In the ring with Joseph Rios

In his debut book of poetry, Fresno City College alum uses boxing as a literary device

Boxing is in Joseph Rios’ blood. So is poetry.

Which makes the location for the launch party celebrating “Shadowboxing: Poems and Impersonations,” his debut poetry book, rather appropriate.

Rios will give a reading 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, at Heartbeat Boxing, 155 Van Ness Ave., Fresno.

PhotobyRafaelCardenas2
Boxing and poetry: Joseph Rios will launch his new book Thursday. Photo / Rafael Cardenas

“It will be my first time reading from a boxing ring,” he says.

The Los Angeles resident grew up in the Fresno area and has strong ties to his hometown. The book uses an autobiographical-style central character named Josefo, a Chicano adolescent working and becoming a poet in the farm territories of Central California. In a daring stylistic move, Rios borrows the poetic language found in boxing lore and in the “Rocky” films.

When he asked his first poetry teacher, Lee Herrick at Fresno City College, to “blurb” his new book, the longtime professor responded with these glowing words:

… the most original, charged, exciting debut I have read in years. Joseph Rios redefines fearlessness with a signature talent and unapologetic conviction. The agile flurry of his storytelling is dazzling: Zapata and Lorca, Shakespeare and Borges, Rocky Balboa, family and Tias… This is duende and fire, language as pugilism. This is a new poetics at the next level …

The title was a finalist for Omnidawn Publishing’s first book prize, selected by noted poet Claudia Rankine.

I caught up with Rios for a discussion about growing up in the central San Joaquin Valley, how boxing fit into his upbringing, and what this first book means to him.

Q: Were you a big fan of the “Rocky” films as a kid? How about boxing in general?

A: Huge fan of the “Rocky” films. Huge. I had one of those box sets of the VHS tapes. Wore them right out. I’d hit the heavy bag in our backyard while listening to the soundtrack from Rocky IV. It’s a little embarrassing to admit now. My dad was a boxer and as a kid I’d go with him to any number of houses out in Calwa or on the Westside where they were getting the fight. I have so many memories of these living rooms full of people and paper plates watching Julio César Chávez. If I’m honest, I just wanna write something the compadres can cheer for the way they used to cheer for Chávez.

FresnoBookLaunch

Q: Your concept for “Shadowboxing: Poems and Impersonations” is fascinating. Tell us a little about Josefo, the character at the heart of your work.

A: Josefo is from the San Joaquin Valley. His parents and grandparents were born there. He is thinly veiled version of myself, to be honest. Josefo is a name my grandfather gave me. Until I went off to college, he was the only one to use that name. People started calling me that again and it brought me back home. The name itself triggered something familiar and full of love. It unlocked memories. Writing about Josefo instead of I/me made all the difference. That slim bit of distance was all I needed to get going.

Q: Give us a brief rundown on yourself.

A: My mom’s family is from Clovis. My Dad is from Calwa. My mom’s family has lived in a historically Mexican neighborhood in Old Town Clovis since the mid 1920s. I went to Fresno City College for five years before transferring to UC Berkeley. I stayed out in the Bay Area for a handful of years, then came down to Los Angeles. I can’t stray too far from home. I traded one 3-ish hour drive for another.

Q: From reading a synopsis of “Shadowboxing,” it sounds like it’s full of memorable characters apart from Josefo: “packinghouse mentors, storytelling grandmothers, parable-sharing plumbers, smooth talking truck drivers, and infinitely patient literature professors.” Are they all based on real people? (I’m guessing at least the last one is.)

A: All true, all real, all exist. I’ve done a lot of labor-type jobs. From the packinghouse in Madera, to my Uncle’s Avionics shop at Chandler, to my dad’s gardening business, janitor for UC Berkeley, moving company in San Francisco, handymanning in Silicon Valley, managing a venue in Los Angeles – I’ve run into a whole host of characters. Not all of them have made it into my poems, but they are a part of this community of voices I bring to the page.

Q: Lee Herrick wrote a pretty amazing blurb for your collection. (I’ll include that blurb in the introduction to the interview.) What kind of impact did he have on you as a poet?

A: He was my first poetry teacher. He helped me find poetry. I was the editor of The Rampage at Fresno City College when I covered the release of Lee’s In the Grove in 2008. Leading up to the event, he sent me a list of the contributors. Being a well taught journalist (shoutout to Dympna Ugwu-Oju), I did my research. I went to the library and tried to find their books. That’s how I first read Andres Montoya, Phil Levine, Garrett Hongo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Tim Z Hernandez, Barbara Jane Reyes, Larry Levis, Luis Omar Salinas, and on and on. It was a big-bang moment for me that happened in the quiet room of the downtown library. I’m glad Lee is going to be with us for the Fresno launch. We chose this date to accommodate his schedule. I really really wanted him to be there.

Q: Do you think you took a big risk in making the concept and structure of your first book so different than what we might think of a typical poetry collection?

A: “Life’s a risk carnal.” Have you seen “Blood in Blood Out”? Being our whole selves on the page is a risk. Truth is, I don’t like to read typical poetry collections. Naturally, I didn’t set out to write one. I wanted to write something my cousins could be down with, full of inside jokes and references only we would get. Let the poetry world talk about inventiveness and risk, I’ll just say this is how we talk; these are our stories in our native tongue.

Q: Tell us about being a finalist for Omnidawn’s first book prize.

A: I was closing out a month-long residency at the Anderson Center in rural Minnesota when I submitted to that prize. By then, sending to prizes was part of my practice. I’d finish a period of revision and send out to prizes and await the rejections. It was a way of staying in the work. That being said, even knowing, just knowing that Claudia Rankine was going to read my manuscript was a prize all its own. Claudia narrowed it down to five of us. She eventually chose another collection to win, but the press opted to publish my book as well. I’m still floored by that. I’m forever grateful to Omnidawn for all of this.

Q: You write about California’s overworked labor class. Yet poetry is seen by many as an art form appreciated mostly by literary elites. What are your thoughts on this? How do you reach the people you write about?

A: In the U.S. that’s true. We still ban books out here. New York publishing is that way, for the most part. Those ivory towers try, but they can’t contain or regulate poetry so much that it doesn’t find the people who need it. I was going to say something about how poetry gets taught in Latin America, Neruda, Lorca, Darío, but we don’t have to leave Fresno to find examples of working class poetics. Fresno has not one but two U.S. poet laureates who have made their names writing about working people. Ask someone from Fresno if they’ve read anything by Gary Soto. There are countries in Europe where students have to memorize Soto’s poetry to pass on to the ninth grade. This is the tradition I walk into as a writer from Fresno. We don’t have to follow a blueprint or a prescribed notion of what poetry should look or sound like. People blow by us on the Five and don’t give us a second thought. There’s a freedom in being disregarded. As an artist, anyway. Creatively, we’re in the middle of everywhere.

Q: Give us a rundown on your reading. Who else will be there?

A: Hella family. Blood relation and otherwise. (He’ll be joined by special guests Marisol Baca, Sara Borjas, David Campos, Juan Luis Guzmán, Lee Herrick, and Maceo Montoya.) This Fresno reading will be special. I’m thankful to Gilbert Ruiz for lending us his boxing gym for the event. It was Juan Guzmán’s idea. Of course a theater director would think of that, right? It’s going to be fun.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: I’ve been reading your reviews and coverage at my Grandma’s kitchen table for years. To answer your questions is a great honor for me. Thank you.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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