How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Keep Writing
I'm lying. I never, once, learned how to stop worrying.

However, fans always ask me how I made it. Hmm. I don't believe I've made it, see--though I couldn't tell you what having made it means. Rich? Signing autographs? Or maybe happiness? What is it?

What I have always done is managed to continue writing. Faith may by shaken. It's not just the earth that has fault-lines. But sooner or later, if you want to survive, you are given enough grace to shed the desperation. And then you see it's all a silly game, the "making it" career path. Really. Believe me. Nobody was as desperate as I was.

I lived in abject grubby poverty, man! I lived with my mom! No stove, no oven, no heater, no plumbing in the kitchen! I was like some strange backwoods madman with 150 cats locked in his trailer. Well, maybe not so much.

But I was desperate to have publishing success not only to save myself, but to save my mother, and to save the orphans and garbage-pickers I was working with in Tijuana. Sure, I wanted to be famous. Why lie?

But here's a small story for you, just to let you know that it's what is in you, not what is in the world, that matters.

I had escape San Diego's doom and poverty to Harvard. 1982. I was amazed to meet a Chicano poet there of some repute. I helped him start a lit j0urnal. Already, I was making it more than I ever imagined I would--teaching writing at Harvard? Editing a lit mag? Shazam! And because of that lit mag, I met all these interesting people--I met Martin Espada and Jimmy Santiago Baca, I met Sandra Cisneros, I met Ernesto Cardenal, I met Ricardo Sanchez and all kinds of other poets and writers.

Turns out, the typesetter of the jrnl was a Boston area political poet. He had this book of poems, very slim, and he was a member of a well-known small press and NYC lit mag. I had done the artwork for the cover of our own mag's first issue. So, I guess, he saw me as an artist. It never, apparently, occurred to him that I wrote or could write--that art was a distant secnod and a hobby, not a calling.

Anyway, he asked me to illustrate his little book, and his fancy small press would publish it. So I did. And they did. And the book sank into obscurity like all middlin' small press political poetry chapbooks tend to do. But people were very kind about my surreal artwork.

OK. Now. I had been working on a semi-epic long poems for years--since I was nineteen. It was inspired by so many things--Whitman, of course. But also Ferlinghetti. Later, Antler's Factory. And movies: The Wild Bunch. It grew and mutated, it was called, at that time, "Mexico." As it followed me through the years, from San Diego to Mazatlan to Boston, it consumed everything in its path--my dad's death, my own bouts of para-typhoid, Under the Volcano, Octavio Paz, rock and roll--it was just this odd beast.

So I sent it to the New York lit jrnl/small press! Why not! It was my life's work! Of course, I couldn't send it all, so I cut it down and retitled it, "Ghost Sickness."

Well, they rejected it. No big deal. But the poet whose book I had illustrated sent this amazingly condescending letter that now, years later, gives me big chuckles. But in it, he asks if I have ever heard of these nice things called poetry workshops. I could also get some poetry text books and see what poems are all about. Maybe take a few night classes to get acquainted with poetry.

As is often the case, the joke's on the writer, and the writer has to maintain an smile.

I put that long poem away, feeling mighty friggin' bad about the whole thing. It sat in the carboard box of doom from 1984 till around 1994 or 1995, when a friend of mine in Boulder started yet another lit mag and asked to see some fresh work. Now, granted, I had published Across the Wire. And I was in the rpocess of winning the Western States Book Award for Poetry for my first book of poems, The fever of Being. So, I guess, people were paying closer attention.

I was curious what they'd think about poor ol' "Ghost Sickness." So I gave it to my pal Naomi. And she published parts of it in the jrnl. And Adrienne Rich saw it and took the entire thing, with edits replaced, and published the whole doggoned thing.


In The Best American Poetry 1996!

Yes, indeed. The same exact text that was so unready in 1984 was among the best in America in 1996. Untouched. Unedited.

Now, did the editors of that first mag pick up the book and say, "Wow--this guy needs to try this neat-o thing they call a poetry workshop"?

Did any of those eds get their work in The Best American Poetry?

I'm tellin' ya, friends, all you can do is go to work, pack a good lunch, and bang away. Judges are all around you. Most of them suck blood. You have to put on your band-aids and walk on. If it's good, it will find its way into the world.

Ha ha! Hahahahaha. How can you take it seriously?

Now get to work, you--

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