In 1996, Victor Martinez, a local poet, reached a personal low when he read his poetry at Intersection for the Arts and exactly six people showed up. Three were friends.
A week later, he discovered that he was nominated for the National Book Award.
Galeria de la Raza threw a send-off party before he flew to New York for the awards ceremony. “We said, ‘You’re going to win!’” recalls writer Alejandro Murguía. “He said. ‘Nah. I’m a Chicano writer. This is a New York award.’”
He won. Suddenly, Martinez was being interviewed on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. His picture was on the front of the San Francisco Chronicle, and when he walked down the streets of the Mission, strangers recognized him and said hello.
When Martinez died early on the morning of February 18, 2011, in his apartment on Capp Street, a few days before his 57th birthday, that book, “Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida,” had become part of the canon of books taught to American high school students.
At least those students who attend schools where the book isn’t banned. “Parrot” — an often brutal novel about a 14-year-old boy figuring out what it means to be an adult in the midst of the gangs, violence and poverty in the projects of the Central Valley — is not always a comfortable read. It was originally intended as a novel for adults, until an editor at HarperCollins suggested casting it as a work of young adult fiction.
The controversy around the book led to some interesting situations — such as the time Martinez was invited to speak to a group of students in Florida, despite the fact that none of them were allowed to read “Parrot” and only one teacher had a copy of the book. In other places, recalls Martinez’s wife, Tina Alvarez, he would be introduced only to Latino students. “He would refuse to speak unless it was to the entire class,” she says. “He would say, ‘I am an American writer.’”
Martinez was born in Fresno, California, on February 21, 1954, to a family of migrant farmworkers. He was the fourth of 12 children and, according to his younger brother, Ramiro, driven from a young age. “He was one of the first in the family to have his own room. He spent a lot of time in there, with his typewriter. As little kids, we were fascinated by that. It was very mysterious to us — ‘Wow, he’s got his own space.’”
In large families, siblings develop specialties. Martinez’s was advice, though as Ramiro puts it, “I’m not sure if you would call it advice. You could talk to him about anything and he could sort of configure it and reconfigure it and help you figure it out.”
In a 1996 interview with the Chronicle, Martinez said that in high school his guidance counselor informed him that with his excellent grades and test scores, he should aim high and consider a career as a welder.
Later the counselor reconsidered. She persuaded Martinez to apply to college, and he got into Cal State Fresno, with the help of an affirmative action program. He told the Chronicle that he regretted the passage of Proposition 209. “Just that little bit of help with affirmative action did so much for me. It was a great program — you put in a dollar, you get a million back.”
At Cal State Fresno, Martinez met the poet Philip Levine, and received a prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. It was there that he met Tina Alvarez. “I was an undergrad, and I took a class of his,” Alvarez says. “I felt he was a real writer. He was very uncompromising. Very fierce. He would always say what he felt.
“He taught me how to love people as they are,” she adds. “Not as how you would want them to be.”
Martinez left Stanford before the fellowship was over. “It was due to frustration,” recalls Alvarez. “In order to be there he had to teach, and he just wanted to write. He never became a teacher, which many writers do.” In the News Hour interview, Martinez described himself as too “irascible” for teaching. “I thought the educational system would chuck me out pretty soon.”
Instead, Martinez moved to San Francisco, where he did become a welder for a while, before settling into a job as a personnel clerk for the government. He wrote culture reviews for El Tecolote, published a magazine called Dinton, haunted the city’s art house theaters (Kurosawa films and the movie One Eyed Jacks were particular favorites) with his friend the artist Sal Garcia, worked on the reopening of the Mission Cultural Center, helped form a poetry collective called Humanizarte, and married Alvarez at City Hall. The two of them moved into an apartment on Capp Street. “He loved the Mission,” says Alvarez. “He loved how vibrant it was.”
It was not always easy to find time to write. “He would try to get up at 4 a.m.,” recalls Alvarez, “and get his day’s writing in.” Eventually Alvarez made an offer: If he could figure out a way for them both to live on her salary, he should quit his day job.
After that, Martinez would get up every morning, sit down at his desk and write for six hours. His style was laborious and minimalist. “He was like a chiseler,” says another friend, the artist Jurgen Trautwein, who spent years getting beers at the Zeitgeist and talking art with Martinez. “Someone who built something up and took it down to the core, the skeleton. He had a lot of love for sculpting. He loved Giacometti. He read his biography over 10 times.
“‘Too many words. That’s what he would say. ‘Too many words.’”
“He would tell me, ‘Poetry is the essence of thinking,’” says his brother, Ramiro.
When people asked him what he did for a living, he said he drove a truck.
“So many people have wiped their asses with the word artist,” says Sal Garcia, laughing. “We were of the working class.”
Martinez also began to write fiction. “I think that of all disciplines, poets have the hardest jobs,” says Garcia. “I can sell art out on the street, but it’s really, really hard to sell a poem.”
It proved hard to sell fiction, too. Another novel was recently turned down by publishers, says Alvarez, on the grounds that it was “too literary.” And in an interview in 2002, Martinez mentioned another novel, a book about a group of artists in the Mission District, being turned down the year before. “The country is in pain,” Martinez quoted his publishers as saying. “We don’t need any more.” Martinez went on to caution against “submitting stories about marginal or disenfranchised people, expecting a warm reception,” but extolled the benefits of marginality itself, saying, “An outsider can tell you a lot.”
One book of poems made it to publication — Caring for a House, published by Chusma House in 1992. “He didn’t write flowery poems,” said Sal Garcia. “He seemed to look beneath the surface of everything. A very unique writer. I’ve never read anything like it.” Garcia recently reread the book, he said, and was surprised at how many of the poems contained references to cancer.
One of the first things Alvarez noticed about Martinez when they first met was his distinctive, raspy voice. Most people just assumed that he smoked — which he did, from time to time. The truth was that his throat had polyps — benign tumors that grew on his vocal cords, and at such a rate that it required regular surgeries to have them removed. It was a condition that, a doctor told him, was not uncommon in people who had grown up around pesticides. It was also likely, the doctor said, that one day one of the tumors would become malignant.
Like his parents, Martinez had spent time working in the fields. “Growing up in Fresno, if you wanted to make quick money, you would pick crops,” recalls Garcia. “Or you would work in the packing sheds. We’d be box boys — unfolding boxes for the women sorting fruit.” Overall, Martinez was healthy, a devoted member of a crew that played pickup tennis in Dolores Park every Saturday and Sunday morning. But the doctor’s warning lingered.
A year ago, Martinez learned that one of the tumors had finally gone malignant. The cancer had migrated into his lungs and spread outward from there.
In the last two months of his life, says Alvarez, he lost his voice entirely to radiation treatment. “He reveled in listening to the conversations around him. When it was getting closer, he became very adamant. He did not want any speeches at his funeral.”
It was a gesture very much in keeping with his character, says another friend, the author Elizabeth Bernstein. “He just wanted his friends to talk to each other,” Bernstein says. “We’re going to meet each other and he’s going to be there, listening.”
A memorial service for Victor Martinez will be held this Saturday, February 26, at Duggans Funeral Home, 3434 17th Street, at 3 p.m. In the words of his brother Robert: “All of those who loved Vic are invited.”