employer. "And I shouted that I was American / 'No time for lies,' he said, and pressed / A dollar in my palm." Soto's father died at the age of 27, when the boy was 5, from a work-related accident, and the uncomprehending experience of loss is recalled in a number of poems. Soto spent some time working in the fields of the surrounding farmlands before entering Fresno City College in 1970, initially intending to study geography. He transferred to California State University, Fresno, where he studied with poet Philip Levine and published his first poem, when a college senior, in the Iowa Review. He went on to receive an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, in 1976, and the following year began a long period teaching at Berkeley. In 1975 he married Carolyn Oda, and some of Soto's later poems attempt to explain the world to his children - for example the daughter addressed in his poem "How Things Work," where the concrete details of economic exchange are set quietly against the forces of chance and economic uncertainty.
Soto's first book, The Elements of San Joaquin, appeared in 1977. Its three sections begin with a series of portraits from the struggling Mexican American community of his childhood, moving on to the power of the earth -and the other classical elements of air, fire, and water - to dominate the lives of the laborers working in the fields, and finally to a focus on his own personal history. In the final poem of the book, "Braly Street," he revisits the site of the street once so full of the lives and suffering of his childhood community:
It's 16 years
Since our house
Was bulldozed and my father
Where it was,
An oasis of chickweed
Together with The Tale of Sunlight, which appeared the following year, the two books record a journey from the toil of the factory and field work of Fresno to the freedom of arriving in Central Mexico - in the second book with a companion, Molinas. The final section of The Tale of Sunlight, the "Manuel Zaragoza Poems," illustrates, through the experiences of tavernkeeper Zaragoza, Soto's interest in "magical realism," taking a closely observed ordinary event of human existence and putting it into an unfamiliar context, thus transforming it into the extraordinary - but with no loss of the concrete detail. In the title poem, for example, "a triangle of sunlight" takes on a magical life of its own one noontime when Manuel opens his cantina, consuming all it touches. Soto has acknowledged the influence in this aspect of his work of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez.
In 1980 Father is a Pillow Tied to a Broom gathered together a number of Soto's previously uncollected poems, while the 1981 volume Where Sparrows Work Hard further explored the difficult lives of workers in urban Fresno. Following Black Hair (1985), poems on the themes of death, childhood, and the possibilities of community, Soto produced three prose volumes of autobiographical sketches and essays: Living Up the Street (1985), Small Faces (1986) and Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets (1988). He returned to poetry with Who Will Know Us? (1990), and a series of volumes written for children and young adults. His New and Selected Poems (1995) was a National Book Award finalist. Soto's many awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1979-80), fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and, in 1999, the Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. He is the editor of the Chicano Chapbook series, and is currently Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
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