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by @etammykim September 6, 2015 5:30AM ET

As gentrification sweeps the city, Sesshu Foster has quietly become the poet laureate of a vanishing neighborhood

Sesshu Foster

Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — In this high-turnover city, the Eastside, more than the moneyed west, has seemed to hold on to its past. There are eccentric bungalows and blanched murals, and shopping corridors with the foot traffic and feel of a village market. Neighborhoods such as Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and City Terrace have thus far escaped the peculiar affliction of the upscale coffee shop. Their residents and business owners are still predominantly Latino and Asian, and largely working class — though perhaps not for long. According to trend-spotters, East LA is the molten core of gentrification, full of hipsterpreneurs with backing from friends in venture capital.

To see the real Eastside, ask the writer and teacher Sesshu Foster to take you on a little tour. He’ll pick you up downtown in his Toyota SUV, air conditioner whooshing, a Ry Cooder track pulsing. You’ll cross the LA River — thin puddles in a long concrete ditch — and keep going down Cesar Chavez, originally named Brooklyn Avenue by Jewish émigrés. Every few blocks, you’ll glimpse a faded mural and Foster will explain the story behind each one. If there’s graffiti, he’ll denounce the taggers’ “total disregard for their grandparents’ social art” in his unhurried Angeleno drawl.

Foster, 58, the author of four award-winning books of poetry and prose, is an encyclopedist by nature, the Diderot of the neighborhood. His writing is political, experimental and consistently local, even unfashionably so. A family man and full-time public school teacher, he’s never focused on self-promotion, yet he is praised within literary circles and counts U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, novelist Karen Tei Yamashita and poets Claudia Rankine and Amy Uyematsu among his friends and peers. Herrera says Foster might be better known if not for the day-to-day “pressure [on] working-class writers, writers of color… writing for the community.”

Sesshu Foster

Foster met Dolores Bravo, his wife and the mother of their three daughters, on a high school science trip. “Dolores bears no responsibility for books I publish, my ideas, the things I say in print or in public, … but none of the work I’ve done would have been done without our collectivity.”
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

The project currently on Foster’s mind is a multimedia, quasi-fictional history of East LA, which he’s compiling with his friend, artist Arturo Ernesto Romo-Santillano. Their research includes a lot of driving, walking, looking and talking, and so in March the three of us drove to Boyle Heights and parked in view of the Sears tower, an Art Deco complex slated for mixed-use redevelopment. We’d come to see the murals on the Estrada Courts, a grid of two-story public housing. “The Chicano movement always had artists as cultural ambassadors,” Foster said, gesturing at some their creations.

We passed walls depicting a pointing Che Guevara and a haloed Jesus on our way to the “Black and White Mural” by the renowned Chicano collective ASCO. In humble monochrome, abstract scenes from the Chicano Moratorium, the radical, Mexican-American movement against the Vietnam War, read like frames in a strip of film. Like ASCO, Foster and Romo-Santillano see their approach to art making as “by and for the people.” In a city “where everything gets constantly built over,” Foster described their experimental history of East LA — already more than five years’ work — as an attempt at salvage.


East LA is Foster’s assembly and holy land, where he was raised and where he raised his three daughters. Not far from the home he shares with his wife, Dolores Bravo, is the house in City Terrace that he and his six siblings grew up in, and where his mother, a 90-year-old second-generation Japanese American, still lives. She brought the kids to the neighborhood after leaving their father, an Anglo painter who was thudding his way through the Beat era.

The Eastside that groomed Foster in the 1960s and ’70s has little in common with the polished, commercially cool destination featured on food blogs or portrayed on “Maron,” comedian Marc Maron’s sitcom. As a kid in City Terrace, a rough neighborhood prone to violence, Foster neglected school and ran the streets with a Chicano gang, avoiding his abusive uncle and the chaos of home. Though he is hapa, half-Japanese and half-white, he came of age in a Mexican American milieu, at the cultural and political peak of Chicano activism.

Since his teenage years, Foster has had an unwavering partner. He met his wife, an East LA Chicana, on a high school science trip and just kept “following Dolores,” says his cousin Tom Ogawa. In college, Foster stayed tied to Bravo while bouncing from one University of California campus to another. His jobs were as varied: In Palo Alto, he was a strip-club bouncer; in Colorado, a summer firefighter — the best gig he’s ever had, he says. “I was reading Mao, Stalin, Che Guevara, anybody, Carey McWilliams or novels or whatever and waiting around for fires. And then you get called out on fires… There’s a certain element of risk to keep you on your toes.” He only quit on account of their firstborn, Marina, who arrived when his wife was a graduate student in Seattle. “I wasn’t going to do what my dad did, which was never be there.”


Above: A sampling of the dozens of postcards Foster has sent to penpals in 2015. Mouse over the cards to view the opposite side.


After Marina came Umeko, then Lali — three daughters spaced almost 12 years apart. The girls were raised on their parents’ schoolteacher salaries, first in a house near City Terrace, then in Alhambra. Between his work schedule and young children’s needs, writing became a jigsaw, which was just as well for someone who refused to be “a lonely poet writing in an attic, starving.” There were unclaimed minutes here and there, around the edges of family, teaching and the teachers’ union. On Saturdays, Bravo gave Foster time to write. Summer breaks were sacred.

Foster’s craft is inseparable from his day job and family: “None of the work I’ve done would have been done without our collectivity,” he says. In his most recent volume, “World Ball Notebook” (City Lights 2008), he presents a collection of numbered “games” that allude to his daughters’ soccer matches as much as his own wordplay. One of my favorites, Game 114, reads in part:

the mayans failed, civilization collapsed.

dinosaurs failed, became birds.

the sun went down, came up on a foggy day.

the moon failed, so shut up.

dirt failed came out in the wash.

your mom failed, look at you, kid.

In 1994, on the heels of heated union talks, Foster, Bravo and the girls, then ages 2, 9 and 13, decamped for Iowa City and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was the nation’s most revered MFA program and a Midwest respite from the chaos of LA. By that time, he had already co-edited an anthology of poets of color, “Invocation LA” (West End Press, 1989), and published a book of poems, “Angry Days” (West End Press, 1987), which bears the characteristic tensions in his work: the funny, grotesque and polemical, on the one hand (“agribusiness required a constant surplus / with wages controlled”); a gentleness and naturalism on the other (“little halfmoons of dirt / wax underneath my fingernails). As someone who zigzags between poetry and prose, Foster turned out to be a poor stylistic fit for Iowa. “He was different from the other students,” says Warren Liu, a former classmate and a professor of English at Scripps College. “He wasn’t out to prove anything to anyone.”

By the end of this MFA, a poetry project long in the works was set for release. “City Terrace Field Manual” (Kaya, 1996), Foster’s most popular collection, is a paean to the East LA of his childhood. Published by a small press specializing in the Asian diaspora, the stanzas are rich with references to local landmarks and people: the Santa Ana Freeway, Arthur Buell, Priscilla, Highland Park, Chemo, Xochitl, Manny, El Sereno, Areceli Cruz and Wanda Coleman. After two years in the Iowa snow, Los Angeles beckoned:

I would dream about City Terrace and

my friends in East L.A. They kept coming back, talking

to me … the same old things.

The success of “City Terrace Field Manual” might have tempted another writer to shake off his geographic fixation. Foster, though, wasn’t yet done documenting East LA. “This is what I’m going to do because who else is going to do it?” he says. “Even Chicanos who want to do it don’t do it. [Representing the community] is one of my principal tasks.”

Sesshu Foster

For over five years, Foster and his friend, artist Arturo Ernesto Romo-Santillano, have been compiling a quasi-fictional history of East L.A. The work will eventually be published in book form by City Lights.
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

In his basement study, as on countless pages and screens, Foster is an artist of accumulation. He says Facebook deactivated his first account, mistaking him for a spamming robot. He’d posted too many aphoristic scribbles and links to articles — about education, Mexico, Palestine, poetry, capitalism, the immigrant rights movement and criminal justice, to mention a few. He’s constantly blogging, sending emails and participating in poetry readings and political fundraisers. “He’s a worker,” says artist and fellow teacher Romo-Santillano. “Being an artist is about working.”

Foster is prolific on paper as well, particularly when he’s in epistolary mode. He grew up exchanging letters with his dad, a Dharma bum on the road. “That was really our basic, tangible relationship, one of correspondence,” he says. These days, he mails up to 20 postcards a week, inked with grocery lists, diary entries, dialogues and literary family trees in arty spirals of red. Lisa Chen, a Brooklyn-based writer who met Foster at Iowa, estimates that she’s received well over a thousand of his postcards since the mid-1990s. Her fridge is covered in them. “It’s a form of diary or journaling, reflection — and also a way of saying ‘hi’ to people far away,” Foster explains. He delights, too, in how postcards allow for an “often arbitrary juxtaposition” of image and text: “I don’t think in linear, standardized, ‘First they woke up. Then they walked out the door,’” he says. “Things come to me out of order.”

Sesshu Foster

Books, CDs, pamphlets and artwork spill everywhere in the basement study of Foster’s Alhambra home.
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

The same might be said of his books, which resist a neat progression from one to the next. “City Terrace Field Manual” raised Foster’s profile and helped define him as an Asian American poet, yet his next volume would be an avant-garde “Chicano” novel. “Atomik Aztex” (City Lights 2005), which won the Believer Book Award, imagines the life of a slaughterhouse worker in an un-colonized America; the prose is shot through with invented dialects and pages-long paragraphs in italicized script. “It was sort of hard on purpose,” Foster says. “I was in that mood.” The language is by turns zany and brutal, especially in the slaughterhouse scenes: “Esophagus tracts raw from chlorine… The sky might already be lightening, backlit that cool electric blue.” It’s a futuristic Aztec civilization — the indigenous people now ascendant — yet still oppressive, empire all the same.

In any other city, and in any neighborhood besides East L.A., it’s unlikely that a half-Japanese, half-Anglo poet would be so enmeshed in Chicano cultural production. “His culture is L.A. culture, which is fluid; a mishmash,” says Chen. “His Spanish is better than his Japanese.” Herrera calls him “a sci-fi Argentinian. He’s like Borges.”


To be biracial or mixed race is to be permanently neither. It’s also distinctly Angelean, says Ruben Martinez, a professor at Loyola Marymount University: “Sesshu’s mixed parentage and geographical weaning in East LA made him, like, post-Mestizo.” Because of this, Foster worries that his oeuvre has a narrow reach. “Being mixed — that never puts you in solid with one group. That means you’re always kind of on the border, you’re on the margin, one or the other. Inasmuch as my work plays to Asian Americans and Chicanos, that’s the minor leagues,” he says, adding, “If I’m not doing some crossover thing with white people, I’m always going to be [minor].”

Sesshu Foster

The return on investment of Foster’s prodigious postcard habit. He sends “two to maybe 12 or 20 postcards per week,” he says.
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

To those familiar with his work, however, Foster is vital; one of the “iconic voices writing from Los Angeles,” says Elaine Katzenberger, his editor at City Lights, the bookstore and publisher founded by beatnik Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Like everyone interviewed for this story, Katzenberger spoke of his unassuming industriousness — “as a teacher and activist [he’s] making all kinds of cultural connections, but he’s such a quiet presence, not tooting his own horn.” Foster’s rootedness also sets him apart, says journalist Ben Ehrenreich, who befriended him while writing about “Atomik Aztex”for the Village Voice. “He’s extraordinary today in his quiet, humble insistence that writers can and ought to relate to the world around them [in a way] that’s not just dictated by the market, agents and MFA posts — that whole world of bullshit.”


Foster’s commitment to write about the world he sees is matched by an equal impatience for the commercial cultural establishment attempting to whitewash it. Last September, just before the closing of “Made in L.A. 2014,” a biennial exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, he paid a visit with his wife and mother, who trained as a painter. The show featured 35 LA-based visual artists, mostly young and “emerging,” working in photography, video, painting, performance, installation and sculpture. Foster was unimpressed by what he saw, in part because his companions were so disappointed; alienated, in fact, from the purported art of their city.

He went home and wrote a poem about the experience, posting it to the blog he’s maintained since 2008. Like much of what he writes, this was a textual doodle; aesthetic and institutional critique in a lowercase, stream-of-consciousness style:

it’s okay that the artists are all white, even the nonwhite artists (2?) are kind of white

it’s okay that the curators are all white …

it’s all right because the ucla hammer museum curated and hosted ‘now dig this! Art and black los angeles 1960 – 1980’ which exhibited from october 2011 to january 2012

so it’s okay, because ‘black los angeles’ had its day …

it’s okay that the apartheid imagination remains in place and is not disrupted

thank you

His real target was “racism in the institutions of LA,” Foster explains. And the blog post went viral, provoking an extended debate within the city. Even those aligned with Foster accused him of being too prescriptive and orthodox. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, writer Nikki Darling pointed out that 11 artists of color had been part of the Hammer biennial and criticized Foster for “expecting artists of color to produce work that explicitly addresses identity.”

Foster stood by his critique. The blog post was not journalism; it was a poem, he says. And it did what so few poems do: spark controversy.

In the weeks following, a local art space hosted “decolonizing the white box,” a public forum inspired by his post. More than 150 people turned out; there had been a hunger for conversations about race in the art world. “His work was able to draw out such ire and tension,” says Raquel Gutierrez, the young poet and activist who moderated the event. Foster is “very terse in his online presence and his work,” she said, but he is “our [Juan Felipe] Herrera, [Sandra] Cisneros, Junot Diaz, [a writer] who endured the whiteness of the MFA machine and raged against that machine.”

Foster has always seen words as “adjunct to political activity.” He never wanted his fiction or verse to exist only in a white box, far from the street. “I’m politically involved in the things I write about,” he says, “and my politics are informed by actual experience, not just things I saw on the news.”

His work can be incredibly funny, as he is in person, but it’s also sincere and serious in purpose, much like the Chicano murals painted during his youth. His fondness for that era’s art leaves him open to accusations of being retrograde, an “identity politician.” Yet Foster’s work isn’t “preachy,” says Lauri Ramey, director of the poetry center at Cal State LA. “The aesthetic sensibility of his work serves his ethical vision. … That’s what keeps it from feeling like a polemic.”


At some point soon, in some form resembling a book, City Lights will publish Foster’s collaboration with Romo-Santillano: a multi-genre assemblage premised on a fictional corporation, East Los Angeles Dirigible Transport Lines. Borrowing from the Beats as much as Melville, the project includes a faux-tourist website, letters, advertisements, interviews, drawings, complaint forms, doctored photos, commercials and mail catalogs stamped with the company’s oblong seal. It’s a thought experiment and travelogue through a real, imagined, lost and found East LA.

On a hot Saturday in late June, Foster invited a dozen or so friends to Romo-Santillano’s house for dinner, poetry readings and a short PowerPoint presentation. We sat around a large dining table and watched images projected onto an ersatz screen, a white sheet tickled by the ceiling fan. The guests were unwittingly impaneled as the official board of directors of the ELADTL, and so, following our hosts’ lead, we slipped in and out of character, chuckling at old-timey images of zeppelins, earnings projections and bar charts depicting “growth in daily ridership.”

In this “real history of a fake transportation company,” we glimpsed actual snippets of a bygone city: a mural effaced, incompletely, by white paint; the 1930s tombstone of an African American stunt pilot. The older artist-activists nodded in recognition at the slides. “Oh, there’s Willie!” or “Hey, didn’t a bank used to be there?”

Toward the end of the night, we watched an earlier product of the ELADTL: a silent, rickety video from 2011 entitled “Pollos Rostizados.” In it, Foster and Romo-Santillano walk along a freeway overpass, chatting about chicken, hot dogs, pickled eggs, old murals, a long-gone gas station and our aerial destiny, the velocity of their mouths mismatched to yellow subtitles. Airships, Foster tells us, are the future of Interstate 10. Soon enough, like the streets and sidewalks that came before, these “fourteen lanes of blackouts, migraines, auditory hallucinations… revolutionary fervor, the ghosts of people buried underneath the asphalt” will fade into the history of East LA.





E. Tammy Kim is a Features Staff Writer at Al Jazeera America. She was previously a lawyer for low-wage workers and an adjunct professor. Write her with tips or comments at

Blacktop Ecologies: Los Angeles Poetry and Poetics was a one-day symposium of writers active in Los Angeles November 21, 2014. (“Though largely drawn from the interaction of poetry and teaching, the poets range from highly experimental, even “conceptual,” writers of lyric, narrative and political poetry, as well as translation and performance writing. There is no “subject” for the symposium — it is not concerned with Los Angeles or even its poetical history — but a snapshot of poets in Los Angeles today, how they think and make their work. Each poet will make a short presentation of their recent thinking and read selections of their work; each “lane” will be followed by a question and answer (for passenger loading only) period.”)

Brian did the work. Thanks Brian Kim Stefans.







9-4 yucca

The Community and World Literary Series Presents:

Sesshu Foster

Thursday, November 5, 7 p.m.
Markstein Hall 104
California State University, San Marcos

Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 30 years. He’s also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts, Naropa University’s 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 State of the Union: 50 Political Poems. Winner of two American Book Awards, his most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex and the hybrid World Ball Notebook.

The Community and World Literary Series
Literature and Writing Studies
California State University, San Marcos
333 S. Twin Oaks Valley Rd.
San Marcos, CA 92096-0001

Campus Maps and Directions:
For more information, call 760-750-8077 or check out our blog:

photo by Arturo Romo-Santillano

photo by Arturo Romo-Santillano

Aljazeera America profile, September 6, 2015

“As gentrification sweeps the city, Sesshu Foster has quietly become the poet laureate of a vanishing neighborhood”

photo by Jessica Ceballos

photo by Jessica Ceballos

see also:

“In March 2011, without packing or telling anyone, writer Dolores Dorantes fled her home in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and crossed the border into El Paso. 

Ciudad Juarez was the city where she grew up, began work as a reporter, and developed a following as a poet — and it was reeling from drug-related violence. The government responded with deadly military action and the deaths of hundreds of young women went unsolved.

In a column for a Mexico City newspaper, Dorantes criticized government policies that failed to put an end to the violence.”

continue reading the article here:

listen to the audio here:

“In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, writer Dolores Dorantes received death threats. The U.S. granted her asylum and now her latest work reflects on her four years here.”

Dolores Dorantes

Dolores Dorantes

see also Dolores’s new book:


Dolores Dorantes & Rodrigo Flores Sánchez

translated by Jen Hofer


2015, Ugly Duckling Presse

“… imagine an intervention between the body and that which destroys it ” — Daniel Borzutsky

Intervenir/Intervene is a searing, tender, unflinching collaboration between two Mexican poets—Dolores Dorantes, who lived in Ciudad Juárez for 25 years and now has political asylum in Los Angeles, and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez, who lives in Mexico City. Intervenir/Intervene asks questions no one should have to ask: in a climate of state-sponsored violence, what kinds of speech, writing, relation are possible? We are being intervened. How do we collaborate? How do we resist?

Intervenir/Intervene es una colaboración mordaz, tierna e impávida entre dos poetas mexicanos—Dolores Dorantes, que vivió 25 años en Ciudad Juárez y ahora tiene asilo político en Los Ángeles, y Rodrigo Flores Sánchez, que vive en la Ciudad de México. Intervenir/Intervene hace preguntas que nadie debería verse obligado a preguntar: en un clima de violencia promovida por el Estado, ¿qué tipos de expresión, de escritura, de relación, son posibles? Estamos siendo intervenidos. ¿Cómo colaboramos? ¿Cómo resistimos?



La poesía se me olvida
como se me olvidó tu cuerpo reventado:


Escriba “el rostro de mi amor en la tierra”
Escriba “¿qué te hicieron, amor?”
Escriba “al cuerpo de mi amor lo encontré sin un dedo:”



I forget poetry
just like I forgot your burst body:


Write “my love’s face in the dirt”
Write “what did they do to you, love?”
Write “I found my love’s body missing a finger:”


read an interview with the authors here:

and another excerpt here:

check out Dolores’s blog here:

photo by Rob Ray

photo by Rob Ray

Thursday, July 23 at 7:30pm – 9:30pm

Avenue 50 Studio

131 N Avenue 50, Los Angeles, California 90042

Sesshu Foster & Amy Uyematsu will both
be presenting extended sets of poetry.
The hosts of the event are Chiwan Choi,
Traci Akemi Kato-kiriyama & Mike Sonksen.

Ave 50 Benefit Amy Uyematsu2 9-27-08

Amy Uyematsu is a third-generation Japanese-American poet and teacher from Los Angeles. She has published three previous poetry collections: 30 Miles from J-Town (Story Line Press, 1992), Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (Story Line Press, 1997), and Stone Bow Prayer (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Her first book was awarded the 1992 Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Amy was a co-editor of the widely-used UCLA Asian American Studies anthology Roots: An Asian American Reader. Her newest book is The Yellow Door (Red Hen Press)

for more on Amy Uyematsu and her new book, the Yellow Door:

ucla la poetry symposium
Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. 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 State of the Union: 50 Political Poems. One of his last readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project NYC is Mp3 archived and local readings are archived at is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo Santillano and other writers on the website, His most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex and World Ball Notebook.

Visit his blog, East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines.

for directions and parking:

eladatl tokens 3 of them

  1. “Shipping Manifesto: The Zeppelin Attack Dirigible Sessions”

2. “Shipping Manifesto: Fly the East L.A. Dirigible Air Transport Lines”

3. “Beautification Proposal for the City of Los Angeles and Other Incorporated Cities of Los Angeles County from the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines”

4. “Pollos Rostizados LEAD”


5. “Dr. Eufencio J. Rojas discusses the Publication Filth Saints/ Manifestos/Ballons”

6.“East L.A. Balloon Club Scrapbook”

7. “East L.A. Balloon Club Scrapbook, May 2012”

8. “East L.A. Balloon Club Highlights”

9. “Pollos Rostizados/LEAD” (different video from #4 above)

10. “Overheard at the El Sereno ELADATL Station”

11. “Land Dirigibles of East L.A.”

12. “Zep Diner Menu: Today’s Specials”

13. “The Latest Inventions in Personal Aviation”

14. “Build Your Own Airship: Step by Step”

15. “Zeppelin Attack Dirigible (ZAD)”

16. “Cloud Studies I”

17. “Atmospheres, Explorations in the”

18. “So Our Best Efforts Were Undone (Includes Free Ulysses S. Grant Favorite Recipe for Pancakes)

19. “What is The Purpose of Mystery? (Oscar Zeta Acosta the Man Known as)”

Off-line or in print:

20. “Kraken Destroys Zeppelins” [?]

21. “Interview with Juan Fish (Supposedly”)

22. “Sky City”

east los angeles dirigible transport lines


soviet dirigible stamps

I met Juan Felipe Herrera around 1988. Ruben Martinez, Lindsey Haley and I drove to San Jose in my little white pickup truck to participate in a Flor y Canto commemoration of the series of floricantos that took place throughout the 70’s. Flor y Cantos were Chicano literary festivals JFH participated in with heavy hitters of the day, like JFH’s former roommate Alurista, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Jose Montoya, raulrsalinas, and that whole first wave of Chicano writers (of whom JFH is sort of like a champion, because he’s the LAST ONE STANDING). Ruben and Lindsey were invited to participate in the Flor y Canto and I went along as their driver. We drove to San Jose where JFH had a house with his partner, the poet Margarita Luna Robles and their kids. We participated in Flor y Canto readings at Casa Zapata at Stanford, where both JFH and my wife had gone to college. Afterwards we went to JFH’s backyard with JFH grilling green onions, nopales and chiles and passing them out in tortillas to everybody, exclaiming about the importance of Nino Rota’s music for Fellini movies. He played selected tracks for us on a boombox, while we listened intently. We’d driven 300 miles north for this, both Ruben and I busy in L.A.’s Central American solidarity movement. Ruben shook his head later, asking me, what do you make of all this? I don’t know where Ruben and Lindsey went, but I ended up going with JFH to his son’s soccer game, and that night I slept in the back of my pickup across the street in the camper shell. The next day I wandered into the house a little stiff and groggy—but apparently I’d brought a cassette recorder, so I interviewed JFH while he drove to San Francisco, which took maybe an hour or so in a green and white lowrider classic car straight out of a Frank Romero painting, plying JFH with all the questions I could think of about Chicano literary history.

In 1988, it seemed totally possible that this generation of great Chicano writers would pass by unpublished or unknown, just like the generation of outstanding Chicano movement muralists. In the 1980s, no corporate New York presses published Chicanos. First Maxine Hong Kingston and then Sandra Cisneros a few years later would break through that wall, open up the whole U.S. market. But in 1988, it seemed likely that a whole generation of West Coast writers of color like Jessica Hagedorn, Alejandro Murguia, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Omar Salinas, Jeff Tagami, Ntozake Shange, Cherrie Moraga and Ana Castillo would only be known by the rest of us in small circles, like friends, with their books published by tiny presses in small editions, like Lorna Dee Cervantes’s Mango Press or Ernesto Padilla’s Lalo Press, which published JFH’s atomic hand grenade of a book, Exiles of Desire, as well as the first edition of Michelle Serros’s Chicana Falsa, which started her career. Who has ever seen a copy of JFH’s Exiles of Desire? Why not? It’s such a brilliant book, the literary equivalent to Asco’s work in Los Angeles at the same time. Why were those editions limited to a few hundred copies sold out of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco or Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica or Bookworks in Albuquerque. In those days, who knew any of those books, those presses, or those writers but a few of us? So many voices went unheard, so many lives were silenced, and outside of outposts like Ishmael Reed’s Yardbird, there was no certainty that “multicultural” literature would be allowed to live. In the interview with JFH I asked him about all those literary scenes from Austin to Fresno, from the Taos Poetry Circus and the Bisbee Poetry Festival, from Barrio Logan to the Mission District. JFH was a mover and shaker everywhere he went; he knew about all those scenes; he’d performed with Culture Clash and teatros, on pyramids and stages in Mexico, coffee shops and college campuses across the U.S. for hipsters and Chipsters, pochos and campesinos, for anyone and everyone.

For me, that’s one of the beautiful, essential things about JFH. That’s why he’s a master. Poets like JFH are senseis for the rest of us writers. JFH will bring the poetry to anyone. He will lay it at the feet of everyone. When I met him, JFH was teaching poetry in Soledad prison. We drove past it on highway 101, and he talked about what he did there. He didn’t tell the prisoners, you’re a convict, you’re despised and feared—no poetry for you. He ran the same writing exercises he used with college students. He is not going to say, what, you’re a little kid? No poetry for you. He didn’t say, you’re a farmworker from Oaxaca, barely speak Spanish? No poetry for you. You’re a woman who works day and night, trying to keep your family alive? No time for poetry. You’re from a lost generation, a lame suburb, some mysterious fate? No poetry for you. No! You might be a ghost, a spirit, a raven, a nahual, some unformed being not yet emerged from the air. JFH still has a poem for you! JFH will bring it. Look at JFH’s books. Spanish, English, poetry, prose, novellas in verse, children’s books, memoirs, young adult books, performance pieces, articles, interviews, JFH went there! He does not say, here’s my poem, I don’t know who you are but maybe if you can rise to it, you might be able to read it. Instead, he gets out there, he hits the road, he shatters his own poetry into dust and puts the powder in a  little paper sack or a folded paper; he takes it to people wherever they are and says, “This is ours—this is our poem we’re making.” He’s not theorizing a democratic poetics, the political poetry of a public intellectual. He’s doing it; he’s been doing it for forty years. He’s a sensei.

There It Is
My friend
they don’t care
if you’re an individualist
a leftist a rightist
a shithead or a snake

They will try to exploit you
absorb you confine you
disconnect you isolate you
or kill you

And you will disappear into your own rage
into your own insanity
into your own poverty
into a word a phrase a slogan a cartoon
and then ashes

The ruling class will tell you that
there is no ruling class
as they organize their liberal supporters into
white supremist lynch mobs
organize their children into
ku klux klan gangs
organize their police into killer cops
organize their propaganda into
a devise to ossify us with angel dust
pre-occupy us with western symbols in
african hair styles
inoculate us with hate
institutionalize us with ignorance
hypnotize us with a monotonous sound designed
to make us evade reality and stomp our lives away
And we are programmed to self destruct
to fragment
to get buried under covert intelligence operations of
unintelligent committees impulsed toward death
And there it is

The enemies polishing their penises between
oil wells at the pentagon
the bulldozers leaping into demolition dances
the old folks dying of starvation
the informers wearing out shoes looking for crumbs
the lifeblood of the earth almost dead in
the greedy mouth of imperialism
And my friend
they don’t care
if you’re an individualist
a leftist a rightist
a shithead or a snake

They will spray you with
a virus of legionnaire’s disease
fill your nostrils with
the swine flu of their arrogance
stuff your body into a tampon of
toxic shock syndrome
try to pump all the resources of the world
into their own veins
and fly off into the wild blue yonder to
pollute another planet

And if we don’t fight
if we don’t resist
if we don’t organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is



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