Sergio De La Torre, Associate Professor of Fine Arts in the Department of Art + Architecture at USF, was recently awarded the Art for Justice Fund grant for $100,000. The fund is focused on supporting and promoting art projects that take on the prison industrial complex in the United States. Awardees are nominated from a large pool of individual artists and artists’ collectives working in the United States.
Prof. De La Torre was nominated for the remarkable work of his Sanctuary City Project, which investigates the actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the implications of border arrests, and the emergence of private detention centers. Using art that includes print-making, banners, billboards, photography, and video, Prof. De La Torre’s goal is to reveal the hidden and not-so-hidden motivations behind the U.S. government’s punitive actions in the sphere of immigration and the space of the U.S – Mexico border.
In our conversation, Prof. De La Torre talked about the award, his work, and future projects.
Tell us how you received the award and your reaction on learning about it?
When I received the award, I got an email in March 2022 from a person saying that they were looking for Sergio De La Torre because he, that is I, had received an Art for Justice Fund award. At first, I thought this was a phishing email. Is this real? The email sender then said that if I don’t believe him, I should check my spam folder. I did, and there it was, in my USF email spam folder where it said I had received an award from the Art for Justice Fund in the amount of $100,000. I was absolutely elated!
Going back, can you tell us how you got into art, or became an artist?
That’s another funny story. I finished high school in Mexico when I was 17 years old. I was born in San Diego and so was an U.S. citizen living in Mexico. At 18, in Mexico, you have to decide which citizenship you are going to pick (back then, 1984, there was no dual citizenship) and so I picked the U.S. I never saw myself living in the United States and therefore was kind of surprised that I picked U.S. citizenship. I couldn’t continue studying in Mexico as a national but had to continue as a foreigner and with tuition very high, I didn’t go to school for three years. I had to then establish residency in the U.S., which is when I started working in San Diego. During this time, I took ESL classes, and got thoroughly bored. A friend of mine said, “study art because you don’t need to speak English.” And that’s how I got into photography, painting, design, drawing, and printmaking at the Southwestern College in Chula Vista.
The art teachers there were part of a collective focused on “border art.” They organized art events – performances, dinner parties, conversations – and had branched out into these other forms in contrast to traditional drawing, painting, and sculpture. Back then, the border didn’t have a wall, it wasn’t militarized, and was far more fluid (that’s where most of the migration from other parts of South and Central America took place, through Tijuana).
During the 1980s, I was not particularly drawn to “border art” or the kind of work my teachers were doing. I didn’t fully understand these forms of art practice and their implications. After coming to San Francisco in the early 90s—I came to study photography at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC)— acquiring some physical distance between myself and the border is what helped me understand my relationship to the border and the art practices around it. Later, I went and got an MFA in Fine Art at UC San Diego where I worked on my film MAQUILAPOLIS that examines the lives of factory workers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The film premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and was received very well.
So, my becoming an artist, and my current practice, owes a lot to my early teachers who were practicing “border art’, in particular Liz Sisco.
What can you tell us about your art practice?
During my arts education, I came to the realization that museums and galleries were no longer at the center for the display and dissemination of art. There were other places that were far more vital for art. That realization changed my practice and made me focus more on process, research, interactions with audiences, talking to subjects, and so on. Subsequently, I turned these immersive and experiential practices into artwork. My work is indeed present in museums and galleries but understanding these processes and practices has informed my work.
What projects are you working on and what are your plans for the future?
An immediate project is to finish a book for the Sanctuary City project. The book will include every phrase we have collected and every poster we have made – about 40 of them – that speak about immigration issues and sanctuary cities. The book will also include data about immigration policy and practice from 1989, when San Francisco became a sanctuary city, to the present. I also have new projects I am working on, in particular about “surveillance ankle monitors” and for that I am working with Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) and the Dreamer Fund. My plan is to interview people that wear these monitors and understand the stigma as well as the emotional and psychological states they go through. I am envisioning an audio installation that expresses these feelings.
Installation of Sanctuary City posters at the Palo Alto Art Center.
Over 30 participants participated in a mezcal tasting ritual and drawing circle inspired by Yañez’s community practice and responded to music and other prompts in a no-shame and collegial atmosphere led by curator Rio Yañez with Roberto Varea. Drawing circles and collective art making were key elements in almost all of the exhibitions that René Yañez produced during his last decade. Artists and non-artists alike gathered to draw while he, acting as a symphonic conductor, curated prompts, models and music.
Following the recent publication of her monograph, Rubens and the Eloquence of Drawing (Routledge/Ashgate, 2017), Associate Professor Kate Lusheck (Art History & Museum Studies) discussed the graphic art of the great, seventeenth-century painter, Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640) in light of the historical and rhetorical concept of eloquence. In this large lecture style talk, Lusheck presented a close, case study approach, focusing in detail on how one Rubens drawing of Medea and her dead children powerfully demonstrates the artist’s interest in drawing together form and content through an unusually conscious approach to style and emulation. Cross-disciplinary in her concerns, Lusheck demonstrated how such spectacles of graphic eloquence, grounded in borrowing from ideas located in great texts and objects of the distant and recent past, highlight Rubens’s fascination with creating more conceptually robust models of design. She contends that in the end, such drawings reflect the inimitable ways of thinking of an erudite, humanist artist who loved to design as much in his mind as on paper.
Ten members of the University of San Francisco community responded to ten unique objects in Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps. Artifacts were created by people of Japanese ancestry while being held in detention centers— Department of Justice camps and ten permanent camps. Perspectives incorporated personal history and stories, scholarly analysis, and creative expression. The event featured perspectives from each presenter and was followed by a reception.
Hana Mori Böttger (College of Arts and Sciences, Art + Architecture)
Brian Dempster (College of Arts and Sciences, Rhetoric and Language)
Sara Fan (Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence)
Saera Khan (College of Arts and Sciences, Psychology)
Sherise Kimura (Gleeson Library | Geschke Center)
Nick Large (Information Technology Services)
Noriko Milman (College of Arts and Sciences, Sociology)
Brynn Saito (College of Arts and Sciences, Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program)
Peggy Takahashi (School of Management, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs)
I was asked to share a reflection/response to the exhibit Anting Anting | Magic Objects by Michael Arcega at a Thacher/CRASE collaborative event “Inspirations from Anting Anting: Magic Objects of Protection.”
Art is not only personal to the artist who created it but also to the person viewing it. I chose the piece “Doña Señorita”: Matriarchal power enhancement. I was drawn to it initially because I love señorita bananas. At a deeper level, the piece makes me remember my home, my family. It symbolizes the generations of Locsin women – past, present and future.
I am from my mother, my father
From Wo Sin Lok
from Amoy 268 years ago
I am from my family,
small, quiet, large, noisy, 5 in 82
I am from the garnet
hard, durable, yet soft, vulnerable
I am from the diamond
unique, creative, reflecting light to make rainbows
I am from my grandmother
petite, powerful, God fearing,
I am from those who attend Mass, pray the novena
yet believe the theories of Darwin and Lemaitre
I am from the sugar capital of the Philippines
from the home of the aswang
I am from the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
yet believe in the lore of kapre, dwende, tiyanak
I pray the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Glory Be
but say “Tabi Tabi po” to pay respects to the elementals
I am from Washington DC
but call myself a proud Ilongga
I am from the Balay Dako
from the house that burnt to ashes
I am from the Bisaya, Hiligaynon
gentle, soft-spoken, meek
yet direct, honest, to the point
I am from the ones who taught me right from wrong
those who taught me the importance of delicadeza
yet I live in the land where it is non-existent
I am from my Yaya Goya
I am from my Lola Inday
the king, queen, empress, the last word
I am from the Holy Rosary
Ako ang nanay ni Isabel
I am 112235121
Ako ang nanay ni Isabel means I am Isabel’s mother.
Aswang means witch
Balay Dako means big house
Delicadeza means being refined or having manners, etiquette. it means having the sense of propriety or how to behave under the circumstance.
Dwende is a dwarf who live in anthills, termite mounds (punso) who are either good or bad
Ilongga refers to the females of the Visayans who speak the Hiligaynon/Illongo dialect.
Kapre is a Philippine mythical tree giant
“Tabi tabi, po” means excuse me, pardon me, please move to the side
Tiyanak is a vampiric creature who imitates the form of a child; sounds like a child and when someone picks it up, it goes back to its true form and attacks.
Liza Locsin is Assistant to the Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is a ninth generation Pilipino (of Chinese origin). 112235121 is her number in the Locsin genealogy. There are 82 people in her family on her father’s side.
The day I started writing this essay, two students were killed in yet another high school shooting in the United States. This time it was in New Mexico. The day I came back to revise, a policeman had shot and killed a 6-year old boy in San Antonio. Today, as I go back over this a third time, there was a school shooting in Kentucky. Two students were killed; 18 injured. Every day I have returned to work on this piece, there has been a shooting in this country—two were school shootings. I will type that again: Every day I have returned to work on this piece, there has been a shooting in this country—two were school shootings.
On Monday, December 5, 2017, the nation paid remembrance to the Sandy Hook school shooting, a massacre of 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, which happened five years ago. That same day, a book I’ve been working on for close to two years was published to commemorate and honor those who survived.
And those who did not.
That book, Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, is an attempt to address what public health experts are calling an epidemic in contemporary America. Bullets into Bells pairs 50 poems by a range of American poets with responses from survivors of shootings, community leaders, and activists in the anti-gun violence movement. For example, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams responds to “Dancing,” an incredible poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, that traces the history of ammunition, beginning with Prometheus stealing fire and ending with an indictment of colonial violence and the American propensity for mass killing, most recently at the Pulse Night Club:
They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
About this poem, Williams writes, “I love the myth of Prometheus stealing fire—stealing some of the god Zeus’s power—for the benefit of humans. I’d like to rewrite it for our times. In my version, Prometheus would steal gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and the makings of killer robots and bury them deep in a cave on Mt. Olympus. To save human beings from ourselves.”
In another heartbreaking collaboration, Samira Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, responds to Reginald Dwayne Betts’ unforgettable poem, “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving.” Betts’ poem begins:
My two young sons play
in the backseat while the video of Tamir dying
plays in my head, & for everything I do know, the thing
I don’t say is that this should not be the brick and mortar
Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, begins with a heartbreaking confession:
“When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America.” Toward the end of her response, she directs her anger, appropriately trenchant, at larger forces that continue to threaten the marginalized and disenfranchised: “Injustice in this country is pitiful and pathetic. The injustice starts with economics, education, and politicians.”
Samaria Rice’s voice joins a chorus of others – the Emergency Room doctor on call during and after the Sandy Hook shooting; DeAndra Yates, the mother of thirteen-year old Dre Yates, who was killed by a stray bullet fired from outside the birthday party he was attending; Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence, and Abbey Clements, the second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook who saved two children. Their words and those of some of America’s most celebrated poets—like former U.S. Poet Laureates Natasha Trethewey, Billy Collins, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Rita Dove—create a chorus that evokes both elegy and action.
None of us involved with the book know if it can have any short or long-term impact in regard to gun violence in the U.S. In truth, probably very little. But, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro read Abbey Clements’ statement from Bullets into Bells on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The book has received a great deal of attention from the mainstream press, including features in The Washington Post,The Boston Globe, and PBS. So, people are listening. People are reading.
But, are people changing? Are ideas galvanizing? I am not an optimist, but I am not a pessimist either. Somewhere between those poles is a belief that the right series of actions can’t, forever, do nothing.
The West Coast launch of Bullets into Bellswill take place on February 22, 2018 at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco. It will feature poets Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirschfield, and editors Alexandra Teague and Dean Rader. Respondents include Rev. Michael McBride, Catherine Stefani from Moms Demand Action, and George Garvis,Executive Director Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice.
Pedro Lange-Churion, Modern and Classical Languages
Tanu Sankalia, Art + Architecture
Sumer Seiki, Teacher Education
John Zarobell, International Studies
Global Manifestos was an innovative workshop for students, faculty and the public that encouraged individuals to share their experiences and reactions to the changes in the art community wrought by globalization. This event was part of the Forum for Transnational Collaboration that occurred on November 17th-18th, 2017, which brought scholars from around the world to voice their perspectives on how globalization has affected the art world in their own domains. The workshop provided an opportunity to elaborate on these vocalizations by giving all participants an opportunity to express their own views on globalization in the form of a manifesto that can be articulated in 60 seconds or less. Further, the organizers of the event (all members of the CRASE Art and Globalization Faculty Research Circle) brought camera equipment out to Oakland’s First Friday Arts Walk on October 6th and to the Minnesota Street gallery complex on October 14th to film public participation outside of the academy. We encouraged all participants to speak impromptu, but we also worked with USF students, faculty, and staff to script manifestos during the first day of the Forum that they could read or designate for others to read at the recording on November 18th. All of the participants of the forum were asked to draft or improvise a manifesto on globalization to ensure that many different global perspectives were represented.
The goal of the Global Manifestos Workshop was to present an alternative to the model of economic globalization by providing a platform for multiple and diverse articulations on globalization. The voices of artists, curators, and critics who do not operate in the United States and Europe have been considered marginal but scholars and professionals need to rethink these norms. Further, the sense the public has about the effects of globalization on their daily lives has not been explored in this context. Thus, the focus was to explore the developments of artists and institutions from the (former) periphery that diffuse their own innovations into global culture and, in so doing, transform the meaning of the visual arts, social dynamics and market processes of the art world. We believe that alternative geographies result from new cultural and economic patterns and these develop unprecedented networks of engagement and participation that this forum was able to capitalize on. The resulting film not only presents the global participants, but also local voices from various communities throughout the city who were encouraged to record their own views. We found locals—old and young, with a variety of professional experiences, ethnic backgrounds, and perspectives on the impact of globalization in their lives—to speak on camera. In this way, we have sought to maximize the variety of voices that contribute to the fabric of the completed film.
Jose Luis Aranda, a graduate student from USF, worked with Director Pedro Lange-Churion to edit the final version of the film so none of the manifestos are viewed in complete form. This intentional approach contributes to a kaleidoscopic whole that reflects a wide array of voices that exemplify diversity and demonstrate the many perspectives on preservation in the midst of change.
Dean Rader’s writing spans poetry, painting, literary criticism, and translation. During our conversation, we discussed landscape, identity, and research. On the sunny windowsill was The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault.
How did you first become interested in research?
I fell in love with researching as an undergraduate. I loved going to the library and wandering around the stacks. I was the research assistant for the poet at our university, and part of my duties was making copies of poems and articles for the classes he was teaching. So, when I made copies for him, I would also, secretly, make copies for myself! Thus began a life of research, reading, and compiling.
Once I became a professor, I expanded the way I integrated research and writing. I was writing poems, doing translation, and writing literary criticism. I found that research made its way into all three, though a little differently depending on the genre. I love wearing many writerly hats, and research helps ensure I look less goofy in each.
How do you navigate different writing identities?
I don’t always think about a genre—at least not as first—when I’m thinking about writing. Usually there’s some sort of problem that I want to solve or some idea I want to explore. When I sit down to start “writing,” I don’t know if it’s going to be an essay or poem or perhaps even the makings of a scholarly article. For me, my hat as a poet and my hat of a critic are often very similar hats, just never berets.
All of the poems in Landscape, Portrait, Figure, Form are about art, use the vocabulary of art, or explore the ways the vocabulary of art and poetry overlap and intersect. For example, terms like “figuration,” “portrait,” “line,” and “grammar” are used in both art and poetry. My interest in the ways written text and visual text talk to each other spills over into other things I write about.
I was recently asked to contribute a long essay for an art exhibit catalogue since I have this poetic interest in landscape. My task was to write about landscape painting, which, I don’t mind saying, was really out of my comfort zone. I did a lot of research on the history of landscape painting and found correspondences with pastoral poetry. And, before I knew it and sort of by accident, I had a way into the topic. Now, I’m writing about the Robert Motherwell exhibit at the de Young Museum. Motherwell is the American painter most influenced by poetry; I’m thinking about the different kinds of visual (and lexical) grammars.
Do you find that you’re drawn to specific elements of the landscape or history of landscape?
I think that landscape painting is in some ways the most literary of paintings. There are often horizontal lines like in a book. I was always attracted to how the poetic line stretches across the page; its ability to live on a page the way paint might live on a canvas. It’s hard to explain it less abstractly than that except to say that my interest in landscape is both formal—how things look on a canvas or on a page—but it’s also interpretive. Writing is often about how we take in the world, how we see ourselves placed in context, how one paints one’s place, how one writes oneself into a world.
In my forthcoming book, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, there are several poems that carry the title “Self Portrait,” often something like “American Self-Portrait” or “Self-Portrait with Reader.” They don’t always have much to do with “me,” but they do explore how the speaker of the poem might be misplaced in a landscape or perplexed in a situation. I think that portraiture, especially self-portraiture, is an interesting way of pretending to write about the self while actually writing about other things; or to be more precise, how the self can look both inward and outward. Landscape can refer to both internal and external landscapes; identity can refer to both individual and national notions of self. I’m very interested in this notion of identity being formed in relation to what’s around you. Perhaps the best way to write about or illustrate the self is to write about or illustrate what’s around the self.
How does translation or working with translation impact other aspects of writing and research?
I was on sabbatical last year, and a former University of San Francisco student, Katie Jan, and I collaborated on a translation of Pablo Neruda’s long poem The Heights of Macchu Picchu. We read what Neruda had written about the poem, we read every translation of the Alturas we could find, and we read what critics had written about the poem—all in order to get things right. We relied on research to help us latch onto rhythm, a political angle, and moments of social commentary. Translation is about being precise, and I think this is what research is also about—precision. Getting things right. That’s what good writing is about. Research moves you closer and closer to the target, decreasing the chance you will miss wildly.
What is the relationship between your research and your writing and your writing and your research?
After you get to a certain point in your career as a reader and writer, it’s hard to know what’s research and what’s not research. Going to a film or going to the ocean might be research the same way as poring over books and articles is research. Hanging out with my kids I think is a kind of research. Just the other day, I was reading a children’s book to my three year old, and the narrative in the story did something clever. I thought you know what I’m going to write a poem that does this very trick. For a writer, life is research. I know that in my head the research switch is never turned off.
How does research work with teaching and vice versa?
I do a lot of research for my classes. When I teach literature classes, I read a great deal of literary criticism on the texts I’m teaching as well as relevant literary theory and poetic theory. Last year, I taught a class on 21st Century American Literature. Everything we read had been published since 2001—poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. One of the things that made teaching this class difficult is that it was nearly impossible to do research on the books because only one or two had been out long enough for scholars to write about them. So, on many days, I felt like I was flying blind.
Prepping for class—whether it’s re-reading, consulting scholarly texts, looking over all your notes—all goes into what I think of as the research bucket. You have this bucket and every time you read a poem it goes in there. Every time you try to explain an Emily Dickinson poem to your students, it somehow goes in there. Every student paper you read goes in there. Every crazy idea you have about literature goes in there. Everything is in the research bucket—everything you think about, every place you go, all the photographs you take, it’s all in there. You don’t always know when you’re going to need those things as a writer or teacher, but one day, you will be teaching some obscure poem, and something you saw in a museum twelve years ago will be there in your bucket to help you not look like a bonehead in front of your students. I think all of that is part of what it means to be a thoughtful teacher and a careful writer.
There’s a great quote that I use in my Engaged Resistance book. A well-known art critic argues that there’s really no difference between art and non-art. For me, there is no real difference between research and non-research. Even if the content of the research winds up irrelevant, the process of combing through and discarding things—that glorious act of culling—is a creative process.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got another book of poems, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, coming out next year with Copper Canyon Press, and I’m finishing up final edits on that. I’m writing about the Robert Motherwell exhibit that’s at the de Young. I have this idea for this half-scholarly / half-popular book on how to read poetry that could be used as a textbook or as a book a general reader might pick up and subsequently ignore. I just sent off the final version of an essay on Wallace Stevens and contemporary poetry that is forthcoming in American Poet, and I’m deep in a collaborative book I’m very excited about. Over the past two years, the poet Simone Muench and I have been writing collaborative poems we’re calling “The Frankenstein Sonnets.” A book of the poems, entitled Suture, will appear in 2017 from Black Lawrence Press. We’ve decided what poems will go in, but we are playing with organization and order. We’re picking out cover images now. We’ve narrowed things down to some beautifully spooky ones.
How does working on the poetry guide change how you talk about poetry or reading poetry?
My thoughts about writing poems and writing about poems are evolving together. Increasingly I’m thinking about ways to write poems that poets would like, respect and respond to and that non-poets would like, respect and respond to. The potential audience of poetry is larger than most people think. I am constantly wondering how I can enlarge the pool. It’s an uphill battle. I keep trying to convince people that they do not need to fear getting poems wrong. They should just concentrate on enjoying them. My hope is that my poems and my writing about poetry will draw people to the field.
What are some other questions that you find yourself thinking about?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about if there’s a way to make poems have an immediate visceral impact the way powerful paintings do. When you go into the SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) or the Met and see a Van Gogh or a Goya or a Pollock, there is an instant effect. For me, it’s Motherwell, Paul Klee and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. When I look at works by these painters, I feel an immediate emotional and intellectual sensation. It is instant, and it goes beyond simple thinking. We don’t obsess over what a Monet painting means or if we’re getting a Miro painting wrong. We just enjoy them. I’m jealous of a painter’s ability to take up a room and have that immediate impact. I’ve been thinking about ways to make poetry approximate that.
My other obsession is whether literature can have any kind of social and political impact. I try to get at this in a book I edited last year, 99 poems for the 99 Percent: An Anthology of Poetry. Can people turn to poetry as a way to help make sense of pressing social issues like poverty, repossession, unemployment? Can poetry be a viable genre for commenting on and offering insight into our social dilemmas? That’s really an ongoing question for me. Just last week, I was invited to help put together an anthology of poems about gun violence.
Lastly, I always wonder about the relationship between writing and other aspects of living? Does writing and reading make you a better human? I hope so. If they make you worse, I’m in trouble…
How does your writing interact with the world?
As I said earlier, the poems in my new book simultaneously look inward and outward. There are poems that intervene in recent American history; poems that confront racial and gun violence, economic issues, environmental questions, and a seemingly fading memory of the past. There are a series of poems with the title “American Allegory” and a series entitled “American Self-Portrait” as well as some called “American Landscape.” These poems argue that how we make the self—how we fashion the internal landscape—is similar to how we make a nation—how we fashion the external landscape.
Last year I wrote a poem called “Labor.” It’s probably the longest poem I’ve ever written and one of the most personal. When I was 14, I was a carhop at the Sonic Drive-In in Weatherford, Oklahoma, a small farm town out in Western Oklahoma. The poem is about a confluence of events involving bringing Cokes and tater tots to a father and daughter who realize they don’t have enough money to pay for their order and a horrible accident on an oil rig outside of my hometown. These things come together along with my ongoing fear that what I do might not be considered “work” by the people in that very town. My “labor” involves crouching over a notebook or sitting in front of a computer screen, trying to wrestle language and ideas into something meaningful and perhaps even beautiful, which is very hard but very different from working on an oil rig. In my hometown, most people, including my family, would be skeptical of writing a poem being “work.” It is certainly a hugely different kind of labor. I’m always aware of that.
Do you feel a relationship with your work and your hometown?
I’ve found myself writing more and more about Oklahoma lately. I’m collaborating with the great Choctaw poet and fiction writer LeAnne Howe, who is also from Oklahoma. She and I are and trading poems and letters about Oklahoma. We’re both lamenting Oklahoma’s great devolution. The state is in a terrible mess. When I was the age of my sons, the state was much different. Its slow slide into poor health, poor schools, and poor social programs is beyond tragic.
Now that I have kids, I’m thinking more about my own childhood. My childhood could not be more different than the one my kids have. I think rural Oklahoma would be a hard place to live now; so I’m nostalgic for the Oklahoma that I love, angry about the Oklahoma that is there now, and curious about what can be done.
The most personal poem in my forthcoming book is about Oklahoma. I don’t know if anyone from my home state will read it, but I suppose the poem, called “Geographic Self-Portrait” (which was inspired by a poem about Indiana by USF poet Bruce Snider) is a sort of love song to the Oklahoma I used to love.
Does landscape factor into this process?
Yes. Perhaps. I often wonder if where I live in the city, The Richmond, influences how often I think about the landscape of Oklahoma. I see the ocean every day, and in San Francisco, the ocean most resembles the wheat fields of western Oklahoma. I grew up seeing this wavy landscape stretch out in front of me. For me, landscape is always a nearly empty, wavy horizon. Here, when I go out to the ocean, the rippling waves look a lot like the wheat rippling in the Oklahoma wind. For whatever reason I always remember looking west, perhaps that was where the world flattened out a little. This meant I was often looking toward the sunset. When I go to Ocean Beach, I am always looking toward the sunset. Directionally, from a topographical perspective, the ocean and the wheat field are shockingly similar.