Quest #1: Beauty in the Central Valley

So first, a collage poem, made from ingredients found in my neighborhood:

What is beauty in this Valley?
That’s hard. What kind of beauty?
It could be any beauty you’d like.
The mountains. Say more about why.
You have a property there, so when you go
it’s your quiet place to get away. Or,
you can go for a short drive. Blossom
Trail, mountains, rivers, creeks,
everything between. You don’t know.

You know. Beauty is a nice person,
someone genuine. It means not littering;
that’s a mentality you can’t believe.
Beauty means … beautiful. Everything’s
beautiful! The first step towards beauty
would be to solve the ugliness. Give me
some examples of what you like most.
Dogs are beauties. When they’re fluffy,
it’s beauty. Beauty comes from within
because you can be very pretty and still be
very ugly. Attitude has a lot to do with it.
Personality, character. Is this you?
You’ll be okay. Can we re-do this? Sure.

You think the people are beautiful. You love
the art, the culture. Beauty … is culture.
The Valley is like a mixing pot of all
different types of cultures and people.
Because you see and understand different
backgrounds and holidays and meanings.
Yeah. You like it when you’re shopping
and you see a woman with her children and
the children just run and scatter everywhere.
The woman’s trying to get them all together. You
find that a beautiful thing. You know, family.
Why is that? Maybe because it’s the trust
and love they have in each other. All in all,
it’s one of the most decent places you’ve seen.

And wait! One of the most beautiful aspects
that we have to offer is the food. We have the very
best fruits and vegetables. It’s the food! Absolutely.
You’ve traveled. You’ve traveled many places.
We have the best. There’s your beauty!

This collage poem is inspired by my first “creative quest” for the 2017-18 Masumoto Family Fellowship, a yearlong opportunity I’ve been given to make place-based art and share creative practices in collaboration with the Masumoto family. It was a real joy to work on.

Here’s a collection of portraits I made of the dozen people from my neighborhood whose stories and ideas inspired the collage poem:

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In response to my desire to make more time to “wander and wonder” in my everyday life, Nikiko Masumoto set up my first fellowship project as a “creative quest.” She designed it as an opportunity for “courageous spirit” with the tools of creation: 4-5 hours of time (I dedicated about 10 hours, by choice); a simple recording setup (I used my iPhone 8 Plus, iOgrapher case, Røde video mic, and a patch cable); a computer with Internet (I used iMovie and YouTube); some form of transportation (I chose walking); and a generous commitment to allow myself to wander and wonder and create. “You already have all the tools you need for this adventure,” Nikiko said in her instructions. “We designed this especially for you, with no expectations. Think of it more like practice or a free-write; it’s a beginning and a process to explore and create. … We hope you will find both generative space and fun as you complete this quest!”

In addition, Nikiko limited me to collecting up to only 20 photographs and up to only 15 minutes of total video or audio footage. She didn’t want the editing process to bog me down too much, so she set some hard limits in that area. (Although, by Nikiko’s guidelines, the finished product was only supposed to be a prose piece that was 1 minute in length when read aloud and a multimedia piece that was 1 minute in length; those limits actually felt like they’d take me more time to comply with, to cut everything down so far, so this blog post runs long and my accompanying video runs about 3 1/2 minutes.)

So the prompt for my first creative quest, in case you didn’t catch it from the start of the collage poem, was: “Beauty in this Valley is …”

Kind of a huge topic, right? Where would I even start?! But not to worry. Nikiko gave me a meditation exercise, then a free-write exercise, and then a focused free-write exercise (which she called “sifting”). At the end of the sifting, I had a list of words and phrases to keep close by as I completed the quest. The list:

Get inside beauty
Craggy, lined, up close
Get close

One of the things I’ve long struggled with — as a journalist and as a storyteller — is the impulse to stay inside vs. going outside. Since I was a young journalist, I’ve faced the scary uncertainties of reporting in the field. There are so many unknowns, and those unknowns have always heightened my social anxiety. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced as an interviewer, and as I’ve moved more into what I consider storyteller territory, rather than traditional journalism, I’ve surprised myself more and more when I get myself out the door and out into the world. Talking to random strangers is still not easy for me and it probably never will be. But my 100 Days, 100 Portraits project and my long-form Q&A interviews for my communications job at Fresno State — especially including this wide-ranging interview with the poets Peter Everwine and C. G. Hanzlicek after the death of their friend, Philip Levine, that I’m particularly proud of — all serve to remind me that talking to people and asking them to share their stories and ideas is always a good thing to do.

This creative quest could have easily been me driving to a place far away, sitting on a bench and watching and thinking, and then writing poetry or a short essay from what I collected. That approach would have been fine, of course. But after doing Nikiko’s prep exercises, I felt an urgency to do what was already in me: get outside and immerse myself in the beauty of others.

I went for a 2-hour walk around my neighborhood. I carried my multimedia gear openly as I walked the streets and randomly talked to strangers. I only “knew” one person — one neighbor on our street that I don’t know well — and everyone else was truly a stranger. I asked them if they’d help me with a project. I made their portrait. And then I filmed them responding to Nikiko’s prompt.

Here’s the short video I made, linked below. I hope you enjoy the beauty I saw in what these 12 beautiful people had to say:

For reflection, Nikiko asked me to complete three very short focused free-writes. (What I’m “sifting” for with these, I’m sure, will reveal itself to me later!) I’m finishing this post by including the free-writes here, with light edits. They feel, in an odd but wonderful way, like a conversation with Nikiko that I haven’t had yet. Or perhaps, it’s an ongoing conversation with the Masumoto Family that has many beginnings and endings.

What happened in your body when you encountered beauty?

At first, I was hesitant in walking up to people. I probably always will be. But I also felt a rush of excitement in approaching people I wouldn’t normally approach. I punked out several times, most notably with my neighborhood donut shop guy, with the first homeless man I passed, with several people coming out of the Fresno/41 Starbucks, etc. But overall, I did walk up to a dozen people that normally I wouldn’t have, and I asked them about something I wouldn’t normally get the chance to ask. I felt joy in the creativity of the moment. Skepticism about who I was and what my project was about seemed to disappear pretty quickly once the subject learned the topic. And I think that immediate honesty and trust also gave me a jolt of joy and confidence. I could tell immediately that this moment of connection meant something, at least to me. Best descriptor of what happened in my body: transformation.

How did the experience of beauty manifest in you?

This is a question that I didn’t really think about before, during, or right after the quest. Not until just now, more than two weeks later, have I considered it. Reflecting, I think my own confidence established a connection with these strangers. It reminds me that we often don’t have a lot of trust for strangers these days, especially random people on the street that maybe don’t look like us. I think opening myself up to the quest gave me an opening into the world around me. The beauty of many of the stories and ideas the subjects talked about was revealed in those moments and felt very present in my own life, as the stories and ideas were being spoken about in theirs. For me, the collection of beauty statements from others created its own beauty, in the assembling and also in the final video. Beauty, I guess, manifested in me simply as presence.

How did you know you found something beautiful?

To be honest, I feel like I kind of knew that every person would share with me something beautiful, no matter what they said or how it all fit together. Even the ones that seemingly didn’t say much, or the ones who may have seemed shallow or simple at first, really shared something immediate with me. There’s a true beauty in the sharing. A few people, I immediately sensed, in walking up to them, that it was going to be a beautiful encounter, even if difficult. Some, I knew as they were speaking that it was beautiful. For some, I think they were trying really hard to say something profound and meaningful, and in trying to do that they cut themselves off from being fully present; those moments I mostly left on the cutting room floor. The video camera can turn us into actors, you know? But for the most part, there was a moment, a spark, a glimpse, a nugget of beauty in all the footage and in all the encounters. Even the uhhs and umms had beauty, to me, both as humor and as laughter, but also as a reflection of real humanity and uncertainty and presence. In brief: I think I found beauty with every stop, every subject.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the results of my first creative quest with the Masumotos!

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A Conversation with Nikiko Masumoto

I am happy to announce that I am the inaugural Masumoto Family Fellowship recipient, for 2017-18. To mark the public announcement of the fellowship, I had a great conversation with agrarian artist (and my dear friend) Nikiko Masumoto on Oct. 30, 2017.

Nikiko: What was your first introduction to the Masumotos?

Jefferson: My first introduction to the Masumoto family, I actually remember very clearly. I was still working at The Fresno Bee at the time. It was probably 2001 or 2002, and I saw you and your dad perform out there at UU church. It was you and your dad and Larry Honda. You were taiko drumming and your dad was reading poetry and Larry was playing a trumpet or saxophone… and I went with my friend Carrie Higa, who used to work at The Bee as a copy editor. I don’t know if she knew your dad or was just a fan of his writing like me, but we went together. I had read Mas’s stuff in the paper, but that was really the first time I was taken by your family, watching you and your dad perform. And all I did was go and watch, I didn’t speak to you or anything, but that was my first introduction to your family’s energy and creativity.

My introduction to the farm was through Tracy, my wife. She volunteered at the peach adoption, I think 5 years ago. But even before then, your dad came to one of my graduate writing workshops at Fresno State, maybe around 2006, and he made me and the whole class eat dirt. To taste the flavors. I’ve told you that story before, right? I don’t know if you want me to tell it again. But he came to that grad workshop, and then I was so flattered the next spring, when he came out to see me and my friend Eric Parker read our work at the Rogue Festival. I was so moved because, you know, he’s Mas Masumoto! I’ve been reading him for years, so for your dad to come out and see me and Eric perform was a real honor. That’s how I struck up a friendship with him.

N: Now, I know that you grew up in the Valley, but for everybody else, tell us a bit about where you grew up and, what do you treasure most about this place?

J: I grew up in Dinuba, which is in northeastern Tulare County. Specifically, we grew up in the country kind of out by Monson, which is a little town between Dinuba and Visalia. We grew up on my grandfather’s ranch. I went to Monson-Sultana School, a tiny little K-8 school on Mountain View Way, between Dinuba and Orosi. I think on my website it says something like, “I grew up in the heart of Tulare County raisin vineyards.” Our house was called the “old home place” because that’s where my grandma and grandpa lived years ago, with my mom and my aunts and uncles as kids. So then we rented it years later from my grandpa. We were surrounded by agriculture. We had plums to our west; they were Freedom variety plums, remember those? The speckley ones. The fruit in the back were the heirloom O’Henry variety peaches.

N: No way! O’Henrys!

J: And then we had some Thompson raisin grapes in the back too, and some Gala apples just to the north and east of us. That was our immediate area, and then there were dairies all around, owned by other people. So yeah, I grew up on that ranch and I lived with my parents there through my first four years of college at Fresno State too. So maybe, about 20 years of my life I lived just outside of Dinuba.

N: Do your folks still live out there?

J: No, they do not. Since 2002, they’ve lived in Dinuba now, “in town.” People don’t understand that distinction, in town or not in town.

N: Yeah, totally. We have our “in town” clothes.

J: Exactly, they’ve lived “in town” now, for a while. So, you also asked what I cherish about that place. I started working with the family maybe when I was about 9 or 10. We had a packing shed. My grandfather’s family came to the Dinuba/Reedley area as a migrant. My grandmother was born in the Hanford area. There was a landowner named Malcolm Crawford from Dinuba who my grandpa Joe worked as a ranch hand for. Malcolm died young and I guess on his deathbed, he asked my grandfather to help care for his widow, Ruby Lee, and care for his acreage, and in return he would give my grandfather acreage to start for his own. So by the time my aunts and uncles came up, he was the landowner – my grandfather! He had worked hard and saved. So by the time my generation came up, the family owned a packing shed on the outskirts of Dinuba. I feel like we might have been one of the few Mexican-American packing shed operators in Dinuba and Reedley?

So I started working at age 9 or 10, in the packing shed. We had like 100 people working for us just in the shed. Plus more in the fields.

N: Wow!

J: It was a good-sized operation, totally mechanized. So my first job for the packing shed was putting pads in the boxes. Hundreds of boxes would come and I would put the pad in, close the lid, and send them on to the sealer. Me and my cousin Steven, we would alternate days, so he would work Monday, Wednesday, Friday and I would work Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. So you know, $1 an hour.

N: [chuckles]

J: That’s a big deal. Because, you know, when you are in the 5th grade and you make like $30 a week, every week for the whole summer, you’re a big man on campus.

N: Totally!

J: Yeah, you’re like hey, juice boxes for everybody! Many years later, one summer I helped run the packing shed as the foreman.

So, to circle back to the question about what do you cherish. You know, I think it’s the ground. Like, literally the ground. Somebody said to me once, “You are in the Valley and the Valley is in you.” And I always think about that. I am the ground. Now, I’m very far removed from being a farmer of course, but I grew up around that and that’s what my reality was. Education separated me from that, for better or for worse. But that was my reality for years. I worked every summer in the packing shed, for 7 or 8 years growing up.

“You are in the Valley and the Valley is in you.” That’s why I always have these joyful flashbacks when I’m handling the Pantas [the thin plastic trays used to pack fruit in] on the Masumoto farm.

N: You have all those embodied memories.

J: Absolutely! It’s absolutely tangible. You know, that sound the crinkle of the Pantas makes when you’re stuffing them down, that’s a very physical memory for me.

N: This is a question that brings us more into the contemporary, and it will be interesting to hear if there is resonance with your past. I’m curious, Jefferson, what words do you like to use to describe yourself and your work? Like, creator, artist, journalist, organizer, amplifier, or a totally abstract word? What do you like?

J: I think I have a lot of labels because I have a lot of interests. People are inevitably like that, right? For many years as a profession, I was a newspaper journalist. So I have identified as a journalist, or a former journalist, in some way, and I think there’s still a lot of journalism in the things I do and make now. But one of the labels I’ve used is “multimedia storyteller.”

I think I’m a writer. I do also like to make photos. I do like sound. I’ve been learning more lately about video. I’m a terrible video editor but I’m a pretty good shooter. So, I guess multimedia writer or multimedia storyteller is probably as close as it’s going to get to something succinct.

In my current work at Fresno State, I’m a communication specialist for the Creative Writing Program. This means that I’m telling the stories of the program that I work for. I’m also Development Director for Fresno Filmworks, which means I’m involved in developing relationships and fundraising. “Arts administrator” is another broad term, I guess, because I do event planning and budget and project management. So maybe we’re getting to something like: arts communicator, writer, multimedia storyteller. Somewhere in there?

How do you perceive me?

N: One of the words I wrote down that kind of came to me is: amplifier.

J: I like that.

N: I see a lot of your work as amplifying stories, whether through Fresno State or Filmworks or elsewhere.

J: I appreciate that encouragement. I would also maybe add documenting to the amplifying. You and I have talked about this before. Sometimes, I think just being present is really important. Just pressing record at some of these things, poetry readings and performances, it’s so essential. We’re surrounded by media, and media is in our pockets, but sometimes we don’t think to just record it.

N: What are some of the contexts or conditions that allow your creativity to flourish?

J: For my ideal conditions, I need more quiet. I tend to present myself as very outgoing and type-A, but I think I’m more of a high-functioning introvert. So, I think that I’ve discovered that I need and want a lot more quiet in order to make things. But, I also think that we get caught up in the notion of the “ideal moment” to make something or do something or start a project. I have to say, I’m really tired of that. I feel like I’ve been holding myself back on that for years, and I feel like we have the tools in our pockets to tell stories and to document, so why not just do it. The last year and a half or so, especially since the current political shift in Washington, I’ve just decided to stop waiting. And my work is not perfect. But I feel like, we can’t wait to make things, to make art or words or really anything creative.

My ideal place is a place that’s quiet, where I have time to think. But I also have another mode where, I don’t know what this is going to be, but I feel compelled to make it now, because if I don’t, then I know it’s not going to get made.

N: What are the creative works you are most proud of?

J: The reason that I got my MFA at Fresno State was to write a book, my thesis manuscript. I’m not going to publish that book; it’s not a publishable book. But I was grateful I got 4 years in graduate school to write my book of essays. I’m really proud of that. I think that 4 of the 8 essays were published, and one of them was a Pushcart Prize nominee, and that was great. It was a really formative moment for me, thinking of myself not only as a journalist, but thinking of myself as a writer and creator. So, I’m really proud of that book, even though it only sits on my own shelf.

In terms of public creative output, and I’m not saying this just to flatter you, but the investment and the belief in me that you showed in my photography project, 100 Days, 100 Portraits, still means a lot to me. It has been popping up in my Facebook memories because it’s the anniversary from a couple years ago, and I’m really blown away still, that I performed that as part of your Central Valley Art Bus Tour, and then all 100 photos up in San Francisco at a big-time exhibition with dozens of artists from across the state who I’m still in touch with on Facebook, and all because of your invitation. But that was something I just did for myself at the time, and then it became something else, which is a great lesson, right? Do it for yourself. I’m proud of that. I think most people don’t know that I really enjoy photography. That project really showed me that simple portraits of people and who they are and what they do have value and they have meaning. It had meaning for me in the exploration. That was good enough.

Right now, the project I’m most proud of, I’m actually not “doing it,” but I’m facilitating it. It’s the Fresno Poets Archive Project. We have 80 tapes of the very earliest Fresno Poets’ Association readings from the ’80s and ’90s. I’m facilitating undergraduate interns who are researching, captioning, and in as many cases as possible, reconnecting with the people in those tapes from 25-plus years ago. And they are really stunning documents of literary history in the Valley.

I’ve been taking extensive notes as we go along, in conversations with the students who are working on them and in our research together. I might write a book about the process at some point. There’s 80 tapes and we’re publishing one a month. So, it’ll take about 7 or 8 years to publish them all at this rate! Unless I figure out a way to speed it up somehow. But I’m really proud of that right now because I feel a lot of pride for being a writer from Fresno. But I also feel – similar to some of the stuff you and Brynn Saito are doing with the Yonsei Memory Project – it’s an intergenerational thing. This is where you come from, these are the people who came before you, and these are the amazing things they did. These are people that, to me, were just names in a book before, people I’ve read my whole life. And now I’m hearing them, literally. I’m hearing their voices for the first time, and it’s transformative for me. Transformative. I’m doing it a little for myself, but I think a lot of people are plugging into the recordings. So I’m proud of that.

N: Tell us about what you’ve purchased for yourself with the funding from the Masumoto Fellowship!

J: With the Masumoto money, I completely simplified my audio/video recording set-up. I bought what’s called an iOgrapher. It’s basically a big hunk of plastic that your iPhone clicks into. It has a place to mount it to a tripod, it has a place to mount an external shotgun microphone, it has a place to mount a LED fill light, and it has handles to hold it and use it like a steady-cam if you’re off-tripod.

I went to a training session recently at CMAC TV in downtown Fresno. That’s the Community Media Access Collaborative, where I’m a member. We did a training on iOS production and they had iOgrapher kits with iPads. It’s everything you need in one box, and that made it all feel so easy and inspiring. So, the funding from the fellowship didn’t quite give me enough to buy the whole box, but that turned out fine because I actually kind of wanted certain pieces that didn’t come with the main kit. So basically, I bought about 3/4 of the kit with my first installment of the fellowship funds. This includes the iOgrapher gadget, an external light, a shotgun mic, a couple plugs and cables, and a backup battery charging pack for the whole operation. I’m using my existing iPhone and I can set it up in a minute! All I need is my tripod, screw it on and it’s done. It’s so easy! People have really noticed it in action, too.

N: Anything else you’d like to add?

J: I’m so grateful that the family would think of me for the fellowship. I know you all know a lot of writers and artists, so I’m very flattered, like beyond flattered that you would believe in me that much. I’m honored.

N: We are so happy and can’t wait to see what we make!

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On Eating Soyrizo

Oh Trader Joe’s, I owe
you my deepest Pocho
gratitude for your soy
chorizo. “The authenticity
comes from the spices,”
you say, and I believe you.
Who needs meat when
fake meat tastes this good?
After my Caucasian wife
lovingly sautés butter, salt,
onions, and baby bell peppers
together in a skillet,
she adds your protein
delight, and declares
after just three minutes:
Dinner is served.
She cannot warm the corn
tortillas fast enough.
“You may not be a meat
eater, but that doesn’t
mean you can’t enjoy
the spiciness of authentic
chorizo sausage.” I think
of a bad joke, a play
on words: Soy chorizo
can mean “I am chorizo”
if you speak the language
of the colonizer. You don’t
even have to be fluent
to taste what seems real.

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After Reading Winter Stars on the Radio

After Reading Winter Stars on the Radio
for Michael Luis Medrano

The first time I read Elegy
by Larry Levis, I didn’t get it.
My poet friend who used to be
a journalism major gave it to me
as a graduation gift in 2007,
ten years after it was published
and nearly ten years before
I shed my grad school self
and learned how to read
and write poetry a little bit more
like I spoke. Elegy with a
Chimneysweep Falling Inside It
seemed impenetrable to me
then, and so did the entire
collection. It took me a long time
to admit I was baffled by Levis,
and maybe I still am. But then:

a gift. One of our poetry elders
calls me one day and says,
I’ve got a couple boxes of VHS
tapes in the garage and I’d like
to give them to you if you think
you can save them. So I do
the only thing I can do: I say yes.
And when I see “Larry Levis
and Philip Levine at the Wild Blue,
8/28/84” I make sure to watch
that one first, and I listen. Here’s
what I heard: The voice of Levis
himself falling out of the sky
and into my tiny headphones.
That giant, a man himself.
Each moment remembered
in the rewinding of the tape.

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Foreign Words

Foreign Words

You apologized
for the foreign words you wrote
but I did not mind.
The bare, ugly line
about dobra pička cut
like no English could.
your cross-eyed, snorting laughter
left us fortunate.

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On the Eve of Inauguration

On the Eve of Inauguration

So what are you doing this Friday?
asked my Armenian journalist friend
who says he’s on sabbatical. I thought
for a long moment and went blank, then
I said something mundane like, oh I’ll be
at work, where else would I be? forgetting
that Friday would be the first day
of what will likely be a dark new era
for all my brown and black and queer
and Muslim brothers, sisters, and inter-mixers.
Are you going to watch the inauguration
on TV? he asks. Hell no, I say, trying to wake up
to the reality and weight of this small talk.
An inauguration:
“The formal admission of someone to office.”
An inauguration:
“The beginning of a system, policy, or period.”
An inauguration:
“A ceremony to mark a new beginning.”
A few minutes later, he is chatting in Arabic
with his Syrian wife, a fellow lover
of college basketball and international film,
and I can’t help but feel the stares
of two guys in red trucker caps sitting behind us.
Maybe you’d like to get dinner sometime
with us and discuss Middle East politics?
he jokes. We laugh. And I think to myself:
I barely know you both but I know enough
to inaugurate a force field around you.

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Poem: Chile with Lime and Salt

Chile with Lime and Salt

My artist friend walked straight up
to the counter lined with aguas frescas,
a spot I had never even noticed before,
and she ordered an ensalada de fruta
with cucumber slices and syrup and tajín
seasoning. Me? I wanted a hot chocolate
but all they had was Nescafé or hot water.
So I ordered a pan dulce, a classic cuerno,
which kind of looks similar to a croissant
in the way it folds into itself like a horn.
I took a big bite and my black sweatshirt
turned white from all the sugar that fell off
that sweet, soft horn. It was no use. I had to
eat the whole thing and dust myself off later.
My artist friend, meanwhile, clearly had
the nicest snack at our table, the perfect
mix of sugar and spice, the chile with lime
and salt glittering inside the syrupy cup.
The night before, I had carefully shaved off
the center of my mustache down to bare
skin, leaving two tiny tufts of dark whiskers
that looked at a distance like dirty dimples
over each corner of my mouth. I decided
that I would try a little taste of the chaos
of Chicano modernity and attempt to make
my inner Cantinflas more real, to see
how I would feel with such a distinctive
look. It did not seem to be working. A few
stares, but not one single comment all day.
My indigenous blood was not strong enough.
My European blood was not strong enough.
My mestizo blood was not strong enough.
My only strength came from the cuerno,
an announcement in a hunk of a sweet treat
that said: I was drunk on my own imaginings
and no disguise could mask this comedy.

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