My interview with poet Raquel Gutierrez in Yay LA Magazine

27 Jun

AUTHOR RAQUEL GUTIERREZ ON “BREAKING UP WITH LOS ANGELES”

(Read on the Yay LA webpage here: http://www.yaylamag.com/raquel-gutierrez/)

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Sharif Dumani, musician, kind soul, best known for his fronting of L.A. 60′s pop band Exploding Flowers, recommended a chapbook of poetry to me, well everyone, via social media.

“My skull blown open twice over along with my heart. For anyone who has ever walked our streets, driven our freeways, lived, loved, lost, succeeded, and failed in this city of Angels, it will fully resonate. Raquel Gutierrez’ zine of poems and stories totally captures the heart and soul of this town, while breaking your heart and having you fall in love all at the same time. Do yourself a favor and get a copy of Breaking up with Los Angeles, if anything, for the beautiful and loving tribute to Wanda Coleman. Absolutely gorgeous work”

Needless to say, this hyping caught my attention and I ordered the chapbook online.  I got book in the mail and was not disappointed. Breaking Up With Los Angeles made me fall in love with L.A. all over again.

Raquel Gutierrez is a poet from L.A. who now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Breaking Up With Los Angeles is her first chapbook.

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Why do you write and when did you start writing?  Do you remember your first poem you ever wrote and what it was about?

I write because it just seems like the simplest way to create the world I perceive through my five senses. I was always a reader and felt like that was the best way to experience other worlds, worlds I didn’t know or belong to. I’ve been journaling since I was a kid. I wrote plays in grade school and poems in high school. Wrote some music too. Studied journalism but not really writing. Not creative writing. I took one class at L.A. City College but dropped out. Didn’t really like the environment and didn’t feel like it helped me. It just bummed me out.

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Do you recall the first poem you ever wrote that you were proud of?

Oh hmm first poem. Yeah, I think it was a poem about a girl. It was called “Fire Woman.”

 

Where did you find the confidence to write poetry?

Well it wasn’t confidence exactly, I needed a place that had relaxed rules about content and form. Or at least conventions to push against.

 

And you found that place for you was poetry?

I actually always wanted to be more of a prose writer. Fiction, or longer form. I didn’t think of poetry as something I could really do. Breaking Up With Los Angeles was me taking a chance. It was really healing to do. To express grief that way.

 

What are some of your first memories of Los Angeles before you were conscious of it being “L.A.”?

Plazita Olvera. My folks would take us there at least once a month. Driving through downtown. Seeing city hall. I was baptized at Our Lady Queen of Angels. The freeways, they are comforting to me. Bandini Blvd. El Mercadito. The county hospital where I was born and had yearly check-ups that allowed me to miss school until I was eighteen. The fisherman’s outlet for fried shrimp. El Salvador café on San Julian in the alleys. The Frank Romero murals on the 101 Freeway depicting little kids.

 

Discovering yourself and discovering your sexuality, how did the boundaries of freeways and neighborhoods fall into your journey?  Did you feel more “free” in some neighborhoods as opposed to others?

Well in my early twenties there were “T-parties” for the under-21 set. T or “tea” is like, “What’s the tea?” It was a way of saying, “What’s Her Story?” Or like, “Is that guy gay?” They were backyard keggers for queer Latinos. The party lines were on these business card flyers and you’d call them every weekend to see where the party was at. You’d end up at places like South Gate or La Puente or Montebello. We’d drink, hold up the walls, listen to freestyle and Morrissey. My friend used to throw so much shade. I remember having to book it out once because some queen wanted to fight him

Were you openly “out” with your parents?  Were they understanding? Supportive?  I’m assuming your family was Catholic?

I came out to my folks at twenty-one. After my girlfriend broke up with me and I was a visible mess.

 

What was their reaction?

My parents were cool, very accepting. Saw I was in pain and wanted to help me feel better. They are great. My dad was basically “Ay mija, ya te vas a encontrar a otra.” Which means, “You’ll find someone else.” They are more concerned with my artistic pursuits. They wish I would just be like a realtor or work for the city.

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I grew up in the L.A. of the Eighties and early Nineties. It was rife with gang culture and the music of the time reflected that.  What was the soundtrack of your childhood?  What were the first five albums you bought or borrowed from older siblings or friends?

Beastie Boys “License to Ill,” Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Fat Boys, Run DMC, “Tough As Leather.”

 

And what was the soundtrack to the T Parties?

Cover Girls, Masters At Work, Black Box, Depeche Mode. I remember Eazy-E was huge of course. Los Tigres, Ana Gabriel. We would listen to my folks’ music too, like Chico Che y La Crisis. In 8th grade I got into my big brother’s Devo, B52s and Oingo Boingo stash. They Might Be Giants.

 

Easy E, NWA, Dr Dre, Snoop and Ice Cube later on? What about MC Kid Frost?

Kid frost was popular with some classmates. I thought it was so dorky.

 

You weren’t a fan of his “This for La Raza” music video with the buff saxophone guy?

Ha. No

 

You grew up in Huntington Park?  What gang controlled that turf at the time, when you were a kid?

I grew up in Huntington Park till I was four. Then Bell Gardens. Then my folks moved back to HP when I went to grad school. The big gang when I was growing up was Chanslor St. They were in Bell and were the gang messing with the kids I knew. I remember a bullet hole in my window and my mom would stay up all night. There were shootings in the neighborhood I grew up in but it was just typical.

 

Did Chanslor St. have a lot of female members as well?

Oh gosh I think only in terms of girlfriends. Firme jainas.

 

Sometimes it seems like outsiders think of L.A. as either Beverly Hills or Compton, with nothing in between. What do you find is the most common misconception of L.A. and what is the stereotype that is most true about L.A.?

Well I love Compton and Watts. It’s just an extension of Huntington Park. And it’s all brown folks and immigrants now. The Misconception, that L.A. lacks culture.

 

Right, I think South L.A. is something like eighty-percent Latino now

The L.A. stereotype, traffic. Duh. Yes. But I like traffic, it’s a time to think about the day or week’s events. I’ll take L.A. traffic over Bay Area traffic any day of the week though

 

That bad?  Bay Bridge traffic or what?

Bay Bridge traffic is dystopic.

 

You currently live in the Bay Area.  Do you feel that once you left Los Angeles, you were ready to write about it?

I left L.A. ten years ago for NYC. Couldn’t write a damn lick to save my life. This time around leaving I was finally ready to inhabit certain uncomfortable truths about myself. And write from that place.

 

You went to NYU?

Yeah. I did a performance studies Master’s.

 

So you didn’t study writing or poetry at NYU?  Do you find writing classes or seminars claustrophobic?

I didn’t study writing. Maybe I should have but I was enamored with performance art at the time. I studied theory. Worked with José Muñoz. Who passed away suddenly a few months ago.

 

Ah, I saw the reference to Jose Munoz in your book and was wondering who he was.   Sorry to hear he passed away. “The potential for radical precariousness,” such a beautiful line in your book, can you elaborate?

Well that line is about how I feel like my generation there is a want or need for security in creating art. That we value safety over risk.

 

“Everyone in Los Angeles has a loose relationship between time and whiteness” What do you mean by that– and what is/was your relationship between time and whiteness?

In L.A. identity politics are not the topic of the day in the way it feels like they are or still are in the Bay. My relationship with both those things–hmm I guess a banal obsession. It’s present but not one where I am consumed by a toxic rage.

“Someone is talking to me about gentrification again.” A hot topic in the Bay Area? One that is not really discussed as much in L.A.? What do you mean by “Everyone in Los Angeles has a loose relationship between time and whiteness”?  Are you saying the Bay Area has a tighter (grasp?) on time and whiteness? What are you banally obsessed with?

When I talk about the Bay Area, I mean people of color in the Bay Area. Some of the folks who reside here have graduated from some really amazing liberal arts colleges where they had an intense time with race and privilege. People in the Bay Area come here to work it out. They try to create a world that’s only people, not just people who look like each other.  Here I think of myself as a “bad brown person.” I don’t have those traumas because I didn’t have the same intensely negative experience with white people.  I went to college at Cal State Northridge and my fellow students were working class white people and people who worked in the porn industry while going to school. I feel like an outsider in the people of color communities in the Bay Area. I’ve heard of events where white people aren’t allowed. It’s a particular type of person of color who had this kind of collegiate experience or generally negative experience with white people. But I didn’t have that and to me it doesn’t make sense. That’s just me. All that to say that I feel like my brown experience is maybe atypical of other more righteous narratives.

 

This line is from your poem “Ole Dad,” from your book:

“Nothing stronger than a Bohemia here, nothing stranger except for the passage of time each minute denoted with a drop of liquor as it dilutes the blood between us”

 

The other week I had a freelance job in Vernon.  I drove right by Ole Dad Liquor store and had just read your poem about it.  I agree with you when you say “Vernon is the middle of nowhere a woman or child ought to be”.  What is your history with Vernon? The line “the paycheck he earns becomes burdened with so much rabia” is so fucking well-put.  Rabia en ingles is something like “infuriating,” “fury,” “anger,”  but the Spanish word “rabia” has so much more to it besides fury or anger.  

It’s where I’d drive through to get to or get out of Huntington Park. Vernon is so dystopic. So brutal. It attacks all of the senses, especially smell. It’s hard to not be obsessed by the landscape. I fell in love with industrial aesthetic motifs because of Vernon. My parents both worked there. My dad at a printing press and a plastics factory. My mom was a costurera.

 

So a lot of chemicals and nasty things at the plastic factory?  What is a costurera?

Just imagining their day in and day out kind of guts me. Costerera is a seamstress.

 

They still working there now?

My dad eventually got into being a salesman and got his real estate license when he was almost fifty. My mom is now a certified nurse’s assistant.

 

Why is Wanda Coleman’s tongue “mightier than Fante, Gehry, Bukowski?”

Her tongue is mightier to me because she made it out of Watts without leaving Watts behind. She left it but took it with her. Her work is just searing. Sinister. Stunning. She writes about truly frightening things: poverty. Sex. Violence. Ache. I found inspiration. I mean the ache. The rage. The impotence. All makes for easy relatability if you’re in touch with those ugly feelings yourself.

 

Do you have one particular book or piece of Wanda Coleman’s you’d recommend as a must read for folks unfamiliar with her work?

Heavy Daughter Blues.

 

 “Naco Power” works in both Spanish and English.  Do you plan to do more bi-lingual poems?

I was in Mexico City last year and I was taken aback by how well my Spanish came back. D.F. is infinite. Also just conversing with people in my line of work in Spanish I have gotten a better claim over speaking it. Expressing myself. It’s become a whole new world when it comes to poems.

What is your current line of work?

I do arts community engagement, Connecting artists and community to make art together. I’m like the shock absorber.

 

Favorite Spanish-speaking poet?

Claribel. Alegria and Roque Dalton. I love Roque.

 

Books or poems you’d reccomend by Alegria and Dalton?

Taberna by Roque.

 

From your book, this is up there with Fante, Chandler, Nathanael West, a classic description of L.A.

“scatter me in the mouth of Los Angeles

her stomach the desert

her ass the sea

her shoulders the mountains

and her womb the east Los Angeles freeway interchange

for the 5 brought me all of California

while the 101 took me to where it was possible

impossible

 on the 10 during rush hour

and the 60 carried my broken teenage heart home”

 

The freeways in L.A. are like the veins that lead to the heart.  Only it’s hard to find the heart because there is no center.  Where is your heart in L.A.? 

El Mercadito to me is the heart. That’s where my parents met.

 

Boyle Heights is the heart?

It’s so mundane but so much happens there. And the altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe is peerless. I’d say Pacific Boulevard over Beverly Hills any day.

 

Why do people write poetry?

I have no idea why people write poetry except maybe to stave off madness.

 

Will you ever come back to L.A.?  Don’t you find the people in the Bay Area a bit too passive-aggressive and politically-correct (and sometimes lacking a sense of humor?).  I know I’m generalizing. I also lived up there for a spell, have good friends from up there and loved parts of it and didn’t love other parts of it.  People get a little too uptight and a little too PC.  Is this a breath of fresh air for you, a brief repose?   What is the deal with the Google bus?  Will it roll over San Francisco like an Israeli tank rolls over a Palestinian child throwing a rock?

Yes yes and yes to everything you said about the Bay. It’s uptight and not a friendly place. But love and work is here. If I had a cool job lined up I’d definitely come back and if my girlfriend got into med school then for sure. My social world is smaller in the Bay, which makes work easier to do. The Tech Industry is a point of Contention here for sure. Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation is my Bay Area survival spirit animal.

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The Bay Area is a strange place.  I do love visiting and have some dear friends there, but hate to see the counter culture (which what made SF special in the first place) sucked out and priced out. You can see racial tension building in Oakland now with a lot of folks moving out of SF because they can’t afford it anymore – they move to Oakland where the magic word “gentrification” is another point of contention as you said.

Exactly. I have gentrification fatigue

 

I think everyone does. Myself, being white, sometimes I feel that I’m “gentrifying” a place merely by existing

It does seem like the remaining counter culture in SF is dwindling. That’s a weird thing that comes from feeling guilty for being creative. Getting implicated in all of that gentrification labeling. But I can see the beauty where everyone else sees blight.

Favorite taco spot in L.A.? 

Favorite tacos? Duh Guisados. Lengua. But I also love the buche gorditas at El Mercadito.

 

What is buche? Snout?

Buche is stomach! Kind of gnarly, but tasty. Lengua is the bomb. I loved Lengua on wonder bread lunches when I was a kid

 

How is Raquel Gutierrez going to conquer the world, and what is your newest chapbook? How does it differ from breaking up with L.A., and where do people buy your books online?

Conquering the world to give it back to those who were robbed. Next chapbook: #WhiteBoo out in a few weeks. Deciding sequence and designing cover art right now.

 

Is there actually a hashtag in the title of the book? Say it ain’t so.

There is! It’s a place where people of color on Twitter let their guards down.

 

So someone of color who is dating a white person? White boo?

Yeah exactly. Really this chapbook is about racialized anxiety.

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So where do people order Breaking up with Los Angeles and #Whiteboo?

Raquelgutierrez.net/chapbook for info. And soon an Etsy store.

 

Any advice for aspiring poets, aspiring writers… people who are earnest seekers of the truth?  What might they do to ease their minds and their souls a bit?

Just tell the truth no matter how complicated or unflattering it might be. There’s beauty there. And work together. Nothing we want more than a sense of belonging. Don’t be afraid to belong to each other.

 

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