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THE DILIGENT SCRIBE
Each time Blas Manuel De Luna has thought that being a poet might not have been a good idea, dashes of fortune have redeemed his trust in writing.
The Madera native spent years studying literature and working on his craft, finally getting a chance to assemble his first poetry collection, Bent to the Earth, while on a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He weathered two years of rejection letters before the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University Press gave his book a home.
De Luna, a former Fresno State creative writing graduate who now teaches English to freshmen and sophomores at Firebaugh High School, then watched his book fall off the radar for nearly a year. Late last fall, the book was ultimately reborn after being named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, putting De Luna in the company of literary giants like John Updike, Joan Didion, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
In an interview, community journalist Jefferson Beavers talked with De Luna about the well-respected reputation of the San Joaquin Valley writer, the beauty of blogging, and the happy surprises in his life that have come from diligence.
To start, what's the brief timeline of the life of Blas Manuel De Luna?
I was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and grew up in Madera. I went to Fresno City College first, then to Fresno State for my BA and MA. I went to the University of Washington for my MFA in creative writing. Then I basically became a dead-broke poet.
I got a fellowship in Wisconsin in 2000-01. It was a great year and it saved my writerly life. With dedicated writing time, I wrote the book. Carnegie Mellon accepted it in October 2003, and it came out January 2005. It sold a little, and then it fell off the face of the earth. Thank Jesus for the NBCC nomination. I was relieved that people would finally see the book.
I started teaching at Firebaugh High in 2002-03. I live weekdays in Firebaugh and visit my brother in Madera on weekends. All I do now is write and read. I've got a little monastic thing going on.
How would you describe your book to someone who's not familiar with poetry?
I've heard my writing described a couple times as plainspoken. I'm not a language poet. My poems tend to be first-person narratives, like many contemporary poets. The book is in three sections. The first is mostly about immigrant laborers, their lives in the fields and their second-class status in America. The second part opens up to the larger struggles of the world and the hardships of life. The third part is mostly elegies for my little brother, who died in an auto accident in 1998.
With the publication of your first collection, you are now being fully welcomed into the world of Fresno poets. What is your first memory of San Joaquin Valley literature, and what is the importance of the Fresno literary community in your life?
I got into creative writing at Fresno City College. I took DeWayne Rail, one of the early Fresno poets, for an American literature class. He turned me on to [Walt] Whitman. Then I took his workshop and found out that this was a great poetry town. I'd had no idea.
When I went to Fresno State, I studied with Peter Everwine right away. I figured that to be a good poet, you had to be into poetry all the time. So I read everyone [from the Fresno school of poets] that summer. I read Philip Levine, Gary Soto, Roberta Spear, everyone. I basically gave myself an education in Fresno poetry. Later, I found out that my poetry fit comfortably into the [aesthetic], its plain style, political consciousness, humanity, and also kindness.
How did the ideas for your first book come about, and how did you get a publishing deal?
First books of poetry tend to be collection of your best work at that point, and mine was no exception. They're not usually thematically structured. It's 60 pages of your best poems. Then you and your editor carve them into a reasonably logical pattern.
I had put together all my best work up to 2003. I sent that book around to everybody. Then I found out about Carnegie Mellon online. [Founder] Gerald Costanzo was editor. Carnegie Mellon had done books by Everwine, [C.G.] Hanzlicek, [Larry] Levis, and others. So I knew that Costanzo knew about the Fresno poets. Beyond that, it was basically luck that they accepted. I had been sending out that version for two years without much hope.
What has been the most surprising thing about the critical acclaim for your book?
Mostly, that I was even nominated for the NBCC award, that someone actually had seen the book. It was almost a year after it came out. Costanzo sent it out to the standard list of NBCC critics. Then somebody liked it and championed it, pretty much out of nowhere. I had no idea I was even under consideration. I'm crazy curious about how it got into people's hands at all.
I don't think that my book was really among the five best [poetry collections] of 2005, because taste is personal. But someone liked it enough to nominate it. And that makes me excited because it has kept people interested in the book.
What are you working on now?
I've been doing short stories for about four years. I've got about 400 pages of those, and I've been getting up the courage to start sending them out. I've got a novel about two-thirds done, and I'm going to try and finish it this summer. I've also been working on several poems. Most poems you write end up being clunkers. But you have to write them anyway, to get to the good poems.
I'm about halfway done with the next poetry collection. I rely on the muse. I know that sounds really corny. Some people have a writing schedule, and that works for me for short stories. But I write the poems when I'm ready to write the poems. I may go weeks without a poem, but I'm not worried about that.
Finally, you've been active with blogging and instant publishing. How have you liked that?
I started my blog in April 2005. A friend of mine had a blog and thought that if I got one, it might help draw attention to the book. So I asked another friend who was computer savvy to help me and he started one for me that's not too hard to work on. This way, I can have a small idea and get it out there in three or four minutes. The great thing is, it's non-pressure writing. I want my poems and stories to be stellar and great. But with the blog, I try to be funnier and try different styles.
In person, I tend to be a little shy or reserved. Online, it's a little bit different. People who know me personally recognize the voice on the site. But even people on the site are surprised that I'm not morose 24/7. Would anyone want to read a blog that's depressing? Probably not.
Blas Manuel De Luna will give a free public reading with fellow Fresno poet Brian Turner on March 23 at California State University, Fresno, as part of the San Joaquin Literary Association's ongoing Visiting Writer Series. Check the calendar for details.