Interview With Juan Delgado

Hello from the Editorial Staff of Pacific Review, Winter 2020.
Here we have a few excerpts from an interview we did with Juan
Delgado. Delgado started his academic journey as a
first-generation Mexican immigrant and first generation
college graduate at CSUSB, where he was on the editorial staff
for the first Pacific Review. After working to support his
family, he completed his degree and eventually came back to
CSUSB as a professor. He cares deeply about his community and
what he perceives as his own personal “border”, which
stretches from San Bernardino all the way down to Guadalajara.


I think a good place to start would be your history with
Pac Review so we can all have a good base.

Delgado: So my history goes back- I was on the other side of
that computer, I was a student, a junior or a senior, when we
started the Pacific Review. The teachers behind it were Larry
Kramer, my mentor, and Sharod Santos, another poet, and they
got us together in a room and we started thinking about
creating a journal. There was a little newspaper called the
Prickly Pear that the department would print out and both of
these writers, in particular Rod Santos, were interested in,
at the time, the professionalization of the journal, in
thinking of the journal in more professional ways and maybe
being in literary bookstores, in being comparable to other
journals like the Missouri Review and the Iowa Review. […]
So when I was sitting in your seat, it was about the education
of mentoring: it would be a professor, and he or she- in this
case, two males- they’d pick people, they’d pick someone to be
a mentee. Back then it was kind of a mystery why a professor
would say “Hey, y’know, we want to include you in this
conversation or have you sitting around the table”. But it was
not a class. [Pacific Review] was informal, it’s all out of
school activity, it was a very different thing than you’re
experiencing right now. So that’s the beginning, where we
started thinking about bringing the journal up.

[We] received money with the condition that we would have 50% students and 50% outside. [It] then fell upon us to have the student quality be as good as the outside quality. That when we were always gonna put your poems next to an outside writer, that we would want them to really work hard so the student writing didn’t seem like a drop-off. We were gonna do the 50-50 blended, that student and professional would come together in a blended way.

So the goal was to essentially have there be no drop off
in quality, or perceived quality, between the student and
professional pieces.

Delgado: I think it worked the other way around, that we wanted
to have students aspire to be professionals. But if [the
professionals have] been doing it for 25 years and [the
students have] been doing it for a year, there’s going to be a
difference. But the question[,] I think one of the big steps
is, what makes you a non-student, a professional? That’s an
interesting question to ask, y’know, where is that line? I
think students are already professionals in some ways, in many
ways. […] So the journal was helping us to understand those
distinctions, […] it really started changing our readings,
how we did more readings. [We also brought] more writers to
the campus to talk about what it means to be a professional.
[We would ask:] What does a professional poet do? What does a
fiction writer do? What’s this agent stuff? What is this
reading? So I think the journal then, early on, started
getting us into conversations we hadn’t had before.

What were some of the common trip wires or landmines that
aspiring writers would run into or get talked to about during
these kinds of discussions?

Delgado: As an editor?

As an editor or as a writer yourself.

Delgado: There was interesting negotiations about what you
consider “publishable” and “not publishable”. And you’re
looking at student work and you’re looking at professional
work, and you could argue about a professional writer that you
just didn’t like, so there were interesting discussions. In
the first issue, there’s a poem by Charles Christopher
Buckley-

Oh gosh, I know him. I studied with him, he was one
of my mentors
.

Delgado: -and I rejected it. As a student, I rejected it. And
then I got overruled by my faculty advisor. And so I go, “I
don’t like this poem. It’s not doing anything.” I articulated
my argument. So I got into all of this mediation and arguments
about aesthetics. So for the metaphor about tripwire, what I
would say is everybody here has aesthetic values that are
connected to cultural, social, moralistic values, and what you
think is beautiful is a form of subjectivity. And what you
think is something worthwhile and beautiful, […] when your
aesthetics come across a barrier, like you put a poem forward
that’s affirming some of those values of who you are, if
someone says no to that, it’s the first time you start
articulating your politics[…] of beauty. I found that out,
[…]y’know, like in literature class, some of the poems were
important historically, but sucked aesthetically. You’re
reading them […] because it’s the first time [writer name]
did a sonnet or something, but you’re not like “aww, this is
beautiful and here’s the beauty behind it,” you’re looking at
things because they’ve been deemed important in the historical
canon. So you don’t have a lot of discussions about “is this
poem beautiful art? What makes this poem beautiful art? If
this is in a museum, why is this piece in this museum?” So for
the first time in [Pacific Review], I’m really saying, “This
should be in the gallery. I don’t understand why you don’t
think this graffiti piece can be in the gallery.” (mocking
voice) “But that’s street art! That sucks!” And you’re just
going “Wooooow. You’re really dissing my highs and my
culture.” It’s the first time, then, that these things that
are deeply seated in us are being exercised. So I would say
that’s the kind of trip wire or barrier that the journal
caused.

So talking about journals and student-run journals,
especially since you have such a long and really great history
with the Pac Review, what is it that you think makes
specifically student-run journals like [Pacific] Review
important in the field of journals, zines, and anthologies and
such?

Delgado: […] When I was thinking of the journal, at times,
maybe the journal gaze was too much on a small group of people
who were just gonna be writers. So I was just looking at the
journal with the gaze of the small colony of writers. And now
I think my gaze is much more like an opera singer, where I’m
looking at a particular group of people, like writers, but I’m
also looking at the community, at the audience, and how the
journal can be something that helps the community some way.
How do you make a difference with kids who are dropping out of
school? How do you make a difference in a community with a
school nearby? […] And it could be, for example, the gaze to
helping people understand how to represent themselves. How to
represent themselves digitally. The experience you get
producing or representing yourself, distributing yourself.
[…] So I would ask you guys, how do you make a difference in
[…] people’s lives that are not poets, not novelists? […]
How can you turn what the journal is doing to partner with an
elementary school or high school or partner with somebody?
Something I didn’t think about ethically, in a way, is that
maybe I was helping some group that already had a lot of help.
I was helping basketball players that were already really good
be better basketball players. But how can I help someone with
a love of basketball to be more healthy? Or to come to school?
Or to have better mental hygiene or physical hygiene in some
way? [You] gotta say, “This quarter, we’re donating some time
and energy to the battered women’s shelter and we’re gonna
help them produce a bulletin and we’re gonna help them with
their website.” Then you’re taking all your skills as editorsyou
guys are English majors, you know how to write passages,
you know how to edit passages. You’re gonna go to a place and
say, “We’re gonna help you and we’re gonna be one of your
sponsors and you’re gonna maybe get some of your stories or
tell us something about the voices that you want heard.” And
it just takes a kind of vision to see who you want and who’s
the sight. Talking to the community. Or just connect by doing something! That’s what I would say, is to think about how you’re making a difference.

Most of you are creative writers. I think literature
and creative writing English majors are public intellectuals.
[…] You’re like mythmakers. Mythreaders, mythmakers, you’re
like scribes in ancient times. And you say “where can we go
and give things that we’ve been given? What communities can we
give back to intellectually?” The idea that you’re going to
give back, somehow, for the benefits of being in the
classroom, being exposed to all kinds of wonderful things,
having all these resources. Not everybody is in that
situation. My kids, […]their freshman class was 2000
students; only 200 graduated four years later. I bet you know
30 names of students who didn’t make it through high school or
didn’t finish college. You know a lot of people who are on the
sidelines. How do you change that? What small little thing can
you do?


Juan Delgado is an English professor at California State University, San Bernardino. His specialty is Chicano literature and poetry, and he has been a pillar of our writing community for many years. His most recent work, Vital Signs, highlights the San Bernardino area with poetry by himself and photos by Thomas McGovern.

https://heydaybooks.com/book/vital-signs/

https://www.csusb.edu/profile/jdelgado