You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2011.

This was part of a series of interviews at htmlgiant:

These writers were interviewed in the first series:

Bhanu Kapil

Danielle Dutton

Debra Di Blasi

Miranda Mellis

Kate Zambreno

Susan Steinberg

Tantra Bensko

Amelia Gray

Alexandra Chasin

Lidia Yuknavitch

These in the second:

Brian Evenson

Dodie Bellamy

Eileen Myles

Evan Lavender-Smith

Johannes Göransson

Sesshu Foster

Dennis Cooper

Vi Khi Nao

Michael Martone

Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East Los Angeles for 25 years. He’s also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, and the on-line magazine Joyland. He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo and other writers on the ELA Guide. His most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex (winner of the 2006 Believer Magazine Book Award) and the hybrid text World Ball Notebook (winner of a 2010 American Book Award).

Fate Ever Pursues The Leviathans of the Air

Question #1 – The Body

In the first volume of “Five Questions,” when asked to describe experimental writing, Bhanu Kapil redirected my question to the body: “Or: What are the somatics of an emigrant line?” She then went on to discuss “the diasporic body” -and- “the language of somatic experiencing.” I find this provocative line of inquiry very interesting because it draws our attention away from the role of the mind in creating literature and instead compels us to pay attention to the role of the body. What thoughts do you have about the relationship between the body and experimental writing?

I suggest the environment and the world and the life of the body informs all literatures, whether traditional, indigenous, lyric, Modernist, post-modern, whatever. How can it not? I don’t pose the body as a figure in some neo-Romantic mode. If the environment is fucked up, as indeed it is, that cannot be construed to mean however that we are still not organisms totally dependent on the natural environment. Thinking will not make it so. Regardless of the constructions of ideology, analysis, polemic, and aesthetics, the body is Nature. “Nature writing” is often a pejorative term for neo-Romantic Christianized (and related/translated Buddhist) transcendentalist odes to idealized “Creation”. This bias results in only certain perspectives of “Nature” represented, only certain bodies represented. In numerous countries, authorities exercise censorship by physical elimination of the bodies of writers like Ken Saro-Wiwa or Isaac Babel or Andrei Platonov or thousands of others who will never be famous. In those countries writers can experiment by surviving. Otherwise, no body, no writing of any kind. But what about here in the U.S.?

Traditionally, censorship in the U.S. is exercised through ideology, polemic, aesthetics—through the application of nonfiction criteria to fictional narratives (which as Gary Snyder has implied, is analogous to exploitative relations in the culture to “the Wild”.) The regulation of the imagination by purportedly objective analytic criteria of social authorities. Which bodies are allowed representation and how? Imagination (construed literally as the creation of images) of the bodies of racialized minorities and working people has been heavily censored, moderated and mediated. Have you heard of Carlos Bulosan (who it should be recalled died blacklisted by the F.B.I., jobless and penniless in 1956 Seattle at age 45) or Jaime de Angulo? You’ve never heard of novelist John Okada, for example, in part because his wife Dorothy burned his manuscripts after his death at age 47 because she thought no one wanted them. However, undoubtedly you have heard of now canonized Zora Neale Hurston because Alice Walker, Robert Hemenway and the Feminist Press and others fought a good fight to make that the case. In the face of standard American cultural repression, writers innovating or experimenting with representation of the illicit body have had to have a force of partisan fighters save their work from this kind of censorship. (Alice Walker raised the funds to mark Hurston’s unmarked pauper’s gravesite.) The relationship of experimental writing to the body, in other words, has its history, like any other, of struggle, of wins and losses. What is defined as “experimental” in contemporary writing is based to a significant degree on suppressed cultures, repressed experiences and erased literature in the past. These bodies were censored—their representation was interdicted.

For seven years I mentored teenage writers in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. These writers included a girl who lived in a remodeled garage, and who usually had so little food available that she regularly suffered dizziness and headaches, and was sent home from school after fainting, even though school offered her her only hot meal of the day. On the few occasions that I was able to give her money, she used it to buy food for her younger siblings. You will never know what a great poet she was, how she transported audience with her joyful cadences. Writers of her potential are working in kitchens, cleaning offices, fighting in Iraq. If writers with her potential were not censored throughout the inner-cities of America, generation after generation, what is now marginalized “experimental” writing wouldn’t have a marginal significance. Those superficial categories would have been replaced by deeper, more viable literatures.

Question #2 — Politics

In describing experimental writing, Miranda Mellis suggested, “Its politics are its aesthetics and vice versa.” I’m interested to learn your perspective on the political potential and/or limitations of experimental writing. Additionally, in what ways do you think experimental literature can engage with politics differently than other forms of literature?

Conceived in terms like “avant garde” (advance guard or vanguard) or “cutting edge” or “pioneering” or “groundbreaking,” experimentalist writers are described as innovating ahead of, or on the margins of, the mainstream of convention and conventional literature, leading the way for ‘technical’ progress and change. But what does that mean, if as I suggest above, that the conventional mainstream maintains as standard practice a conservatism by censoring, erasing and denying new voices—particularly those of racialized minorities, women, gay or working people? Does that mean that experimental writers continually define their own practice in relation to some obdurate canonical literature of the past, not the future?

Small presses and writers have always engaged in this innovation. Small presses sometimes called ‘independent presses,’ in a kind of anti-corporate, anti-capitalist euphemism) are more than ever the home and the laboratory of experimentalist innovation in writing.

The poetry slam, performance poetry and spoken word movement, with venues nationwide and certain democratic ideas, was a recent example of groups of writers, not just one circle or school of writers, who were innovating in the politics of practice. Their achievements (and limitations at packaging their politics in a commercialized hip hop aesthetics) can still be seen at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and in the 1994 anthology, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, edited by Miguel Algarin, Bob Holman and Nicole Blackman. But anywhere the experimentalists and innovators survive, they usually push the political envelope. That energy is moving readily on-line.

Experimental writers and their small presses, or small presses and their innovative writers, can also work together to develop an aesthetics and politics of language that writers fully dependent on the corporate press cannot. Examples of this are Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s project, where he plowed the seed money earned from his own writing into small press book and magazine publishing, the national network of 826 Writing & Tutorial Centers for student writers, the Voice of Witness oral history publishing project, the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which works in Southern Sudan, and the Zeitoun Foundation which aids in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and—similarly—Luis Rodriguez, who used his own success as a writer to found the Tia Chucha community cultural center and Tia Chucha Press, a poetry press which has published 35 books to date. Which corporate presses allow, let alone encourage, such practices? Which writers contracted and captivated by corporate presses attempt such political innovations?

Question #3 — Economics

Debra Di Blasi responded to my question about how we might evaluate the success of a work of experimental literature (in light of the seeming lack of established criteria) by arguing that the act of “Determining ‘success’ or ‘failure’ shifts literary significance to product rather than process, to a means to an end rather than a means to a means to a means, i.e., evolution. Product concerns itself with marketing, process with art. They remain antagonistic neighbors.” By shifting my question away from the realm of aesthetic judgment and toward the discourse of commodities, Di Blasi raises interesting economic considerations. How might we begin to think about the use value of experimental literature? Or, to put it another way, what does experimental literature offer society or the individual that cannot be accounted for elsewhere?

What’s the use value of experimental lit? That’s not much different from the question, what’s the use value of literature? Which is related to the question, what is the value of literacy, and the issues raging in the politicization of public education? Public education has been turned into a political football because public unions are the largest unions left in post-industrial United States, and are the increasing targets of right wing agents of corporations (which have been accorded a legal status equal to human beings). Literature and the arts, and the literacy necessary both for public participation in a democratic culture, is seen by those who target government support of National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting System or the National Endowment for the Arts as incidental or antithetical to a mass culture that is more and more privatized for private profit, and where the role of the public is solely as consumers, not participants or producers. Declining literacy among students is a pretext for attacking public institutions and unions for public workers, not as a pretext for building 2,509 public libraries, as industrialist Andrew Carnegie did between 1883 and 1929. What do corporate leaders of the 21st century propose to build for the public?

In the increasingly homogenized corporate culture of America, where the kids find the library boarded up and shut because of cutbacks, after-school programs cut but the Starbucks, Jack in the Box and the mall open, where culture they are sold daily fetishizes violence for on-screen gamers, movie fans and future military recruits and there are no jobs, education is being cut back and there’s no money for college (and the budget for state prisons surpassed the budget for higher education in for the first time in California history in the 1990s), while there’s three wars going on at once, what does experimental literature offer, in that context?

“Now for something completely different,” Monty Python used to say. When other privatized forms of culture offer ideologies or aesthetics of conformism, violence and coercion, art and literature (and particularly those arch-literary types devoted to the most artsy and experimental matters) offer independent thinking, self-determination, ideologies and aesthetics of critical and spiritual reflection.

Where else can you find that? (Can you find it on the New York Times best-seller list? Maybe it’s more likely to be found in small clubs in the local music scene.)

Question #4 – Race

When asked about the relationship between women and experimental literature, Alexandra Chasin responded by asking, “What about the relationship between people of color and experimental literature in the U.S.? What about representations of race and racial Others? Can we talk about that?” Since this sentiment was echoed by various of the previous “Five Questions” participants, and because it strikes me as true that discussions about race and representations of racial diversity tend to be underrepresented in the field of experimental literature, I think it’s important to pursue answers to those questions. What are your thoughts?

I feel like I’m jumping ahead to address these questions in advance. I discussed the answer to #4 in my answer to #3, and I discussed this issue in my answer to the first question. These things are all interrelated, not just in my thinking, but in practice for a writer. White editors are always taking advantage of privilege by Othering writers of color and marginalizing them. For example, Cole Swenson’s and David St. John’s American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry is one of the most recent egregious examples. Out of its 74 poets, 78 are white. All right, maybe there’s Myung Mi Kim, a couple Jamaican Americans, and outside of John Yau, I don’t know one of them who is not a university professor. That’s not diversity, it’s a pale enforced homogenization. I’m not interested in critiquing that anthology per se. Poet Craig Santos Perez has done that well enough here, and J. Michael Martinez critiqued it from a Chicano perspective in “Poetics of Suspicion: Chicano/a Poetry and the New” which I reposted in part from here The fact is that this type of racialized and class-biased ideological homogenization is prevalent; in fact, it seems to be one of the requirements of university professors necessary to tenure: kiss the asses of your peers and strictly demarcate outsiders. (Compare to the dozens and dozens of white and nonwhite, dozens of Indian and Asian American, dozens and dozens of Latino and African American poets in Aloud, the Nuyorican anthology noted above. Why is it so much more diverse? Because it’s non-academic.)

These types of incestuous anthologies and award ceremonies by academics and academies where they award an ever narrower circle of peers recognition and peerage confers with the ammoniac taint of conformism a kind of capstone on the censored, aborted and denied non-careers of those talented writers who I have seen trying to avoid the destruction of their very lives in the inner city. Writers the likes of Wanda Coleman, Juan Felipe Herrera, Karen Tei Yamashita, Sherman Alexie or Allison Hedge Coke may survive, may lead productive careers and produce nationally and internationally important books. But they will still be excluded by some.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

Which are your favorite works of experimental literature, and why?

Several recent outstanding terrific fun reads:

I Love Dick
by Chris Kraus (1997, Semiotext(e)), the wildly, brutally fictive autobiographical narrative prelude to her tremendous—if more conventional—novel, Torpor.

by Karen Yamashita (2010, Coffee House), National Book Award-nominated 600 page-plus landmark story constructed out of origami, graphic novel, and oral history conducted via interview with hundreds of participants about a decade of momentous changes in the Bay Area mixed into a brilliant historical novel.

This Is Not It: Stories
by Lynne Tillman (2002, D.A.P./ Distributed Art Publishers), experimental and innovative short stories playing with (not toying with, but exulting in) narratives related to a piece of art—a reproduction of the work prefaces each one.
The California Poem
by Eleni Sikelianos (2004, Coffee House Press), wonderfully flamboyant recombinations of the historical and personal, the natural and geographic in verse and photograph, pulses of verbal gesture and grammatical image. Born in Calif., every day I see the need for this reimagining.

Older favorites and major signposts:

187 Reasons Mexicans Can’t Cross the Border
by Juan Felipe Herrera (2007, City Lights Books), selections from thirty years of now often out-of-print books, prose, poems and hybrid works, prefaced by photographs and notes that contextualize the history and chronology of a relentlessly innovative experimentalist Chicano poet.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (1983, Frederick Ungar), Tolstoyan epic social panorama spliced and diced or structured with wonderful Joycean innovations; I read the Eugene Jolas translation.

Conversations in Sicily
by Elio Vittorini (2000, New Directions), very quiet meditative Italian ant-fascist novel where the author resorted to narrative subterfuge and the narrative becomes fugitive; but it triumphs anyway, and, anyway, for all that the author was imprisoned by the fascists.

Saturday October 29 9AM to 3 PM

* PCs
* Laptops
* Keyboards
* Fax and printers/copiers
* Monitors
* Inkjet cartridges
* Projectors
* Tapes
* Floppy disks

Bravo Medical Magnet High School
1200 N. Cornwell St., Los Angeles 90033
Saturday, October 29, 2011
9 AM to 3 PM

eWaste Center, Inc recycles all electronic devices in an environmentally safe manner. Recyclable materials include:
*TVs (LCD, Plasma, CRT)
*Audio/Video Equipment
*Cell Phones
*Miscellaneous Computer Equipment
*Personal Electronic Devices
*Batteries [car batteries or some electronic device batteries but not regular AA or AAA alkaline batteries]
*In addition to many other electronic devices.


* Household alkaline batteries
* Fluorescent lights
* Light bulbs

Help EWC in continuing its mission to protect the environment and helping the community by donating your old electronics! When you or your organization donates old electronics to EWC, the charity of your choice (must be California-based) receives a charitable contribution (monetary or functioning equipment). Drop-off and pick-ups of TVs, monitors, and computers are FREE.

“E-waste for Friends” is a project created by eWaste Center, Inc. (EWC) with the sole purpose of helping people in need. Not only does EWC divert e-waste from landfills, EWC turns these disposed electronics into much needed resources. EWC works closely with non-profit organizations such as the Los Angeles Mission, Midnight Mission, and Rescue Mission.

Old TVs, monitors and PCs can feed or provide shelter for a person, provide students with uniforms, or support enrichment programs for children. We are able to contribute to these organizations by donating a portion of the proceeds of the revenues generated from e-waste recycling events. In addition, EWC donates functioning electronics to those non-profit organizations in need.

EWC’s recycling process starts by thoroughly sorting and weighing all materials received. End-of-life electronic devices are disassembled to its essential components and are separated, sorted and categorized to be transferred to our downstream recyclers.

EWC does not allow the export of hazardous e-waste to developing countries where strict health and environmental regulations do not exist. We ensure that the entire recycling chain is meeting high environmental and health standards. EWC provides visible tracking records of e-waste throughout the product recycling chain.

Many “recyclers” export obsolete electronics to underdeveloped countries (where there are little or no regulations) directly, or through third-parties. Underdeveloped countries use primitive methods of “recycling” such as cooking circuit boards or using acid baths. Underdeveloped countries do not have health/labor/environmental laws to protect their citizens.

EWC partners only with vendors that practice down-stream due-diligence.

What is “E-Waste”?

E-waste is an ever-growing popular, yet informal name for a variety of electronic products that have met the end of their “useful life.”

* Computers
* Televisions
* Monitors
* Laptops
* Cell Phones
* VCRs
* Stereos
* Copiers
* Fax machines

These are just a few of the common electronic products that fall into the e-waste category. As a result, it is not surprising that electronic discard is one of the fastest growing segments of our nation’s trash, already consisting of 5% of the total trash volume. Alarmingly, these figures lack what researchers estimate is nearly an additional 75% of old electronics that are stuck in storage, in part because of the uncertainty of how to manage the materials. What the populace also doesn’t know are the hazards the materials contain.

E-Waste Statistics:
In recent years, advances in consumer electronics and personal computers have spurred economic growth, changed information technology and improved people lives in countless ways. However, our growing dependence on electronic products both at home and in the workplace has given rise to a new environmental hazard: electronic waste. A recent study by the EPA shows that electronics already makes up 1% of the known municipal solid waste stream. Research completed in Europe showed that electronic waste is an epidemic growing at an astronomical three times the rate of other municipal waste. While e-waste cannot be prevented, environmental consequences have driven government policies to explore alternative solutions such as the reuse and/or recycling of older electronics.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an estimated
30 to 40 million PCs will be ready for “end-of-life management” in each of
the next few years

About 25 million TVs are taken out of service yearly.

The EPA estimates that in 2005, the U.S. discarded 1.5 to 1.9 million tons
(3 billion lbs.) of computers, TVs, VCRs, monitors, cell phones, and
other equipment.

According to the UN Environment Programme, the worldwide total for
e-waste could be 50 million tons per year.

EWC diverts e-waste from entering landfills by applying the strict methods outlined by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB). Electronic devices are recycled applying strict labor, health and environmental standards. Items are dismantled to their lowest components to be recycled into new recycled products. Plastic, metal, wood, and glass are just some of the components that are recovered from the recycling of electronic devices. Other than organic materials such as wood, nothing resulting from the recycling of e-waste ends up in the landfills!

EWC is an approved collector and recycler in California’s E-Waste recycling Program.

As an approved recycler, EWC is able to offer free e-waste recycling to all California residents and businesses.

EWC takes very seriously security and discretion, especially when sensitive materials are acquired for recycling. According to the FBI, identity theft is the fastest growing financial crime in the U.S. Government, financial institutions, banks, and credit card companies have paid billions of dollars as a result of identity/identity theft.

EWC takes the proper precautionary steps to prevent any security breaches by physically destroying hard drives and even whole computer systems. Non-physical destruction such as low-level formatting, “deleting,” reformatting, or overwriting does not provide sufficient security. This type of destruction allows IT savvy criminals to retrieve discarded data. Do not be fooled by other recyclers who claim to provide lower costing “data destruction;” many of these recyclers merely “wipe-out” the data and sell the hard-drives for reuse in order to gain more profit.

Getting up every morning is like tying our shoes
Tying our shoes is like kicking someone and dislocating their finger
Shock of the morning sun straight in the eyeball is like tying our shoes
Tying our shoes is like stretching our cold stiff fingers
Going the distance is like tying our shoes in the dark quiet of the forest

Tying our shoes is like kicking the teenager and dislocating his finger
Standing in the driveway at night looking north over the mountains is like tying our shoes
Tying our shoes is like ordering a bagel and eating it
Half-vomiting sea water is like tying our shoes
Manipulating invisible objects is like tying our shoes in the forest

Tying our shoes is like recognizing faces in the crowd
Going thru the avenues is like tying our shoes
Tying our shoes is like hurling ourselves forward through days
Kicking a karate opponent who tries to block with his hand dislocating his finger is like tying our shoes
Tying the child’s shoe is like tying our shoes
Emerging on unknown landscapes is like tying our shoes in the middle of the forest

Some people suffer from repetitive motion sickness, repeating the same motions numerous times, although these motions may not comfort them as they had in the past. They may have fixated on an illusion of phenomena called "Powdered Intimacies" which purports to reconstitute the past INSIDE the present in some form, even if it is in oppositional form.

We were trying not to be destroyed but somehow feeling partially or totally destroyed. The world was tipping, things were sliding away and falling to pieces. What could be said about how bad the situation was, how bad it could get, except that we had tried strategies that achieved the effect of a musical instrument left 3 decades in the backyard. The song was called, "Voodoo Dog."

We grew interested in inserting sensitive meters into our bodies and removing foreign objects from their range. Gushing was exhausting. Striation was informative. Blasting was relative. Many processes corresponded to thinking and feeling and subsumed them in the phrases of the cohort: "Don't Stop, Don't Stop." "Objective Correlative." "Mama Roma."

Many sensations were quite pleasurable, indescribable pleasures filled our glands and orifices with variations that were never recorded. In that regard, all of the mileage and activity might not have been quantifiable or, in terms of the cohort, "Down By the River."

I would like to thank the Utes for their participation in "Journey of the Pismire," I would like to thank the Iraqis for their participation in "Mexicano Bones Across Sonora Desierto," I would like to thank Colt Manufacturing Co. for participating in "Santiago, Atitlan 1990" and "Suai, East Timor 1999," and I would like to thank the many tribes of California Indians for participating in "Colt Manufacturing Co." and "BAE Systems (British Aerospace)." I would especially like to extend the thanks of us all to the road kill and to the children who were murdered. On behalf of the dark storm clouds and "Ghost Load" and myself, I would like to thank you all.

Nothing could have matched the perspective we were given, from the edge where we found seats. Everything was rapidly accumulating in a corrosive area, collapsing to a great extent, making way for unexpected clearing of the built up expectations of whole populations. The populations themselves had previously been dispensed with and dispersed, so the fluctuations and derivations were a relief, and our distraction was a plausible entertainment. "Hole versus Hole," one critic acclaimed.

It was much anticipated that Chaparrita Leti would be inverted into "Fulvent Cantilever," and Nadia Entire would crisp and flake to a version of "Building Conglomerate" as well as Gordo Mike Forty sustaining conversion into "Squash Blossom G-Strip" while Old Drip Cody was proffered to those waiting as "Buffet Table Lamp."

Utilizing the correspondence between the president at the time, Pitted Pores, and the future Chief Officer, Manhour Runny, the court reconstructed the most plausible narrative of events leading to the thickets, scrabble piles and debris pits of these findings. Burnt fingertips were found there indicating for once a human presence, but no one could say when it had last created any impression.

When the coyote became human, there was an audible tremor felt in the Compression Shed. When the human vitiated a gender tenderness, the velocity of technology smeared itself with a kind of anxiety, "Creosote Dust." This dust was seen trailing from their mouths, though they had developed into unstable formats.

We all stood there in the sun behind the carapace and watched as it went through its revolutions; as it did so, something was watching us go through layers of uninteresting degradations. Some were disposed of in the restroom.

I look back at this period fondly, as one when I had an eye. Later, there were some other things, including company transport, logos and fine graphic lettering in type fonts and color schemes that to this day are more important to me than almost anything else. I would light the world on fire if I needed the glow to see that lettering, the logo and color scheme on the side of a company transport again.

My sister expressed some doubts and look what became of her---"Katrina, New Orleans"; my aunt suggested a certain type of snack food item that was deemed inappropriate---"Mass Conformity Index"; Willie, Gronk, Harry & Pattsi ate a hearty meal on the median strip of Whittier Boulevard, and look---"Ugly Budget Cuts." Nowhere to turn became a machine that dispensed little chewing gum packets.

I want you to stand here, by Point D-7. I would like the Dying Hombre to stand over there beyond Point N-2. I would like the Ghost Sickness Girl to stand---all right, crouch---by Point D-6. I would like the Tiny Chirimoyas to stick itself to Point H-10. I request that Mighty Maw collect on or about Point J-4. Believe it or not, Not Even Able is supposed to have arrived at Point J-1. When you are ready, look for this signal---Surface Refraction.

Somebody left the faucet on and stipulation ran into filtration, eroding the enzyme plot, which fissured unmitigated by chord changes, sixty thousand vibrations per second, sealing the fingered victimologists inside their tenuous slipshod membrane, "Speculation Racket of the Most Grievous Kind."

If they had used the prisoners in the manner in which they were intended, high casualties could have been avoided in hospitals and jails, not to mention schools and adjacent capillary roads. But procedures which had been agreed upon by the group known as "Aural Stock, Animals and Plastic" reneged in February and by March had suggested that the process would take far more prisoners, more funding sources, generations more, and that forever afterward, the wall in front of their property was going to be called, "Yellow Maroon China Gardens."

Ordinarily such an appendage is found attached to the limb with a flap of skin, some fibrous tendon, ligaments and bits of fatty tissue, musculature, whatnot. When you find pieces of material such as that out here, you have to imagine the power of the explosion. That it continues down the generations. It expresses itself in the current generation as deafness. Inability to taste dirt.

We have scoured the earth to locate this location. Intense activity on our part produced incalculable Pharmacological Verities for millions, employing pins and rubber eye droplets in urban neighborhoods fornerly unattended by cable media, untethered in that sense to Proxy Catharsis Salt, currently used to treat meat and meat by products for widespread human consumption in North and South America.

The warmth of leather, wire and wood, around the boardroom table, black leather and braided copper wire, steel wire capable of biting into the wood or even snapping legs, rubber insulation cracking and peeling though the steel wire shows little or no signs of oxidation or rust, as if black telephones on the desk suggest 1960s, a period of continuous uninterrupted American economic growth and cultural ascendency, resulting however, lately in yellowish calendar leaves soaked in condensed milk to create the dish some diners call "Titty Cake."

On the left, the group known as Harsh Measures prepared their assault, by means of Flesh Wall and their favored ploy, "Federal Subjugation Jubilation," while their opponents, Casuistry on a Stick, recognizable in their prominent wind-blown stench and multi-colored fat globules, counter-attacked via images and silence, death and neglect. They retained party organs, "Metal Coca-cola" and "Let's Pretend" which broadcast variations of formulaic indigo and milt. I used to see some in Portland.

Accommodations were prepared at all levels of soil and subsoil down to the bedrock. Elevators were reinforced as to be able to compact and crush the contents. No noticeable indicators of the scale of this operation were left on the surface, as can be seen in this photograph. Fracking was ultimately successful along such lines as well. The spots floating across the screen, or field of vision, were actually internal (in other words, "invisible").

Those who had serious questions were given a number. Those who wore their clothes raw, were selected for travels through the back roads. Those who were taking notes, were sent to a "campus" some twenty five or so miles distant, south in the county. Their families were allowed one phone call, through for whatever reason, some men had little or no access to regular communication. Due to the severe conditions, many developed common ailments (“no insurance”), which were treated at company hospitals which have since been abandoned, but can be seen at Ajo, AZ (among others). A steel net is sometimes placed over the tops of the pits for security.

Specimens indicated the presence of "Bald Sighing" and "Not Here Yet, Wait a Little Longer, Not Here Yet," while nobody ran alongside the last bus out of town, nobody sat in the huge boulders above town thinking about "Tremendous Windblown Hair" or "I Could Run Away to Wyoming," nobody shivered on the empty main street in the middle of hot afternoon, and nobody allowed as memories could have made them impregnable and smoke and eastern.

So I fixed it so that he screamed at night and woke me up, and I asked him why he's screaming but he didn't answer, so I went to sleep all right, thinking maybe he would kill me the way he screamed in his sleep like a sad lonesome luny killer, who was able to put together a diesel truck transmission out on a dirt road, yeah, (he said maybe that was why they didn't fire him, poor dupe), in the darkness that glowed pitch black of the motel night, I woke up because he was silent, or screaming again.

Wear this string around your finger to remind you of Colorado, wear this steel bolt in your bones to remind you of gravity, wear this hair in your face to remind you of winter, wear this grime in your grin to remind you of youth, wear this tin leg to remind you of crows, wear this thing whatever it is. We take everything you've got and share this with you.

The commemorative plaque reads, well it says ah, it says something about old timey, yeah---you know, the landscape was going by fast---it was flickering like a pawn shop neon with an electrical facial tic, my teeth were ice and I expected them to thaw at any moment so I might speak, I could have said something bright about it, yeah, I had these large well-painted eyeballs, the artist had given me big blue retinae with patches of gray, so sometimes they felt a bit dry, I drank a beer. You know.

Butter and plaster, mix four quarts of peanut oil with onion powder, char over sparkly coals of Rocky Mountain boring beetle campfire, (sparks like beetles fluttering up into the sky wild with stars and Milky Ways) walking around with your hands in your pockets, don't fall in the river, the vast dry river bed of industrial desert machinery and the natural vending of happiness.

At this spot it was ascertained to pour one to five trillion dollars down a hole and explode it with shattered teeth and dry orbital zygomatic bone, supraorbital process, which "sees" in its way, which "chew" anything, which in turn, "purchase" the necessary additions to the historical moment, where we're buried in yellow dirt, wearing telephone books and talking through a mouthful of cake. "Thank you." "Gracias." "You welcome." (Spits.)

This is what it's for. How I do.

All photos by Ken Bailey,

Photographer’s Statement

Rangely, Colorado — about halfway between Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah.

500 slides of photos,cartoons,drawings , and short videos regarding the Rangely Weber Sand Unit oilfield in Colorado, created/recorded in the 1960’s,70’s,90’s by then-student photographer/cartoonist Ken Bailey II and friends. The classic “anticline” deep field, then one of the nation’s largest, was drilled out in the 40’s after the Raven discovery well proved its existence in 1933. Older shallow “Mancos Shale” wells in “Raven Park,” (Rangely’s former name before incorporation) date to 1902. Field is still active today, but wandering off the beaten path in a post-911 world is discouraged. There is a museum in Rangely (open June-Sept), and an unmanned historical discovery-well site at the original Raven A1 well along State 64 road in mid-field (original well now inactive). The museum has an on-line web link to an article, “Oilfield 101,” illustrated lay guide of the Rangely field written by the photographer several years ago.

Coronel knew an old man in Granada who said

(who often said):

“I wish I were a foreigner, so that I

Could go home

— Zero Hour, Ernesto Cardenal

I first came into contact with the work of poet Roberto Vargas a couple of years ago, when I saw his face, projected several stories tall, on a wall just off Valencia Street.

I was riding my bike to the Day of the Dead procession when I came across filmmaker Veronica Majano screening historical footage of the old Mission District on the wall of Dog Eared Books. The footage of Vargas was from a movie called Back to the Streets, and it showed a Latino hippie fest in Precita Park circa-1970. Long-haired Chicanos smoked weed and danced and played bongos on the grass while Vargas read from a stage. On today’s Valencia Street, Vargas was a ghost returned from a long-lost Mission, now standing twenty feet tall on the bookstore’s wall, reading a powerful poem that angrily denounced the SFPD for the mysterious death of a Mission Latino youth in police custody.

The film of Vargas was a beautiful snapshot of Latino youth culture in the neighborhood before gang violence and gentrification, like a Mission High School yearbook scene from an exhilarating era of Latino self-determination. In 1970, the Free Los Siete movement was feeding the community at a free breakfast program out of St. Peter’s Church on Alabama Street and had started free clinics and legal aid programs in the Mission. In the years to follow, the neighborhood would see the founding of the Mission Cultural Center and Galeria de la Raza and the inception of many of the neighborhood’s now world-famous mural projects.

Looking at the groovy scene in the park, it was hard to imagine that just a few short years later, Vargas and other kids from the Mission would be fighting alongside the Sandinistas in the jungles and mountains of Nicaragua. Yet the utopian promise of the era’s poetry, art, and youth culture in many ways culminated in the guerrilla war in which Vargas and other poets from San Francisco would fight and ultimately — in 1979 — help defeat the forces of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

On Feb. 24, the day of his 70th birthday, Roberto Vargas makes a rare return to San Francisco to perform in a poetry event at the Mission Cultural Center in honor of that Nicaraguan solidarity movement of the 1970s. A video will be shown of footage from that struggle — classic scenes of Vargas and others taking over the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco; of the famed nightly candlelight vigils at 24th and Mission BART Plaza in support of the Sandinistas — and Vargas will be reunited on stage to read with old poet friends like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Alejandro Murguía, and Vargas’ old compañero from San Francisco State University’s Third World Liberation Front, actor Danny Glover. The event is not open to the public. Invitations have been given out and the small MCC theater’s 150 seats have already been filled. Yet the event provides an opportunity to publicly honor Roberto Vargas’ contributions to the Mission, and to reflect on the hopes and dreams of Mission past.


Poetry was a part of Vargas’ world from the beginning. Vargas was born in Nicaragua, but came to the United States when he was a small child. In his 1980 collection of poems Nicaragua Te Canto Besos, Balas, y Sueños, he writes of “living in an offbeat alley called Natoma Street (where I always imagined a lost Mayan city existed beneath the factories).” By the late 1950s, Vargas may have been the first Mission District Latino Beat poet. “I graduated from Mission High School in 1958 and used to hang out in North Beach, going around to see all the poets,” he says. “I met Allen Ginsberg when I was just a 19-year-old kid running around in North Beach. Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Ted Berrigan — all the major poets knew me when I was in my teens.”

After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and an attempt at a boxing career that ended with a detached retina (an injury that also helped him avoid the Vietnam-era draft), Vargas went to SF State, where he was heavily active in the student strike of 1968-69. Students walked out of campus and battled riot police while standing on picket lines for five months to demand an ethnic studies program at the university.

In the spirit of the times, Vargas and other poets — including a young Mission Chicano named Alejandro Murguía — joined the Pocho-Che Collective to publish poetry by local Latino poets. The poets went to cut sugar cane in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba. They put out small poetry chapbooks in the Mission, full of poems that linked Che Guevara’s call for Third World revolution with the experience of the Chicano barrios of the United States in a new vision tropical. In the era after the SF State strike, the city started funding community arts projects in the ghettos. Like all classic zines, the first copies of Pocho-Che were scammed, in this case late at night at Vargas’ new job in the Mission’s Neighborhood Arts Program. In the years to come, the group would eventually publish hardbound books by Vargas, Nina Serrano, and others.

Today, Murguía is a professor in the ethnic studies program at SF State that the strikers fought to originate. He is the author of the American Book Award-winning short story collection This War Called Love (2002) and the memoir The Medicine of Memory (2002). He remembers, “The poetry scene was incipient, very young, and the readings weren’t always very formal. Sometimes they were at community events or protest rallies. But we had contact with Latin America. We knew people who had been in Chile, like Dr. Fernando Alegría.”

Alegría was a poet who had been the cultural attaché to the U.S. under Allende in Washington. Vargas recalls, “Alegría had myself and some other young poets come to Chile and spend a month or two studying with [Pablo] Neruda. But, of course, our plans were canceled by the coup in Chile.”

Murguia remembers the September 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew the popularly elected Socialist democracy of Salvador Allende caused the young poets to organize rare formal readings at Glide Memorial Church in protest. “We had several big ones there,” he says. “There was a broad range of poets — Michael McClure, Fernando Alegría, Jack Hirschman, Bob Kaufman, Janice Mirikitami all read. There was a line going down the block to get in.”

In addition to their mentor, Alegría, Vargas, and Murguía also knew one of their heroes, the Nicaraguan Marxist poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal lived under the Somoza dictatorship in a sort-of internal exile in a religious artist commune called Solentiname. Vargas wanted to bring Cardenal to read in the United States, but Somoza would not allow the poet, who was critical of the Nicaraguan dictator, to travel outside the country. Vargas went to his old pal Ginsberg for help.

“Because Allen knew me when I was a kid, he helped me with my organizing for Nicaragua,” says Vargas. “Allen was part of PEN, and in 1973 or ’74 he went to the State Department with other writers to put pressure on [Anastasio] Somoza. Eventually Somoza relented and we brought Cardenal to New York for a reading.”

The poetry of Cardenal was a north star to the young Mission poets. Cardenal’s epic 1957-60 masterwork Zero Hour is perhaps the literary foundation of revolution in Nicaragua. Influenced formally by Ezra Pound, Zero Hour weaves a sprawling history of Somozan oppression and U.S. intervention in Nicaragua together with lyrical imagery of Nicaragua’s natural beauty and wildlife. The poem creates a poignant sense that Nicaraguans, unable to enjoy and own these natural riches, had under Somoza become exiles within their own country.

Of particular interest to the young Mission poets, though, was Cardenal’s Homage to the American Indians (1969), a book-length meditation on the glory of Mayan and North American native civilizations. “For us, the work of Cardenal was very important,” says Murguía. “Homage to the American Indians is a continental vision of Native Americans — everything from the San Blas Indians of Panama to the Indians of Omaha to the Indians of Mexico City and Peru.”

In Homage, Cardenal evokes a lost Indian Utopia “so democratic that archaeologists know nothing about their rulers,” where “their pyramids were built with no forced labor, the peak of their civilization did not lead to an empire, and the word wall does not exist in their language.” He writes:

But how to write anew the hieroglyph,

How to paint the jaguar anew,

How to overthrow the tyrants?

How to build our tropical acropolis anew

Cardenal’s poems of this lost glorious past were to Vargas more pointedly a vision of a Latin American utopia that can also be regained in the future. In Cardenal’s work, says Vargas, “There is a longing for the simplicity of that civilization — the creativity, the innocence, the tribalism. Can we get it back after all the dictatorships, after all that capitalism has done? Cardenal showed us what we were, what we had, what we lost.”

Under Cardenal’s influence, the Mission poets turned seeing lost Mayan cities beneath the city’s factories into a literary movement. By 1975, members of Pocho-Che had started a magazine called El Tin Tan with Murguia as editor and Vargas as contributor. El Tin Tan presented a sweeping utopian vision of a borderless invisible Latino republic united culturally and politically under the sign of the palm tree. The poets situated the capital of this world right here in the Mission District.

“To tropicalize the Mission — to see it as a tropical pueblo — was a political act of defiance and self-determination,” says Murguía. “We were saying that we put this particular neighborhood — our pueblo, in a way — not in a context of North American history but in the context of Latin American history. The history of the eastern U.S. doesn’t affect California until 1848 when the first illegal immigrants came to California — not from the South, but from the East.

“El Tin Tan,” Murguía continues, “was probably the first magazine that was intercontinental in scope, a combination of politics and literature and art and different trends from the Mission to Mexico City to Argentina and everywhere in between.” He proudly recalls that it ran the first North American essays on Salvadoran poetry, and translated and printed a short story by Nelson Marra, a writer imprisoned by the Uruguayan dictatorship.

Yet for all its international perspective, El Tin Tan remained firmly rooted in the Mission. Columns by Nuyorican poet Victor Hernández Cruz and news of the assassination of Salvadoran guerrilla poet Roque Dalton ran side by side with the first comics by future Galeria de la Raza founder Rene Yáñez, all folded between wildly colorful cover art by neighborhood favorites like the famed Chicano artist Rupert Garcia and the muralist Mike Rios.

“The magazines were colorful — tropical — on the outside, but very political on the inside,” says Murguía. “That was a metaphor for our own work.”

By this time, Vargas had become an Associate Director at the SF Arts Commission. From within City Hall, he started to pump city arts money into the Mission, helping to fund projects like Mike Rios’ mural of the people holding BART on their backs at 24th and Mission BART Plaza and the Balmy Alley Mural Project — art that can still be seen in public today.

Once, Vargas commissioned a Chuy Campesano mural for the Bank of America building at 22nd and Mission. “I read a poem called “Boa” and had the crowd dancing and chanting, Es la Boa, Es la Boa,” says Vargas. “We were trying to say, ‘You made your millions off our farmers, but now you are on our turf in the Mission here in occupied Mexico. So we’ll put hieroglyphics on the walls of your bank like we used to do!’ Someone from the bank tried to take the mic from me and cops came and escorted us out.”

Vargas’s story of the mural’s dedication ceremony captures the bravado of the era. “It was a beautiful time, all of us young and thinking we were going to change the world. We wanted to change the world through culture.”

The poets organized the community to demand a neighborhood’s arts center, too. In 1977, the dream was realized when the City, with pressure from Vargas from within City Hall in the Arts Commission, purchased an old, five-floor furniture store at 24th and Mission to be made into the Mission Cultural Center. Murguia became the center’s first director.

The Mission utopia was becoming a reality for Vargas. In Nicaragua Te Canto, he wrote:

We used to drive

Our lowered down Plymouths and Chevys

On top of the breast of a mountain to

Make love and drink wine… Never

Knowing what was going to happen after

Mission High School

The Mission is now an expression of real culture, a many-faceted being … both plus and minus with the soul of a human rainbow…My people watching slides of Sandino and Nica history … White children wearing guarachas and afros trippin’ down the streets to party. Young Salvadoran poets discussing the assassination of Roque Dalton … The Mission is now an implosion/explosion of human color, of walls being painted by muralistas. There is a collective feeling of compassion for each other Nicas Blacks Chicanos Chilenos Oppressed Indios. The sense of collective survival, histories full of Somozas, Wounded Knees written on the walls.

In Zero Hour, Cardenal wrote of Nicaragua’s trees and birds and lakes, and their call to revolution, as seen from its mountains:

What’s that light way off there? Is it a star?

Its Sandino’s light shining in the black mountain

Vargas, the excited Mission kid, echoed in his work:

Tonight I am sitting on a mountain called Bernal Hill …

Tonight I see the flames of America Latina spreading from here …


Perhaps inevitably, the Latin American Utopia Vargas and company created in poetry would seem so tantalizingly close to actualization that they would be forced to pick up the gun and fight for its existence.

When the enormous earthquake of 1972 left Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, in ruins, Nicaraguan refugees flocked to SF’s Mission District. Soon, San Francisco was home to more Nicaraguans than any place on Earth outside of Nicaragua. The family of Anastasio Somoza had controlled Nicaragua with brutal repression for generations. Somoza’s embezzling of relief funds for earthquake victims led to increased revolutionary activity against his rule. Taking their name from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who led resistance against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, La Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) — or the Sandinistas, as they were popularly known — began guerrilla activities in late 1974 by taking government officials and Somoza relatives hostage in a raid on the house of the minister of agriculture. They received a $2 million ransom and had their communiqué printed in the national newspaper. Thus was born the Sandinista revolution.

In the Mission, Vargas, Murguía, and others were in touch with La Frente, and began organizing Sandinista solidarity rallies to coordinate with La Frente’s actions in Nicaragua. Out of offices in the Mission Cultural Center, along with El Tin Tan, the poets published a newspaper called La Gaceta about the situation in Nicaragua. The paper had a circulation of 5000 copies and was available for free all over the district. The sight of pro-Sandinista rallies at 24th and BART Plaza became so common that the plaza was popularly nicknamed Plaza Sandino.

Vargas organized takeovers of the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco and traveled the US, speaking about Nicaragua. Yet, soon, this kind of support didn’t seem like enough. In Cardenal’s poetry, victory was inevitable. Cardenal had written that Indian time was circular, that “history became prophecy,” and that therefore the “empire will always fall.” He had also written, “The hero is reborn when he dies. And the green grass is reborn from the ashes.” In poetry, Vargas and Murguia found inspiration to go to war.

In 1976 and 1977, Mission District residents, in solidarity with the FSLN, began quietly leaving San Francisco to join up with La Frente and pick up the gun in the Sandinista Revolution. Among them were Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murguía.

“It was very romantic,” says Murguía. “If you grew up in the time after Che’s death, when you had Che’s figure calling for “1,2,3, many Vietnams” and a lot of different armed struggles going on all over Latin America, then it would seem logical, I think, if you were kind of young and crazy, that you would want to participate in some of these situations besides just doing solidarity work or organizing rallies. Also, the coup in Chile crushed our generation’s hope for electoral change in Latin America.”

Today, Murguía tries to situate the poets’ embrace of armed struggle within the spirit of those long ago times, but one senses that Vargas would not hesitate to join a guerrilla war tomorrow morning. When I ask him how the young poets made the leap from verse to bullets, he is incredulous at the question.

“We had to fight! There was no other way!” Vargas says. “We had the historical perspective and as a people we were worthless if we let that situation stand. We had our own books out. But are we really revolutionary poets if we just sit back and collect our laurels?”

Murguía compares the Sandinista war with the Spanish Civil War, when there were many international brigades in which writers had been involved. He suggests the poets went to war because they were poets. “If you knew the situation intimately in Nicaragua and you were reading Cardenal’s poems,” he says, “it was easy to see the connection between poets and political necessity.”

Vargas began organizing small, tight-knit cadres for battle in Nicaragua, recruiting his Sandinista guerrillas right off of the streets of the Mission. “I was secretive and I found them one by one,” he explains. “We were very clandestine and very compartmentalized. We never had more than a dozen people in our committee at once.”

Men who were menial laborers in San Francisco would one day be among the most respected heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution. “When I recruited Chombo [Walter Ferretti], he was a cook at the Hyatt Regency,” says Vargas. “Later, Chombo would become a head of national security in Nicaragua. Another recruit was a former pilot, so I went to talk to him where he pumped gas at 21st and South Van Ness. That was Commandante Raúl Venerio. After the triumph of 1979, he would become the Chief of the Nicaraguan Air Force.”

When in San Francisco, Venerio later served as the editor of La Gaceta. In Nicaragua, the former gas station attendant became a real hero. “They got an airplane and attacked the National Palace,” says Vargas, laughing. “They hit it and split, and got away — real Mission boys!”

Before heading off to join La Frente, Vargas’ recruits would undergo a regimen of training and political education, an informal boot camp largely hidden in plain sight in the Bay Area.

“It was primitive,” remembers Murguía. “We didn’t really have someone with a military background to train us. We got just guns at pawn shops on Mission Street and practiced shooting at the firing range in Sharp Park down in Pacifica. We worked out with a friend who was a black belt in karate.”

Murguía says the most difficult part of training was the daily pre-dawn run of five laps around Bernal Hill. “We would run up the hill counter-clockwise — because that way is more difficult,” he says, “and we would wear these combat boots we bought at Leed’s Shoes on Mission.”

Besides being a part of physical conditioning, the run was a litmus test of the recruits’ commitment. “Doing activity like that is almost impossible if you’re not really psychologically into it,” says Murguía. “Try running five times around Bernal Hill! You start wondering after your third lap, ‘Goddamn! Why am I doing this?’ Especially when no one is forcing you to do it!”

When I ask if the daily jog of 10 or 12 Latino men in combat boots on the hill at sunrise did not attract any, uh, attention, Murguía shrugs. “There were less people on the hill in those days,” he says. He recalls that the Mission cadres trained in complete anonymity: “We got money to rent planes and we took turns learning to fly the planes around the Bay Area. Nobody suspected anything because nobody knew anything about Nicaragua then.”

When I try to imagine a phalanx of Sandinistas at dawn on today’s Bernal Hill, surrounded by a crowd of early morning dog walkers, I can’t help but laugh. But the cadre’s training was deadly serious, and Murguía says its value was far more than psychological. “What I discovered when I went to the Southern Front was that our San Francisco cadres were some of the most advanced in the war,” he explains. “We understood the political situation and the tactic of insurrection and we had a minimum of physical conditioning. But some of these other cats, man! They literally just walked in off the street!”

For a time, Murguía remained the director of the Mission Cultural Center, while making regular trips to fight in Nicaragua. In 1977, Vargas resigned from the Arts Commission and went to battle for six or seven months. He and Murguía would spend the next couple of years rotating back and forth from the war front in Nicaragua to their solidarity work in the Mission. Murguía describes his entry into Nicaragua, his stay in various guerrilla safe houses in Costa Rica, and his experiences in the war in his 1991 American Book Award-winning fictionalized memoir, Southern Front.

Though Murguía says the actual military war on the ground was largely a stalemate between the Sandinistas and the Somozas’ National Guard, the Sandinistas were at last able to triumph through international pressure, strategic military victories, and a general strike. Somoza fled in July of 1979, and the Sandinistas entered Managua victorious on July 19 of the same year. Cardenal’s poem “Lights” describes the city as seen from a plane that brought the elder poet into a Managua free from the Somoza family’s rule for the first time in 43 years. In Managua, street graffiti declared, El triunfo de la revolución el triunfo de la poesía.

Vargas and Murguía, however, did not enter Managua with the victorious army. The Southern Front did not go to Managua, and Vargas had recently been sent back to the U.S., to coordinate a simultaneous take over of the Nicaraguan consulates in major U.S. cities from coast to coast to coincide with the victory in Managua.

Vargas’ work for Nicaragua did not end with victory. The Mission High kid now found himself serving in the new revolutionary government as cultural attaché to the United States. “I was jailed in the takeover of the DC consulate,” Vargas says, laughing, “but then I came back several months later to serve there!”

The voluble poet grows uncharacteristically silent when I ask him what it felt like to actually win the war.

“To win?,” he asks, pronouncing the word as if he was hearing it for the very first time. “Well … it’s like taking off a huge load, man. Like taking mountains off your back.” He is silent for a bit and then adds, “But what do you win? You win the right to continue the struggle.”

“To win was to reach the objective of getting rid of the Somoza family once and for all,” Vargas says. “But it was not really a win/lose situation.” Indeed, the Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins and in debt, with an estimated 50,000 war dead, and 600,000 homeless. Nicaragua’s left-wing powers would become an obsession for the Reagan Administration, who for the next ten years offered heavy financial assistance and training to the Contras, a coalition of pro-Somoza and anti-Sandinista guerrillas who fought to overthrow the revolutionary government. The U.S. strangled Nicaragua’s economy with a trade embargo like it employed against Cuba. In reality, for the Sandinistas, the war literally never ended.

“Somoza bombed everything in Nicaragua before he left the country. Reagan was spending — what? — $100 million a year annually against us at that time?” says Vargas. “They spent so much for a decade to destroy our little country.”

Nonetheless, poetry remained in the forefront of the Nicaraguan revolution. Cardenal was named Ministry of Culture, and he instituted poetry workshops across Nicaragua as part of a highly successful literacy campaign that raised literacy from just 12 percent to over 50 percent in the first 6 months of the revolutionary government. Soon, poetry was being written and taught in the tiniest villages and in the fields.

“We tried,” Vargas says bluntly. “We were doing very important land reform, incredible stuff for the economy. But it was dangerous to be a good example. We had the potential, but we had to hold off this enormous power [of the U.S.] for decades. Ultimately, we had to step back so they would not destroy Nicaragua.”

In 1990, Nicaraguan voters, weary of war and economic misery, chose to elect FSLN President Daniel Ortega’s U.S.-backed opponent, Violetta Chamorro, in the presidential election. “We lost the elections,” says Vargas. “But we had to allow them to demonstrate that we were not like Cuba or other revolutions. We lost beautiful young men and women to get that liberty.”

I ask Vargas to consider the successes and failures of the Nicaraguan revolution. He pauses and then seemingly changes the subject, excitedly telling me of the time he brought Ginsberg to meet the Sandinista soldiers. “Ginsberg was fascinated by the Sandinistas,” says Vargas. “And he wanted to see what he had been supporting on my behalf all these years. So I took him to the fighting along the Honduras border in 1984, during the Contra war.”

When Ginsberg went to the war zone, he brought not a rifle but a concertina. “I took him to meet these young soldiers in a trench. They see Allen with the concertina and they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I told them he was a very famous poet. At once, they all started taking bits of paper out of their pockets that they had written poems on and started reading them to Allen. So there we are, with these soldiers in the trench with their rifles reading poetry, and Allen just wailing away on this concertina!”

I think of the strange road from Cardenal’s vision of lost Mayan cities to Vargas’ dreams of a Bernal Hill utopia to Ginsberg listening to soldiers’ poetry in a Nicaraguan trench, and I see that Vargas has answered my question with his own, the question asked by revolutionary poetry.


The lost moment with Ginsberg in the trenches is like a missing chapter out of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. Indeed Vargas’ story in many ways embodies that of Bolaño’s exile poet generation, of which he wrote, “They dreamed of a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell.” Except for one crucial difference: Vargas is very much alive and still fighting.

Today, Vargas still puts in a tireless 50-hour work week as a labor organizer for the American Federation of Teachers in San Antonio, TX. During our conversation, he excitedly tells me of an action he is organizing for next month, a march of teachers on the Texas capital to protest budget cuts to education. “I camp out in the teacher’s lounge and talk to them when they are on break,” he says. “I signed up 50 new members last week!”

As he nears 70, the poet shows no signs of slowing down. “I can’t afford to!” he says. “My youngest son is only 17. When I get finished putting him through college, then maybe I can take a break.”

But work seems like more than necessity to Vargas; political struggle is the central theme of his life’s work. “Work, work, work, Erick,” he tells me. “That is what we have to do. I could go back and forth about what went wrong in Nicaragua, but there is more work to do and I have to stay positive. It is all part of the process.”

When Vargas comes back to the Mission Cultural Center this week, he will literally return, full circle, to a building he helped build. “We had no money to hire laborers, so we’d be there with our kids every weekend, building the place,” he remembers.

One of those kids was Vargas’ son, Mission poet Ariel Vargas, who will read in public with his father for the first time this week. “Cardenal baptized him when Ernesto came to bless the new Mission Cultural Center in 1977,” Vargas says. “He had offered to baptize any children who also might be there. In the end, there was a line of families around the block on 24th Street who had brought their children for Ernesto Cardenal to baptize. Ariel had already been there every weekend on his hands and knees sanding those huge gymnasium-like floors with us. The Mission Cultural Center is still there and that is our monument.” As he discusses the Mission, Vargas forgets the problems of the Nicaraguan revolution and begins talking nonstop again at last. He comes back to the stories that started our conversation. “You know, I lived at 110 Mullen on Bernal Hill,” he says, his excitement gathering. “Mike Rios was my neighbor. Rene Yáñez lived on the block. So it was all happening right there! Carlos Santana lived down the block at around 180 Mullen or something. We used to hear him and his band jamming all the time. The Arts Commission had a stage truck and I’d take it out to Precita Park and put the stage down for Carlos to play on.” I think of Cardenal’s vision of the repeating cycle of time, the promise that the empire will always fall and the hero will always be reborn. Much in the Mission has changed. But Vargas, the old poet, still looks out from Bernal Hill today and sees lost cities beneath the surface.


Poems are postcards from a motel outside Disney World, from Winslow Arizona, from Niagara Falls and Travel Town Los Angeles, Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown to the mummies of Guanajuato or the British Museum, from the middle of nowhere and Highway 50 America’s Loneliest Road to somebody you owe, or your mom—even if you were trying to make an Yves Klein blue happening with naked girls or Teotihuacan of telephone books or a conceptual map of actual proportions using only bodily fluids and emoticons. A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels and it all comes yoked to the Pleiades or something else, with words indexing half of what’s intended to half of what’s not intended. Postcards of poems and dreams flit and scatter through the postal system of the universe. They slip through cracks in thought and attention like leaves. Like a string pulled taut, like a wire. Some were addressed to you. “My Lai, the American Experience— wish you were here— delicate swaying of the praying mantis— dirigibles over East L.A.— cumin lamb noodles, X’ian Famous Foods—” Words fly from object to inner ear, the words float from NYC in the past to Los Angeles of the future, from west to east, flitting from hand to mind, light to shadow, from Chicago of the eye to Iowa of memory. Shadows are vibrating, electricity in the Tesla coil, scrawled letters can flip a switch. Seasons speak through places— say hello to mysteries— we’re taking note of correlations and correspondences. I like postcards because they document this vast intricate side of our existence. It goes from one thing to another. From ephemeral notations to sudden realizations, from El Templo Mayor Mexico City to “Hello from California,” from Rothko to the Colima dog, multivalent phenomena are described on a plane 4 x 6 inches, 29 cents. You get a hundred or a hundred fifty words and a picture to try to reach that person. Your other, double, stranger, friend, colleague, shadow, echo, brother, sister, personage, comrade, somebody at 1999 Number Street #A1, Anytown, OH 54321 USA. Go!

Et encore d’un camoin lance a toute vitesse
Dans les rues vides de la nuit
Tombe une tomate merveilleuse qui roule dans le ruisseau

And again from a truck starting at full speed
In the empty streets of night
Falls a marvelous tomato that rolls into the gutter

—Robert Desnos

And again you shit, wipe yourself after and flush and only a mental radio pays attention.
Again you bend over and straighten up and bend over and straighten up and bend over and straighten— only the cosmic highway knows the math.
Again you rush out of your door and drive away without an idea, except for whatever the vehicle imagines.
Again you exhale a sigh toward an end of your run (whatever run that could have been) and they hum, your comrades the steel lattice high-tension transmission towers marching.
Again you avoid death somehow but they are bored with you already, the marine layer clouds fulminating above rich people’s rooftops on the coast.
Again you sip the secret like fresh hot black coffee dispensed to a million paper cups, but what they’re making of that nobody may say.

drank too much coffee friday night or something
could not sleep saturday morning got up at 5 am and drove out to malibu
around down that coast was all clouded over
at the state beach i parked on the highway and ran across
i walked out along the big stagnant lagoon
it was full of birds on all sides, standing motionless, looking at me
great blue herons with their long legs covered by water motionless looking at me
white egrets, white herons, standing on the shore or stalking on the shore
looking back at me, and coots swimming forward in little packs on the scummy green water
with their tiny heads jerking, looking at me vaguely with those yellow dot eyes
and cormorants flying or fishing, and when i walked through the heady creosote brush
through the dusty stench of creosote out to the beach (no waves) the surf foaming on the damp dirty sand
seagulls on an island in the tepid still water, and cormorants on a dead tree hanging their wings out to dry
swallows winging on the sea breeze over the surf, with a few pole surfers poling by the rocks out on the water
mallards paddling on the dark lagoon separated from the ocean by a few yards of beach,
and walking back the way i came on the wooden boardwalk, a great blue heron flapped underneath me to the edge of the lagoon, and the great white egrets perched on the railing took off, cawing, and the great white egret perched in the high brush took off, neck curling back snakelike as it flapped away.
i guessed that the sun would have shone on the houses on the “pacific palisades”—the hills above malibu if the clouds had parted. but the sky was all gray and the coast highway already backing up where the CHP blocked off some lanes for a bike race.
a seven or eight year old blonde surfer, with his wetsuit on and board under his arm would not look at me or meet my eye, so scared or determined was he on his early morning hike to the waves.
i went to go look for a mexican restaurant (i found a bad one) to have some menudo (that i did not finish) to wait for the galleries at bergamot station to open.

Raúl Zurita, winner of the Chilean National Poetry Prize, is arguably the most powerful poetic voice in Latin America today. His compelling rhythms combine epic and lyric tones, public and most intimate themes, grief and joy. Despite having been arrested and tortured under the Pinochet dictatorship, Zurita’s prevailing attitude in his Dantesque trilogy Purgatoi (Purgatory), Anteparaíso (Anteparadise), and La Vida Nueva (The New Life) is a deep love for everything and everybody in the world. His work is part of a revolution in poetic language that began in the 1970s and sought to find new forms of expression, radically different from those of Pablo Neruda. The challenge was to confront the contemporary epoch, with its particular forms of violence, including violence done to language. His book, INRI (Marick Press, 2009, translated by William Rowe), is distinctive in that it does not speak out of individual sorrow—though this is not missing—but seeks, rather, a new space, out of which love might be asserted as prime human reality, a space which might give birth to a different type of society. Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny, was published by The University of California Press. Song for the Disappeared Love, translated by Daniel Borzutzky, was released in 2010 by Action Books. Zurita’s other poetry collections include: El Paraíso Esta Vacío, Canto a Su Amor, Desaparecido, El Amor de Chile, Los Países muertos, In Memoriam, Las Ciudades de Agua. He has just completed a book that includes “Inscriptions Facing the Sea,” a project to inscribe 22 phrases in the cliffs of the north coast of Chile that would only be read from the sea.

Interview with the Poetry Foundation

Raul Zurita was born in Santiago, Chile in 1950. He started out studying engineering before turning to poetry. His early work is a ferocious response to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Like many other Chileans, Zurita was arrested and tortured. When he was released, he helped to form a radical artistic group CADA, and he became renowned for his provocative and intensely physical public performances. He has written what are perhaps the most massively scaled poems ever created. He has done this with earth-moving equipment and with smoke-trailing aircraft. In the early 1980s, Zurita famously sky-wrote passages from his poem, “The New Life,” over New York and later—still during the reign of Pinochet—he bulldozed the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) into the Atacama Desert which, for its length, can only be seen from the sky.

See “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” in Google Earth

An article in Jacket Magazine elucidates, “He says that in those days of brutality and distrust and terror…he began to imagine writing poems in the sky, on the faces of cliffs, in the desert…. He started to imagine that he might fight sadistic force with poems as insubstantial as contrails in the air over a city.” Zurita’s renowned poetic trilogy, composed over a span of 15 years, is considered one of the singular poetic achievements in Latin American poetry: Purgatory appeared in 1979, Anteparadise in 1982, and The New Life in 1993.


This interview was conducted in Chicago on April 3, 2009. At this time, I was working on a translation of Raúl Zurita’s Canto a Su Amor Desaparecido (Song for His Disappeared Love), which in August 2010 was published by Action Books. Zurita was completing a stint as a visiting professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and I invited him to come to Chicago, where on this evening we gave a bilingual reading of his work at the Instituto Cervantes, in an event sponsored by the Guild Literary Complex. Zurita is an amazing reader of his own work; his voice is deep and shaky, and he concluded his recitation by literally singing a hymn to the disappearing nations. It was humbling to be a part of this event, as it was the only time I’ve ever been at a poetry reading that concluded with a standing ovation. There were clearly many Chileans in the audience, and their familiarity with Zurita’s writing, and the experiences it conveys, gave the reading an emotional gravity that is rare at American poetry readings.

Before the event at the Instituto Cervantes, we spent the day working on the translation, preparing our presentation, and engaging in the following discussion, which, according to Zurita, is the first published interview of Zurita to appear in English. The interview was conducted in Spanish, mostly at the Café Jumping Bean in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Thus I both transcribed and translated the conversation, which touches upon a variety of topics, and which I hope conveys the oddities and contradictions of being a radical, political artist under an oppressive and brutal regime. Additionally, we discussed some of the different artistic approaches and influences that over the years have defined Zurita, who can at once be described as poet, performer, conceptual artist, and literary provocateur.

Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1950, Zurita studied engineering before writing poetry in large part as a response to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Zurita was arrested and tortured, but upon his release he helped to form the radical artistic group CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte), and he gained notoriety for his provocative public performances. In the early ‘80s, Zurita hired planes to sky-write passages from his poem, “The New Life,” over Manhattan, and later he carved the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) into Chile’s Atacama Desert, where it can still be seen because children in the neighboring town bring shovels into the desert and turn over the sand in the letters.

Zurita is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Poetry Prize of Chile. Three new books—INRI, translated by William Rowe; Song for His Disappeared Love, translated by Daniel Borzutzky; and Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny—have recently been published by, respectively, Marick Press, Action Books, and the University of California Press. His books of poems include, among others: Purgatorio (1979), Anteparadíso (1982), El paraíso está vacío, Canto a Su Amor, Desaparecido, El Amor de Chile, La Vida Nueva, and In Memoriam. He lives in Santiago, Chile, where he is a professor of literature at the Universidad Diego Portales.

* * *

Daniel Borzutzky: Song for His Disappeared Love was published in 1985, right in the midst of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I’m curious about what it was like to be an artist and a poet during those years?

Raúl Zurita: It was very strange. There was a world that had to do with poetry that was full of conflict, and one had the sensation that we had to respond to the terror with a poetry that was just as powerful as the pain being delivered, but at the same time you had to try to avoid being punished. It was very difficult to find the language for this. And so Song for His Disappeared Love was published—it wasn’t so black and white—thanks to a person named Maria Teresa Matte, someone on the right: she read it and got it published.

DB: And who was she, an editor?

RZ: She was the sister of an editor at Editorial Universitaria [one of the largest publishers in Santiago], and she had been a friend of mine for a long time. It was all very weird

DB: When you speak of punishment, for writers what were the risks?

RZ: I was a member of a group called CADA (Colectivo de acciones de arte), and we did performance/actions in the street, and so the risks were the same as those taken by anyone who at the time was opposed to the dictatorship: that you’d be disappeared, beaten, imprisoned.

DB: Returning to poets, how did the censors operate? Were there books that at the time were not able to be published?

RZ: Exactly. The books had to pass through censors, at least to a certain extent.

DB: For all publishers?

RZ: So with Anteparaíso I submitted a book that was different than the one that was actually published. They approved the book thinking it was one book but it was actually another.

DB: You said the publisher was a friend of yours. The idea that someone who was politically from the right wing would support your books sounds pretty weird to me.

RZ: Chile is a country with two Nobel Prize-winning poets, and so there was a tiny fraction of the right wing who claimed Neruda for themselves even though Neruda was a communist. It was an incredible contradiction. Of course these weren’t the military. These were people who loved Neruda and thought it was cute that he was a communist.

DB: Speaking of Neruda, it seems to me that this same group of people sought to depoliticize him as a writer

RZ: There was a time when García Márquez and Neruda were banned. Those were the first five years of the dictatorship, the worst years. After that, they realized that they had more important things to worry about than books.

DB: I read that when you were arrested you were carrying a file of poems.

RZ: Yes, they threw them into the sea. Everywhere I went, I carried this file of poems. It was from my first book, Purgatorio, from the first part, and since the poems had some drawings on them, they [the military] thought they contained codes, and so I was beaten terribly, but they gave me back the poems, until a senior officer arrived and he took one look at them and instantly knew they were poems, and so he threw them into the water.

DB: Why did he throw them into the water?

RZ: They were poems, garbage.

DB: And the first guys who looked at the poems, did they actually read them?

RZ: They looked at the poems and said, “What’s this shit, huevon?” but they didn’t recognize what they were, but then the one guy who knew better took one look at them and threw them into the water. You see, the only thing that told me that I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t living in a nightmare, was this file of poems, and then when they threw them into the sea, then I understood exactly what was happening

DB: How did you come to be arrested?

RZ: I was arrested at six in the morning on the September 11th [the day of the coup], in the mess when Valparaíso was taken. I was an engineering student at the University of Federico Santa Maria and so without even checking names—they arrested anyone who had anything to do with the left-wing organizations. It was a deeply leftist university, and so they didn’t even ask me my name until I had been arrested for three weeks.

[Note: Valparaíso, a port town a few hours from Santiago, is where the Chilean navy was based, and where the coup d’etat was prepared.]

DB: And how long were you in prison?

RZ: It wasn’t that long. Six weeks. But it was so terrible that it’s stayed with me all my life.

DB: Did you have any contact with your family?

RZ: None. And I lived with the permanent fear that they were going to kill us. They shut the top and we were in an absolute pitch blackness; we were in a space where there was room for 100 and we were 800, and we could barely walk, like in those films that show the slaves coming from Africa.

DB: And so I assume you weren’t able to write at that time?

RZ: I couldn’t write for three years, at which point I went back to Purgatorio.

DB: What was the relationship between the new versions of the poems in Purgatorio and those that you wrote before and that were lost?

RZ: Curiously enough, I had the poems that were thrown overboard memorized, and so I was able to recuperate them. Half of that book was written before I was arrested, and it wasn’t difficult to reconstruct it. And as in the poem “Wolves and Sheep” by Manuel Silva Acevedo, it was as if in those poems I had a great premonition of what was about to happen. But before I was arrested on the ship, I had no idea that the book was going to be called Purgatorio.

[Note: Daniel Borzutzky’s translation of Manuel Silva Acevedo’s “Wolves and Sheep,” originally published in 1975 and considered a canonical work of Chilean poetry, was published in Another Chicago Magazine in 2010.]

DB: Returning, then, to Song for His Disappeared Love, how do you see this book as fitting into your collected body of writing?

RZ: For me, it’s central: it’s like the belly button, like the deepest point . . .

DB: From what I’ve read of your work, it’s the most intense, the most direct, which leads me to a question. For the writers of this period was it common to write about political reality in such a direct way?

RZ: Not at all. On the contrary, if you would have read 90 percent of the poetry of that period, you’d have the impression that nothing was going on in Chile. Enrique Lihn, for example, had a book called El Paseo Ahumada that I think is pretty bad, but it was well liked in Chile. There’s another poet who’s famous in Chile named Jorge Teillier and there’s an illusion; his poetry before the coup, during the coup, and after the coup is exactly the same. And then those that wrote protest poetry were so bad, so poor. For me there were two big exceptions. One was José Angel Cuevas, but he has more to do with the period after the coup. And the other one is Diego Maquieira, whose work is so violent that it couldn’t have been written under any other circumstances. Now, I feel that with Song for His Disappeared Love, it was an interrogation of the forms, with the niches; it was not only a denouncement, but it was an attempt to invent a language.

DB: Speaking of other poets, how does Nicanor Parra fit into this discussion?

RZ: For me, Parra is fundamental. He re-brought poetry to life, which was the most important lesson I learned. I think he’s the most important of all. I don’t know if you know that Parra supported the coup. But then he realized quite quickly that he was wrong.

DB: And why did he support it?

RZ: Because he had problems with the communists. Because they had accused him of one thing and another. And so he confused his personal problems with problems that were much bigger. However, I was one of the few who supported him during this time. Parra had it bad during that time. He was totally isolated. I really love him. And the lessons of anti-poetry are for me incredibly important. He also used a direct language. It goes beyond language. He is very important.

DB: One thing I see not only in Song for His Disappeared Love but also in your other books is the idea that the speaker is experiencing something that’s at once both deeply personal and at the same time communal. Is this something that you were conscious of? I’m specifically thinking of the moments in Song with the niches and the countries.

RZ: I never thought about the writing’s reception before it was published. But soon I had an odd understanding that what I was saying represented something else, and I didn’t control it but I thought it was true.

DB: Specifically?

RZ: Song for His Disappeared Love, Purgatorio, Anteparaíso . . . they represented an experience that was not simply my own.

DB: Song for His Disappeared Love was published by Editorial Universitaria. What sort of poetry were they publishing?

RZ: They published the big writers of the time. They published Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn . . .

DB: And was there a community of literary journals and salons in the Pinochet years, in the 80s?

RZ: Sometimes there were readings that were massive mixed with music and everything, but in general they were semi-clandestine.

DB: In houses, or. . . ?

RZ: In houses, [or] schools affiliated with the church.

DB: In Chile there are so many contradictions, and the church is a good example of this

RZ: The church in Chile was different than the church in Argentina, or in Spain during the civil war as it absolutely supported the persecuted. But this isn’t the case anymore, as there’s a series of really reactionary things in the Catholic Church, the same Catholic Church that gained so much good will in a different era. . . . But the other thing that’s difficult to understand is the work of Ignacio Valente, for example [a right-wing priest and literary critic who was fictionalized in Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile]. On the one hand, [he was] a priest with Opus Dei, a lover of literature, and writers were absolutely hanging on him to get him to write about them, before, during, and after.

DB: You spoke a bit about Parra, but were there really poets who could be considered Pinochet supporters?

RZ: There was one who was especially noteworthy. His name was Braulio Arenas, who was a poet who was very respected, and he supported Pinochet and even wrote hymns for him.

[Note: Braulio Arenas’ poem “Chile es Asi,” published in 1976, is often interpreted as an homage to the dictatorship.]

DB: I know you were very young at the time, but I’m wondering if in the years before Pinochet, if there was an artistic movement that corresponded to the political movement of the time.

RZ: The popular songs of that time were excellent, but the poetry of that time was a “flat” poetry . . .

DB: I mean more in terms of aesthetic or formal ideas.

RZ: Yes, there was an art that we could call revolutionary that supported a certain aesthetic. It was Neruda: he influenced everything—Cuban music, the music of Silvio Rodríguez, the music groups. The culture of the left in Chile and in a large part of Latin America was called Pablo Neruda. He was a genius: he gave people expression.

DB: From the little that I know of Chilean poetry of the time, the person who I think of as writing in a totally different form is Juan Luis Martínez. Are there others?

RZ: No. Afterwards, there are. Diamela Eltit three years later, published a book that was like this, in 1983. But these are like two time periods.

DB: Here, there are a few translations of Juan Luis Martínez by Steven White in Poets of Chile, and now La Nueva Novela is being translated by Mónica de la Torre. For people who don’t know anything about him, why is he important?

RZ: La Nueva Novela, first of all, didn’t have one sentence that was by Juan Luis Martínez. It was constructed purely from found texts. It’s an enormous compilation. It can also be explained a bit in terms of the anti-poetry of Parra, but it went even further; Martínez’s was a poetry without God. In this book the role of the author was as someone who compiles or organizes more than someone who writes. It’s a huge collage. You know, we wrote some of that book together. I don’t know if you know that I was married to his sister. And we shared a typewriter. There’s part of La Nueva Novela that I wrote, some multiplications and divisions, so we had that type of relationship.

DB: So you were very close friends?

RZ: We were almost brothers.

DB: And how did the literary world respond to Juan Luis Martínez?

RZ: With a profound distrust. But something weird happened, which is typical . . .

DB: He died and they discovered his greatness?

RZ: Not just that. In part when I started getting attention, then they began to pay attention to Juan Luis Martinez. And I think there was originally an idea that he was somehow copying me, but really they didn’t understand him at all. And I really got his work.

DB: For him, who were models?

RZ: The French writers . . .

DB: René Char?

RZ: René Char, Raymond Roussell, Raymond Queneau. . . . Not the more official writers . . . He was an incredible person. He never finished high school, and he knew more about French literature than anyone else, but he didn’t know French. He was incredible.

DB: And so are there now people who write under his influence in Chile, who use collage, etc. . . ?

RZ: I think there are some who intend now to write like him, but no one is really able to do it, because he was extremely structured. And so those who try to write like him don’t have the patience for the structure. I think there is only one writer, a young writer, who has taken Juan Luis Martínez and used his influence well. His name is Andrés Fischer; a young writer, well young for me; he was born in 1971. He constructed a poetry that is syllogistic, influenced a bit by me and a bit by Juan Luis Martínez, but he’s different.

DB: You spoke a bit about the cow poems. Reading your work, one notices the use of nature and nature as a way of talking about political and cultural ideas, of talking about something other than nature. How did this happen?

RZ: For me this is a mystery. It’s a mystery, I don’t know. The truth is, I’m a city person. I began to feel at one point that in the face of the violence and horror, nature had something permanent. That this existed before and it will exist afterwards. But why? But why so obsessively? I don’t know.

DB: I think this is something that continues to exist in your work, even in your latest book, In Memoriam. Well, on the same subject the poems from La Vida Nueva that you wrote in the sky—how did this idea come about?

RZ: That idea came about in the most desperate time of my life. I got the idea far before it happened, in 1975; it was at the time I burned my face and then I remembered that when I was a kid, a really young kid, I remembered having seen an airplane write the name of a soap in the sky. I didn’t know if it was a dream or if I had really seen it because it was an extremely old memory. . . . And so then it occurred to me that it would be beautiful to write in the sky. This was 1975 and I was totally desperate, but thinking about this helped me to stay OK. . . .I thought about this, and I was able to escape from the horrors of life.

DB: And in practice, how did this function? How did you find pilots?

RZ: Originally, we tried to do it with the Chilean Air Force, because I thought that if these same guys who bombed La Moneda (the presidential palace) for their government are capable of writing a poem in the sky, then it would prove that art would be capable of changing the world. Of course, it didn’t happen. The idea went as far up as a commandante. Then we had some friends who were in the U.S. And I wrote to them and asked if they knew of any agencies that wrote advertisements in the skies with airplanes. And so how it happened . . . it was crazy. I had never even been in an airplane. But we arranged it all. Today I wouldn’t be able to do it. It was through pure passion. We were able to get it filmed entirely for free. We sold in advance an edition of Anteparaíso at a time when the dollar was extremely cheap in Chile, and so we came with a lot of money in dollars to finance it. It was totally demented. We came with the idea that we’d get it all done and return in three days, but the weather didn’t cooperate. We were dying of hunger at the end of it.

DB: And where did you stay?

RZ: We stayed in the apartment of . . . well, I came with Diamela Eltit and another person from CADA (Colectivo de acciones de arte), Lotty Rosenfeld and she had some relatives who lived in the United States.

DB: Can you talk a little bit about CADA? When did it begin? Who was in it?

RZ: CADA began in 1979, and it lasted until 1983. It was myself, Diamela Eltit [and] Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, who were both visual artists. And what we did, we called them Art Actions: they were really happenings, political art against the dictatorship and in public places. It was an interesting time.

DB: And were there times when the military or the police responded?

RZ: We were very adept. Everything we did, we did with permission, but we never really stated what we were going to do. For example, we managed to get 10 milk trucks (from Soprole [Sociedad de Productores de Leche]), and when we got them out we completely re-painted them; it cost the manager his job. But they could never catch us. Once, five minutes after we left a bus full of soldiers showed up; we did an action in front of the CEPAL [Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe], a UN building in Chile. And we did them, and we were able to do things that were very powerful.

DB: So if history were different and they had shown up five minutes earlier, what would have happened?

RZ: It would have been bad. . . . I don’t know how bad it would have been.

DB: But wasn’t there some protection in being a public figure?

RZ: No, not at all. And at that time I was completely unknown.

DB: Another of your books that’s coming out in English this year is INRI, translated by William Rowe [Note: published in 2009 by Merick Press].

RZ: INRI and Song for His Disappeared Love are my most powerful books, the most politically direct of my books. They are two very connected books. One (Song) was written during the dictatorship, while the other was written after the dictatorship when it was announced by the government that many bodies had been thrown into the sea.

DB: What was year was this?

RZ: This was published in 2003.

DB: And when did the government announce about the bodies thrown in the sea?

RZ: 2002. Everyone knew this already.

DB: And so are you writing now?

RZ: The truth is that Canto a Su Amor, INRI,and In Memoriam are all part of one larger book that I am now finishing. It’s about 700 pages. I just finished it. It’s not an anthology: it’s a new work that incorporates some previously published pieces.

DB: It appears to me that you have relationships with younger writers in Chile. What interesting directions do you see their writing going in?

RZ: I’m really interested in younger writers. They’re able to realize a world that I can’t access. And so they awake in me an enormous curiosity. I think they’re invading the forms to come. And there are some extraordinary writers, but who come with a different critique. They’re freer in this sense, and this has to do with the Internet. They don’t have our same fear of the blank page, and in this group there are two or three whom I really admire, not because they are young but as poets, and they impress me because in our neo-liberal Chile that wishes to be a model for Latin America, these writers realize the inferno that this is. They’re political poets, political in the deepest sense of the world. They are truly giving voice to the social state; these writers, and [José Angel] Cuevas.

DB: We’ve spoken about Héctor Hernández Montecinos. Who are some others?

RZ: Diego Ramírez Gajardo. Pablo Paredes. Felipe Ruiz. Paula Ilabaca. Gladys González. And somewhat differently, a bit older: Rafael Rubio, Germán Carrasco. They’re very interesting writers.

DB: And for these younger writers that you mention, how does the era of the dictatorship enter into their work, or does it?

RZ: These writers are talking more about the horrors of the post-dictatorship years.

DB: And I think that the horrors of the post-dictatorship years, at least economically, come out of Pinochet’s economic project.

Sunday Morning
By Raúl Zurita

Translated By Anna Deeny

Over the cliffs of the hillside: the sun
then below in the valley
the earth covered with flowers
Zurita enamored friend
takes in the sun of photosynthesis
Zurita will now never again be friend
since 7 P.M. it’s been getting dark

Night is the insane asylum of the plants


Enclosed with the four walls of
a bathroom: I looked up at the ceiling
and began to clean the walls and
the floor the sink all of it
You see: Outside the sky was God
and he was sucking at my soul —believe me!
I wiped my weeping eyes


In the narrow broken bed
restless all night
like a spent candle lit again
I thought I saw Buddha many times
At my side I felt a woman’s gasp for air
but Buddha was only the pillows
and the woman is sleeping the eternal dream


Today I dreamed that I was King
they were dressing me in black-and-white spotted pelts
Today I moo with my head about to fall
as the church bells’ mournful clanging
says that milk goes to market


They’ve shaved my head
they’ve dressed me in these gray wool rags
—Mom keeps on smoking
I am Joan of Arc

They catalog me on microfilm


The glass is transparent like water
Dread of prisms and glass
I circle the light so as not to lose myself in them

Raúl Zurita, from “Sunday Morning” from Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny. Copyright © 2009 by Raúl Zurita. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.

Source: Purgatory (University of California Press, 2009)

The Desert of Atacama V
By Raúl Zurita

Translated By Anna Deeny
Speak of the whistle of Atacama
the wind erases like snow
the color of that plain

i. The Desert of Atacama soared over infinities of
deserts to be there

ii. Like the wind feel it pass whistling through the
leaves of the trees

iii. Look at it become transparent faraway and just
accompanied by the wind

iv. But be careful: because if ultimately the Desert
of Atacama where not where it should be the
whole world would begin to whistle through the
leaves of the trees and when we’d see ourselves
in the same never transparent whistles
in the wind swallowing the color of this pampa

Raúl Zurita, “The Desert of Atacama V” from Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny. Copyright © 2009 by Raul Zurita. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.

Source: Purgatory (University of California Press, 2009)

The Desert of Atacama VI
By Raúl Zurita

Translated By Anna Deeny
Arid plains do not dream
No one has ever managed to see
Those chimerical pampas

i. The landscapes are convergent and divergent in the
Desert of Atacama

ii. Over the convergent and divergent landscape Chile
is convergent and divergent in the Desert of Atacama

iii. That’s why what’s there never was there and if it
were to stay where it is it would see its own life turn
around until being the chimerical plains deserted
enlightened fading away like them

iv. And when the convergent and divergent landscapes
of the Desert of Atacama unfold themselves
all of Chile will have been the life beyond because
unlike Atacama they are already extending themselves
like a dream the deserts of our own chimera
over there in these plains of hell

Raúl Zurita, “The Desert of Atacama VI” from Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny. Copyright © 2009 by Raúl Zurita. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.

Source: Purgatory (University of California Press, 2009)

At Knickerbocker & Cornelia:
2 laundromats, two rotisserie
chicken eateries, Dolceria & Bakery:
sugar-dust breads and cake.
The Alex Luncheonette looked
interesting, buffet pans you
could point to and they scoop
it to hand over in styrofoam.
Near the elevated M crossing
over the L on massive steel
trestles at Myrtle & Wycoff.
Ridgewood Intermodal Terminal:
if you had to get the Q55,
Q58, B13, B26, B52, and B54
buses, if you knew where
they were going. -Spot “A”:
B13 to Williamsburg (stop)
-Spot “B”: Q55 to Jamaica (terminal)
-Spot “C”: B54 to Downtown Bklyn (terminal)
-Spot “D”: Drop-off only
-Spot “E”: B52 to Downtown Bklyn (terminal)
-Spot “F”: B13 to Spring Creek (stop)
& B26 to Downtown Bklyn (terminal)
-Spot “G”: Q58 to Flushing
—a lot of burglar bars on
Cornelia, Knickerbocker gnashing
with a big trash truck beside the blue
“Time Flies: History of Bushwick”
mural on the school cement. All
stray lives speaking into others,
inflecting the air with brash
indifference. In the glare of daylight
stars, stars, stars… in cold fire
fall along the avenues, but the M
clatters loud and who could know.

September 2011