Matt, thanks for your time I know you’re a busy dude. I’ve never done one before but congratulations on being my first interview. I’ve known you for about 5 years now maybe. I feel I know you pretty well. How would you summarize yourself and your artistry for those that don’t know you?
For those that don’t know me I’m a poet, I write political poetry a political poet. I write a lot about the important and contentious issues that are facing us in this time and age. On top of that I’m a Chicano poet and very proud of being part of that lineage as well. I write a lot about the struggle of the Chicano peopl and the struggles of all working class people in general. I also write about topics surrounding the fact that we’re living on a planet that’s being destroyed by the very wealthy.
How did you get started in poetry?
Since I was very young I wanted to be a poet, a writer, a director and things like that. But before that I wanted to me president and my dad told me I could never be president because I was Mexican. Looking back I don’t think he was trying to be mean about it, I think he was just trying to be realistic with me. I think at that point something shifted, I began to feel a certain way about politics.
I carried that desire to be a poet and writer into my teenage years and I remember when I was 20, a friend of mine took me to an open mic. I saw a person do a political poem and thought to myself, hey I know I can do that. I know I can do it even better because I was more politically knowledgeable than these cats. So I started frequenting these open mics, and as we know with most political poets, their shit’s too long, they talk too much, and they’re not very artistic right.
So I was doing pretty good with that and then one day I did this poem that was really long about serious political topics like coltan miners in the congo, children dying, Chinese sweatshops, thinking it was important and that people would care right, but of course, no. That wasn’t true (laughs.) I got kinda booed, not really booed but they restless and upset. So that pissed me off and I wrote a poem that was basically cussing out the audience. I was basically saying “ fuck you, wake up, people are dying, what the fuck is wrong with you, fuck you..” right… and they LOVED IT, looovvveed iit..and that’s when my poetry career really began.
Two weeks after that I wrote a poem titled “I Remember the Alamo, but I remember Differently.” And that became my first signature piece, that was the first piece where everyone was like, damn that’s good shit. From that things just really took off.
Who are the poets, artists, or personages that have most inspired and influenced you and your work?
Well, those who have inspired my work most are those who write political speeches. When people have asked who my number one influence. And some people think I’m being funny but I think Hugo Chavez. I watch how he escalates, how he leaves in room for humor.
If I had to say who I most sound like, maybe, Amari Baraka, I guess. But it’s not because I’ve studied him or anything but because I think he did the same thing, I think he also studied political speeches. He comes out of a jazz tradition which influences some of the styles he does that I don’t do. Whereas my style is probably more influenced by old Chicano or Latin American speeches, the flow, they way they escalate.
You’re hella prolific with your voice, be it poetry, education, or political analysis. What drives and fuels your work?
The conditions we find ourselves in you know. Everyday I wake up and something horrible is happening, so I’m responding to it. A part of if it is me trying to hold a vision for a better world, a better way for things to be done, but that comes from studying political theory and talking with friends in the Black and Chicano struggles, and people who’ve been involved in various struggles who’ve been through a lot.. getting their insights and the insights of the younger, my age, and older folks who are politically involved, it gives me an idea of how we can make things better.
But what really drives what I write about are the conditions we live in. Everyday I wake up and there’s something that has me outraged. I try to write about it, not just to get mad but to make it make sense, why this this happened. Not just what is happening but why. Art is a great conduit for information, so I like translating information into artistic process.
You do venues across the country, workshops, and recently went to Cuba right? Can you expand a little on where your work has taken you and where else you’d like to go with it?
So my work has taken me to Cuba, England- University of — as well the University of Cambridge. It’s taken me all over this country, something like 92 college campuses at this point. It’s changed my life in many ways, the way I look and think about myself, in ways that are very positive. I’m very grateful and honored when I think about what I get to do.
My trip to Cuba was probably the highlight of my year, last year. It was amazing, it was amazing to see a different way of life, a different way of doing things, and to see how people interact, when they’re..its not paradise, but to see how people interact when they know they’re survival is guaranteed. It’s different. People act different when they know no matter what society is not just going to let me die. Juxtapose that to the U.S where there is much more abundance of material things and such here but we have no guarantee to those things. Very different place.
So dude, you get mad props respect from a lot renown authors, poets, and journalists, and you captivate audiences everywhere you go. Can you talk a little about people you’ve worked with and some accolades you’re proud of?
I get to work with a lot of amazing people. It wasn’t just me. It was me, Viva Padilla, Iris de Anda, with Luis Rodriguez which was really huge. The whole thing was put together by Dr. Jose Prado at Cal State Dominguez Hills. I also got to work with Roxanna Dunbar Ortiz, Paul Ortiz.. Ive got to meet and work with Luis Urrea. Greg Palast, I have a long working relationship with him and we have another project coming up soon that I’m also pretty excited about.
What distinguishes you from other poets?
I find myself in the situation where I’m not being brought out by the English departments or the literature department, I’m being brought out by the history department, the sociology department, and such. So I’m in a different category than most poets. The reason I’m successful tho is not so much because of what I write about but, you know, I write well, I invest heavily in my craft.
You’ve just released a new book. Can you tell us about it?
Mowing Leaves of Grass, it’s my new book on FlowerSong Books you can go to their website and order a copy. They have a lot of great authors on their roster. But the book is essentially a response to what we’ve seen for the past couple years which I believe is about the far right’s response to the browning of America, that is what we’re seeing with the rise of Trump and his politics. However, on the academic side what you see is a constant denial of the significance of the browning of America. There’s a lot of theorizing and downplaying and reasoning of why this (browning) reality is not significant. For some reason this topic is not at the center of US politics and yet you have a guy who made his anti-Mexican platform the centerpiece of his campaign. He’s done a lot of horrible things but at the center the thing he always returns to is “build the wall, Mexico will pay.” That’s true and if we peel back the reason for this it’s because the browning of America. This book is about the browning of America and why it’s significant and why things are going to change.
The reason its called Mowing Leaves of Grass is because its about that, its about pushing out the white cannon. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is the most famous book of American poetry in US history. Wlat Whitman is the man who said “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race?” That’s what he said, he was a proponent of the Mexican-American War. One of his most popular poems “I Sing the Body Electric” he talks about witnessing a slave auction and about how beautiful the bodies were. Horrific stuff, and this is at the center of American identity..that is absolutely true. Those who love, speak up for, and venerate Walt Whitman saying that his poetry is central to American identity ad experience they are absolutely right, that is absolutely true. That’s why American identity and experience is so horrific, and that’s why I’m Mowing Leaves of Grass..writing against that.
What other projects are you working on?
I working on my next manuscript. Working on the one after that which is really exciting, where I’ll be interpreting non-fiction authors. Outside of poetry Ive been working with a collective which includes Karena Acree-Páez, Maria Flores, and Ernesto Ayala. Working on project Tele-Jaguar which is essentially pushing forward these things I mentioned earlier. What does it mean that these numbers are shifting, what does it mean for the country as a whole and why do we find ourselves still so oppressed and demonized. How do we push this, for the benefit of all working class people.
Of all poems you’ve ever written which do you feel is your most definitive?
Well, my perfectly most executed poem in book and in general is Defend the Eastside. Is it my best poem? No. Not by any means. But it’s the most perfectly crafted, my most flawless, it does exactly what its supposed to do. It take you through a life and death cycle. So my definitive poem, its probably.. its hard to say because there’s a couple. It’s either The Devil or LA is Full of Pigs at this point in time. However the best thing I’ve ever written is Mowing Leaves of Grass, the title poem. I think that poem will be understood for generations to come. I have a rapid style of delivery so there are references that go over peoples head, but that poem is really deep.
You’re very active on social media and have a very distinguished presence. What role does social media play in your art and work?
Well for me it helpful because I get to watch and see what people are thinking, how they’re thinking, and what direction their headed. It helps me refine the message, not that Im going to change what I’m thinking but maybe my approach and how I say it. Because at the end of the day I’m trying to deliver a message, what matter most is the message. Social media allows me to understand, to see how people are best receiving information..lets move to that.
Can you tell us about the Tele-Jaguar project, how it came to be, and what the purpose and goal is with that project?
Well the goal and purpose of that project is to bring people back into a material reading of reality, to be able to look at things for what they really are, instead of having these weird politics where youre trying to fight for moral purity and prove that you’re right because youre some type of superior, higher moral being. Those type of politics, what they have done, they’ve really prevented us from having politics around- real things. We’re not interested in those politics. In fact not only are we not interested in those politics, its our aim to make sure those politics fail.
You seem to come to Venice a few times recently. What’s your relationship to our town?
Actually I used to be in Venice a lot. I used to host a thing at the Talking Stick back i the day, with DJ Noj, and this cat named Nicki Black and had a great time doing that. I do shows sometimes at Beyond Baroque, I did the Venice Lives community event in Oakwood last year, so I come out for community type events like that. I’m not in Venice as much as I’d like to be but I’d like to change that, but LA is full of traffic man..lol
Is there anything I missed that you’d like to talk mention?
I really encourage people to check out my new book, to follow Tele-Jaguar, and encourage people to create their own platforms and create their own books. Also to fight, fight in ways that will work, and not always with each other. Let’s fight in ways that work and create a better lives for ourselves.
Thanks for your time Matt, the Beachhead looks forward to talking and seeing you again soon.