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. Local readings are archived at www.sicklyseason.com. He is collaborates with artist Arturo Romo-Santillano and other writers on the website, www.ELAguide.org. His most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex and the hybrid text World Ball Notebook.
Going Bushwhack: An Interview with Sesshu Foster by Monica Thunder
The first time I met Sesshu Foster, I asked if being a writer was depressing. He had just given a guest lecture in my intermediate creative writing class, and, him being the first “real writer” I had met, I wanted to ask him a “real” question. He assured me, yes, being a writer is depressing. I rememberthinking this was strange. Foster is the author of three award winning books, has been featured in several anthologies, and won the American Book Award, twice, among others. Why would he be depressed? Wasn’t he living any writer’s dream? He told me writing is depressing because it involves sitting in a room, alone, in your own world, isolated from the world other people live in. Foster can admit to this because for him, writing is not romantic. It can be as harsh and ugly as a nearly severed finger on a construction site, as destructive as a mushroom cloud, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, as simple as the faint sound of a sea lion barking from across the bay.
I contacted Foster again a few months ago. This time, he showed me how narrative takes on technocrats, how we have to go bushwhack to read poetry, and how Frankenstein still keeps us up at night. Foster managed to convince me that while being a writer may be depressing, it’s still worth doing in this twenty-first century of ours.
M.T. You write both fiction and poetry. What can a poem “say” that fiction can’t? And vice versa? And how does your method for each differ?
S.F. For me they genres overlap. I like the documentary aspect of narrative so that often shows up in whatever I write. Most of what I publish features narrative, as I see that as a useful tool. “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” Muriel Rukeyser famously stated (she wrote both prose and poetry). Narratives are useful not merely because they document our Universe, but also — perhaps more importantly — because new stories challenge the narratives that we live our lives by and don’t realize it, that we don’t question ourselves. Until a real writer comes along. This is one reason why people continually demand new stories. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story has been a best-seller since its publication and is retold every year on stage and screen precisely because it offers a counternarrative to the worthless lies of technocrats and politicians who tell us that to submit to endless capital and technology is the final solution. Frankenstein, like Moby Dick, warns us otherwise.
If a narrative is more of a socially negotiated agreed upon series of conventions (dialogue shall be placed in quotation marks in America, but not in England, for example; the narrator shall be first person or third person, etc…), all the conventions of narrative reflecting the negotiations of literary tradition, then poetry is seen as a more autochthonous, individualist, maverick — not adhering to nor following upon Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy, the elements of which remain so influential in narrative forms of storytelling, theater, movies, novels. The sources of poems are more wild, more diverse: poetry comes from conversational speech and public speeches, from prayer, utterance, spells, sayings, proverbs, mnemonic phrases and words, images and notions, whims — not insignificantly, poems often come from the rational intellect being defeated, unsuspected emotions rising to expression, the calculating mind replaced by something more primal. If narratives speak through socially agreed-upon conventions and work to subvert social expectations, inventing new stories, then poems can simply start from that place —beyond conventional, customary language. That’s why most readers cannot abide poetry. It’s only for those willing to go off-road, bushwhack, go off the grid and get outside boundaries. Of course there are poetic conventions and traditions also, but you’re asking me to draw a line between poetry and prose.
To make it brief, my methodologies overlap in many areas related to writing. This relates to one of your questions below. Where they differ is, perhaps, that in narrative the novelist or storyteller keeps going back to the story till it is done with her or him. The poet goes to figures of speech.
M.T. If I may paraphrase, you said in an interview with Amy Uyematsu in 1997 that you were interested in voices and the rhythm of the spoken language, that you find the way people talk poetic. Sixteen years later, have these rhythms changed? How?
S.F. Have rhythms of Americans speaking changed since 1997? Not really, I think. Maybe people are more tentative, more subdued, by economic cycles of dispossession and waste and income redistribution from the working class to the rich. Maybe Americans sound more tentative. I usually work with specifics. This past year we lost some great poets, Jayne Cortez in December 2012, and in the past year Amiri Baraka and Wanda Coleman. What voices do we have that can speak truth to power like they did? I am grateful for our California Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, for example.
M.T. Your work has been called experimental. Do you agree or disagree? Why? If not, what is considered “not” experimental today?
S.F. Experimentalism has been a feature and methodology of 20th century Modernism, going back to the late 19th century. I don’t disagree that it’s a feature of my work; I’d disagree that any original writer is not experimenting with innovation in some aspect of her or his work. It’s a standard feature, like twenty-one speeds on a bike. What is considered “not” experimental are prose fiction writers who don’t alter much their accepted conventions of paragraphing, sentence structure, POV, etc. Often those prose fiction writers are selling conventional stories that don’t challenge prevailing narratives in our lives (genrefied, murder mysteries, romances, etc.) to insecure readers. I enjoy employing techniques of contemporary poetry when I am writing prose, and deploying techniques of prose fiction in hybridized books I write (such as World Ball Notebook) that are marketed as poetry. I can tell you which one sells more.
M.T. Sir Philip Sidney says in his Defence of Poesy that “[Nature’s] world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden,” and this is a good thing because it gives people a moral standard to strive toward. Do you think this is true for poetry today? During Sidney’s time, poetry was under fire because it was considered the “mother of lies,” a waste of time, a force that made men sin, something that removed real courage and valor from reality and put it into poems, etcetera… Today fiction writing and poetry attract critique in the university (and lose funding) because we live in a world increasingly centered on science and technology. If you had to give your own Defence of 21st century poetry, what would your argument be? And what line would we still be quoting five hundred years in the future?
S.F. Contemporary poetry is so diverse as to include Kenneth Goldsmith’s work and that of like-minded conceptualists—he once retyped an edition of the New York Times and published it as a book — to (UC Davis professor) Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr and (UCSC professor) David Lau who argue for “poetry and writing anti-capitalist and anti-state politics” to neoRomantic lyric poets who might argue that their tender little quatrains are the last bastion against industrialized processed feeling. It’s very diverse, out there in Poetry Land. My defence of poetry—and literary writing in general—is that it’s democratic. It’s not all bad, it’s not all good. Some of it’s not going to work. Some of it is. Some of us are going to suffer and die and we’re not going to win. Keep your eyes on the prize. Some of us are gonna win. Some of us will get there. There’s only one way to get there. That is to go.
But I don’t care about one line somebody (I don’t know who that would be) would quote in five hundred years. If they are quoting any of us in five hundred years, good for them, it has done its work — because it serves their needs, whatever they may be, four hundred years after Global Warming.
M.T. What’s the most important thing you took away from your time at UCSC?
S.F. My girlfriend at the time—we got married in 1980 after graduation. Yesterday, I got a chance to tell her that she is my favorite person.
A Review of Atomik Aztek by Tyler Walicek
History has long provided writers with a basis for exploring alternative chronologies. There’s something alluring about tracing and uprooting the causal threads that have delivered us to present-day circumstance. To alter, by the means of fictional invention, some inchoate element is to then watch its ramifications cascade through time. From Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder” to a slew of speculative re-imaginings, alternate histories offer perspective, rumination—but generally confined to parallel worlds wherein the basic laws of our own still hold sway. Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex attempts something far bolder. Quite vertiginously, the novel unbounds narrative from deterministic causality, historical actuality, and the constraints of space and time.
The result is a work shot through with hallmarks of the postmodern: namely, upheavals and contortions of narrative and identity. Foster’s jingoistic, spiritual-technological ‘Azteks’ populate a world that is satirically reflective of the present day. Consumerism, labor exploitation, militarism, and our reverent, quasi-religious treatment of the scientific method are all dissected, magnified and caricatured. The “teknospiritual complexities of the modern world” – and that is to say, a world where the Aztec (‘Aztek’, in the novel) civilization flourished and attained geopolitical dominance – are navigated by the consultation of a pantheon of gods (“really just monikers for abstrakt koncepts”) and the gratuitous sacrifice of human hearts. Like all satire, this feature of the novel is an idea taken to its extreme. It’s a play on the predominant image most have of the historical Aztecs: a ziggurat drenched in blood from human sacrifice, a feather-bedecked priest holding high a heart as an offering to some rapacious deity. However, our own civilization contains within its history the sacrifice of similar millions, lost to “the anonymity of death into which whole peoples were driven”. And certainly, we still inhabit a world of comparable waste and excess.
In one of his trifold existences, Zenzontli, Aztex’s narrator, is a peon at a meat processing plant, out of the offal and slaughter of which comes a slickly packaged consumer product designed not to invite questions as to its origins. Our veneer of the civilized obscures its gruesome preconditions – the carnage of warfare (rendered in the book during a cross-temporal intervention by the Azteks, including another iteration of Zenzontli, in the Battle of Stalingrad). The book also skewers the ugly histories so sanitized by our nation’s dominant narrative: primarily the brutality and racism of colonialism (at various times, Aztek leadership in the book discusses the challenges of governing/harvesting the “primitive whites” in Europe), among other behind-the-scenes grotesqueries staining the path that has culminated in our materialist culture. Blue-collar Zenzontli, in his efforts to assist in the plant’s unionization, runs up against insipid bureaucracy, naked self-interest, and a power structure that has sublimated morality for the sake of profit. This timeline, concurrent with two others (past Zenzontli as an Aztek military officer, battling Nazis, and another where he is a prominent Aztek leader and intermediary between spirits and the corporeal world) – is punctuated with frenetic scenes of hyperviolence. The scenes describing the revolting, industrial abattoir and the casual slaughter of war, as well as the Azteks’ gore-filled rituals, elevate bloodshed to a degree that renders it a comic-book absurdity, as if to evoke the inconceivable cruelty and death toll of history. At times the novel seems to veer into the territory of violence for violence’s sake, reading more like entertainment than moral didacticism. However, it is leavened with a social conscience. The juxtaposition of blue-collar Zenzontli’s resignation to a life of working-class labor and the outsized, vainglorious exploits of his other timelines (which may well be imaginary) highlights the disenfranchisement and marginalization of wage slavery.
Stylistically, there’s a lot going on between Atomic Aztex’s two-hundred-odd pages. The prose is peppered with slang, brand names, corporate nomenclature, and non-sequiturs, reminiscent of Pynchon in its granularity of detail. The punctuation is playful, cheeky even – ampersands, italicizations, and the book’s interchangeable ‘k’s’ and ‘c’s’ both lend veracity (establishing distance from the ‘real’ world) and accelerate the kaleidoscopic frenzy into which Foster whips his prose. “Sometimes something in existence appears too strange, corny, absurd, or outrageous to exist” – and yet, the more erratic elements assiduously call attention to themselves within the novel’s multiplicitous fictive landscape. So, perhaps, they do not exist, and Atomik Aztex is a narrative of manic dreams, identities dissolved into their environs, and vice versa, the utter cacophonous disbanding of narrative direction and thereby time. An existence concocted not of measured, loping reality, but the “fake delusions of grandeur supplied by the dominant kulture”. Be a war hero, travel across time, be a lover and a saint and a murderer and a champion of the people – if one were empowered to actually enact the dissonant, polyphonic exhortations of our own media, the result would not be dissimilar from Zenzontli’s fevered and quixotic adventures. Temporality bleeds together, from cramped and labyrinthine prose blossoms fractal detail, and “your steps from here on out echo throughout overlapping levels of reality and akross chronologies”.