Plus Route 66, César Chávez, the borderlands

"With Tumblewords I wanted to provide a place for people who might otherwise be silenced"


LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: 2015 was the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Tumblewords Project. What inspired you to undertake the project? What has sustained you in continuing to be engaged with it?


DONNA SNYDER: When I still lived in southern New Mexico, the New Mexico Arts Division offered me a special grant meant to further regional literature and promote an audience for literature in underserved communities. I modeled the Tumblewords workshop series after writing groups I had been part of in Santa Fe, where writers of varying skills met to practice writing and reading aloud.


With Tumblewords I wanted to provide a place for people who might otherwise be silenced to feel comfortable giving voice alongside more established writers and writers not otherwise associated with the literary elite connected to the local universities and colleges. Shortly after founding the project, I moved to El Paso and received arts funding to continue here. From the beginning, prominent regional writers were eager to present workshops and readings in the series, which immediately began to garner national and international attention for the creativity and excellence of its participants. After the death of my companion poet Jesús Guzmán, who was a founding participant and volunteer, the project continued without formal funding. My continued commitment was sustained by the joy of writing on a weekly basis in the company of other fine writers, and the great pleasure of meeting writers and artists who came at my invitation from throughout the U.S. and Mexico, as well as from Hungary, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Chile, Peru, China, and Cuba, and gladly presented workshops or readings for Tumblewords in return for the proceeds of passing the hat.


You grew up in Shamrock, a small town in the Texas Panhandle. How did that upbringing influence your writing?


While it never occurred to me that I might be a writer, living in a modest stucco home with its pitched tin roof, surrounded by cotton fields my daddy did not own, my parents and sisters filled the house with books, scads of books, from the classics like Shakespeare and Mark Twain to an antiquated encyclopedia and books on the great masterpieces of art. We had no TV, and my family made sure I learned to read at an early age, practically before I could talk. Additionally, I lived at the junction of U.S. Highway 83 and Route 66, two of the arteries that fed the great American migrations. My first full-time job was as a waitress on Route 66. My life was filled with stories told by people from the great storytelling traditions, including the members of my own family and the large extended family of my mother.


It’s a long way from Shamrock to Santa Fe, where you spent a large part of your early adulthood. What path did you follow to Santa Fe?


I attended Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, courtesy of a National Merit Scholarship, LBJ’s Great Society’s financial aid, and waitressing tips. From there the University of Texas School of Law brought me to Austin, and afterward I practiced law in Navajo Indian Country, focusing on environmental protection, tribal sovereignty issues, and consumer protection. Travels in Greece, Turkey, and Nepal, a sojourn in London, further travels in the U.S. Midwest and Southwest—these found me returning to work and settling in Santa Fe.


Then you made your way back to Texas. What inspired you to move to El Paso?


After living in Santa Fe, I worked for a year at the federal court in Albuquerque, drafting opinions for the judges in prisoner civil rights cases, cleaning up a backlog that had accumulated. After that appointment, I moved to Las Cruces, where I represented farm laborers, primarily immigrant workers. I met César Chávez a few weeks before his death, which further strengthened my commitment to this area of legal practice. From Las Cruces, I was recruited to move to El Paso, where I spent several years working on behalf of people with disabilities, particularly mental illness and developmental disabilities, but also I represented many garment workers and other immigrant workers in a variety of cases.


You spent more than three decades as an activist lawyer. What types of cases were important to you to take?


I took early retirement in 2012 and now devote my time to writing and publication, organizing Tumblewords Project, and the promotion of independent literary presses and their writers. In the thirty-some-odd years I practiced law, I chose my work in such a way as to be of service to those who most needed my intellect and skills, those who might not otherwise have the experience to express their own needs and assert their own rights or who had been excluded from such basic human needs as food, health care, employment, housing, education, and access to arts and culture.


Your own work has been widely published in journals and online. What is your writing/creative process like?


One aspect of my creative process is to practice writing on demand at the Tumblewords Project workshops, which have provided a great antidote to writer’s block or any thought of whining about lack of inspiration over these past twenty years. Another part of my process is to read widely in a variety of disciplines, from particle physics and cosmology to ancient history and world mythology, from visual art to cultural politics. I filter all this data through a scrim of personal or emotional experience of the moment, and that’s my process. I hesitate to use that term, process, in the context of my own work. I find that the poems write themselves and later on my poet mind edits.


Who are some of your favorite Texas poets?


My favorite Texas writer is Katherine Anne Porter. While recognized for her fiction and other prose, Porter wrote with a poet’s sensibility, her language freighted with multiple levels of meaning and rich in symbolism. Of contemporary poets, through my work with Tumblewords Project and my involvement in the online literary community, I know far too many writers to easily name favorites, as different ones are preferred depending on my mood. Right now I am loving Carly Bryson of Houston, ire’ne lara silva of Austin, Marian Haddad of San Antonio, Christopher Carmona in Brownsville. Here in El Paso, the poetry of Jeannette Desboine, Robin Scofield, and Viva Flores never fails to thrill me. As I said, however, any list hardly does justice to the beauty and depth of all the poet voices I have come to admire and enjoy.


How important is performance and spoken word to a poet?


For me, poetry that is never spoken, is not meant to be heard, tends to lie flat on the page. My preference is for poetry that has breath and blood coursing through its words. As for my own work, the act of reading it aloud various times in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere gave my poetic voice a life far beyond the written page or blinking screen.


How would you describe the literary culture of El Paso and the Border region, and how has it influenced you as an artist?


La cultura fronteriza es bien rica, and nowhere more so than here in the borderlands of El Paso/Juárez. The literary community is vital, pumping with the blood of multiple cultures, colors, voices. Here poetry is not for the sedate and timid but a thing dynamic. Writers and their audiences here span the age groups from teens to the elderly and everything in between. There is always something to attend, something to do. The literary culture is also nourished by the vibrant visual arts found here. Most important, El Paso is the homeland of several of the progenitors and most famous current practitioners of the great Chicano literary renaissance. I count myself inordinately fortunate to have found my way here and to be a part of the vitality of this place and its culture.


What’s next for you?


The Canadian publisher NeoPoiesis Press released my most recent collection of poetry, The Tongue Has Its Secrets, this past week on April 12, and I am eager to see how it is received. In the meantime, I have books to review, articles to write, and Tumblewords Project events to organize. My life tends to change dramatically every few years and I rely on my poetry to make sense of it for me. We’ll see what comes next.


The Tumblewords Project, founded in 1995, is a grassroots, not-for-profit weekly series of free writing workshops. 


From the beginning, top writers, musicians, artists, and scholars have presented workshops or participated in weekly gatherings or performance events. Presenters have included Denise Chávez, Willivaldo Delgadillo, Amalio Madueño, Nancy Green, Nicholas Matta, Levi Romero, David Romo, Juan Contreras, Patricia González, Roberto Rodríguez, Debbie Nathan, Bobby Byrd, Amit Ghosh, Ray Ramos, Robin Scofield, Gene Keller, Leon de la Rosa, Mónica Gómez, Lawrence Welsh, Rich Yañez, Carmen Seda, Ysella Fulton, Michael C Ford, Keith Wilson, Emmy Pérez, Dr. Emma Pérez, Dr. Yolanda Chávez-Leyba, Sasha Pimental, Gary Brower, Gabriel Gaytán, Hal Marcus, Luís Urrea, Susan Klahr, and more. The workshops have featured presenters from throughout the United States, from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York City and Washington, D.C., from throughout Mexico, and from Cuba, Chile, Peru, Jamaica, China, and Hungary. 


The focus of the workshops is the practice of writing and reading aloud. There is no membership. Different people come each week, according to their schedule. Presenters are given free range to present however or whatever they want, as long as the primary amount of time is allocated to writing and reading aloud. Some presenters read the works of writers they revere, show slides of their art work or the art of others, bring in visual art, play or perform music, or read their own work. The participants are free to write in whatever form or on whatever topic they choose, regardless of the topic of presentation. Tumblewords Project currently meets most Saturdays 1:00 p.m. (MST) on Zoom.