Soto says he usually wrote one of these short, vivid essays a day, usually in one sitting. “The process was straightforward: I would wake, look at the wall, look at my hands, look, look and then strangely, a subject would arrive, a subject about writing. I’d then write the piece in a couple of hours, and I was free for the day.” Soto shared each piece with his favorite reader, his wife, Carolyn Soto, who would make suggestions. “I’m not a sloppy writer, but she will look at my writing. We’ve been married for 38 years and together for 40. Carolyn is my first reader.”
These pieces offer glimpses of his life that are both pleasing (the memory of first meeting his wife, of meeting a loyal fan who named her dog after him) and poignant (the pang of facing empty chairs at a book reading). The essays move back and forth in time, addressing bittersweet topics that include aging, the problematic nature of success and the demise of the publishing world as Soto once knew it. Taken together, they “become something of a commentary on being a poet,” Soto says. “I began writing poetry 41 years ago as a college student, and to this day, I remain a poet. In some ways, What Poets Are Like is a reflection about this career choice—or is ‘career’ the wrong word?” He notes the small sales and scanty attention garnered by most poets but says, “I chose to become a poet early on and knowing it would be a tough sell. There may not be many financial rewards, but it’s something that has to be done. No one shows up! At poetry readings, even our wives drift off to the magazine rack,” he notes ruefully. “But you still give it the best you can for yourself and [the] nation as a whole. I know so many excellent poets who share the same dilemma.”
Poetry has anchored his creative life, but Soto has written for a wide audience and in a variety of genres; he’s written more than 35 books for younger readers. “I’ve done a bit of everything,” he laughs. In fact, some of the “ups” in Soto’s writing life come from such experiments. “I published Baseball in April in 1990—it was a fresh book; people began to notice,” he recalls. “There was an oddity to the stories that shook people up—something about the short story form, Mexican-American kids. I didn’t make the characters perfect. I got letters from teachers, students, literacy advocates. I’d get 50 letters a week—as a poet, there was no response like that.”
Asked to choose a favorite book from all that he’s written for this younger audience, Soto is decisive. “Jesse is my best YA novel, period. It evokes a tone that I was never able to capture again….It’s close to my heart because I’m Jesse—to some degree. It’s about farm working and the United Farm Workers of America and about two brothers who are doing what they believe is right: getting an education even if means starting off at a community college and doing any odd job to make it happen. It describes a lot of community college students these days. We tell them (especially first-generation Latinos), ‘Get an education.’ I pray that we’re not fooling them.”
Just a few weeks ago, Soto received a call from the Children’s Literature Association informing him that Jesse will receive the Phoenix Award—an award that he says “recognizes a book 20 years after its publication that never got the attention that it deserved.” First, I thought, ‘Twenty years. Has it been that long?’ This is pleasant news from an organization that counts.”
Soto also speaks with pride of another recent literary effort for younger audiences, though it is “not on a shelf, as it never saw book publication”: a play about undocumented youth called In and Out of Shadows that ran for three weekends this year in San Francisco to sellout crowds. Soto says that he worked many months on this piece, using 200 pages of interviews with undocumented youth, and “came up with a tidy musical that moved a lot of people.” Soto says he was “teary eyed at almost every performance and honored to be trusted to write their stories.”
At times in his literary career, Soto says that he found moving from writing for children to writing poetry challenging, as though the genres were jealous of each other and he had to run back and forth between them, trying to satisfy both. “When I was writing children’s and young-adult literature—and poetry and essay—I would do one project, say a chapter novel, and once that was finished, I would think, poetry! I need to do poetry. I’d write a batch and then think, young-adult novel! I was trying to do everything.”
Right now, Soto is focusing just on poetry and essays and finds the two very similar. “An essay is really a poem but with relaxed language,” he says. “An essay has slightly larger freedoms. Poets must make every word, every syllable count.” Soto enjoys working on these “smallish” essays, which he describes as “light but fun and occasionally the stuff of reflection,” and he’s currently at work on another collection.
An added bonus? “Neither genre is jealous of the other,” he insists. “These short essays and poetry are buddies!”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.