The Dining Table
When I began to send poems to literary magazines, I was timid, my arms like the wings of a penguin. My wingspan was short and, by all implications, my literary flight at ground level. I nearly begged numerous college and small-press magazines to accept my poems. If the answer was yes (the Iowa Review was the first to accept a poem, followed by Poetry, both in 1974), I did a jig around the oak dining table, the place where I wrote at all hours, the crumbs of my meals jigging, too, as I pounded my fist against the surface. I felt light and giddy, as if I had swallowed helium balloons, but eventually settled again at the oak table, which was Mission Style, from the 1910s. That round table was the center of a lot of meals. Plenty of beer and wine was consumed around it, as evidenced by the rings from all the mugs set on its surface. The table was small, about the size of someone extending his arms in a bear hug. Later, a pine leaf would be fitted into the table's center, to extend it, with a tablecloth hiding the mismatched plank.
But my earliest memory of this table? I was twenty, a third-year college student at Fresno State and enrolled in Speech. My assignment for the week was to read a scene from a play. I chose Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher and read it to Carolyn Oda, not then my wife, not then my girlfriend, but a neighbor who occasionally sent out the aroma of baked goods from her kitchen. One winter evening, I sat screaming out the lines of this one-act play while she sat with her face apparently empty of emotion, though behind the mask she was laughing freely at the comedy (Fletcher's play is supposed to be spine-tingling drama). Was anyone ever such a poor actor? She fed me a cookie and sent me on my way.
After Carolyn and I were married, I read my mail at this table. I made shopping lists there. I set a huge typewriter on it and wrote amidst the comings and goings of family, friends, and cats (Pippy, Groucho, and Corky). We were penguins — my wife, my daughter, and me — with short wingspans. We sat at the table, our wings coming together for a short prayer before dinner. "Pass the salt, please," I would say. Mariko, our daughter, would pat the salt toward me with her wing. "The ketchup, please," my wife would say. I would poke it over with my wing.
Birthdays were celebrated at this table, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Our friends were all penguins, though now and then a guest with the reach of an octopus would sit among us — a grappling thing from the deep! The table was where we did our taxes and computed our savings, licking the end of a pencil. It was where I wrote nineteen books — poetry, essays, and novels — and where I sat facing friends, our coffee cups steaming. I wrote condolence letters and birthday cards there. When I taught, I added up grades there at the end of the semester — you all get As.
That dining table is now in The Gary Soto Literary Museum. On it sits a manual typewriter, an electric typewriter, and an ancient laptop computer from pre-Internet days. Once a month I visit this old piece of furniture, which first belonged to my wife, then to the two of us, then to the three of us, our daughter doing her homework and science projects there. Now it belongs, like literature, to the public. I have placed my head on it many times, exhausted from getting words just right.
The Gary Soto Literary Museum is located at Fresno City College, where I got my start as a poet in the spring of 1972. During the first stages of its construction, I asked a carpenter to build a small platform that would approximate our living room. I showed Greg, owner of the construction company, the museum plans by the designer, Jonathan Hirabayashi. Greg glanced at the blueprint, unfazed. The job was as complicated as taking off a door and sandpapering it. Still, the carpenter was curious about the space — a museum for books? I then described the purpose of the museum: to instill wonderment among the visitors, to say to kids that reading is important, to say to the city that literature matters, and to say that writers can emerge from a place like Fresno. I uttered all this casually.
When he expressed interest, I showed Greg the large metal chest of drawers where my poetry and prose manuscripts would be kept. I opened a drawer, which rolled out silently, not unlike the ones at the city morgue. I showed him the drawer where unsuccessful manuscripts would be kept, the dead ones, without a chance of reviving.
"This is where the books that never became books will be," I remarked. "They're not very good. They're just awful."
Greg fell silent. For a moment I thought his interest had waned, that I had gone on too long. But he'd been reflecting. He touched my shoulder and remarked, with heaviness in his heart, "Don't worry, Gary. I've done some bad jobs myself."
From What Poets Are Like: Up And Down With The Writing Life by Gary Soto. Copyright 2013 by Gary Soto. Excerpted by permission of Sasquatch Books.