Fresno and the neighboring cities in California’s Central Valley are often known for their place on lists such as “Least Educated Cities,” or “Least Literate Cities.” The Central Valley is looked down upon by the literary mega-cities that bookend it – San Francisco and Los Angeles. However, this shaming ignores both the rich legacy of poetry and the burgeoning arts community here. Ask any Fresnan about the literary history here and they will tell that it’s the birthplace of William Saroyan. Bringing Fresno and the valley into the modern literary conversation is a strong emphasis on poetry and new literacy programs that are encouraging readers and writers of all ages to get back into books.
Two recent U.S. Poet Laureates call the Central Valley home, including the nation’s newest Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Herrera was born in the area, and also worked at Fresno State University as a Chicano/Latin studies professor. Preceding Herrera, serving from 2011-2012, was Phillip Levine, who settled in Fresno in the late 1950s. Also a professor at Fresno State, Levine mentored many Fresno writers who in turn have strengthened the poetry community in Fresno. Fresno Arts Museum honors this legacy with their Poet’s Garden.
To celebrate these home-grown poets, in 2012, the Fresno Arts Council began its own Poet Laureate program, choosing James Tyner as the first Poet to serve. Tyner, who works in the Fresno County Library system, hosted dozens of poetry workshops and readings at different library locations and other community centers, and continues these programs to increase literacy for all ages. Summertime is filled with events, especially for youth, with a focus their Summer Reading Program.
If you happen to be in Fresno during summertime, the Woodward Shakespeare Festival happens in July in the beautiful Woodward Park. Now in its eleventh season, literature lovers and theater goers alike can enjoy Richard III, The Two Gentleman of Verona, and The Complete Works of Shakespeare abridged while relaxing in the park. If you’re still feeling outdoorsy, follow the steps of John Muir through Yosemite National Park, tucked into the Valley about 50 miles north of Fresno.
If you’re looking for some used books, A Book Barn in Clovis, just east of Fresno, has a wide selection of all types, and also hosts reading for local authors and a monthly book club. For little ones, Petunia’s Place is another Fresno independent bookstore that focuses on children and young adult books, with a small space dedicated to fiction for adults. They also host events and book signings for young people, including writers such as Gary Soto. After a visit to Petunia’s, kids would enjoy seeing some of their favorite stories come to live at Fresno’s Storyland amusement park, which has themed areas based on classic fairytales such as the Three Little Pigs. Fresno citizens are currently working to restore and save the park for future generations.
There are several great local spots to stop and enjoy your new books, including Mia Cuppa Café, which has its own collection of used books to peruse as well as a stage area in the back of the café that hosts various literary events. Every summer, one these events is Verses Over Lines, a youth poetry showcase hosted by a high school poet program called OutWords. Teazer’s is a specialty tea house with several locations in Fresno. Its downtown location hosts a monthly poetry slam, The Inner Ear/ Beat Down slam that brings together local poets in the spirit of competition. Poetry slams are huge in the Central Valley, so if you love to write, compete, or just listen to up and coming writers, also check out the Loud Mouth Slam in Visalia, and the Pierced Ear Slam in Stockton. Modesto’s Poet Laureate Gillian Wegener hosts a monthly poetry event at local spot, Barkin’ Dog.
The word around Fresno and the Central Valley is that so many writers are bred here because it’s a city that knows hard work. It’s a place that finds beauty in the ordinary and is working hard to claim its place on the literary map.