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I am sitting on stage like a musician or technician or something while the PA plays Elton John’s Tiny Dancer with the strings from 1971. “Ballerina, have you seen her/ …Hold me closer tiny dancer, count the headlights on the highway,” etc. How long has it been since you thought about this song and had to listen to it? Like the bar in Iowa City where they used to play Simon & Garfunkel songs from 1969. At least it gives you some idea of what’s going on. I’m sitting facing the wall with some bad art on it. Who would mind if you croaked out, “Blue jean baby, L.A. lady… Hold me closer tiny dancer!” Perfect Neil Youngaloid lyrics of the 70s. And those strings. Orchestra wailing, “count the headlights on the highway… you had a busy day today.” When is this thing gonna start?
GOES BY THE NAME TOYOTACORLLA 1970 WONT START IN THE RAIN, ITS RAINY A LOT, DIRTY WINDSHIELD COVERED WITH MUD, GREENERY IN THE SCENERY, DENTED FRONT END BAD STEERING BOX FRONT WHEELS WOBBLE LIKE CRAZY AT HIGH SPEEDS PEOPLE WILL POINT TO THEM WHEN YOU ARE ON THE FREEWAY OF SEATTLE, TWILIGHT OR MURKY AFTERNOON, IT WAS STOLEN FROM THE PARKING LOT AT CSULA ON DECEMBER 7, THE DAY THAT WILL LIVID INFAMY, MY SISTER LEARNED HOW TO DRIVE IN THAT THING WHY IT WAS DENTED SKY BLUE SHE DROVE IT OVER THE CONCRETE BLOCKS IN PARKING LOTS, CURBS OR CRASHED PARKED CARS, THANKS—ALSO, THIS DOG MIGHT STILL BE BE IN IT, BARKING AT THE PEOPLE
call me if you recognize it when you see it 202-225-4931
call me ana mendieta someday soon 202-225-2901
call me i like a dog black and white 202-225-3261
call me about a free trip to alaska or siberia 202-225-4876
call me becuz or else i will probly forget 202-225-4801
call me when you find out about it 202-225-4921
call me my secret name is john brown 202-225-5765
call me i hear a whisper high in the trees 202-225-2315
call me please call me today or tomorrow 202-225-2635
call me we have $2 million rand in your name in south africa 202-225-2190
call me this is not a trick or a joke its real 202-225-4576
call me you wont regret it i’ll tell the truth 202-225-4076
call me like a loggerhead sea turtle baby 202-225-2506
call me i was looking at a car on fire 202-225-4301
call me i have something to say to you 202-225-3772
call me for the taste of chokecherries and sheep’s sorrel 202-225-3076
call me i am looking at you right now in a binocular 202-225-2511
call me i feel the soft white fur like a dog’s breath 202-225-5861
call me after you get finished shooting to kill 202-225-4540
call me for further information at this # 202-225-4695
call me under the sea under the ocean 202-225-2523
call me in the future it is here 202-225-2915
call me if you have seen this dog 202-225-1956
call me only from the nearest phone booth 202-225-3201
check it out here:
HE PUNCHED THE BUTTON IN THE ELEVATOR HE SWABBED MY ARM AND TOOK MY BLOOD
Death cannot catch me.
Because i dont have time.
I am rushing to the periodontist
office. I am late for appt becuz
i lost the pinche x rays. I caught
the girl by chance. She was
supposed to be gone. But she
kindly printed copies. Then i drove
fast thru traffic up lake ave texting
this no time to stop for death.
Look at these x rays look at
Sesshu Foster’s latest work, World Ball Notebook (City Lights, 2008), is a collection of prose poems structured around a soccer motif. The poems in WBN are titled “Game 1,” “Game 2,” etc., and Foster uses the game as an entry into everything from Mayan history to the landscape of contemporary southern California. In WBN, using the hybrid style that Foster has perfected over the years in books like City Terrace Field Manual (Kaya/Muae, 1996) and his novelistic debut Atomik Aztex (City Lights, 2005), the poet meditates on community and loneliness, family and friendship, work, and the writer’s life, among other topics.
Sesshu Foster was the first person who came to mind when we decided to focus on soccer for Global Graffiti’s inaugural issue. In the interview that follows, the prolific East L.A.-based writer, activist, and teacher riffs on soccer, poetic form, community-building, and politics. And we only scratched the surface!
A: The soccer motif indexes the decade that I documented in the book: it’s a thread that runs through that period, when I was teaching full time at Hollenbeck Junior High School in East L.A., I was English department chair, I was union representative, I was writing several books, I was raising three kids, I was doing karate 15 to 20 hours per week, I was engaged in community activism in East L.A., doing anti-war work and organizing cultural events, including a community center called Cafe Cultural. It was a crazy period of big dreams and very little sleep. My kids wanted to participate in soccer, so of course I thought, “Oh no, not another thing to take care of”—3 evenings per week hanging out in the park at soccer practice and all day Saturday or Sunday attending soccer games. I worked out with my wife that I would have one weekend day per week for writing time. But of course, these demands and duties sometimes turn out to be the best things ever, a better experience than the big plans we make ourselves. That’s the way soccer turned out for me. I’m no soccer fanatic, they didn’t have youth soccer when I was a kid, so I never played, but soccer turned out to be terrific fun times I spent with my kids, my own kids.
At the same time, Ruben Martinez asked me to co-sponsor a poetry writing workshop for teenagers at Hollenbeck Jr. High, and that was another activity I felt I didn’t need. But after seven years mentoring teen writers and watching them go from 13 years old to 20, some of them, workshopping their writing, taking them to perform public readings at street fairs, radio stations and literary venues around the city, I watched them use poetry to change their lives—that’s something we as writers may have only heard about. These kids focused on that essentially useful aspect of poetry—to express what’s most important in your own life—and they used writing as a ticket out of their own neighborhood (which many otherwise never left), out of their limited opportunities on the Eastside, used it to meet people across the city, and apply for performing arts summer school programs at local colleges and summer jobs—one student wrote an essay that got her a free trip to Spain from the Spanish consulate and went on to get an MFA in Creative Writing. Years later in 2007 as I was returning from the Mexico City Book Fair, trying to get through the Mexico City airport on a broken ankle, carrying my bag badly with crutches, I bumped into one of the teen poets, now grown up, by chance also passing through the airport, who took my bag and carried it for me. She hesitated to admit that she didn’t write poetry anymore, but she’d used her writing skills to get a broadcast journalism degree, and is now a TV news producer. It turned out these demands and duties that were asked of me above and beyond my paid jobs, or “official requirements” of anything, were the most rewarding ones. Maybe because they involved kids, my own and others. So that’s what soccer meant to me, in that decade. That decade is over; my kids grew up, they no longer play organized soccer, they went on to college, and I miss those evenings and days standing on the sidelines in the park—the smell of grass and sweat and footfalls pounding the earth.
Soccer, the game itself, playing on a team and attending games, also has figurative meanings and allusive or metaphoric functions in the book. I don’t want to outline them for the reader or underline any lines and say “pay special attention to this part here, this is the best part.” It’s true that the first team sport played with a rubber ball ever recorded was the Mesoamerican ballgame played by Mayans and other indigenous cultures, across a region stretching from Arizona (where there are stone ball courts north of Flagstaff) down into Guatemala, and that this game, still played in northwestern Mexico and called ulama, used to be played in empty lots in downtown Los Angeles until a few years ago.
Q: In a previous interview, you suggested that you like the prose poem because of its ability to represent a variety of different voices/positions in a way the traditional lyric may not. Can you say a little about this? We have in mind something Muriel Rukeyser wrote in her Life of Poetry about poetry being about community-building…
A: Part of the function of Walt Whitman’s (and of course Allen Ginsberg’s) long lines, built on anaphora and rhythmic parallelism, is a cataloguing description of the city and the urban experience. When I was younger this seemed easily the most dispensable or dismissable aspect of their work. Now I think seems much more necessary, and if “exterior” or materialist in its own way, suggestive all the same of subtle or mysterious democratic functions and reconfigurations accomplished in their poetics. I was originally very skeptical about the privileging of white space and enjambments around “broken prose” lines in the confessional or pastoral lyric poem prominent in academia from the 1950s through the1980s. Beat, street and populist leftist performance poets adopted the same kind of flush-left poetry mannerisms when publishing their poems. Critics pointed out that breaking lines arbitrarily doesn’t turn automatically prose into poetry, and I had reservations about people snapping sentences into separate lines in a purely decorative manner, based on some vague sense that if it “looks like a poem” it’s going to walk like a poem, it will “be” a poem. I was suspicious of that. A lot of the conversational phrasing or phraseology laid out flush left on the page that’s obvious in Carl Sandburg or Charles Bukowski (to pick obvious examples) consists not so much of substantive prosody and more just a kind of mannered shorthand. It doesn’t bother me all that much as a reader, really—when Sandburg or Bukowski are very good they are very good no matter how the lines are laid out—they engage in speaking directly to the reader in ways that obscurantist experimenters all the rage in academia these days seem unable to do, because poets trapped in ivory towers don’t use poems for that essential purpose: to communicate, to build community. (Or maybe they define community narrowly as “tenure committee,” etc.)
Insofar as craft and poetics in a poem have a politics, I wanted to avoid that brittle enjambed-prose-sentence-lyric verse, where you have standard sentences snapped off and scattered decoratively across the page (which I might go out on a limb and say was characteristic of some leftist poets, Beat poets, street poets and populist poets of the 70s and 80s—all of whom I basically view as comrades, I should probably say, to this day) and on the other hand I also wanted my poetics to operate differently than those more right-wing academics—in practice—even if in their poems or statements they proclaim public leftist views or ideas—they remain academic poets, operating in elite university-supported circles, institutionalized and reading before institutional audiences, awarding grants and awards to each other, sitting on each other’s grants panels, awards and tenure committees, as Philip Levine admitted in an interview in Don’t Ask, “giving prizes to friends.” Their poetics reflects a lack of democracy in their practice as poets, the lack of a democratic poetics, in my opinion. The prose poem as I finessed or finagled it, jerry-rigged and duct-taped it together allowed for use and inclusion of caesura without enjambment, allowed for use and inclusion of other techniques without standard (or even standard “experimental”) poetics and practice. I structured prose poems so as to allow for ample inclusion of wide-ranging language from diverse sources, diverse registers, diverse voices. Within the lines, and the sentences and the language, I wanted represented the democracy of the street, of my community, of our body politic.
Whitman made similar claims for poetry as Rukeyser, and accomplished a great deal of it in his work. Communication, common, community—they have the same root. In his essay, “Democratic Vistas,” Whitman wrote,
It really seems to me the condition, not only of our future national and democratic development, but of our perpetuation. In the highly artificial and materialistic bases of modern civilization, with the corresponding arrangements and methods of living, the force-infusion of intellect alone, the depraving influences of riches just as much as poverty, the absence of all high ideals in character – with the long series of tendencies, shapings, which few are strong enough to resist, and which now seem, with steam-engine speed, to be everywhere turning out the generations of humanity like uniform iron castings – all of which, as compared with the feudal ages, we can yet do nothing better than accept, make the best of, and even welcome, upon the whole, for their oceanic practical grandeur, and their restless wholesale kneading of the masses – I say of all this tremendous and dominant play of solely materialistic bearings upon current life in the United States, with the results as already seen, accumulating, and reaching far into the future, that they must either be confronted and met by at least an equally subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine esthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness – or else our modern civilization, with all its improvements, is in vain, and we are on the road to a destiny, a status, equivalent, in its real world, to that of the fabled damned.
Whitman refers to some purposes of poetry as “spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine esthetics… primal manliness and womanliness.” Maybe in the 21st century we’d call these ideas and values by other terms. William Carlos Williams suggested that for lack of what is found in poetry that human beings die daily, and of course Williams worked throughout his adult life as a doctor, witness to illness and death in the community where he chose to live and work. And, in his long poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Allen Ginsberg described America during the height of its Vietnam War as “that fabled damned” of nations, suggesting that the U.S. had already gone far down that “solely materialistic” road Whitman warned about.
Q: Could you elaborate a bit on this idea of spiritualization and how poetry can work toward that goal. You mention that we might use different language than Whitman’s in the 21st century to talk about the non-materialistic values that can be furthered by poetry. What kinds of terms do you think we might use in the 21st century to talk about those values? Do we need to name those terms? Why poetry? What is in poetry that can resist this spiritual/social decay?
A: I think that poets define their own terms and values in their work. That’s “why poetry.” It’s the cutting edge of language—it’s most personal, most intimate, most direct language. Even objective reportage like Mark Nowak’s book on the crisis in coal mining and the risks for miners underground, Coal Mountain Elementary, projects a kind of intimate working class poetics that I think would be difficult to find anywhere outside of theater, or perhaps folk music. I see poets at their best as working on the cutting edge of language, defining new terms and values, redefining old categories of thinking and feeling. In my case for example, I was part of discussions where political activists, artists and writers voiced impatience with the recycling of hyphenated racial political identity categories of the 1970s, along with related political and cultural concepts which had a necessity and a currency in the 60s and 70s that they no longer attend. It’s 2010, and a lot of those terms and concepts are still recycled in the national discourse, for example where Barack Obama is called the “first Black president,” not the first Hawaiian-born president, not the first mixed-race president. In the 1990s it was widely apparent that terms like “multicultural” for example had limited usefulness, if any at all, along with a lexicon of similar terms and ideas left over from decades ago, recycled like the marketing categories you may still encounter on books, “women’s literature,” “Native American Literature,” etc. The multiple registers, hybrid forms and language mix in my books come from that half-breed/hapa experience of growing up in various and mixed communities, in no way neatly encapsulated behind any single identity label, and therefore almost entirely excluded from the discourse, from any recognition or representation to this day. My work attempts a poetics that aims at (in Whitman’s words) “subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine esthetics” by attempting to articulate as only poetry and literature can: our secret, erased or denied histories, the fleeting awareness of actual experience as it is lived, our conflicted and irregular characters. The terrain of literature is the invisible and unspoken: interiority, relationships, thoughts, feelings. Poetry addresses these directly and I believe when it articulates them with any success (whether by student poets or hobbyists, professional careerists or mavericks), resists the relentless materialism of our lives. It’s all good, in that sense.
Though it’s beside the point, I think that’s exactly why you can’t make money from poetry, but you can make money from war.
Q: Your poetry seems very much concerned with the idea of community in relationship to a specific local space. Can you say a little about your focus on locality?
A: These questions have a tight focus, at least for me, as there’s necessary and organic overlaps between all these concepts. My parents were both veterans (my father was in North Africa during World War 2) who met as art students studying on the G.I. bill. They were part of the 1950s West Coast Bohemian counterculture, married as Zen Buddhists and living for a time at Ken Kern’s Oakhurst property (he was author of the “Back to the Land” do-it-yourself manuals that he published himself like The Owner-built Homestead and Self-sufficiency on One Acre), and they were reading Rexroth’s poetry and translations of Japanese poetry, studying D. T. Suzuki and listening to Saburo Hasegawa’s lectures in San Francisco, painting Abstract Expressionism with house paint on plywood and getting sloshed on wine at parties from Bay Area to L.A. Books like On the Road make that kind of life seem like a never-ending party, but as a kid growing up half on the road all the time, it was no fun. The frantic Beat quest for new experiences over the next horizon, even if couched in the vocabulary of spiritual seeking, seemed like the spiritual equivalent of the frantic consumerism of consumer society. Instead of endless consumption of gadgets, physical comforts and material goods, the seekers in the counterculture seemed embarked on endless consumption of mental trips and delusions, fantastic dreams and schemes, chasing thrills and illusions as empty of substance as Coca-cola and TV dinners, victory in Vietnam or getting rich by selling Amway products. My dad, when he ran out of road, when the ideas didn’t pan out and times got tough, just drank more and more. It got to be about that more than anything.
I was interested in a politics of place because we’d spent so much time on the road. When my mom had enough and finally split up with him, I was eight years old, and she drove us from Northern California to Los Angeles. Later I found out that dad had broken her nose and her hand and then he smashed every piece of furniture in the house. Before we drove away, I watched the cops cuffing my dad on the highway that ran in front of our house. When he saw me looking at him, as his hands were cuffed, he grinned at me. I never asked him why he had destroyed our house and hurt our mother; in my experience, he didn’t remember much at times like that. That was the end for my parents.
We stayed for awhile with one of mom’s brothers at his house in City Terrace, in East L.A. The year was 1965, with the Watts riots on TV, National Guardsmen firing tracer bullets from machineguns into buildings and neighborhoods on fire. Even as a kid, I could see I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I’ve been studying the place ever since. The neighborhoods, how they fit into this city, how it all articulates in some essential way, with some essential finality, either “the air-conditioned American nightmare” or “American Dream.” It was obvious when I was a kid, also, that TV and other media presented nothing of the reality of the city east of the river. Prototypical L.A. movies like Blade Runner or Chinatown purport to tell the story of Los Angeles nationally and internationally use the essential ethnic character of the city and of the “minorities” that make up the majority of the citizens as one-dimensional foils for a white cast. Perhaps not even that, perhaps minority characters are more like shadows, attached to two dimensional white characters to give them an illusion of depth. Tonto to the Lone Ranger, silly black sidekick to the white cop, etc.—“Forget it, Jack, it’s Chinatown.” Given that kind of media representation, it was not strange to me that more than 10,000 men, women and children could be murdered in this city between 1985 and 1995 (according to a Harvard Medical School study) while during the same period, during the Irish “troubles,” some 3,000 were murdered in Northern Ireland (according to the Irish Times), and 1,500 died through violence in Israel (according to an Israeli government website) while that country remained in a state of war with its neighbors, yet 10,000 murders of mostly citizens of color, many of them children, was treated with callous disregard (either in total silence or complete lack of any action whatsoever) in our own country by government leaders, state and national leaders. Like the “body count” given for Vietnamese casualties on TV and in newspapers during the Vietnam War, the attitude displayed by the society showed fundamental contempt for the lives of the people I grew up with in East L.A. (This same more or less numerical attitude is shown toward Iraqi and Afghani civilian deaths during the current wars.) My work, teaching, activism, writing and books, have all mostly taken place in East L.A., within a couple adjacent neighborhoods along the 10 San Bernardino freeway. You know, for a number of years, I thought that most of those efforts were wasted. The students grow up and move away, the events we organized (such as bringing Salvadoran writers Manlio Argueta and Claribel Alegria to read in Boyle Heights) are long forgotten, the venues we organized are gone and forgotten, the wars go on, gang wars and drug wars come and gone and foreign wars going on and on, the schools are getting worse again due to budget cutbacks, etc. But I was giving a reading at Avenue 50 Gallery in Highland Park recently, and the realization struck me that there are more neighborhood coffeeshops, galleries and venues than ever on the Eastside; if you drive First Street, where Cafe Cultural only lasted a couple years, if that, across from Hollenbeck police station, on the same blocks there’s Casa 0101 Theater that was founded by Josefina Lopez, giving classes in theater arts to young people from the area, there’s art galleries and Abel Salas’s community magazine, Brooklyn and Boyle, and his art gallery and performance space, along with Eastsideluv, with its performance space where you might catch an open mic poetry reading or Gloria Alvarez reading love poems or Ruben Guevara (of Ruben and the Jets) jamming with former members of the Doors or new Eastside bands, or Willie Herron of Los Illegals. I realized that just because I wasn’t dreaming it, it didn’t mean that the dream was gone. I left the reading feeling great, thinking that that dream of community could go on independent of me forever. The dream goes on dreaming itself.
Q: Several of the pieces in World Ball Notebook contain reflections on writers and the writing process; the book also includes a couple of pieces by other poets [ed. note: WBN contains short pieces by Lisa Chen, Ruben Mendoza, and Jen Hofer]. Can you talk a bit about how you see the role(s) of the writer?
A: I’ve mentioned in my books and in some of my responses given here how, besides just staying home to write, that I spent years doing all kinds of extraneous activities, marching in protest demonstrations, chairing meetings, planting trees in Nicaragua or traveling as a representative to the International Book Fair in Managua, traveling regularly across the West, sometimes on book tours on the West Coast or East Coast, tearing the guts out of one house and remodeling it, running workshops for aspiring writers, teen and adult, in East L.A. and downtown, raising my own kids, doing my chores around the house (one of the poems in my last book was written in my mind one October 8th, the day Che Guevara was killed in 1967, as I was thinking about his heroic failure and what it might possibly mean at this date—while washing the dishes—writing the poem in my head with my hands in warm soapy water). But I’d have to say that I think all those activities and the activism and most of the work I do is completely beside the point. The role of the writer is, in some way shape or form, just to write in the best way she or he can. Fundamentally and basically, that’s it. I believe that it’s enough. I am a restless person and I have drank 569,842 cups of coffee and drove the night streets for hours trying to think of quiet places I could drive around in my mind (and in my dreams I have dreamt that I drive down those avenues and streets), and I have pushed my stalled car off the freeway and up and down a side street between warehouses in the pouring rain until it started, and I have driven over the 101 freeway with a cup of coffee eating a hamburger with one hand while taking photographs of the downtown skyline with my left hand while at the same time steering my car with one knee. I know for a fact that this is not the right way to go about it.
My writing would be better if I was less busy in my spirit and my mind. If I wasn’t distracted by wars and riots and traffic, with the music turned up full blast, my books would be easier to read and make more sense. Writing is important enough, poetry is important and useful enough, to do on its own, for its own sake. The writer, the poet, gives essential expression to useful truths not found anywhere else in the community, that are necessary for the common life of that community. I believe that as Whitman suggests, that the writer and the poet serves “purposes for spiritualization…or else modern civilization, with all its improvements, is in vain”—especially when the rulers of the civilization are spending untold hundreds of billions of dollars to slaughter 900,000 Iraqis and who knows how many Afghanis and doesn’t give a damn about what happens to the children in the streets of L.A. and people in these neighborhoods and all the neighborhoods in cities like L.A.
Q: Could you say more about the relationship between writing, work, and political involvement? This comes up a bit when you talk about William Carlos Williams who worked as a physician and also when you talk about your teaching experiences and your involvement in extraneous activities. Are those really extraneous? I’m thinking also about your comment that “The writer, the poet, gives essential expression to useful truths not found anywhere else in the community, that are necessary for the common life of the community.” Perhaps there’s a necessary tension here between an artist’s involvement in the community and the need to have some distance from it (some quiet) in order to express those unexpressed truths?
A: Ah, I think there’s a high degree of tension involved in rushing around to do three different activities at once. Is all this activity extraneous? Probably not. You have a necessity to make money and pay your bills, get exercise and fresh air, enjoy yourself, make babies, cook and do the dishes, do your chores, STOP THE FUCKING WARS, stand up for yourself and your people, etc. Everybody will tell you everything else is more important than sitting around by yourself thinking and writing. If they see you sitting on the couch with a far-off look in your eyes, they’re gonna say, hey, help me carry something. Can you jump start my car? Can you donate some of your books to the library? You have to replace the rotten part of the deck. Somebody called and said call them back.
Sometimes I write a poem in my mind while washing the dishes or going on a hike, lots of times I discuss the politics of language with imaginary friends while driving down the boulevard or across the state. I’m always thinking about these issues, but sooner or later it comes down to sitting down somewhere by myself to write. Otherwise the writing won’t get done. I don’t think it’s too complicated. Really. What are the obvious and apparent necessary things to do? They are all material necessities, materialist. What is the denied, secret, hidden thing that you nevertheless must do in spite of the whole material world breathing down your neck 24/7? You must think, read and write. And when poets engage in that activity for themselves, in their way, they’re giving a gift of themselves and doing so for others who cannot.
It’s up to any artist to articulate the necessity for their art, because other people can’t do it for you. It’s that personal.
Sesshu Foster: Bibliography
World Ball Notebook (City Lights, 2008)
State of the Union: Fifty Political Poems, eds. Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder (Wave Books, 2008)
Atomik Aztex (City Lights, 2005)
City Terrace Field Manual (Kaya/Muae, 1996)
Invocation L.A.: Urban Multicultural Poetry, eds. Michelle T. Clinton, Sesshu Foster, and Naomi Quiñonez (West End Press, 1989)
Angry Days (West End Press, 1987)
To think that they want to foist that vision of Reality on the rest of us. That’s the insult. Barbarik, cheap aesthetik based on flimsy Mechanistik notion of the ominverse as a Swiss watch set to ticking by some sort of Trinity […] Luckily we Aztex believe in circular concepts of time, cyklikal konceptions of the universe.
Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex (2005)
It is 1979. Workers digging Mexico City’s subway line in Zócalo Square unearth yet another multi-tonne book-sculpture left behind by the Aztecs. This pre-Hispanic hard disc details the god Huitzilopochtli’s premature birth, ‘a kind of reverse caesarean’ as John Ross explains in his book El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2009). Huitzilopochtli, ‘The Hummingbird of the Left Hand’ – Aztec god of sun, war and human sacrifice – maintained an agonistic relationship with narrative sequence even then, cutting his way out of his mother’s womb to prevent being murdered before he was born. He told the Mexica people to stop travelling and to build a city when they saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a nopal cactus. The illustration on the Mexican flag depicts this prophecy.
Now it is 1519. Aliens have reached Tenochtitlán with their microbes and decivilizing technology. They speak Spanish. These aliens eventually destroy the temple where human hearts were given to Huitzilopochtli and erect a cathedral in its place. The structure begins sinking before it is fully built. Today a flag of Freudian proportions towers over Zócalo Square in Tenochtitlán – now Mexico City – waving Huitzilopochtli’s fever dream from the heart of a nation-state the hummingbird god foretold and will outlast. The god’s wings move so fast that they exit the category of speed to appear in a cloudlike blur, hovering in place, defying linear history. It’s as though our world darts through Huitzilopochtli rather than the reverse.
Nowadays, indigenous Mexicans dressed as Indians busk in Zócalo Square. Their flute-and-drum music has the timeless feel of folklore, music as repetition rather than innovation or ritual. Musician Javier Estrada works with the same pre-Colombian instruments, but instead of reproducing tourist schmaltz, he embeds their ancient sound into Internet-native dance music genres, drawing on indigenous iconography while adapting Aztec-inspired notions of cyclical time.
The 25-year old DJ/producer from Monterrey, Mexico, got his start as a heavy metal drummer. Since going solo, Estrada has written more than 700 tracks, roughly 430 songs in the past three years. His work recognizes that most of the social, geographical and historical forces that shaped ideas of genre last century cannot be transferred across the narrow bandwidth of cloud-stored musical conversations in the 21st century – where clicking a slightly different snare drum pattern on a screen is sufficient to transform a song from one style to another. Estrada uses a wealth of regional Mexican genres (his beloved pre-Hispanic, norteño, banda, cumbia, danzón, tribal guarachero, bolero, mariachi …) to frame explorations of international club sounds (primarily moombahton, dubstep, pop hits and, as of late, dance-rap). Although his work circulates in digital networks, it foregoes standard approaches to musical contemporaneity to inhabit a version of Huitzilopochtli’s non-linear float.
One of DJ culture’s most common maxims states that the act of remixing old or ethnic music operates as a bridge connecting folkloric sounds to ecumenical dancefloors around the world. When done correctly, the story goes, reverence and renewal unite in a single gesture that makes the old new. Estrada’s music suggests otherwise. His Norteño Step EP (2012) pits classic norteño ballads against dubstep. Estrada wrote Norteño Step for his father – inverting the expectation that remixes are for the kids. Instead of viewing regional sounds as something to be updated into this season’s beat patterns via the remix process, Norteño Step uses norteño as the main attraction, catalyst for an intergenerational dialogue, and possibly the only way to get his father to come near aggressive dubstep.
Estrada’s 2012 remix of the classic ‘No Hay Novedad’ by Los Cadetes de Linares alternates their bright accordion stabs with gnarly electronic bass riffs – equally loud, equally jarring. Weepy cowboy music and distorted rave sonics tussle without relief or subordination. As is often the case with Estrada, the song name reminds us what’s happening: their original title translates as ‘Nothing New Here’. Remixing a famous song about stalled-out time becomes less about refurbishing old sounds for the young and more about putting different temporalities in dialogue.
Estrada’s soundworld resonates with Sesshu Foster’s 2005 novel Atomik Aztex. Its protagonist slips between two parallel realities: the cyclical time of the ‘Aztex’ (in which the Aztecs defeated the Spanish and went on to become a global superpower) and the flimsy European notion of linear time (in which the protagonist is a poor dude working at an east Los Angeles slaughterhouse). One of the main effects of Foster’s novel is how its shattered worldview encourages alternative readings of everything from undocumented worker realities to the Aztec imagery embraced by Estrada.
Take ‘Aztecs vs Aliens’, from his 2012 album Ritmos del Mundo vol. 6. This is tribal guarachero (a synthesis of Mexican roots music and electro-house, popularized by his former production partner Erick Rincon) at its most dissonant. Atonal blasts offset by rhythmic subtleties dramatize the title’s tension. A dark cinematic feel suggests that this song soundtracks legendary warriors fighting sci-fi baddies – the Aztec pyramid in the film Alien vs Predator (2004) comes to mind. But problems with aliens are real, starting with who’s considered to be one. With a nod to Foster, once we dispense with ideas of linear time, then whether or not an indigenous person on their ancestral lands of Texas/Aztlán is an Aztec citizen or an illegal alien is very much open to debate. Both Atomik Aztex and ‘Aztecs vs Aliens’ dramatize this debate; they amplify the friction of incompatible yet overlapping worldviews.
Huitzilopochtli has been a key figure of a neo-Aztec Weltanschauung since Oscar Zeta Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). The brilliant, riotous book draws upon autobiography, politics and fiction to chronicle Acosta’s real-life work defending Chicano militants in LA. The book opens with the line: ‘It is Christmas Eve in the year of Huitzilopochtli, 1969.’ The hummingbird god flits throughout the book – landing on business cards, entering into courtroom rhetoric and inspiring the activists, whose broadsheet is named La Voz de Huitzilopochtli (The Voice of Huitzilopochtli). Flutes trill, as a portentous voice speaks in Nahuatl during the breakdown of Estrada’s ‘Pre-Hispanic Moombahton Gods’ (2012). One word pops into legibility before the beat crashes back: ‘Huitzilopochtli’. Indigenous gods have been around a while; the surprising claim here is that they haven’t yet left. They get contrasted with moombahton, a young genre whose primary location is the Internet. In Estrada’s hands ‘Pre-Hispanic Moombahton Gods’ becomes neither anachronism nor pun but statement of intent, sounding out what happens when linear narratives fade and the loops take over.
Estrada composes with music software called FL Studio (a.k.a. FruityLoops). The programme is widely used among young producers in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. fl Studio promotes cyclical time: engaging the world not as a start-to-finish symphony but as a proliferation of loops. The DJ’s 700+ songs exist only as digital files – copies without originals. Roughly one percent of these songs are available for purchase. The rest can be downloaded, for free, until the ephemeral file-hosting links expire. MP3s are timeless insofar as they abstract songs from physical indicators of age. Further vexing chronological order, Estrada maintains no discography.
Estrada’s music complicates the narratives of newness or progress that propel global dance music. If there is no newness and everything has already happened then we can jettison related concepts like ‘original’ or ‘old’, and start listening to music in its promiscuous, iterative glory. Which is how Estrada and countless young musicians make it.
is a writer and musician based in New York, USA. His most recent project is Sufi Plug Ins, audio software tools dedicated to non-Western sounds.
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i was dropped off on a long highway that turned into an avenue, with two huge boxes each about the size of a kitchen table, and one extra suitcase. it was very late, which is to say in the predawn hours, so the streets were largely empty, and the house where i was going was on top of the hill somewhere, the hill dense with apartment buildings and houses under street lamps and stars, through which wound narrow streets. the boxes were not heavy at all, i could carry one at a time. but there was no way to carry two at a time, and a suitcase besides. as usual, i had to figure out a way. then i awoke in chico, calif., on a chilly morning at the thunderbird motel as the sunshine slanted down main street and melted the frost. and i had no boxes and a no suitcase to carry and everything was better already.