Alexander Taylor -- A Man of the Engaged & Purposeful Life

My friend, mentor, teacher, second father--and to whom I owe much of my publishing life--Alexander "Sandy" Taylor passed away this morning after suffering a stroke a couple of days ago. He was the cofounder and publisher with his wife, Judith Doyle, of Curbstone Press--in my view the most important press for literature that matters in the United States. Sandy was 76.

Since 1975 Curbstone Press, out of Willimantic, Connecticut, has published the amazing works of socially engaged poets, fiction writers, translators, and memoirists such as Martin Espada, James Scully, Claribel Alegria, Jack Hirschman, Carla Trujillo, Thuy Dinh, Sam Hamill, Carolyn Forche, Daisy Zamora, Truung Vu, Sarah Menefee, Tino Villanueva, Gionconda Belli, Ernesto Cardenal, Arturo Arias... and many other emerging and veteran voices in the frontlines of ideas and words of revolutionary meaning, purpose & expression.

They introduced amazing new Latino and Latina writers in their Miguel Marmol Literary Prize--including Mary Helen Largasse--that otherwise may have been forgotten.

The press built its reputation on publishing those writers that other publishers saw as too political, too risky, too experimental, too unknown--yet Curbstone never skimped on quality work or less than stellar writing. Many vital voices from Latin America and Vietnam, among other countries, found a home here.

And somehow they also made a home for the writings of an unconfident and unschooled former gang member and former drug-and-alcohol addict--and a long-time community activist, revolutionary and thinker--named Luis J. Rodriguez.

Yes, if it wasn't for Sandy and Judy, I would not have been read or known. I truly believe this. They published my first non-self published work, "The Concrete River" (I had published my first poetry collection under my own press, Tia Chucha Press). This book has had several printings and has passed the 10,000 copies sold mark--a rare occurrence for poetry in the US. They've also published two other poetry books, including my latest "My Nature is Hunger." And they took a chance on my first children's book, "America is Her Name" in English and Spanish versions. Curbstone is currently working on another children's book based on the character from that book, America Solis.

However, the most important book of mine they supported with publishing--and with the most amazing marketing plan any writer can hope for--was "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA." I gave this book to Sandy in 1992 after my oldest son Ramiro had joined a Chicago gang the year before. I struggled hard to earn my son's respect (I did not raise him), but there was too much resentment and pain between us. I thought of writing a true-life account of my own involvement in gangs and drugs some 20 years before as a means to help Ramiro--but also the thousands of young people of all races and communities caught in the web of gang life.

Sandy didn't hesitate. The book was a massive unknown. But somehow he trusted my ability to tell this complicated and difficult story--the first of a Chicano gang member's life from a participant's viewpoint (although Chicano barrio street gangs had been in existence since the turn of the 20th century, and were some of the largest and most violent in the United States).

Curbstone had also obtained a couple of large grants to develop big-publishing type marketing strategies for a small press. When the book got published in January of 1993, I embarked on a whirl-wind book tour that took three months and involved 30 cities all over the US. I also made a huge risky decision--to quit all my work (I had three jobs at the time in typesetting and in radio) and concentrate on making this book a success. Most importantly, a year before Los Angeles had erupted in flames in the worse civil uprising since the 1960s after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of an African American man, Rodney King. Many authorities blamed the destruction on LA gangs--both African American and Latino. This was an important factor contributing to the attention "Always Running" received.

Besides readings in schools, conferences, community centers, boxing clubs, prisons, juvenile halls, and more, I also appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Good Morning, America," CNN's "Talk Live" and "Sonya Live," National Public Radio (including "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross), KABC's Talk Radio, among others. Articles on my book and life showed up in "Entertainment Weekly," London's "The Face," New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Hartford Courant, and many more.

Sandy and I estimated that with TV, print, radio, and personal appearances we may have reached some 70 million people in those three months. In addition, by then several big-time New York City based publishers began vying for the paperback rights to the book. Curbstone put the services of its board members and friends to help us achieve an amazing book deal--the money went into the six figures--with Touchstone Press/Simon & Schuster that published "Always Running" in English and Spanish versions beginning in early 2004.

That book, now in more than 20 printings, is used in schools, colleges, universities, prisons, and other institutions throughout the US and parts of Latin America. In 2004, Sandy helped me obtain a new contract with Touchstone for the 10-year anniversary of the book (with a new cover and a new introduction). And just prior to the Writer's Guild strike in Hollywood, I was in the process of talking to independent film makers on a possible feature film based on the book--something that Sandy was also instrumental in helping shape.

He also always had a loving embrace and word for my son Ramiro--even now that Ramiro, who's 32, is presently incarcerated in an Illinois State prison for three counts of attempted murder. And Sandy was most patient and kind with one of my other sons, Ruben, who at 4 years old went went me to part of my book tour--especially when Ruben got chicken pox and we had to be holed up in a hotel for seven days (Ruben is now 19 and doing well along with my daughter Andrea, 30, and my youngest son, Luis, 13).

I consider Sandy one of the great ones. He was a second father to me--something I've been blessed with after my own turbulent and emotionally void relationship with my own father (who died in 1992, before "Always Running" came out). Sandy reached out, advised me, taught me, and always, always had time to talk to me. Something my real father never did. I don't want to get into how important this is in my life, but I will say this--I know Sandy's generosity and caring extended to many other writers over many years, who felt his gentle but steady hand on their shoulders pushing them forward, investing and sacrificing so that voices like ours can be heard, appreciated, honored.

No writer can ask for more.

So I will say with all candor--I would not be here as writer, lecturer and editor if it were not for Sandy Taylor. Such debt can never, ever be repaid. Yet Sandy lives on in the people he's touched, cajoled, rallied for, and celebrated. He lives on in his own poetry and translations. He lives on in the wondrous but economically unstable small publishing world that he helped create--where the best of this country still values what matters, and against all odds and economic advise continue to make books that will out live all of us.

I send many prayers and best wishes to Judy Doyle, Curbstone's venerable mother and Sandy's partner. Also to Sandy's family. And most importantly to all the Curbstonistas--staff, board, volunteers, writers, and community leaders who have been enriched by the existence, vision, imagination, and sacrifice of Mr. Alexander Taylor.

Que descanses en paz, mi amigo.

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