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.
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.
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
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
I think that comes back to something that kicked off this dicussion,
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, so that they... 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 donít 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 donít 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, 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 allhave 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
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
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.