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.

*   *   *

 

 

Advertisements

Contact Tim Hernandez: tzhernandez@yahoo.com or 303-437-9435

UNIVISION & HISTORY MAKING

If you watched part 1, part 2, or part 3 of Univision’s Special Report “Tragedia Sin Nombre,” and then you found yourself sharing the story with others, then you are making history. If you are reading the Tulsa World article or listening to the California Report, or NPR’s Tell Me More, and then you turn around and mention this story to a friend, you are making history. If you are a teacher using this story to illustrate a subject or point in the classroom, you too are making history. The more we share this story the more it becomes an irremovable thread in our collective experience. Please share far and wide. My hope is that my book spills far out, off the pages and into the streets, kitchens, classrooms, road trips and intimate spaces, wherever there is a discussion about what it means to be human.

Lance Canales and myself, the memorial benefit concert, April 18, 2013

Lance Canales and myself, the memorial benefit concert, Fresno, California, April 18, 2013

NOTES ON PROCESS OF “ALL THEY WILL CALL YOU” THE BOOK

One of my earliest mentors once told me that in order to find a poem we must live in the “non-poem.” In other words, those little spaces, rhythms, failures, joys and triumphs, the stuff our lives are made up of is where we find poetry and stories. But we have to be in it, really in it. Makes sense, right? But I can’t tell you how easy it’s been for me to forget this simple truth lately. As I dive headlong into the writing of my Deportees book, people too easily become characters, lived stories sway to and away from fact, letters to loved ones read more like narrative peaks and valleys, such to the point that I frequently catch myself digging out a photograph from my research files, just to prove to myself that I didn’t make up the image in my mind’s eye. That it does, in fact, exist. This is a whole new realm for me. For the past 15 years that I’ve been writing seriously, I’ve grown accustomed to generating material from my own creative impulses, my own slippery ideas and fancy distortions. This time, for this piece, I’ve resigned myself to the role of witness. Just as this is a book of witnesses. What the children on the ground who lived in that Canyon witnessed. What the prisoners who got their hands dirty that morning witnessed. What the media witnessed. What the landscape itself witnessed. The mountain range, and the airplane, what they witnessed. What Woody and Martin, and those closest to them witnessed. What we are now witnessing. For the last two and a half years I’ve carried around a small, very small, digital recorder. So a lot of this process has been transcription. Also, some of what the Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal dubbed Documentary-poems, or Docu-poems, have been employed here. I guess Kerouac referred to a similar process he called “sketch-writing, or sketching.” Something like chronicling the found language and images as objectively as possible, quick and without too much thought. Free of all “fancy distortions.” Or in the words of Steinbeck, free of “my own authorial warp.” I’ve even dipped back into Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art,” because I see this approach to writing somewhat in line with his concept of “non-aggression,” or rather, a “non-aggressive art,” as in “all things a symbol of themselves.” I remember taking a workshop with Ruben Martinez, author of “El Otro Lado” way back in 1996, and he said something along the lines of “If you write about things as they are the metaphors are already there.” He might’ve been more poetic than that, I’m sure. But here I am now, doing my best to allow these voices, 65 years later, to speak on their own accord. And I cannot express to you how fantastic, challenging, and yet frightening this whole process is. As of right now, the book is shaping up to look like a textual documentary; language, interviews, photos and letters. I’ll try and post a few excerpts down the road.

The First Draft: Bennington College

On the cusp of the New Year I can’t help but feel excited that 2013 will finally see the publication of my novel, Mañana Means Heaven. For this reason I went back and found one of the first journal entries I wrote as I was about to embark on this project.

First, I need to set it up by mentioning it was sometime in 2008, after I had already been quietly contemplating the idea for this book project on Bea Franco for over a year, that I decided to return to college to get my MFA in Writing & Literature. It was at the urging of two close friends of mine—the brilliant and fearless memoirist Irene Vilar, who wrote The Ladies Gallery, (about her grandmother Lolita Lebron who shot up the U.S. House of Senate in 1956 in the name of Puerto Rico’s liberation), and her equally brilliant husband, Daniel Grandbois, whose book Unlucky Lucky Tales was recently released by Texas Tech University Press—that I decided to attend the Bennington College Writing Seminars in Vermont. They had both attended there. In fact, without my knowing it was Irene who made the initial contact on my behalf, so you can imagine how surprised I was when out of the blue I got a call from Bennington College explaining to me the admissions process. I enrolled and for the next two years I would return to that campus—ten days in June and ten in January—and use that solitary time in those lush green and often snowy mountains to write.

Knowing I would have to fly from California (and later Colorado) out to that part of the country every six months, I decided to time my visits to the New York Public Library accordingly. I would go a few days in advance to spend time at the Kerouac archives, before taking a train up to my residency. Thankfully my good friend Jason Mc Daniel lived in New York and was able to put me up, not to mention, later actually transcribe some of Bea’s letters for me.

As a father of 3 children, writing at home is almost impossible, to put it lightly. It typically means having to wait until the kids are asleep and using the time between 9 pm and 1 am to get any work done. So for me each residency at Bennington meant I had approximately 240 hours (24 hours per day x 10 days, give or take a few hours a day for lectures and workshops) of precious and vital alone time to write. A large portion of the first draft of my book was written while at Bennington, an experience I’ll always be grateful for. It’s funny now, looking back at this entry, thinking I had it all planned out so perfectly, unaware of how many twists and turns lay ahead of me.  Below is the entry I wrote in my journal during that first residency.  Please note that it may have typos, as I didn’t edit it, just plopped it from my file onto this here post.

______

June 13, 2009, Bennington College

What an idiot I’ve been to have waited so long to get serious about this book. Don’t know what it is for sure about wanting to do the research more than the creative impulse of writing. Research is like a vortex, an addiction, hard to kick. I looked back at my earlier journal entries, all the research and talks I’ve had with other writers and I see that it’s been at least ten months since I wrote, “THE BOOK STARTS NOW!” To think if I had written at least five pages per week by four weeks each month would come out to 20 pages per month, which would mean I’d have around 200 pages typed by now. And this doesn’t include the longer riffs I know I would’ve written just by sitting down and doing the work. Fuck, I really need to FOCUS! The other books are screaming for my attention too, but I feel like I can’t get serious about either of those until I’m done here. I’ve been living with this story in my mind’s eye and in my day to day thoughts and a part of me says I need to write at least the first draft while still living in the central valley. That should be justification enough to leave the other two books alone for now. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the valley either, it’s possible we’ll be gone by next summer, back in Colorado by then. And if I’m going to leave by next summer I’ll have to have written at least the first draft by next May. Wait. May is plenty of time, too much time actually. That’s eleven whole months to write the first draft. No, I’ll give myself until my birthday, February 16 to write the first draft. Yeah, that’s still eight whole months away. And this can’t be/ shouldn’t be no measly little draft either, no, this one has to go the distance. At least, the first draft. Fuck audience, forget about all that, just a long inspired thread of all the things I know and have dug up in these past two years of envisioning the whole scenario. The first draft will be me putting down all of the colors of my palette, and all the tools that I pull from will go down into this first draft too. The first draft should have three versions for every description and image, for every scenario, so that I have three at least to choose from by the time I’m done. And then I’ll come back around with the second draft, and this will be mostly about chopping back, about selecting the gems from each page, each line, and throwing out the rest, the useless images and rants that I’ll include in the first draft. Yes, the first draft will be for me and my eyes only and truly. The second draft is where I’ll begin to shape the story. The first draft will be the flaccid flesh of the story, the casing. The second draft will be the bones, the framework that begins to hold up the body. It will also be where I begin to put some order to the chapters, order to the whole composition. This second draft will also include more accuracy, but not much, this wont be my concern so much, but at least some. The second draft will take me from February until June, five months, yes! That’s enough time. Perfect in fact. Right around the time of my June residency here. And then, if I can bare it, I’ll take at least a month away from looking at the work. I’ll print it out and stow it away somewhere, somewhere out of reach. I wont do anything else this month on it. No peeking or writing or journal entries about it either. A clean break. I’ll try my best to get as far away from the work as possible, so that when I return to it, it will appear fresh and brand new to my mind and thus I can look at it from that perspective. Maybe I can get to the other books at this time. After the month is up the third draft will happen. This should be around August. And then the third draft will be the FIRST REAL DRAFT! Here is where I’ll tighten up the language and begin to look for words and phrases and moments that would be more consistent with the time period. Make sure every single word uttered sounds like it would be uttered in that time from that specific person. Make sure all of my references are authentic and true to the era as possible. I will begin to look for images too, to include in my final manuscript. Images of what? Why the need for images? Images that will lend to the overall mood of the story, to the period itself. So, they could be images of an old hotel in Fresno or in downtown L.A., something that looks like where Bea and Jack might’ve stayed. Images of old “Mextown” L.A. or images of the tent city in Selma, the Palomar Club in Fresno, Chinatown, or other such images that will echo the story and mood of this time and place and people. The third draft will also include the actual letters of Bea Franco at the end, after the epilogue. They will also include small captions at the bottom explaining what they are, when they were written, and by whom. The third draft will take me 2-3 months to complete, which means I should have this done by fall, around say, October. In the interim, I will have stashed it away once more for at least a month if not two months, and then in January I’ll return to it for one last glazing over. This fourth and final glazing over will be purely to catch any regrets, so that later I can’t say to myself, Well damn, if I had at least one more chance to go through it….blah blah blah. It should be done around the time I graduate. It’ll be my best attempt. In the end, that’s all I can try for.