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ON THE PAGE, ON THE STAGE
The first time I met Tim Z. Hernandez was in 2000, when he performed his poetry at Arte Americas in downtown Fresno for the first time. Tim had driven up from his hometown of Visalia to read to the big donors, the board members, and dedicated volunteers.
I remember asking myself: Who is this fiery young poet? In his mid-twenties, he seemed to come out of nowhere. His passion was captivating and he electrified the audience with his combustible words.
That was six years ago. Now, my friend Tim will return to Arte on Dec. 1 to perform again as part of a poetry event called "Outriders." But this time, he returns with a ton of accolades.
Tim won the 2006 American Book Award for his first collection of poems, Skin Tax. The collection, published by Heyday Books of Berkeley, has earned national praise and recognition through the prestigious award, sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation.
Tim will graduate in spring 2007 with a Bachelor's degree in writing and poetics from Naropa University in Boulder City, Colorado. He's the recipient of the 2006 Zora Neale Hurston Award, given by Naropa, and the 2003 James Duval Phelan Award, given by the San Francisco Foundation.
I had a chance to catch up with Tim in advance of his triumphant return to the central San Joaquin Valley.
You have experienced a measure of writing success at the age of 32. Supportive friends, good mentors, and a dream usually seem to be the recipe for success. Has that been the same for you?
Naturally, all of those things come into play. Without community there'd be no reason for any of this. I feel I've been especially blessed to have the best of all three. A mentor who was very generous with his knowledge and advice, a community of supportive writers and performers, particularly in Fresno.
And as for a dream? Looking back, I realize that the dream was never about becoming a writer so much as trying to strengthen community through whatever talents or means I had in my possession. Early on for me, it was visual art, painting, and murals, so I did quite a bit of that. Then later came writing and performance.
I guess if there was a recipe, hammering away at all of these with a relentless pursuit has been it.
I've noticed that you often quote the Persian poet Rumi in your work. How has Rumi influenced your poetry and your life?
Ah, sweet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. I've always considered myself a pretty spiritual person, and in some ways I guess I consider Rumi's work a blueprint for living. Not necessarily a bible, but definitely sacred. Rumi's work has influenced my own in a big way; to read Rumi, for me, is to see the bigger picture.
An example of this is that whenever I've got some mad stress happening, I like to drive up into the front range of the Rocky Mountains and perch myself on some cliff and look out over the landscape. From this vantage point I remember what life is truly about -- buildings, cars, taxidermy shops, all become invisible and the land is all there is. The land and clouds and universe.
When I lived in the Valley, it was long drives along the country back roads, toward Orange Cove, Dinuba, those places where concrete is scarce and all you have is big sky, fertile earth, an abandoned dog, and hunkered bodies toiling in the grooves.
Skin Tax was written before you began your academic studies in poetry and literature. How much has academia affected your writing and do you see a significant change in your poems?
Fortunately, Naropa University isn't a "traditional" academic setting, which is exactly why I chose it. The intersection of writing and contemplative practice (or Eastern thought) makes it nearly impossible to forget that we are actual breathing beings, not just floating heads bumping along the storms of "intellect." Although,Naropa does have a very rigorous approach to education, it's still very rooted in the actual moment.
I don't know how or if academia has effected my writing, but certainly Naropa itself has, and it has been a very welcomed shift. Not necessarily in the form -- I haven't gone experimental or anything like that -- but moreso in the approach to what poet Juan Felipe Herrera once referred to as the "non-poem." That is, the awareness of walking around as a poet, constantly living with poetry, seeing poetry in everything, and being truly aware of that.
Because I'm a pretty passionate person, I used to write all of my poetry from a firey center, whereas now I'm training myself to write from the quality of softness or malleability, or maybe flexibility.
I think the term "academia" can carry with it a negative quality. It sounds rigid and overtly structured, conservative perhaps. But I see it as another strand of potential in the larger context of art and community. I think academia is just as important as spoken-word [poetry]. Both have much to offer and when flexible enough to combine forces, the product is capable of generating major shifts in tectonic genres.
Since you won the American Book Award and have traveled the country for readings, what important messages do you deliver to beginning poets and performance poets?
Of course, there is no standard rule, but what has worked for me is the following: persistence and ferocity. By this I mean be fierce about your own voice -- if you have something to say, say it, but keep your heart wide open in the process. Forge yourself into literary radars, or performance radars, whichever your preference. But most importantly, be authentic about your intentions -- or consider the words of the late, great Fresno poet Andres Montoya: "What's your purpose, bro?"
How does the performance aspect itself contribute to your poetry? Do you ever feel it overshadows the writing itself, or is it complementary?
It's an age-old question. I believe it's different for everyone, but here's the most recent conclusion I've arrived at: It has always been my mission to successfully generate poetry that holds up on the page as well as stage.
Mostly because it has always been my intention to write a book, and in a book no one can see or hear you read your own work, right? On the other hand, I'm a student of physical theater and have strong leanings toward that as well. Therefore, when I sit down to write poetry, I try my best to hone in tight on the poetry currents, with no regard whatsoever to how it might look on stage. For this reason, many of my poems don't ever get stage time.
After poems have been written, I look through them and see which ones stand out to me as potential for performance. It's very challenging and I prefer it this way, but in the end I always trust myself and my ability to make it work on stage. I guess it's this "trust" factor of self that allows me to do both.
For me, studying performance as much as writing has allowed me to do both with some success. If I really feel the need to write a performance text, then I dip into a one-man show, or something of that nature. A good exercise is to take someone like William Carlos Williams, or [Arthur] Rimbaud, or some other literary icon, and try performing their work. You'll see it's very possible to have a great poem performed.
Tibetan scholar Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a lineage holder of Buddhist wisdom and traditions, founded Naropa University. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman founded the writing and poetics department at Naropa, a.k.a. the Jack Kerouac School of writing. How can Brown Lotus, your forthcoming poetry collection, be considered a convergence of these philosophies, ideologies, and influences?
Brown Lotus is definitely a convergence of these influences, but what makes it most unique is that it is fusing these elements -- Eastern thought and ideology -- with contemporary Latino realities and traditions. The writing explores the possibility of how Eastern thought can provide new access points to the Latino struggle by fusing both.
It's very much in line with how Ghandi's Satyagraha informed Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers' movement in the 1960s. Now, just take the concept and apply it to poetry.
So I end up with poems like "San Joaquin Sutra," an ode to the Valley and to the campesinos who work there. But more than an ode, it's also a celebration as well as a question.
Another way these lineages have informed my writing is through Shambala meditation. I have a sitting practice at least three times a week, and developing this clarity of mind is something I question now as to how I ever did without as an artist. It's no religious trip. It's simply about opening your awareness and being able to tune in to all of your receptors, and knowing when -- in the words of Ginsberg -- to "catch yourself thinking."
It's a valuable tool for me as a writer, but also as a human being, which are the same after all, que no?
Tim Z. Hernandez is the featured performer for "Outriders: An Evening of Poetry from Writers Outside the Mainstream," on Friday evening, Dec. 1, at Arte Americas in downtown Fresno. Details on ArteAmericas.org.