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Remembering publisher, poet, and friend Bobby Byrd

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Peter Goodman
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Commentary:

On a recent Sunday evening in El Paso, about 30 young folks from Basketball in the Barrio followed a musician to a small house on Louisville Avenue. Just outside the bedroom door they read a poem, “Basketball Is a Holy Way to Grow Old,” to the man lying inside who had written it. As they read the poem, thunder and rain shook the windows.

The man lying in the bedroom was Bobby Byrd. A few months ago, he’d celebrated his 80th birthday in the backyard of that house, with live music and poetry. The day after they read his poem to him, he died.

With a perpetual attitude of bemused surprise over how it all happened, he had led a hell of a good life. Happily, lovingly, productively married for decades; the father of three wonderful kids, one of whom was an El Paso City Council Representative for years. Lee and Bobby had not only produced a fine family, but also created in 1985 Cinco Puntos Press. Cinco Puntos (named for their neighborhood) mattered, because it published many Borderland writers, often Hispanic or indigenous, whom the world had ignored but to whom the world now gave prizes. Many fine voices we’ve heard only because of Lee and Bobby, and their bookstore was a great feature of their neighborhood.

The National Endowment for the Arts once promised them a $7,500 grant to publish a children’s book by the leader of an indigenous uprising in Chiapas – then cravenly withdrew it for fear of offending the Mexican Government. They published i anyway.

Long ago, I knew the Byrds slightly, as mutual friends of poets Keith and Heloise Wilson. The last decade or so, I’ve known (and loved) them better, and, since COVID, Bobby has been a welcome addition to our (ZOOM) poetry workshop.

And now you are not here, my friend! Wonderful kids and grandkids miss your touch, your laughter, your easy delight in their quirks and yours. You ambled through life in your own way, doggedly loyal to truth, beauty, family, and friends, and managed to do a lot of good while staying humble and spontaneous.

Is that Ferlinghetti’s dog howling?

[A poem by Bobby that I particularly liked was “Ferlinghetti’s Goddamned Dog.” Ferlinghetti's poem, "Dog," was one of the first Beat poems Bobby heard and loved as a kid.]