Friday, March 28, 2014

Interview with Poet and Publisher, Richard Vargas/Excerpt from Guernica, revisited

Melinda Palacio

Richard Vargas

La Bloga sat down with Richard Vargas. His thorough answers on being a poet offers an important roadmap for anyone thinking about taking up the writing life. I especially enjoyed his quoting of John F. Kennedy, and, most of all, Richard's poems; I was honored to read his new book in manuscript format. It such a great feeling to see a project of this magnitude take shape and become a book you can hold in your hands, carry in your bag, and read on the streetcar. But don't take my word for it, experience this Q&A, then click away and buy Richard's newest book of poems: Guernica, revisited.Don't be surprised if you find yourself looking up his earlier books, published by Tia Chucha Press.

Mark your calendar: Richard Vargas features at Avenue 50 Studios August 10. 

Melinda Palacio:
How did you meet your editors? Did you submit your book through a contest?

Richard Vargas:
I met Pam Uschuk and William Pitt Root for the first time when they visited a poetry workshop at University of New Mexico. I think it was the fall of 2008, my first semester in the Creative Writing MFA program. The workshop was facilitated by Joy Harjo, and at her invitation they stopped by to discuss poetics and lead us in a writing exercise. Since then, Pam has contributed to the poetry magazine I publish and edit, TheMás Tequila Review, on more than one occasion, and Will let me reprint his classic long poem, “Night Letter to the Mujahadeen,” in issue #5.

My manuscript came to their attention after a prestigious small press had sat on it for about a year, only to pass it up. I was thoroughly frustrated, since it had been turned down several times in the last three years. I was at the end of my rope, so I reached out to several friends and contacts on Facebook, asking for advice. Many came through with recommendations, but many of the presses they mentioned had already rejected my manuscript. Pam suggested I send it to her since she knew my work and thought the press who published much of her work would be interested. But within a few days she wrote back to say she really liked the collection of poems, and suggested making it a part of the Silver Concho Poetry Series for Press 53. She and Will direct the series for the press. She became a strong advocate for the book, and Will stepped in to work with me as my editor. I quickly found out that while the material was strong, the manuscript wasn’t print ready. Not by a long shot. Will worked long hours combing it over for errors and inconsistencies. No one put in that kind of time with my first two books, and his efforts really paid off. The result was a tighter, professional version of the original. I’m proud of how it turned out, and thank William Pitt Root for his editorial skills and sharp eye.

What did you most enjoy about putting together your new book?

Well, the enjoyable part is now; giving readings, promoting, stepping out to meet new faces and adding to my audience. Unlike the publication of my other two books, this time I have the resources to do some traveling, so I am reaching out to bookstores and literary venues in cities I’ve never had the chance to visit, as well as my old haunts and stomping grounds. And since I’ve created a network of poets across the country whom I’ve published in The Más Tequila Review, I’m looking forward to meeting some of them face to face as I hit the road. It’s going to be a good time. A celebration of the new book, a celebration of the Gerald Locklin Poetry Prize we just awarded in the current issue ($300,) and the Margaret Randall Poetry Prize we’re awarding in the next issue ($500.)

Did you have control over the cover?

Yes! The cover is a strong statement, and visually appealing. Just before Pam and Will accepted Guernica, revisited,for the Silver Concho Poetry Series, I came across an interview Mother Jones magazine published, ( featuring a Pakastani artist who was using her country’s folk-art to depict U.S. drones, provoking and adding to the debate about our government’s use of these killing machines and their effect on her people.  I had recently changed the title (the last of many title changes) of the manuscript to Guernica, revisited, a poem I wrote about the aftermath of a drone strike. It was written upon my feature reading at an art exhibit in Albuquerque, called Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan. (
The art work by Kabul high school students left me speechless and numb. And I was honored to have my poetry paired with their vision of the world. I felt like I was speaking out for them, in their absence.
Guernica revisited by Richard Vargas
So I reached out to the journalist who interviewed Mahwish Chishty, and he put me in touch with her. I explained the circumstances that led to composing my title poem, and asked for permission to use one of her images for my cover art. She graciously agreed, and I was ecstatic! What a gift. The image sets the tone of the book and I feel truly blessed. We’ve discussed collaborating, a showing of her artwork accompanied by a reading from my book. We are looking for a gallery interested in working with us. Originally I wanted to launch the book in this manner, but there just wasn’t enough time to set it up.  But I feel it would be an event worth the time and energy to organize and promote.

Your poems are political and represent the social milieu around you. You've also talked about being an armchair activist through your poetry. What is your current view as an activist poet and how has this changed.

Yeah, they are. And there are those who will rail against mixing art with politics, proclaiming that it is an aberration, a distraction from the pursuit of the universal quality of beauty, or nature, or the spiritual. But once someone states that their art is apolitical, they have just made a political statement. There is no getting away from it. Every waking day of our lives, we are being affected by political actions and decisions being made all around us, near and far away. Every time I wanted to push away from the table, convinced that no matter what I do, say, or write, the die has been cast and what’s going to happen is already written in the books, I find myself drawn back into the fray. A people who are complacent and watch their local and federal governments condone acts of social injustice and atrocities at home and abroad, deserve their fate. And sooner or later, it does come home to roost. Yeah, I’m on a soap box right now, but this quote from John F. Kennedy always comes to mind when I get on this subject: “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” He said it best.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with La Bloga?

I want to take the time to thank you, Joy Harjo, and Demetria Martinez for blurbing the book. Such an impressive group of writers, and it makes me realize how lucky I am to be rubbing elbows with such a talented group of artists. The forward was written by my good friend, E.A. “Tony” Mares. I became aware of his poetry in the 1970s, when I was an undergrad at Cal State University, Long Beach. I took a couple of courses from the fledgling Chicano Studies program, and was introduced to an anthology titled, Festival de Flor y Canto: An Anthology of Chicano Literature. His poetry was among the contents, and I still have my copy. Upon moving to Albuquerque in 2002, I met Tony at readings, where we hit it off. He sat in on my dissertation committee, and has been a source of professional advice and encouragement for several years. We still get together for coffee and discuss the local and global state of affairs. During a time when he is exclusively concentrating on his own writing, he took the time to write an insightful and touching forward for the book, and I am honored and grateful.

Richard Vargas shares the title poem of his new book with La Bloga:

Guernica, revisited

the child is lying face down in the dirt, barefoot. his pants
are torn, exposing the backside of his leg, the skin’s surface
dull with a layer of fine dust.  head turned to the side, half
of the face is gone. hair is stiff, matted. he looks like a doll
someone just threw away. the family gathers around their
home where walls no longer stand and brick has been
pulverized into grit and debris burying their loved ones,
their belongings. a bed has been removed from the rubble;
under an old sleeping bag are the bodies of an adult and
two children. they look peaceful and asleep, huddled close
together for warmth. but they are not sleeping. overhead,
metallic raptors spread their wings with grace and ride
the high desert winds with ease, their cyber-cameras survey
the damage, send images half way around the globe where
men in starched uniforms focus on their military-issue
computer monitors, drink their morning coffee, take notes,
and fill out reports.

Picasso’s ghost walks
among the carnage, weeping.
there is no art here.

Author’s website:

Author’s page, Press 53:

The Mas Tequila Review: Where to Buy/How to Submit

Book launch and future reading in Highland Park

April 26, Saturday 2-4 pm
Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice
202 Harvard SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106 USA

And the first reading booked so far... hopefully the first of many.

August 10, Sunday at 2pm
Avenue 50 Studios
131 North Avenue 50
Highland Park, CA 90042

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