their first event of the year featuring Fresno Harp Circle and poet Brynn Saito scheduled for Thursday, April 11th, from 6:00 till 8:00 PM.

Beyond her numerous projects, Bohigian, author of the collections Sightlines and Vanishing Point, might also be uniquely qualified to identify what, if any particular element, makes Fresno poetry distinct from other “schools” or styles. The consensus, which Bohigian outlines on her website, is that the most common characteristics of a typical “Fresno Poem” might be its accessible language, recognizable settings, image-based descriptions, specific details that “name” what we see and hear, as well as work less interested in meter and rhyme and more focused on an overall free-verse musicality. There also seems to be a moral and emotional seriousness to most Fresno poets and their work—some real grit, but not without a sense of humor. County music fans might equate these similar attributes to musical acts affiliated with the so-called Bakersfield Sound. Not that our geographical surroundings and musical tendencies describe every artist perfectly or completely, but there is a shared tradition local artists draw on in their own ways. For the most part, at least on paper, Fresno poets are humble and hardworking, like so many other individuals who call the Valley home.

Undoubtedly influenced by Juan Felipe Herrera and his tireless mentorship of young writers, many emerging Fresno poets seem to be branching out from traditional roots. Recent experimentation in pagination, form, erasure, and documentary poetics, while maintaining a strong sense of place and focus on overtly political subject matter, are what appear to be of particular interest to this group of writers. Leading this shift locally is Mai Der Vang, author of Afterland and Yellow Rain, and Anthony Cody, whose volumes include Borderland Apocrypha and The Rendering. Vang and Cody, both winners of the American Book Award as well as numerous honors, are key figures from the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. In 2011, this collective of Hmong American poets and writers published a groundbreaking anthology, How Do I Begin, that showcases several notable local poets. Their work, like so many contemporary poets, takes on the historical violence and other vital social issues affecting us here and globally. 

Joseph Rios, our current Fresno Poet Laureate and recipient of the prestigious Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, is another rising force in American letters. His book Shadowboxing, as well as more recent work, might be the best example of a local writer who embraces characteristic Fresno poetics with a sense of playful experimentation. Rios is playful in both the sense of openness and inventive freedom he employs in various poetic forms, and in the theatrical sense of a stage play, with characters in his work depicted memorably as in a powerful drama.

The old joke in literary circles is that Fresno poets grow on trees, or there must be something in the water. “Throw a rock, hit a poet,” they say. Jokes aside, there must be something going on here because this region has truly emerged as the poetry heartland of the nation. It is a place with scholarships, elementary schools, museums, reading rooms, theaters, and even mountains named after its local writers. Fresno is also home to long-running radio shows, podcasts, multiple reading series, a Young Writers’ Conference, CSU Summer Arts program, LitHop, the new San Joaquin Valley Bookfest scheduled to kick off on May 4th, various writers groups, free public workshops, and countless library events dedicated to the craft of poetry. Even one of the most successful coaches in Fresno State history, Dr. Jose Elgorriaga, was a dedicated and esteemed professor of languages. Not only did Coach Elgorriaga lead multiple Bulldogs soccer teams to conference championships and successful runs deep into the NCAA tournament, but he also co-authored a book on Flamenco, gave performances featuring guitar and the poetry of Federico Garcia-Lorca, and worked closely with Philip Levine and other scholars on translations of international poets as well as his own verse.

Poetry has developed such an astounding tradition here because we honor, respect, and practice this art with the same dedication other hardworking locals bring to their fields. Fresno writers have also been fortunate to learn from enormously gifted poets and teachers. Our literary guides and models have given back to local artistic communities in many ways, but none more so than demonstrating to emerging poets that ours is an important craft, honorable and respectable work that can be rewarding for individual practitioners, but also for our communities. In truth, poetry exists here because there are people here who need to sing and document… to name the wonder of the rivers, foothills, lakes, and fields where we all work, play, and live.

In coming issues, we hope to showcase even more local poetry each month in the new Valley Poetry Spotlight, which will include original work by poets still living here at home and others who are carrying on the Fresno poetry tradition elsewhere.

Doug Cox is a local Fresno poet and author of The Last Decent Jukebox in America. He currently facilitates community-based poetry workshops and coordinates the Valley Poetry Spotlight monthly print feature and its free public reading series.


In the writers’ mural 

on the old Met Museum’s wall, 

a reader walks, head bent, book open, 

oblivious to hundreds of painted birds 

that flock behind him. Pages drop 

from their beaks and catch the air, 

as bird after bird raft toward 

this unsuspecting man. 

Suppose you are this reader

and the birds’ pursuit, 

these heated words I write. 

One backward glance 

might quicken you 

to stumble on the swarm 

of unexpected birds and words, 

and throw you off your pace.

If you were not immersed 

and so polite, you’d surely turn

and tell me, birds, and words to stop. 

Oh, you, oh, reader–turn 

your painted page and dream. 

The constant swish of wings 

could be a breeze, 

and floating pages, 

the drifting down of leaves.

Megan Anderson Bohigian, City of Fresno Poet Laureate 2021-2023

In “Murmuration,” which shares its title with the downtown Fresno mural described in the poem, Megan Bohigian works in the ekphrastic tradition, essentially creating a work of art about another work of art. This classic example of that style does what most good poems do—it drifts imaginatively away from its opening subject, much like the birds and the pages and the leaves she depicts, making an entirely original piece from its initial spark.


You’d better watch yourself, says the wind 

through the palm trees along Blackstone. 

You don’t want to mess with us, warn 

those clean bright aisles at the grocery store.

Fuck off, says the afternoon sun. What he said, 

says the rain. Even the stoplights flip me off 

and the smog-clouds palm switchblades

as they change from bunnies to sailboats.

Originally from the Midwest, Michael Meyerhofer, an avid weightlifter, medieval weapons collector, and unabashed history nerd, also happens to be the most widely published poet around. Along with two fantasy novel trilogies, his most recent poetry collections are Ragged Eden and What To Do If You’re Buried Alive. In this short but mighty poem, Meyerhofer captures the grit and humor and ultimate heartache that seems to permeate across Fresno. In another striking piece, Meyerhofer, who has been an educator and working artist in town for years, makes it clear he knows the poetry and understands this city well. We’re lucky to have him here.

Valley Export 

A Blossom Trail: Fidel and Pedro Ojeda,

Juvenal Talavera, Víctor Hernández, 

Alfredo Mórales, Roberto Flores, 

and Héctor Orozco. 

In seven directions, for seven dreams,

grow in the valley, all of our seeds. 

Sons we have built on, 

hands who labored for me. 

Consuelo no tengo, madre. 

We couldn’t send enough 

condolences with their coffins. 

Llora por todos tus hijos 

qué aún laboran tan lejos de ti. 

In the very heart of California, with our hearts. 

Leave their burdens in the orchard 

and let the crops carry their names. 

This valley’s blossoms

are ripped from their veins. 

Aideed Medina, an award-winning poet, spoken-word artist, playwright, author of 31 Hummingbird and the upcoming Segmented Bodies, is a UC certified California Naturalist and international ambassador for all things poetry. In this piece, she works in classic elegiac mode, while taking a bilingual approach to her exploration of loss to create this powerful tribute.


My hands peach pit the river. Up from

water: my hands, your fruit, a letter’s start.

Dearest, it suggests, but I start elsewhere.

How do you hear me now when recalling my voice?

There is so little to explain both never leaving and coming

to this edge. The longer my footsteps resonate,

the less mine they appear, but it’s only as I stand

here that we can receive each other. Two photos:

one at a distance, a person alone in curved wheat.

The second, another separating stalks to reach

them. Sequence them in descending order:

you in the frame and then gone: apparitioned

then wished. Your ocher is in these things brought

two states away, staining books, shirtsleeves,

and the film I look through. The peach tree sprouts

and displaces fish, orange hued and asking me

where to send your letter.

Mariah Bosch, a queer Chicana poet and educator from Fresno, who has been published by the Academy of American Poets, Small Press Traffic, and other notable literary venues, is another emerging local writer who seems drawn to branching out from the typical “Fresno Poem,” and here gives us lovely descriptions of the natural world in a hauntingly beautiful poem.