5 Over 50: 2023

From the November/December 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Tommy Archuleta

Age: 58. Residence: Cochiti Reservation, New Mexico. Book: Susto (Center for Literary Publishing, April 2023), a collection of poems—enfevered incantations—hailing from the desert mountains and spanning such topics as loss and death, motherhood, survival, and remedios/remedies, both rooted and surreal. Agent: None. Editors: Kazim Ali and Stephanie G’Schwind.

As a fifty-eight-year-old Latino poet whose first collection was published earlier this year, a fair question to pose to me would be: What took you so long? Believe me, I got here as fast as I could. Yes, I first fell in love with writing at the age of twelve as the result of receiving a dark blue mini-memo book, a gift from my maternal grandfather. I recall writing anything that came to mind, caring little about spelling and grammar—even content. As for why I set down my mini-pen for six years, I blame baseball, beginning with Little League. As for why I stopped oiling my glove and hung up my cleats at age eighteen, I blame rock and roll music.

For the next fifteen years I performed, recorded, and toured the country as the drummer for two alternative rock bands. Being that both bands wrote and produced original work, I was able to pick up my pen again, this time to write song lyrics, as I also sang while tending to my timekeeping duties. As such, I see my lyric writing and drumming years as a kind of boot camp for writing poetry. The former calls for saying much with very little. Consider the following song lyrics and poem, for instance:

And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down


I took my Power in my Hand—
And went against the World—

Mr. Tom Petty and Ms. Emily Dickinson both deftly wield the powers of brevity, respectively. Second, drumming taught me how to hear the music that words offer when strung together. This came about by recognizing the strong correlation between the rudiments of snare drumming and the principle of meter as it pertains to poetry. Both methods rely on varying patterns of stressed and unstressed events, enacting rhythmic sentences.

Despite such artistic epiphanies, as can happen to touring rock musicians, drug and alcohol use advanced to abuse, eventually sacking my love of performing and writing music. As my alcoholism and drug addiction progressed—to the point of dependence—so too did the consequences, which included a few jail sentences. Thankfully, at the age of thirty-three I sought residential treatment and have remained alcohol- and drug-free for twenty-four years as of March 12 of this year—essentially three weeks prior to the publication of my first collection of poems, Susto.

Really, I can’t thank Kazim Ali enough. He championed Susto so selflessly dating back to 2019, when I first began submitting earlier drafts of this work to first book prizes and such. Nor can I speak highly enough of Stephanie G’Schwind, director of the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, for the deft guidance and warm support I received during the process of transforming my manuscript into the book before us today. Process and transformation, funny how these two principles pervade addiction as much as they do recovery—not to exclude, of course, their presence in the practice of writing.

Raymond Carver believed he had been given two lives, one ravaged by active alcoholism, the other the polar opposite of the first. This is my story as well, one filled with learning firsthand that it’s okay to hit bottom, only to be dragged off into the darkening gray for who knows how long. I’ve learned too that it’s okay to fall down as many times as is necessary to learn how to rise and move forward, one step at a time; that it’s okay not to know what the poem you just wrote is venturing to say; and that another word for rejection is assessment, which rhymes handily with commitment.

Book photo: David Hamsley.