I Never Posted This

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…interview I did a few years back with UC Irvine’s Humanists@Work project. Cuz, I don’t know. My face etc. I do think it’s actually really useful, though, for nepantlerxs—folks who walk between institutional worlds of art and activism and academia—to share stories of how they made the decisions they made, because there’s seldom a roadmap for that kind of thing. So I’m posting it now.

A few things about this interview, tho:

  1. I remain surprised I was able to speak as lucidly as I did. In fact, it’s kind of funny to me. At the time of the interview, I was in the middle of probably the most traumatic series of events I’ve gone through in my adult life. I’d had to leave the job I was being interviewed about–the job that marked my success as a Humanities Ph.D. working outside the university–because it was dysfunctional, and because that dysfunction had triggered a mental health crisis in me. After leaving that job, I was unable to work for several months and was effectively disabled. My partner had also been disabled for many months because of his own mental health crisis, which had led us to a breaking point in our relationship. So I’d spent most of the morning of the interview (and most of the previous couple weeks before that) crying, pretty much right until the few minutes before I put my game face on to talk about my dissertation. Looking back, though, I feel like that split—the total compartmentalization of internal turmoil so as to perform an outer appearance of self-confidence or success or stability—has defined my affective experience of academic life generally.
  2. Something I think about a lot but haven’t tried to express aloud is that a lot of these university initiatives to show what an alt-ac (alternative academic) or post-ac career path might look like for humanities PhDs seem almost hysterical about reassuring people that if they leave academia, they’ll still wind up in middle class or professional positions. Like if you look at who gets held up as exemplars of successful humanities work beyond the university, it’s folks working in think tanks or foundations or government agencies or whatnot. It’s photos of people wearing blazers and scarves and pearls. But I guess if I’ve learned anything from my particular alt-ac journey, it’s that choosing to work in the community—and/or, with respect to #1 above, feeling you have no choice but to leave “professional” or “respectable” environments cuz you’re not functioning well mentally there—means you very well might not end up middle class. I didn’t. Not that I’m in poverty. And I undoubtedly retain the cultural class privilege that comes from graduate ed. But economically, I’m working class. I should say, though, that I’m also happier and healthier; I live a life where my family and artistic and activist and working life is more well-integrated.
  3. I feel like the class politics of #2 is intimately related to the split subjectivity of #1. Since leaving academia for community work and becoming working class in the process, I find that I no longer work in environments requiring that sort of emotional compartmentalization. Consequently my mental health is much better.
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Killing My Darlings

Edited Sentences

Here’s another written something I’ve been sitting on. I didn’t post it at the time it was current, and not long after I turned my attention to some other projects for awhile that took me away from the novel. Thought about posting it anyway, but every time the thought crossed my mind, the post no longer seemed relevant, since it didn’t reflect what I was actually working on. I figured I’d wait to post until I returned to the novel again.

But I don’t know when that’s going to be, realistically. So—

***

Since I wrapped up “Hidden Houses“, I’ve been editing—the 114,000 word novel that I started in 2010 and want to finally get in submittable shape by the time the baby comes in February (we’re assuming – but to riff on something my midwife told me when I was pregnant with Xochitl, birth is as predictable as life is). So, anyway, I’ve been in revision mode since summer, and one of my main tasks has been to get the word count down from 114,000 to 100,000, that being the upper limit for literary fiction—what the manuscript is, I guess, despite writing conference instructions to never use this phrase in any query letter worth shit.

I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to cut 11,000 words so far, with 3,000 left to go. To be honest, it’s been kind of fun—it feels like cleaning and reorganizing your house when you finally get enough time off from work to really pay attention to the clutter and chaos you’ve been forced to live amidst and tune out. What’s amazing about the process is how much you can cut even before you get to hard choices about story and character development, AKA killing your darlings. For instance, I shed about 5,000 words just by going through the manuscript and cutting unnecessary filler words that I didn’t even realize how much I overused (just, seemed, that, of, down). That’s 5,000 words without even touching any part of the story. The other 6,000 I cut by doing a “scene analysis,” going thru the manuscript and listing each scene, then rating scenes for the work they do in moving the story forward causally or emotionally (2 for vital, 1 for just there, 0 for useless). I didn’t have any zeros, thankfully, though maybe that says more about my resistance to cutting down into the story. I did find a number of “just there” scenes, present either as throat-clearing introduction to the meat of a scene or as overly detailed/explanatory passages. I also found a few scenes where I just didn’t like the writing and was happy to chuck it. Though I still have another 3,000 words to cut (plus some story and character development stuff I need to address), the result thus far has been a tighter pacing that reveals the real substance and structure of the story much more clearly, I think.

Still, I did have to kill some of my darlings along the way. Here are a couple passages I really loved that ended up on the cutting floor.

In the nights before Lali leaves town again, not two years after she has returned, Joel would in fact lay hands on her and gather an image of an immense cranial tree swelling above her head, its limbs becoming her arms, its roots woven into her veins. It is all that mental energy, professor, he would say, touching her face and forehead so tenderly that she cried with eyes screwed shut, lying on the floor of his apartment with its stacks of moving boxes. Sensory images leaping to her mind, of places she had not thought about since she left California: of standing kneedeep in alluvial grasslands on a late summer tour of the Yolo causeway, where during the winter rainy season they would release the waters of the Sacramento river to create a shallow ocean. She remembers how the setting sun struck the basin, inflaming its patchwork of gold and lavender, terracotta and cinnamon, lamb’s ear green. She remembers standing barefoot on the sidewalk outside a friend’s apartment on another summer evening in Northern California, the day’s heat firm against her feet as palm fronds swayed over the black rail of the train tracks. Sitting over her where she lies on the floor, he calls forth these forgotten things from her body as he lays his hands on her, he calls forth new realizations—that she must have loved the land unthinkingly, even in a place that never ceased to feel like exile. They are sense memories, but in appearing they are also anticipatory; they are memories of possible futures.

It’s your mind but also your rootedness, he would say. As she cried with the love coursing through her, too strong to be nurturing, ripping her apart with the force of a storm. Ripping her out of the earth from those same roots. Propelling them past one another even as they grasped.

And:

She rides home through downtown streets in heaven with earphones in and music going, even though she knows it is dangerous, wishing she could ride forever. Just before the bridge she looks up and is startled to see that she is on a collision course with a pack of runners. They are streaming down the sidewalk and then they are streaming off of it, running into the street like bullrunners for the opposite sidewalk, sprinting in plain clothes. She watches, incredulous, as they charge at her with absolute conviction, one man nearly colliding with her bike. It happens so quickly that they can only meet eyes and grin at each other, Lali swerving as the runner continues on his way.

Ooh, it hurt to cut those sections. But the story moves better without em, sadly.

Snake Dream

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Oh, but the other writing thing I have been doing, lazily, when I feel like it, not in any sort of deliberate or goal-oriented way—as I’ve been not-writing all of the other things I should be writing—is journaling my pregnancy. It started out as something of a dream journal, as during my first trimester I had incredibly vivid and often quite hilarious dreams, night after night. Now I am seven months and seem to be at that point in the pregnancy where you dream of birthing other creatures (with my daughter it was kittens and cats):

I’m at the very end of my pregnancy and I’m at the doctor’s office getting an ultrasound. Doc squeezes some kind of substance onto my belly like they do, except it’s a gritty green or pink paste to the side of my navel instead of a clear blue gel. She explains that this is a nutritive paste that babies like to eat via osmosis, and when she glides the transducer over my belly, the grainy, monochrome baby blob on screen does in fact crawl its way to the point just beneath the paste, where it begins munching on the uterine lining like a caterpillar.

Later it is revealed to me that I am pregnant not with a human baby but with with a snake—a beautiful, full-grown albino Ball Python, like the one Xochitl pet at the Snake Farm in New Braunfels so many years ago. The doc explains that the conversion of the embryo from human to reptile does sometimes happen, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes if they don’t give you enough hormones at the beginning of the pregnancy. Since I’m so close to my due date and since it’s just a snake anyway, they decide to extract it while I’m there at the appointment, fishing it out from my navel (which isn’t sealed anyway) with a spoon. May as well! My feeling of disappointment on realizing I won’t be going into labor or taking a baby home to nurse is acute. Immediately I begin trying to figure out how I can get pregnant again, right away, or else adopt or foster a baby. I just want a baby to hold and nurse! Doc (who is now male, or maybe a different doc) is a little abashed, knowing it’s probably his fault the baby turned into a snake, since he neglected to give me enough hormones. He tries to joke around that at least I look great in my black dress—meaning my post-partum body hasn’t changed shape or size much since, you know, I’d had a snake inside me and not a human baby. But I’m not to be consoled, although I do become anxious when I think that, in my distress, I may have let Snakie escape. Realizing I still want her even though she’s not a baby, I ask Xochitl to make sure she is safely contained in a special red snake bucket, which she is. She really is a beautiful snake, gold and coral and cream, but her red unblinking eyes and expressionless face are so emotionless, so reptilian—I wake up almost crying, relieved when the human baby inside me (I can only assume) wakes up too and begins churning his limbs vigorously, in the hopes I get up and eat something weird—maybe a toasted blueberry bagel topped with peanut butter and leftover cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving.

 

 

Reading, Writing, Resistance

On my way to the dentist I found myself thinking about reading: wait:

no, last night too, I commented to Greg that lately been thinking how I’d read more if I did not have this compulsion to finish every book I started. It feels wrong not to, somehow. And yet not every book I start will read itself—isn’t that what you’re always looking for as a reader, aren’t those the books you’d describe as your favorites? But what would my life be like, I’ve found myself wondering, if I was the kind of person who started a book and, finding it dull or not to my liking, felt free to simply set it aside and start another? What would change if in reading and by extension in life, my time and energy were organized not around a central compulsion (I must, I have to, I should) but instead around desire and pleasure?

That was last night. And then today, on my way here, driving, I found myself thinking that so much of my experience of reading is, sadly, the feeling of resistance to reading. Making myself finish a book because I’ve started it. Not wanting to read because I’d really actually be reading something else–something that seduces or excites or enthralls my attention instead of twisting away from it–but I won’t let myself, because the book I’ve already started I have to read cover to cover first, before I can move on. Not reading, because I don’t want to finish that book. Reading news articles only, on my phone, or playing Candy Crush, or cleaning the house instead of reading.

I think part of the reason I feel compelled to finish a book even when it resists me (or I resist it) is because I’ll often choose books to read based on an idea I have about their being good for me. I read things that seem to contain something I need to understand or think about to develop my own ideas or writing. What does it mean, then, that the books that seem most important or useful trigger the most resistance in me, while the books that read themselves, the books I read out of pleasure or desire, seem the most disposable? I read them, I enjoy them, I move on–reading here is not necessarily about learning something new or developing my own ideas or writing. Like I started reading a lot of YA fic because I wanted to read something enjoyable, something that doesn’t feel like work. Do I get much more out of it, though? If not, what does that mean for the labor of reading and writing stories?

There’s a resistance to writing I’ve been feeling too, which is why I’m thinking so much about reading I guess. I have projects I need to finish and enough time to do it if I’m disciplined, but for that very reason I don’t want to do it. For awhile I was getting up at 6am every morning and working on revisions to the novel from 6:15 until 6:45. Just 30 minutes a day, but first thing every day. Then I got derailed by some deadlines for academic sorts of writing. Then one of those projects, the last one before I could go back to the novel, turned out to require more work than I thought it would when I took it on. I can finish it, I have the time if I work smart, but I seem to have lost my ability to get myself up early and work for even 30 minutes. My alarm goes off and I lay there and look at my phone–check email, scroll thru news app–for those 30 minutes before I have to get up and start morning routine (get my daughter up and moving and out the door for school, get myself ready for work). I wanted to get this paper published and I knew I could do it. But now that it’s time to get it done and I’ve blocked out the time, I don’t wanna do it.

I’ve noticed more generally, however, that much of the writing I’ve done throughout my life seems to happen when it’s not supposed to: under duress, or when I should be doing other things, or in the cracks of time between responsibilities, like grass improbably pushing through concrete. I seem to be most creative when constrained, most resistant to writing when I have the time and space and freedom to cultivate a discipline. Do we write out of desire under any other condition than duress, I wonder? And yet, with such a tendency, how is a writing practice…possible?

Hidden Houses

Demolition of 601 E Mulberry 11-25-89 (2)

Here’s a project I worked on earlier this year for URBAN-15’s Hidden Histories series, an outgrowth of community work I’ve been involved in for the past few years around urban land struggles and the right to the city. With Greg’s assistance, I filmed several video interviews with folks who grew up in San Antonio neighborhoods or communities later removed from the urban landscape by various policy mechanisms. I then drafted a script for the live production and was lucky enough to line up a couple of great guest commentators for the show, which was ultimately filmed live before a studio audience and streamed online via URBAN-15’s space-age livestreaming technology.

Overall I think the finished production came out pretty well. Visually it was stunning, thanks to considerable grassroots production chops of the URBAN-15 crew. If I’d had more time, I would have resisted harder my impulse to cram everything in there. I would have pared down the number of cases and also followed up with a community elder with vital connections to a potential interviewee who actually grew up in Baptist Settlement, a neighborhood removed almost a century ago.

At the same time, the constraints of live production basically prescribe a lesson in letting go of academic perfectionism and endless revision–you just gotta go with what you got and make it look magic on the fly. It was also pretty neat to learn basic video production and editing skills in the process. I’m used to thinking textually, interviewing people and developing arguments about those interviews in writing, without any concern for audio/visual quality of the recording. Who cares what it sounds like, much less looks like, as long as you have an accurate transcript to work with at the end of the process! Having to think visually–to worry not only about the content of the interview but also its form and whether it would look and sound good–was strange and difficult, like thinking in 3D instead of 2D, but it was also fun, and definitely gratifying to see it all come together in the live production.

Here it is, then, Hidden Houses: Neighborhood Histories of Removal and Resistance:

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Full interviews excerpted in the show (as well as some bonus trax not included in the show) are also archived on the Hidden Histories website. I especially like this one, which was a lot of fun to edit:

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Mary Jane Diaz’s interview–the story about her grandmother’s quick decline and death following removal orders under Urban Renewal–is also chilling to me and worth viewing in its entirety. The unseen, uncommented on, unquantified deaths of elders and other vulnerable people in the wake of relocation schemes are to me the real “hidden history” here of development decisions. How many other cases like this do we not know about, because no one ever tracks down those who are removed and asks what that experience was like?

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MMC

Single Goldfish

About a year ago, I lost a pregnancy at 10 weeks and 4 days. It was what they call a “missed miscarriage”–or mmc, in the weird parlance of acronyms used on the online pregnancy message boards I frequently consulted at the time for any little question or symptom. That miscarriage was my first; however, at 38, it has not been my last. It took me by surprise, though, largely because my first pregnancy ten years ago had been entirely uneventful and also unexpected–a single perfect pearl of a surprise pregnancy. But I also assumed that miscarriage was something sudden and undeniable, a gush of blood when you stood up. I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t expect it. I certainly didn’t know that a baby could stop developing in you silently, so silently your body didn’t even seem to register the change. That your first knowledge of miscarriage could be that you’d actually miscarried weeks before when you thought you were still pregnant.

The laws of thermodynamics maintain that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and the energy of that unnamed, interrputed child turned first into a tree and then into this hybrid visual/poetry piece, which I’m honored to have live on as part of Tammy Melody Gomez’s beautiful guest-edited issue of About Place Journal. Check out the rest of the issue as well, whose theme is “Rewilding: Recovery, Remembrances, and Reconnection with the Ancestral Wild.” As I told Tammy, it’s stunning. I’m grateful.

 

In Which I Continue to Write about Cats, But Only Because Bukowski Did It First

Gracias to La Voz for soliciting a poem for their National Poetry Month issue: click here, then check out pages 5-12 to read some fine San Anto poets (my poem’s on pg. 10). Is it okay to say that the pawprint decorations are kinda funny to me? Granted, recurrent miscarriage clipart is much harder to find than cat clipart. A nice pic of dirty ol’ drunken angel Bukowski cuddling his cats like a softie would have been good. Ah, here we go:

VIDEO: “Visibilizando Victimas: Poetic Action and Analysis Amid Cascading Crises”

Been meaning to post this for awhile and just now getting around to it. Last month, a group of fellow South Texas hybrid writer/educator/activists and I collaborated on a poetry panel for this year’s Tejas Foco of the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, held at Texas Lutheran University in Seguín, Tejas.

The impetus for the panel – and for doing it as an “alternative session,” presenting poetry instead of scholarly papers – was in fact to raise questions about where (or whether) poetic forms of analysis and action might comfortably reside alongside traditional forms of scholarship and organizing.

In our panel proposal, for instance, we wrote:

When his son was killed by cartel violence, Mexican poet Javier Sicilia renounced poetry—and yet, as Rubén Martínez writes, poetics remains integral to the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad now led by Sicilia, who believes that poets have the moral responsibility to tell the stories of crises. As alternative session featuring the creative writing of four hybrid writer/educator/activists, this panel similarly invokes the vital work performed by a tradition of Chicanx poetics in imagining and realizing strategies of resistance on multiple scales—to the hypervisible violence of border wall-building, gentrification, and climate change as well as to the intimate erasures of Chicana mothering practice and domestic violence. Following Sicilia, our session considers the distinctive work that poetic forms of analysis can offer our communities in times of multiple crises—the work of “visibilizando víctimas,” documenting histories that would be otherwise lost in plain sight, as well as contemporary realities that would otherwise go unconsidered.

Click on images below to view each panelist’s presentation, filmed and edited by Greg Harman and originally posted to Deceleration:

 

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Also, not until after I presented did I realize that I was unconsciously and kinesthetically quoting in my performance of “No Poems Allowed” from Carmen Tafolla’s performance of her poem “Both Sides of the Border,” from This River Here. Like “Both Sides,” “No Poems Allowed” staggers text on either side of the page to indicate relationships of both division and connection, irreducibility and intimate intertwining (in this case between ways of knowing–poetry and numbers, writing and organizing, theory and action). I want to acknowledge and reference Tafolla’s influence here, with great love and respect.

 

Poetry Aplenty

Had some poems accepted in a couple interesting journals,

here at the inaugural issue of Metafore Magazine, a “new metamodern transcendental literary magazine from Maharishi University”

(which looks to be a college in Iowa started by the yogi who started the Transcendental Meditation craze in the 1970s–wow)

and then here at Outsider Poetry, “a literary review for those who create with mental illness, are self-trained, or create art and poetry that challenges cultural and academic norms.” Respect!

OMG Cats!

A little over a year ago I started writing a story about all the cats I ever had, based on a bedtime story I told my daughter. Entitled “Día de los Gatos,” I was hoping to finish by Día de los Muertos of 2016, but other projects took over and I didn’t come back to it until about a year later. Maybe I can finish it by Día de los Muertos of 2017, I thought, but then I blew that deadline as the story grew and grew to encompass all of the minute ins and outs of my relationships to the 29+ cats I have loved and lost in the course of my life. Yes, it’s true.

Originally, I had thought to simply write the story and post it to this site. But then a writer friend with far more publication experience told me that anything you put on your site – or even on Facebook – is considered published in the eyes of journals and presses, should one be thinking of submitting for real. I wasn’t – who would possibly publish a 30-page essay about 29 cats? I thought – but it put the thought into my mind that maybe I could at least try first, before self-publishing.

So I sent it off to a few different places seeking creative non-fiction, and here is is! I’m so excited to be featured in the inaugural issue of Cagibi: A Literary Space, which looks spectacular and vital both content-wise and visually. Poke around the issue when you get a chance.

Oh–and remember that Día de los Gatos is a bedtime story, so read it out loud to loved ones. Or maybe to your cats.

Click below to read:

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