By Dini Karasik
Richard Vargas is a long-time poet and the founding editor of The Más Tequila Review, a journal of poetry “for the rest of us.” He is a prominent member of the Albuquerque poetry scene, was once nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, twice.
Here Richard discusses, among other things, the origins of The Más Tequila Review, poetry as a tool for social change, and Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem.
DK: You edited a poetry journal, The Tequila Review, from 1978 to 1980. Can you tell us about that journal and what led you to launch The Más Tequila Review a few years ago?
Vargas: I was an undergrad at Cal State Univ., Long Beach, and 1978 was my senior year. What you have to understand is, at that time, Long Beach was a fertile ground for poetry and small press publishing. I often refer to this period as its “golden age” of Long Beach small presses, as the “mimeo revolution” evolved to the next stage of independent publishing. The faculty teaching creative writing at the university, (including my former professor and friend, Gerald Locklin) were very supportive, encouraging many of us to get involved. Students stayed in the area and started publishing magazines and journals, or they moved on to other parts of the country, taking their magazines and journals with them. But for the most part, it seemed that the majority of the poetry magazines stayed west of the Mississippi. After all, it was the rejection by the publishing houses on the east coast that sparked the small press movement.
We were in the shadow of the Bukowski-dominated L.A. poetry scene, but not in a bad way. The prolific and influential poetry magazine, Marvin Malone’s Wormwood Review, had set the standard for all of us. So when I approached my academic advisor, poet Richard Lee, about doing a semester of independent study, the idea of starting my own poetry magazine was a no-brainer. I was eager to bring together the poets I admired most, while giving new voices a place where their work could find a home. From the very beginning, I used the guiding principle that it was all about the poem. Fuck the egos and cult of personality so many of us get caught up in. Just send me good poetry, the rest will take care of itself.
Issues 1-3 are titled Tequila Press Poetry Review, because I wanted the option left open in case I decided to publish poetry books. But I soon figured out I would just stick with the magazine, and the title was shortened to Tequila Review.
Since there was no internet, everything was done by snail mail. The process was slow, and methodical. Spreading the word about a new publication relied on exchanging information with established magazines, who in turn got the word out to their readers. We had to network at a time when it was mostly done by mail. I also posted flyers all over campus, and mailed them out to every creative writing MFA program in the country. (At that time, I believe there were only ten programs, unlike now, where new ones are popping up every year.) As a result, I published early poems by Alberto Ríos in my inaugural issue.
The first issue opened with poetry by Locklin, and I remember the first printer I approached refused my attempt to employ his services. He thought one of Locklin’s poems was obscene, calling it “dirty filth.” That’s when I knew I was on to something. I also adopted the Wormwood Review’s format, having a featured poet in the middle of the magazine. My first feature was L.A. poet, Michael C Ford, a disciple of the late, great Kenneth Patchen.
I’m proud to say I published poetry by the likes of Ron Koertge, nila northSun, Kirk Robertson, Jimmy Santiago Baca (during his incarcerated years,) Dennis Cooper, Richard Lee, Steve Richmond, John Yamrus, and Mitsuye Yamada. (Note: Richard has mint condition copies of issues 1-4, that are priced as collector’s items on the internet. If interested, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Okay, flash forward to The Más Tequila Review. I moved to Albuquerque in 2002. Several years later, I was enrolled in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of New Mexico. I did not feel the “need” to have an MFA, but it was on my bucket list. I had always wondered what would have happened if I had pursued one right after getting my B.A. UNM had just started their MFA program, and I was accepted on my first try. Since I did not get into the loop for a Teaching Assistant position, I was to find out later I would not be eligible for a Graduate Assistant position, such as student director of a reading series or serving as an editor for the program’s literary journal. Me, with experience up the ass, and being denied the opportunity to contribute. But the good thing about it was I said to myself, “Screw them. I know how to do this, I’ve done it on my own before, so what am I waiting for?” So I approached my academic advisor, Sharon Oard Warner, about doing a semester of independent study. I informed her of my intention to start my own poetry magazine, and she gave me the green light.
I already knew what I had to do, and in this day and age, it was better and faster. And thus, The Más Tequila Review was born. Once again, I am soliciting work from poets I admire, while publishing them side by side with poets of lesser notoriety, who are just as talented. Gerald Locklin, Joy Harjo, Luis J. Rodriguez, John Bennett, Ron Koertge, nila northSun, Charles Harper Webb, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Lynn Lifshin, Valerie Martinez, Luivette Resto, Richard Garcia and Mitsuye Yamada are just some of the names who have graced the pages of past issues. And yes, it’s still “all about the poem.”
DK: When did you start writing poetry? Was there a specific impetus or did you come to it over time?
Vargas: Unlike now, I was a ferocious reader when I was a kid. I read anything I could get my hands on. I read Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” in its original publication in Playboy magazine. (Don’t ask what a third grader was doing reading Playboy.) I consider him one of my major influences in wanting to become a writer. I read Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers during the summer before I entered the fifth grade. So I had a sense of what kind of mature themes and content was missing in the readers we were issued at the beginning of every school year. I didn’t object, I just knew there was so much more out there to read and write about. As I flipped through the reader, I always stopped at whatever poems were included in the text, taking in the meter and rhyme, the inherent song, and the way the poet used language like a paintbrush on a canvas. (I loved to draw and paint, and had aspired to become an artist at a very early age.) And since I had been made to realize I couldn’t sing when a teacher directing the 4th grade choir for the Christmas program asked me to quit singing and just move my lips, poetry stood out as a way to incorporate so many different forms of self expression, all rolled into one.
Combine this with growing up during the 60s, when the Vietnam war dominated the nightly news, civil rights were being fought for in the streets, political assassinations almost seemed commonplace, protests were taking place on a regular basis, and my inability to find anyone to talk about how all this made me feel. Looking back now, I can say that poetry, for me, was inevitable.
I wrote my first poem in the eighth grade. It was about a soldier dying in Vietnam. I compared his life to a candle being snuffed out. It questioned the reasons for the war. It was political. I was on my way. And yes, my writing did get the attention of a counselor, and also an English teacher, who were concerned about my state of mind. Once again, I knew I was doing something right.
DK: With books like McLife (Main Street Rag, 2005) and American Jesus (Tia Chucha, 2007), you’ve established yourself as a social justice poet. I read somewhere that during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, you wrote anti-war poems and handed them to people on the street, tacked them to community boards, and taped them on the windows of your home for people to see as they walked by. One person has described you as an “old-fashioned poet [who] walks right up to a social issue and bitch-slaps it to the ground.” Is poetry an effective tool for social change or is it merely an expression of dissent?
Vargas: Poetry, and the arts, are effective tools for social change. They keep alive the opposition to the status quo. Poetry documents events for the collective social consciousness as an alternative to the “official” version, which most of us know is under tight, corporate control. Poetry records how we are made to feel, and in doing so, reminds us of our humanity, of what we still share and have in common. Through poetry, I can proclaim my individual self, but do it in such a way that allows the reader/listener to make connections based on their personal experience, making them realize we can be different and still have so much in common. I truly believe that this is a powerful force in social change. I’m one of those people who believes all art is political. I’m not saying that poetry alone can create change, but yes, it is a tool.
DK: Is it a good thing that we often distinguish ourselves as Latino or gay or women poets? Or do these distinctions serve to marginalize us in the canon of contemporary poetry? For example, the media describe Richard Blanco as the nation’s first gay and Latino inaugural poet. There are political reasons to use these labels, but what do they have to do with Blanco’s poetry per se?
Vargas: Well, the keyword in your question is “canon.” As an undergrad at CSULB, I used to read The American Poetry Review and Poetry, and it made me realize I was going to have to make some major changes in how I wrote if I wanted to crack their pages and get published there. There was a certain bland, generic quality that my poetry lacked, and I thought it was a bad thing. In the world of APR and Poetry, none of the poets looked like me, Mexican surnames were non-existent, poets of color were a rarity. Academics were circling the wagons, the rest of us were the barbarians at the gates. Another reason leading to the rise of small presses. Once the rest of us decided that no one controlled or owned poetry, that what constitutes “good” poetry was wide open to interpretation and not to be dictated by elitists, it was a whole new ball game.
Now, there are lively poetry scenes at the community level. Here, in Albuquerque, readings take place featuring local poets who address the immediate concerns of the people living there. Poet/activists jump between local issues and global issues, their poetry serving as the point of awareness as to how what is happening thousands of miles away is having a direct effect on the here and now. Poetry is alive and well in the hands of local poetry scenes all over the country. When someone asks “Is poetry dead? Does it matter?” they are only showing their own ignorance. Because if they would get their ass up and away from their desk and take a walk around their neighborhood, they’d find the answer to a really stupid question.
Is all this poetry “good?” I can honestly say that sometimes the emphasis is more tilted toward quantity, not quality. But I firmly believe that the cream will always rise to the top.
My personal opinion on Blanco’s poem? It was a glaring example of “sometimes, less is more.”
Maybe it was his delivery, maybe it was his failed attempt to keep my attention as the poem took me everywhere, but left me nowhere. (I listened to it more than once.) And I’m sure he had to jump through several hoops to get it approved. My thinking is why not assign this to the Poet Laureate? They would have plenty of time to give it some thought. But it’s always a good thing when a poem or poet can stir so many to comment in favor or against. If he was trying to do that, it was a success. The fact that he is Latino and gay should have no bearing on the quality of the poem.
In the end, it’s “all about the poem.”
Richard Vargas reads his poem Godzilla: