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The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center hosted “CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality” at the Smithsonian’s historic Arts and Industries Building Saturday and Sunday, May 28–29, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Featuring the works of more than 40 artists, scholars and performers, “CrossLines” exhibited array of art installations, live performances and interactive maker spaces.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis said, “We had a “poetry listening salon” with an iPad station set up with the video as well as several audio poems–by Juan Felipe Herrera, Arlene Biala, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Brandon Som, and Tarfia Faizullah. Response was great; 12,000 people came through the event, and a lot of people sat in the salon and used the station.”
At the de-installation of the exhibit, Lawrence sent this picture of Clement Hanami and Sojin KIm checking out the video by Arturo Romo-Santillano of a poem of mine, “Hell to Eternity: The Movie Version.”
Clement Hanami and Sojin Kim
the city conflates time, conflates 1960s East Bay with 1970s Seattle Lake Union
where we once lived in an apartment building under the freeway
above the industrial flats on the lakeshore where I couldn’t find work
of course it was all long ago
now I drive through it in my Toyota 4-wheel drive, and that was in the last century
my kids (who weren’t born then) are grown up and I don’t know, I drive forward into whatever this new life is about
at night, you know how night conflates one night with some other nights
conflates the twilight dusk with deep midnight, conflates this regular night
with those long nights when I had worked as a bouncer in a strip joint
till 3 or 4 AM and then went out into the Bay Area to find someplace to sleep
these avenues sleek with shiny dark fur of of night (or it’s just my dirty glasses, it’s just the windshield wet with rain), these streets and boulevards shine with black light
of the incipient universe immediately beneath all surfaces
ready to well up like pools of obsidian tar in the L.A. tar pits adjacent to Wilshire Blvd
these avenues and blvds “run through my mind” “drive thru
my thoughts” shimmering with refractions of distant headlights and street lamps
in soft vague blackness of distance ahead of all this
mixing, in flux, churning, alive—all surfaces like the coastline against the infinite sea of night
night universe, I’m driving through this city (which conflates Seattle, Brooklyn, Oakland, L.A., etc.) all these boulevards of course connect, you can get there from here
if—if—I can find the onramp for 5
past several bright liquor stores or gas stations in the otherwise dark blocks and streets (these office buildings, these warehouses and industrial blocks that used to be the long ago landscape I lived above—several flights up—in the apartment bldg which took a flight of stairs up to the big front door, up on the hill—are dark
and empty at night) I decide I might as well stop and ask for directions
it might save time (though I am not in a rush, I am just driving who knows how far)
(whatever the distance might be, just go), I turn in and park
at the fluorescent glare illuminating the little glass booth of an old 1930s-style gas station, where I can see a couple guys inside talking
a couple of sinewy grizzled guys in baseball caps (about my age)
they eye me warily, smirking as I enter and ask where I can get the freeway
“The 5?” one raises his eyebrow; the other guy makes some remark I don’t catch;
they both laugh—”Yeah, the 5,” I repeat—
they give me some weird, patently useless directions (“Well, yep, go back down to the main boulevard, the main thoroughfare back down about a mile,” etc.) that are more in the nature of some joke between them than information directed at me
so, feeling foolish, I say “thanks,” and shrug, and their laughter follows me out into the night—but somehow I wind around those “south of Market” streets
I find an onramp and take it—not knowing whether I’m heading north or south, at least I am on the freeway!)—heading south, it seems
—speeding down empty lanes of the late night freeway like 101 south through San Francisco—
arriving, if you can call it that, at some Stanford University or immense private library
(wide expanse of grassy lawn, like the Seattle Asian Art Museum on Capitol Hill, with its low wide steps leading to the massive entrance with its tall columns, or the old De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which you don’t even remember, do you)
inside maybe 100 folding chairs set up in the immense hall with daylight coming through the vast windows (so it’s a new day, after all, try to remember that)
the usual crowd of white people ignoring me as I enter (by not ignoring me entirely, shooting me looks now and then)—someone’s at the podium, reading
do I know them? I don’t know if I know them, it’s a sparce crowd, I suppose I am there for a reading—I’ll carry out my obligations as they instruct me to
meanwhile, I’ll stroll out under the dim cool vague northern sky
tired of driving all the time or whatever I’ve been doing these days
I have my book of poems (that is a book of poems by a friend that I am carrying around, waiting for a chance to read), a skinny tan poetry book
semi-distant, down the steps and down the walk out by the lawn—perhaps a bit too far to get called back by whoever’s in charge of whatever it is
(whenever I’m out driving through like this, I’m thinking of people I could see—for example, I could have visited my brother—not too far from here—that is, when he was alive)
in the daytime however, the concrete walkways, well-clipped broad swaths of lawn, neatly trimmed hedges don’t have that transcendent immanence
as if you might pass through them into the universe
instead by day the universe is all palpable surface, tangible and concrete, immediate
(even if the Pacific is out there, churning, oxygenated and blue, boiling with living kelp forest off Point Lobos, off Garrapata Beach)
“Hey,” a slim young guy I know as a poet catches my eye
maybe he’ll tell me a specific word
instead we talk about the poetry book I have in my hand, I hand it to him, tell him I like it (as it’s by a friend of mine)—”though I haven’t really sat down to read it yet”—he nods noncommittally, cool like these hipster urban poets—
I get a subtle hapa vibe like David Lau or Brian Kim Stefans or somebody
I’m sure he and they’re hip, they can tell me what’s going on (or somebody will)
and I’ll be on my way (as usual)
transcribed at “Type Writer: An Afternoon of L.A. Stories Typed Before Your Eyes” with Marisela Norte and Lynell George
How do we start?
I came to L.A. from Minneapolis
and I’m a shoemaker and I work for myself
I’ve literally only been here for three—no, four hours
A couple months ago I met this awesome dude
he’s with the L.A. Philharmonic
and I just need a reason to move
things were really picking up with this dude
they were. And they kept escalating, but they
came to a full stop, he was supposed to come visit me
and he didn’t. I don’t know what I’m doing
I could stay in Minneapolis… but I don’t know,
I didn’t decide…
he’s getting a divorce, he’s not really helpful
he’s emotionally embroiled in something I don’t want
to get involved with
I’m leaving on Friday, I’m just here for a week
it would be a big deal, to move all my equipment
but maybe, in Minnesota there’s 3 shoemakers
in L.A. there’s a lot more, but most of them are hobbyists
There’s a lot, in L.A. and New York, they charge
about $2,000. In Minneapolis my price point is about a third of that
Do you want the real story or the one I tell people?
I’ll tell you both
I was in grad school, in the MFA program at the
Art Institute of Chicago, I was a book maker, a writer, a photographer
I’d always done a lot of writing, editing
I got into a serious car accident,
I couldn’t write anymore
but shoes, I could follow
I made my MFA project shoes
they altered the way people had to walk,
you know, I didn’t have to say anything,
I didn’t have to explain, they sort of mimicked the healing process
you know what I mean?
I wrote a lot, I had a blog
but I lost it, a friend of mine said he found it
I wrote and wrote and wrote, but I lost it again
I couldn’t read anything for a long time
I wrote but I couldn’t read
I just started reading again
Are we taking off?
Are you going to put it in your archive?
No I don’t need it, I’ve lived it.
We’re going now, thanks
Nice to meet you
with Lynell George and Marisela Norte
Sunday, April 17 | 2:00–5:00pm | Craft and Folk Art Museum courtyard | Free and open to the public
5814 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 937-4230 | www.cafam.org
Bring your favorite Los Angeles stories to share with favorite local writers Lynell George, Sesshu Foster, and Marisela Norte, who will transcribe your words into poetry and prose using one of our typewriting stations. Participants are encouraged to bring their own typewriters to join in this special type-in event. This event is part of the cultural programs in conjunction with this year’s Big Read, honoring the work of Ray Bradbury. The Big Read is a program in partnership with Arts Midwest.
for more information: http://www.cafam.org/programs
glad we could talk, my students came and enjoyed it—
later, i read some poems with Kenji Liu and Angela Peñaredondo
at the Kaya Press tent, and afterwards went round and caught
your reading at the poetry stage, where I saw the call
and response of “187 reasons mexicanos can’t cross the border”
caused passersby to stop in their tracks, turned their heads; they
drew forth under the trees to see what you were delivering
from the stage. this was before you closed, zapateando.
i should have joined you when they took you to sign books.
it started sprinkling, as it had been on and off all day
and like i had been, i was thinking about the lean girl,
my student who died two weeks ago, swept out by a wave
at santa monica beach, in sight of the pier and surely crowds
of hundreds of people on an ordinary saturday afternoon,
drowned. now there’s nothing to say about it, nothing to be done,
so i wandered through the tents, looking at the booths
full of books and booksellers, writers and readers, and
when i figured that we maybe still had time to talk,
i went back to “the green room” but i couldn’t locate
you—i did a circuit, walking through the crowd and the tents
in the off and on again drizzle, talked to David Shook
at Phoneme Books, bought his translations from the Zapotec,
i guessed soon you’d have minders escorting you onstage
at the award ceremony, though i could have let loose
the dogs of metaphor or raised a figurative hue and cry
as of metonymy, but let the mist in the air settle as it may.
thanks for the hour or more. let’s talk again! maybe
i’ll see Fresno, capital of poetry. hi to Margie!
on / with Antena / Antena Los Ángeles
¡El AntenaMóvil ya está instalado! Ven a nuestro evento bilingüe este sábado no solamente para compartir comida rica y conversación rica, sino también para ver/leer/comprar libros de muchas editoriales pequeñas y micros de Latinoamérica y Estados Unidos — incluyendo las maravillas locales Kaya Press, Phoneme Media, Ricochet Editions, Seite Books, y Writ Large Press. El Antenamóvil es un triciclo de carga adaptado, equipado con libros que están a la venta y para leer aquí. La selección se enfoca en obras bilingües y multilingües, textos en traducción y textos innovadores de escritorxs de razas marginadas.
¡The AntenaMóvil is installed! Come to our bilingual event this Saturday not just to share delicious food and delicious conversation, but also to see/read/buy publications from many small and micro presses from Latin America and the U.S. — including local wonders Kaya Press, Phoneme Media, Ricochet Editions, Seite Books, and Writ Large Press. The AntenaMóvil is a retrofitted Mexican cargo trike stocked with books that are for sale and for reading on-site. The selection features bilingual and multilingual works, work in translation, and innovative texts by writers of color.
Justicia laboral alimentaria + Justicia del lenguaje: Un intercambio bilingüe
Food Labor Justice + Language Justice: A Bilingual Exchange
con / with Antena / Antena Los Ángeles, Cocina Abierta & ROC-LA
12 marzo / March 12
12pm – 3pm
Gratis / Free
Se proporcionará comida, pero si deseas, ¡trae una receta o un plato para compartir!
Food will be provided, but if you like, bring a recipe or a dish to shar e!
Por favor RSVP / RSVP Please
(¡pero ven aunque no puedas RSVP! / ¡but come even if you can’t RSVP!)
10899 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90024
The Worker Body / El cuerpo trabajador, Cocina Abierta & ROC-LA, July 2015 / julio de 2015.
Photo/Foto: Heather M. O’Brien
Antena y Antena Los Ángeles, artistas en residencia con el programa de Public Engagement (Participación pública), junto con artistas, organizadorxs y trabajadorxs restauranterxs de la colectiva Cocina Abierta y El Centro de Oportunidades para Trabajadores de Restauranterxs de Los Ángeles (ROC-LA), invitan a lxs visitantes del Hammer a compartir comida, ideas y conversación en un espacio bilingüe. Les invitamos a escuchar las historias de trabajadorxs restauranterxs y posteriormente participar en un diálogo bilingüe durante una comida estilo familiar. Se proporcionará la comida, pero cualquier plato o receta que quieran traer será bienvenido.
¡Colabora compartiendo una receta para nuestro recetario!
Las recetas que logre recolectarse serán utilizadas por Libros Antena Books para crear una pequeña publicación DIY (Do-It-Yourself o hazlo-tú-mismx), que será distribuida a todxs lxs participantes.
Public Engagement artists-in-residence Antena and Antena Los Ángeles, along with artists, organizers and restaurant workers from the Cocina Abierta collective and Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC-LA), invite Hammer visitors to share food, ideas, and conversation in a bilingual space. Visitors are invited to hear the stories of restaurant workers and afterward engage in bilingual dialogue over a family-style meal. Food will be provided, but feel free to bring a dish or recipe to share.
Participate by contributing a recipe for our recipe book!
The collected recipes will be made into a small DIY publication by Libros Antena Books and distributed to all participants.
Jen also notes, NEWLY AVAILABLE:
- Pomona College
- Ena Thompson Reading Room
- 140 W. Sixth Street
Acclaimed Los Angeles poet, novelist and current visiting Pomona College Creative Writing Instructor Sesshu Foster reads from his work. Sesshu won a 2010 American Book Award and a 2009 Asian American Literary Award for World Ball Notebook. His book Atomik Aztex won the 2005 Believer Book Award, and his poems have been included in several anthologies.
In front of a live audience at Book Show on October 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, CA as part of Vermin on the Mount, an irreverent reading series hosted by Jim Ruland.
As gentrification sweeps the city, Sesshu Foster has quietly become the poet laureate of a vanishing neighborhood
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.”
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.”
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.”
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].”
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org