Oct 262015

Willard Marsh, known to his friends as “Butch”, was one of the pivotal figures in the Ajijic literary scene in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the first to write a novel set in the village. His novel, Week with No Friday (1965), is the story of a troubled expatriate playwright who lives in Ajijic in the 1950s. While fictional, it still affords many insights into the village’s literary and artistic scene of the time.

marsh-willard-passport-photoMarsh also wrote Beachhead in Bohemia: Stories (1969) a collection of short stories, published by Louisiana State University. Several of these stories had been published previously, and several are set in the Lake Chapala area, and feature the same characters and scenes that appear in Week with No Friday.

Marsh was born in Oakland, California and attended Oakland High School where he learned to play trumpet and trombone, initiating a lifelong devotion to jazz music. He financed his courses at the State College at Chico by forming “Will Marsh and the Four Collegians”, a jazz group that played at an Oakland roadhouse.

His education was interrupted by the second world war, where he served with the U.S. military, 1942-45, in the South Pacific, becoming a staff sergeant.

Soon after the war, on 4 September 1948, Marsh married George Rae Williams, a former Pasadena Playhouse actress. It must have been Marsh’s second marriage, since George wrote to her brother John Williams in mid-1948 that, “We can’t get married until August because his divorce isn’t final until then.”

[John Williams (1922-1994) was a novelist, editor and professor of English, author of Augustus and Stoner. Williams is the subject of The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel, a biography by Charles J. Shields due to be published in 2016. Shields kindly shared with me the information that John Williams had begun his own novel (sadly now lost) about bohemians living in Mexico, presumably based on his visits to his sister and brother-in-law.]

Willard and George Rae Marsh moved to Chapala in Mexico in the early 1950s. Marsh strove to establish a career as a free-lance writer while working on his “G.A.N.” (Great American Novel). They would continue to live in the area, with breaks to travel or teach in the U.S., until his death in 1970.

The couple lived first in Chapala, and later in Ajijic. They also spent some time in the literary and artistic circles of San Miguel de Allende. In 1952, from Chapala, Marsh reported to brother-in-law, John Williams, that they were living “quite well, in our cozily disordered way, for about seventy-five bucks a month, including everything.” The comment, “both typewriters clacking, and the jug of tequila diminishing as we go”, suggests that a liberal amount of alcohol helped fuel their creativity.

A letter from George to her brother in March 1953, says that she was excited to have just learned from their landlady that they were living in the same house in Chapala where “Red” Warren wrote All the Kings Men.

After several years living and writing in Mexico, Marsh’s Great American Novel remained unfinished. Marsh gained degrees at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop (B.A. in 1959 and M.A. in 1960), and decided to complement his less-than-stable writing income by teaching, accepting positions as an assistant professor of English, first at Winthrop College, Rock Hill, SC (1959-61), then at the University of California, Los Angeles (1961-64) and later at North Texas State University, Denton (1968-70). He continued to spend as much time as possible in Mexico.

marsh-weed-with-no-fridayWork on the novel continued. In October 1963, Marsh reported having had “a wildly relaxing, wildly productive summer in Ajijic, during which time I got so much accomplished on the novel that I can have the mother in the mails before year’s end.” He planned to resign from the University of California and live in Spain for a few years.

The following year, after more thought, they decided against Spain, opting to return to Ajijic instead, though they expressed some misgivings: “Ajijic has been overrun with slobs quite a bit, too, but if it gets too bad, one can move a few kilometers down the lake to $an Juan, Jocotepec, and on to Morelia. The lake is 25 miles wide and 50 miles long, so there’s a lot of lake-front real estate still unoccupied.”

Marsh’s magnum opus Week with No Friday was published in 1965 to generally positive reviews. The book gave Marsh the opportunity to respond to the unflattering portrait of him in Eileen Bassing’s own novel set in Ajijic, Where’s Annie? (1963). Bassing had used Willard and George Rae Marsh as the basis for her characters Willie and Sam Chester:

“[Willie Chester] was enshrined there on his patio only half hidden among the telefono vines, typing away. He wrote. Merciful God, how he wrote. A story every day he said, good, bad indifferent, sensational, like a non-discriminating machine, learning, he said, with each one he wrote, but writing them so fast, so terribly, frighteningly fast. And he sold some of them, not many. That he sold any was alarming. He had no reverence, no respect, no fear of his own possible or impossible talent. He wrote; it was the answer to everything for him…. Sam was behind Willie, circling about in a stained and tattered leotard, steadily but badly practicing her ballet. Did she woo and win him with her twittering, soiled dancing? Oh, turn my eyes from the vision of their lives.”

Marsh retaliated with brief, equally unflattering descriptions of Eileen “Blissing” and her husband, in his own novel:

“He introduced her to Beau Blissing, a fairly entertaining slob, so that she could hear the single gift that Beau had perfected in a lifetime — the ability to sing ‘Blue Skies’ backward. Afterwards he tried to give them one of his voracious French poodles he never could afford to feed. ‘Such a bewildered, wistful man’ Martha said. ‘Has he any other hobbies?’ ‘He accepts book dedications. His wife is a lady novelist with a lousy memory.'”

In his writing career, Marsh was successful in getting short stories published in more than seventy periodicals, including Antioch Review, Furioso, Prairie Schooner, Northwest Review, Yale Review, Esquire, Playboy, Transatlantic Review, and Saturday Evening Post. His short stories include, “Beachhead in Bohemia” (The Southwest Review, 1952); “Bus Fare to Tomorrow” (The Saturday Evening Post, 1954); “No More Gifts” (Playboy, 1956); “Ad Lib Exit” (Playboy 1956); “Mexican Hayride” (Esquire, 1960), described by writer Allyn Hunt as the short story that most “accurately depicts Ajijic in the 1950s” (and the the basis for the first chapter of Week with No Friday). “Beachhead in Bohemia” and “Mexican Hayride” were chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1953 and 1961 respectively.

Marsh also wrote under several pen names, including “George Ketzel” for poetry.

In 1970, apparently as the result of a medical misdiagnosis, he died, leaving his next novel, Anchor in the Air unpublished. Marsh’s body was interred in Ajijic cemetery, but was not allowed to rest for long. In 1972, a real estate developer drove a road through Ajijic cemetery, desecrating many graves, including that of novelist Willard Marsh.

Willard Marsh’s personal papers are held at the University of Iowa. My thanks to Charles J. Shields, biographer of John Williams, for his valuable help in locating material relating to Willard and George Marsh.

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Sep 072015

Leanne Averbach is a Canadian writer, performance poet and experimental filmmaker, whose first collection of poems, fever (Mansfield Press, 2005; 79 pp) includes a mention of Chapala in the final stanza:

Here, in Chapala, Mexico,
where the poverty is general
my secrets do not translate
that well.

averbach-feverWe do not currently know more about the circumstances or timing of her visit or visits to Chapala.

The publisher’s description of fever is, “Erotic and absurdist, Leanne Averbach’s fever docu-rides a life examined through multifarious experiences. Through her iconoclastic lens, life as a former left-wing activist and trade union organizer takes shape with indelible moments spent in factories or incarcerated in jail cells. Averbach’s work contains vivid tales of love, family encounters, and the mad poetry of harsh international realities. With its unique blend of the personal and the political, fever burns with the engagement of the most committed poetry.” The book was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Prize in 2006.

American poet ruth weiss, who also has connections to Ajijic and Chapala, became famous for reciting her poetry to live jazz, and Averbach does the same. The companion CD fever is a fusion of her spoken words with the blues/jazz accompaniment of Astrid Sars’ band Indigo.

Averbach was awarded an MA from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and also holds an MFA from The New School, New York. She has taught at the University of British Columbia Language Institute and has performed her poetry to live jazz in Canada, New York and Italy.

Averbach’s second volume of poetry, Come Closer, was published by Tightrope Books, Toronto, in 2010.

Her poetry has  been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including
Prism International, Best Canadian Poetry in English Anthology, The Fiddlehead, Poetry New Zealand, Poetry London, Court Green (Chicago), Sub-TERRAIN, The Smoking Poet, MiPoesias, Arabesque (Paris-Tangiers), Seven Deadly Sins Anthology, Pottersfield Portfolio, Canadian Women’s Studies, Love in the Media Age Anthology, Poesia de-Amore (Italy), TheAntigonish Review, The New Quarterly and Poetry in Performance.

Averbach has also produced several video-poems and short films. Her short film, Teacups & Mink, based on her poetry, was selected as Best Short International Film, Poetic Genre, and Best Directorial Debut at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival in 2008.

Want to read more?

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Jul 202015

María de Jesús Magallón Pérez (1924–1957) was one of the seven poets included in De Esta Tierra Nuestra; Antología Poética (Colección Sahuayo No. I, 1972). Besides being an award-winning poet, she was a social activist and the founder of a piano school, a writing school and the “Diego José Abad” Literary Circle.

Born in Jiquilpan on 24 March, 1924, Magallón Pérez studied in Jiquilpan, Jacona and Morelia. She demonstrated poetic sensitivity as a child, and had verses published in provincial newspapers from an early age.

She subsequently entered a convent, trained as a teacher, and taught in the states of Mexico and Nuevo León. Magallón Pérez married Roberto Villaseñor Espinosa (“Ticolín”), a poet-songwriter-historian who was also an ardent promoter of cultural events in the town of Jiquilpan, and returned to Jiquilpan in 1953. She established herself as a member of the “Sahuayo literary group” and dedicated herself to writing.

Her first book was Cuadernillo poético (Sahuayo, Michoacán 1953), centered on descriptions of the landscapes of her native Michoacán. In 1955, her poem “Raíz de llanto”, dedicated to the memory of Alfonso Méndez Plancarte, won a poetry competition in San Luís Potosí. The following year, “Ciclo de Navidad” was awarded top honors in a poetry festival in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco. That poem became the basis for a theatrical work which was also televised.

Magallón Pérez was preparing her third collection of poetry, Silbo y luna, when she died in Jiquilpan, on 19 December 1957, while giving birth, at the tragically young age of thirty-three.

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Jul 062015

Peter Everwine (born in Detroit, 14 February 1930) is an American poet who spent a sabbatical year in Mexico in 1968-1969. While living in the Lake Chapala area, Everwine (who had traveled previously in Mexico) became friends with (Don) Shaw and Tom Brudenell, both then living in Jocotepec.

Of all Everwine’s poems, the one most obviously related to Lake Chapala is “The Fish/Lago Chapala”, which was published in Keeping the night: poems (Atheneum, 1977) and reprinted several years later in From the Meadow: selected and new poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). “The Fish/Lago Chapala” opens with the following stanza:

Sunrise, the tiny
almost transparent fish of Chapala
drawn in nets.
All afternoon shining and steaming
on the roadsides, scattered
or in small mounds
like fingers of broken glass.

The poem goes on to depict a child’s funeral procession, before ending with a more abstract third section.

everwine-from-the-meadow_Everwine was raised by his Italian-speaking grandmother in western Pennsylvania. He earned his BS from Northwestern University in 1952 and served in the Army from 1952 to 1954. After military service, Everwine undertook graduate studies in English at the University of Iowa, which awarded him a PhD in 1959.

After teaching English at the University of Iowa from 1959 to 1962, he taught English and creative writing at California State University, Fresno, retiring from that post in 1992. He was a senior Fulbright lecturer in American poetry at the University of Haifa, Israel, and in 2008, was a visiting writer at Reed College, Portland.

Everwine’s poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Antaeus, The New Yorker, and American Poetry Review, and he has published seven collections of poetry, including Collecting the Animals (1972), described by one reviewer as “calmly dazzling poems”, Keeping the Night (1977), Figures Made Visible in the Sadness of Time (2003), From the Meadow: Selected and New Poems (2004) and Listening Long and Late (2013).

His work has brought him numerous awards, including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships; the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1972; a Horizon Award in 2008; Best American Poetry 2008; and Pushcart Prize XVII.

Everwine has also published two books of translations of Nahuatl poetry: In the House of Light (Stone Wall Press, 1969) and Working the Song Fields (2009), and is responsible for translations of two works by controversial Israeli poet Natan Zach: The Static Element (1982) and The Countries We Live In: The Selected Poems of Natan Zach 1955-1979 (2011).

Everwine’s work is included in several poetry anthologies, including The geography of home: California’s poetry of place (edited by Christopher Buckley, Gary Young for Heyday Books, 1999) and How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets (edited by M. L. Williams, Christopher Buckley and David Olivera for Heyday Books, 2001).

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 222015

Poet, writer and politician Honorato Barrera Buenrostro was born in the Lakeside town of Jamay (mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca) in 1870 and died in Ocotlán in 1952.

He left his home town for Mexico City at a young age. In Mexico City, he studied and wrote alongside Amado Nervo (1870-1919) and Luis Gonzaga Urbina (1864-1934). Coincidentally, Urbina’s own collection of poetry, Puestas de sol, includes “El poema del lago” (“The Lake Poem”), a lengthy poem inspired by a visit to Chapala.

Barrera Buenrostro subsequently returned to Ocotlán where he worked in commerce and as a telegraphist for the railway company. He later moved to Chapala, and was the Mayor (Presidente Municipal) of Chapala, 1924-1925, during the years when Lic. José Guadalupe Zuno was the state governor (1923-1926).

aquel-famoso-remingtonBarrera Buenrostro’s work won various literary prizes, including ones awarded in Aguascalientes, Morelia and Mexico City. His best known works are a book of poems, Andamio de Marfíl (1947), and a novel, El rémington sin funda (1947).

The novel El rémington sin funda (1947) is based on the life of Rodolfo Álvarez del Castillo. Nicknamed “El Remington”, Álvarez del Castillo was a famous pistol-packing womanizer of the 1930s, who eventually fought a duel with a soldier in which both men lost their lives. Álvarez del Castillo was the brother-in-law of famous Mexican movie star María Félix and his life story became the basis for at least two Mexican films: ¡Se la llevó el Rémington! (1948), starring charro singer Luis Aguilar, and Aquel famoso Remington (1982), directed by Gustavo Alatriste.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 012015

Born in 1928, ruth weiss is a renowned American poet, playwright and artist, best known for reciting her poetry to the accompaniment of live jazz. She visited Ajijic and Chapala briefly during an extended road trip to Mexico in 1958-1959, with her husband and her dog.

weiss was born into a Jewish family in Berlin. Her family left Berlin for Vienna in 1933 and then relocated to New York in 1938. weiss lived for a time in Chicago, but eventually settled in San Francisco in 1952.

In Chicago, in 1949, weiss first met Ernest Alexander (“Alex”), who played a decisive role in persuading her to start reading her poetry to jazz. In I Always Thought You Black (a tribute to her African American artist friends), weiss wrote that,

ERNEST ALEXANDER long & brown listens to my poem. in my black blue-bulb room.
pulls me upstairs. sez now read to these folks. they gotta hear this.
my first own home. my first turntable. my first modeling nude. my first poetry aloud.
someone blows a horn. someone brushes a drum. i’m reading to jazz man.”

This quickly became a trademark of readings by ruth weiss.

weiss-cant-stop-the-beatA year or so after they first met, Alex left Chicago for Mexico where he lived and worked for a few years in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. weiss moved to San Francisco, where she became a prominent member of the counter-culture movement of San Francisco, and good friends with the likes of Jack Kerouac, Bob Kaufman and surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. In the 1960s, she started to use only lower case for her name in a symbolic protest against “law and order” since in her birthplace of Germany all nouns are capitalized.

weiss mentions Alex several more times in I Always Thought You Black.

For example, weiss writes about how she and Alex used to work together:

Oh ALEX lover of my first woman-lover JERI WANTAJA. your
paintings of birds. your studio bright & wild with their
flight. your studio a three-cornered touchstone where i
write in a corner. look out at warehouses trucks dawn.
come rain come shine.

weiss also describes how she met Alex again several years later, in San Francisco, after Alex’s return from Mexico in 1953:

oh ALEX. is it 1955 or 6 or 7. THE CELLAR. san francisco
north beach. where i had started poetry & jazz. you walk
in. i carry glasses & bottles. almost drop them. we hug.
your wife with you. your first-born soon after. it’s all a
blur. your wife and boy dead. mexico.

you become a legend. it’s the beat-time. day after day
in & out of the CO-EXISTENCE BAGEL SHOP. you stand outside.
you sit inside. you walk up & down. you talk at. you
talk at.  you talk at. you hold my eye in your hand.
it slips from your hand. it is wet with tears.”

weiss’s links to the Lake Chapala area would be tenuous at best (and only by proxy via Alex) were it not for her extended road trip to Mexico in 1958-1959, with husband Mel Weitsman and dog zimzum. They left San Francisco on Tuesday 14 October 1958 and returned in early February 1959.

In Can’t stop the beat, the life and words of a Beat poet, published in 2011, weiss includes her narrative poem COMPASS, her diary of the trip to Mexico. Her entry for Ajijic reads,

oct. 31 … ajijic aside-town where many i have known have been … divided
… there the square and park … we leave the car … to wander slowly
pebbled street … sleepy hot … a place … a face familiar … we must have
known each other’s presence … then … the house to look for … he was in
it … bill filling the window now … the girl in jeans and black is smile
and small … ny to sf … mexico city … she is here now … art later …
bill and he split one scene for this one … we fill the house … it’s lori’s
… a legend … romana is the maid or more than … two nights around …
past halloween … the ghosts have dog-voices against the moon … another
stranger met again … she is blonde in the dark house … all in the hosue
… the glass room catches us … each one … the orange cat the guardian …
we leave the halloween by day … the lake around … the road is village …
the space between … the lake is low … or have the lake-plants grown this
noon … each cow a slow a sudden focus … the earth people move slow …
each step an earth-beat … the burro the boy the woman the urn … the man
the wood … eyes in the stone … blue mountains from the far red plain …
the sky the whirr the clouds … rain a shaft between two black mountains …
red road to a red town in a red plain … the corn is dry …

As Matt Gonzalez has written, “Part travel journal and part surreal dreamscape, no text of the beat era captures Mexico with more authenticity and immediacy than weiss’s 80-page COMPASS.”

Books by ruth weiss include: Steps (1958), Gallery of Women (1959), South Pacific (1959), Blue in Green (1960), Light and other poems (1976), Desert Journal (1977), Single Out (1978) 13 Haiku (1986), For these women of the beat (1997), A new view of matter (1999), Full circle (2002), Africa (2003), White is all colors (2004), No dancing aloud (2006), Can’t stop the beat (2011), Fool’s journey (2012). ruth weiss has appeared in several short films by Stephen Arnold, including Liberation of Mannique Mechanique (1967), The Various Incarnations of a Tibetan Seamstress (1967), Messages, Messages (1968), Luminous Procuress (1971); Pyramid (1972).

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

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May 252015

Elizabeth Bartlett (1911-1994) was a poet and writer who lived for a time in the Lake Chapala area with her artist-author husband Paul Alexander Bartlett and son Steven James Bartlett in the early 1950s. Later, in the 1970s, the family revisited the Chapala area several times from their then home in Comala, Colima. Bartlett gave several poetry readings in the Chapala area, though the precise dates and locations are unclear.

In addition to her poetry, Bartlett is remembered as an author of fiction, essays, reviews, translations, and as an editor. She was also founder of the international non-profit organization Literary Olympics, Inc.

Elizabeth Bartlett, circa 1973. Photograph courtesy of Steven James Bartlett, literary executor for Elizabeth Bartlett.

Elizabeth Bartlett, circa 1973. Photograph courtesy of Steven James Bartlett, literary executor for Elizabeth Bartlett.

Eizabeth Roberta Bartlett (née Winters) was born in New York City in 1911. She was awarded her degree from Teachers’ College in 1931 and then undertook  postgraduate studies at Columbia University (1938-40), before dedicating herself to writing and teaching.

She first met her husband in Mexico in 1941, and the couple married in Sayula (Jalisco) in 1943. Their son Steven was born in Mexico City two years later. The family divided their time between the USA and Mexico. In Mexico, the family lived in numerous different states while Paul Bartlett was researching his book on Mexican haciendas.

Elizabeth Bartlett had a distinguished teaching career, including spells at Southern Methodist University (1947–49), San Jose State University (1960–61), the University of California at Santa Barbara (1961–64), San Diego State University (1979–81), and the University of San Diego (1981–82). She was a visiting poet at universities in Canada, California, Florida, and Texas, and Poetry Editor for ETC: A Review of General Semantics and for Crosscurrents.

Bartlett was founder and president of the international non-profit organization, Literary Olympics, Inc., which was established to reintroduce a cultural component to the Olympic Games. In relation to this, Bartlett edited three international multi-language anthologies to coincide with the Olympics, beginning in 1984. A fourth volume was published in 1997 in memory of Bartlett, to honor her for her work with the Literary Olympics, and to commemorate the 1996 Olympic Games.

Bartlett’s writing has been published in numerous journals, anthologies and books of collected poetry, including Poems of Yes and No (1952), It Takes Practice Not to Die (1964), Address in Time (1979), Memory is No Stranger (1981), The Gemini Poems (1984), Candles (1988), and Around the Clock (1989).


Sincere thanks to Steven Bartlett for sharing his memories of the family’s time in Mexico.

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May 142015

Distinguished American poet and painter John Brandi (born in California in 1943) and his wife Gioia lived in Jocotepec for about eighteen months, from the winter of 1968-69 to mid-1970. The couple’s youngest child, Giovanna, was born in Jocotepec.

Brandi graduated in 1965 from California State University, Northridge, with a B.A. in art and anthropology, before working as a Peace Corps volunteer with Andean farmers in Ecuador from 1966 to 1968. In Ecuador, he began to keep detailed, illustrated journals, a practice he continued while in Mexico. He was an early proponent of “do-it-yourself” self-publishing, producing hand-sewn mimeograph editions.

During his time in Jocotepec, Brandi composed illustrated “myth masses”, as well as hand-made poetry books.

In April 1969, Brandi took part in a collective exhibit that opened 18 April 1969 at La Galería, Ajijic. The announcement in Guadalajara daily Informador (20 April) lists the artists as John Kenneth Peterson, Charles Henry Blodgett (guest artist) and “El Grupo” (John Brandi, Tom Brudenell, Peter Paul Huf, his wife Eunice (Hunt) Huf, Jack Rutherford, Shaw, Cynthia Siddons and Robert Snodgrass).

In June 1969, and in a bid to challenge the artistic status quo in the Lake Chapala area, John Brandi joined with Brudenell and Shaw (all three artists were living in Jocotepec) in staging the Chula Vista “happening”. Brandi contributed drawings, milagros (folk charms) and poems to the happening, which opened, perhaps appropriately, on Friday 13 June.

Sketches by John Brandi for Chula Vista Happening

Sketches by John Brandi for Chula Vista Happening

Brandi, a life-long political activist who joined protests against the American War in Vietnam, was living in the San Francisco Bay area, when he found his first publishing success, with a collection of poems entitled Desde Alla (Christopher’s Press, 1971). While he was living for a summer in a miner’s shack in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, he met Gary Snyder, immortalized by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums as Japhy Ryder. Snyder introduced him to Japanese poet-wanderer Nanao Sakaki.

In 1971, Brandi moved to New Mexico, where he built a cabin in a remote canyon, and founded Tooth of Time Books, which became a nationally-recognized poetry press.

John Brandi has had numerous collections of his poetry published, including Desde Alla (Christopher’s Press, 1971); Chimborazo: Life on the Haciendas of Ecuador (Akwesasne Notes Press, 1976); That Back Road In (Wingbow Press, 1985); Shadow Play: poems 1987-1991 (Light and Dust Books, 1992); Weeding the Cosmos (La Alameda Press, 1994); Heartbeat Geography: Selected & Uncollected Poems (White Pine Press, 1995); A Question of Journey: travel episodes India, Nepal, Thailand (Book Faith, India, 1999); Reflections in the Lizard’s Eye: High Desert Notes (Western Edge Press, 2000); Empty Moon : Belly Full, Haiku from India & Nepal (Pilgrims Publishing, India, 2000); In What Disappears (White Pine Press, 2003); One Cup and Another (Tangram Press, 2004); Water Shining Beyond the Fields (Tres Chicas Press, 2005); Staff in Hand, Wind in Pines (Tangram Press, 2008); Facing High Water (White Pine Press, 2008); Road to the Cloud’s House (with Renée Gregorio, La Alameda Press, 2009); Seeding the Cosmos: New & Selected Haiku (La Alameda Press, 2010); and The World, the World (White Pine Press, 2013).

Brandi has also undertaken translations, including parts of An Eye through the Wall: Mexican Poetry, 1970-1985 (Tooth of Time Books, 1986).

Brandi’s paintings have featured in numerous exhibitions including: San Francisco Public Library; Roswell Museum of Art, Roswell; New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe; Loka Cafe Gallery, Taos; Harwood Art Center, Albuquerque; Cruz Gallery, Santa Fe; Randall Davey Audubon Center, Santa Fe; Claudia Chapline Gallery, Stinson Beach, California; North Columbia Cultural Center, Nevada City, California; Woodland-Pattern Book Center, Milwaukee; Laurel Seth Gallery, Santa Fe; University of New Mexico Thompson Gallery, Albuquerque; Return Gallery, Taos; Moody Gallery, Houston, Texas.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.


Apr 162015

Robert Penn Warren, the great American poet, novelist and literary critic, was born in Kentucky on 24 April 1905 and died in Vermont on 15 September 1989. Warren lived and wrote in Chapala for several months in the summer of 1941.

Warren entered Vanderbilt University in 1921, where he became the youngest member of a group of Southern poets known as the Fugitives. Other members included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson and Merrill Moore. Warren’s first poems were published in The Fugitive, the magazine published by the group from 1922 to 1925.

From 1925 to 1927, Warren taught at the University of California, while earning his master’s degree. He also studied at New College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. After marrying Emma Brescia (nicknamed “Cinina”) and returning to the U.S. in 1930, he taught at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State, the University of Minnesota, and Yale University.

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

Warren was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He and Brooks also co-wrote a textbook Understanding Poetry (1938), which would prove to have a profound influence on the study of poetry in American colleges.

Warren, accompanied by his wife Cinina, visited Chapala in 1941, two years after the publication of his acclaimed first novel Night Rider.

Relatively little is known about their stay at Chapala, or their motivation in choosing to go there. However, Warren did have a family connection to the nearby city of Guadalajara. In Portrait of a Father, published in 1988, the year before his death, Warren wrote about the similarities between his father’s life and his own. Among the family members recalled in the book is Warren’s uncle Sam, who had worked in mining and lived in Guadalajara. Warren adds that he had often been there “during a long stay at Chapala”.

A few tantalizing snippets of information can be gleaned from the correspondence between Warren and his colleague Cleanth Brooks, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1998.

In a letter dated 17 July 1941, and signed “Red” (Warren’s nickname on account of the color of his hair), he wrote, from the Hotel Nido in Chapala, that Chapala was “a tiny town on a lake, surrounded by mountains, with a fine climate”, before providing some details of his living arrangements:

We have rented a little house, new and verminless, for which we pay six dollars a month, though getting it screened raised the rent several dollars more. A cook is a dollar a week, and food is cheap. The place beautiful, smelly and picture-postcardy. There are some Americans about, including Witter Bynner – who, in fact was about, very much about, with a palatial establishment, but he left yesterday for Colorado. But we have led a pretty isolated life here. Cinina was pretty busy for a few days getting the domestic machinery in motion, and I’ve been working and studying Spanish and swimming and going to the can more often than usual. Not that I’ve got a bug in me yet, but the complaint seems to be usual here upon first arrival…” (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, p 55)

He bemoaned his lack of access to American magazines,

We’ve seen one copy of Time, Latin America edition, but you can’t buy it here at Chapala, and we don’t go to Guadalajara, thirty miles away, but once a week…”

Chapala did offer him, though, a good space in which to think and work:

I’ve got some ideas for new poems, but haven’t done anything on them since arrival. The novel occupies most of my thoughts.”

“The novel” is presumably his second novel, At Heaven’s Gate, first published in 1943.

The following month, August 1941, he wrote that he had mailed a manuscript from Guadalajara to The Southern Review, but had to go to the city by bus because he was temporarily without his car:

We still like Chapala, but are getting awfully anxious for Baton Rouge. It seems that our car may be ready within a few days–though one can’t be too sure. I saw the body work the other day in Guadalajara, and you can’t even tell that the thing had taken a beating. But it has shore [sic] God played hell with what passes for the Warren budget.”


Warren also referred in this letter to “the unexpected arrival of the Albrizios”, friends from the U.S., whom “Cinina just happened to see”, “on the street at Chapala”. He excused his relative lack of work progress as being due to “matters of weather, stubbing toes, catching colds, having hangovers, and such…”

By coincidence, the house rented by Warren was later the home in 1952/1953 of Willard Marsh, author of the novel Week With No Friday (set at Lake Chapala), and his wife George. The owner of the house remembered “Red” as “a nice person with “red” hair who drank a lot – and gave wonderful parties!”

Warren’s marriage to Cinina ended in 1951; the following year, he married Eleanor Clark. He received numerous awards for his work, including the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for The Novel for All the King’s Men (1946), as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in both 1958 and 1979. Warren is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. He was appointed as the first poet laureate of the United States (1986 -1987).

Two of Warren’s works were subsequently turned into movies: All the King’s Men (1949) and Band of Angels (1957).


Mar 092015

Esther Tapia Ruíz de Castellanos was born in Morelia, Michoacán, on 9 May 1842, and died in Guadalajara on 8 January 1897. She married Ignacio Castellanos and wrote what is believed to be the earliest poem of any substance specifically about the lake.

The Castellanos family was one of wealthiest land-owning families on the north side of the lake, and probably the richest family in Ocotlán. Their estates included much of the shore between Ocotlán and Jamay, an area known as the Rivera Castellanos in the latter part of the 19th century. Ignacio Castellanos inherited the family property on the death of his father, Pedro Castellanos, sometime in the middle of the 19th century.

tapia-de-castellanosThe family seat, complete with stables, was a mansion located opposite the old parish cemetery, extending to the bank of the River Santiago. Castellanos added a mirador, almost as high as the church tower, atop the family home, from where a spectacular view could be enjoyed, encompassing parts of his extensive land holdings, the River Zula, and the “Castellanos” bridge, used by everyone entering and leaving Ocotlán from the east.

After Castellanos married Esther Tapia Ruíz , the couple divided their time between their country home in Ocotlán and a city residence in Guadalajara.

Postcard showing Lake Chapala shore near El Fuerte de Ocotlan and the Hotel Ribera

Postcard showing Lake Chapala shore near El Fuerte de Ocotlan and the Hotel Ribera

Esther Tapia de Castellanos’s very long Lake Chapala poem, inspired by her husband’s absence on business, was entitled, “A orillas del lago de Chapala” (“On the shores of Lake Chapala”), and was finished on January 22, 1869. Shortly afterwards, the poem was sent by Mr. Vaca, a family friend from Zamora, to Siglo XIX in Mexico City. It is not known whether it was accepted at that time for publication but, a century later, both the poem and an accompanying letter were published in the January 1969 issue of La Civilización.

The letter describes Mrs. Tapia de Castellanos as living in Ocotlán, a “village located between two powerful rivers and comprised of a small number of homes”. The hacienda occupied by Mr. Castellanos and his wife, has “a mirador on top, from where the view dominates Lake Chapala, home of aquatic birds and humble boats,” and the cultivated fields of the San Andrés hacienda.

Tapia de Castellanos wrote several volumes of poetry, including Flores silvestres (Wild flowers), published in 1871, Cántico de los niños (Song of the children), and Obras poéticas (Poetic works), as well as several plays. In 1886, she was one of the co-founders of La República Literaria, a magazine of science, art and literature, published in Guadalajara, which rapidly became one of the best known publications in the country. The other co-founders were José López Portillo y Rojas and Manuel Álvarez del Castillo, one of whose sons founded the El Informador daily in Guadalajara.

In the following fragements of “A orillas del lago de Chapala”, Tapia de Castellanos describes the scenery, flora and fauna from a very romantic, idyllic point of view.

On a tranquil afternoon
The sun advances to the west
leaving, as it departs, the clouds
tinted with gold and mother-of-pearl.
Its last rays gild
the clear water of the lake,
which seems, when it moves,
to be flecked with diamonds.
The light, sonorous waves
are teased into gentle undulations
making a tender murmur
that is only understood by the soul.

The willow bends its branches
As the warm waves kiss
and a perfumed breeze
jealously removes them.

(Esther Tapia de Castellanos, 1869 “A orillas del lago de Chapala”. Translation by Tony Burton.)

This text is a lightly-edited extract from Lake Chapala Through The Ages, an Anthology of Travellers’ Tales (Sombrero Books, 2008)

Related posts (poems about Lake Chapala):


Feb 022015

The American poet Jack Gilbert was born 18 February 1925, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, and then spent some time in Paris and several years in Italy. From 1956 to the mid-1960s, Gilbert made his home in the San Francisco Bay area. during which time he worked with photographer Ansel Adams and took Jack Spicer’s Poetry as Magic workshop at San Francisco State College.

In the late 1950s or very early in the 1960s, Gilbert rented a house in Ajijic, Mexico, while working on Views of Jeopardy (published in 1962). Views of Jeopardy won the 1962 Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and was nominated for that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

gilbert-jack-views-of-jeopardyAfter Gilbert won the Yale prize, Gordon Lish, the editor of the literary journal Genesis West devoted an entire issue of the journal to him.

Gilbert is sometimes considered as one of the Beat poets, a loose group also including Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth and ruth weiss. However, in this 1962 interview with Lish, Gilbert makes it abundantly clear that he was not:

– Lish: But you’re not part of the Beat Movement?

– Gilbert: God, no! And I don’t go in for freakish behavior nor esoteric knowledge.

It remains unclear precisely when Gilbert was in Ajijic working on Views of Jeopardy, and whether or not he was accompanied by his then partner, poet Laura Ulewicz (1930–2007), to whom the book is dedicated. (“To Laura Ulewicz, a kind of dragon”). Her Wikipedia biography records her as living in Europe from 1960-65, so if the two were together in Ajijic, then this was presumably in the late 1950s rather than the early 1960s.

Gilbert at first enjoyed his fame, but, “After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live. I didn’t want to be praised all the time.” He accepted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 and spent much of the next two decades living and traveling in Europe.

Jack Gilbert in the early 1950s

Jack Gilbert in the early 1950s

While Gilbert’s work often reflects places he lived or visited (Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Mexico, Greece, Denmark, Paris), none of his published poems can definitely be linked to Ajijic.

However, he did compose at least two poems related, via their titles and subject matter, to the nearby city of Guadalajara. For example a seven-line poem entitled “Elephant Hunt in Guadalajara” appeared in Monolithos: Poems 1962 and 1982, his second book of poetry published in 1984. That poem describes a floor show in a nightclub called El Serape where, when the lights went off, “strong girls came like tin moths” to dance with the patrons. Monolithos won the Stanley Kunitz Prize and an award from the American Poetry Review.

In 2009, Gilbert’s poetry collection The Dance Most of All: poems included “Searching for it in a Guadalajara Dance Hall”, in which Gilbert describes how in “an empty, concrete one-room building”, men and women sit in straight lines of chairs on the opposite sides of the room. The dancing is not a prelude to anything romantic:

Nothing is sexual.
There are proprieties.
No rubbing against anyone. No touching
at all. When the music starts, the men
go stiffly over to the women…

From 1964-1970 or thereabouts, Gilbert was living in Greece with his former student and fellow poet Linda Gregg; the two remained close until his death. During that period, he co-authored with Jean Maclean, under the joint pseudonym Tor Kung, two erotic novels: My Mother Taught Me (1964) and Forever Ecstasy (1968).

In the 1970s, Gilbert lived in Japan with another former student, the sculptor Michiko Nogami. She died in 1982, the same year his second book of poetry was published.

Gilbert went on to publish several more poetry books including The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (1994); Refusing Heaven (2005); Tough Heaven: Poems of Pittsburgh (2006); Transgressions: Selected Poems (2006); The Dance Most of All (2009); and Collected Poems (2012). He was also a regular contributor to The American Poetry Review, Genesis West, The Quarterly, Poetry, Ironwood, The Kenyon Review, and The New Yorker.

The great American poet Jack Gilbert, who early in his career lived for a time in Ajijic, died in Berkeley, California, 13 November 2012.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 6:02 am  Tagged with:
Jan 252015

Luis Gonzaga Urbina (1864-1934) was born in Mexico City 8 February 1864. In his lifetime, he was one of Mexico’s best-known poets, straddling the boundary between romanticism and modernism.

Urbina studied at the National Preparatory School and worked, for a time, as the personal secretary of the Education Secretary Justo Sierra. Urbina taught literature and was a reviewer of theater and music for publications such as El Mundo Ilustrado, La Revista de Revistas and El Imparcial.

In 1909 he was chosen to lead the compilation of a literary anthology, Antología del Centenario, to commemorate the 1910 centenary of Independence. Urbina’s lengthy introduction provided an insightful overview of the history of Mexican literature.


The following year (1910), Urbina published a collection of poetry Puestas de sol. This is often regarded as Urbina’s finest work. It includes “El poema del lago” (“The Lake Poem”), a lengthy poem inspired by a visit to Chapala. “El poema del lago” builds on an earlier prose piece, “Frente al Chapala” (1905).

“El poema del lago” (link is to full text in Spanish) consists of 18 sonnets, each with its own particular direction and strength. It combines science and poetry and sometimes draws attention to environmental issues. For example, the opening lines describe the suffering of a single tree, scarred by axes and wildfires:

¿Qué dice tu nervioso gesto de selva oscura
árbol vetusto y seco sin una verde rama?
Con cicatriz de hachazos y quemazón de llama,
como un espectro tiendes tu sombra en la llanura.

What is this sombre dark jungle gesture:
ancient tree, withered, a memory of green?
Where your burned out bark and hatchet marks seem
to ghostly, cast shadows on the plain and fester.]

[translation by Scott M. DeVries]

During the early part of the Mexican Revolution (which began in 1910), Urbina was Director of Mexico’s National Library (1913-1915). When revolutionary forces took Mexico City in August 1915, and Álvaro Obregón became president, Urbina left the country for exile in Cuba, where he taught and continued his career as a journalist.

In 1916, El Heraldo de la Habana sent Urbina to Spain to be its Madrid correspondent. At the time, due to the Mexican Revolution, many illustrious Mexicans were living, studying or exiled in Spain; they included Alfonso Reyes, Martín Luis Guzmán, Diego Rivera and Ángel Zárraga.

Urbina spent much of 1917 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and from 1918-1920, was appointed the First Secretary of the Mexican Embassy in Spain.

A man of many parts, but best remembered for his original, emotive and elegant poetry, Urbina died in Madrid, Spain, on 18 November 1934; his remains were returned to Mexico and interred in the Rotonda de las Personas Ilustres in Mexico City.

His academic publications include Antología del centenario (1910, in collaboration with Pedro Henríquez Ureña and Nicolás Rangel); La literatura mexicana (1913); El teatro nacional (1914); La literatura mexicana durante la guerra de la Independencia (1917); La vida literaria de México (1917); Antología romántica 1887-1917 (1917).

His collections of poetry include: Versos (1890); Ingenuas (1910); Puestas de sol (1910); Lámparas en agonía (1914); El poema de Mariel (1915); Glosario de la vida vulgar (1916); El corazón juglar (1920); Cancionero de la noche serena (1941).

Source for biography

  • Luis G. Urbina (1864-1934) by Antonio Castro Leal

Related posts (poems about Lake Chapala):

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 6:57 am  Tagged with:
Jan 192015

Indian yogi and guru Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) introduced millions of westerners to the teachings of meditation and Kriya Yoga through his Self-Realization movement and his book, Autobiography of a Yogi (1946). The book was an inspiration for many people. For example, Steve Jobs (1955–2011), the co-founder of Apple, who first read the book as a teenager, re-read it during a trip to India, and then every year thereafter. The Self-Realization movement remains widely popular today.

Paramahansa Yogonanda at Lake Chapala, 1929

Paramahansa Yogananda at Lake Chapala, 1929

Paramahansa Yogananda visited Chapala in the summer of 1929. This striking image of him standing on a sail canoe at Lake Chapala has been regularly used since in the publicity materials of the Self-Realization Foundation.


Mukunda Lal Ghoshin (Paramahansa Yogananda’s birth name) was born in Uttar Pradesh, India on 5 January 1893. He was educated at Serampore College, a constituent college of the University of Calcutta and in 1915, took formal vows into the monastic Swami Order and became ‘Swami Yogananda Giri’. He died shortly after giving a speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on 7 March 1952.

In 1920, he traveled to the U.S. aboard the ship City of Sparta, as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals convening in Boston. Later that year he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), with the aim of more widely disseminating his teachings on India’s ancient practices and philosophy of Yoga and its tradition of meditation. In 1924 he gave speeches all across the U.S. and the following year established an international center (later the international headquarters) of SRF in Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles center was run by Yogananda’s old school friend and co-worker, Swami Dhirananda.

In 1929, Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Dhirananda had a serious falling out. According to one version, in the spring of 1929, Dhirananda suspected that his guru Paramahansa Yogananda, in New York, was “living with a woman” (in contravention of his vow of celibacy). Dhirananda resigned from his position at Mt Washington, and asked Paramahansa Yogananda for a share of the proceeds from sales of books and other activities. Their dispute over money led to an acrimonious lawsuit.

Trip to Mexico

Following the resignation of Dhirananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, stricken with remorse, needed a break, and on 23 May 1929, left the USA for a three month visit to Mexico. During the trip, he met Emilio Portes Gil, the Mexican president, gave lectures and wrote the chant: “Devotees may come, devotees may go, but I will be Thine always…” Paramahansa Yogananda, also visited Xochimilco, which he thought was one of the most beautiful spots he had ever seen: “As entries in a scenic beauty contest, I offer for first prize either the gorgeous view of Xochimilco in Mexico, where mountains, skies, and poplars reflect themselves in myriad lanes of water amidst the playful fish, or the jewel-like lakes of Kashmir.”

The trip to Mexico is described in the Nov-Dec 1929 (Vol 4 #3) issue of East West Magazine:

On May 23rd, 1929, Swami [Paramahansa] Yogananda sailed from New York on a visit to Mexico. While there he met the President of Mexico, and also opened a Yogoda Center in charge of General Caly Mayor, a staunch Yogoda student of Mexico City whom the Swami was very happy to meet.

On July 15th Swami Yogananda was presented by Mr. G. O. Forbes, First Secretary of the British Legation, to Mr. Portes Gil, the President of Mexico. During the interview, which lasted about one-half hour, the President mentioned his ambition to lift the Mexican people to a great spiritual ideal. Swami Yogananda, speaking of the President’s recent success in settling the religious situation in Mexico, pointed out that it was spiritual understanding and culture alone that could unite all nations and creeds into one helpful band of brothers, all traveling toward the same goal of perfection. At the conclusion of the very enjoyable talk, the Swami and President Gil were photographed by newspaper and motion picture photographers in front of the palace, and pictures and news stories appeared in several of the leading Mexican papers on the following days.

Two of the palace guards showed the Swami about the palace and its beautiful grounds. It is situated on a high hill overlooking the surrounding country. An atmosphere of Oriental grandeur, due to marble walls and gilded ceilings, mingles with a brisk democratic atmosphere which reminds one of America’s presidential White House.

The Swami greatly enjoyed the magnificent and varied scenery of Mexico, the beautiful Lake Chapala inspiring him to compose a poem in its honor. He made many friends in Mexico and took many moving pictures of the interesting people and places he saw, many of which reminded him of India and her sun-tanned sons and daughters. Immense interest in Yogoda was manifested. “The Mexican people are spiritually inclined,” Swami reported. “There is a great field here for Yogoda and the message of India.”

Poem about Lake Chapala

The poem composed by Paramahansa Yogananda during his visit to the lake is “Ode to Lake Chapala”:

Ode to Lake Chapala — by Paramahansa Yogananda

O Chapala!
Like the flickering flame of Indo-skies,
Thy moods of limpid waters
Boisterously play with fitful gleaming storm,
Or rest on thy shining forehead
without a ripply wrinkle!
‘This then thy silver, shining mind,
Free of ruffling causes,
A transparent mirror—
Reflects just noble images
Of the green-dressed young and old hills,
Like tableaux of drilling soldiers
Standing hand in hand, with dwarf and tall heads,
Crowned with sliver skies or fleecy clouds.
I beheld the starry damsels
Beautifying their twinkling faces
In the mirror of thy waters.
How I watched in the flickering hall of lightning
Thy furious fight with the gunning clouds.
Showering torrential bullets of spattering rain,
O! what wild cloud-churned skies
and bounding winds,
Rolling thunder peals,
bursting vapour embankments,
Have flooded thy territory of waters
And have lashed thy spirit
to rouse thy resting soldier-waves
To leap to furious fightings!
Then again, when truce is signed with storm gods
And warring fury of the skies,
I find a stray white sail
Charged with a vital breeze,
Racing to thy horizon’s hidden unknown shores.
Thy nocturnal silence,
Oft rocked to sleep
By the lullaby of thy gentle breakers,
Is rudely roused at dawn
By those busy silence-shattering, droning sounds
Of man-made, horrid watery ploughs
Which encroach upon
Thy private fields of silence,
O! Changing Chapala
—The gleaming lightning of my feeling’s skies!
I love thee as never before!
Here’s hill-ramparted lake—
Which can allay
The scenic-beauty thirst of yearning minds.
When comes such another? Where?
Alas, Chapala!
Thy beauty will be snatched
Form my adoring skies
By cruel duties of exacting life,—
But they will fail to take away
Thy beauty enthroned in me as joy for e’er.
The stony arms of the palace by thy banks
Enclosed a tract of thy loved waters,
And ‘neath the lone, shady tree,
Standing on the spot ‘tween two sheets of water,
Oft I sat with those unforgettable hours—
When I beheld the Infinite
Emerge from pale unanswering walls of blue—
And unite my soul with thee,
Mounts, skies, and me!

Related posts (poems about Lake Chapala):

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 6:13 am  Tagged with:
Jan 122015

Rafael López (1873-1943) wrote a poem entitled “To Lake Chapala” (1927). The poem is a homage to, and parody of, the famous poem “La suave patria”, composed by Ramón López Velarde (1888-1921). (Ramón López Velarde is often considered Mexico’s national poet.)

Rafael López, whose formal name was José Barbarín Rafael de la Concepción López Castañón (!) was a distinguished modern poet, very popular in his time. His work has been favorably re-evaluated in recent years.

lopez-rafaelBorn 4 December 1873 in the city of Guanajuato, he loved poetry as a child and discovered Amado Nervo at an early age. He wrote to him in verse, thus beginning a long friendship. Nervo helped him publish his first poem, “De invierno”, in a national paper, El Mundo Ilustrado, in January 1899. Other poets in their circle included José Juan Tablada, Jesús E. Valenzuela and Rubén M. Campos. Rafael López was also a close friend of Luis G. Urbina.

López moved to Mexico City in 1901 and was a founding member in 1909 of the Ateneo de la Juventud (“Atheneum of Youth“). a grouping of young intellectuals, primarily writers and philosophers. In 1910, López was appointed as instructor in literature at the National Teachers’ College.

Among many other accomplishments, in 1910 Rafael López wrote the lyrics to Mexico’s national anthem, “Canto a la Bandera”, the music to which was composed by fellow Ateneo de la Juventud member Julián Carrillo, inventor of Sonido 13.

López published only two books of poetry – Con los ojos abiertos (1912) and Poemas (1941) during his lifetime, as well as a collection of prose Prosas transeúntes (1925).

Rafael López’s poem “To Lake Chapala” is dedicated to the lake, the then fashionable place to vacation during Holy Week. Here are the original words, with my loose translation into English:

Del gran libro en que Dios puso el secreto
del mar, eres el lírico folleto;
cuna infantil de su flujo y reflujo,
de un soplo, una pompa de jabón
y el pulso de su errante corazón.
El domingo de Pascua, placentera
y fina, en tu recámara playera,
proporcionas al ocio ciudadano
tu ‘agua florida’ y tu ‘espejo de mano’.
Tu alma de moaré bien se acomoda
al capricho del viento y de la moda;
te envuelve el lujo en seda casquivana
y la niebla filosófica, en lana.
Pérfida en ocasiones, no te pierdes
de ser crüel con tus enamorados,
que –naturalmente– han muerto ahogados
en la caricia de tus brazos verdes.
From the great book in which God placed the secret
of the sea, you are the lyric booklet;
infant cradle of her ebb and flow
of a breath, a soap bubble
and the pulse of her wandering heart.
On Easter Sunday, pleasant
and fine, in your bedroom by the beach,
you provide for civic leisure
your ‘flowery water’ and your ‘hand mirror’.
Your rippled soul adjusts itself well
to the whim of wind and of fashion;
it envelops luxury in frivolous silk
and philosophical fog, in wool.
Sometimes perfidious, you do not miss
being cruel with your lovers,
who-naturally-have died from drowning
in the caress of your green arms.
Rafael López’s work appeared in numerous poetry collections of the era, as well as in numerous newspapers, magazines and journals, including El Mundo, El Mundo ilustrado, Revista Moderna, Revista Moderna de México, Savia Moderna, La Patria, Arte, Arte y Letras, El Entreacto, Diario del hogar, El Imparcial, El Demócrata mexicano, Novedades, La Nación, Argos, Crónica, La Semana Ilustrada, Revista de Revistas, Nosotros, El Pueblo, Mefistófeles, El Independiente and El Universal.

López published some poems under the anagram “Lázaro P. Feel” (used for a few years during the Mexican Revolution), and pen names such as “José Córdova”, “Tris tris” and “Prevostito”. He maintained his somewhat rebellious attitude to the status quo throughout his life, and remained close to the up-and-coming youthful poets and at the forefront of what was then happening in poetry circles in Mexico. He served as director of the National Archives from 1920 until his death in 1943.


Julian Carillo and Sonido 13 are the subject of chapter 25 of my Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique (2016).

Sources (Spanish):

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 6:12 am  Tagged with:
Nov 172014

Fred Lape, born at Holland Patent, about 10 miles north of Utica, New York, in 1900, spent several months every winter from about 1966 until his death in 1985, in Jocotepec on Lake Chapala. He died in Jocotepec on 1 March 1985, aged 85, and was interred in the local cemetery the following day.

Fred Lape (Credit: Landis Arboretum website)

Fred Lape (Credit: Landis Arboretum website)

Lape attended Cornell University and received a degree in English literature in 1921. He then divided his time between teaching English as a university professor (at Cornell, Stanford and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), freelance writing, running his farm, developing his skills as a horticulturist, and functioning as the historian of the small town of Esperance (population 2000), his chosen place of residence in Schoharie County, New York.

In 1951 Lape, who never married, transformed the family farm into the non-profit George Landis Arboretum. The arboretum’s website states his mission: “He aimed to grow every species of woody plant from temperate regions around the world that would survive in the hills of Schoharie County.” Fred Lape served as its director until his death. The arboretum closed every year from 1 November to 1 April, allowing him ample time each winter in Jocotepec.

His great love was guiding visitors around the arboretum. His obituary in The Altamont Enterprise describes how, “The arboretum director, a tall, angular figure topped by a plain, undecorated wide-brimmed  straw hat shielding a craggy, deeply-tanned face, would lead visitors past that landmark on regular weekend woodlot tours.”

Lape’s published work included one novel, Roll On, Pioneers (1935), and three non-fiction works, A Garden of Trees and Shrubs (Cornell Univ. Press, 1965), Apples and Man (Van Nostrand, 1979); and A Farm and Village Boyhood (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1980).

He also authored at least 8 volumes of poetry and founded a quarterly poetry and prose magazine, Trails, which published local nature verse from 1932 to when it ceased publication in 1951. His poetry titles include Barnyard Year (Poems) (1950), A Bunch of Flowers (Poems) (1954), My word to you, J.Q.A: Seven scenes in the life of John Quincy Adams (1965), At the Zoo (1966), Along the Schoharie (poems) (1968), Poems from the Blue Beach (1976), and Hill Farm (1976).


  • The Altamont Enterprise, Thursday 14 March 1985
Nov 062014

While researching the history of the artists associated with the Lake Chapala region, I came across more and more references to the “two Butterlin brothers”. The problem was that different sources, including otherwise reputable art history sites, gave them quite different first names: Ernesto and Hans? Hans and Frederick? Linares and Otto?

There was very little evidence and it seemed impossible to tell which source was accurate, and why different accounts gave such different names, ages and details. They were usually described as “German”, but it was unclear whether they had been born in Germany or were the sons of German immigrants to Mexico.

Eventually, I compiled enough evidence to prove conclusively that there were not two Butterlin brothers, but three! Two had been born in Germany and were brought by their parents to Mexico. Safely ensconced in Guadalajara, the parents then had a third son, several years younger than his siblings.

The picture was complicated by the fact that two of the brothers used different names at different stages of their life, with the older brother rarely using his first name on his art once he arrived in Mexico, while the youngest brother adopted a surname for much of his artistic career that had no obvious connection to his family name.

Small wonder, then, that confusion reigned about the Butterlin brothers on many art history sites, some of which even failed to identify correctly the country of birth of each of the three brothers.

The three brothers (in order of birth) are:

There are still great gaps in my knowledge of this family, but the picture that finally began to emerge showed that the Butterlins deserved wider recognition as an artistic family of some consequence.

In future posts, I will show how all three Butterlin brothers contributed significantly to the development of the artist colony in the Lake Chapala area, albeit it in rather different ways.

Sep 222014

The great American poet and dramatist Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (26 March 1911 – 25 February 1983) had visited Mexico several times in the five or six years preceding 1945, but had never been to Lake Chapala. He spent the summer of 1945 in Cuernavaca and Chapala, and it proved to be a productive period in his writing career.

A year earlier, in 1944, his first major success – The Glass Menagerie – had catapulted Williams from obscurity to literary stardom, giving him a steady income. However, in 1945, Williams wanted to refocus on his writing and escape the publicity accompanying his success. He had also just had a cataract operation and wanted somewhere pleasant to recuperate.

While in Chapala, Tennessee Williams stayed at the home of poet Witter Bynner. Bynner’s home, now numbered as Francisco I. Madero #441, is no longer a private residence. In Chapala, Williams wrote diligently for several hours every day, working not only on the new play provisionally called The Poker Night, but also on several poems and an essay entitled “A Playwright’s Statement“. In the words of Michael Hargraves [1], Williams spent his time, “Strolling along the borders of Mexico’s largest inland body of water (over four hundred square miles), swimming, drinking rum-cocos with native boys….”

In his essay, “On a Streetcar Named Success” (1947), Williams recalls that “I settled for a while at Chapala, Mexico, to work on a play called The Poker Night, which later became A Streetcar Named Desire. It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention, and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial. The right condition for him is that in which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable….“

How long was Tennessee Williams in Chapala?

It surprised me to discover that Williams spent less than two months in Chapala. He arrived in Chapala in July 1945 and left in mid-August of the same year. This is the only time he is known to have visited the area.

Why exactly did Williams choose Lake Chapala?

As Williams explains in his essay “The Catastrophe of Success”, “For me a convenient place to work is a remote place among strangers where there is good swimming. But life should require a certain minimal effort. You should not have too many people waiting on you, you should have to do most things for yourself. Hotel service is embarrassing. Maids, waiters, bellhops, porters and so forth are the most embarrassing…”

It appears to be largely coincidental that Tennessee Williams, who was a great admirer of British author D. H. Lawrence, happened to spend the summer of 1945 in the town where Lawrence had penned The Plumed Serpent twenty years earlier.

Tennessee Williams quote on vintage postcard of Chapala

Tennessee Williams quote on vintage postcard of Chapala

Does The Poker Night have any connection to the (Old) Posada Ajijic?

There is no evidence that The Poker Night has any connection to the (Old) Posada Ajijic. In a letter written 23 March 1945 (a week before The Glass Menagerie opened in New York, and several weeks before he left for Mexico), Williams wrote that he was “about 55 or 60 pages into the first draft of a play… At the moment, it has four different titles, “The Moth”, “The Poker Night”, “The Primary Colors” and “Blanche’s Chair in the Moon”.” [2] Clearly, therefore, he had started writing The Poker Night several weeks before traveling to Chapala.

Claims that Williams was inspired to write The Poker Night on account of regular poker sessions in the Posada Ajijic are equally spurious. In the event, according to Williams himself, the idea for the play did not come from poker playing, but from an image in his mind of a woman, sitting with folded hands near a moonlit window, who was waiting in vain for the arrival of her boyfriend.

The early history of the (Old) Posada Ajijic is murky, but it appears to have first operated as an inn sometime between 1938 and 1946. However, in those early years, it was certainly not a hive of activity, and did not become the social center of Ajijic until much later. It is possible  (though I know of no supporting evidence) that Tennessee Williams may have played poker on one or more occasions in the Posada Ajijic but, even if he did, it was clearly not a formative experience in terms of his writing.

A Streetcar Named Desire

As noted above, this play had numerous working titles including “The Moth”, “The Poker Night”, “The Primary Colors” and “Blanche’s Chair in the Moon”. The eventual title was not used by Williams until some time after he had left Chapala.

According to a webpage written by Bert Cardullo of the University of Michigan, who cites Nancy M. Tischler’s book Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (New York: Citadel Press 1961), Williams “had begun writing Streetcar in Chapala, Mexico (near Guadalajara) convinced that he was dying, that this would be his last play, and that therefore he should put his all into it. (Williams thought that the agonizing abdominal pains he had been experiencing were the result of lethal stomach cancer, but in fact they were caused by a ruptured appendix.)”

Michael Hargraves writes that Tennessee Williams’ writing, in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), “took on a fusion of sensuality and nostalgia and violence”, with the plot eventually centering on “a contest between the crude sensibilities of working-class poker players and the delicacies of two Southern women.” [1]

A Streetcar Named Desire is often considered Williams’ finest single work. It brought him renewed renown and won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The movie version, won four Oscars, including three of the four categories for acting. Oscars were won by Vivien Leigh (Best Actress), Karl Malden (Best Supporting Actor) and Kim Hunter (Best Supporting Actress). In addition, Marlon Brando was nominated (but failed to win) the award for Best Actor.

Poems written at Lake Chapala

While spending the summer of 1945 in Chapala, Tennessee Williams also wrote several poems. “Recuerdo” (Spanish for “Memory”) is a poem in memory of his recently diseased grandmother and his interned sister Rose. Williams also reworked a poem previously titled “Idillio” (1944) as “Lady, Anemone”. This was first published in New Directions 9 (1946), pages 82-83, as the last in a sequence of three poems, followed by the dateline “Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico, July 1945″. [3]

Other links between Tennessee Williams and Mexico

Later in his life, Tennessee Williams turned one of his short stories into the stage play The Night of the Iguana (1948), also set in Mexico. In The Night of the Iguana, a defrocked clergyman is leading a ladies’ bus tour around Mexico. The group is forced to take temporary refuge in a hotel whose owner proves to be especially sensual. The main characters become entangled in a web of relationships. They eventually manage to move on, but not before a captured iguana has been fattened for the dinner table.

The 1964 film adaptation of The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, starred Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. The movie set was built on Mismaloya Cove, a short distance south of Puerto Vallarta. The film won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography and for Art Direction.


  • [1] Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • [2] John Bak. 2013. Tennessee Williams, a Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan).
  • [3] N Moschovakis, Tennessee Williams and David Roessel. 2007. Collected Poems Of Tennessee Williams.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Sep 012014

The son of a physician, writer and poet R. Jere Black Jr. was born 27 June 1892 at McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He would also live at different times in Chautauqua, New York; Washington, D.C.; Long Beach and Santa Monica, California; and Byron Center in Michigan, as well as in Mexico.

R Jere Black's passport photo, 1922

R Jere Black’s passport photo, 1922

During World War I, Black served as a machine gunner with the American Expeditionary Force in France from May 1918 to May 1919. He was gassed by the Germans, which left him in ill health for the remainder of his life, with numerous spells in hospital. He married Josephine Elizabeth Best (1894-1976) in 1920. By 1937, the couple had divorced and his former wife had remarried.

It is unclear when he first visited Lake Chapala, but R. Jere Black died at the home of Paul “Pablo” Heuer, in the village of Ajijic, on 7 September 1953, and was buried in the Ajijic Municipal Cemetery the following day.

Black made his living from writing stories and short pieces for a number of popular magazines, both “slicks” and “pulps”, including The Smart Set, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Breezy Stories, Battle Stories, Sweetheart Stories and College Life. His brother described him as “a brilliant, fascinating person.”

His most productive period in terms of published writings was the period 1928 to 1934. This period included three poems published in Weird Tales: “Lyonesse” (December 1928), “Masquerade” (March 1930) and “The Pirate” (August 1930), a non-fiction piece, “The Pseudo-Scientific Field,” for Author and Journalist (May 1930) which took a look at “science fiction” (a term still in its infancy at the time), and a novel, The Killing of the Golden Goose: A Christopher King Mystery Story (New York: Loring & Mussey, 1934).

Black’s wife, born as Josephine Elizabeth Best but better known as E. Best Black, was also a writer of genre fiction. Born in 1894 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, she and Jere Black married there in 1920, before traveling widely. Mrs Black wrote a story with the title “Flaming Ruth” (a pun) for Young’s Realistic Stories Magazine in February 1928 and also published two hardback novels featuring detective Peter Strangley: The Ravenelle Riddle (New York: Loring & Mussey, 1933) and The Crime of the Chromium Bowl (London: George Newnes, 1937). By 1937, however, she had divorced R. Jere Black and become the wife of Theron Lowden Kelley (1899-1967). Josephine Elizabeth Best Kelley died in 1976 in Monterey, California.


Jun 302014

Anthony Ostroff (1923-1978) was born in Gary, Indiana and educated at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, the Sorbonne, and the University of Grenoble. Ostroff wrote a short poem entitled: “Lake Chapala” which was published in 1977 in his A Fall in Mexico (Garden City, New York: Doubleday).

Ostroff traveled widely in Mexico (the date of his visit to Chapala is unclear) but was clearly not impressed by the lake, as evidenced by the last stanza of his poem, which reads:

Farther on
the road descends
to us & ends,
a lake-edge mess
of roots, mud,
tubers. A sludge
swims the soup,
his writhing lost
to a straight V.
His arrow head
held lip high,
his nostrils try
the line of cess.

ostroff-anthony-1977In his notes to the poem, in the back of the book, Ostroff writes, “The lake, a part of which extends into Michoacán, lies mainly in Jalisco and is, at a distance, quite beautiful. It was once a popular resort area for wealthy Mexicans. Pollution of the lake, however, proceeded at such a rate that by the time of the poem bearing its name it had become a broth of typhoid and amebic dysentery, and the town of Chapala was all but deserted. The village of Ajijic, also on the shores of the lake, had a small, expatriate American colony.”

Working mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, his poetry and short fiction was published in such magazines as Harper’s, The Paris Review, Atlantic Monthly, Kenyon Review, and Poetry. Ostroff was also the recipient of a grant from the National Association of Educational Broadcasting to produce a series of broadcasts on American Poetry.

Ostroff, whose literary and academic career included spells teaching at the University of California at Berkley (1949-1969) and at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon (1969-1978), edited The contemporary poet as artist and critic: Eight symposia (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964) and also wrote:

  • Imperatives (Harcourt Brace & World, 1962)
  • Islander, selected poems of Anthony Ostroff (Ash Creek Press, 2000)
  • To build a House; the short stories of Anthony Ostroff (Portland, Ash Creek Press, 2003)

Anthony Ostroff was a friend of various poets in the San Francisco region, including Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn, Josephine Miles and Richard Everhart.

Ostroff died in 1978 from a heart attack suffered after hang-gliding on the coast of Oregon.

The Poetry Collection of the State University of New York at Buffalo houses the Anthony Ostroff Collection, 1955-1978, which contains  all of the poet’s published and unpublished poems, plays, short stories and articles in manuscript and published form, with thousands of corrections in the poet’s hand, as well as tape recordings prepared by Ostroff, including the series he directed for the
national Association of Educational Broadcasting.

Source for biography:

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Jun 182014

José López Portillo y Rojas (1850-1923) was born in Guadalajara. He graduated as a lawyer in Guadalajara in 1871, before spending three years traveling in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. On his return, he published his first book: Egypt and Palestine. Notes from a trip (1874).

portillo-y-rojas-jose-lopezHe began an illustrious political career as deputy for Jalisco to the national Congress from 1875-1877. Shortly after that first experience of national politics, he returned to Guadalajara and became a journalist, teacher of law, and member of that city’s literary circle.

The group included other young Jalisco writers such as Antonio Zaragoza and Manuel Álvarez del Castillo, one of whose sons, Jesús, would later start the El Informador newspaper in Guadalajara, which remains one of the city’s most important dailies.

In 1880, López Portillo y Rojas returned to Mexico City as a deputy. In 1882, he became a state senator. In 1886, he joined with Manuel Álvarez del Castillo and Esther Tapia de Castellanos to start a new publication in Guadalajara. La República Literaria, a magazine of science, art and literature quickly became nationally famous, but only lasted until 1890.

In 1891, López Portillo published the first transcription, albeit partial, of Father Antonio Tello’s invaluable 17th century account relating to Lake Chapala. In 1892, he published his only book of verse Transitory harmonies. By 1902, López Portillo was living in Mexico City and had joined the Partido Científico (Scientific Party). After the fall of Díaz, he held various federal government posts before becoming Governor of the State of Jalisco (1912-1914). For a brief period in 1914, he was appointed as Foreign Relations Secretary in the government of Victoriano Huerta, during the time when the U.S. invaded the port of Veracruz.

He left politics shortly afterwards and dedicated himself to teaching and writing. He left a vast body of work, ranging from travel accounts, poems, and literary criticism to historical and legal essays, short stories and novels. His best known collection of short stories is Stories, tales and short stories (1918). His best known novel, The parcel (1898), relates the fight between two hacienda owners for a worthless parcel of land.

At the time of his death in Mexico City on 22 of May, 1923, he was director of the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua (Mexican Academy of Language). One of López Portillo’s grandsons, José López Portillo y Pacheco (1920-2004), served as President of Mexico between 1976 and 1982. In Guadalajara, the Casa-Museo López Portillo, a museum and exhibition space honoring the family, can be visited at Calle Liceo #177.

A short story about Lake Chapala, entitled “José la garza morena” (“José the Great Blue Heron”) was published in Cosmos (a monthly magazine published in Mexico City) , in June 1912, pp. 401-405. It is a tale about someone finding a heron that has been shot and wounded, and trying in vain to cure it.

The story starts by remembering the times before Lake Chapala’s shores has been altered by civilization:

When I visited the lakeside hamlet of Chapala for the first time, now many years ago, I found everything in an almost primitive state, better than now from some points of view, but worse from others.

The author compares the Chapala of earlier times with the situation during the Porfiriato (when he was active in politics as a supporter of President Díaz):

Not a sign back then of the picturesque villas that today adorn and decorate these shores from the town to the Manglar, which is the house where Don Porfirio Díaz used to stay during the time, happy for him, of his all-embracing command; but everywhere was thick scrub, cheerful orchards with severe rocky places, which were in harmony with that rustic and unspoiled landscape.

The scene is set; the action begins with an evening trip in a rowboat on the lake. The beauty of the lake, as depicted by the author, creates an impression of decadence and morbidity, because there are no signs of life out on the water:

But that scene of glorification seemed dead and desolate, without any bird to make it cheerful; not a stork, nor a crane, nor a duck stained the burnished horizon with its graceful silhouette.

Further on, the author continues:

The lake appeared magnificent and solitary under that divine show, as if it were another asphalt lake, a new Dead Sea. But it was not always thus; and the recollections of better times engraved in my memory transformed this most unhappy spectacle, because before the rising tide of civilization invaded these places with platoons of armed hunters with shining rifles, flocks of ducks would rise suddenly into the air from the marshes as the boat approached.

The second part of the short story is about someone finding a heron that has been shot and wounded, and trying in vain to cure it.

Credit and reference:

My sincere thanks to Dr. Wolfgang Vogt of the University of Guadalajara for bringing this short story (and his analysis of it) to my attention. The extracts above are translations by Tony Burton.

Vogt, Wolfgang (1989) “El lago de Chapala en la literatura” in Estudios sociales: revista cuatrimestral del Instituto de Estudios Sociales. Universidad de Guadalajara: Year 2, Number 5: 1989, 37-47. Republished in 1994 as pp 163-176 of Vogt (1994) La cultura jalisciense desde la colonia hasta la Revolución (Guadalajara: H. Ayuntamiento).

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