Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The eighth installment profiles Kenneth Robert Chacón. He teaches English and Chicano Studies at Fresno City College, and his writing has appeared in the journals BorderSenses, Poetry Quarterly, Cimmaron Review, the San Joaquin Review, and others.
In an August email interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Kenneth about pushing past painful rejections, embracing the in-between lives of the cholo, and learning how to engage—with your MFA peers and also with the world.
When were you in the Fresno State MFA program and what genre did you study?
I graduated from UC Davis in 2000 and I originally applied to Fresno State’s MFA program in fiction, but I was rejected. I had been accepted to creative writing programs at Eastern Washington and Loyola Marymount and at another CSU, but the summer I needed to make the decision where I was going, I came back to Fresno. As you can read in my book, I had left two children behind here. When the time to make a decision, everything in me wanted to remain with my family.
I ended up reapplying to Fresno State and became an MA grad student in English Literature in the fall of 2000. Then I decided to reapply to the MFA program the following year in 2001 and, hallelujah, I was accepted. I received my MFA in 2004 with an emphasis in poetry.
What were your first thoughts when you learned that your first collection, The Cholo Who Said Nothing and Other Poems, would be published?
Whoa. This is a funny story. I’d been trying to get a novel published for about two years. It was something I’d worked on during part of my time in the MFA. After landing a job teaching at Fresno City College, I had put writing behind me for nearly 10 years, but it weighed on me heavily. I walked through life feeling incomplete. Sure, I wrote here and there, but I wasn’t taking the responsibilities of being a writer seriously. Finally, I realized that if I didn’t do it then, now, I would never do it, so I started cutting time out of my schedule to dedicate to the novel.
After many, many, many rejections (67 and counting) from agents and only three close calls – when the novel made it all the way into the hands of actual agent – I started working on the poetry manuscript. It was the summer of 2015 when I submitted it to three places. A few months later, I received an email from a well-known Latino press, the press that published my brother Daniel Chacón’s first book, saying that I would receive a contract in the mail within a month. When I read the email, I literally fell to my knees and thanked God. I posted it on Facebook, received several all-important likes, and waited for the contract to arrive. But it never did. I questioned if maybe the press had second thoughts, but it was Christmas break and no one was available to speak on the phone or return my emails.
I was an emotional wreck. Finally, I heard back from the head of the press. He said there had been a mistake, a “false positive” he called it. I was devastated. Thankfully, I had received word from the other places I’d submitted to. WordTech Communications wanted to publish my book right away and the other, a contest, notified me that my manuscript had made it to the final judge along with seven others. I decided to withdraw from the contest and go for the sure thing.
After all that emotional turmoil, I can now hold my book in my hand. In the immortal words of Tony! Toni! Toné! — Feels good!
Yes, the majority of the first section of The Cholo Who Said Nothing and a great deal of the second section were part of my original MFA thesis, Slave to Sin. I think it was a good idea to let those poems rest a while. When I wrote them, I was fighting addiction and running around with a local street gang, the friends I’d grown up with, even as a graduate student, and most of the poems were raw. It took a few years for those poems to cook. But they wouldn’t leave me alone. Those poems, “Slave to Sin,” “Skinsick,” “fix,” and “To the Drunk, Black Man Who Gave Me Three Cigarettes,” form the skeleton of the book. They are its foundation.
How did you land your publishing deal with WordTech Communications, and what about their work is a good fit for your book?
WordTech is Lee Herrick’s press for his first two books. Lee has been such an important figure for me, and for so many others in Fresno, for years. I can’t sing that guy’s praises enough. He had mentioned submitting to the press in years prior, so it was always an option.
WordTech is pretty much a press that leaves you alone. They don’t do much promotion or provide you with a lot of support. However, the best things about the press is that they let you design the entire book. I had total control of the cover, the font, the organization. I will always be grateful for the opportunity the press gave me to share my voice with others.
How did you decide on your book’s title?
Cholos, cholos, cholos. Scroll through your social media feed and you will probably run into a few. Cruise Tower District and you will probably run into a few more. The cholo, to some, is a source of embarrassment. However, this country, and probably a few others, has a secret obsession with cholos.
When you say the word cholo, many things pop into people’s minds: uneducated, irrelevant, addicted, thuggish. Crazy, sexy, cool (hello TLC). When you say the word cholo, people listen. It even gets a visceral reaction from our blessed abuelitas. That’s what poetry is supposed to do, right? It elicits a response. It gets our blood boiling. Cholos inhabit a special place in the world, a nether realm, caught between cultures, feared and mocked.
In addition, I had written a poem, the title poem called “The Cholo Who Said Nothing.” The poem deals with faith and the idea that many in educated Latinx communities are wishing to disregard the image or lore of the cholo for the unseemly associations. Much of my book deals with faith, with reaching for the certainty of the Cross when the world seems broken, when even our own motivations are suspect. The poem speaks to both issues. It seemed perfect.
Besides, the other title I considered, A Tree and Its Fruit, just plain sucked. For real.
Outside of writing poetry, what work are you doing to make a living?
I sell xanax and crystal meth. If you need something, look me up on Craigslist. I’m listed under “Therapeutic” in the “Services” section.
Horrible joke, I know. Dear Police Chief Jerry Dyer: It’s only a joke.
I’ve taught full-time at Fresno City College going on 13 years. I teach in the Puente Project, a program originally created to help Latinos transfer to universities. I took part in Puente when I was a young-punk student at FCC in 1996. It changed my life. Now I have the opportunity to help others change theirs.
What about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you, and what do you wish you might have done differently?
I think this is best answered by saying Connie Hales is a saint. She’s so sweet and supportive. I don’t think she gave me as much as I expected in terms of critique, but she gave me something much more valuable: confidence.
I was constantly questioning whether or not I belonged in the MFA program. The students used to tear up my poetry in workshops. They made me feel like I was out of my league and I often felt ridiculed because of my subject matter: God and Thug Life. Most students couldn’t relate. But Connie saw the there there. She helped me to believe I did have something say, that my poetry mattered, that it would serve a purpose. For that, I’ve always been thankful.
Now, in terms of what I wished I’d done differently, I wished I would’ve taken my time in the program. I was just wanting to hurry up and graduate and get a job to support my children, finally, and I really didn’t allow myself to learn as much as I should have. As hard as workshops were, I fell into the habit of writing off others’ critiques as they “didn’t understand” me or my work. It was rare for me to connect with my fellow MFAers and years later I regret all the lost opportunities to learn from them, the other students.
Iron sharpens iron. I needed as much critical feedback as I could get, not because all of it would have been “right,” but because I needed to understand other perspectives, to consider other possibilities, to make more informed choices. I especially needed brothers or sisters of the struggle to call me on my BS, my tired images, my awkward language. I needed to make connections, make friends, but I mostly just sat in the back of class quietly, passively.
I wish I would’ve taken my time. Seen the sights. Met the locals. Shopped at the market. I believe I would’ve seen the quality of my work multiply. So that’s my advice to writers in the program now. Take your time. Engage.
I’ve read several articles in the local press, including The Fresno Bee, that focus on your professional successes after living the gang life. What does it mean to you to have your first book published? What would your younger self think of the book?
As trite as this sounds, and I know that poets may instinctively roll their eyes when they read this, I want to use my success to help others. Poetry and education have blessed me, and I want to bless others.
I remember when I first read Andrés Montoya’s book, the iceworker sings. It knocked me out of my Nike Cortez’s. I was a student at UC Davis. I had been contemplating the idea of God for some time, sometimes from the perspective of an irreverent atheist, sometimes a thoughtful agnostic, and other times a violent Satan worshipper, obsessed with evil and rotten things.
When Andrés’s book came out, it was so filled with Truth, with grit and despair, yet filled with Hope, that it made me think differently about God, about Jesus, a figure I had written off as emblematic of “white superiority.” It made me connect with God in a way that I’ve never fully understood even to this day. I was a young man with many issues, yet Andrés’s book made me believe that there was Hope, that the things I had experienced were brutal and harsh yet filled with a kind of beauty. That things happened for a reason.
Now I wish to do in my writing what Andres’s book did to me, not necessarily theologically, although I unashamedly advocate for belief in a loving God, but with hopes I can show people that there is beauty in their experiences and art demands they share those experiences. If we’re all children of God, then we all have something special to contribute. I’m not exceptionally talented, but I do my best to write from a place of Truth, from the Heart, and I’m hoping to encourage my readers, my audience, fellow poets, with my work.
If my younger self could see the book, he might be shocked. I went through some rough times, trying to hunt down death, to be its victim or its vessel, that it’s a miracle I am here today.
If my younger self could see this book, I hope he’d say, “Well done, Dog. Well done.” And then he’d laugh awkwardly, smooth his gorgeous, silky hair, and ask, “What took you so long … and why you so bald?”
What’s your next writing project?
I’ve got several projects going on. I’ve written a few short stories. I’ve started a new novel and a collection of essays. Meanwhile, poems are bursting from my tongue like never before. This summer alone, 2017, I’ve written more than 50 poems. Now most of these poems are crap – I haven’t done any revision yet – but I’m confident I’ll have a new manuscript very soon.
Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the Creative Writing Program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.