Fresno State alumna named Fresno poet laureate

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Fresno State alumna named Fresno poet laureate

Fresno State alumna Marisol Baca is the City of Fresno’s fourth poet laureate. She will be the first woman to serve as the city’s literary ambassador.

Mayor Lee Brand will swear-in Baca at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, at a Fresno City Hall ceremony. The Fresno Arts Council will celebrate Baca’s inauguration at 5 p.m. with an Art Hop reception at its downtown headquarters (1245 Van Ness Ave.).

Baca, an English instructor at Fresno City College and co-founder of the Women Writers of Color-Central Valley collective, will serve a two-year term beginning immediately.

Baca earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Fresno State in 2003, and she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Cornell University in 2007. She won the Three Mile Harbor Press First Book Prize for her debut poetry collection, “Tremor,” which was published in March 2018.

Since returning to Fresno, Baca has published dozens of poems in literary journals and anthologies, and she was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize for her poem “Spiral” in the magazine Narrative Northeast. In 2018 she toured the Southwest as a member of Las Peregrinas, four California women authors who took their poetry on the road for readings and workshops. With fellow Fresno poet Devoya Mayo, Baca co-founded the Women Writers of Color-Central Valley collective to celebrate women writers and their work, to build community and to make a space to encourage women to submit their works for publication.

Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, dean of Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities, praised Baca’s poetry as well as her commitment to the University through her work as a member of the Arts and Humanities Advisory Board.

“Marisol’s poetry is steeped in philosophical wonder of the world and discovery of self,” Jiménez-Sandoval said. “Her poetry harks back to images of New Mexico and New York, while bridging and stitching together a life in Fresno. We are so proud that she is Fresno’s new poet laureate because she represents the deep creative artistry of our college and the University.”

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baca grew up around generations of family in an old, adobe house. Her parents, Mario and Barbara Baca, moved their kids to California in 1983 when Mario L.M. Baca became a professor at Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development. He retired in 2005 as professor emeritus of curriculum and instruction. Mr. Baca died April 4. Barbara Baca is a retired teacher for Fresno Unified School District.

After leaving New Mexico, one of Marisol Baca’s earliest memories in her new city was a third- or fourth-grade class at Thomas Elementary School in central Fresno, she said. One of her first classes was a poetry lesson, taught by guest author Jean Janzen, who was, Baca would learn much later, a Fresno State alumna, an American Book Award winner and an accomplished Fresno writer.

Baca wrote her first poem that day, about a butterfly. It included the lines:

He is so beautiful to me

but he is so wrinkly.

“I was working with rhyme, with description,” Baca said. “I developed a love for poetry and writing as a result of that small lesson from Jean. Poetry is magical.”

Baca remembers her first poetry lesson came from a woman. Being the first woman named Fresno Poet Laureate has special significance for Baca, as a public platform for reaching so many more girls and encouraging them to write.

“For me personally, it validates the voice of women writers and women writers of color in the Central Valley,” Baca said. “It’s moving us forward as a more inclusive literary arts community. It’s validation that we are here, we have been here. Women are doing good work as writers. We are visible.”

Baca has specifically sought out other women writers as mentors over the years — most notably Corrinne Clegg Hales at Fresno State; Helena María Viramontes at Cornell; and Carmen Tafolla, the former poet laureate of Texas who once lived in Fresno.

“As an undergrad at Fresno State, Connie Hales’ poetry was important for me,” Baca said. “It was one of the first times I saw a Fresno poet who was a woman. She was so encouraging, always has been. She completely and utterly believed in my writing, who I was and who I wanted to become. She saw it when I didn’t necessarily always see it.”

Baca’s graduate work with Viramontes and Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon at Cornell opened up a world of writing by Chicana authors and women writers of color that continues to inspire her. She first met Viramontes while attending a CSU Summer Arts workshop at Fresno State.

“Helena’s energy, focus, dedication and passion for writing — I didn’t realize all that was the life of the writer,” Baca said. “To have that dedication, to consume literature and read and read so much, I ate it up.”

As the fourth Fresno poet laureate, Baca hopes to start an initiative to bring Fresno writers into the same third- and fourth-grade classrooms in the city where she first discovered poetry.

“There’s a special thing that’s happens at that age,” Baca said. “You’re so open to the mystery and magic of creative writing. So many writers I talk to have important moments around that time that made them gravitate toward writing and creating.”

She also hopes to do more of what Fresno State music professor Benjamin Boone calls “the power of combined arts,” bringing together poetry, creative writing, music and visual arts across disciplines to connect different artistic communities. Baca envisions a space where academia, community members and youth writers all converge.

Baca is the second Fresno State graduate to hold the title. James Tyner, a librarian for the Fresno County Public Library, was named the first Fresno poet laureate, serving from 2013-15. Tyner earned both his MFA in Creative Writing (2009) and his bachelor’s in English (2003) from Fresno State.

The second Fresno poet laureate was Lee Herrick from 2015-17, and the third was Bryan Medina from 2017-19.

The selection committee consisted of the city’s past three poets laureate. After reviewing nominations collected by the Fresno Arts Council, the trio came to a consensus and made its recommendation to Brand.

The city’s poet laureate activities, including the annual Poetry Out Loud competitions for area high school students, are funded in part by grants from the California Arts Council and the Bonner Family Foundation.