Thursday, June 28, 2007

Interlude with PALABRA's elena minor

I recently learned that the second issue of Palabra is out. My copies are in the post. Issue number two includes work by, I'm told, María Meléndez and Daniel A. Olivas (more on him in another post). Anyway, because it seems that people are actually reading this blog, I thought I'd re-visit an e-interview I conducted with elena last December. I can't say enough about her generosity and vision and what she is setting out to do. Palabra will be represented at AWP's bookfair next year and elena will be on a panel (more on that later, too). She's the real deal.

The following e-interview originally appeared in Tertulia magazine, an online journal out of California. Below is a headnote, the interview, and elena's bio. (Apologies to those who may have already read this interview.)

I haven't re-read the interview since late last year so it will be intresting to see how it sounds now in light of the recent discussions here and elsewhere.


I forget how I first learned of
Palabra, though I recall contacting the editor, elena minor, to congratulate her and wish her luck. We exchanged a handful of e-mails and shortly thereafter, I e-introduced her to Richard Yañez, director of CLICA, who in turn posted Palabra’s call for submissions on the CLICA list-serve. In March of 2006 I was in Los Angeles with poet María Meléndez to promote Poetas y Pintores: Artists Conversing with Verse (exhibited at Self-Help Graphics in East L.A.). During that time I had the pleasure of meeting elena for the first time, having dinner with her and poets William Archila and Lory Bedikian. I was immediately drawn by her passion and fresh take on Chicano/a and Latino/a literature. This past October, I was back in Southern California for a reading at Tía Chucha Café Cultural and once again the four of us (Elena, William, Lory, and myself) broke bread—only this time with the first issue of Palabra in hand! Among the contributors in the inaugural issue were: Rigoberto González, Alma Luz Villanueva, Harry Gamboa Jr., ire’ne lara silva, and Jose B. González—poet and co-editor of Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature (Longman, 2006). What follows is an interview with elena minor conducted through e-mail correspondence during the months of November and December of 2006.

FA: FranciscoAragón
em: elena minor

FA: Thank you, Elena, for agreeing to this e-interview. Naturally, part of this interview will be about your recently inaugurated PALABRA. But before I get to that, I'd like readers to know something about you. Could you tell us about your literary trajectory? How long have you been writing? What genre(s)? Publication history?

em: Francisco, thank you for the opportunity to put the word out about Palabra (no pun intended). It's an undertaking that I've had in mind for several years and which finally has come to fruition. But first, let me respond to your questions about how I got to writing. I actually started writing in high school but published only three times before I finally decided to get down to the matter of writing seriously—about ten or so years ago. Mostly I write poetry, short fiction, drama (even screenplays when I need a break or just need to write myself out of a block). The genre I go with for any given piece simply depends on how an idea or notion comes to me. Sometimes it opens like a play, other times it swirls in like a story or beats out like a poem. Sometimes it feels like a combination of two or all three. That's when the fun begins and I go with whatever it feels like just to see what happens. My work has been published both online and in print in Poetry Midwest, Segue, Prism Review, Vox, BorderSenses, The Big Ugly Review, edifice WRECKED, Quercus Review, 26, Banyan Review and Facets. I also have work forthcoming in the first print issue of Diner. And I've even won a few awards in all three genres, including the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize (drama).

FA: A couple of follow-up questions/themes occur to me. You say you began writing seriously ten years ago. Can you comment on what role your MFA training at Antioch College had on your development? As you may or may not be aware, the "MFA debate" is especially lively right now in the wake of John Barr’s article in Poetry magazine, where he paints a rather unflattering portrait of those writers who pursue an MFA. The President of the AWP responded with a fairly passionate defense on behalf of the variety of MFA students that exist and how it’s unfair to paint them all with the same brushs. How do you see yourself in this debate as someone who pursued a low-residency degree? And my second question has to do with the fact that you cultivate more than one genre. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Do you feel especially close to one genre with the other two being secondary? Please comment.

em: At Antioch I found the freedom to explore and experiment with language and meaning rather than simply trying to hone conventional narrative skills. I found that I really enjoyed doing that. I still do. It suits my temperament. I'm grateful that no one tried to steer me into formulas. Although I tend to agree with John Barr's comments, I also think there will always exist in MFA programs those few souls who can create nothing but new and authentic language. I greatly enjoy reading a well-told story or a well-crafted poem and some of my favorite writers do just that, but as a writer I bore easily and get greater satisfaction from taking literary risks—even when I fail. The great benefit of doing a low residency program is that although you have an online community with which you communicate daily (or at least weekly), the "group think" dynamic of workshop is reduced to a minimum, such that you as a writer have more freedom to go where your writing will take you—yet you can still get feedback. But I also came to an MFA program when I already had a fair sense of confidence in my writing and what I wanted from an MFA program, so I was able to evaluate the feedback I received and use what made sense. I think people who don't have a sense of their writing will struggle in a low residency program.

As for why I write in more than one genre, I think it has more to do with my boredom quotient, which has a low threshold. Repetition bores me, but equally important, I find that switching genres once in a while helps me discover something new, and those discoveries strengthen my work overall—keep it from getting stale. I don't generally set out to write a poem or a short story. Rather, ideas and notions seem to self-select their own form. For the most part they come to me already cast as poems or short stories or plays, or some variation thereof. And I'm always closest to the genre in which I'm writing, and while I'm in it feel that it's my strongest and preferred modality. I don't genre jump on a daily or even weekly basis, though. I generally will go months in one or another. Lately I've begun a series of pieces that combine elements of several genres—hybrids, if you will. I don't even know how to classify them—and often people don't know how to read them.

FA: Apologies Elena, for the delay in getting the next question to you. My job here can be overwhelming sometimes. I currently, believe it or not, increasingly find myself filling out book orders for Momotombo Press. In other words, I’m being contacted by both libraries and university bookstores, who are purchasing copies of Momotombo Press because they are being adopted in classrooms. For example, Paul Martínez Pompa’s Pepper Spray is being taught next semester at Ohio State University and University of Illinois at Urbana. And I’m anticipating orders from New Mexico State University and University of Texas Pan American. I mention all this as a way of introducing my next question: As a working writer who does not hold an academic teaching job, and who has now taken on the task of editing a literary journal, how do you fit in your own writing? How do you juggle these activities?

em: You mean not everyone has three jobs? (That's meant to be a joke.) It's mostly a matter of organization and will power. I don't believe in waiting for the muse to perch on my shoulder or divine inspiration to shower down on me. I learned early on as a writer to be disciplined about writing: do it every day, at the same time, and in the same place—even if all I manage to crank out is a few lines or one paragraph or edit one word or punctuation mark. Still, for those months that Palabra is in actual production, my own writing slows to a trickle. And although I don't hold an academic teaching appointment, I do work in higher ed and am lucky enough to have a supportive work environment—one that allows me some flexibility, so I manage to get enough writing time in. I also teach creative writing to high school students once a week. Now there's a "higher ed" experience. More like professional development, as it were. Keeps me honest as a writer—keeps me from getting complacent and stale.

There is a tradeoff, though. Non-literary social activities tend to take a back seat. That's actually a dangerous place to be because your world tends to grow smaller when, as a writer and as a person, it should always be getting larger. Time spent doing one thing means time not spent doing something else. Still and all, "we pays our money and takes our chances". I took on Palabra knowing it would take a lot of work and I'm glad I'm doing it. I especially enjoy it when someone sends work that just resonates in my gut. And I love it when I find fresh new writers or work that is literarily challenging. Makes it all so worth the effort. But I will admit I'm anxious to focus on my own work again. I've had words and characters and images buzzing around in my head waiting for me to let them out so they can dance. I think it's a mambo this time.

FA: Let’s talk about the genesis of Palabra. One of the things I found so refreshing about our initial correspondence was that you seemed to want to seek out writing that pushed the envelope of "latinidad." This was welcome because there was a journal out of Brooklyn a few years ago (which I think folded shortly after 9/11) which, on the one hand, called itself, The US Latino Review, and then on the other stated quite clearly that it wanted to privilege writers who wrote about specific issues: economic, political, and social. My feeling was: if you want to publish specific kinds of writing, fine; but I found it problematic that such a limited editorial endeavor called itself something as broad and multi-faceted as The US Latino Review. Whereas your project seems to want to go in the opposite direction. Could you share with readers the particular context which spurred you to take on Palabra?

em: There is really no single reason why I decided to launch Palabra. Rather, it's a series of interconnected observations coupled with my own sense of responsibility and service to my community. As I looked around the U. S. literary landscape, I found that although there are hundreds of literary journals and webzines and dozens of small presses, only a handful of them regularly publish work by Chicanos and Latinos and, more often than not, they publish writers whose literary reputations are already established. Generally, editors and readers have had implanted in their [sub]consciousness an idea of what Chicano and Latino literature should look like and what it should say, if they're even familiar with it to begin with. If work submitted doesn't conform to those notions, it gets rejected—sometimes even if it's written by established writers. (Some journals even go so far as to state that they will accept work only in English.) Equally important, among those hundreds of literary journals, there exist few Chicano & Latino publications and, among those, I found none dedicated to developing new forms and streams to add to the canon of Chicano & Latino literature.

I also think that sometimes we're our own worst enemy in that regard. We self-censor our own work in order to get it to fit an established paradigm. It becomes a vicious circle—we use the same patterns over and over and the work as a whole becomes static, stale. My idea was to create a venue or forum, if you will, in which Chicanos and Latinos could explore and experiment with literature—try new stuff, go in new directions—and get that work published, even if it wasn't polished. I didn't want one of those [academic] literary journals that prize craft over content. I wanted something that embodied heart and risk and in which polished work would sit next to fifth draft work. I wanted a journal that was eclectic on several levels, even at the risk of being criticized for being "uneven" or "unfocused." Being seemingly uneven or unfocused gives it room to grow—gives it somewhere to go, other than down. And perfection has always bored me. Think about it: what do you do and where do you go after perfection?

But also, there was nothing more than the basic observation that there simply aren't enough Chicano and Latino literary journals out there, and there should be. Not only should there be more, but they should each reflect a different editorial bent. There's room for all—we don't have to fit all our huevos into one canasta (yes, that's a play on words). I'm just trying to make the Palabra basket a very large one, literarily speaking, of course.

FA: Your comment about the work not necessarily having to be "polished" and how the journal can house works that are at different stages of completion is quite refreshing. It goes against the idea that a poem should only be published when it is absolutely finished and ready—whatever that means. It reminds me of a comment Victor Hernández Cruz once made during an interview I conducted with him nearly twenty years ago! I was asking him about revision, and he frankly admitted that he didn’t really do that much. I think he said that a poem of his might go through three or four drafts tops. Anyway, the comment by Victor was something like, "This isn't eye surgery…if I don’t get the poem right this time, I'll try again, and hopefully do better the next time." Elena, now that the first issue of the magazine is out, can you talk a bit about the future of Palabra: how many issues do you hope to put out per year? And what are your plans, if any, for a website? And finally, have you thought about the life-span of Palabra? How many issues do you want to edit?

em: My plans are to publish Palabra twice a year – spring and fall (or as close to that as I can get). And there is a website in development. Getting it up and operational has proved to be more problematic than getting out the first issue. As for how long it will run? Generally speaking, literary magazines don't have long life spans, especially if they're not institutionalized at a college or university. I'm not sure for how long I intend it to run—probably until it no longer serves its purpose. Hopefully it will have a life after me. My thinking is to remain as its editor until its "aesthetic" has been established and people know what to expect—or not—from Palabra. I hope to grow it enough to be able to bring in associate editors and others who are interested in publishing a literary magazine—use Palabra as a training ground in that regard. Even further into the future, though, I'd like to pass Palabra onto someone or ones who can be true to its spirit but give it their own stamp. Then I'll move on to something else—possibly into publishing chapbooks or full length books—maybe even a line of ancillary literary publications. ¿Quién sabe? It depends, to a degree, on what comes with the future.

To order a copy of PALABRA and/or learn more, write to elena at:

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elena minor is the founding editor of Palabra: A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art. Her poetry, fiction and commentary have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry Midwest, Diner, 26, Vox, Segue, Prism Review, BorderSenses, The Big Ugly Review, Quercus Review, edifice WRECKED, Banyan Review, Facets, Chicanovista and Frontera. She is a past first prize recipient of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize (drama) from UC Irivine and has, as well, won awards for her fiction and her poetry. She was commissioned to write a play by the Mark Taper Forum’s Other Voices Project. She has also placed as a finalist in several national fiction competitions. Most recently, she was awarded second place in poetry in the Sacramento Public Library’s Focus on Writers contest.

She was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and became an activist in college. She helped organize Chicano student organizations and advocated to establish ethnic studies programs and increase the number of minority students in college. After college that activism expanded into full-blown community organization during the Chicano Movement of the 60s and 70s. Most of her advocacy work concerned education, police brutality, health care, civil rights and voter registration and Chicana/Latina issues and empowerment. It was during those years that her writing was first published—a short and passionate commentary titled “The Chicana Experience.” Her experiences as an activist not only helped shape her values about service to the community but also the course of her life. They led her into urban planning, local government, higher education and, lastly, to arts administration and writing, which she has been doing for the last fifteen years. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles.

1 comment:

Lyle Daggett said...

Francisco, pardon my posting something off-topic here -- wanted to respond briefly here to your comment in Gina Franco's blog (responding to a comment of mine).

Yes, you're most welcome to reproduce my comment in this blog here (in whole or in part -- I'll leave that to you).

You mentioned that you'll be in Minnesota in September, at the Anderson Center (in Red Wing). It's maybe an hour and a half from Minneapolis where I live. ** While you're there, make sure to drop in at Red Dragonfly Press, the small press in residence at the center. The publisher, Scott King, has published two of my books of poems.

Thanks for indulging this diversion here, and for your comment in Gina's blog.