2016, Year of Change, Year of Light

Hello Familia, for the past two years I’ve been dealing with some personal issues that have been extremely taxing, to put it mildly. For the few of you who know what I’m referring to, I cannot express enough how grateful I am for your friendship and support through this difficult period. At the end of 2015, I sat down and actually drew out a plan for how to change this in 2016. How I will work toward getting my light back, and re-focusing my mind, heart, and spirit on the things that feed my soul.

The news of the death of poet, Francisco X. Alarcón, struck me as both a tragic loss, and a kind of message. Francisco was/ is a pillar of California’s artist-activist community. I first met him in 1999, while I was working as muralist Juana Alicia’s apprentice in San

FullSizeRender-2

Francisco and Me, 1999

Francisco that year. Francisco and I were both attending a literary festival and happened to be staying at the same hotel. I saw him in the parking lot, and snapped this photo with him. I was 25 years old. Five years later, when my first book, Skin Tax, was published, I read with him and Los Escritores del Nuevo Sol at La Raza Galeria Posada in Sacramento. I’ll never forget his generous blessing that night. He told the audience that as this was my first book, I was now a “new poet-warrior,” and that they should all wish me well in my journey. He then asked the audience to turn to face me, as they chanted something–I can’t remember what it was–but he lit his copal and sage, and I just remember being brought to tears by the whole thing. Every step of my career, I’ve never forgotten this single moment. This offering by one of our greatest “poet warriors.” I think of him today, his spirit and generosity, as I begin to recalibrate my life.

IMG_8166

Rio Vista Bracero Processing Center, Socorro, TX

 

On this note, seems in good timing that I finally finished the manuscript for “All They Will Call You.” Yes, it’s done. I begin shopping it around for a publisher now! There’s been some interest already, but this is a strange and unpredictable business, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  In the meantime, I’m shifting my focus to the documentary. As I’ve posted about in the past, throughout the research I’ve had help documenting the interviews and gathering footage of my “field work,” as I searched for the passengers of the plane crash. I had originally started working on this as

IMG_1366

Filmmaker, Valentin Sandoval at work

a documentary back in 2012, but had a few major setbacks that required me to postpone that aspect of the project. I’ve since began working with a kick ass filmmaker, Valentin Sandoval, and Black Bird Concepts, based here in El Paso, and we already have a teaser we created to help raise funds to finish the project. I’ll post more about this in the weeks to come.

Beyond this, I’m also working on a libretto for my friends Jasmin and Omar, hands down one of central California’s most talented couple. Jasmin is a flamenco dancer, and Omar is a musician-composer-vocalist. This is a collaboration I’ve often dreamed of. Jasmin was once my daughter Rumi’s flamenco teacher. I used to think to myself, how awesome it would be to work with these two artists. Now I get to, and I’m deeply honored.

As I write this, I am starting the Spring semester here at UTEP, and I’m excited to be teaching a graduate course I’ve developed called “Gathering Stories: Turning Research Into Writing.” The students started emailing me a few weeks ago, already asking for the reading materials and expressing their excitement. It’s a blessing to be able to do what you love as a career. I am blessed. We all are. I hope you all find your light this year.

((((( om mani padme hum )))))

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Latest…

Crazy to see that last post back in August, declaring my book was “done!” when in fact, it still had a ways to go. Here’s some insight to a writer’s process (not that you asked). What happened was, after I printed the whole manuscript out, and then sat with it for a few weeks, I had to ask myself one FINAL question, before attempting to find a publisher: “Is this the BEST possible way to tell this story?” It was a question about structure.

After much contemplation, mostly listening to my gut instinct, something in me didn’t sit right. I tried shaking it off, but right away, I knew that this was a sure sign that I needed to delve back in. My head didn’t want to go back into the work and re-envision any of it, but my body, my heart, my gut, knew I wasn’t satisfied. I recalled the time back in 1999, when I was apprenticing on a fresco mural at the San Francisco International Airport with the artist Juana Alicia. There were often times where she and I had spent the better part of a week working on specific sections of the design, only to end up tearing it out (because in fresco you are painting into marble plaster, so there is no easy fix but to tear it out) and starting all over again. Each time she would climb down the scaffold and stand back to have a look at the work my gut would turn, fearing she’d be unsatisfied and we’d have to tear it out and start over. But she taught me something. Something about following our instinct as artists. And something about mastery and discipline. So, I’ve spent the last four months restructuring the narrative, and I have to say, I’m much happier with the results. I just printed out the latest hard copy of the manuscript this morning!! After one last round of revisions, if all goes as planned, I should begin to seek a publisher by late January.

In other news…a couple of weeks ago, I heard from a staff member of Democratic Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley. She contacted me to let me know that the Presidential hopeful was releasing a video of himself singing the Woody Guthrie/ Martin Hoffman song, Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees), and that they would be crediting my research in the video. You can see that video here. While I’m not endorsing any candidate just yet (waiting to see how things play out), I see this as perhaps an endorsement of my research. No doubt my book and its subject are timely in regards to all the “immigration talk” we hear today, but I see this specific story as an opportunity to shed light on the aspect that often goes overlooked among this rhetoric– the human element, which is to say, our stories. All our stories.

Have a great holiday everyone, and whatever you and your family celebrate, celebrate with gusto y mucho amor!!

 

Update on the Book & Research

Hello Friends,

First, let me apologize for not posting any updates over the past five months. After coming off of my research trip to central Mexico in January of this year, I immediately went to work on the manuscript, fired up by the many stories and beautiful people I met in places like Charco de Pantoja, Jocotepec, Nochistlan, San Julian, Guadalajara, and San Miguel de Allende, and many others. This summer I taught a course at UTEP, moved from one house to another (yet again), and put everything into finishing my manuscript, “All They Will Call You.”

I’m excited to let you know that it is finished, and it is currently in my agent’s hands. Barring a few more tweaks or touch ups, we should be seeking a publisher for it as of late September. As for my feelings about this book…to be perfectly honest, it has turned out to be nothing like I expected, and yet, everything I’ve been working toward since I began pursuing the arts seriously over 20 years ago. Family and friends who have known me since I was a teen, know that at various times in my life I dedicated myself to different art forms. From H.S. through early College I was pursuing the visual arts/ murals vigorously. Since the mid 90’s, when I was doing Spoken Word and Performance Art, I began collaborating with musicians in jazz, rock, classical, hip-hop, and reggae. In the early 2000’s I worked with the state affiliate for the National Endowment for the Humanities in California, where my job was to travel central California and listen to people’s stories. And in these last 11 years, the trajectory of my written work has included poetry, short fiction, historical fiction, playwriting, and oral history.

“All They Will Call You” is a narrative woven of these very elements. Drawn mostly from original recorded testimonies, investigative research, official records, and ephemera, it also includes strong threads of musicology, poetry, historical fiction, and ekphrastic (writing based on a visual element; art or photography). My goal was to make a book that was as close to the multi-media experience of this subject–but in text. No other book I’ve written has allowed me to spread my wings like this one, but also, no other book has been more challenging. I’m equal parts excited and frightened. Which is a good place to be as an artist/ human—a space of total possibility. I look forward to keeping you updated….

FullSizeRender

Woodshed: A Summer Update

Woody Guthrie Fest moments before I go on to read the names

Woody Guthrie Fest moments before I go on stage to read the names

 

“Woodshed,” or “Woodshedding.” This is what my good friend, and musical collaborator, Carlos Rodriguez, calls it whenever he decides to hunker down in his home studio and do the work. And what’s the work? For Carlos, it’s making great music. For me, the work has been as follows: Moving our life from Colorado to Texas, settling into our new home in El Paso, continuing the research for missing families, getting into a writing rhythm on the book, preparing my kids for school, writing a few blurbs and Introductions for other books, and getting my own courses prepared for this coming semester. Oh, but I did get to attend the Woody Guthrie Festival in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. I presented my research there to a packed room, and got to stand on stage with Will Kaufman (author of American Radical), while he sang Deportees, and collaborate with David Amram (two highlights of my time there). I had a great lengthy conversation backstage with Arlo Guthrie too, and of course, hanging with all the other musicians there was an incredible experience (thanks Joel & Lauren Rafael!). But beyond that, this summer has been spent mostly “Woodshedding.” The good news is that I now have my own home writing space (Woodshed I), and a new campus office (Woodshed II). So there should be no excuses why I can’t finish my book by the self-imposed deadline of December 10th.

On stage with Will Kaufman and Carlos Rodriguez

On stage with Will Kaufman and Carlos Rodriguez

 

Carlos and I with David Amram outside our hotel

Carlos and I with David Amram outside our hotel

Which brings me to the next subject. In approximately two weeks, I’ll launch a fundraising campaign that is aimed at helping me complete the research portion of this work on the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos. I’ll post the links to that here, so please keep an eye out, and also, spread the news! I still have files for families I’m trying to reach, whom I’ll need to interview, on video and audio, as I’ve done with all of this work. The move has taken a serious toll on my own finances. Up until now, I have funded all of this research on my own dime. With one exception, my friend and awesome bay artist Jane Oriel, helped by creating limited edition prints that I was able to sell to assist with some of the early costs. (Thank you Jane!!) Otherwise it’s all been a labor of love for me. Since the beginning I’ve felt this was such a worthy cause, and this is truly why I’ve never hesitated to do whatever it takes to see this work to the end. My plan is to make all of my research archives accessible to the public once my book is done, so that all future scholars, students, or community folks can access this history. The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK have already expressed interest in housing it there, among Woody’s archives. Wouldn’t this be nice? On the other hand, a part of me would like to see it remain in the central valley, so that folks have to go there, where it all took place, to get this history. I guess all this is yet to be worked out, but for now, please keep an eye out for the fundraising campaign.

On a final note, as I prepare to teach my first course, “Antropoesia: The Poet as Ethnographer,” at the University of Texas El Paso this fall, I can’t help but feel excited about the many omissions in history that, collectively, we have yet to unearth. The more we share these stories, word-of-mouth, books, etc…the more we find commonalities with each other, aka community building. In the meantime, know that I’ll be working diligently on the book, and that I look forward to reading in your city, town, University this fall.

It Calls You Back…

El Paso greetings

To Share With Future Voices

I remember the exact day my intentions turned toward becoming a writer. It was May 18, 1995—the day a beloved uncle was shot and killed by the police. Until that moment my only desire was to be a visual artist. Wasn’t much of a book person. But seeing the way my family responded to this incident, the way they were rendered silent by it, despite the agony and injustice of how he died, is what prompted me to say something, to find the words, in essence, discover my voice. I knew right then that I wanted to master language. And yet, what was initially born from anger, would over a period of more than a decade, become an instrument firmly rooted in love. This transformation would’ve been impossible without the generosity and tutelage of many beautiful people whom I’ve had the privilege of calling my teachers, in the broadest definition. With them in mind, I had hoped to one day have that same impact on students. To share with future voices what my teachers shared with me: the possibilities, the tools, the resilience, the pitfalls, the audacity, the vulnerabilities, the intellect, and stories—all the intricacies of what it takes to become a writer of books, a story gatherer, a witness, an innovator, and a voice.

The Southwest Calling…

Since I was a child my family used to take us on road trips to see our relatives in Deming and Las Cruces, New Mexico, and then all the spaces from El Paso all the way down to the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Along the way we would stop at towns like Silver City, or Socorro, to see the landmarks of my family’s history: My great-grandparents crumbling adobe house on the border town of Columbus, which is still there, the girl’s home my mother was sent to as a teenager, the desert cemetery where uncle Humberto, only 3 years old when he died, is buried in an unmarked grave, the quiet roadside off the I-10 where my aunt Tilly was killed on her bicycle. These, no doubt, are the early stories that would nurture my love and appreciation for the desert, that broad expanse between New Mexico and Texas that I have come to feel such a kinship with over the years. Never once during these road trips did I imagine I would ever be presented with the opportunity to live here. Much less, that it would be this very terrain where the fruition of a dream, years in the making, would manifest. But as fate would have it, this is exactly the case.

The University of Texas El Paso

It is for these reasons, and numerous others, that I have officially accepted a position as Assistant Professor with the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program. A dream long in the making has arrived, and needless to say, my family and I are beside ourselves. To be part of an established legacy of writers, artists and activists who have led the way for generations in this part of the world, and on a team/ faculty of writers whose own work I have admired for so long, is far more than anything I could have hoped for. The position begins this Fall, so my family and I will be moving the shell to El Paso over the summer…but more on that later. For now, I thought I’d share this exciting news with you all.

Here is a small sampling of a few of my esteemed UTEP colleagues!!

Here is a small sampling of a few of the publications by my esteemed UTEP colleagues!!

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.

*   *   *

 

 

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