Thursday, January 8, 2009

Benjamin Alire Sáenz: Meditations on Writing

Here at Cinco Puntos Press we’ve always said that independent publishing, like writing, is an act of self-discovery. We’ve evolved into what we are today because we live and work in El Paso, on the U.S./Mexico Border. And we believe that El Paso, at least on the U.S. side of the border, is the cultural and intellectual center of the border center. (We'll let our friends in Juárez and Tijuana argue about the other side.)

Our good friend and CPP author Benjamin Alire Sáenz exemplifies this idea. He was born in the little community of Picacho, NM, just outside of Las Cruces, which is just 40 miles up I-10 from here. He grew up, like most Mexican-American kids in the border region, in a very Mexican, very Catholic, working-class household that had strong roots in a rural culture. And he grew up speaking Spanish, although as time passed, English became his dominant language. He studied at UTEP, at Iowa and at Stanford, where he worked closely with Denise Levertov, but he returned to the border to live. Ben now teaches in the Bilingual Creative Writing Program at UTEP.

I want to emphasize that with his many accomplishments as a poet, novelist and children’s author, he could teach and live most anywhere in the country, but he chose to live in El Paso. La frontera, he will tell you, is essential to his understanding of the world. He, like those of us at Cinco Puntos Press, believes the border experience, with all of its turbulence and uncertainty, offers a specific and essential vision to American letters. We are truly in the “American grain,” as William Carlos Williams would say. And I want to emphasize here, when I use the word “American,” I am not only speaking of the United States but of all of the Americas.

In September of last year Ben gave the Saturday keynote address at the REFORMA Conference that had their conference here in El Paso. Ben took that opportunity to talk about “The Writer’s Life,” and because of the speech's relevance to our life here on the U.S./Mexico Border, I asked him if I could publish the talk in its entirety on our blog. He agreed. I’ve already pasted a short video of Ben delivering the last two sections of his speech, so I thought it would be nice to paste instead here Ben reading a poem. We recorded the poem yesterday. Ben was over at our offices. He and Lee are in crucial process of editing Ben’s new young adult novel, Last Night I Sang to the Monster. (We’re proud to be publishing this book. It’s a powerful book and will be unusual for the young adult market. Pub date is tentatively set for August 2009.) The poem is from his collection Elegies in Blue (Cinco Puntos, 2002) and it’s called “The Boy Falls in Love with Beginnings.” The recording is a little over three minutes long. Do yourself a favor. You’ll very much enjoy his performance.

Being able to do this recording yesterday was a true pleasure, one of those experiences that make me so happy to be a publisher. Especially here in El Paso.
—Bobby Byrd





Meditations on Writing: A Novena
—Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Copyright © 2008


The First Meditation: The Facts of the Matter

Fact number one: I have been writing most of my life. Fact number two: much of my writing has had nothing to do with publishing. Fact number three: I am forty-six years old.

Facts number four, five, six, seven and eight (and some editorial remarks): I was thirty-one when I published my first poem, thirty-two when I published my first story, thirty-seven when I published my first book of poems. Since then, my career has had its ups downs. I've had my share of successes and my share of disappointments. I've had my share of rejections, and had my share of vacuous reviews (I dont say bad reviews, I say vacuous reviews—even a good review can be vacuous). I have been fortunate enough to have published a book of short stories, four books of poems (another on the way), six novels, and three bi-lingual childrens books. My writing has garnered some national awards and though I am suspicious of those things (and hope to remain so), I have always been grateful for the recognition. My mother taught me to say thank you when someone gave me a compliment. Actually, she taught me to say, “Gracias.”

Now that Ive arrived at being a writer, I sometimes wonder what that arrival means. When did that particular identity come into being? I have only been a published writer for a little over fifteen years. But I have been a writer for a much longer time than that. What does a writer make of all the writing he did before he was pub¬lished? How do I go about paying homage to the thirty or so years that I went un-published? These are questions I turn over and over in my mind. I write the questions down on the page. I stare at the questions in the same way I used to stare at candles at Mass. Watching the flames, wondering about the word, “fire.”

It took a million years to discover fire. How many years before we gave it a name?

The Second Meditation: On Painting

I once wanted to be a painter. I still paint, and have become a better painter than I though I'd ever be (which may be no great claim). I get a great deal of pleasure from stretching a canvas, curing it, then painting on the surface. Painting, like writing, is an act of creating a fiction. It is also an act of mental seduction. You seduce people into entering a world. But painting, for me, is more for pleasure than for anything else (as if pleasure wasn't the best of reasons). Once, when I was in need of money (I have had many such moments in my life), I sold a painting. The person who bought it, asked me how long it had taken me to finish that particular piece. I’d spent a weekend immersed in my labor. “Two and half days,” I said. “Two and a half days?” he repeated. I suppose I looked at him and nodded in that self-satisfied arrogance that only artists (and writers) are capable of. He seemed to be utterly impressed by the fact that I'd painted it so quickly—as if it were a testament to talent. I was only too happy to play along with the whole charade. The truth of the matter was that it took a much longer time to finish the work I'd just sold him. I'd had countless failed attempts. I'd spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars on art supplies, paints, pastels, brushes, paper, pencils, canvases. I'd spent hours upon hours over the years trying to make my hands obey the orders my stubborn eyes were giving them. Perhaps, a more accurate answer would have been: “Several years.” In fact, it did take me several years—several years to teach myself something about this thing called “art.” Several years of studying, watching, looking at other peoples work. Several years of studying color and forms and techniques, several years of studying art books and looking at statues and watching the light hit the wall and staring at paintings in museums and studying trees and stones and faces I loved. I'd spent years trying to make myself into an artist. Years and years. And countless hours. Who knows how many hours?
I should've charged more for that painting.

The Third Meditation: Evolution

We like to measure. If we measure the size of the box, we think we have an insight into boxes. We like simple answers. As if the simple answers give us insights into the cruel and complex and utterly baffling world we live in. We like to think that everything can be quantified (perhaps our way of taming what cannot be tamed). Measuring has become our obsession. We teach students to pass standardized tests—and when they pass those tests, we call them educated (regardless of what they have or have not accomplished, regardless of what they have or have not earned or learned or understood). We measure a movie by how many people have paid to see it—and when a million people have seen it, we elevate the movie to a special status. We measure art by how much it costs and by what gallery displays it on its walls.

We measure poets by the awards theyve won, by the number of books theyve published, by the presses whove published them, by the critics whove championed their work, by the agents whove sought them out. We measure the success of a novel by how many copies it has sold or by the reviews it has received (and what magazines deemed it worthy of notice). We have come to value the tools of measurement more than what is being measured. The tail is more important than the dog.

This is evolution.

The Fourth Meditation: Therapy

I think, now, that I gave up the thought of painting as a career because I knew I'd never be good enough. I didnt have what it took. Desperate to find a new career at thirty, and not wanting to immerse myself in the romantic tradition of being a starving artist, I turned to something else. I turned to writing. (Writing!) Perhaps the odds werent on my side—but they never were. I can do this. That's what I told myself. That's what I had to tell myself. I can do this. When I started, all I had was instinct. I had to rely on something other than a “publication record” since I had none. I had no résumé. But I had written many things. And I had been success¬ful at it. In grade school, in junior high, in high school, in college, in graduate school, I had been able to express myself in writing accurately and successfully (but never, I think, succinctly). I was often praised for my hard work. But writing was never hard—not for me. Not hard like other people found it hard. I was the most unusual of birds—the kind of bird that liked to stay home and write. It was my version of flying. I enjoyed it so much that I eventually turned to writing poems. I will confess that the poems were awful. They were beyond awful. Awful as they were, I spent hours working on them, completely lost in the process. That fact that they were awful didnt matter a damn. I wasnt measuring a final product. I was learning a new language. I was an awkward speaker. But God, the words! They were so new. I was a boy again. I was charmed, delighted, seduced—and I was learning the first rule: discipline. There I was, writing bad poems for the sheer pleasure of it. Imagine! Imagine writing a poem for the pleasure of it. Imagine me a lawyer. Imagine a friend of mine calling me up on a weekend and asking me what I was doing. Imagine me answering, “I'm writing a poem.” Imagine his response. “What for?” Imagine me scrambling for an accept¬able answer: “Therapy.”

The Fifth Meditation: Labor at the Beginning of the Century

Perhaps, in the back of my mind, I thought I might one day turn to writing as a career. Making money—there was a thought. Well, it didnt have to be a lot of money. But really, it wasnt about money—it was about what Catholics called finding a “vocation.” (I'd lost one already. I was looking for another). Vocation. From the Latin, vocare, to call. Maybe, in the back of my mind, I thought I might be called to be a writer. But even if I had a calling, I still needed a career. Vocations soothe the heart, careers pay the rent. Still, I needed no license to write. Does anyone need a license to write? Like undocumented workers, do we need papers?

By the time I started to write “seriously” I had abandoned two novels, written countless poems and had written a few short stories. It was, as I have already mentioned, awful stuff. “Bloody awful” as the English would have it. “Un desmadre” as some Chicanos would editorialize over a beer. But, as I said, I loved that labor. It was the labor that mattered, the hours spent creating some¬thing. So few things can make time seem so insignificant. A loved labor renders time virtually meaningless—if only for that moment. Such a priceless thing, to lose track of the passing hours.

After much reflection, I've reached the conclusion that my early work remains as important as any work I have ever published. I do not believe I should cheapen the work I did previous to being published. On the contrary, I have come to realize the crucial role those years played in the evolution of my writing. It was the foundation my house was built on. (It may not be a big house, but it is a house). I have come to honor those years, those “beyond awful” poems, those feeble attempts at stories, those awkward conversations between those thin and stiff fictional characters, those mixed and strained metaphors, those plots that lacked drama or resembled the overwritten purple prose of Margaret Mitchell. (Are we allowed to criticize that awful book she wrote?)

My published work is not more real nor is it worth more than my unpublished work. That seems so simple and so obvious to me now. Its taken me years to arrive at this small insight. I've had to unlearn so many bad habits along the way (I even quit smoking.) I no longer believe that publication is the only meaningful way to measure what Ive written. Writer, in our day and age, has come to mean “published writer.” The more publications we have, the more “real” we are. If we do not publish, we perish. But such an attitude diminishes what we actually do (and discourages people from engaging in a craft that can keep a sharp mind in good working order. Shouldnt we be concerned with the life of the mind?) What about the material fact of a writers labor? Does the labor matter less because it is invisible to most people? Most of what I write is never seen. Even when I go public with a poem or a story or a novel, much of the writing that lies behind the work remains invisible. How many drafts? How many walks thinking and thinking, re-writing in my head? How many sleepless nights? How many failures? How many wrong turns just to find your way to where you wanted to go? I, like most people, have been taught to value the final product. The final version. The point of arrival. We give lip service to the process, to the journey, to the “neces¬sary” rough drafts. In fact, we devalue that work. We do not honor it. Unfortunately, we have come to value products and careers over craft, over insight, over depth. But in so doing, we contribute to the shallow discourses of the world. In so doing, we also abandon what we are called to do. We choose products over labor. We choose the glossy phrase over the hard earned insight—the insight that only comes with time and struggle and self-doubt. In the end, we choose careers over vocations. We pay the rent. And well we should. But what about the muscle of the mind that wants to go beyond the borders we have set for it? A human being should be more than a copy machine. Never mind, just pay the rent.

Ah, but all of this obsession with success and careers is perhaps inevitable in the early part of the twenty-first century where receiv¬ing notoriety, making money, and chasing critical acclaim matter more than the struggles of the human heart—the human heart that makes the world we live in hurt and beat and hum. The human heart that makes the cruelties of the world bearable. It is the laboring heart and the laboring body that it resides in that really matters. But the politics of consumption has cheapened labor and debased the laborer. How can we possibly look at writing as labor? Oh, God, bringing class into writing.

The Sixth Meditation: Cocktail Talk

Even now, when I meet people, and they ask me what I do, more often than not, I tell them I am a professor. This happens to be true. I am a professor. (But teaching and writing are two different arts and they are not at all necessari¬ly related. Spending time in front of a computer pounding out a novel requires an entirely different set of skills than standing up in front of twenty-five aspiring writers.)

On those rare occasions that Im feeling brave (or very cocky) I venture to out myself as a writer. The first question to pop out of my new acquaintances mouth is: “What have you published?” There is always a challenge in the question, a challenge that says: If you're a writer, how come I've never heard of you?--as if most people in our culture recognized writers in the same way they recognized Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. I answer the question, sometimes graciously, sometimes not. But I resent having to list my work as a kind of oral resume as if to prove that I am a real writer simply because “literary editors” have given me their imprimatur. In the words of my first agent, “publishing is like spinning the dradle.” In our day and age, publishing is about making money, not about publishing good books (though miraculously good books are still being published). If we are, at times, members of “the elect,” we ought to at least distance ourselves from the gods of an industry that reduces a writer's words into a speculative investment.

Who's your publisher? Who's your agent?
Life, unfortunately, can be as shallow as a cocktail party. Nobody asks what youre writing about (unless of course, you can give a two minute synopsis over a glass of cheap chardonnay—in which case people consider you brilliant). I have to keep telling myself that cocktail parties aren't intended to gift the participants with intellectual stimulation.

The Seventh Meditation: Notoriety

Its much too easy (and disingenuous) for published writers to claim that publica¬tions dont matter. Of course, publications matter. I dont know of one self-respecting writer who doesnt work toward being published. That is the goal. But I can't believe it is the only goal. I can't bring myself to believe that writing is primarily about publishing. Writing has to have another center. Writing has to have a heart. Something is terribly wrong if the heart of writing resides primari¬ly in receiving notoriety. (The irony here, of course, is that “famous writer” in America is something of an oxymoron—unless, of course, you consider exhibitionist movie stars writing about their affairs to be “writers”). When writing begs to ingratiate itself to the reader for the sake of a shallow populism—then I not only question the motives of the writer, I question the writing itself. If the only goal of writing becomes publication, then we are lost.

I have had too many students who are ambitious for fame or fortune. Preferably both. I once had a student hold up my first novel, overly impressed with the blurbs on the jacket. “I want to be where you are,” he said. “I want to break into print.” And then he added, “within the next two years.” It took me seven years to finish my first novel. Almost eight. Eight years. In the interim, I shelved books in libraries, wrote, worked on a Ph.D. (which I never quite managed to complete, waited tables, wrote, delivered baked goods at five in the morning, wrote, chain-smoked an endless amount of cigarettes (think of all that money), abandoned the novel, worried, finished a previously abandoned collection of short stories that got published in a small press that immediately went broke, walked, worried, returned to the novel, wrote, abandoned the novel yet again and cursed it and cursed myself while I was at it, wrote another book of poems that would not be published for several years, went back to the novel and asked it for forgiveness, got a job as a professor (a job!) and finally, finished the novel. Ahh, whatever happened to straight and narrow roads. I wanted to ask my student what he was willing to go through just for a shot at being published. No guarantees. Just a shot.

It's easy to romanticize about the glamorous life of a writer. Fame is something we are taught to desire. Normalcy, or something approaching it, is something unworthy of the gifted individual. Gifted individuals are above living normal lives. In fact they disdain the pedestrian existence of the masses. (Here, I will confess to having an affair with pedestrian tasks. I love to walk the dog, enjoy washing the dishes and making the bed and working out in the yard. I think of growing a good tomato as a worthwhile endeavor, and I have always reveled in walking the aisles of the local grocery store. Especially, I love to wander through the tool section of Home Depot. God help me, I desire miter saws and drills).

Students think and want the writer's life to be something special, something extraordinary. Students want to believe that the writers life is blessed—free of the mundane and pedestrian realities normal people are forced to suffer and endure. They imagine a writers life resembles (or ought to resemble) the lives of the celebrities they are addicted to reading about in those beautiful (if shallow) magazines that cost almost as much as a book of poems. I dont find this attitude the least bit surprising when I consider the cultural milieu in which we live. We are residents of a world that measures everything by standards of notoriety and wealth. This makes me sad. I was once at a reading when two writers shared the stage. One of the writers had won a Pulitzer prize and his reading was atrocious (disorganized and disrespectful, I thought). The other author, the poet June Jordan, gave a magnificent reading. She had us mesmerized by her pres¬ence, by the articulation of her vision, by her poise, by her command of language. After the reading, the two authors signed books. Everyone stood in line behind the disrespectful and disorganized author whod won the Pulitzer Prize. No one was standing in line for June Jordans to sign their books. Ah, notoriety.

The Eighth Meditation: “Value What You Do”

Often, students work moves me. I am in awe of the articulation of something that matters. I have great respect for anyone who cracks the surface and dives towards the depths. I have great respect for anyone who stretches himself, struggles with stories or poems where there is something at stake. When I find a student who has gone beyond the easy way out, who has tried to do something difficult, who is ambitious to express the chaotic stirrings of the chaotic and hurting human heart, when I see this happening in the work of one my students, I state my respect. Doesn't my awe in the face of their work matter more than the grade I assign them?

I once gave a student a B on an essay he had written. The grade was based mostly on the fact his essay was two weeks late. By the agreed upon rules, he should've been given a “C”--a letter grade off for every week it was late (a rule that could hardly be considered punitive). I took great pains to explain this to the student in my comments. The student complained about his grade. He said it wasn't fair, that he deserved an “A.” But I refused to change it. He left my office angry with me. This is what bothered me most about that encounter: in my comments I had told him how moving I had found his piece. I told him he had grace, facility with language and heart. This was no small compliment. And I meant every word. But my remarks did not matter. Only the fact of the “B” mattered.

I always tell my students that I can measure their performance in class according to the criteria I have set out. I can assign them a grade. But I am quick to inform them emphatically that I cannot measure what they've learned anymore than I can measure the value of their stories, of their poems, of their work. “Value what you do,” I tell them.

My struggles with language and writing have taught me that I must, I must value what I do. At this point in my life, writing may not be particularly difficult for me, but it is always a great weight. It always extracts a price—and I am left in something of an exhausted state. That said, writing is a great love, a great passion, a great addiction. If writing costs me serious emotional work, it also pays me with the joy of private victories. The struggles involved in the act of writing belong to no one but the writer. But the business of publishing and the politics of the writing world is another matter altogether. I once had a young woman (she was no more than twenty) tell me to go back to Mexico after one of my readings. A fellow writer once whispered to another fellow writer that I was an “affirmative action poet.” Once, at a reading, another fellow writer wrote a note during one of my readings that I was “too politically correct.” One of my colleagues once asked me what I was going to do once the border was out of fashion (as if my writing was exclusively about the border or as if I wrote about the border because it was “the fad” or as if my writing was parochial and insular and insignificant to a broader discussion of American letters or American culture or American identity). More than once, I have been told that I had to choose between “being a good writer” and “being political.” But I never felt I had to choose between all the loves in my life. My biggest sin has always been greed.

Throughout my career, editors have characterized my work as being too HispAnic or not Hispanic enough or too political or (strangely) not political enough or too Catholic (this was particularly offensive--if I were Jewish or Protestant would he have said I was too Jewish? Too Protestant? Hey, and what about my writing?) My work has been accused of being too far off of the margins of American society or too mainstream or too lyrical for the subject matter or too raw and unpolished or not experimental enough or too traditional or too intellectual or too emotional or too literary (Imagine! An editor remarking that your work is too literary). I have been told that my writing was too harsh, too male, too violent. I have also been told my writing was too sentimental, too operatic or that my work was overly planned or that it was too spontaneous. Too angry. Not angry enough. Too male. Too much of a woman's writer. I have learned to hate the word, “too.”

I have always had to value my own work.

The Ninth Meditation: A Prayer

I was born to a poor family. My parents were seasonal farm workers. When they started having children, they moved on to less nomadic endeavors. I did not grow up in a middle class household. I did not grow up surrounded by books. I did not grow up with a sense of entitlement. I never saw the world as my playground. I never assumed I would become anything. Having a steady girl and a steady job was considered a great success.

I don't know why--but I wanted more. I didn't expect. But I wanted.

I did not grow up speaking English—though English has become my dominant language. I have struggled with words and language all of my life. I have learned that language is used to dominate people. I have learned that every language is a way of translating the world and that no language translates the world without a particular bias. It is difficult for me not to dismiss writers who do not understand the political nature of language. Like everything else, language is a weapon that can be used for ill or for good.

I have also learned that language is used by all people--and that no one needs anyone else's permission to use it. I have learned that language--like a communion wafer at Mass--is most alive when it is on the tongue of a believer. I have learned that the wrong word in a fragile moment can break a human heart. I have also learned that the right word at the right time can usher in an irrepeatable moment of joy. I don't believe in romanticizing the role of language in my life or in the world I live in. Nor do I believe in reducing language to a means of making a living. I continue my struggle with words and with language and sometimes I arrive at some¬thing thats at least worth the paper its written on. To say that I love what I do is no small thing. Every time I sit down to write, I say a prayer. I am grateful.

The village—that large and complex and cruel and difficult place—the village has given me words. I return them to the village. This is what I do.

No comments: