A few years ago a friend in Buenos Aires asked me what was it like to teach literature to young American art students in California. I said to him what I usually said every time I was asked that question -- that it was privilege because my CCA students are the best American culture has to offer to the world.
Lately I have updated this answer to convey an interesting reality: Nowadays we have so many international students (and professors) that I believe that CCA attracts the best the entire world has to offer in terms of talent and creativity.
Many of my students, and many of my colleagues, have come from countries such as Korea, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Italy, Norway, Colombia, Mexico, China, England, and Canada, to name just a few.
I am one of those international artists and creators who has made of CCA a second home. I came to California from Mexico City in the mid-eighties to become a poet. I was invited to teach a few poetry workshops and the very day I arrived in Berkeley from the SFO airport I felt I was fulfilling a kind of destiny.
That was almost 30 years ago. Two days after my arrival I found myself in San Francisco drinking a beer with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other notable San Francisco poets at Café Vesuvio; it took me many years to realize how extraordinary that had been -- that a Latin American poet would be welcomed in such a special way by American poets in a city of poets.
I did not go back to Mexico City. I stayed and became a poet, but I also became other things: an immigrant, a grown-up man, a construction worker, and eventually an American citizen, a graduate student, a professor, and a novelist.
A Novel Career in the Bay Area
Ten years after that beer in North Beach, I fell in love with fiction and wrote my first novel during a summer break when I was a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. The process of exploring a different genre by going from poetry to fiction seemed a logical consequence of being a devout hunter and reader of good lines.
I was an apprentice of scholar who was working on a dissertation on the amorous poetry of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, but I was never content with being only one thing; I had to write a dissertation to become a doctor, but had to stop to write a novel.
I believe that all writing is a manifestation of something meaningful that reveals an intimate truth about ourselves, and that we can arrive at our personal epiphanies through poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or drama.
In writing what matters is the personal truth and the intensity of the epiphany: the weight of words, the craft with which they are woven on the page, their shifting and paradoxical beauty, their hard-earned integrity.
History of Academic Literary Landscaping
I came to CCA in the late nineties. A few years before that I had cofounded the MFA in Writing and Consciousness at the now disappeared New College of California School of Humanities. One day my friend, the beat poet Michael McClure, who taught for over 40 years at CCA, invited me to teach here. I never looked back.
My new family gave me everything a writer who loves books, intellectual exchanges, the visual arts, and teaching could wish for.
For the past year I have been fortunate enough to be the dean of this division and that has given me the opportunity to work with colleagues from seven different programs who have given me an even greater understanding of what it means to contribute to the shaping of the human mind through education.
I write this under the influence of my most recent readings: the novels of the Mississippi writer Larry Brown, whom I had the luck of meeting shortly before his untimely death in 2004, and the Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, whose work was introduced to me by my admired colleague and friend, interim chair of CCA's MFA Program in Writing Gloria Frym.
Brown wrote with honesty and genius about the human struggle of the poor southerner in his home state. Padura writes about the contradictions of Cuban society in the collapse of the Castro era; in their books we see the astonishing beauty and the shocking horrors their characters live every day of their fictional lives. Both writers practice what we try to teach at CCA:
They create art that matters.
And because we must practice what we believe in, I am proud to live this life at this unique and now old institution. I do believe CCA is, for these and many other reasons, a fine example of the best we in America have to offer to the rest of the world.
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