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"Writer is a marvel of talent, energy"

Column by Cary Clack, San Antonio Express-News, Nov. 29, 2008

By the time the sun sets this evening there are any number of thing that Bryce Milligan may have done. He could have written a chapter or two of his new novel and, if he gets stuck, switch over to a poem that's not quite complete, maybe do a book review, start a new play or children's book or, if suddenly inspired, whip up a song for the CD he's working on.

If the guitar or drums he's playing don't sound right, he might begin making a new guitar or drums before editing the manuscripts and designing the covers for the dozen or so books by other writers his publishing company will publish over the next few months. If he gets bored he may build a new bookshelf and, if he has a spare hour before going to bed, he may indulge his love for science, especially astronomy, by scoping out the stars.

So what did you do today?

The time we're given on this Earth is uncertain and the talents we're blessed with are often untapped. But time, like talent, is what we make of it.

You won't find many people who make better use of their time and talents than Milligan, one of San Antonio's best-known writers and a literary godfather in this community.

The scope of the 55-year-old's career and the range of things he's done are fascinating. To sum up that career, he either is or has been a novelist, essayist, short-story writer, poet, essayist, folk singer/song writer, musician, instrument maker, carpenter, a rare book bibliographer and appraiser, a college English and creative-writing instructor, arts administrator, book and magazine publisher, book designer and publisher and — the least impressive of his jobs — a newspaper columnist.

"Bryce Milligan is the kind of guy you'd like to hate," says award-winning writer Robert Flynn, whose short memoir, "Burying the Farm" was published earlier this year by Milligan's Wings Press. "Not only can he do anything you can do and do it better, he can do things you can't do. I asked him if he could play a musical instrument — I can't — but at least it would be something he couldn't do. Not only can he play a musical instrument, he sings songs that he has written, accompanying himself on instruments that he made. That's hard to like."

For his part, Milligan says, "I'm sure a lot of people think I'm creative but I'm just trying to pay my bills."

At the center of his creativity is his passion for books and the written word that was ignited as a child while reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in a tree in his backyard home in Dallas. The poetry and criticism he's written for adults and the fiction he's written for children and young adults earned him the title of "literary wizard" from Bloomsbury Review.

"Books are everything," he says. "Everything you can do you can learn from books."

Much of what he does begins at the Southtown home he shares with his wife, librarian and writer Mary Guerrero Milligan. It's a neighborhood where, every Christmas season, the Milligans celebrate the Mexican religious Christmas tradition of Las Posadas as Milligan, guitar in hand, leads "pilgrims" door to door in song before ending up at their home for plentiful food, drink and holiday cheer. It's the home where they raised their two children, Michael, an astrophysicist and astronomer, and Brigid, a communications manager for Morgan Stanley in New York.

Milligan's office is out back in a blue carriage house, on a second floor that's a writer's delight with bookshelves holding most of the 20,000 books that he owns. On the walls throughout the several rooms are letters and poems to Milligan signed by the likes of Seamus Heaney, Stephen Spender, Joy Harjo and Robert Bly. There's a thank you note from J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tucked in a corner in one room is a recording studio he's built and where he's recording a CD of folk songs. In the room where he writes are two of his guitars, a music stand with a songbook, and, at his desk on his computer screen, next to a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey, is Milligan's latest literary project.

It's a simple little thing, really: a series of novels about Enheduanna, a woman who was the first-known writer in the history of the world. It's a project Milligan prepared for by spending several years learning cuneiform writing and the Sumerian language of 2,300 B.C. Milligan, fluent in Spanish, also reads in several other languages, including Latin, Greek, Welsh, Norse, Anglo Saxon English, Middle English and Old Irish.

"I want to learn Finnish but it's too far out there," he says.

Even the novel he's writing and the desk he's writing it on are a cross-fertilization of his creativity. Last spring, while working on the book, he took a break to retrieve a cedar tree cut down across the alley and made his new desk out of it.

"Everything is related to creativity," says Milligan. "When I can't write, I'll build something."

In addition to his own work, Milligan edits, designs and markets the publications produced by Wings Press, his highly respected publishing company, which was profiled last year in Poets & Writers Magazine. He can only publish a very small number of the 60-70 submissions he gets each week. He calls some of the manuscripts he has to turn down "wonderful stuff" and calls what he does at Wings Press "necessary work, especially for young writers, non-writers and people of different ethnicities, faiths and perspectives who wouldn't make it into the mainstream press.

"I'm attracted to people who are creative," he says.

Writer Flynn says of Milligan, "He's every writer's friend, not just as a friend who can do anything you can and not talk about it, but as moral and morale supporter.

Milligan's Renaissance qualities are rooted in believing in himself. "I never thought that I couldn't do something," he says.

And yet . . .

Recently, Milligan was showing off the gazebo he built over the summer. The gazebo was marvelously crafted but then Milligan looked with disappointment at his yard and said, "I can't grow grass."

Aha!

Cary Clack's column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. To leave him a message call (210) 350-3486 or e-mail at cclack@express-news.net

Music Videos

Bryce Milligan Music Video: Lady Rides the Rails

Milligan has twice been a finalist in the Kerrville New Folks songwriting competition. He credits much of what he knows about songwriting to hanging out in the tuning room at the Rubaiyat in Dallas as a young teen in the late 1960s.

About Bryce Milligan

Bryce MilliganBorn in Dallas, Texas, Bryce Milligan has lived in San Antonio since 1977. Among other things, he has been a folksinger, a maker of guitars, drums and dulcimers, a carpenter, a rare book bibliographer and appraiser, a college English and creative writing instructor, a poet-in-the-schools, an arts administrator, a book and magazine editor, a book designer, and a publisher. As a writer, he has been a newspaper columnist, a freelance journalist, a scholar, a novelist, a poet, a playwright, and an essayist. It has been an interesting life.

Milligan's literary papers are archived at the San Antonio Authors Collection of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Institute of Texan Cultures.

"A Poet's Poet"

Milligan is also the author of four collections of poetry, Daysleepers & Other Poems (1984), Litany Sung at Hell's Gate (1991), From Inside the Tree (cassette, 1990, 1994), Working the StoneWorking the Stone (Wings Press, 1994), Alms for Oblivion: A Poem in Seven Parts (London: Aark Arts, 2003) and Lost and Certain of It (London: Aark Arts, 2006). In The Texas Observer, critic A. E. Mares compared Working the Stone to the poems of Seamus Heaney and Donald Hall. Critic Paul Christensen called Alms for Oblivion "an important poem" and his language "rich, dense, charged with the power of Eliot's Tiresias in The Waste Land and his more brooding voice in The Four Quartets." Alms for Oblivion had the honor of being republished in its entirety in 2010 by the journal, The Invisible College. John Hammond, writing in the San Antonio Express-News, said of Lost and Certain of It: "Fueled by the primal forces of nature, human longing and music, Bryce Milligan's poems often become a kind of spiritual journey, a way to understand how our lives are balanced among various tensions. These are powerful, lyrical poems that often take flight."

Milligan is the author of five historical novels and short story collections for young adults, including With the Wind, Kevin Dolan (Corona Publishing, 1987), which received the Texas Library Association's first Lone Star Book Award in 1990. It was translated into German and published there in 1994 .Currently, he is writing a series of novels about the world's first writer whom we know by name, Enheduanna of Ur (ca. 2,300 BC).

Milligan is also the author of five locally produced plays and well over 2,000 articles, essays, and reviews which have appeared mainly in the Southwest, but also as far afield as The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times.

Milligan holds a M.A. in language and linguistics (Anglo-Saxon and Old Irish) from the University of Texas at Austin.

Daughters of the Fifth Sun Jacket

He has written extensively about Latino/Latina literature. Milligan is the primary editor (co-editors are Angela de Hoyos and Mary Guerrero Milligan) of Daughters of the Fifth Sun: A Collection of Latina Fiction and Poetry (Putnam/Riverhead, 1995, paper, 1996). Daughters of the Fifth Sun spent three years on the New York Public Library's "Best Books for the Teen Age" list. He is also one of the editors of a CD Rom, American Journeys: The Hispanic American Experience (Primary Source Media, 1995). A second major anthology of Latina poetry edited by Milligan was ¡Floricanto Si! - A Collection of Latina Poetry (Penguin, 1997).

The founding editor of Pax: A Journal for Peace through Culture (1983-1987)and Vortex: A Critical Review (1986-1990), he became in 1995 the publisher/editor of Wings Press, one of the oldest continually operating small presses in Texas.

Milligan was the book critic for the San Antonio Express News from 1982 to 1987, and for the San Antonio Light from 1987 to 1990. He has taught English literature and composition, creative writing, and education courses at every level from kindergarten to graduate school.

In 1985, Milligan co-founded (with Sandra Cisneros) the Annual Texas Small Press Book Fair, an event which evolved into the San Antonio Inter-American Book Fair and Literary Festival. Milligan directed the literature program at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio 1985-1986 and 1994-2001. Activities created and directed by Milligan included "Hijas del Quinto Sol: Studies in Latina Literature and Identity" (later "Latina Letters") a conference (co-hosted by St. Mary's University) that ran annually for ten years, the annual San Antonio Inter-American Bookfair and Literary Festival, and an annual PBS-televised poetry slam for young adults.

Milligan and his wife of 35 years, short story writer and librarian Mary Guerrero Milligan, live in a 120-year-old house in downtown San Antonio . They have two grown children, Michael (an astrophysicist) and Brigid (a poet, translator, and public relations account executive).

From The Critics on the Poetry:

Bryce Milligan's Wings Press in San Antonio has for many years published some of the finest poetry in the Southwest, but this year it's Mr. Milligan's turn to soar, and soar he does with Alms for Oblivion: A Poem in Seven Parts. This magical mystery tour of a poem draws from Shakespeare, Beowulf, Sumerian myths and poetry, Aztec traditions, quantum physics and modern chess masters, to name but a few of Mr. Milligan's inspirations. Read this poem ten times and you will experience ten different poems – quite a feat.
– Tom Mayo, Dallas Morning News (Dec. 21, 2003)

Alms for Oblivion

Embarking on an ambitious, solemn, and passionate quest into a maze of his own making, the muse-poet in Bryce Milligan's latest collection of poetry, Alms for Oblivion: A Poem in Seven Parts, enjoins the reader to "put aside the wisdom of one's own age" in our common search for truth and love. Milligan's modern muse stands at a timeless crossroads, culling the threads of poetry from our ancestral tracks made by longing goddesses and lusting impostors; his cadenced verses tempt our own journey, like the enchantress Siduri, to cast off our routine lives and embrace the immediacy of our ancient, poetic origins. Long meditative poems are a rare treat these days; few poets possess the wherewithal to ship off on a quest that has its roots in the pantheon of Enheduanna's Ur, or Tlazolteotl's Aztecan empire. With Alms for Oblivion, his fifth collection of poetry, Milligan revels in the complexity of mythological incantations and demonstrates an ease for untangling the riddles of fellow muse-poets. Artist, author, singer, and longtime publisher and anthologist, Milligan is an unusually daring muse-poet for our own time, blessed with Robert Graves's sense of "her naked magnificence."

— Jeff Biggers, Bloomsbury Review (Sept. 2003)

Working the Stone

Bryce Milligan is a contemporary Muse poet, a passionate singer of "the idol at this crossroads," and Alms for Oblivion is his Gravesian claim on our attention, his dream testament to the beloved, his meditation on doubt and certainty, time and timelessness, his mythic bid to enter the ring of fire and attain the spirit.

— Edward Hirsch, director of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry

 

Alms for Oblivion is a fluid, hypnotic meditation on the beloved, combining an ironic discourse on certainty, aging, and time with an impassioned appeal to myth as a source of greater truths. As muses go, the figure at the heart of this poem has a history to be traced back to the origins of poetry in Akaddian love lyrics and forward through the world's epic and romantic literature. Milligan's language is rich, dense, charged with the power of Eliot's Tiresias in "The Waste Land" and his more brooding voice in "The Four Quartets." Alms for Oblivion breaks new ground for the contemporary long poem, and shows us love as it evanesces into dreamworlds and underworlds of longing. An important poem.

— Paul Christensen, author of West of the American Dream, et al.; Creative Writing Coordinator, Texas A&M University

 

Overall, Milligan's work is an example of modern poetry which uses ancient themes and myths. Alms showcases Milligan's craft and his mastery of language through the use of simple phrases and short lines to create and evoke very complex musings. Alms subtly reminds the reader to keep the senses open and the extra-senses even more open. I would recommend Alms to a reader who will read the poem more than once and aloud, as this reader will be rewarded by the strength of Milligan's line and verse.

— An H. Nguyen, Tertulia Magazine

 

Above all, it is Milligan's poetry that merits consideration. For thirty years, he has steadily mined a rich and unique experience in the Southwest. He has adopted the region as his own, something that runs roughly parallel to Frost's move from California to New Hampshire, and all the good that came of his becoming the voice of that stony, enduring earth. South Texas has seeped into Bryce's bones through his Latina wife and a long and energetic career serving the arts needs of San Antonio. He has more hats to wear than almost anyone else I know, but for all that he remains essentially a poet. His other gifts derive from that innate love of language. He is playful, smart, witty, and deadly serious, all in the same lyric frame of the short poem. When he writes more serially, he draws from long reading experience in medieval literature and epic poetry. Each time I read something new of his, I feel his expansion, his sure-footedness in sometimes rare terrain. My memoir on the subject of region, West of the American Dream: An Encounter with Texas, allowed me to explore some of Milligan's writings of the last two decades, in which I found him one of the leading spirits of his generation. It wasn't only his desire to locate that New England voice at the heart of so much Texas poetry, including that of William Barney and occasionally Vassar Miller, but to enrich it with an intimate knowledge of the southern temper. If anyone made the graft of Frost's voice onto the gnarled roots of Texas desert lyricism, it was Milligan. Donald Hall thought so immediately after reading his work.

— Paul Christensen, author of West of the American Dream, et al.; Creative Writing Coordinator, Texas A&M University

 

In Alms for Oblivion, Milligan sails ambitiously toward the realm of vision. In doing so, he accomplishes something remarkable; he finds the right lyrical voice for articulating big (and dependably engaging) ideas.

— James Hoggard, former Poet Laureate of Texas, author of Breaking an Indelicate Statue, The Shaper Poems, et al.

Lost and Certain of It

Alms for Oblivion is like a medieval Rajasthani miniature painting – both Miltonic in ambition and expanse, and understated and image-packed like a Japanese haiku. It is an oratorical tour-de-force: haunting, cadenced, mythic, and lyrical. This is a classic ‘quest poem' where the muse-poet abandons everything – intellect, practicality, passion – only to lose himself in the very same things, things that are the ultimate essentials of artistic breathing, creation, and life. Orchestral in scope and shape, Milligan's Alms for Oblivion is a little gem of an epic.

— Sudeep Sen, author of Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems

 

In Alms for Oblivion poet Bryce Milligen travels both ancient and modern seas, navigating by a poet's mathematics and intuition, searching for the soul's harbor. Do you wonder what keeps a man running through the bright and dim of his days, what divine muses move him through the prosaic? Reader, book passage in these lines for a majestic slide.

— Chuck Taylor, publisher of Slough Press, author of Lights of the City, Only a Poet, et al.

 

Milligan is a real poet, with the real poet's sure voice, richness and variety, technical skill, and above all, delight in risk. . . . He pulls out all the stops, and because he knows so surely what he's talking about, and has an ear so unerring and an eye so partisan yet unblinking, he gets away with it. Reading him is a joy.

— John Gardner, novelist and critic, author of Grendel, Nickle Mountain,The Art of Fiction, et al. (1983)

 

Milligan's poems give us stories of how we become poets in a land we are forced to awaken. This is the language we need at the turn of the century – a clear, biting voice, looking back on where we have been, a poet setting the wild, brave pace for our future history.

— Ray Gonzalez, Bloomsbury Review (1990)

 

Here is an ancient intuitive vision and unity brought to the modern experience. This is a poet who will delight those who revere the word.

— Daisy Aldan, poet, critic, and publisher (1984)

 

This is poetry that blends academia and real life . . . and generates solid realms of surprise.

Dallas Morning News (1985)

 

Truly exceptional work. Milligan makes clear the potential for visionary poetry in Texas.

The Texas Observer (1985)

 

Here is a life lived "on the strength of words / and the memory of blood." Poems wise as clouds. Poems as witness, as testimonio. Milligan is one who casts his luck, echa su suerte con los pobres y los muertos. A drumsong, a bellsong, to set free the paper cranes in all our hearts.


– Sandra Cisneros, novelist, poet, MacArthur Fellow (1990)

On the Children's books:

On the Historical Novels:

I commend and recommend Bryce Milligan's novel, With the Wind, Kevin Dolan, which so clearly teaches several lessons. His secret is that he is firstly a storyteller and secondly and almost incidentally the gentlest of teachers. There are many lessons here: lessons of history, lessons about oppressors and the oppressed, lessons about courage, hope, and love. . . .

— Patricia Donlon, Director, National Library of Ireland

 

Kevin (the main character) is bright and feisty, and thoughtful as well. . . . This is a period and a place in history that should be better known than it is. I hope Kevin Dolan will have a wide readership. It deserves it.

— Madeleine L'Engle, novelist, Newbery Award recipient

 

A grand ramble through early 19th century Irish and Texas history, but above all one marked by faith, courage, and that questioning awareness of rights and wrongs that make for the growth of conscience.

— Ruth McConnell, Librarian, Newbery Award committee member

 

An eminently satisfying work. . . . One comes away from Kevin Dolan with a better sense of the complexity of human history and a greater appreciation for the ethnic diversity that constitutes Texas.

— Prof. Fred Erisman, Texas Books in Review

 

On the Plays

Note: Bryce Milligan's gallery theater one-act plays, including "Encounter at Panther Cave" and "Vaquero y Cowboy," have been running at the Witte Museum for over twenty years.

The play is light enough for the youngest audience member, but profound enough to engage the interest of almost any adult. . . . The whole play has lots and lots of charm. . . .

— Ed Conroy in the San Antonio Express-News (1987)

An outstanding success. . . . The staging is simple but compelling, and the use of folklore and mythology as the substance of children's plays is a theatrical coup, serving several cultures and audiences simultaneously. And Milligan's quiet humor adds the twinkle to make it more fun than didactic.

— John Igo in the North San Antonio Times (1987)

On the Songwriter

Music Videos

Bryce Milligan Music Video: Lady Rides the Rails

Recent Music Videos

I was sitting there in the shop listening to this guy play songs like I'd never heard before – and I hear a lot of talented songwriters here. Of course, I'd listen to almost anyone playing a 1938 Martin, but this was a whole different order – songs that were so damned real, with intricate finger picking and the most poetic lyrics you can imagine. I dropped everything and said, 'Dude, I've got to be your lead player.'

— Thomas Shilts, Senior Luthier, Alamo Music Co. (2002)

"The first work by Bryce Milligan I read was Working the Stone in the mid-1990s. I was moved then by the lyricism of his language, his aesthetic commitment, and the honesty of of his political stance. Subsequently, I have read more of his work, heard him read his poetry, heard him sing songs he has written, and heard him play musical instruments – Milligan is a true bard-poet, in short a troubador."

—Sudeep Sen, publisher of Aark Arts, author of Postmarked India

On the Literary Activist:

More than any individual I can think of, Mr. Milligan has been intensely active and supremely successful in fostering both a public awareness and involvement in the humanities in Texas. . . . There are many notable people I have seen and known who have passed through the literary rhythms of our state. Some have been remarkable in terms of energy and quality of vision. Mr. Milligan, however, stands out above those noble figures for several reasons: the fine quality of his work and the genuine effectiveness of his efforts.

— Prof. James Hoggard, past Poet Laureate of Texas and president of the Texas Institute of Letters

 

No male scholar in this country has done so much for Latina writers as has Bryce Milligan. His support for us — in newspaper articles, book reviews, scholarly articles, community activism and publishing — began thirty years ago. The very first review of my own book, The House on Mango Street, to appear in a major newspaper came from Milligan's typewriter. I cannot even express to you how far ahead of the curve he was in recognizing the importance of that slim volume. Consider that he single-handedly created the first annual academic conference dedicated to Latina literature Ð and he didn't even work at a university. His anthologies have proven to be of ground-breaking importance. His assistance to younger Latina writers over the years has shown a depth of commitment that has earned him a level of trust we do not usually accord to mainstream males.

— Sandra Cisneros, novelist, poet, MacArthur Fellow

 

On the Teacher:

Milligan is a writer, scholar, editor, and teacher who bridges the gap between them. Entirely a Texas original, we're very lucky to have him. Our students found him alternately personable, thoughtful, funny, and brilliant.

– Thea Temple, Executive Director, The Writer's Garret, Dallas, Texas

Books By Bryce Milligan