“… I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.”
Born in 1952 Gary Soto, is a Mexican-American poet and author whose work is derived from the observations of daily life, portrays of working class characters and his own memories. With his father dying when Gary was only five years old, his initial poor record as a student was reflective of the struggle his family had to find work, which left little time for anyone to encourage him in his studies. Yet he was still drawn to great writers such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, amongst others, and, as he says himself “In short, I was already thinking like a poet, already filling myself with literature.” He knew he wanted to become a writer after reading the works of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and whilst studying for his BA in English had the opportunity to work with the poet Philip Levine, whose portrayal of the working classes within his writing can be seen to have influenced Soto’s own works.
Author of 11 poetry collections for adults, he has received many awards, amongst which include the US Award of the International Forum in 1976 for his first collection of poems entitled “The Elements of San Joaquin” which offers a grim portrait of Mexican-American life, depicting the violence of urban life, the exhausting labour of rural life (Soto himself worked in the fields of San Joaquin and the factories of Tresno in his youth) and the futility of trying to recapture the innocence of childhood, whilst his second collection “The Tale of Sunlight” (1978) which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
His poetry concentrates on daily experiences, often reflecting back on his life as a Chicano – a US Citizen of Mexican descent – and throughout his poems, novels, short stories, plays and books for young people he deals with the realities of growing up. The American author, Joyce Carol Oates, herself a writer of both poetry and prose, describes Soto’s poems as “fast, funny, heartening and achingly believable, like Polaroid love letters or snatches of music heard out of a passing car, patches of beauty like patches of sunlight, the very pulse of light”.
Like Denny Bradbury, whose new collection of poems incorporates sections that follow a theme such as the seasons, spirituality and love, Soto’s poetry and prose focuses on everyday experiences whilst at the same time evoking the harsh realities that often shape life for Chicanos such as crime, poverty and racism. In his writing for children and young adults he tackles themes such as choices, alienation and family life and Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, writing for the New York Times Book Review describes Soto’s stories as “sensitive and economical”, praising him for staying within the teenager’s universe.
Just as Denny in “Broken In Time” writes:
…“However we perceive us to be
We will be brought down by time”, Soto’s poem “Saturday At The Canal” talks of how
…“ The years froze.
As we sat on the bank. Our eyes followed the water,
White –tipped but dark underneath, racing out of town.”
Using his own experiences within his work, Soto says “Writing is my one talent. There are a lot of people who never discover what their talent is… I am very lucky to have found mine.”