Browsing Articles Written by

Guest Contributor

Live Photos Music

Mexican Slum Rats and En-Vitro at the Glass House 6-22-24

by on July 3, 2024
En-Vitro – Photo by Oscar Celis
En-Vitro – Photo by Oscar Celis
En-Vitro – Photo by Oscar Celis
En-Vitro – Photo by Oscar Celis
En-Vitro – Photo by Oscar Celis
En-Vitro – Photo by Oscar Celis
En-Vitro – Photo by Oscar Celis
Photo by Oscar Celis
Mexican Slum Rats – Photo by Oscar Celis
Mexican Slum Rats – Photo by Oscar Celis
Mexican Slum Rats – Photo by Oscar Celis
Mexican Slum Rats – Photo by Oscar Celis
Mexican Slum Rats – Photo by Oscar Celis
Mexican Slum Rats – Photo by Oscar Celis
Mexican Slum Rats – Photo by Oscar Celis

Oscar Celis is a photographer and founder of First Class Studios based out of SoCal . Growing up in Southern California, he was always part of the music scene his sister use to be a music photographer he often went with her to local shows and concerts of his favorite bands.

Oscar used to think about how great it would have been to have those big shows documented better. That’s what drives him now to capture this era so future fans can appreciate it like he does. He leans towards music photography because, honestly, he’s terrible at making music himself, but he loves being part of the scene.

Album Review Music

Asco by Wazoo

by on June 24, 2024

Put yourself through a staggered cycle of existential dread with Wazoo’s latest, “ASCO”

The music scene is saturated with countless entities, so much so that regardless of narrowing it down to Los Angeles, discovering a distinct band presents its difficulties through an ocean of musicians. Luckily, In the past two years, Wazoo has slowly emerged within the LA DIY underground scene. The four piece has blatantly displayed their individuality through their chaotic onstage energy and noisy hardcore and shoegaze driven instrumentals. Now, with their first full length album (10 tracks), ASCO, released June 7th this year through Fusion LA, Wazoo has exhibited their potential as an upcoming local band. Packed with noise, melodic bass, and harsh vocals, ASCO takes you through the motions of existential dread as perceived by the band. The soft and ambient composition in the opening track, Bugland 01, may misguide new listeners. That is until the second track, Android, crashes in. Starting off with an ear-ringing guitar riff, then slamming into a heavier sound emphasized by blast-beats, we are swarmed by lyrics, “I feel it, I feel it in my head. I don’t want it in my head.” The scorching vocals that follow those statements can hardly be understood, adding to the chaotic and explosive outro which fades into pedal noise. Likewise, Flesh Eater (track 3) and Garbage (Track 6), include hardcore fingerprints primarily established by the drums and/or vocals. Even so, each track sets forth their distinction from traditional hardcore music through their lead guitarist’s experimental pedal usage, creating unique noise compositions evocative of bands like Sonic Youth. To illustrate, at minute 1:32 in Flesh Eater, following the first chorus, a disorderly electric pedal effect escalates and dissolves into a drum break around minute 1:51. This area of the song places a spotlight on their drummer as they slowly roll the track to build toward a faster time signature for the outro. The distinct raw and jungle-esque sound of the drummer’s snare is also accentuated as the other instruments dial down. Throughout the album, Wazoo illustrates their ability to organically blend disorder and allure. This aspect of the band is what makes them particularly inspiring during live performances as their energy and emotion floods into the crowd. Whether it be in small increments like Garbage’s dissonant introduction prior to eruption, or in ASCO’s third track, Comet Buster. Comet Buster highlights Wazoo’s duality, arranging a song packed with nostalgic feeling, making it a personal favorite throughout the album. The bass line in Comet Buster is quite notable, holding a beautiful melody reminiscent of songs E and TZC from their first release, Eat That! (EP, 2023), unveiling the growth the group is capable of. Encapsulating ASCO into words and even narrowing the piece down to a genre is tough as listeners are taken through a sporadic yet beautiful trip. Full of experimental noise, emotional bass/guitar, haunting vocals and animalistic drumming, the album is an auditory experience in itself that demands to be absorbed.

Photo by Bella Villa
Photo by Bella Villa
Photo by Bella Villa
Photo by Bella Villa
Photo by Bella Villa
Photo by Bella Villa

Kate De La Torre: Born and raised in Southeast Los Angeles, is a 21-year-old community oriented and first-generation Chicana artist. Having focused on visual arts and journalism prior to graduating high school in 2021, De La Torre found herself embarking on an unexpected journey after throwing her first DIY house show on June 18, 2022, under DIY Collective, Rosie’s Pad!. The collective formed with a goal to grow a warm and welcoming community within the local music and art scene for young adults within Los Angeles county. Additionally, she is in the LA based band, Sugarhead. De La Torre also holds bilingual art classes for her elementary school community in Downtown Los Angeles.

katerinosteeth (at) gmail.com

Bella Villa is an up and coming photographer in the LA scene. Her signature photography is personal, scintillating, and infused with surrealism that showcases her experimental style. From vibrant editorials to live music shots, each photo is filled with vibe and intimacy. Look out for her work.

Book Review

Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma by Sonia Gutiérrez

by on June 11, 2024

Review by Frank Mundo:

When I received “Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma,” the latest poetry collection by bilingual writer and poet Sonia Gutiérrez from El Martillo Press (April 2024), I was surprised by its unusual heft. 180 pages is quite a lot these days for a poetry collection by a single artist. Turns out, however, the high page count is a direct result of the book’s unique presentation – at least, it’s a format I’d never seen before. Not only bilingual, some of the poems are also described as “interlingual” in the book’s introduction by Mexican writer Susana Bautista Cruz. Interlingual is the relationship between two languages, which, in this case, refers to the natural, multicultural (and inevitable?) mashup of English and Spanish by Latinos and Chicano Americans into, essentially, a “new” language known as Spanglish.

Divided into three sections, the book presents 14, 12, and 14 bilingual poems, respectively, each one printed side-by-side, first in English and then in Spanish. A smaller selection of Spanglish versions of the poems, translated in this collection by bilingual poet and musician Francisco J. Bustos, are shared after that. Offering these poems in all three languages this way is interesting to me and, I would argue, an empowering poetic exercise and experience for fluent readers and speakers of any of these languages. In the third section, there’s also a single bilingual short story called, “Teresa and the Birds Inside,” which is Gutiérrez’ take on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” except her version takes place at a DMV in San Diego with a broken A/C and which is possibly haunted by what seems to be a flock of horrible screeching birds. Finally, several illustrations and other bonus features help fill out the book’s 180 pages, including the bilingual versions of the introduction, acknowledgments, and a helpful discussion guide for book clubs and educators.

My favorite piece in the book is “The Giver of Poems,” a beautiful and vivid homage to the prolific Chicano poet and educator Francisco X. Alarcón, who, with insight and compassion, explored in his writing important themes in Latino and gay identity, mythology, the Nahuatl language, Mesoamerican history, and American culture. In “The Giver of Poems,” there’s a sense of peace and clarity, but also a playful tone that seems apropos. The speaker of the poem is experiencing an inspiring and lucid or “woken” dream, where the unnamed Giver of Poems, perhaps Alarcón himself, awakens “on white / sheets of paper” in a sky full of “luminous letters.” Using his hands, he “kneads words / forming clouds / made of poems.” Don’t sleep on the wordplay here with knead and need. This joyful little literary moment pays off later when The Giver takes a break, of all things, “and goes up the stairs / of a giant / uppercase A” until “laughing and smiling,” he “goes down its slide” with his arms “wide open.” I can’t help but smile picturing Alarcón, who Gutiérrez calls her Chicano role model and Literary Saint, on a break from making clouds into poems with his bare hands, only to slide down the slope of an upper-case letter A with his arms in the air.

Listen to Sonia Gutiérrez reading the “Poema Giver” para–Francisco X. Alarcón, the Spanglish version of “The Giver of Poems.”

 

I asked Gutiérrez about her homage to Alarcón and how he became such a major influence in her work and her life. “His poetry is medicina,” she told me. His work “allows us to look at the Mexican American (the Chicano) experience through a historical context.” Like so many of us do, Gutierrez got her poetry legs in an Intro to Poetry course in school, unearthing poetry gems from that giant Norton poetry anthology. These excavated poets would serve as her “professors and teachers” at that time, helping her recognize what poetry is, what it looks like, and what it could do and be. She told me that’s why she teaches Alarcón’s work sometimes in her own college classrooms, so her students can discover and experience his work, too. She also said she liked how Alarcón told fellow poets often that he didn’t write poems, “he wrote tattoos,” which was the title of his first poetry collection. She admired the way he composed poetry against convention without capitalizing words and using periods, and the meaning he shared behind this creative choice ‒ that the period, he said, would come at the end.  

In “Bones Speak,” another nod to Alarcón and his multicolumn poem, Gutiérrez offers a “tattoo” of her own. According to the book’s Notes section, Alarcón says the columns of poems are “like copal smoke signals.” And since “Bones Speak” is also one of the works selected for Spanglish translation by Bustos, we get to experience the full power of this triple-column collaborative composition, with all three versions, side-by-side on one page, one in each column – and wow! It’s a stunning example of poetic expression. 

But this collection is more than an homage to Alarcón or to bilingual or even interlingual poetry. Timely stories, histories, narratives, dreams, and testimonies explore subjects in themes of human, environmental, social, and cultural dignity. Before reading the book, I asked Gutiérrez about her writing and what readers might expect. “Ever since I was a child,” she told me, “my way of seeing the world has always been through a lens of social justice.” So, years later, when Gutiérrez discovered poetry and started writing her own poems, it made sense that she would write about the issues that, as a poet, needed to be addressed.

“I’m a poet concerned about humanity,” she said. “I’m a poet concerned

with the environment. A poet that would like for people to have dialogical communication about pressing issues. Anything that needs to be addressed

we should have the ability to discuss.”

In “Testimony of a Tree,” we get just that, a firsthand account of what it’s like to be the trees along Highway 805 in San Diego, who “had wished their lives / on the superhighway / would always be green.” Interestingly, the first three of the four stanzas of this scathing environmental poem are offered in first-person plural: “but nobody asked us / why one day we turned pale, / our bark fell and arms / went bare.” The final stanza, however, switches to first-person singular – a foreman, perhaps? A delegated representative? Maybe the star witness, who knows? Either way, in the final stanza of this testimony, we get our grass absolutely handed to us: “What I do know is we never / dreamed of living next to / burning black asphalt / breathing in the sulfuric waste / of humanity away from the birds / and bees…”

In “Neither Rooster, Nor Bird, Nor Human,” we learn what things are by what they are not – starting and ending with the rooster, the bird, and the human. A very short piece, it’s even shorter on forgiveness – and the last stanza will stay with me for a long time. Looking now in the book, I see that I circled this stanza because I knew I’d need to come back to it later: “A human is not a human; / he is an inhumane animal, / killing the Earth / with his utter will.”

In “An American Landscape,” we visit that “chilly February night / under a star-spangled sky…” where Trayvon Martin “…stayed warm / fastened like a monk…” or what some called a thug, in his hoodie.

“The Indictment of Index Fingers and Thumbs,” is an indictment of our justice system in America. It opens with the poet, standing before “Judge Justice…” who is examining the six index fingers and six thumbs that facilitated the shooting deaths of Charles Smith, John Crawford III, Micheal Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and India Kager. “Who pulled the trigger?” the Judge asks, and the fingers and thumbs, “Dumbfounded and with white knees…” “…pointed at the firearms…”

In “Bakr Red Petals on a Beach,” Gutiérrez addresses the four children from the Bakr family, ages 9-12, who were killed by a missile from the Israeli naval force on the fishing beach west of Gaza City: “With bull’s-eye precision / on an open shore / Flower Killers came to Gaza…”

“The Colors of Death” personifies Fukushima and grills her about the nuclear accident that poisoned the ocean and displaced at least 164,000 people: “Ask Fukushima / if she drank clean water / this morning.”

Finally, in “Eulogy for Súper Pancho from the Land of Maiz,” one of the longest poems in the collection, the poet responds to Donald Trump’s painful and unfair statements about Mexicans during his presidential announcement speech in 2016. Súper Pancho, our brave hero, with his “corn-tortilla cape” and shovel, “his super weapon,” is paired against Mr. Liberty Mouth, who’s “snarling mouth” spews “torture words.” There’s a nice black-and-white illustration of Súper Pancho whose “tamale arms / and legs don’t hide / from the scorching sun / to sell diamond-faced / watches nor does he build / golden hotel skyscrapers, / reaching for the Green / Dollar God.”

There are so many standout and outstanding poems in this collection that it’s difficult to choose which ones to highlight and which ones to neglect. I had a similar reaction or experience a couple years ago when I read “Dreaming with Mariposas,” Gutiérrez’ debut novel from Flowersong Press. Made up of vignettes (mostly 1-3 pages), we follow the coming-of-age of two sisters, butterflies in a family of dreamers in So-Cal during the late 70s and 80s. For most of the book, I honestly thought I was reading her memoir because the details were so rich and real and accurate.

I asked Gutiérrez if she had a goal or objective when writing poetry. “When my poem is in front of someone and they’re reading it,” she said, “my goal is that they’re moved, that they’re looking at the world through a lens or a perspective they had never contemplated before.”

She also said there was a quote in the letters of Emily Dickinson that really summed up her objective when it comes to writing poetry:

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me,
I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken
off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any
other way?”

In English, Spanish, or even Spanglish, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma is available now from El Martillo Press.  

Frank Mundo is a poet from Los Angeles. His latest chapbooks are Touched by an Anglo (Kattywompus Press) and Eleven Sundry Flowers (Antrim House).

Music Poetry

Violet isn’t Blue by Timothy Nolan

by on June 5, 2024

You told me it was your favorite Billie Holiday song. I was already hooked but silently swooned. Mine’s been You’ve Changed since the waitress I worked with at the Waldorf Astoria told me it was hers. She was a chanteuse who sang it at clubs I’d never heard of. WNEW’s Make-Believe Ballroom broadcast from the lobby by Peacock Alley once a month as she served tea and I bussed lilac teapots and cups to music from the 30s and 40s. She’d always ask them to play it but they were more of a Glenn Miller and Sinatra affair. One day they let her sing it after the show and I understood. Maybe I could feel a You’ve Changed moment coming for me. But then you came along with the Lady in Satin CD, Billie’s bare shoulder and pulled back hair in quarter-view before a smokey plum seamless. You hit track 6 and handed me the headphones. And all I wanted was your April in that December, the day you brought me Violets for Your Furs.

_

Timothy Nolan (he/him/his) is a writer and visual artist living in Palm Springs, California with his husband and their rescue dog, Scout. He has exhibited extensively for three decades and his work is in the collections of the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco, and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Ucross, and Djerassi. His poems appear in The Hudson Review, Fourteen Hills, Puerto del Sol, and Roanoke Review, among others.

Music Music Review

Cold Gawd, Day Aches, Drauve, and Salt+ at Midnight Hour

by on May 31, 2024
Cold Gawd photo by Jeremy Ruiz

The warm, overhead glow of tungsten string lights illuminates the black walls and white tile floor of a small backstage space. Flanked to the left by a wall with large holes and crumbs of plaster, a black wooden platform that is just shy of a foot tall serves as the stage. Colorful guitars and basses stand propped up in front of large amplifier cabinets and a gray Mapex drum set provided by the venue. This nondescript space serves as the secondary stage for a popular record store in the city of San Fernando called the Midnight Hour, and for one Friday night, it turned into one of the best places to experience some of the most exciting new shoegaze bands that the scene has to offer. With a lineup consisting of the bands Drauve, Day Aches, Salt+ and Cold Gawd, the set provided a powerful dynamic of extremely loud, distorted riffs and hazy, atmospheric melodies that the genre is best known for. There was something for every type of shoegaze fan: Drauve interspersing laidback and hopeful sounds with bursts of energy, Day Aches creating dense layers of reverberating sounds with the ferocity of grunge, Salt+ crafting an incredibly noisy and somewhat mysterious atmosphere using the awesome loudness of Sunn amplifiers, and Cold Gawd closing off with intimate, sparkling melodies serving as the backdrop for introspective lyrics that is reminiscent of Cocteau Twins’ best moments. The Midnight Hour typically hosts hardcore and heavy metal acts to partake in its unique DIY ethos, but with the growing presence and success of shoegaze, it may as well consider this excellent show as a contribution to the genre’s growth within the San Fernando Valley and beyond.

Cold Gawd photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Day Aches photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Day Aches photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Drauve photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Drauve photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Salt+ photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Salt+ photo by Jeremy Ruiz

Jeremy Ruiz is an independent photographer based in the San Fernando Valley specializing in portraiture and live music photography. He spent three years training as a student photojournalist and photo editor for the Valley Star, the independent student newspaper of Los Angeles Valley College, and has gone on to win multiple awards from the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. In his spare time, he likes to brew coffee and practice bass. IG @itzalku_sfv

Book Review

I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom

by on May 1, 2024

 

I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom by Kim Dower

Review by Brian Sonia-Wallace

There are few things more classically Freudian than autobiographical poems about a poet’s relationship with their mother, and this new collection by prolific former West Hollywood City Poet Laureate Kim Dower takes up the challenge deftly: will she become her mother? Is she already her? What continues after death? (Mail, memories, junk). What is broken by death? (Rituals, memories — junk).

 

The poems in I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom are casual and conversational in tone, laugh-out-loud funny or tearjerking at their best. A mix of new pieces and motherhood poems from Dower’s former collections, they paint a portrait of urban motherhood rarely seen in verse, a Southern California freeway pastoral blended with a 5th Avenue childhood in New York. Writes Dower:

 

…My mother

 

didn’t know about soil or earth worms.

City mothers, we know about bus routes, restaurants,

Broadway, the people on the eighth floor.

Mine taught me to accessorize…”

 

Tellingly, this poem is entitled, “Different Mothers,” and the whole collection is nuanced by a consistent self-awareness of other possibilities, the “might have beens,” from Dower’s reflections on an imagined daughter to her fear of following in her mother’s footsteps in suffering from dementia. Dower’s mother, a socialite in her day, succumbs to memory loss and helplessness, and many of these poems grapple with the slipperiness of memory, both in childhood and old age.

 

In her poem “Letter to My Son,” Dower imagines herself in her mother’s shoes, and writes instructively to her son: “Tell me everything’s okay / and I will believe you. Tell me there’s a bird on a branch outside my window, even if there is no window, and I will imagine he’s singing to me.” Dower’s poems inhabit a world self-conscious of its own aging and eventual, inevitable collapse, with the thin narrative of what’s passed down in a family holding the discordant pieces together. Through the examination of motherhood from both ends, as a daughter and as a mother, Dower raises questions about the legacy of learned values and behavior, asking the question: what happens when, with time and distance, the memories we inherit decay?

 

The physical world comes into play as a doorway into memory. The materiality of sweaters, jewelry, chairs, and the dress of the collection’s title act as an artifact of human presence (“we bought this together” or “these were your things”) and agency (“you liked this, you chose this”). Part of what is stripped away, alongside memory, with dementia is the ability to make choices, and in an odd and very American way, the ability of Dower’s mother to make conscious choices as a consumer become a stand-in for her wellness. The poetry of illness and of kitsch are intertwined here, as the mass-produced material world interacts with and enacts ensouled human existence. In “The Salvation Army Won’t Take the Futon,” what happens to our stuff as we make the move into nursing care echoes what happens to us. In the “I Lost My Mother at Bloomingdales,” we see shopping as a bond:

 

…what if she vanishes into a refurbished brownstone

stairwell her dress on backwards label showing lost forever after

her last outing shopping with me it’s what we did what we loved until

 

—the poem finishes, achingly, here, with no punctuation, no resolution. Just the terror of losing your mind.

 

The title of the collection becomes a reassurance, in this context. “I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom” a reminder of who the “I” is, who the “you” is, what day we’re on, and the relationship between the speaker and subject (“Mom”), with the dress serving as an anchor to what was once important in that relationship, even if it has long since stopped mattering. The title poem drips with longing, and the speaker, who we get the sense resented the high society New York life her mother so prized, now mother-less and in Los Angeles, finds herself with “a closet filled / with dresses I need to show you.”

 

These themes of motherhood, framed in an urban pastoral and humanistic materialism, run through these poems, with their attendant anxiety which might also be interpreted as a longing or nostalgia. This is a collection of imagined nature and of the unreliability of memory, pretzels at baseball games and “boiled secrets.” A strong gender commentary pervades the work as well, a through line from women’s’ roles in the 1950’s balanced with writing and bringing up kids, to a visceral set of poems which inhabit and explore Dower’s C-section and her son’s birth as an older woman. Dower returns to earlier themes and motifs from her work as well, in particular the moon, which even here is fragmented, diminished, hanging on too long.

 

The theme of anxiety around memory extends to Dower’s son, who, as he grows up, becomes someone alienated from her memories of him. Even if memory doesn’t fail us, she seems to say, the world will come to fail our memories of it. But it works the other way too — in “After the Rain,” she says, “although the dead / are gone, the way we think of them / can change.” These everyday poems, with titles like “Scrambling Eggs” and “While Washing the Dinner Dishes,” are a testament to how that change occurs, unobtrusively, in everyday life, as our brains make sense of loss through the continual process of living.

 

Southern California is a major player in this collection, situating the poems in geographic and mental space, from a poem entitled “The Things I Do In My Car” to one about earthquakes, “Minor Tremors,” where the shifting, uncertain landscape of California mirrors the mental landscape of a child coping with the loss of a parent. Perhaps my favorite in the collection is the laugh-out-loud funny piece “Bottled Water,” which contains such lines as ‘If I drink smartwater / will I raise my IQ but be less authentic?”

 

Dower is on form in this collection — both smart and authentic, with enough snark and humor to keep things from getting too, well, dour. Don’t let the serious themes fool you, there’s plenty of irrelevance at play here, too. Dower ends the poem “My Mother Bakes Sugar Cookies” with the lines:

 

The people in charge of Heaven

sound so thoughtful, I tell her.

Well, they’re angels,

she says,

 

but not like you’d imagine.

Sure, they wear white,

have wings,

smile sweetly

 

but they all talk way too much

and their asses

are huge.

 

Dower is a master of tonal shifts and irony, and uses dialogue to great effect. In the next poem, “Why We Dream,” her mother tells her, “I’m not dead…/ I’m going to the Opera!” It’s the mark of a great poet that, in speaking about the dead, Dower gives us such a vivid sense of life.

 

I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom is available now through Red Hen Press

 

Brian Sonia-Wallace is the author of The Poetry of Strangers (Harper Collins), winner of the 2020-23 West Hollywood City Poet Laureateship, and a national 2021 Laureate Fellow for the Academy of American Poets. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Poets.org, Rattle, and more. He teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and Get Lit – Words Ignite. More at briansoniawallace.com and @rentpoet.

Music Poetry

Bizarre Love Triangle by Daniel Healy

by on April 25, 2024

Piano Photo by Steve Johnson

Block chords before block chords
after block chords, I could write about
the way the infrastructure
carries the light inside itself,
carries it
hands on its hips,        half-hidden polyphony.
I could write about Scarlatti dueling Handel.
Scarlatti by himself,    reaching
substituting forward,   upward,
pulling the dough of substance with
his
hooked hands. I could write about
Debussy on the dancefloor.    Hands hooked
around hips. It’s there half hidden inside.
But I write about this.
I write about falling.
And then? You don’t. I fall on my knees.
It’s not about me but it is.

Daniel John Healy is a PhD student at UConn. His academic work has appeared in Style. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in New Haven Review and Long River Review. He was a 2023 finalist for the Iowa Review Award in poetry.

Book Review

City on the Second Floor

by on March 29, 2022

Poetry by Matt Sedillo
Review by Frank Mundo

I was watching Disney’s “Encanto” with the kids when the mail arrived with Matt Sedillo’s new book of poetry, “City on the Second Floor” from FlowerSong Press, and I thought, how perfect is that? Here’s Matt Sedillo, extremely popular Chicano political poet, essayist, activist (the hardest working poet I know) – and yet somehow he’s become like the Bruno of certain parts of the Los Angeles poetry scene. His poetry superpower is so electric and engaging that most are absolutely dazzled and inspired by his voice, while the rest are left frightened (even triggered) and dismissive of his ostensibly dark and angry premonitions. Plus, he’s a troll, they say. He’s a communist with Das Kapital C. He’s (God forbid) a renegade. Self-taught? He didn’t even go to college.

Maybe that’s why, despite all he’s done for the poetry community in Los Angeles for a dozen years or so, we haven’t seen even a mention of Sedillo (or his three books) in the LA Times since he won the L.A. Grand Slam championship in 2011. Perhaps that’s why, no matter how hard he works and finds success, he’s never been the poet in conversation at Rattle. And, maybe it’s why, like his second book, “Mowing Leaves of Grass,” his newest book will likely never be reviewed or discussed by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Maybe it’s just me, but, in certain parts of Los Angeles, it seems we don’t talk about Matt Sedillo – at least, not nearly as much as we should. And I just don’t understand why. Many compare him to Amiri Baraka, Jose Montoya, and so many other fiery or political poets. To me, his work is a cross between Allen Ginsberg and Wanda Coleman. So why isn’t everyone in LA talking about his new book, “City on the Second Floor,” which is flying off the shelves, by the way.

One criticism you’ll hear way too often is that Sedillo’s poetry is too angry. This is a lazy and shallow reading (or listening) of his work. Yes, there is anger in his poetry, and a lot of it, but it’s almost always tempered with humor, which can never be done effectively without empathy and compassion. Sedillo’s speaker addresses this idea in “Post,” the very first poem of the 32 poems and one play collected in “City on the Second Floor.” And I can almost guarantee that Sedillo or his publisher placed this piece first in the collection intentionally. There’s no way this was a coincidence.

“Post” begins looking back (even reminiscing, you might say) to a time of the service economy (when what? America was great?) – “…just like yesterday/ Municipalities raised cities/ Built nuclear families/ Associations of sturdy pockets/ A two-car garage, chicken in every pot.” What follows is their broken promise of tomorrow, “…which doesn’t show up all at once,” the speaker tells us, “But when it does…” it’s with liquidated pensions and automated factories – and the resulting gig economy left in a shambles to a generation who “…cannot afford to live in…” the very cities where they must hustle only to get part-time, freelance, contract, and “adjunct” employment. “Promise me the world, then show me the door,” Sedillo’s speaker concludes. “I was not/ Born/ Angry/ I was abandoned.”

Yet, even with that last line, as justifiable as the “anger” might be for this speaker (and Sedillo’s generation), I think a lot of critics who only want to see anger will miss the fabulous punchline at the end of the poem – “Tell me the one/ Where I killed the economy.”

I love this line, not only because it’s hilarious, but because it’s so accurate. Often accused of being whiners and lazy, Millennials are also blamed somehow for ruining the very broken economy they inherited. But I would argue that there’s nothing overly angry in this line. This is not an “OK, Boomer” sarcastic snowflake moment. This is more of a mic-drop moment – a humorous wink and a nod to the “us” in the us-versus-them structure that makes up so much of Sedillo’s poetry.

Even the title “Post” is a funny play on words of old versus new. Is this the postindustrial standard? Is this a letter? A social media post? Is this a signpost? Or is it a warning, like so many other poems in the collection about how consumerism, credit, and debt will ruin us all? Maybe it’s all these things and a hint of what to expect in the following pages of an angry and funny and compassionate collection.
Sedillo reworks this poem later in the book (sort of in reverse) in a poem called, “Hammurabi,” which is laugh-out-loud funny. This one ends with a deadly serious punchline, “Since they from on high/ Convinced us down below/ That we/ Ever/ Needed/ Their/ Code/ Of law/ To tell us/ We were free.” What’s funny is that the lies about the future in this remix of “Post” come from the TV characters we so loved and trusted: Lucy Ricardo, Mr. Belvedere, Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and especially Al Bundy (all comedies, mind you) who convinced us that we “…could raise a family/ In a two story/ On the single income/ Of a shoe salesman.” LOL.

I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the only one who believed Matt Sedillo’s poetry is as funny as it is angry. Maybe I just have a dark sense of humor. So, I called up Mike “the Poet” Sonksen, a poet, scholar, journalist, critic, mentor, and author with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of poetry in Los Angeles. I respect Mike’s opinion so much because he focuses on poetry of merit, not simply the styles and genres he prefers. If anyone anywhere in LA is writing or “spitting” quality verse, he knows about it, writes about it, talks about – because he’s all about it and has been for 25 years.

“Matt Sedillo is relentless,” Mike told me. “He’s a student of history and skilled at spinning his astute understanding into engaging poetry,” and I couldn’t agree more. He also said, “Sedillo can also be quite funny, satirizing the powers that be with poetic one-liners. His social commentary balances truth and wit to produce a poetic velocity faster than Starsky & Hutch.”

Another poem I loved from the book, “Pope of Broadway,” literally starts as a classic joke: “An Arab, an Italian, a Jew, a Puerto Rican, an Inuit, an American Indian, a Mongolian/ And a Mexican/ Walk into a bar…” and “Anthony Quinn orders a drink.” This is a wonderful and complex poem about the “ethnically ambiguous” actors (the “every” Brown-man) in Hollywood, from Quinn (who was the best) to today’s other “two first-name” actors who continue this unusual tradition today, including Cliff Curtis and Oscar Isaac.

I like this poem also because I spoke about this concept (and the larger and darker meaning behind it) with Matt Sedillo a couple years ago, before he had written the piece. And reading the final product in his new book was a real treat for me.

That day, I also asked Matt what his goal was when writing a poem. “First,” he said, “it’s to satisfy the demands of structure.” Matt often uses a three-act structure that he has developed and refined over the years and made his own. It’s one of the major topics he discusses and often teaches as a highly in-demand speaker/performer at the top colleges and universities in America and at several other major venues in Canada, England, and Cuba. “Second,” Matt continued, “no matter what the theme is, I want to write poems (not every time, but I try) that are calls to action.” It’s not surprising to me that his answer is all about craft. Matt sees craft everywhere. He studies it and looks for patterns and anomalies in everything. He’ll read texts or study videos of fiery speakers, like Hugo Chavez and Michael Parenti, and spend hours breaking down their prose, examining what they say and how they say it. He’ll study the timing of stand-up comics, books, films, commercials, anything that tells stories in an engaging way that gets people to act.

In “Mowing Leaves of Grass,” Sedillo’s first book with FlowerSong Press from 2019, his craft, especially his three-act structure is in full effect. It’s the work that put him on the map as a unique and powerful voice in Los Angeles and beyond. The poems in his latest book, “City on the Second Floor,” however, offer a glimpse, I believe, of where his poetry is headed: even more powerful, political, angry, funny, timely, smart, carefully crafted, and compassionate calls to action.

I also asked Matt Sedillo who influences him and his writing, and I was a little surprised by his answer. An avid student of history, Matt listed artists who are still alive and very active in the community. He said Luis J. Rodriguez, the 2014 Los Angeles Poet Laureate. He also mentioned other poets whose work inspired him: spoken word artist David A. Romero, author of “My Name is Romero,” and Viva Padilla, Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief of Dryland, a literary journal.

Finally, I wanted to know about Matt Sedillo’s publisher, so I contacted Edward Vidaurre, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of FlowerSong Press, and I asked him straight out why he chose to publish such an outspoken and, perhaps, controversial poet as Matt Sedillo. Without hesitation, Vidaurre answered, “Because, like me, he is fearless about his work. He’s a necessary voice in a world where being an activist is sometimes looked on as trouble.” Finally, he added – and it all made perfect sense to me – “I wanted his collection to make noise and open eyes.”

I suppose the gatekeepers and kingmakers of the Los Angeles literary scene will do what they want to do – and they still might not talk about Matt Sedillo after my little plea here. But, with Sedillo’s incredible work ethic, his determination and dedication to craft, and his fearless and supportive publisher’s commitment to sharing “necessary” voices and books, I know we will definitely be hearing much more “noise” from him.



City on the Second Floor is available now from FlowerSong Press.

Frank Mundo is a poet from Los Angeles. His latest chapbooks are Touched by an Anglo (Kattywompus Press) and Eleven Sundry Flowers (Antrim House).

Music Nonfiction

Not Hunting For Meaning: On Seeing Jandek Live

by on March 8, 2021
Jandek Performing at Hamman Hall

By Michael Sheehan

Not long after finding out about Jandek, I drove 300 roundtrip miles to see him perform on a Friday evening in April 2017 in Houston. It seems fitting that I had to go to such lengths to see Jandek perform; it serves the mythology. After all, Jandek spent three decades producing music shrouded in mystery, never (or almost never) giving interviews or revealing his identity, and never performing live. What made Jandek Jandek was, to a large extent, the reclusivity, the fact that listeners had to seek him out.

If you’re asking who or what Jandek is, it’s no surprise, despite the fact that he’s released more than 135 albums since 1978. Jandek is mostly a moniker for a single man—an alter ego for a slim redheaded Houstonian transplant named Sterling Richard Smith—though sometimes also it names the musical project, not the individual. If you were in the know in the 80s or 90s, what you had was an accidental 1989 interview in Spin and a mail-order catalog of albums (most featuring portrait photos of a redheaded man) that you could get in bulk by sending money to a PO Box in Houston. Maybe his music was played on your local college radio station. (I was devoted to the college radio station of my youth, WBER, but I checked and they did not recall ever playing him.) Maybe you caught passing references to him, like the offhand comment by Kurt Cobain in a 1993 interview where he pulled 1985’s Nine Thirty from his record collection and said “[Jandek’s] not pretentious but the people who listen to him are.”

The show was in Hamman Hall at Rice University on the anniversary of Prince’s death. I took my seat in the darkened auditorium where the curtained stage was drenched in purple light. There were not many people there but more than I’d expected. Dozens, let’s say. The houselights went down, and the audience went funereally silent. We stared for a minute or more at the empty, purple-lit stage. Then players emerged, still to utter silence: guitar, slide guitar, bass; these were Austin Sepulvado, Will Van Horn, and Mark Riddell, though nothing told me so that night. A woman (Sheila Smith) paused at the drumkit before coming to the two music-stands at stagefront to turn on tiny reading lights. She then returned to the drums—still silent—sat, and, after a bit of stillness, a lean figure dressed all in black appeared at the back of the stage and made the circuit they all had, but slower, walking along the glowing curtains, carrying a small bag or briefcase, hatless until he reached about midstage when he paused, donned the black fedora, and then set his bag down behind the drums, extracted his thick spiral-bound books of lyrics, and came to the front of the stage. He unclipped the book, set it on the stand, and gently set the clip down, fumbling with it slightly, as if perhaps nervous. The audience had not made a single sound during this whole approach. Then the two-hour set began. First an instrument started a pattern, then others joined, and finally Jandek—nearing and withdrawing from the microphone until the timing struck him—began. “I took a train,” he moaned, “to Colorado.”

I’d driven so far for this because reading about him, his reclusivity and the longstanding mystery of his identity, made me want to discover him, made me want to find and connect to this rare performer. I had also, at that time, finished a novel about a reclusive hairmetal singer who makes a dramatic and ill-fated return to live performance, a novel which I’d been sending out to be rejected by agents and editors. I don’t know how conscious the connection was–I’ve been writing about a reclusive musician for years and here’s this musician who has been reclusive for decades and only just recently started performing–but I think pretty conscious. But it was more than that, too: the combination (even contradiction) of a prolific output of albums and songs and lyrics with a strenuous effort to hide was compelling, in fact literally haunting: the presence of an absence. That his music was elusive, oneiric, uncategorizable, sometimes sounding a little like early Thurston Moore and at other times sounding like bad poetry over untuned instruments was, again, a powerful draw. That draw was the act of discovery, hunting for something, to find the meaning, intellectualize the lyrics and the music, to get close to the mystery, the ghost, and see what’s really there. But though the motivation was this finding, the experience of seeing Jandek was not of finding but of feeling, of losing myself rather than discovering the meaning.

Jandek’s onstage persona, as Marc Masters describes, is enigmatic and fit with the reclusive and mysterious figure only-guessed-at in the years before he made a surprise live appearance at a festival in Glasgow in 2004. Emaciated, dressed all in black, seeming at once rickety and ill and also wily and spry—he crouched and danced in slow, strange moves, out of sync with the music or suggesting a groove that was not otherwise evident. He intoned his lyrics, off-key, a moaning, haunting sort of wail, a near-spoken word that was evocative in its lyrics but also in the almost anguished quality of his voice and his delivery.

He would then cross the stage slowly, sometimes seeming to reconsider as he went or to listen and groove to what patterns were emerging behind him, crossing to a wooden chair at stage right which he slowly and with precise posture—what at first appeared like discomfort or difficulty—lowered himself into, after which the music tapered out within a few bars. It took me a couple repetitions of this to recognize the movement for the obvious communication it was: since every part of what was occurring onstage was an on-the-spot improvisation, Jandek’s sitting was his signal that lyrically that track had come to its finish. This improvisational quality makes the live performance feel much like the records in spirit, since many of them are freeform, experimental explorations of sound that are more like happenings than produced and planned tracks. Chaotic and amateurish, there are elements of structure and intention with his songs, even of album-level coherence and flow, but part of what you hear and feel when you listen to Jandek records is a sort of essaying of forms and emotions, rather than a performance in the true sense. Masters describes the live performance period of Jandek’s career, noting he “has put himself in a dizzying array of situations, often with collaborators he’d never performed with before or even met before the show…an impressive amount of shows have been complete wild cards, veering into styles, genres, and instrumental formats no one would normally associate with the Corwood representative.”

By shedding more traditional structures and approaches Jandek’s music seems to create something truly new, to reach and achieve emotions in wholly novel ways. Even though a given song might have a country feel to it or a blues phrasing, the overall song architecture hits you like nothing you’ve heard before—when it works. Admittedly, Jandek’s music is not easy to enjoy or even listen to, in many cases. There are many critical notes going back many years that suggest this atonality is not intentional—just a lack of mastery of the instruments, an ineptitude—or is intended but as a joke.

The point I want to make about the blues and Jandek’s context is that his music is strange but powerfully emotional, capable of resonant harmonies that haunt or transcend. But beyond or beside or within or through the flatly-intoned or howling strangeness, there are, at times, moments of deep sadness or sudden clarity but also sometimes moments of levity, moments of beauty, moments of, basically, frustration. Loneliness. The themes explored throughout Jandek’s lyrics are evoked in desperate, spare musical landscapes that have a fragmentary relationship to other, more familiar genres.

For example, at Hamman Hall, there was a point in the evening when Jandek switched places with Sheila Smith, who took the mic as he took the drums. He seemed a more capable drummer, albeit still an expressive rather than rhythmic one: he would quietly play until suddenly cracking the snare with a burst of presumed approval of Sheila’s lyric or delivery. But where Jandek stood mostly at the microphone feeling the music and finding the moments for his lyrics, Sheila crawled and posed and moved and danced in place. She wore an outfit that called to mind Alice in Wonderland. Somewhere in the middle of this, I closed my eyes, and stopped thinking and simply let the sound congeal behind my eyes. It was transporting. Though the purpose of seeing Jandek live–rather than simply buying the recordings he now releases of every live show–is to see him, I felt closing all my senses except the audile and letting the music do its work was the truest way to experience what was happening. And it was powerful. The ghosts of melodies arose and dissipated; the lyrics dug and stung; the large auditorium room we were in became an intimate space. Maybe this is what Kurt Cobain meant: to experience the music not intellectually but via an embodied cognition, something under or deeper than thought.

Still, seeing the Representative from Corwood (as he is sometimes called) at such close range struck me as something similar to Samuel Charters’ discovery of the only extant picture of Blind Willie Johnson, “Then there he was. I couldn’t breathe for a minute—I just sat staring at the screen.” This is undeniably part of the appeal. Perhaps unintentionally, Jandek created a sort of anti-celebrity in an era of massmedia. During the decades where lo-fi and no wave and grunge and indie-folk and alt-country bands rose to fame, his music remained accessible only via mail order. He retreated from reporters, avoided any publicity. This created among his fans a sort of echo of the mid-century search for the masters of the Texas blues, that desire to get as close to the source as possible. Hence Katie Vine’s 1999 article in Texas Monthly, “Jandek and Me,” in which she tracks him down, figures out his identity and finds him at home, then goes for a beer and captures the second-ever interview with him. He told her, at the time, “There’s nothing to get.”

But apart from that echo, I sat there and truly felt an experience that stepped outside of the commercial structure I’d come to know–come to long for acceptance in, with the novel I’d been sending out. This was a performer who had created and self-released music prolifically, denying a one-time eager world of any marketable identity. Prince, too, challenged ideas about identity, was a performer who could hybridize genres; I spent some time in the dark of Hamman Hall wondering if Jandek would cover Purple Rain–imagine it! In the thick ambient lighting, against the heavy drapery. But its impossibility I think highlights what Jandek did do. He didn’t cover, didn’t perform anything. He instead stood before a room of listeners, vulnerable, and open to the possibility of any given moment, including the possibility that he would struggle and never find the point where the elements fit together. But you could feel, could hear, that energy, that in-the-moment reaching.

After the last song–“From There” on the CD version, a nearly-twelve minute astral projection in which a haunting slide guitar braids and folds around the lyrics that are part dirge and part reflection on life and work and disappointment and longing; he speaks/sings/drawls, “So I’ll sing a song this evening / just to mean it all for you”–the stage procession was reversed, there was neither encore nor any call for one, though the crowd cheered wildly, and I walked out, across Rice’s campus, back to my car, and began the long drive north into the dark of East Texas, toward my home in the pines.

Michael Sheehan is an assistant professor of creative writing at SUNY Fredonia and formerly at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is also a former fellow of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute in Liberal Arts. He has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was an Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His work is forthcoming or has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.

Music Nonfiction

BACKYARD JAZZ IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

by on March 2, 2021

by Jennifer Shneiderman

            It’s my neighbor Annette’s birthday and reservations at the tony Connie and Ted’s seafood restaurant are not an option. We like to get dressed up and sit on the patio. We order the seafood tower, thick filets of fish and hot, salty french fries. We like to linger until the waiter brings out lit candles. Their service is stellar and the blond brownie dessert divine. Tonight, however, I stand in line outside of Versailles, the Cuban restaurant on La Cienega, for orders of garlic chicken, rice and plantains. My waiting spot is indicated with a “Stay six feet apart” circle spray painted on the concrete. The orders are stacked up in containers and wrapped in plastic bags. I wear a mask and gloves and I rub my hands with sanitizer after the waiter runs my credit card. When I get home, I will clean my card with alcohol wipes.

            I drive home and transfer several of the orders into baking dishes. The containers are thrown away and the dishes are heated until the sauce is bubbling, steam is rising and any virus is eradicated. My husband delivers the two remaining chicken orders, as well as a peach cobbler, to my neighbor’s house. She and her grandson will heat the food in their oven and serve themselves on their own dishes.

            We don gloves and masks and head next door with our hot food, bottled water, plastic flatware and paper napkins. Plastic tables and chairs are spaced far apart. They will be sanitized shortly after we are gone.

            At the end of our meal, my son brings his upright bass and his friend, Justin, arrives with a trumpet. He uses a trumpet mute to decrease the chance of transmission, and they choose the music accordingly. Jacob and Justin know the music and each other from a Colburn Conservatory jazz ensemble. They will play a short set at the far end of the yard. They start off with “All the Things You Are”, and then “Con Alma” and “Billie’s Bounce”. Neighbors start to gather on the sidewalk, trying to peek over the gate. The call of live music is strong and their eyes are large with yearning. The boys end with “A Night in Tunisia”. They pack up and go back to my house to eat their chicken on my porch.

            We can’t take a chance of hugging good-bye. Annette stands by, leaning on her walker while her grandson lights a candle on the cobbler. We won’t share dessert, or food of any kind, with them. We will leave and clean the handles of the gate with Clorox wipes as we go. We are just glad to bring some joy in the form of a  backyard jazz concert. It will have to do—until we can once again gather together for evenings at tight tables, bathed in colored lights and jazz.

Jennifer Shneiderman is a writer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indolent Book’s HIV Here and Now, The Rubbertop ReviewWriters Resist, the Poetry in the Time of COVID-19, Vol 2, anthology, Variant LiteratureBright Flash Literary Review, Trouvaille Review, Montana Mouthful, the Daily DrunkSybil JournalUnique PoetryAnti-Heroin Chic, Terror House, Thirteen Myna Birds, Potato Soup Journal, Awakened Voices, GreenPrintsProspectus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and The Perch. She was the recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Laura Riding Jackson poetry competition.

Book Review

Pixel Flesh

by on November 19, 2020

Review by Vicent Moreno

When Nocilla Dream, the first novel by Agustín Fernández Mallo, was published in Spain in 2006, it caused a seismic movement in the slow-moving and mostly predictable Spanish literary field. Published by a small press, the novel achieved a popularity only reserved to established literary figures and big publishers. While Fernández Mallo had already authored a couple of books of poetry, the instant success of his novel propelled his career; since then, he has published several novels, has penned a couple of essays on poetics and cultural theory, has won national and international awards and recognitions, and his works have been translated into various languages. Pixel Flesh, which appeared in Spain in 2009, was his first book of poetry after the publication of Nocilla Dream and it is his first book of poems translated into English. The volume is published by Cardboard House Press, a small independent publisher, which continues to lead in its drive to find and make available some of the best Spanish-language poetry to an American audience. This bilingual edition is translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington and made possible, in part, by a grant from the PEN/Heim Translation fund. The best translations are always born out of a personal interest or passion in the work to be translated and this is clearly the case in Ludington’s precise and nuanced English rendering of Pixel Flesh (Carne de Píxel).

As a whole, Pixel Flesh can be read as a meditation on love, loss, and memory. Its format is a compilation of prose poems which, strung together, read like a long and fragmented poetic love letter with some caveats. For one, it is written from the perspective of loss, it does not project love into the future, but rather it looks at its past; it is the punctilious examination of a love affair. Like the pixel to which the title refers, the poetic voice zooms in obsessively to events, situations, moments, that make up the poetic voice’s love story. Interestingly, the only poetry written in verse in the book is actually not the author’s, but excerpts from a scientific article taken from the Spanish newspaper, El País. This bold move has two implications: on the one hand, it highlights Fernández Mallo’s understanding of science as a form of poetry, and on the other hand, it displays a very Duchampian gesture, ultimately signifying that anything is susceptible of becoming art in the right context or seen through the right eyes.

Scientific language appears frequently in the book, often as a metaphor of a stable and pure referent that lovers, as lovers do, try to circumvent in order to construct or understand their own reality: “you didn’t know the Principle of Least Action by which light [everything in general] seeks the quickest path to travel between two points (23) or “Your door, the Street, the hill. There is in this kind of goodbye a strange aquatic anti-law [you were crying, it was raining] that submerges Archimedes’ Principle and invalidates it” (21). Each of these images (the walk around the city, the goodbye in the rain) are motifs repeated throughout the book, to which the poetic voice will come back again and again, adding and subtracting information. Pixel Flesh is a highly intertextual work that opens up all sorts of hallways and windows into other forms of art, into other texts and disciplines. The references are sometimes direct: Blade Runner, Wittgenstein, Warhol, and pop music, among others, appear in the book as a very eclectic and, in appearance, incongruous amalgam of quotes and allusions that are a trademark of Fernández Mallo’s style. Ultimately, however, it is the reader who holds the key to venture into new doors and corridors. This makes each new reading of the book a new experience, rendering it practically inexhaustible in connotations and suggestiveness. For the sake of this review, I will just focus on three major references that stood out during my reading and which correspond to three of the discourses with which the author plays and pays homage to (philosophical, literary, and cinematic).

While Wittgenstein is a main influence in Fernández Mallo (after all, he has a collection of poetry titled Yo siempre regreso a los pezones y al punto 7 del Tractatus [I always return to the nipples and to the remark 7 of the Tractatus) and it appears as a direct reference in Pixel Flesh, it is Roland Barthes and its A Lover’s Discourse that resonate in this book. For one, both works are hybrids or mutants, they are hard to pin down as belonging to a specific genre and they are plagued with references and dialogs with other works. In a way, both start from the personal experience of love to try to conceptualize it and universalize it. Fernández Mallo collects moments, sensations that sometimes he calls “pixelados” [pixelations] and that conform a sui generis experience of the love story. Similarly, Barthes would call this the “Image-repertoire”, that is, the individual collection of subjective realities that the lover has about their particular relationship with the loved one, a unique idiolect that is however shared among those who love or have loved. The language of love is at once unique and universal: “What I saw in your eyes no one ever saw before, that we were the secret life of water, and an interplay of bodies to revalidate that cipherless escape by which a human being is something more than a bit of saliva” (19).

Another clear influence in Fernández Mallo is the language of film and cinematography. Some of the poems in Pixel Flesh in fact almost read as script directions, a choreographed scene that the lovers act out: “You were so beautiful, so whole with your pointy boots on that trip, the most thorough and western woman I had ever seen, light dominated by your hands, sentences: a drafting pen between your lips, astounded balance as you seasoned the fish” (47). The film Journey to Italy is mentioned a few times and one can see how that story of a disintegrating marriage is an apt background for the book. However, it is Michelangelo Antonioni’s vision and aesthetics, his elliptical and elusive plots that echo throughout these poems. The peripatetic characters of Pixel Flesh are reminiscing of Antonioni’s characters as they navigate urban landscapes and personal ennui in an intimate travelogue. We are never told the whole story, but are left to piece it together. Much like Antonioni’s trademark use of “dead time” in his movies, Fernández Mallo obsessively focuses on elements in appearance outside the story to elicit an emotional reaction in the reader who draws its own conclusions on how to connect them: “We circled the city. The sky ionized and dark, you offered me a Lucky [star between your fingers]. Within a radius of 2000 km around Earth there are more than 2 million kilos of scrap, the newspaper said: satellites, rockets, devices disintegrated in their circling” (89).

Finally, in this free play of associations that Pixel Flesh provokes, I can’t help but think of Julio Cortázar. Like the Argentinean author, Fernández Mallo possesses an understated romanticism that is allowed to shine in this book of poems. Pixel Flesh echoes the famous chapter 93 from Rayuela (Hotspot), a moment where Horacio lets go, so to speak, penning a love letter that is also a reflection on what it means to love, its language (“El amor, esa palabra…” [“Love, that word”]). Compare these two excerpts on the realization that what lovers feel is not that special, that it can and will be replicated in other arms, in other spaces: Pixel Flesh: “that everyone is one and, what’s more, not numerable, that other women will come, that other men will come, that it’s scary to think about the extent to which we’re all interchangeable” (13) and Rayuela/Hopscotch: “Of course you’ll be cured, because you’re living in health, after me it’ll be someone else, you can change things the way you change a blouse”.

The reader who enters Pixel Flesh, and in general the author’s universe, with an open mind and ready to be led down the rabbit hole of free associations will be doubly satisfied. While the text connects with the reader on a purely aesthetic and even affective level, thanks to a translation that stays true to the feeling of the original, it finds a more profound meaning in its invitation to the reader (that Baudelaire’s-like “invitation au voyage”) to explore, imagine, and see how this pixel of a work inserts itself in the larger picture of culture’s understandings of love across poetry and art, philosophy and sciences.

Pixel Flesh is available now through Cardboard House Press.

Music Nonfiction

The Years of the Unified Heart

by on September 16, 2020

You can add up the parts; you won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march, there is no drum

Every heart, every heart to love will come

But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

— “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen

*

Tallboys of Steel Reserve, watercolors, and Leonard Cohen records mark 2016-17: years lost in the ether—post-grad and aimless; permeated by the existential dread of dawning upon twenty-something. I now see those days as some of the most capacious and blessed—hazy, dappled with light, full of growth and opportunity; full of so many cracks where the light has since filtered in. The dichotomies of that time made Cohen’s music all the more welcome.

Prior to Cohen’s passing in the fall of 2016, I was feeling splintered. I’d been out of college a year and a half, embarked on a messy trip of service abroad and returned early, begun stringing together part-time jobs to support my art. Trump’s election was permeable in everyday places, ambient but sinking in. One evening, I learned from my friend—a social worker for victims of sexual assault—that a man had walked up to a woman at the Target near my house, grabbed her between her legs, and said: “I get to do this now that Trump’s president.” Later that night, I told my best friends and bandmates, Joey and Trevor. We sat in a shocked silence for a while, and I remember being unable to withhold my tears. I stayed at their place, our trusted silence carving out some kind of belonging, somewhere I could rest.I sometimes get that evening confused with another from that autumn: I was with them in their house, again, and sitting in the same spot on the couch when we heard the news of Cohen’s passing. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but it felt like a communal one—we hopped into Joey’s truck, plugged in his iPod, and took turns passing it back and forth; picking favorite Cohen songs as he drove with no particular destination in mind. I think “Anthem” may have been the first pick. Somewhere during our drive, we came across a small country church with a lit sign that read something along the lines of: “If you died tonight, where would you go?” Again—a shocked silence accompanied by shared, knowing glances. We drove for what felt like hours, song after song. There was something monastic about our mutual silence, our shared grief going unanalyzed.

The morning after our drive, I printed out a picture of Cohen’s “order of the unified heart”—a symbol of two intersecting hearts (one upright, one downturned) that was printed on each of his books and represented the Jungian idea of anima/animus—that the masculine and the feminine are entwined in each of us and within our relationships. I got a tattoo on my ribcage a few hours later. I didn’t post a picture to social media, where people were sharing all sorts of elegies for Cohen. I empathized with and shared their sense of grief, but I didn’t know what I could possibly add to the conversation. There’s a unique sort of strand of survivor’s guilt I experienced, threaded into mourning the loss of someone I didn’t really know but loved well—an aching sort of reverence. It meant the tattoo was for me; a birthday gift to myself. A non-answer to the question we saw on the billboard that I’d been asked my whole life byway of my evangelical upbringing. At the time, I loved the conceptual richness of the sacred heart tattoo—the way it offered more intersections than the Christian cross.

When I notice it now, my tattoo means more than anima/animus—more than a symbol of multi-faceted love-—it means 2016: the year so many things were full of uncertainty and opportunity: the year Trump was elected, the year of our first shows as a band; the year of record-shopping in the dollar bin, the year I sold my guitar to make rent, the year of my first panic attack, the year I said I am not a Christian out loud, the year of letting the stray cat inside, the year we found her dead outside Joey’s window, the year of revolving-door records, Steel Reserve beer, and watercoloring on the floor.

O, see the darkness yielding

That tore the light apart

Come healing of the reason

Come healing of the heart

O, troubled dust concealing

An undivided love

The heart beneath is teaching

To the broken heart above

— “Come Healing,” Leonard Cohen

*

Not long before Cohen’s death, on that same couch at the boys’ house, the three of us had watched a documentary about Cohen’s time in a Buddhist monastery at Mt. Baldy in California. We were so taken with his ability to infuse the sacred with the profane, alchemize them into something wonderfully familiar and wholly magical. Plus, he was funny. We loved to giggle at lyrics from the title track of “The Future” (the album with “Anthem,” which came out in 1992 ahead of Cohen’s visit to Mt Baldy in 1994):

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that’s left

And stuff it up the hole

In your culture

We’d covered “Diamonds in the Mine” at one of our first shows as a band. Trevor had typewritten one of Cohen’s love poems as a gift for me when we’d first fallen in love, which I tacked up on my wall. When I turned 24 just days after Cohen’s death, Joey watercolored two book covers with images and lyrics of his; sort of Blakean, jewel-toned and regal. During that time and since, we’ve always freely exchanged Cohen’s poetry books and records in a rotating fashion. Whoever didn’t have one record or book could borrow it in exchange for another—they were one of the many revolving-door objects in our revolving-door friendship.

*

In 2017, the three of us moved into a house together and organized all of our records alphabetically on one big shelf. After they were all shelved we took a step back to admire our handiwork. We laughed at how expansive our Cohen collection was, sprawling out in the C’s like some kind of kingdom.

When I think of these treasured lost years, it’s Cohen’s music that accompanies them: a sonic context for all that growth and longing. It’s our tipsy, ambling covers of “Suzanne” at two in the morning with additional, improvised lyrics, our rice-and-beans dinners on the couch with Trevor’s copy of “Death of a Ladies Man” spinning round, a cheap candle flickering on the coffee table. It’s late nights at the since-demolished J&J’s Market & Cafe, where all of us had worked and dropped into like a second home, certain we’d find one another. It’s the bitterness of over-extracted coffee uncannily complimentary of an over-sweetened muffin, and “Closing Time” on the speakers when it was time to shuffle folks along. It’s going to La Hacienda on Nolensville Pike for a Saturday morning breakfast of huevos rancheros and hot, black coffee, then walking to Phonoluxe next door and looking through records. It’s finding a beautiful original pressing of New Skin for the Old Ceremony there, joyfully spending all my tips from a week of work on it, and putting it on the record player the instant that I got home.

New Skin was Cohen’s fourth album—the one where he left behind his previous producer, studio musicians, and the golden, cloying concept of ‘the Nashville sound’ and headed back to his more austere New York City folk scene roots. How coincidental to find this rare record in Nashville of all places, where I and my bandmates also sometimes felt simultaneously within and outside of the sometimes-mechanistic music scene.

The album cover was the original, before the artwork was banned and changed on later pressings. It is an image from the alchemical text Rosarium philosophorum, and was referenced in Jung’s work to symbolize the union of opposites—just like Cohen’s own unified heart symbol. I loved the Judeo-Christian references emanating from the record, recontextualizing these ancient symbols and words to mean something new, sometimes something radically different. It’s all condensed there, in the title: new for the old; a ceremonious reimagining I could feel fully welcome to. A communion table I could sit at comfortably.

And who by brave assent, who by accident

Who in solitude, who in this mirror

Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand

Who in mortal chains, who in power

And who shall I say is calling?

—“Who By Fire,” Leonard Cohen

*

I don’t listen to Cohen’s records as frequently as I used to. They don’t sit well in a casual context, for me; they require my full attention. Devotion, even. They’re like friends that live in a distant place but correspond with diligence, easily picking up where we left off. Joey’s since moved out of the shared house where Trevor and I still live, but he has his key. We still share equipment and records, practice in the music room, and play more and more often each year, it seems. Our friendships have grown up along with us, as we’ve taken on jobs, commitments, and projects that don’t allow for the same kind of consistent, casual hang-outs we once shared. We’ve become more intentional, monastic, like Cohen at Mt. Baldy, maybe.

We’ve found our place in Nashville, which is not fixed to any one ‘scene,’ but rather with one another—with our wider community which grows and vines in ways we’d never expected.

We’re devoted to one another in everyday ways. I can’t think of a better songwriter, anyone more emblematic of the ephemeral and unspoken, the mundane glory of our true love, our blessed friendship, then Cohen—serenading those lost years when they were in no hurry to be found.

##

Lauren Turner is a writer and musician (Lou Turner) in Nashville, TN. She is the author of Shape Note Singing (forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2021). Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Image Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Chapter 16, and more. She serves as a blog editor for the freeform community radio station WXNA FM in Nashville, where she hosts her literary program, The Crack In Everything.  

1 2 3 4