Tag Archives: University of Texas Press

A Virtual Interview with Teresa Palomo Acosta

Background

Friday, December 10, 2021 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-presents-tejanaland-by-teresa-palomo-acosta-tickets-201325238207

BookWoman is delighted to present Teresa Palomo Acosta for the launch of her book, Tejanaland: A Writing Life in Four Acts (Texas A&M Press, 2021). Tejanaland collects three decades of Acosta’s work in poems, essays, drama, and children’s story that address the cultural, historical, political, and gender realities that have informed the author from childhood to the present.

Poet, historian, author, and activist Teresa Palomo Acosta grew up in McGregor, Texas, in a home approximately 100 human paces from the railroad tracks. She first learned about music and writing from her maternal grandfather Maximino and her mother Sabina. At 11, she decided to become a writer and spent the next four years cogitating before settling on poetry as her chosen form. Teresa’s degrees in Mexican American Studies from UT Austin and in Journalism from Columbia University reinforced her commitment to depict her Tejanaland life in equal measures of joy and pain.

In addition to Tejanaland, Acosta is the author of the poetry collections In the Season of Change (Eakin Press, 2003), Nile and Other Poems (Red Salmon Press, 1999), and Passing Time (Teresa Palomo Acosta, 1984). Acosta co-authored Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003) with Ruthe Winegarten.

The Interview

CH: First, tell us a little about the term “Tejanaland.” Where did it originate, and how does it resonate with you? Why did you select “Tejanaland” as the title of your book?

TPA: Tejanaland is my name for a powerful world that gave me life. I chose it as the book title because it is an emphatic grito that lays claim to “the land that became Texas,” a common phrase used to denote the present-day State of Texas. Mexican-origin people often possess both indigenous and Spanish-Mexican roots, making us a people who, for many generations, have lived our lives on both sides of the present-day border. Just as importantly, the title is a way to proclaim my creative literary landscape. The title Tejanaland is leaves no doubt that what I write is both deeply rooted in the Central Texas Blacklands, where I grew up, and is connected to all the other geographic landscapes my people occupy in this state.

CH: You’ve said you learned about music and writing from both your mother and your maternal grandfather. What was the role of music and writing in your home life?

TPA: My maternal grandfather Maximino Palomo had been taught to play the violin as a boy. His family, according to the stories I learned, worked and lived on an hacienda. He was apparently meant to become the manager of the hacienda in due time. His future called for him to have “cultured tastes,” which included playing a musical instrument. The 1910 Mexican Revolution changed this trajectory, forcing him to flee with his family across the US-Mexico border. He continued, however, to play violin. He insisted that I practice soprano clarinet every day. I took up the instrument as a sixth grader in my school’s music program. My grandfather had been an actor in traditional Mexican plays, and he would sometimes perform a favorite role for me. My mother had a lovely contralto. She sang at home in Spanish as she did housework.

My mother provided space and quiet for me to write in our home. She would tell visitors, “Teresa is writing, so we must be quiet.” I’m not sure how she surmised that writing was important to me, but she did. In our kitchen, the Velásquez Spanish Dictionary was prominently displayed on a small table. My parents never told me how they obtained the book. But its presence was significant to me. I used the dictionary for my Spanish language classes in high school and later in college. Perhaps its availability was a foretelling that Spanish was a natural occupant of my writing world.

CH: Your bio talks about your early interest in writing, and the decision you made to become a poet. What was it about writing that fascinated you? And what steered you in the direction of poetry?

TPA: As a child, I spent a good deal of time imagining events and places. I would stand on the railroad tracks in front of our home and wonder about what lay in the distance—what people and experiences could be found “out there.” At the same time, the people who surrounded me were my major interests: how they spoke as they visited with my mother, father, and grandfather; the funny jokes and play on words that my father used in describing a friend or a situation; and what my grandfather told me about his life, dramatizing it for me, as needed.

What steered me to poetry is partly what steered many dreamy-eyed teenagers, at least in my memory, to poetry: a desire to write about romance, about being rescued by a “knight in shining armor” and similar themes. As a young girl, I grew deeply intrigued with the way words reveal so much about ourselves and others. Between the ages of 11 and about 16, I simply decided that poetry was my genre. Also, in high school, I participated in poetry interpretation in the University Interscholastic League competition. As a result, I read a great deal of poetry from English and American literature. However, I later learned just how limited American literature was by race and ethnicity, which was the case during my school years. Growing up, I had no Mexican-origin writers to emulate, and poems by or about about Mexicans were unheard at my school. Those poems, in fact, had existed for generations, but they were not taught to me throughout much of my formal education.

Thus, the Mexican American literature I learned was a living being within my home and my community. It was delivered orally to me in stories told at home and in our community. When I was more mature, I decided to make my people’s experiences one of the chief basis of my work. Indeed, my poetry emerged from what I learned or witnessed at home. As a young woman, I asked my parents a great deal about our family’s history. They were happy to tell me what they could. We would take driving trips around McGregor and the surrounding towns. On these journeys, they would relate many experiences and point out specific sites where they had lived, worked, and socialized as young people during the Great Depression. Many of the experiences they related to me made their way into my work—many. I cannot emphasize this enough. I can still hear my parents’ voices as they spoke about our family history in the Central Texas Blacklands. They, along with my maternal grandfather, were my teachers for making the community’s hearth a world—a Tejanaland—about which to write.

CH: I understand that Tejanaland surveys three decades of your work, from poetry to essay to drama to children’s story. How do you see your development as a writer over your career?

TPA: My formal training as a writer began when I enrolled at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. There, I studied with Dr. Travis Looper, who was considered a fearsomely tough professor of Freshman English. He taught us to diagram sentences, in an effort to illustrate to us how words function in relation to one another. After returning to us our first essay for his class, Professor Looper told us that while we “had a lot to say, we didn’t know how to say it.” I was both dismayed at my C- on that essay and elated that his class offered the opportunity to learn how to write persuasively. I had ended up in Professor Looper’s class by asking a pertinent question during fall semester registration. When I arrived at the registration desk, I learned that his composition class was woefully lacking in students. I asked why. A member of the registration staff responded, with a gleam in her eye, that students, if they could, made every effort to avoid Professor Looper’s class because he was “hard.” Great, I thought. I wanted a hard teacher, so I immediately registered to study with Professor Looper. I made sufficient progress in his class to earn a semester grade of A-. At UT Austin, I enrolled in the only creative writing class I’ve ever taken. Dr. Carlota Cárdenas de Dwyer was my professor. I wrote “My Mother Pieced Quilts” as a classroom assignment. Professor Cárdenas de Dwyer and other colleagues of hers were in the process of assembling The United States in Literature, a secondary school literature textbook. She asked me for permission to publish my poem in the textbook and, of course, I agreed to her request. “My Mother Pieced Quilts” has remained the best known of my poems, and continues to appear in several secondary American literature textbooks. For one year, I served as the editor of El Despertador at UT Austin, which was the newspaper of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). I loved writing. I knew that I would pursue it in one way or another.

CH: As a writer, what has become more important to you over time? As a young writer, were there things you thought important that seemed less over time?

TPA: Writing directly, using a contemplative or meditative approach has become paramount. As a young writer, I likely tried to please others. However, it’s become more important for me to write about what moves me rather than to try to please an audience. My lyric poetry has, I think, been largely been overlooked by scholars and others who have followed me as a poet addressing political matters. I consider the lyric poems key to my work. In Tejanaland they, some tinged with humor, reign.

CH: I have known about you as a poet and historian for some time, but did not know of your background in journalism. What led you to Columbia University? How did this course of study there shape the direction of your writing life?

TPA: I fashioned myself, incorrectly, a reporter because I am a very curious person and thought that journalism would provide a great platform for exploring the world. So I applied and was accept to the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City. Studying at Columbia was a tough road for me to traverse. I faced constant challenges in figuring out how to move about the city to complete my assignments. The pace at Columbia was also quite demanding.

Yet, while it may seem odd, I think the study of journalism is a great education for a poet. It certainly was the case for me. I learned how to be quiet and let others talk. I learned to think on my feet, so to speak, and how to quickly devise the main point of a story. Importantly, I gained the ability to rapidly start a piece of writing with a phrase or one sentence—the so-called important “lead” of a newspaper story. Indeed, figuring out the “lead” is also important in writing poetry.

Almost from the first week of my journalism studies, I realized that I was not bound for a reporting career. Yet I am deeply grateful that studying journalism showed me how to explore the lives of people and situations that I thought needed bringing to light in poetry. Many of my poetry subjects live in the American Southwest, with many residing in my family history in McGregor and in my larger community in Texas.

CH: What do you see as the relationship between journalism and history? Tell us a bit about your experience with journalism. How did you become a historian?

TPA: I think journalism and history share a great deal in common. It has been proposed that journalism is the “first” history, as it reports on events as they occur, and history reports on the long aftermath of events. The two fields require keen observation; numerous sources; the ability to listen to others’ opinions, while refraining from judging their perspective; organizing an account of events that entices people to read it. Both rely on using the most intriguing of voices to tell a story. They also require writing precisely, although history allows for the fashioning of a longer narrative. I began to write history when I served for four years as a research associate for the New Handbook of Texas project at the Texas State Historical Association. I was hired to write about the history of Mexican Americans in Texas. My tenure at the Handbook allowed me to learn to use archival records and seek sources beyond the all-important interview that is of high importance in journalism. Before my experience at the NHOT, I would never have imagined myself as capable of writing history.

CH: When I see the term “Tejanaland,” I can’t help but think of Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003), which you authored with Ruthe Winegarten. How did your experience working on that project influence your writing life?

TPA: Writing Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History with Ruthe Winegarten had a deeply personal impact on how to write about women’s lives. What an uplifting journey she and I took in pursing the book. I have an essay in Tejanaland about our collaboration. As to how our work impacted my writing life: The experience confirmed my desire to write about Tejanas who are unknown or little appreciated such as Elena Zamora O’Shea, about whom I write in Tejanaland, or Daria Arredondo Vera, a labor activist in the Rio Grande Valley. In writing Las Tejanas, Ruthe and I went beyond focusing solely on major Tejana figures. Our commitment to depict the lives of extra-ordinary women continues to guide me. I find their stories deeply compelling and in need of an audience. Another outcome of our work was that I pledged myself to write honestly about women.

CH: Looking back on what you’ve learned, what might you tell your young writer self?

TPA: I would definitely tell her to be bold, to experiment with her ideas; to live outside of the United States for some time; to forgive herself for her writing errors; and to begin with anticipation and joy each time she faces the blank page. That blank page is an invitation to preserve human life in words. I would also tell her to be a generous writer, sharing what she knows and learning from others.

A Virtual Interview with Debra L. Winegarten

Debra L. Winegarten will be the feature for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, January 14, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Debra L. Winegarten is a poet, biographer, and publisher, and is on the faculty of South University. A sociologist by training, Debra is a past president of the Texas Jewish Historical Society. She has written two Jewish-themed poetry books, There’s Jews in Texas?, winner of Poetica Magazine’s 2011 Chapbook Contest, and Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From.

Debra’s biographies include Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) and Katherine Stinson: the Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000). Oveta Culp Hobby has received a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America as well as the 2015 award for best Biography from the Texas Association of Authors, and was a literary award finalist for the WILLA award from Women Writing the West. Katherine Stinson was a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s “Book of the Year” award in the Biography category.

Debra is currently working on an adult biography, Zvi Yaniv: From the Mysterious Island to Nanotechnology, and a biography of two Texas women. Meeting God at Midnight by Ahuva Batya Scharff, the first poetry collection  published by Debra’s publishing company, Sociosights Press, received the 2015 Best Poetry Book award from the Texas Association of Authors. Sociosights Press will be publishing its first children’s book, Almost a Minyan, in 2016.

The Interview

CH: How did you first get interested in becoming a writer? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

DW: I have always loved to write. My first published poem was in the third grade, the Temple Emanu-El synagogue monthly newsletter printed my poem, “God is Everywhere.”

I first seriously thought of myself as a writer when I received a contract from Eakin Press in 1996 for my book on Katherine Stinson.

CH: You wrote your first book, Strong Family Ties, as a co-author with your mother, Ruthe Winegarten. I knew Ruthe, and always appreciated her sparkling intellect as well as her commitment to writing women’s stories. How was it to write this book with her? How did that experience shape your growth as a writer?

DW: I had a lot of fun writing the book with Mom. We travelled to Dallas once a month on the weekend for a year and interviewed Dr. Hawkins. Mom “let” me do the brunt of the work as well as keep most of the money we made doing the book. She served more in an advisory role and really stayed in the background and just kind of made sure I was on track. Doing the book gave me confidence in my own abilities as a researcher and author and really set me on the road of my own writing career.

CH: You’ve published multiple books of poetry and biography. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself as a writer?

DW: Whenever I introduce myself, I always say, “I’m an award-winning author.” I think of myself as an author rather than a writer, somehow for me the word “author” carries more authority and doesn’t seem somehow as confining to me. I write non-fiction of all sorts, memoir, biographies, even my poetry is quite autobiographical, and when it’s not about me, it’s often based on my experiences or a snippet of something that I’ve observed in my travels.

CH: Your poetry chapbook, There’s Jews in Texas? (Poetica Magazine, 2011), won the 2011 Poetica Magazine Poetry Chapbook Contest, and you’ve followed it up with Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From (Sociosights Press, 2014). What inspired you to write these books? How widely did you distribute the manuscript for There’s Jews in Texas? before it was selected by Poetica? What influenced your decision to publish Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From with your own press?

DW: One of my best friends, Ahuva Batya Scharff, saw the call for submissions for the Poetica Publishing chapbook contest. The theme was anything having to do with “contemporary Jewish poetry.” She sent me the link, said, “You write contemporary Jewish poetry, you ought to enter.” I thought about it for about a second, decided she was right, and put together a manuscript for the contest.

I didn’t distribute this manuscript widely, I felt like it was “beginner’s luck,” it was the first chapbook I had ever put together, the only place I entered it was this particular contest, and I won the national prize!

As it turned out, people loved “There’s Jews in Texas?” and I kept hearing the complaint, well, not really a complaint, but more like a whine that it was too short and people wanted more from me. Now of course as an author, that’s the kind of “problem” one wants to have—people wanting to have more of your work. Since I had such good successes with “There’s Jews in Texas?” from a marketing viewpoint (I think the book is in its third or fourth printing now), I decided it would be smart to stay with the same genre and niche market.

Dos Gatos Press published the title poem, “Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From” in one of their annual Texas Poetry calendars, so I used that poem as the jumping-off poem for the second book in the series. I decided to publish the book through Sociosights Press because I learned from “There’s Jews in Texas?” that if I maintained control over the printing/publishing/distribution of the book, I would also make more money. It’s interesting because I don’t really do much to market “Jewish Grandmothers” the way I did with “There’s Jews in Texas?” and yet, the book sells consistently in its own quiet way and I’ve already paid for the first print run of 500 books.

CH: In addition to poetry, you’ve had a good deal of success with writing biography. Katherine Stinson: The Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000) was a finalist for best biography of the year from Foreword Magazine, and Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) recently won a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America. What excites you about the genre?

DW: I really love writing biographies of Texas women for middle school students, in particular for girls. The educational research shows that by the fifth grade, girls choose “books” or “boys.” I want them to choose “books” AND whatever. I remember the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I read the entire row of biographies in my school library, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. And it was tough because the majority of the biographies were about men and the great things men had done, and there was almost no literature on women. So, I’ve made it my mission to follow in my mother’s footsteps and continue bringing stories of amazing Texas women into the limelight.

CH: How do you select the subjects of your biographies? Of your poetry books? What are you working on now—biography? poetry? something else?

DW: For the biographies of Texas women for middle school students, I go to the Texas Education Agency’s online curriculum to see which women are required learning for seventh grade social studies, where Texas history is taught. I try to pick women who have not only significance in Texas history, but have national prominence, as a way of expanding and broadening the people interested in reading my books.

I have two biographies in the works. The first book is set in San Antonio and is actually two biographies in one, where I’m juxtaposing the lives of two fascinating early 20th century Texas women’s lives and the places where those lives intersect. The other book I’m working on a proposal for right now involves a famous Texas female politician who has not yet had a biography written.

In terms of poetry, I’m putting the finishing touches on the third in my Jewish poetry series; this one entitled, “Have Torah, Will Travel.”

For the past 15 months, I’ve worked together with Dr. Zvi Yaniv, an Israeli-American inventor with over 300 patents on his book, “My Life on the Mysterious Island of Nanotechnology: An Adventure through Time and Very Tiny Spaces.” We are submitting his manuscript to publishers right now.

CH: You’ve long had Sociosights Press, but you’ve recently expanded your role as publisher. How would you describe the mission of Sociosights Press? What has inspired you to turn more of your energy toward publishing? Has your training as a sociologist influenced your work as a publisher?

DW: The mission of Sociosights Press is “Transforming society, one story at a time.”

I’ve turned more of my energy towards publishing because people keep coming to me with projects they want published, and since I’ve done 6 books, I have a lot of experience I can offer to people just starting out. My training as a sociologist has influenced my work as a publisher to the degree that I’m interested in using the books I publish as a way to bring out marginalized voices whose stories have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

CH: Ahuva Batya Scharff’s Meeting God at Midnight (Sociosights Press, 2014) garnered the “Best Book of Poetry” award in 2014 from the Texas Author’s Association, and I know it must be gratifying to see your work as a publisher being acknowledged in this way. Does Sociosights Press have projects on the horizon that you can share with us?

DW: I’m super-excited about a book that the Press will publish either in 2016 or 2017. Lori Sales Kline has written a delightful book, Almost a Minyan, which is a coming-of-age story of a young Jewish girl. I had the good fortune of meeting a masterful children’s illustrator, Susan Simon, when I did a workshop at the Highlights Foundation several years ago. I managed to talk Susan into illustrating this book, which I’m pretty sure is going to win major Jewish children’s book awards.

I also have the honor and privilege of publishing Sacred River: Poems from India, a chapbook collection from Shubh Shiesser, an Indian-American feminist role model whose poetry shines with stories “bucking” the patriarchal world in which she was raised.

CH: What writers inspire you? Who are your strongest influences?

DW: I can quote Dr. Seuss. As a child, I read all the Newberry Medal award winners. I particularly love Madeleine L’Engle’s book, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Lately I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs, my two recent favorites have been [Joan Didion’s] “A Year of Magical Thinking” and Leah Lax’s “Uncovered.”

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read? What are you reading now?

DW: The most recent poetry book I’ve read is my wife and heart partner Cindy Huyser’s award-winning chapbook, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems. I don’t read a lot of poetry books, I am usually exposed to poetry by going to readings. I’m lucky and blessed that Austin has a terrific community of poets and wonderful venues and support for poets, from Poetry at Round Top to the Austin International Poetry Festival, to splendid weekly and monthly open mic sessions all around town.