Gary Soto and Will Shakespeare become co-authors
By Lou Fancher
Surprisingly, charmingly, Gary Soto is tongue-tied.
Asked to describe his newest work, "You Kiss by th' Book" (Chronicle Books, $14.95, 108 pages), Berkeley's prolific poet and writer is at a loss for words.
"I don't know what to say," he claims, as if dumbstruck.
Of course, anyone familiar with Soto's urgent, essentials-only style wouldn't expect a glib reply from the Fresno-born author, 64, whose work often casts light on the urban Mexican-American experience of his youth. A hardscrabble upbringing in the barrio and the death of his father when Soto was just 5 improbably taught him to regard words as treasures, like the fossils he once thought he might grow up to examine as a paleontologist.
But while he was enrolled at California State University at Fresno to study geology, a poetry book unearthed Soto's buried impulse to resurrect in stories and poems the universal working-class experiences of young people and adults.
Many years later, a collection of Shakespeare quotations in a book he picked up while traveling in Europe inspired his idea for basing a collection of poems on the Bard's sonnets and plays. Each poem begins with a single line written by Shakespeare, then continues with lines of his own. Soto disarmingly suggests in the collection's introduction that the ploy might allow him "the improbable: that libraries may catalogue us as Shakespeare and Soto, co-authors.""When I was a teenager, the muse was chasing me," Soto says. "I was interested in girls, sports, eating and music -- Dylan, Motown, the Beatles. Now, I'm chasing the muse: I've written a lot. You look for material that might inspire you."
An intensely visual poet, Soto lives surrounded by captivating imagery. In his Berkeley home, books artfully aligned on shelves -- philosophy, fiction, factual, fantasy and more -- portray an ideological rainbow of reading. His own first reader is his wife of 41 years, Carolyn, whom he met when she hired him long ago to work in her garden.
He is dressed for his interview in house slippers and a shirt made by seamstress Carolyn that is a riot of red-against-white checkerboard and floral swirls but attracts the eye with two, tiny aqua loops floating button-free at his neck. Soto strikes a visitor as an agile sort, someone likely at any moment to assume a yoga pose or sprint through the home's picturesque backyard.
His book is divided into three sections on themes of love, storytelling and mortality. "When I was writing the first section, I had to imagine myself in the love poems. I could see couples lying in the grass. I need that image-making to seize the tone of a poem," he says.
Surprised that he could easily slip into Elizabethan language, Soto visualized swashbuckling sword fights and formula versus passionate kissing. "Passionate, you go whole hog; formula, you kiss by the book. It's predictable, schooled," he says, about the line from Romeo and Juliet that "rang true as a title."
As in much of his earlier poetry, the "You Kiss" offerings both evoke a chuckle and stir the heart. In a poem beginning with the "A stage, where every man must play a part," line, Soto creates a character who "rates not as an actor" and "not as a lover" but performs "On my splintery stage of life,/ Before an audience of pigeons/ Splattered with mud" and sheds real tears when denied by the maiden he loves.
Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" includes the line "I am a great eater...," which sends Soto's unnamed glutton into temporary stupor until: "Outside my window,/Sheep like almighty bagpipes./I moaned for a pitcher of river water,/And for those burly trotters to please quiet."
Old age, to Soto and Shakespeare, is both humorous and tragic. Taking off from the Hamlet line "For they say an old man is twice the child," Soto writes: "If he had more hair on his ears./The chirping birds would nest there."
Soto immersed himself in Shakespeare plays, biographies and recordings while writing the poems. The book could have been much longer, but he and his editor deemed 45 of the poems "too bawdy" for the intended audience.
The way in which an idea becomes a book remains a mystery to him. He says the upcoming 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death played no part in the collection's origins, although he's pleased at the alignment.
As for the future, Soto no longer "bobs and weaves" between long-form prose and poetry. "I'm now an essayist and poet; that's my arena. I started off as a poet, and I'd like to end that way," he says.
Having pioneered a path for Chicano writers, he says, "If people think of Latino literature, I'm the guy. It's a piece of reality. But now I'm done with that; I've done my duty and then some." Nevertheless, play writing is also a current passion that feeds the perception of him as a champion of Latino causes. His "In & Out of Shadows," a musical written for and performed by San Francisco Youth Theatre's DREAM Ensemble in 2014, describes the plight of undocumented youth. "Every time it plays, people go crazy; it's just the best feeling," he says.
No longer tongue-tied, but still concise, he concludes: "I think I'm visual. I'man imagist. It goes back to a simple show-don't-tell idea. My work is show."