Sesshu Foster is the unofficial poet laureate of East Los Angeles, but only because such a position refuses officialdom. The author of critically acclaimed novel Atomik Aztex, City Lights also released World Ball Notebook, his latest collection of poems, centered on the ball, the ball court, and sport through the history of the Americas, in late 2008.
In partnership with City Lights, Molossus invites our readership to compete for a free copy of World Ball Notebook. To participate, send a psychic questions about the secrets of Life (see last question, below), to <firstname.lastname@example.org>. The winner will be announced 16 December on Molossus.
It’s been almost five years since City Lights published Atomik Aztex. Any significant news from that Los Angeles?
Ah, it’s coming up on four years now, and “that Los Angeles” typically lives and dies in a media rainshadow, in the glaring absence of any representative coverage of its issues, its news, its realities. It’s not surprising. That’s a major theme, part of what Atomik Aztex portrays through the metaphor of “alternate realities”: that Los Angeles exists on a separate plane, willfully denied by the technology of the dominant culture. Since the publication of the novel, there have been marches of millions of immigrants and immigrants’ rights supporters in major cities across the nation that have addressed some of the issues and articulated some of the struggles of that Los Angeles, but for the most part, it goes unheeded, neglected and denied—immigrants working in kitchens, yards and fields, cooking for and feeding us all, cleaning up after us all, in the apartheid state of California/America. It’s analogous to the idea in the 1980s that AIDS was a gay disease. There’s some coverage of the drug war in Mexico because it impedes tourism but none of the torn social fabric of whole towns and villages missing the adult working population, of conflicts and controversies surrounding immigrant communities in the U.S. but not in the cultural shifts and exchanges taking place. What strikes me about “that Los Angeles” is that it’s the most likely formulation of the world of our future, of the world our children will be living in. If we allow the media and the dominant culture to willfully ignore it, and live in the nostalgia of some Reaganomic past, neglecting the issues of that Los Angeles, we’ll end up in a future we never dreamed of, where issues and struggles may assume crisis proportions—seemingly all of a sudden, Katrina-like, globalized, catastrophic—when for actual fact these realities have existed on the ground for generations. The realities are there, the social dialogue is not.
World Ball Notebook contains extracts from travel notebooks, email poems, postcards and blog posts. How did you know when it was completed manuscript? Or, is it completed?
It’s an open-ended book. The elements, extracts and sources are indexed to chronology, but they’re not ordered chronologically. It’s semi-arbitrary, the way an index can be an alphabetized list of randomly ordered entries, like these entries from page 310, Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth by Jenny Pearce: “Magdalena River, marijuana, MAN, Marulanda Velez, Manuel (Marin), MAS, massacres, Medellin, Medellin cartel, media, Mexico, middle class,” etc. World Ball Notebook is structured like an index, but it’s never closed, definitive, absolute. One of the books I’m reading now is The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. It’s some 700 pages, which I was sort of irritated to read in the editor’s introduction that Damion Searls redacted into journal entries from 7,000 pages of Thoreau’s original material without ellipses or brackets or other indicators of where cuts and splices took place. He just cut, spliced and abbreviated, as he says in the intro, according to his own notions or tastes. But that’s the modern and modernist methodology: synecdoche and metonymy rule. Except for William Vollman, nowadays the Tolstoyan or Dickensian encyclopedic mode is out of vogue. There’s the modernist struggle against that kind of realism or naturalism, and the post-modern struggle against that struggle, against reductivism and symbolism. If I discuss it further, I’ll have to get into how my innovations or experimentation fails to get me out of the modernist/post-modern box.
I admire your ability to incorporate elements of indigenous heritage without exoticizing them, without the sort of neoliberal delicacy that it seems to me early Chicano writers and their direct literary descendants sometimes resort to. Any thoughts?
I came of age during the Chicano movement and witnessed how it, like other countercultural and civil rights movements of the time, expressed and articulated community needs and demands that had been roiling below the surface for generations. It was exciting. Most contemporary ideas about ethnic identity are forty years old. My perspective on the indigenous elements in Atomik Aztex is that I view them as political and social iconography and ideology (see the Chicano murals painted in the Ramona gardens housing projects, or Estrada courts, for example), not ethnography of the millions of living Nahua speakers in Mexico. Our identity as Americans, as citizens of whatever it may be, is collectively bound up in on-going discourse and dialogue about our relations, our culture and history. Times change, and we can’t recycle categorical definitions of ethnic character that are forty years old any more than we can recycle racist assumptions about the self from the 19th century. People do, of course, but writers are supposed to be hipper than that, more up to date.
I’m tired of people defending literary Los Angeles—that seems to me like an early, insecure stage of development, and I’m more interested in the people that are here, writing. Who should Molossus readers look out for? What Angelinos are you reading and listening to now?
Angelinos, eh? I’m interested in L.A. writers or other writers (like Thoreau for example) whose work has more than stylistic influence or innovation, but whose project is interesting. Luis Rodriguez writes poetry, essays, novels and stories. Luis is engaged in a McSweeney’s/826-like project as a writer, running a community cultural center and bookstore in Sylmar, Tia Chucha’s, and publishing an admirable poetry imprint of the same name. That’s an interesting project. Projects like those, it seems to me, elaborate on the writer’s work and open up the modernist/post-modern box in interesting ways. Who should readers look for? What about writers whose effort and aesthetic extend beyond sentence structure, beyond the size of the advance, beyond hiding in academia? I’m always on the lookout for writers who embrace a larger idea or ambitious vision. Who else? I probably like the usual suspects that everybody else likes. Who are the new guys? Salvador Plascencia, Ben Ehrenreich, Will Alexander—he’s not new. Yeah, Jen Hofer, Douglas Kearney. Maybe somebody people don’t know is Ruben Mendoza, publisher of the zine Sickly Season—check out his website at www.sicklyseason.com. He’s taking it in a different direction.
What are your current projects?
Taking the idea of “that Los Angeles” with its secret history of unknown and neglected and denied events. Mysteries. In a word, I’ve been writing stories about that. In the current issue (#32) ofMcSweeney’s Quarterly, I have a story, “Sky City,” that’s one of some linked stories related to “the Mysteries of East L.A.” which is a book project I’m working on with Arturo Romo-Santillano, whose website is www.revumbio.com. We produce the website www.elaguide.org, “your guide for driving and walking tours of East L.A.” The current economy weighs on us like a dead horse, but if we get out from under it, we hope to expand the website to include lit, testimony, interactivity, audio, video, etc. We produce an occasional fake radio magazine, “The Recent Rupture Radio Hour,” the next installment will be at Barnsdall Park in spring 2010. We get a panel of artists, community activists, and the Chicken Man to answer psychic questions about the secrets of Life.