On Wednesday, October 16th, we attended Matt de la Peña and Chris Baron’s poetry readings, presented by SDSU MFA program’s Living Writers series. Matt de la Peña and Chris Baron are both alumni of San Diego State University’s MFA program, and have been friends since their time in the MFA program together. Baron read from his novel in verse, All of Me, and Matt read from his picture book, Love. Witnessing two incredibly talented writers reading from their own work breathed life into their poetry.
Matt de la Peña is self-described as “a working-class, mixed kid”, who like Baron, took part in sports; Peña attended the University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship. However, he felt out of place, and says he often felt “like an imposter” both in sports and in writing. Describing his MFA experience, he shared that he “felt like [he] hadn’t read enough books.”
Chris Baron felt similarly. Baron received his MFA at San Diego State University and is now a professor at San Diego City College. Although clearly a successful writer, he says he felt misplaced in college, even when participating in his school’s rowing team. However, Baron says he felt at home when he was writing, either on his own or for class. He is especially appreciative of the community and sense of belonging he found in the MFA program. He advised the attendees to also develop a community to be vulnerable and encouraged in.
Although both de la Peña and Baron felt out of place in college, their writing talent has shone through and to create a sense of belonging in the world of literature. Chris Baron’s published his first poem, “Origins” in 1997, and he didn’t stop there. Baron is the author of the poetry collection, Under the Broom Tree, which was published in the poetry anthology Lantern Tree, winner of the San Diego Book Award. His first novel, All of Me is described by Matt de la Peña as “beautifully written, brilliant, and necessary.” Matt de la Peña is the author of multiple books for children and young adults, including New York Times Bestseller and Newberry Medal winner “Last Stop on Market Street.”
De la Peña brought us behind the scenes of creating his 2018 picture book, Love.
De la Peña explains how writing a picture book is “nothing different than writing a spoken word poem,” which is transcribed and given to the illustrator, Loren Long, to make into a picture book. Long then “works with text, in the margins, in and out of the letters” to create the stunning illustrations. De la Peña displayed images of how a particular illustration evolved into the form that appears on the pages. An image of a young boy looking out of a window was enhanced with the inclusion of a father catching a bus at dawn. Then Long drew in a brother handing the boy a plate of toast. De la Peña describes this as the first time he changed the text after seeing an illustration: a line memorializing his grandmother’s house slippers became “a slice of burned toast tastes like love.” The image was created through monoprint, a process in which a painting is imprinted onto glass and transferred to a separate sheet. This is done in layers so that the background of just one picture can be made up of several iterations of monoprint. Finally, Long paints on details such as the hair and facial expression. This effort is poignantly apparent in the following image in which a family gathers around a television, hiding a news story from the child’s view.
De la Peña shared that different audiences saw the new story as different things: Houston kids see it as a hurricane, high schoolers imagine a school shooting, and adults view it as 9-11.
De la Peña wanted to make the book as inclusive and accessible as possible for kids, both with how they look and more prevalently, socioeconomically. Although a seemingly simple book, he describes the hard work and thoughtfulness he put into his picture book. Peña shows kids that love isn’t always simple: “If you’re writing about love for kids, you write about… hardships” he says. He shows parents working long hours in the book, and shows some difficulties families may face, such as alcoholism. The mention of alcoholism resulted in a clash between “commerce and art:” a large and popular bookstore chain refused to sell the book for its hint at alcoholism, but neither he nor Long desisted. Thankfully so, because the unchanged picture book better reflects real adversities that children must endure. He and Baron both emphasize “emotional diversity,” understanding that children express their complex feelings in differing ways or not at all. This astute observation is aptly rendered in both Love and All of Me.
Baron’s All of Me is a semi-autobiographical middle grade novel in verse that includes both celebrations and hardships that Baron overcame in his life. Wanting All of Me to be accessible to the wide MG audience, he wrote in verse to imbue the text with emotion, and we can say he succeeded in pulling on our heartstrings as he read aloud. A particularly touching and resonant poem is “Fat at the Beach”, which describes the main character, Ari, being too scared to take his shirt off at the beach due to his view of his body. Throughout the novel Ari comes to terms with his own identity and appearance through beautiful and lyrical language.
Seeing de la Peña and Baron read and discuss their work was such a treat for us. We truly appreciate their time and we also appreciate the SDSU MFA in Creative Writing Program and SDSU Library for making the Living Writers series possible.
The next Living Writers talk will be with Karen An-hwei on October 30, 2019 at 7:00 PM.
-(SS) and (AN)