“My big fear was, ‘I have a family. I have to provide for my family. I do not want to be an unemployed poet.'” – James Tyner
/ Photo by Khlarissa Agee
HOW A FRESNO STATE ALUM AND LIBRARIAN BECAME FRESNO’S FIRST POET LAUREATE
As Fresno’s first poet laureate, James Tyner is now tasked with endorsing poetry and literary arts, with the goal of increasing awareness of the city’s history of poetic accomplishment.
Tyner, 38, graduated Fresno State’s Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts program with distinction in 2009. But he was an accomplished writer even before tossing the graduation cap.
During his college years, Tyner earned the Larry Levis poetry prize and the Andres Montoya Scholarship.
Tyner has run Poets in the Library, one of the longest-running free poetry series in the Valley, a program that has attracted poets and writers from all around since 2005.
“There’s really no place for written word poets to go out and read,” Tyner said. “My hope was to get this going and to get poets in the library and get the community exposed to how many great poets there are.”
Fresno hides a secret that everyone knows, he said, except for those who live there.
“There’s a running joke among writers,” Tyner said. “The joke is: everybody knows about Fresno poets except for Fresno. The whole world knows.”
Over the years, the city has produced acclaimed poets, including former Fresno State instructor Philip Levine, the 18th Poet Laureate of the United States.
“Their influence has just spread really wide, and it has affected so many of us,” Tyner said.
Tyner was surprised when his editor, who lived in Detroit, said he knew of Fresno’s reputation for producing important poets such as Levine.
“So one of the reasons why I do this is to expose Fresno to it, to make Fresno aware of it—this awesome tradition they have,” Tyner said.
Tyner’s journey into the world of poetry was not an easy one. He strayed from the path many times, but fate had always put him back on course, even in the most unlikely places.
After Tyner graduated from high school in 1993, his friend convinced him to go south to Oxnard to join St. Augustine’s Priory, while attending the city’s community college.
Tyner agreed, and he soon found himself traveling while training as a monk.
He earned his associate’s degree in 1995, and three years later he was in Spain. Tyner worked with local townspeople, helped with festivities and even participated in The Running of the Bulls.
“It was a pretty crazy time,” he said.
It was one fateful Sunday that his life changed forever.
“On a Sunday, the newspaper came in and one of them happened to be the L.A. Times,” he said.
Tyner has lived in Fresno since age 12, but he was born in Santa Monica and was raised in Venice Beach, two cities in the Los Angeles area.
“So I’m here in Spain, and someone brings an L.A. Times, and I’m flipping through it, and there’s an article about Fresno poetry.
“I wasn’t into poetry or anything (at the time), but just to see my home I was so excited to find this paper out in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
Seeing it as a sign, he decided to return and pursue his boyhood passion of reading and writing.
He entered Fresno State in late 1998 as an English major.
Tyner wanted to become a writer. Growing up in Venice Beach, he lived in a high-crime area. He used reading and writing as a method to escape the reality of the violence that lived next door.
Tyner signed up for his classes, but was unable to get one after it filled up. Feeling curious, he chose a poetry class.
“So I decided, ‘You know, what the heck? Why not try it and see what it’s like? If I don’t like it, I’ll drop it and take something else,’” he said.
In the very first class meeting, instructor Connie Hales recited a poem called “Two Pictures of My Sister,” by Dorianne Laux.
“She read that, and my life was changed instantly,” Tyner said.
“Before that, for me, poetry had always been like Shakespeare—something I thought was very boring and archaic.”
The story is about the toll of domestic abuse.
In the poem, a father, wielding a belt, hits his daughter. Tyner said he was awestruck by the imagery, which detailed a bruise that “blooms like a flower on her face.”
“I just read that and it was so powerful and so overwhelming,” he said. “OK, this is what I want to do. I love this. It changed my life.”
Tyner performed well, but his love affair with poetry was short lived, he said. Two years before graduating, he grew bored with poetry, and pushed himself to earn his degree and leave.
Tyner earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 2003, and left to focus on his job at the Fresno County Public Library. He got married to his girlfriend Jessica, whom he met at Fresno State.
Tyner was content to keep working for the library, not seeing a real future with poetry.
“My big fear was, ‘I have a family. I have to provide for my family. I do not want to be an unemployed poet,’” he said.
But his love of writing did not fade over time.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Tyner said. “It was bothering me. It was this constant nagging at me to get out there and write more and more and more and more.”
Unable to escape the feeling, he picked up the pen once more, writing poetry during lunch breaks.
“I started to use my work as a means to get back into poetry,” he said.
In 2005 he founded Poets in the Library, and a year later he entered the master’s program at Fresno State. His master’s thesis was a book called, “Baptized in Dirt.” It was voted most outstanding thesis of 2009 and chosen to represent the department.
Fresno State instructor Tim Skeen, one of Tyner’s professors, felt that his prior student deserved the honor of being named poet laureate.
“To me, when I heard about it, I thought it a very wise and a very welcome decision, and I’m glad the folks on that committee chose James,” Skeen said. “I don’t think they could have possibly chosen a better representative of poetry and of Fresno.”
Skeen, associate professor of English and coordinator of the master of fine arts program and creative writing, was also a chair on Tyner’s thesis committee.
“James has the rare combination of extraordinary artistic talent and common sense,” he said. “Those are two qualities that often do not go together.”
As poet laureate, Tyner plans to expanding his library program, creating workshops designed to encourage creativity for poets in the making. He wants to have two different workshops, one for children and another for adults.
Tyner is looking forward to three big events over the upcoming several months. First will be the Chicano Writers and Artists Association, which will come to his library and talk about the organization and read some work written by members.
The second event will be a reading from the Kundiman Fellows.
Finally, Tyner plans to have a “Come meet the Poet Laureate” night, where he will rub elbows with poetry’s best, brightest, as well as up and coming writers.
But Tyner’s primary goal is to help Fresno become aware of the talent that hides among its citizens.
“Fresno has such a massive amount of history of great poets,” he said.
Tyner continues to work for the library system at Gillis Library. His newfound fame has kept him busy, but he writes on.
He calls himself a “working-class poet,” still penning prose in rare moments of solitude during lunch breaks.
Tyner is looking forward to finishing his first book of poetry. With 44 poems, half of which have already been printed in publications and anthologies, he is only one away from finishing.
Being a poet is not an easy job, but a path which Tyner believes only a few can walk.
“You don’t want to be an unemployed poet,” he said. “But if you can’t stop that itch; if you cannot stop coming up with lines; if you cannot stop thinking about it—it drives your every moment, then do it 100 percent. That’s what I did.”