Monday Mar 25

EricaGoss2014 When I was five years old, my family spent a summer in the town of Fresno. I still remember the summer heat, the orchards, and the view of the Sierras to the east, jagged and snowy even in summer. Fresno might seem an unlikely place for poetry, but this California Central Valley city of just over five hundred thousand has nurtured the careers of Philip Levine, Larry Levis, Gary Soto, Brian Turner, and Juan Felipe Herrera, former California Poet Laureate and the current Poet Laureate of the United States.

To this list of Fresno poets, add David Campos, the most recent winner of the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize for his poetry collection, Furious Dusk. David attended Fresno City College while holding several different jobs in the service industry. He graduated from California State University, Fresno in 2010 with a B.A. in English - English Education Option with an emphasis in creative writing, and earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside in 2013. He lives in Fresno and teaches at Fresno City College and College of the Sequoias.

David has also made videos based on his own poetry, which are available on his website. The videos depict an urban landscape, raw and dangerous, that seems familiar and alien at the same time. In American House Fire

David says: “I wanted a sense of urgency, so I added the ticking clock, the percussion, and the contrast between images and darkness. Life is full of small moments that come and go. It’s up to us to pay attention. For example, I show City Hall and the Courthouse, which are places that are supposed to help us, but they hurt us as well. Then I thought of the universal physical reaction to victory, that we instinctively stand up when we win. There’s a line in the poem: ‘…to feel for once what it’s like to win.’ The image of the flag dissolving into the angel with its hands over its face is important. This poem was inspired by the Ferguson shooting, especially by people shouting ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ at the police.” The video ends with the line, “we die when we cry our sons’ names.”

The book trailer for Furious Dusk, which David co-created, expands the aesthetic in American House Fire. “You already know where the ghetto is,” the narrator tells us as we watch a neighborhood slide by in slow motion, “there are fences around their front yards.” We see adults and children, a homeless man dragging a shopping cart, a pregnant pit bull patrolling a chain-link fence. “You already know not to drive south of Olive. Don’t think for a second you forgot who built this gate,” the narrator tells us.

I asked David if Fresno had some special quality that made it a place for poetry. “There’s an incredible amount of hunger here for something better,” he said. “People work here. There’s little else to do, but people want more. They want to have deeper experiences. For me, working hard at my education was a way out of poverty, and once the switch in me happened, I put that Fresno work ethic towards finishing college.” The switch David refers to is the change that happened when he became committed to his education, a switch helped by his exposure to Fresno’s poetry community. 

He came back to Fresno after graduation in part because “Juan Felipe Herrera helped shape me as a poet, and he lives in Fresno. I needed to bring back what I had learned. I wanted to expose my students to that.”

In spite of Fresno’s agricultural roots, David never knew Fresno as a farming town. “To me, it was a city, one that was always expanding. I watched suburban neighborhoods expand into orchards. Someone was always building something new here. My dad works in construction, and I used to go with him and help him work. People work here.”

In particular, the late Philip Levine, longtime professor at Fresno State University and former US Poet Laureate, wrote many poems about work. Work informs the poetry of Juan Felipe Herrera as well. When David went to Riverside to get his MFA, he noticed a difference: “It seems like the non-Fresno people had a feeling of entitlement. They didn’t have the need to work so hard for everything.”

What moves him to make a video from a particular poem? “If the poem isn’t too narrative, and if I can make the film in a day! It only took a day for American House Fire: I filmed it and then edited it and had it done soon after.” 

“I want to make more videos. I want to keep getting better and make videos a part of my practice. I’d like to experiment with visual abstraction.” A poem he might use for a video is the poem “Need,” about two people in a relationship.

When I asked David if he was planning to take any time off from his schedule, he laughed and told me, “I’m on vacation right now.” The idea of a vacation might seem foreign to this hard-working poet from Fresno, who has been promoting Furious Dusk all year. He will read at The Poetry Foundation in Chicago this month (October 2015).