Sharpening the Knife Blade

This book is more the work of a poet than a trained oral historian. My only real credentials for having written it were that I was native to its situation in nearly every way and had only to listen to hear my own world talking.

—Ronald Blythe, Akenfield

photo (7)

 

This quote from Ronald Blythe’s introduction to his seminal book Akenfield has been a mantra for me as I hammer away on this new manuscript surrounding the Los Gatos plane crash of 1948. In the same way Blythe’s book was heavily debated for its redefinition of oral history in the sixties, it’s possible that this book, All They Will Call You, sips from the same stream. At this point I have spent the better part of a year on the writing aspect of it and still have yet to put my finger on any one genre that it might be easily tethered to. I can hear my agent’s voice stressing to me, “What about plot? More plot!” Or a publisher cautioning, “We prefer there to be a clear distinction whether or not this is fiction or creative non-fiction.” Or my mentor’s voice saying, “Consider how the people who populate the book will receive it.” In the face of all this, there is a quiet hum in my skull whispering (dare I even say it) —hybrid.

At the start of working on this book, I had seriously considered that this might even turn out to be a collection of poetry, or even a long poem, taking its cue from Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony—aka poet as witness. I had been excited about the recent book by David Mason, Ludlow, where he uses narrative verse to retell the incident of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, including pieces of actual testimony, newspaper accounts and other formal documents. My project seemed very much along these lines, at least in the beginning. And in a similar way, Mark Nowak’s work in Coal Mountain Elementary, or C.D. Wright’s One With Others, further opened up the possibilities to me. I figured my project would lend itself to this curious genre that I have sometimes heard referred to as Documentary Poetics, or even Investigative Poetics, as Ed Sander’s deemed it. The idea of taking fragments of this “found language” and organizing it in a way that looks and acts more like poetry than prose was appealing to me, as someone who spent five years chasing two writing degrees with an emphasis in poetry. 

After a little more than three years of research now, I have amassed dozens of files and documents, and more than 100 hours of audio and video interviews with everyone, from eyewitnesses of the crash to the families of the victims, and the musicians who brought the song, Deportees, to light. Between this and the fact that I had spent more of my own money than I care to admit, and at least as many hours researching this single incident, I could not allow myself to succumb to the self-serving lure that, for me, is and always has been poetry. It’s just not how I approach writing. I began writing across genres, not because I had some preconceived path of what my career might look like, but in truth, because I was trying my best to allow the story or idea to dictate the form. Some folks can set out to write a novel, and they do. Some set out to write a poem, and they do. For me writing happens something akin to how Steinbeck describes collecting creatures from a tide pool in the opening of his book “Cannery Row.” There are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter to the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle. 

A story, or spurt of language, or lightening thought arises, and my job is to be a good listener and observer. Awareness is my knife blade, and I do my best to keep it sharp. Sometimes the creature arrives as a blob of language, without direction or rationale. Sometimes it starts out as a poem then morphs into a story, or vice-versa. Still, other times it starts as a song lyric then slowly winds its way back toward a straight narrative. If I pay attention, which is to say, once the idea has squirmed its way onto my knife blade, then with slow and calculated precision, I do my best to guide it into the bottle, unbroken. And this is my approach with All They Will Call You.

*   *   *

 

 

Happy 2014 to You and Yours!!

2013 has been a year that has changed my life forever. Magical and brutal. I learned far more than I taught. I recieved far more than I gave. For every highlight, many bruises. Each bruise a very real blessing. Looking forward to 2014, I gave myself only two concrete goals: 1) To find a permanent teaching position at a University. 2) Learn to let go. In truth, I worry about making any resolutions at all. This time last year I promised myself I would not fill my plate with so many projects and responsibilities, but looking back I realize how laughable that is. Here is a shortlist of some things I was involved with this past year:

1) Began an effort to raise $10,000 for a memorial headstone, which included letter writing and organizing a benefit concert
2) Released two books
3) Traveled to approximately 17 cities across the U.S. promoting both books
4) Facilitated approximately 22 interviews around the plane crash book project, including one fortunate interview with Pete Seeger (click here for archived blog post on this)
5) Attended Bea Franco’s funeral service only two weeks after she held a copy of Mañana Means Heaven in her hands (click here for archived blog post on this)
6) Met with the Woody Guthrie Center archivist regarding my research around the plane crash
7) Became a mentor for Prescott College’s low res MFA program
8) Wrote two grants to help fund this work (received none)
9) Taught poetry to local teens at Boulder High School
10) Wrote external reviews for three publishers
11) Transferred both of my children to a new school
12) Made a long overdue and vital reconnection with family
13) Found myself constantly asking, “How did I end up here?”

As the new year begins, I have been meditating on this photo. Mostly because it recently re-emerged in our family a few weeks ago. It was taken in the fields of Wyoming in 1974, the year I was born. I am on my father’s back while he and my mother are working. They were only 20 years old at the time. Neither had ever made it past the 9th grade. They were young and scared, but driven by fierce ambition. I like to think that while they were looking forward, into the future, I was there, bound to them, with my eyes on the past. And it only occurs to me now, as I write this, that maybe this is how I “ended up here.”

Peace to you all in this coming year. Let us continue the work of strengthening our ties, through art, dance, poetry, music, and the sharing of stories!

You can contact me at: tzhernandez@yahoo.com

All They Will Call You: An Excerpt

His home is tucked serenely within a dense green hillside just north of Manhattan. We ambled our way up the gravelly road to a clearing. A log cabin appeared, and next to it a house only slightly larger. All of it perched on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River. My good friend Anthony and myself stood there for several minutes before approaching the front door. After a few minutes Pete emerged and waved us over.     

“Tim Hernandez?” He asked, addressing Anthony.

“No, that’s Tim over there,” Anthony replied. He introduced himself and they shook hands.

I approached. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I said, to which Pete smiled and nodded.

His living room was an open space cluttered with all the details of a home that had been well lived-in for a few generations at least. Books were scattered on the dining table and shelved along the walls. Photos hung slightly eschewed, and in one corner hung an array of banjos and guitars. Large windows let in the natural light. It was almost noon, but the day was overcast. I sat down on a lounge chair and Pete took a seat across from me. Anthony stood near the kitchen table.

Three years after I first embarked on the search for the 28 passengers of the plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, who became known only as “Deportees,” there I was, sitting only a few feet away from the man who first launched that song into the world. A few days before I had jotted down two pages of questions, things I wanted to make sure I asked him, but in that moment it all went out the window. Something strange happens in those bare moments of clarity. It isn’t that I forget my notes. I’m aware of them, they’re usually in my shirt pocket. It’s that somehow those earlier thoughts, the minuscule agendas, are rendered meaningless when faced with the actual. Also, there’s a level of intuition that needs to be heeded. I trust that whatever I “need to know” in that instant will come on its own.

“I was just about to go chop wood,” Pete said.

“Need some help?”

He chuckled, then placed both of his hands on his kneecaps and leaned forward slightly, toward me. He was wearing a ball-cap, and his signature red turtleneck beneath a denim work shirt. He looked up at me with his grayish, green eyes, ready for my questions.

Just a few moments ago, while in the car on our way up here, Anthony had asked me if I was nervous. “I mean it’s Pete Seeger,” he said.

Before answering him I thought about it. “Yes I am,” I replied. “But I was more nervous when I first met Caritina Ramirez.”

“Who?”

“Caritina Ramirez. She was the ten-year old girl who lost her father, Ramon, in that plane crash.” And it was true. Meeting Caritina that first time, it felt like I was staring into the eyes of a child and breaking the news to her, as if for the first time, that her father was killed in a horrible accident.

Here I was now, thousands of miles away from the small oil town that is Coalinga, California. Further yet from Los Gatos Canyon. I turned my small digital recorder on and cleared my throat.

“Pete, in all the years that you’ve performed the Deportee song, did you ever once think that when you sang the words, Who are these friends all scattered like dry leaves…, it would actually be answered?”

* * *

In conversation, at the home of Pete Seeger.

In conversation, at the home of Pete Seeger. Photo credit, Anthony Cody

* * *

*This excerpt is only a draft.
It is from my book-in-progress, All They Will Call You…
Please do not use or quote without my permission.
Copyright Tim Z. Hernandez, 2013

To see the report done by ABCNews/ Univision Fusion TV click on this link

Mañana Means Heaven Blog Tour Kicks Off

Dear Friends,

The “Mañana Means Heaven Blog Tour” kicks off this Monday with a great interview by Kerouac scholar and author, Stephanie Nikolopoulos. Starting Monday, six different blog sights (see links below) will be posting interviews, excerpts, never before seen photos of Bea Franco, audio clips and other cool tidbits about the book over six days. This is an opportunity to learn more about Bea Franco, and get access to material that was not included in the book.

Manana Means Heaven Blog Tour:

Monday, September 16 | Stephanie Nikolopoulos, http://stephanienikolopoulos.com/blog/
Tuesday, September 17 | The Daily Beat, http://thedailybeatblog.blogspot.com/
Wednesday, September 18 | La Bloga, http://labloga.blogspot.com/
Thursday, September 19 | The Big Idea, http://www.jasonfmcdaniel.com/
Friday, September 20 | The Dan O’Brien Project http://thedanobrienproject.blogspot.com/
Saturday, September 21 | Impressions of a Reader http://www.impressionsofareader.com/

Book Tour & Readings

FYI, the east coast leg of the book tour begins as of next Wednesday, September 18 in Easthampton, Mass. After that I go to NY for the book release party at La Casa Azul Bookstore, and then on to the Brooklyn Book Festival. Please click here for all dates and details. Thanks again for supporting and I hope to see you at these events!

MMHBook Cover

Deportee Memorial Commemorative Print

As some of you may know, since the start of this research project on the 28 Mexican brothers and sisters who died in the plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon I have been working with videographer, Ken Leija, documenting every step of the way. Presently, we have nearly a hundred hours of video and audio interviews, photographs, footage and rare documents (which will eventually need to be archived). The result of this footage will be a documentary about the search, not only for the 32 people who died aboard the plane, but a search for the facts of what happened that fateful day. However, in order to see this to fruition we need appeal to you, the community. Along the way, visual artists have been critical in making all of this happen. It is in this spirit that we present you with our latest opportunity to help this story live on.

 

Jane Oriel Art

 

Bay Area visual artist, Jane Oriel, has created this one-of-a-kind print specifically to commemorate the memorial and benefit the documentary fundraising effort.  This “Deportee Memorial Limited Edition Print” is Hand Silkscreened on Arches 140 lb. paper. 19 ¾’ x 13’ with a deckled edge border, and includes a poem by me along with all 28 names of the Mexican passengers. Each print is signed and numbered. Costs are:

Numbers 100-21, $40

Numbers 20-1, $60

If you are interested in purchasing a print please contact me at tzhernandez@yahoo.com. *Shipping costs will be included if print is to be mailed. We will also have these for sale at the Dinner & Conversation on Sunday, Sept. 1, 5pm, Ole Frijole in Fresno. Thank you for supporting!

 

 

Bea Franco, “The Mexican Girl,” Dies at Age 92

Last Friday I received a phone call from Albert Franco (Bea’s son) telling me of the dismal news that his mother had passed away last Thursday morning. This comes exactly one week after she held a new copy of “Manana Means Heaven” in her warm hands, and allowed her daughter Patricia to snap some photos of her. One of which I posted on my Facebook account (see below). Needless to say, I was stunned at the news. We had been making plans to honor her at the upcoming book release event in Fresno, and she had been doing great health-wise in recent weeks. Over the weekend I pulled out the video footage of our interviews, which were done in late 2010, when I first found her, and I watched them. She still had her humor about her, and her warm smile was infectious. Especially as she told me the story of how in the early days of East Los Angeles, she wasn’t afraid to fight, and how she often defended her sister Angie from bullies. She laughed about those days. Bea also loved skittles. She often kept a bowl of them on her dining room table. Throughout our interviews she would sneak away to the back of the house to take a few puffs from a cigarette. She was 90 years old at the time. When I first told her that there were over twenty Kerouac biographies that had included her name, her reply was, “Why? My life wasn’t so special.” And then she’d chuckle. In viewing those videos, I see now just how lucky I am to have known her, even if only for a brief moment in time. During the years it took me to write “Manana Means Heaven,” as any writer will tell you, I lived with her in my mind and heart. And then sometimes I’d speak with her in person and she’d remind me, in her own unassuming way, that it was simply a small part of who she was, in a life that spanned nearly a century. On this melancholy occasion, I think of the curious way she signed off her letters, to Kerouac, to her husband and to her friends: “I REMAIN AS EVER, Bea”

Bea holding a copy of "Manana Means Heaven." August 9. (Copyright 2013, used with the permission of Bea's Estate)

Bea holding a copy of “Mañana Means Heaven.” August 9. (Copyright 2013, used with the permission of Bea’s Estate)

(October 13, 1920 – August 15, 2013)

The Memorial Headstone & Event

Hey friends, I thought you might like to see where your $10,000 are going! I’m so happy to report that the progress on the memorial ledger is now underway, and so many exciting developments are unfolding every day. Maybe some of you had a chance to finally meet Mr. Jaime Ramirez via the article that came out in the Los Angeles Times recently. His family’s story gets even more amazing and I can’t wait to share this with you in my book.

Below is a photo of me at the headstone that used to be at the gravesite, and below that is the foundation for the new headstone. You can see where they’ve imbedded the old headstone into the concrete, so that folks can see the history.

Right now the memorial event is being planned and I’ll be posting up a flyer-invitation very soon, but for now I can tell you that there’ll be a variety of music, ceremony, possibly some Aztec dancers, and of course, the unveiling of the beautifully finished memorial headstone. It’ll be both a time for contemplation and celebration.

Also, the day before the event, I’ll be hosting a rare opportunity for the community (YOU!) to share dinner and discussion with the circle of people who were directly involved in this historical incident. Guests will include the family of Frank & Bobbi Atkinson (the pilot and stewardess), the family and friends of Martin Hoffman  (the musician who composed the melody to the song we all know and love today), June Leigh Austin (daughter of the property owners and first responders), Deana McCloud (Executive of the Woody Guthrie Center), and the Ramirez-Paredes family (descendants of two of the Mexican passengers). Please email me directly for details.

Some of the media: The Los Angeles Times, Univision/ ABC, The Story with Dick Gordon on NPR, Telemundo, NPR Tell Me More with Michele Martin, The California Report (KQED), The Pilsen Portal, Tulsa World Newspaper, Univision/ Central Cal, KVPR Valley Public Radio, The Fresno Bee, The Victoria Advocate, and Vida En El Valle.

THE MEMORIAL EVENT: Monday September 2, 2013, 10 am, Holy Cross Cemetery, 2105 West Belmont Ave., Fresno, California 93728

Photos: Top Photo, Tim at old headstone, Bottom Photo, Credit: Lydia Z. Hernandez, 7/2013