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If you believe some people's failing memories, the Fresno Poets' Association will be celebrating its 25th anniversary tonight at the Fresno Art Museum.
The organization has grown steadily in stature since its early days of backyard picnics and nightclub recitals. The FPA was founded "around 1980" by the late poet Chuck Moulton, providing an excuse for local writers to socialize a couple times a year.
Now, the group gives hundreds of people six doses of poetry and prose per season, welcoming poets and writers from across the country between October and April. Tonight, the FPA opens its latest lineup with a reading from the Fresno State creative writing faculty.
Poet C.G. Hanzlicek, a retired Fresno State professor who has run the reading series since 1994, says the FPA's early days were super informal. If a poet happened to be passing through town, usually to visit Pulitzer Prize-winning Fresno poet Philip Levine, the group would try to schedule a reading for them. Later, the series evolved into a regular attraction.
The modest beginnings make it hard to pin down when the series actually started. But Hanzlicek says, "If you'd like to declare this the 25th anniversary of the FPA and the champagne is free, by all means let's celebrate."
There may or may not be champagne tonight when members of the Fresno State creative writing faculty take the stage inside the art museum's Bonner Auditorium. But opening the season every year with well-known local writers is intended to kick things off with a burst of good feeling.
"All of the readers are well known by the audience," says Hanzlicek, who along with Levine and Peter Everwine formed the core of the Fresno school of poets in the early 1960s. "It also gives new creative writing students a chance to hear their faculty read all at once. It begins the season with a celebratory air."
The association's tie with the university is an important one. The readers on the schedule -- which this year includes Cuban poet Virgil Suarez and respected poet/scholars Judith Vollmer and Ed Ochester -- also visit graduate poetry classes on the evenings before the readings.
Corrinne Hales, who directs the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Fresno State, says the exposure to such a variety of literary figures is essential for writers and readers alike. "Our students get a chance to meet and learn from contemporary writers from all over the country," Hales says. "It's extremely beneficial to the university community."
The bookish folks in town get the spoils, too. Hanzlicek says he tries to pick visitors who will connect with the Fresno audience, which often includes a poetically diverse mix of library geeks, families with kids, working professionals, and students.
"I like to invite writers whose work is accessible, lively, and likely to touch people emotionally," Hanzlicek says. "I think I have a pretty fair read on the audience because many of them buy books after the readings, so they want to carry what they've heard with them beyond the reading."
So it somehow seems fitting, in the group's apparent silver anniversary year, that the series will feature three San Joaquin Valley writers in addition to the opening night event: a dual reading Dec. 1 with poets David St. John and Michael Clifton, and a reading Feb. 2 with essayist John Hales.
Hanzlicek usually only schedules one reading per season by locals, to avoid making the FPA look like the "Friends of Hanzlicek reading series," he jokes. But with new books out this year by all three writers, adding to the fine and ongoing tradition of Valley literature, Hanzlicek couldn't help working them into the schedule and giving their work a welcoming stage at home.
"No matter where one lives, I think poetry makes one believe that there is more to life than root canals and debt paying," he says. "It reminds us of what is best in ourselves. . . . It defines our hungers and sometimes satisfies them. It helps us to love better and to hate better, and helps our automobile engines run more efficiently."
Hanzlicek will join Corrinne Hales, John Hales, Craig Bernthal and Timothy Skeen for the reading tonight at the Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First St., at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5 general; $4 for students, seniors, and FPA members. Visit fresnopoets.org for more on the Fresno Poets' Association.