By Jake Page, Traci Paris, Luci Tapahonso, and Levi Romero
SEPTEMBER 29, 1997: If you're a writer, then you know. People who write are endlessly more interesting than the works that they create--even the most supple and engaging works of literature. The problem is most of us never have a chance to find that out. That's why we began the Writing Burque project last year. We felt it was time to introduce you to Albuquerque's authors, to give you a sense of the people, the perspectives, the communities behind the names. This year, four more local talents have contributed to our Fall Literary Issue, four original, never-before-published works that confront one slippery issue: what it means to live, work and write in Albuquerque. To these four writers, Weekly Alibi would like to extend its most sincere thanks. To the readers, we just hope you get as much out of these pieces as we did.
--Blake de Pastino
Best known as the author of mystery novels like Deadly Canyon and The Stolen Gods. Most recently, he co-wrote Wild Justice, a history of the Apaches' legal efforts to maintain rights to their land, published by Random House. Page lives in Corrales.
I like some geology to be showing. Big old mesas, cracked, sitting out there in the middle of the flatland, surrounded with tumbledown boulders and slabs like a bow wave. Huge outcrops of layercake stone jutting out of the earth at a ridiculous angle, bespeaking a lot of slow-mo torment long ago. I like playas, those flat places that water can't escape, turning the world white and alkaline, with silver strips of mirage. I like the sun to be out 300+ days of the year.
I like a place where mythology isn't just something in a book but someone's religion and a legitimate kind of history.
I read about places like that in pulp westerns when I was a little kid--the word arroyo for some reason struck me as magical--and put it out of mind to ply the know-it-all worlds of New York City and Washington, D.C. for four decades. Then I saw the Rio Grande Rift Valley fill up with saffron light one day and that was that.
Thoreau said it: "I will walk into the southwest or west. Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free ..."
I am a carpetbagger, even what used to be called a Mugwump (in fact, I was even born in Boston). A newcomer, I make a living off the Southwest, writing about it, laying my own claim to it, listening to it. A pitiful romantic.
Well, yes, in spite of revisionists, I really do like the Old West. The real history of Tombstone beats the hell out of the real history of, say, Hartford, Connecticut. The Hopi Indians are a lot more interesting to me than the admen and stockbrokers who commute from Westchester County every day. Old mines--I worked in one so I'm not about to romanticize that line of work, but the nameless faceless folk who worked the old mines with nothing much else but a mule and a pick--they (and the Apaches) were the real athletes of the west if you compare them to mountain bikers ... or writers.
I like the New West too. Hollywood types in Santa Fe? Just a new wave of artists. Relax. Sandia Labs--blowing up stuff in Coyote Canyon to make the world safe. Are we resentful of the Trinity Site, Los Alamos, all those nukes sitting underground over there in the mountains? Are we worried about water? Cowpods (horrors!) in the national forests? Of course--we're right here in the thick of the great Faustian bargain that began some 50,000 years ago when the human brain got whorly enough to paint some good art on cave walls. The questions here are real, not academic.
The funny thing is--and maybe it's all that sun and Vitamin D or whatever--you don't hear people saying, "Well, we tried that already and it didn't work." I pray, of course, that the Old and the New West aren't replaced by the Panty-West.
Writers tend to be a depressive lot. They need a lot of sun. I do anyway.
Accomplished writer, street poet and most recently the coach of the Albuquerque Slam Team. Paris is the author of Ballyhoo and Grind, a chapbook available through Flaming Tongues (P.O. Box 91296, Albuquerque, NM 87199). She's currently working on a collection of "amazingly short fiction."
I don't know if you can separate where you live from who you are. I lived my first years in Atlanta, a humid, bright green childhood. Santa Fe was self-conscious and contradictory: my high desert town of adolescence. One-third of my life I've lived here. In Albuquerque, I've found the academia, war, idealism, love and poverty: my first city of independence.
What I've learned about storytelling, I learned in Albuquerque. I'm not talking about narrative structure, plot device or anything to do with a B.A. from UNM. I mean that a city will tell you stories if you live in it long enough.
I heard the urban tales: gargantuan roaches are really a UNM experiment accidentally released into the sewers of the Student Ghetto; the apartment building is built on a cemetery and is slowly sinking into the graves. The stories were like punchlines, the rest of the joke forgotten.
I didn't believe the stories whispered about La Llorona; how she was heard weeping in the ditches in the North Valley or opening a locker in the darkened halls of old Albuquerque High. Until one night, I swear I saw her sleeping under an overpass near the Big I.
The old timers talked about drag racing out on Montgomery when it was still dirt. They said that Old Town would be a marshland without the acequias. They told me that a hundred years ago, the crack houses I pass on the way to work were opium dens. Said the lawyers' offices were once TB clinics. Similes and metaphors.
Albuquerque expanded and contracted around me. There were years I never left the confines of University and Carlisle. Two winters I rode the bus up Central before dawn with Charlie the bus driver and three ex-cons. I didn't recognize the murderer until he told me what he had done. At twilight, I would only walk on the metallic streets, Silver, Gold and Copper.
One year I thought about leaving. I thought I could trade one mindless job for another in New York. But I didn't go. I continued living in the equation: east means mountains, west means volcanoes. Something told me that if I really wanted to write the good stories, I need to see the horizon.
I went with a group of Albuquerque poets to Manhattan this summer. I saw New Yorkers sleek as seals, diving in and out of that human stream. Seven million of them on one island. They keep their gaze fastened to the floor of the subway cars as common courtesy. In Albuquerque, we have a wide sky. We regard each other openly and eavesdrop without shame.
Others may want a sharp-cheekboned, slim-hipped coquette like Santa Fe or San Francisco--a city that everyone falls for. I'd rather spend my time flirting with the thick-waisted, plainer sister. I know that if Albuquerque won't tell me the truth, at least she'll tell me a very interesting lie.
Luci Tapahonso is the author of five books of poetry and two children's books. Her most recent work, Blue Horses Rush In, is published by the University of Arizona. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
I was born and raised in Shiprock, and lived in Albuquerque before moving to Lawrence, Kansas in 1990. When I began writing, the themes were always about the Southwest, and it remains so today. My friends and students here ask me, "Why? Why don't you write about Kansas and the Midwest?" I don't know. I can't say why this lush, green part of Kansas isn't in my poetry. Today outside my study window, the backyard is lush green--the trees are thick, the sky is overcast. The air is thick and damp.
I am blessed in that I am able to return to New Mexico often. When I fly into Albuquerque, I pick up a rental car, load my bags, and drive straight to Ron's El Camino for a carne adovada plate. I eat slowly, pausing to write in my journal. It's a luxury to walk into a restaurant knowing you will simply relish every bite. It's a delight to hear the waiter ask, "Red or green?" It is these kinds of details that can enhance poetry.
Usually before I drive to Shiprock, I buy a newspaper from the guy outside Smith's, and for a moment, the aroma of roasting chile overwhelms me. I am reminded of years past when we roasted, peeled, and bagged chile on our backporch in the North Valley, at Acoma with relatives, or in Isleta with friends. I am reminded of the laughter, teasing, and storytelling--all essential ingredients in such rituals. I watch the chile churn in the darkened drum awhile and as I leave, the guy roasting chile wipes his brow, and says, "Take care, huh? It's a long ways to Shiprock."
I drive west, and am grateful that despite the development, the huge turquoise sky remains the same; I drive into empty space between Albuquerque and Laguna. On each side, I'm greeted by the last bright bursts of wildflowers, chamisa, and straggly sunflowers. In the clear distance Mount Taylor sits--she wears dark purple velvet. Every other pickup or car on the highway carries people who have black hair and brown skin, like me. "I'm home," I say aloud, "Nánisdzá. I have returned."
On the way to Shiprock, it seems that the stark red cliffs recognize me. Their smooth, hard sides reassure me of my history, my age, my journey. I drive through the thick, hardened blood of the evil giant that was slain atop Mt. Taylor by the twin hero boys. "Thank you," I tell the Navajo Holy Twins, "that I am able to come back safely." I-40 cuts through the giant's black blood.
I turn at Gallup, and on the west, the Chuska Mountain range lies still. Sometimes storms linger above, then move slowly over the desert. Out here, it's possible to see the storms approaching. Shiprock is visible from miles away--she is a sentinel from the beginning of Navajo time. Since childhood, I have seen her unwavering image. When I am driving alongside her, I know that my mother is preparing for my arrival. The coffee is hot and fresh, the stew is simmering, and she slaps warm dough between her palms, then places it carefully on the hot skillet. She tells my father, "Our daughter is coming home now. She's probably by Shiprock now."
And I walk into my childhood home, bags in hand, and am immersed in the scents of family, the voices of my dreams, and as we talk, laugh, and eat; I see that I am myself once again.
Born and raised in the Embudo Valley of northern New Mexico, Levi Romero is the author of a poetry collection, In the Gathering of Silence, published by West End Press. He has read his poetry in venues as varied as Wal-Mart in Taos and City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. He works as an architect in Albuquerque.
A poem snuck into the workday. As brief as a walk to the watercooler down the hall. The past keeps its distance but it's never too far behind. It is what we cannot escape from, who we are, where we come from, into this Alburque'. And my personal language and my perspective, how I view things, how I feel things, it comes from having grown up alla en el norte, up north between Española and Taos, in Dixon, el Dique. And I think back now these days to that village that has seen me weep in times of sorrow and in times of joy and how the poetry of our daily lives was interwoven with everything we did. There was no separation between what the heart felt and what the hands did. And I think I carry that with me. I cannot separate the writing from the living and what I do to sustain myself here, now, where I live. And at any moment, any instance, even a casual tuning of the radio station can turn to this
heard on radio this afternoon
and when I encounter the resonance of the norteño, the "manito," those who came before I did, here, and found work in the railroad yards, the restaurants, who came and earned their degrees in law, in medicine, in architecture, I find the resonance lingering still, quiet, casual, composed, proud and observing. It is to me like the scent of fresh rain. Sometimes in my work it spills across the poetry, the language, intentionally, accidentally, as in a correspondence letter with a childhood friend serving time in Cañon City, Colo. The language and the imagery write me back home again.
esta tarde las nubes se miran negras rumbo a Colo' y ojala, onque el cielo anuncie lluvia, entre tus dias encontres luz. Ojala que me dispenses por tan largo tiempo que no te contesto, pero en verdad es que no ha tenido el animo para tirar rollo, sea la flojes o que en estos dias de padre y de marido el tiempo ya no es mio pero de las obligaciones de cada dia. ¡aye! que fuera volver aquellos tiempos cuando nos las pasavanos pistiando y hechandonos las tres 'bajo los alamos en el "car wash" del Embudo con las ranflas bien tostaditas y el chrome shiniando con gusto de oyer la placita entre la plebe--camarades que ya no existen masde en los rincones telerañosos de la mentecita--me la paso a'veces escarbandole aquel ojito de recuerdos; como dice Chivela, "pica le, pica le." Tambien te mando el pesame en saber que tu tio Tacho ya se nos fue--era un hombre que caminaba en otros valles, juellas que nosotros nunca podremos alcansar.
We touch on old memories, reflecting on present day obligations, and remembering the passing on of a friend or relative, of a way of life, of a language, in a language that is hardly spoken much less written.
so much to talk about
It is through that stillness of the afternoon at work, head bowed down at the drafting table. It's when they come, the poems I don't have time for. It's something an employer who pays you by the hour to draw architectural details may not understand.
... how many years later now
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