Poetry and Crowdfunding

Award-winning poet Bobby Byrd - who also co-heads the brilliant and badass publishing house Cinco Puntos Press (home of PEN/Faulkner Award winner Benjamin Alire Sáenz)- is launching his new poetry collection using the magic of crowdfunding. More and more, this avenue is becoming the tool of choice for artists to get their work out into the world and build communities who are passionate about supporting them. It's been a joy to see this kind of thing work out time and time again over many years, especially since this grassroots concept began taking full advantage of the power of online connectivity. I'm supporting Bobby and can't wait to have my signed first edition copy of his book (all for the price of a minimal donation). As a hat tip to an artist who fuels my own fire through his calm, observant nature, here's an interview I conducted with him from the archives of my old journalism site, ThenItMustBeTrue. Enjoy.

Bobby Byrd
November 2006
El Paso

It is fitting that the first author to grace ThenItMustBeTrue with his or her thoughts is one from the town where this outlet and most of its contributors were born: El Paso, Texas—the no man's land that is at once part of the U.S. and Mexico; part of Texas, New Mexico, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, while also it's own unique place unlike any of those other locales or nationalities as a result of such a combination.

Over three decades of residing in this area, Bobby Byrd has become a master of expressing its beauty, problems, and idiosyncrasies using his gift of poetry. In addition, he has provided a slew of other voices with an outlet to audiences worldwide thanks to having founded Cinco Puntos Press with his wife, novelist Lee Merrill Byrd. Celebrating the launch of yet another innovative and inspiring project—an album entitled How Will We Know When We're Dead, featuring Byrd reciting his poetry over music composed by Sparta singer-songwriter Jim Ward—Byrd reflected upon what the struggles of living as an artist and how being on the border contributes to a more unrestricted mode of thinking and creating.

I've long been in awe of the fact that there is a publishing house as original as Cinco Puntos in my hometown. I grew up feeling a way I think many artists coming from a place like do—a need to get out and get away in order to have the opportunity to create while at the same time everything informing my art and my writing, the subject matter that I focus on, is rooted back here. A place like this is a huge inspiration, but there's a dearth of support for artists. Either that or you just accept it and struggle to make it work while remaining here. It's one of the reasons why I think How Will We Know When We're Dead hit me so hard—it really brought me home. Now you know what it meant to me, tell me what this project means to you.

One of the interesting things about this project was that Jim is a contemporary of my younger son, Andy, and he'd worked for us. The nice thing about it is that it really made me feel good that a younger person found my work, was receptive to my work, enjoyed my work, and appreciated my work. From what I've heard from my kids, from Jim and from others, it's been a real pleasure and sort of a reward for Lee and me that Cinco Puntos and our writing stood out for young people and it's made a difference to them. That's been probably the biggest reward from this, to see that in whatever way we have in terms of culture in the city and for young people's lives, that we've helped change their lives, perhaps inspire them, although I hate to use that word. So that was very nice.

And the other thing was at the reading I did recently with Jim [at an El Paso Barnes & Noble store]. After my little reading, Jim came up and we answered questions. During the reading I was stunned that all these young people were really, really listening. A lot of times, you go to a reading and everybody's all hip and they're [mimes looking around and fidgeting]. The young people were standing up, they were paying attention, they were smiling, they were listening—really intently—and Jim said one of the reasons that he had wanted to do this was that he had wanted to bring my work to his contemporaries and people younger than him, the people that are looking up to him. So that was very, very wonderful. That was incredible.

It has been touching and inspiring to witness that, to see all of the kids that follow Jim and his music take a chance and give this album a listen because he's involved with it, realizing that a bunch of 15- to 30-year-olds around the world are now hearing you.
Yeah, isn't that bizarre? (Laughs)

I think that comes back to something that kicked off this discussion, which is that the idea of being an artist and taking where you come from out to the world—being a bridge. I'm wondering about how you came to the decision that writing was going to be your outlet and decide that this subect was going to be your focus.

You know, Lee and I don't really sort of make decisions the way you hear about some people making decisions. Things sort of come along. We're sort of like in a boat, I guess is more like it...you're going down this river and you see a rock in front of you and sometimes you hit the rock. But a lot of it is paying attention to who you are. Lee and I were both writers when we met; she's from New Jersey and I'm from Memphis and we both sort of ran away from home—we didn't want to be in our homes. So I can understand there are a lot of reasons not to want to stay where you live. We kept at our writing; she's a fiction writer and I'm a poet and we don't share that stuff, but we share our ideas.

And so as we went around in our lives, we kept doing what we did. Both of us had sort of cold periods in our creative lives when we felt like being a writer was sort of a useless occupation. We never could figure out how to make a living. We had three kids and so we were sort of really in a hard place in a lot of different ways, unsure of ourselves and very uncertain of who we were going to become.

We moved to El Paso in 1978 for a number of different reasons. I had a job as a technical writer. We were not real happy. Then a friend of mine, Richard Ratzinger at North Atlantic Press, published a book of my poetry. Having done that, we visited him and I read in Berkeley and we talked to him about publishing and stuff. We came back deciding we needed something to do where we could get away from...where we could be our own bosses, so we became publishers. We knew a lot of different people we felt were strong writers. We had absolutely no understanding of what being a publisher was. But we essentially started doing it from a shoestring; we had absolutely no idea what we were doing and we sort of did it book by book and sort of very organically, I guess, and sort of made a lot of mistakes—and continue to make a lot of mistakes.

But what we found—and we were working for other people while we were doing this—and eventually Lee was at work and I was working at the press and then in '94 , or '96, I guess, she was working at the El Paso Gas Company and she left there and we were both working for the press. It was a rocky road but the thing that we found—and the reason I say all this—is that the thing that we found is that the publishing and the writing became, as our lives evolved, the same thing.

We've done things as publishers, creatively and in terms of our imaginations, that we would have never done as writers. We went places, we did all these books about Mexico and the border. We did two anthologies; one I edited with my daughter Susie, one I edited with my son John, about the U.S./Mexico border. I met David Romo and we published his book Ringside Seat to a Revolution... All these different things were things that let us, that sort of fulfilled us in a way that writing really wasn't fulfilling. Besides, it let us find a way—although it's always very fragile; we always might go broke—we found a way to make a living. So it's been sort of interesting; it's become sort of the whole thing; it's not become, "I'm a writer. I'm a publisher," but it's become we're writers/publishers. So that's been a very, very interesting and wonderful experience. And we've made wonderful friends.

My poetry evolved, I think, more than anybody else from the work of William Carlos Williams, who spoke of the spirit of place. He came of age as a writer in the Twenties and all of his contemporaries, the people that he admired, were leaving the United States and becoming exiles in Paris and Europe and stuff, Pound and all those different people. And he was against that, not necessarily against traveling over there, but leaving the United States and he was very intent on creating a poetics with American roots. And I believed in that.

So when we came to El Paso any decision that we ever made was that we decided that this would be our home, that we felt at home here, for whatever reason. And the a type of writer both of us are but especially me, I think, is that you are rooted in the place where you are. So if Cinco Puntos would have started somewhere else, first off, it wouldn't have been named Cinco Puntos, because that's our neighborhood, the Five Points neighborhood. And then we wouldn't have done the books that we've done.

So Cinco Puntos was really an exploration of the place that we live, starting in the Five Points neighborhood, and then our family, really, and growing into widening spheres of influence, so that we started studying the border. I really don't think that before we published, for instance, Debbie Nathan's Women and Other Aliens that we really thought of ourselves as being border people and living on the border. We lived in El Paso.

Which is interesting—the border aspect wasn't immediately apparent to you as part of this decision to live here?

No, no. It was interesting the fact that people spoke Spanish and the fact that we lived across the river from Mexico and that we went across.But we didn't think of it as a way of looking at the world. Being a border person is a way of looking at the world; it's a part of your psyche in a way. When we came here, we didn't feel that. An example I like to give of that is my daughter Susie: when people ask her where she's from, she'll say El Paso. And they'll say, "Oh, you're from Texas," then she'll say, "No, I'm not from Texas. I'm from El Paso." And it's a whole point of view that that involves—it's both Mexico and the United States and there's all this confusion of living here on the Mexican border. There's all this friction under the surface that a lot of people don't like to talk about. And Gurdjieff used to talk about how if you lived in a place where there's friction or if you experienced cultural friction, it's a very creative environment in which to live.

Yeah, I feel that—absolutely, intently—and I know a lot of my contemporaries do as well as people before me and people coming after me. But what is the frustrating side of that friction is the feeling that you can't survive or be appreciated, as an artist in this place. It's the decision of, "Am I going to try to survive as an artist purely or am I going to do other things?" And it's an odd comfort to hear you say that you and Lee never really did survive purely as artists—you accepted the reality of having to pay bills and raise kids, but never let the art go.

Right. As a writer, there's very few writers who make it as a writer. And as a poet, it's just much worse! The only way a lot of people survive as a writer—whether novels or nonfiction—is picking up this or that and a lot of people, of course, work in the university world. And that's not really working as a writer, I don't think. It's sort of a whole different thing. Like Charles Bowden, if you know his work, he makes money, he makes his living as a writer. But he does a lot of peculiar things that you would of a person like him doing—he has certain niches; he does a lot of nature writing because he likes to hike in the wilderness and stuff. But you really have to struggle; it is a struggle. It's sort of like if you visit New York, you meet a lot of different people who sort of cobble together a living—writers and actresses and all the different people doing all these things. If you go to a nice restaurant, there's usually an actor waiting on you. (Laughs)

It's true. This is kind of one of those things that is becoming more apparent to me in my encroaching middle age: there's something that happens when you're 30 and everybody around you is settling or figuring out what they're doing. And I was speaking to Jim about this and how much of that own sort of angst within himself is what fueled getting this project with you finally done and getting his new album written. It was all about being at this point of life and deciding, "Am I going to settle down? What's really important? How am I going to get done what I want to get done?" A lot of it focuses on reconciling place and where you're from. You just said perfectly a little while ago: figuring out who you are and if the place says a lot about who you are, then you have to come to terms with that, which is difficult but it's doable. 

Right—everything's doable. For a musician...I was walking around Jim at a norteño festival with one of the guitarists was talking with Jim—this guy is a studio musician in L.A—and they got into this lingo that you can tell is because they're able to make a living, at least for now, as musicians, they live in this totally separate world. And when they're by themselves and they're talking among themselves, I found it very interesting.

What this kind of boils down to is something you sort of touched on but what I wanted to address with you completely, which is balancing the business of reality and the creativity of trying to be an artist. I know Jim has been through it himself and so have a bunch of artists and musicians—I see it all the time. They're trying to to be do-it-yourself with their own business and maintain that kind of control but oftentimes having it just suck energy away. How you and Lee come to terms with that, that in launching Cinco Puntos Press and dealing with the business of it along with the reality of bills and stuff while keeping your creative juices flowing? 

Well, the thing about it is, I think that if you want to be a writer, for instance, or say that you want to be a poet, you have to understand from the beginning that you're not going to make money as a poet. And this is the worst case, to be a poet. So you have some lifestyle choices to make and a lot of it has to do with where you live and how you want to live and the environment you want to put yourself into. Jim is a very interesting example, because he was telling me when he was 25—between then and now that he's 30—all those guys are playing music for kids, for 15-year old kids, and they themselveswere no longer that age. So what do you do? And from what I understand at the concert the other night—I didn't go; I should have gone, but I didn't—it seemed that from the review that I read like the music has sort of changed a little bit for them.

It's definitely they've gone out on a limb and I think that they took a really big risk in terms of alienating that core fan base. They found their niche, even with the band he was in before Sparta—it was very evident it appealed to that sort of adolescent or younger 20's crowd. And I think a lot of people heard kind of a burgeoning of that influence in their previous album and didn't like it—it wasn't received very favorably—but with this new record, they busted out with it and said, "You know what? We don't care. We're older; we're not screaming kids anymore." So it's true, it's very different. 

Right. Your work has to grow with you. A lot of people's work doesn't grow with them. I think that's actually what happens for a lot of writers, creative writers, that if you see too much success at the early part of your life, it can be very dangerous.

That pressure to always do the same thing.

Right. You do the same thing or your ego just takes charge instead of your writing. When I write, I lose myself;I'm no longer there. There's that great book Drawing on the Right Hand Side of Your Brain by this lady, I forget her name—I went through that book at one time because I was curious if the experience of a visual artist was the same as a writer. And it was in the sense that you find yourself in this sort of consciousness where you lose sense of time and time passes and you're playing with words and you're moving words along and it's real fun. I can get lost at just rewriting a poem over and over again and moving words around—it's so fun on the computer and just a joyous thing with your ear working and stuff so that you don't think of yourself as Bobby Byrd or whatever; you don't think of things like that. But if that thought that I'm Bobby Byrd, or I'm so-and-so, if that thought of ego intrudes into that space that you've created for yourself, then that's what kills it.

It spoils it, like a little bit of blood in an egg or something, a bad spot. And not to mean that you can't write a bad poem or write a bad song or draw a bad painting when you're inside that space. But a lot of times you might be able to find that it was that intruding thought that perhaps maybe did that, because for instance, when you grow up and want to be a poet, you have this idea that you have to be serious and you have to be saying something and you have to be somehow changing people's lives—you have to be contributing something. That's a very sort of egotistical thought and you become very serious and you see all these people walking around and they're very serious and they all have this idea.

I had the very lucky experience that when I was going through one of those phases to read this book of baseball poems that North Atlantic Books put out and they were such joyful poems about a game and about the statistics and the personalities and things. I realized I was taking myself way too seriously. So as an experiment, I started writing a lot of sports poems and a lot of that stuff still comes through with my writing because it adds a sort of playfulness to writing. And I found that in my own work, I really can't be serious in a way, that I can't have an idea that I want to speak; I can only let the words say for themselves what they say.

Right, because you can't have an end and then force a means unto that end—it's contrary to art completely. 

You said before that there was kind of a cold period for you in your writing, hitting a wall, and talking about poetry in terms of the downer that it is to be a poet when you're opposed by society, especially in this modern day when everything's so much about being fast and immediate. What does poetry have as a value for this day and age and how did you get over periods when people were telling you it was pointless? 

I don't know if you ever get over it. (Laughs) You wonder why you're doing it. As a poet, you're always running into songwriters and you're always saying, "Well, that guy can really write songs. He writes songs so well, he's a poet!" Then you say, "No, he's not a poet; he's writing songs. If he was writing poems, he'd be doing something else." And I couldn't understand, first off, why a songwriter would want to be a poet, because it seems more fun to be a songwriter. But who knows?

Anyway, I think as you grow older,you actually realize that what you're doing does have some effect in a way—and not effect in a sort of cause-and-effect sort of way, but I think it was Pound that said that poets are the antennae of their race or their civilization and I agree with that, if you can say that without taking it too seriously and becoming too serious about it. For instance, do you get emails where there's a lot of gobbledygook, all these words sort of scrambled together?

Yeah—all the spam these days is just random words.

Yeah, random words. Well, people used to write poems like that—they were chance poems. And I read those things sometimes and they're very interesting and they're very good. But I don't believe that those would have been possible without this goofball guy in New York, John Cage or Jackson MacLow, writing poems like that.

And that reminds me of another story from the Second World War, I think, where Picasso was walking down the street with some guy and they passed some tanks with camouflage all over them. Picasso looked at the tanks and said, "You know, that wouldn't have been possible without me." In a lot of ways, he's right, because what's happening is that an artist or a writer or whoever, what he or she is saying is not necessarily the words or the meaning... For instance, this painting here [points to painting hanging behind him in his office], the meaning might not be what's important, but the perception is what's important.

Right—his intention is totally different from the viewer's.

Right. So there is a different way of seeing reality and a different way of putting that together. Picasso started with Cubism and then he went to this other stuff and he started putting things together in these sort of different ways. He was sort of forecasting advertisements. (Laughs) The way that people would start seeing the world. So to me, that's incredibly important. And whether or not it's cause and effect, who knows? But it's also sort of like tilling the field with a rototiller or with a tractor or something; it's tilling the consciousness.

Yeah, you have to stir stuff up to keep it going. Who were the people—artists or any other influences—that stirred things up for you? You mentioned William Carlos Wililams but who else? 

When I was growing up in the fifties, I grew up in Memphis, and I never went to school with black kids—I never went to school with people of color. And there was all this incredible tension at the time, because even though nobody could have forecasted what was happening in the culture, there was all this tension that you can look back and feel. So in the fifties and then into the sixties, we were listening to this music. Of course, we didn't know that it was this sort of trailblazing music, but we were right in the center of this incredible Memphis sound. I was raised by a black woman because my dad had died and so my mother was out making money. So our family was in this sort of odd situation—ven ethough we were a white family, we had all these influences, especially black music and black radio, so that was very important to me.

And then, just all the poets that came after William Carlos Williams: Paul Blackburn, Philip Whelen, I guess Ginsberg but not so much Ginsberg; Gary Snyer, Robert Creeley...these guys were very, very important to me because when you read all these different people, they were providing you with not only their language, but a way of looking at that world that was very important.

Early on, I became enchanted with Zen Buddhism and I studied that for a long time. Both Lee and I, on different trails, have always been sort of involved in religious or spiritual ideas. We studied the work of Gurdjieff for a while when we were in Albuquerque and in Las Cruces and we do our different things now.

That combination of pure literary influences and whatever you wanted to focus on.

Right. And we both read a lot—we read a lot of stuff.

Did you find the kind of stuff that you're publishing as Cinco Puntos influencing your work in turn? 

Oh yeah, especially the stuff about the border and about Mexico. Actually, another thing that's important in the Southwest is that if you look at the American poetry scene, the history of it from early on until 1950 was essentially this history of white males with exceptions—very big exceptions. But that was what it was and that's the way you learned about it. So in the fifties and sixties and seventies and eighties—and actually, the National Endowment had a lot to do with this—there's this great flowering of various types of voices: people of color, people of different sexual orientation and stuff like that.

An interesting thing to me is the poetics of people like Williams or Pound or later Charles Olson was really based on intellectual theory in a lot of ways. This is very much true of a lot of people who became involved with Russian poetics of the twenties—Mayakovski and all those people. But what happened in the United States, thanks to the writers of color and stuff, is they brought a poetics that really emphasized the narrative because the narrative is a way that you can protest, that you can tell a story, even if it's in a poem. So what I felt about my poetry was that it was lacking in narrative, but my things that I wanted to say were not based in so much a political context as Luis Rodriguez or these other people.

And so I have all these bizarre poems where Jesus Christ is there and Pancho Villa is sitting next to me in a restaurant and all this sort of stuff. And it's not me in the sense of me; it's the narrator of the poem, this person who resembles me and is found in this odd place in the midst of all these different influences, which take form in these different people, these different characters. So actually, that's been very important and my poetics have evolved essentially from that, the sense of living here in this sort of peculiar place and the poetics of people of color, actually.

Right, so it's definitely an influence and obviously there was a reason for your family to stay here—I imagine that it didn't feel much like home in the beginning but if it didn't continue to feel like home, you would have packed up and left, right?

Right. [Byrd's daughter] Susie, when she got here, she was six years old and she had lived in—we counted them up—fourteen different houses by the time she was six. She's the oldest. Since then, she went away to college, but then she moved in right next door to us in Five Points. And [son] Johnny came back too. So it makes us real proud. [Second son] Andy stays in San Antonio. So this has been a real special home for us and I think one of the reasons it became a home for us is because our boys were hurt real bad in a fire back in 1982 and the people of El Paso just were wonderful.

Yeah—one of the poems on How Will We Know When We're Dead addresses that, right?


So the people here just embraced you?

Yeah, it felt like home and it's also because I tell people that El Paso, when we first moved here, it had this sort of romance about it.

The Old West kind of thing.

Old West and you walk down the street and peopletalk in Spanish; you go over the border—it was much easier to cross the border at that time and you'd go over there and go shopping and things were cheap and you'd walk around Juarez and see all this incredible stuff. So it had this sort of romance and then in about the late eighties sometime, I started to think, "Jesus—this is a real blue-collar area," and a lot of the people are first generation or immigrant. So for growing up in Memphis in a white, middle-class neighborhood, I said, "Well, shit, this is a real foreign place!" And then after a while, I started realizing that this is home, this is where I belong.

Yeah, however foreign it may be. Talk about making a cultural investment or an invesment in the culture of this place and any responsibility that you feel, now that it is your accepted home, in nurturing art. We started off talking about this and I kept alluding to this sense that artists feel in coming out here or growing up here, that they have to leave becausae there's just no appreciation and no sustenance for them. So do you feel like it's a really big obstacle? Do you struggle with it? 

Well, I think for different types of artists, it's going to be different. For instance, because of technology, your stuff is immediately available to everybody now and it's becoming more and more so. That has two functions: one thing, it sort of provides you an open space to live where you want to live; the other thing is it sort of dilutesthe culture of the place where you live. So it has these two sort of different things. I think if you're going to make a living as a visual artist, this is a very hard place to live because there's not many people who are buying art and most of the people who do buy art don't buy art from people that live in El Paso, unless somebody has been like Luis Jimenez—he went away and and he sort of came back, lived in Hondo, but he made his mark elsewhere. And I guess you could say that for Jim, too.

I think for somebody like Jim, home basing himself out of El Paso is real smart because it seems to me that a place for a musician like L.A. unless you're a studio musician could be very, very dangerous for a number of different reasons. Not only for your art, but for yourself as a person. But other people are able to thrive in that.

If we had started Cinco Puntos in New York City, we would have never made it because of the type of personality we are. It would have chewed us up because there are all these other people who are doing all these incredible things and you would want to be like them and you'd always feel sort of bad. So we were lucky that, for whatever reason, we started this here because if you read the literature of El Paso, it has this real niche in the psyche of the United States. There's lots of stuff—you could do a real nice anthology about the literature of El Paso. That said, the city itself or the people that live here— especially when I came here, there was nobody like you asking these questions. Young people now are feeling this sort of being torn. Young people when we got here were leaving—that was it. There was no ifs, ands or buts. Now they's this sort of being torn and some people are coming back because they can make a living and they can—like our children can. They have an opportunity to contribute something here and live here.

So it's this sort of hard thing and really, I get back to the thing about the boat: you just have to keep your eyes in front of you and pay attention and go where you want to go. But it's hard. It's very, very hard. To be a writer, a poet or a musician anywhere is incredibly difficult and incredibly fraught with all sorts of things that you have no control over.

For instance, when somebody gets a big award like the MacArthur thing and they might be fifty years old, there are ten or twenty people who ae sitting on those boards and there are maybe, say, a hundred finalists, and they pick ten or fifteen to receive half a million dollars, so that money or the prestige of that award not only provides the pillow to sleep on for a while, it also provides enormous confidence. These other people, they might have been equally as good and as important and some of these people who received it might just not be worth shit. It all has to do with the quirks of these people on the board who chose those people in the first place. So there's all this sort of luck going on.

So the important thing is to just keep doing your work, because, you see, a lot of people who are big names now in a field are really not that good. (Laughs) I read a quote when I was reading this thing; a the guy had said, "A bus ride is actually more interesting than most art," and I agree totally. We don't need to ride on a bus, but we go ride a bus for sort of an aesthetic pleasure and it's very interesting. You see things you'd never see and you listen to things and see things differently; you have all these emotions and pieces of boredom and stuff. That's what a person should do, actually, when they're writing. They say, "Well, I wanna do something that's more interesting,"—at least it's interesting, riding a bus.

Exactly—it's not about the ego. It's not just about buying a house or whatever.

Exactly. The thing is, as you get older, you feel amazed, just amazed at not so much who we are and what we've done with this or that, but all the sort of reverberations out from where you live. Like this thing right here [gestures to his and Jim's CD]. This happened sort of miraculously—I would have never planned it. Actually, the thing about it is something like that gives me the confidence to continue writing. This reading the other day really freed me and got me thinking about different things and not to worry about some things.

Right, because maybe a bunch of young musicians might flock to you and want to do something like this with you! To wrap things up, what kind of advice do you have for the struggling artists, writers, and musicians in this town today? 

I would just say do it, any place you are. But the thing about it is not only to do it, but also that you receive a lot of your inspiration from how you live your life. You receive a lot of inspiration by the people that you surround yourself with—and I'm not talking about artists. I used to play ball every Tuesday night with a bunch of guys at the Missouri Street Center and those guys provided me with a lot of understanding, just a bunch of old farts playing ball, you know? And then the books that you read and the music that you hear... You're the center of your world; you're the very, very center of your world, and you're responsible for that center. And so if you want to be something, you can't blame people for something that you don't have, that you want to do. You need to fulfill who you are, so do it, just go ahead and do it. But be awake and compassionate when you do it.

Bobby Byrd and Cinco Puntos Press can be found online at www.cincopuntos.com.

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