Graduate Jan-Henry Gray receives prestigious fellowship for poetry

Whether it’s in front of a stove or a writing desk, Jan-Henry Gray is driven to create.

Gray, who has been working at top-notch restaurants in San Francisco while pursuing a creative-writing degree at San Francisco State University, just graduated in May. Now he is heading to Columbia College Chicago for his MFA in poetry, on a full-tuition fellowship offered by the college as well as a coveted Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Fellowship. “I tell people I cook and I write,” Gray said. “Telling people the thing that you do makes more sense.”

Photo of Jan-Henry Gray

Jan-Henry Gray

He admits to taking a “pretty circuitous path” in his professional and academic life. Originally from the Philippines, Gray grew up in Southern California east of Los Angeles having to learn English. “The first two or three years were a complete blur,” he recalled. “I remember watching TV and being upset I couldn’t understand the cartoons. I think there’s something about having to learn a language and perfecting it and how not to sound like you’re learning it … that’s part of my obsession with language.”

In the mid-1990s, Gray started a two-year program at City College of San Francisco in hopes of transferring to the University of California, Berkeley as a junior. By that time he was working in restaurants and “balancing became impossible,” so by 1997 he had dropped out. Though Gray never went to culinary school, he banked on his background. He “comes from a cooking family,” he said, and his father also had worked in San Francisco restaurants.

Starting as a server, Gray made his way into the kitchen, working the line at popular destination eateries around the city -- such as Canteen (in Lower Nob Hill, now closed), Firefly on Noe Valley’s 24th Street (where he was chef de cuisine) and Pizzetta 211 in the Richmond, where the creative writer is still doing shifts. “In my 20s I thought I had a career as a chef and was not in school,” he remarked. “I was around 26 or 27 when I decided to go back kind of casually to school to revisit some of my interests.” These included film, Spanish and English courses at City College again. In fall 2011, when he didn’t get into Berkeley after all, he came to SF State. When looking through the majors available, he came across an option he found surprising: creative writing. “I didn’t know that was a major!” he said.

Like food, words were a mainstay for Gray: “I always wrote; even in high school I wrote poetry. It was always a part of me, just this thing that I did. It felt so incredibly natural, I kind of forgot how naturally it came.”

Motivated in particular by SF State lecturer Heather June Gibbons, a poet in her own right, Gray became interested in pursuing an MFA and began combing through various programs. “I know professors want to encourage students in a certain way,” he said, and yet the support he found at SF State still “felt like such a real compliment.”

Gray’s “commitment to investigating aspects of his identity as a queer, bilingual, Asian American immigrant certainly gives him plenty to write about,” Gibbons said. “He has an innate interest in complex lyric and narrative explorations,” and his poems are “teeming with fresh, vivid sensory detail and exhibit a willingness to take chances.”

As Gray narrowed down his list and sent out applications, he was nominated by the University for an award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is dedicated to helping exceptional students in financial need. The foundation’s Graduate Arts Award selects up to 20 recipients, and Gray’s award is the first time that an SF State alum has made the cut.

This distinction isn’t lost on Gray, for whom financial aid was not an option until the state’s Dream Act, he explained. “Before then, paying for tuition was always out of pocket.” While restaurant kitchens can be a grind, Gray never thought of giving up on school. “I always thought, why can’t you write at night or cook during the day, or the opposite?

“I can’t wait to go to Chicago. I love school, I love the classroom, I can’t get enough of it,” he said. “With the Jack Kent Cooke award, I still can’t really believe that I get to do that. I’m excited to go and write and write and write.”

-- Anthony Lazarus