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National symposium honors late Fresno State alumnus, poet

A Celebration of Andrés Montoya

~ By Jefferson Beavers, communications specialist for the Department of English, reprinted from FresnoStateNews.com

More than 30 published authors from all over the country, including U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera, will gather in Fresno on April 13 and 14 for a national poetry symposium, “Together We’ll Be a Song: A Celebration of Andrés Montoya.”

The symposium — co-hosted by the Fresno State Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, in collaboration with Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies — will honor the life and work of Montoya, the late poet, educator and Fresno State alumnus.

The event will begin at 6 p.m. April 13 with an opening celebration at Arte Américas (1630 Van Ness Ave.) in downtown Fresno. It will continue with a full day of panel discussions, starting at 9 a.m. on April 14, and an evening closing celebration inside Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library. Campus parking on Saturday will be free in recommended lots P30 and P31.

Day 1 of the symposium will feature the keynote address from Herrera, as well as readings from all seven winners of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, a project of Letras Latinas.

Day 2 of the symposium will include four panel discussions. Topics include the poetics of Montoya’s work, the teaching of his poetry, personal testimonials and the ongoing influence of his poetry and writings.

The closing celebration will feature remarks from the Montoya family and readings of select poems by community members. The closing will also include readings from the winners of a student poetry contest, featuring the poems of three Central Valley high school and college students who have been inspired by Montoya’s works.

The full symposium schedule is available online. The opening night celebration is free. Registration for the symposium costs $20 general admission and is free for students.

The event co-sponsors include the College of Arts and Humanities and the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State, Arte Américas and the Poetry Foundation, which contributed to help fund the symposium attendance of up to 50 local educators.

About the poet

Montoya, who died of leukemia in 1999, is the author of two books of poetry: “a jury of trees,” published posthumously in 2017 by Bilingual Press, in conjunction with Letras Latinas; and “the ice worker sings and other poems,” published in 1999 by Bilingual Press and winner of an American Book Award in 2000. Montoya’s writing is published widely in anthologies and journals.

A graduate of Fowler High School, Montoya earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Oregon in 1994. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Fresno State, where he served as student body president in 1991-92. Montoya was a committed political activist, speaking out against structural barriers in higher education for underrepresented groups, a theme that carried through his poetry and essays.

Montoya studied with the poets Philip Levine and Corrinne Clegg Hales at Fresno State, and he counted Herrera as a mentor as well. Herrera described Montoya as “the healer of stars, the man with a midnight scream during daytime, the one that only poets can howl.”

Herrera said Montoya was a beautiful human being who cared deeply about the community. “He leaped through the moon-painted, elegant and knife-edged syrup of ‘laughing automobiles’ and sirens,” Herrera said. “In love, in benedictions, he wrote with sticks of fire, he honored the abandoned, he became a major voice for all of us.”

About the symposium

Herrera will be joined at the opening celebration by all seven winners of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, which was created by Letras Latinas to honor Montoya’s legacy. The prize is awarded every other year to a first book by a Latino/a poet residing in the United States, and it includes a cash prize and publication by the University of Notre Dame Press. Fresno State alumnus and author David Campos is one of the seven winners.

Francisco Aragón, the director of Letras Latinas, commissioned the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize winners to read “a jury of trees” and then to write between two and four new poems that respond to or dialogue with Montoya’s work. At the symposium, each of the seven prize winners will read their commissioned poem inspired by Montoya and selected by Aragón, with a second poem of their choosing, for a total of 14 poems honoring Montoya.

Aragón said the idea for the symposium started with a conversation he had with author and Fresno State alumnus Daniel Chacón at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in 2010. That conversation started a long journey to this spring’s tribute at Fresno State.

“This symposium is the capstone of a multi-year gesture called the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative,” Aragón said. “The initiative, at its core, involved selling a beautiful silk-screen print by Andrés’ father, Malaquias, a print inspired by, and which included lines of, Andrés’ poetry. With Malaquias’ consent, Letras Latinas was able to raise the funds that helped fund the publication of ‘a jury of trees.’ But we had to wait for the book to be published before we could begin talking seriously about the symposium. And the sale of that print, along with a generous gift by Andrés’ brother, Maceo, is what is making possible bringing the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize winners to Fresno.”

Andrés Montoya followed in the creative footsteps of his father, Malaquias Montoya, a renowned Chicano artist, and his uncle, José Montoya, an artist and co-founder of the Royal Chicano Air Force arts collective. His cousin Richard Montoya co-founded the Chicano theater group Culture Clash, and his youngest brother Maceo Montoya is an artist and author who teaches Chicana/o studies at the University of California at Davis.

Montoya and Fresno State

Montoya and Chacón co-founded the Chicano Writers and Artists Association at Fresno State, a student-run organization that continues to publish an annual journal, organize literary readings and encourage artistic expression of the Chicano experience.

Chacón said he spent years studying the writings that Montoya left behind — poems, journal entries, drafts of essays on art and politics and even personal notes, “confessions, fears and prayers” — while serving as editor for “a jury of trees.”

Chacón said the publication of “a jury of trees” is “the result of being so long inside Andrés’ mind and spirit, but there was also another result: I got to know him even better than I did when he was alive, and I knew him well. Spending so much time inside of his language, going through his thoughts and feelings, I got to see how beautiful he was. He was a big kid with a huge heart, a powerful intellect and a gentle spirit.”

Proceeds from the symposium will benefit the Andrés Montoya Memorial Scholarships at Fresno State, awarded annually to students with demonstrated interest in Chicano/a culture and history who are pursuing a career in creative writing.

For information on giving to the Montoya scholarships, call 559.278.1877. For information on the symposium, call 559.278.1569.

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