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Gary Soto: The Chicano Chapbook Series

January 7, 2010

Saw this over at Aragón, the founding editor of Momotombo Press, interviewed Gary Soto in 2005, about the Chicano Chapbook Series.

An Interview with Gary Soto

The Chicano Chapbook Series is, in large part, the inspiration for what Momotombo Press aspires to become: a point of reference for new voices in Latino/a literature—in the chapbook format. Francisco Aragón, the founding editor of Momotombo Press, e-mailed Gary Soto six questions on July 30, 2005. He returned his answers a few days later, on August 2nd. It is a pleasure to offer our web visitors an interview with one of the most honored and prolific artists in Chicano letters.


FA:Could you briefly sketch for our readers the context out of which the Chicano Chapbook Series emerged?  In other words, what were the specific circumstances that led to launching the Series? What, for example, was Lorna Dee Cervantes’ role, as well as Mango Press? In short, why did you start the Chicano Chapbook Series?

GS:In fall 1977 I met Lorna Dee Cervantes, then an unpublished poet, when I was invited by San Jose State College (now University) to do a reading.  I recall traveling up from Fresno, where I was living with my wife.  We had just returned from Mexico City, more or less broke, so the $200.00 that I was paid was a godsend.  After my reading (about six lonely souls showed up), we had beers, and in our dreamy state—Lorna was twenty-one, I was twenty-five—we talked literary shop.  We talked about starting a magazine or a publication and then went our separate ways.  Two years passed.  Lorna had already published two issues of Mango and, like so many other writers then and now, was peddling her magazine right out of her bolsa when I next saw her at a reading at the Intersection in San Francisco.  I’m certain I was peddling my newish book The Tale of Sunlight.  Anyways, we met a couple of times, each of us ambitious to get something started.  The next time I saw her in was at the Reno Club in Sacramento, scene of one of the rowdiest poetry readings ever.  I recall reading a story of mine called “Ronnie and Joey,” a story that scholar Juan Rodriguez of Texas just loved.  I remember being drunk (Two-Beers Soto, they called me) and the entire bar laughing not so much at what I thought was a great comic story but because my zipper was down or something.  And who was in the audience?  Bernice Zamora, José Montoya, Louie the Foot, others from the Royal Chicano Air Force, Lorna, Orlando Ramirez, José Antonio Burciaga.  It was a cool night.  Gas was only 67 cents, and at that price we could drive our Volkswagens!

Lorna and I were compatible in our literary sensibilities, which brought us together to do the chapbooks series.  (Orlando Ramirez and Adrian Rocha were part of Mango and knew someone with a printing press.) Again, in both the magazine as well as our little booklets of poetry, all twelve published over a two year period, we had no cogent mindset.  No, we just looked around and asked, “Hey, vato, you wanna get published?”

Publishing outlets for Chicano writers at the time were few and far between.  I figured why not publish chapbooks, a stylish sort of calling card of who you were.

FA:In thinking about the beginning of the Series, how did you decide who you were going to publish? In other words, could you talk about your editorial guidelines and restrictions, if there were any—was it by invitation only, a call for submissions, both? I ask this because, when one looks back at the first wave, which includes such figures as Sandra Cisneros and Alberto Ríos, it’s also interesting to notice which Chicano poets are absent from the Series.

GS:The Chicano Chapbook Series had no profound means of soliciting manuscripts.  We had no office, no telephone, no message pad waiting for the MacArthur Foundation to call us and say, “Hey, you’re a winner.”  No, it worked like this: Either Lorna knew someone, or I knew someone.  The Chicano literary world in the San Francisco area was very small—you could count the writers trying to stir up literary dust on your fingers.  Or, as in the case of Sandra Cisneros, we occasionally received manuscripts—her Bad Boys, all twelve pages, is now a collector’s item that sells for $500.00.  I recall getting a letter from Jimmy Santiago Baca, who hinted that he was writing poetry, too.  I asked to see his work, and we took it.  Luckily, I had just gotten a job at Cal Berkeley and I had a little feria in my pocket, so was able to pay printing costs.  I think in that first wave of writers there was just one rejection.  We accepted everyone.  And this is interesting to note: Victor Martinez, poet and fiction writer and later winner of the National Book Award for his awesome book, Parrot in the Oven, did the artwork for Michael Sierra’s chapbook.  The man has many talents.

FA:My understanding is that you published some twelve titles in the late seventies and early eighties—what many of us refer to as the “first wave” of the Series. Why did the Series end the first time around?  And what were the circumstances that prompted you to start it up again in the nineties?

GS:The first wave of the Chicano Chapbook Series ended not so much from a difference in opinion (among Chicanos “opinion” is a euphemism and could be supplanted for one-blow out chingaso on a front lawn), but a disinterest from all parties.  Mango, I believe, was only published five times, irregularly at that, and it didn’t seem to have momentum, though I sensed that there were gente excited by its presence.  It’s not unusual for literary efforts to whimper and die, and others to start up.  We drifted.  Orlando, who was then living in San Jose, moved up to San Francisco.  Lorna remained in San Jose and I hardly ever heard from her after we published Omar Salinas’ book-length Prelude to Darkness. The publication was a nice experiment, one that should have run just a little longer, and perhaps is now the stuff of urban Chicano lore.

In regards to the brief resurgence of the Chicano Chapbook Series, I can say that I’m an advocate for things that are Chicano, whether it’s literature or art, or, causes—the UFW, CRLA, and MALDEF come to mind.  However, this doesn’t mean I embrace everything.  As a veteran writer, I felt a responsibility for the younger writers.

I was no longer teaching (Thank god, I left CAL Berkeley in 1992) and I decided to give the series another shot.  I had time on my hands and I had the funds to do it—my own.  Moreover, it was the 1990s, and I sensed that Chicanos were coming into their own, that we were flexing our creative muscles—or how do we explain Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, our late compa José Antonio Burciaga, Victor Martinez, Helena Viramontes, Dagoberto Gilb, etc.  Plus, there was the growth of cultural establishments, too—The Mexican Fine Arts Museum, The Mexican Heritage Plaza in San José, and Fresno’s Arte Americas were coming into their own.  The 1990s was happening for us.  I felt refreshed and, thus, started a second wave.

FA:I’d like to focus a bit on post publication. Did this change over time, between the first and second wave? My understanding, for example, is that you’d give the author a set number of copies, and then you would give chapbooks away during your travels? Did you mail any out, as well? How many copies would you keep for your personal archive?

GS:By this time, I was wiser, older and not nearly the blabber mouth who read his work at the Reno Club, circa 1978.  I was no longer the angry young vato who answered someone’s question “What has been your contribution to Chicano Literature?” by retorting, “I’m the first Chicano to write in complete sentences!”  No, my generation had mellowed, I had mellowed.  I had grey in my hair.  Moreover, in selecting manuscripts, I had criteria: you had to be under the age of 35 and a college graduate.  (The college graduate part kept amateurish writers from sending in manuscripts).  I hired Rhode Montijo, a cartoonist and truly good guy, to the do the covers of these new chapbooks—they rocked.  Each printing was done in 300 copies, of which the poet or writer got 50 copies.  I distributed them to high school or college students—that is, when I went about doing my own poetry readings I could hand them out.  I was Johnny Appleseed spreading the good news.  I also sent them to a lot of veteran writers—Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, etc.  However, after fourteen or so chapbooks, I got tired.  I stopped doing them after three years.  I don’t regret this decision as I think the young generation of Chicanos (Latinos) has a greater access to publishing.  Oh, sure, there will be such grumbling as that “stupid gabacho publisher wants me to write like him, etc.”  That’s natural.  Can you imagine a world where every poem or story is put into print?  God, we would swim through leaves of pages to get to ours. I have a couple of complete sets.  The Chicano Studies Library at Berkeley has a complete set of at least the second wave.

FA:When Richard Yañez and I, a few years ago, attempted to take on the project of editing an anthology based on the Chicano Chapbook Series, one of the challenges we faced was the one of gender balance. Looking back at the Series, one can’t help but notice how outnumbered the women are. Could you comment a bit on this?

GS:True, there was an absence of female poets published in the first series—Sandra Cisneros was the only Chicana.  That was part of history.  There were some Chicanas in the mid-to-late 1970s, notably Bernice Zamora, but none ever submitted.  Again, we had no sound way of gathering material—it was just hearsay and hokus-pokus.  I don’t believe any of the chapbooks from the first set had an address.

FA:I’d like to read you a quote, comment a bit on it, and then ask you my last question. The quote is the beginning of my “Editor’s Note” for our last Momotombo Press title:

“Chatting over lunch, talk turns to identity politics vis-à-vis the Chicano Chapbook Series. Richard Yañez and I are co-editing an anthology based on it. We agree that Gary Soto, by publishing Jim Sagel, seemed to be suggesting that being of Mexican descent was not a strict requirement for inclusion.”

In past conversations with Rich, he has noted that it was interesting how not only Jim Sagel, but someone like myself—of Nicaraguan descent—had published in the Chicano Chapbook Series. My interpretation of his comment was that he thought it was a good thing—that for you the term “Chicano” was fluid and not rigid. In any case, it’s an ongoing debate. Could you talk a bit about how this question of Chicano/Latino identity has played itself out in your mind?

GS:I recall being interviewed on Telemundo and the reporter asking, “What’s the difference between Hispanic and Chicano?  For a second, I was caught off guard and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to come up with a sound explanation.  I was suddenly struck by wisdom as I answered, “The difference is… Hispanics vote Republican and Chicanos Democrat.”  I don’t think I made the evening news…  Yes, the Chicano Chapbook Series had one service—to bring out work from this particular group.  True, we published Jim Sagel, a non-Chicano but at heart he discovered that he was raza.  And Francisco Aragón, you’re Nicaraguan but grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District.  You knew what it was about.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2010 5:53 pm

    Thanks for giving this a second life.

  2. Anisa permalink*
    January 10, 2010 6:17 pm

    Absolutely… thank you.

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