For 15 years, C.G. Hanzlicek, pictured, has directed the Fresno Poets’ Association, which provides regular readings at the Fresno Art Museum of some of the nation’s most esteemed poets. Now he’s stepping down, and the FPA will be no more. (Unless, that is, someone volunteers to take over all the organizational minutiae of the event.) There’s one more reading at 7:30 p.m. Thursday night, and it’s sure to send the association out in style. Fresno’s own Peter Everwine is the featured poet, and music will be provided by man-about-town Glen Delpit.
I caught up with Hanzlicek for a Beehive interview. (You can also read excerpts in Thursday’s edition of The Bee.) Here goes:
Question: Why is the FPA disbanding?
Answer: When I took over the reading series, I thought it would just be for a couple of years. Then one day I looked up, and I’d been doing it for fifteen years, and then I looked at my hand, and it was holding a Medicare card. Running the series is pretty much a year-round job, even though there are readings only six months of the year. The off season is spent figuring out who to invite for the following season, writing grants, preparing publicity, etc. There’s a lot of fetching and hauling involved, and I simply wanted a rest.
What’s on tap for the final reading?
Peter Everwine, who taught for many years at CSUF, and who I think is America’s finest lyric poet, will be reading. Aside from being the loveliest of writers, he’s also one of the best readers around. After the reading, we’ll have music by the country blues artist Glen Delpit, a Fresno legend. Some of the early FPA readings featured local musicians along with the writers. I had dropped the ball on that, and I wanted to end with a tip of the hat to that tradition.
Talk a little about the history of the Fresno Poets Association: who founded it, significant milestones, etc.
Chuck Moulton, a Fresno poet and friend to all other Fresno poets, and a real character if there ever was one, started the series. Readings weren’t on a schedule. Mostly they featured local poets, but when poets happened to be in town–usually paying a visit to Philip Levine–Moulton would arrange to have them read, too. I should emphasize that Levine is a friend of the very best of American poets, so some of the readers in those days were people like Gerald Stern and C. K. Williams, definitely top drawer talent. . Later on, Jacquelin Pilar, the curator at the Fresno Art Museum, helped Moulton with the readings, and after Chuck’s untimely death, she ran the series herself until I came along.
I understand that the series went from casual readings in apartments to the old Wild Blue nightclub. How did it end up at the museum?
Yes, it was all very casual in the beginning. Moulton would line up four or five people to read at someone’s apartment. I don’t remember how he publicized these events, but the turn-out was usually quite good. After the Wild Blue Yonder night club opened in the Tower District, one of the owners, Jim Bixler asked me to read. It went over quite well, and Jim wanted more readings. I think I arranged one or two more, and then Moulton took over. Once Jacquelin Pilar had joined Chuck, she suggested that some of the readings could be held at the museum. The Wild Blue Yonder was a bit problematic in that minors couldn’t go to the readings. Gradually, we just moved everything to the museum, and around that time the Wild Blue Yonder changed hands, so everything worked out for the best.
Talk about the series’ relationship with the Fresno Art Museum.
The museum has been a wonderful and generous host. Although they’ve been through several directors during our tenure there, Jacquelin Pilar has been the constant and steady support of our being part of the museum’s schedule. It’s fair to say that she has had to educate some new directors as to why we should be at the museum, but they have all lent their support.
For you, what were some of the highlights at readings over the years?
One moment I’m particularly fond of occurred when William Matthews, who was a poet of considerable reputation, came here to read just months before he passed away. I asked him why he’d agreed to come to Fresno for a much smaller honorarium than he was accustomed to, and he said, “Fresno is part of the literary map, and I had to come and see it for myself.” Most of the poets I’ve invited to read are people I’d known only through their work, so it has been a continuing pleasure to meet people whose work I admire.
This is an obvious question for a poet, but why is it important to hear poetry read aloud?
I enjoy reading poems on the page, preferably at night, in my favorite chair, with the page lit by a single lamp, but there’s nothing quite like hearing the poems in the voice of the poet. In many ways it can be more nuanced than seeing the poem on the page. Unless the poet is a terrible reader, which certainly can happen, and then it’s a train wreck. But most poets read their poems well and make the listener feel at home in the language.
How is one of your group’s poetry readings different from the slam poetry scene? Do you think there’s a place for each?
Our board has a rule that all of our readers must have published at least one book by a reputable publisher. Since we receive grants from the organization Poets & Writers, we have to approach the series with a certain professionalism in order to maintain their interest in us. There seem to be more venues for slam poetry now than there are for literary poetry, so I never felt we were being exclusionary by cleaving to the literary. Certainly the culture, when it wants to, can make room for all kinds of expression.
Describe Fresno’s literary poetry scene for those who aren’t familiar with it. Is the general public aware of its strengths?
The fire-starter for the Fresno poetry scene was Philip Levine, our very own Pulitzer Prize winner. Phil was probably the most beloved teacher ever to teach at CSUF, and he made poets out of a stunning number of students, almost all of whom were born and raised in the valley. Peter Everwine came along a few years after Phil’s arrival, and then I came in 1966, to be followed by Connie Hales. The teaching of poetry and poetry writing has always been a strong suit of the English department. When you have a teaching staff that really cares about poetry, it contaminates everything with a lovely poison. So many Fresno students have gone on to make their own careers as poets that it’s difficult to keep track. I think I once counted over two hundred books of poems by our former students.
How do you think the end of the series will impact that scene?
People will be choking with panic.
Do you think someone else will step forward and try to keep something like the series going?
I don’t know. I’ve talked to several people about taking over from me, but it’s a big commitment. Not that many people are interested in hurting themselves intentionally, and it really is a job for a masochist.
Anything else you’d like people to know about the end of the FPA or about the last reading?
Be there. It will be fun, and it will be moving.