Bryce Milligan is a man of many talents. The longtime King William Historic District resident is a poet, playwright, novelist, publisher, professor, artist, musician — and a tireless collector.
His most recent collection is a happy addition to San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebration. “Literary San Antonio,” published earlier this year by TCU Press, is a fascinating, highly readable anthology of writing, from traditional Native American song to poetry, drama, nonfiction and prose, all reflecting the city’s multifaceted culture.
Milligan is the perfect editor for such an ambitious book. Since 1995, when he bought the small, struggling Wings Press from Austin’s Joanie Whitebird for $100 and a blood oath that he would keep it going, he has designed and published more than 230 books. Many have won critical acclaim. Along the way, he has provided mentoring, inspiration and published platforms for a generation of writers – Hispanic authors in particular.
“I consider Bryce the padrino of Chicano writers in San Antonio,” said Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, an internationally known scholar of Latin culture. “He was a mentor to many writers in the civil rights movement, and he was important in connecting art and politics and community and culture in his mentoring, in part because he himself is an important writer.”
On May 24, Gemini Ink will host “Where Are We Now as a Literary City?,” a free public plática with Milligan and Ybarra-Frausto.
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, a neighbor and longtime friend, described Milligan as “a tireless, calm, encouraging supporter of literary activities, enterprises, initiatives.”
She added, “A genius editor, publisher at Wings Press and writer himself, I don’t know how he finds time to be so present for so many others.”
To writer Carmen Tafolla, San Antonio’s original poet laureate, Milligan is a “modern, multicultural Renaissance man — one of those brilliant people who has the principles and compassion to use his genius for good things.”
On a recent warm afternoon, Milligan sat amidst heirloom family furniture and treasured musical instruments in the book-lined living room of the 130-year-old house on Guenther Street where he and his wife, Mary, a San Antonio native, raised their children, Brigid and Michael.
The couple moved there in the late 1970s.
“Sandra Cisneros was here then, and Cynthia Harper, with Chile Verde Press, and Naomi was around the corner,” Milligan said. “These days we have lost most of the poor people, and the artists that couldn’t afford it anymore. But a lot of them moved over to Labor Street, Lavaca and south of the railroad tracks. That’s how creativity spreads.”
Milligan has been writing and singing since he was young. He also builds and restores instruments. Several guitars, a couple of dulcimers he fashioned from discarded crates, his grandmother’s small organ and two harps are among the instruments in his front room. He plans to record a CD of his folk songs.
It was Mary who first got Milligan interested in the Chicano movement, when they met as students at North Texas State University.
“We worked for Ramsey Muniz (political activist) and La Raza Unida, and I started reading and collecting Hispanic literature,” Milligan said.
When the couple moved to San Antonio, Milligan’s interest and expertise in Chicano literature placed him in the middle of a burgeoning movement. A job at the venerated Rosengren’s Book Store, which led to a regular literary newspaper column, brought new friends and contacts.
In the 1980s, working for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Milligan and Cisneros started what would become the Inter-American Book Fair and Literary Festival, which he ran from 1995 to 2001. With Gwen Diaz, director of the graduate English literature and language program at St. Mary’s University, he created Hijas del Quinto Sol, the nation’s first conference focused exclusively on Latina literature and arts. It continues today as Las Américas Letters.
“Bryce can do everything. He is truly a man for all seasons,” Diaz said.