Fresno Poets Archive Project brings literary history to life

Archive of recordings from past poetry readings

~ By Marisa Mata, student writer

Many successful poets and writers have come out of the Creative Writing Program at Fresno State. The program’s history dates back to the 1950s with the arrival of poet Philip Levine, who later won a Pulitzer Prize and became the U.S. Poet Laureate, and extends to today’s Master of Fine Arts program, founded in 1995.

A new video archive project founded in the fall of 2016 now provides a way for multiple generations of creative writers to connect with authors essential to the literary fabric of Fresno.

The Fresno Poets Archive Project is a series of recorded poetry and prose readings, with dates ranging from the 1980s to the early 2000s. The video readings can be found on the Fresno State MFA program’s YouTube channel, with extended information about each reading on the program’s We Grow Writers blog.

Poets C.G. Hanzlicek and Corrine Hales gave the program access to the recordings, with the intent of preserving the tapes and sharing them with the community.

“I’m delighted that the current alumni of Fresno State are using new technologies to gather up the notable poets of former eras and introduce them to the current and next generations,” said Suzanne Lummis, a poet and Fresno State alumna whose 1992 reading was featured in Episode 2 of the series. “I think today’s writers will discover that they’re continuing an extraordinary legacy.”

There are approximately 80 recordings — now digitized from VHS, Beta and reel-to-reel source tapes that were stored for years in people’s closets and garages — and the program publishes a new episode each month. There are currently six episodes that can be viewed.

Each episode includes a video recording closed-captioned by hand and accompanying blog post, produced by undergraduate students with the help of English Department communications specialist Jefferson Beavers. Students research and recover poems to make sure the captioning is accurate, and they often work directly with the poets featured in the videos.

“Poets we’ve contacted have been excited about the tapes,” Beavers said. “In this project, working with the students so far, it has been a real treat because these are authors I’ve read my entire life and have never heard in their own voice. To have students not only hearing them for the first time but in some cases discovering those poets for the first time, it’s a great feeling to hand down that history.”

Through the series, contemporaries have also been able to reconnect with each other’s work and the work of beloved writers. There are episodes featuring alumni authors Sherley Anne Williams and Larry Levis, who cannot easily be found on film anywhere else.

The Fresno Poets Archive Project has also been able to reconnect poets with some of their own earliest writing.

Lummis said, “I’d distantly remembered that I’d long ago read a poem in Charles Hanzlicek’s Fresno series at the local museum, which I no longer had a copy of. It’s one of the few poems I’d ever lost. Mayra Cano, a student, was involved with the project and she sent me that poem. I read the poem I hadn’t set eyes on for nearly 20 years. I made only a few tiny edits at that time but later I worked on it more. It ended up getting published almost immediately! I haven’t yet presented it at a reading but will soon, and I expect it will go over very well. I’ve included it in my not-quite-finished manuscript of poetry, ‘Crime Club.’

The series so far has received a positive response from viewers who appreciate all generations of Fresno writers.

“It’s the purpose for putting it on YouTube,” Beavers said. “We really want the tapes to be out in the world where people can enjoy them, and that was really the intent of the tapes’ owners.”

“There’s published authors who have come through Fresno State who are essential to the greater fabric of the Fresno literary community,” said Beavers, himself a Fresno State alumnus and a volunteer organizer with the Creative Writing Alumni Chapter. “Honoring those alumni through these videos is really important to me, so the current generation knows there’s this universe of great authors who came before them. For a lot of people, and even for me, these are just names on a paper, so to bring these alumni authors to life I think is an essential accomplishment.”

Screen shot of Suzanne Lummis reading her poem.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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