Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Blessings of Surprise (and Endurance)

I've had a poetry manuscript kicking around for, oh, maybe 8 years now.  It's gone through several name changes, undergone major renovations at least three times, and has been submitted to publishers and contests a total of 23 times.  Only one press responded with any kind of feedback.  Trust me, this is not unusual for poetry manuscripts!

Last year, at the AWP conference, I took hard copies of the manuscript with me, determined to overcome my fear of being pushy and give it to as many editors as would take it.

Honestly, I don't remember how many editors or small press publishers I gave that manuscript to last year (two?  three?), but I never heard back from any of them.  I continued submitting the book, but more significantly, in the spirit of humility, sat down at the beginning of my summer break and completely revisioned the manuscript

I mean, I was brutal.  

One of the best things I did?  I cleared off the dining room table and said, "Three piles:  awesome, potential, crap."  And then I sorted the poems from my manuscript.  I listened to my inner voice - not my editor, not my critic, but my gut instinct.  And I winnowed according to that voice.

Because I knew.  I knew some poems weren't pulling their weight, and I just had not yanked them yet.  Whether from pride, lack of energy, or sheer stupidity, that manuscript was not the best manuscript I had in me.

When I finished, I had something much better.  I went to work on the "potentially good" poems with a vengeance.  Then I sharpened the "awesome" poems, because I saw them with a clarity that wasn't possible before.  I dumped most of the "crap" poems except for one or two, which I performed some machete magic on, and reworked into material that surprised (but pleased) me.  Finally, I went through my file of newer poems that had never been in the manuscript and found homes for the best of them in the three sections that had evolved from this exercise.

Then I put it all away and worked on other things for a month.  I wanted to come back to it fresh, one more time.

Guess what?  This week, out of the blue, I received a surprise email.  One of those small press publishers from last spring had hung onto my older manuscript, and wrote to me this week saying, "I'd love to publish this."

I had to tell him, "Well, um, it's kinda not the same book anymore," and bless his heart, Luis Rodriguez of Tia Chucha Press wrote back, "I'm committed to this book, so don't worry about that. I'm positive the manuscript will be even better."

(Tangential point:  in 1994, when my father asked, "So what kind of stuff are you doing in grad school?" I gave him two of the most powerful books I'd read; he kept, read and re-read, those books, and he told me, "Now these are my kind of books!"  Those books were Greg Sarris's Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream, and . . . Always Running: La Vida Loca/Gang Days in L.A., by Luis Rodriguez.)

So, after 24 hours of furious polishing (important addendum: and giving the whole thing to my wife Margo Solod, who helped sequence the poems, make a few excellent suggestions about a poem that was troubling me, and generally earn my undying gratitude), I sent the new/old manuscript off.  A contract came by return email.  Along with a tentative publication date of just before the next AWP (April 8-10, 2015).  Eight months.  This is unheard of; writers wait years for publication most of the time.

Add to this, the gift of being told to choose an image for the cover (this is one of the perks of small press publishing - more authorial control, less anonymous machinery).  

So today I am happy to present to you a brief preview of what Raised By Humans (Tia Chucha Press, 2015) will look like.

The cover design will be based on this collage piece by Yaqui poet/writer/artist Anita Endrezze.  For years I have been looking at Anita's artwork online and drooling over it, wanting to have a piece of hers grace the cover of one of my books.  I can't believe it's happening, but it is!  I found a piece that fits the book perfectly: 
This is just a screenshot; you can view the real thing by clicking on the picture to go to Anita's website.


The poems in Raised by Humans are about surviving two experiences:  childhood, and colonization.

When writing the title poem, I thought of literary depictions of children raised by wolves or other animals. Tarzan and Mowgli come to mind immediately, of course, though there are countless other examples:  human children abandoned or lost in the wilderness, adopted and nurtured by non-humans. As a kid, I never felt sorry for those children; I wanted to be those children!  Childhood did not agree with me, mostly because the adult humans in charge of my life were not prepared to manage their own lives, let alone the life of a human-in-training.

…They locked me in a tin house,

went carousing while I huddled each night alone.
Sometimes I escaped to surrounding woods,

ate huckleberries and drank from a muddy creek,
slept buried in dried pine and cedar needles.  But like a tamed fox

I always went back to my captivity for dinner, begged
for a crumb of something.

Sometimes I got it.  Sometimes I wolfed
a meal down greedily, not caring who saw my starvation.

(“Raised by Humans”)

I was raised by humans, but it wasn’t a humane childhood.

This collection has a parallel theme that has also haunted me: What does it mean for indigenous people to survive civilization and become readers/writers of the same alphabet that colonized their culture?  How do we write our Indigenous stories in the language of our destroyers?  What can we do to save ourselves when the real barbarians are not the indigenous peoples but our so-called saviors?

Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird titled their anthology of Native women’s writing “re-inventing the enemy’s language,” and although this phrase says so much about what I do in my work, I am far from finished with wrestling with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, or even the twenty-nine letters of my Spanish colonizers – as the two alphabet poems that book-end this collection illustrate.

The reason, of course, is that neither of these themes is totally black and white.  My parents, while not skilled at raising children, loved me.  And I loved them terribly.  Both my mother (European) and my father (California Indian) were scarred by the violence of colonization, and brought their own wounds into the lives of their children.  Despite this, we are family in ways that cannot be erased.  In much the same way, while Euro-American culture has done indigenous people a great deal of harm, we are also irrevocably intertwined, and I’m under no illusion that the colonizers are going to see the error of their ways, pack their bags, and hop on the next boat back to Europe. 

The complexity of being forced to find my way into relationship with the very people or cultures that have hurt me/raised me is a paradox at the heart of this book.  The poems in this collection attempt to push language past what I call the “alphabet of walls:”

this alphabet we never asked for, ‘given’ to us like a parasite in our guts, shackle around our wrist, gag in our mouths.  This alphabet like a cattle brand.  This alphabet meant to strangle us – the umbilical cord of a mother who hates her bastard child.  (“Decolonizing the Alphabet”)

To do this, I tweak an anthropological lens for the book’s structure, laying out sections of familiar categories like History, Education and Faith, much the way an anthropology textbook might examine this strange tribe called humans.  My poems look at the experience of understanding familial and cultural histories, learning how to negotiate both loss and poetics, coming into spirituality.  I often play with poetic forms, looking for ways to ‘re-invent’ those structures for my purposes; I think of this as lulling myself (and perhaps readers) into a sense of familiarity, then suddenly twisting around to see what’s lurking in the corner of language’s eye.  I tell my creative writing students that we have to trick ourselves into language that reveals; what I mean is that language, like any code, hides the best parts, so we must use any means necessary to surprise it into giving up a clue, an insight.

This book, then, is also about becoming an adult, and decolonization – the ongoing process of each, not the resolution, because that would be far too linear.

                                                - Deborah A. Miranda



I was born on the San Andreas Fault.  I carry
that promise of violence and destruction down
the center of my body like a zig-zag of lightning.

My father was born there, my mother too,
all my brothers and sisters.  Sometimes I think
that’s the only thing we still have in common:

our emergence on the edge of a rippling continent
where the sun goes down over warm waters;
born in the desert’s shadow, between

mountains and sea.  Some of us got into cars,
drove north on long interstate freeways.
Some of us stayed not twenty miles

from our birthplace, bound by love or hate
or fear, unable to imagine a sunrise
without palm trees – or sun.  Some of us

died, turned to dust inside incinerators
built for human flesh; our ashes tucked
in a niche at Inglewood or scattered by children

on the green currents at Tuolumne.  Some
of us no longer speak to one another, silent
as rusty knives; others learn old languages,

make new songs out of scraps.  Some of us
journey only in motes of dust shining
above the fractured chasms of earth. 

And some of us return in solitary dreams
to sacred places we could not find
in this lifetime.  Today, I wind a string

of shells around my wrist four times,
a bracelet strung so I can bear
the beauty of my homeland with me

wherever I go.  The sharp edges bite
my skin, rattle soft as pebbles as I write
these words.  Abalone hangs from my neck:

polished shards of oceanic memory.
I was born on the San Andreas Fault.
I carry that rattlesnake in my spine, feel

the plates of a restless continent grind
and shift from tailbone to skull, a tectonic
rosary that keeps coming unstrung, keeps me

tied to the plundered bones of this place.

- Deborah A. Miranda

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