Symposium embraces complexities of late alumnus, poet

Juan Felipe Herrera speaks at a national poetry symposium, “Together We’ll Be a Song: A Celebration of Andrés Montoya.”

Photo above: Juan Felipe Herrera gave a rousing keynote to open the symposium, followed by readings by winners of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize with Francisco Aragón.

~ Article and photos by Jefferson Beavers, communications specialist, Department of English

More than 30 published authors from all over the country, including U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera, gathered 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 Mater 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 — honored the life and work of Montoya, the late poet, educator and Fresno State alumnus. Montoya, whose work is published widely in anthologies and journals, died of leukemia in 1999.

After the symposium, which drew more than 200 attendees over two days of readings and panel discussions at the Henry Madden Library and Arte Américas, Andrés’s brother, Maceo Montoya, an artist and author who teaches Chicana/o studies at the University of California at Davis, reflected on the impact of the event for the poetry community and the Montoya family.

Jefferson Beavers: There was so much inspiring poetry read and discussed at the symposium, including works by Andrés and many others. What were three of your favorite performances and why?

Maceo Montoya: The readings and presentations were so moving. Really, I think it took me two days to recover from all the emotions.

Dean Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval’s remarks to kick off the symposium really struck a chord. I wasn’t expecting for him to have such a deep connection to Andrés’s work. Andrés would’ve been so happy to know that Fresno State has a Latino dean from Fowler with a passion for literature.

I was also very impressed by Frances Rundle, the high school winner of the “Your Song” student poetry contest. On her way to prom, decked out in her gown and corsage, she blew everyone away with the reading of her poem, “spill,” inspired by Andrés.

It was also a special moment when my nephew Emiliano read Andrés’s poem “star struck.” Most of my nephews and nieces were babies when Andrés died, but I see so much of him in all of them.

JB: The performances at the opening night celebration — especially the keynote from Juan Felipe Herrera and the interwoven readings by the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize winners with Francisco Aragón — felt to me like a collective summoning of Andrés’s spirit. How do you think he might have responded to such an homage?

MM: Andrés was always grateful for his mentors, including Juan Felipe Herrera, Corrinne Hales and Philip Levine, but he was also grateful for the mentors he met on the page. None of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize winners ever met Andrés while he was alive, but they certainly channeled his spirit. To write poetry is to pay homage to the poets who came before, and Andrés would’ve been honored to have heard these incredibly different poets read work inspired by his own.

In his keynote, Juan Felipe said something about a star coming down from the sky and telling Andrés, “I told you so.” I probably got it wrong. Maybe it was Andrés who told the star, “I told you so.” Either way, what a beautiful image to carry with us.


Pictured above, from left: Lee Herrick, Daniel Chacón, Corrinne Hales and Maceo Montoya.

JB: The symposium’s panel discussion on personal remembrances featuring you, Daniel Chacón, Corrinne Hales and Lee Herrick was a reprise of a panel at the 2017 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. How did the discussion feel different to you this time? 

MM: The AWP presentation was special because it’s an important event for writers from all across the country to gather, but Andrés’s home was Fresno, and Fresno State was where Andrés truly came into his own. It also felt different because we were surrounded by Andrés’s community. Friends and fellow poets. Students of his work. Family members were in attendance. Andrés’s former fiancée, Eleanor, was also there.

In some ways, it was a harder presentation to give, at least for me. I want to be true to Andrés, to the person he was, but he was an immensely complicated human being. At this panel, I was more conscious of the fact that we each have our own truth about him. I think Andrés would’ve wanted us to embrace this complexity.

JB: It was wonderful to see so many multi-generational members of the Montoya family assembled together all at once, especially on the Fresno State campus for the symposium’s closing celebration. What were your family’s impressions of the event?
MM: We were all touched. Objectively, we know that Andrés is an important poet, but he’s still our brother, the one who drove us all crazy. So we can’t help but marvel at the fact that there’s a national poetry prize in his name [at the University of Notre Dame] and a whole symposium dedicated to his life and work.

Almost 20 years since he passed away, and there’s this wonderful community of writers, educators and students talking about his work — that’s pretty amazing to think about. We all feel lucky that we’re able to revisit Andrés in this way.

JB: Proceeds from the symposium went to the Andrés Montoya Memorial Scholarships at Fresno State, and you also donated proceeds from the sales of Andrés’s books at the event to both the scholarships and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize at the University of Notre Dame. How important is it to you to see Andrés’s legacy continue through both the scholarships and the prize?

MM: Andrés believed in not just his own poetry but in helping others find their voice, too. He was an incredible teacher. A rigorous one. And so, honoring Andrés’s legacy wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t also seek ways to support the work of emerging Latinx poets. Andrés’s memory lives on through them.

JB: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the symposium?

MM: On behalf of my family, I want to thank everyone who helped put on this incredible event.

Multiple generations of the Montoya family gather outside the Table Mountain Rancheria Reading room inside the Henry Madden Library on campus, after the symposium's closing.

Pictured above: Multiple generations of the Montoya family gather outside the Table Mountain Rancheria Reading room inside the Henry Madden Library on campus, after the symposium’s closing.

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