Matt Sedillo is an openly Communist poet and a Damn Slam Los Angeles champion. His last book of poetry, ”For What I Might Do Tomorrow” drew praise from the likes of Jack Hirschman. He agreed to an interview with 12th Street concerning his latest project, “The Same Stretch Of Sidewalk” which will be available soon.
12TH STREET: “You Think You’re Free?” is a poem in “The Same Stretch Of Sidewalk” that has heightened relevance as elections near. You write “Now hop in that box/And go vote in your chains/You think you’re free”. I assume that you will not be feeling the Bern come November, but then where do you say hope lies in a country ruled by “billionaire slumlords” like the ones you describe in your work?
MATT SEDILLO: If I do vote it will be for Jill Stein. Cheri Honkala is a good friend of mine and ran as VP with Stein. I wrote those lines interestingly enough… I think about how John Kerry and Mitt Romney were basically the same guy in manner and effect and everything. The whole electoral process is a real joke. The Sanders campaign has its limitations structurally built into the campaign. Personally as a communist myself hearing him talk about how great Eisenhower was is hard for me to bear. In the case of Dwight Eisenhower, you are talking about the man who killed the Rosenbergs. As a Mexican American it is hard to hear that kind of talk as well considering Ike was president during Operation Wetback. As an internationalist he was also there for the overthrow of Arbenz, Mossadegh and the assassination of Lumumba. So that’s all bad in my mind. I do think he has forced a substantive debate onto the American political scene. That is definitely very unusual. That I will say.
Sanders reminds me a lot of Dennis Kucinich, though I definitely think Kucinich was less of an imperialist. If you watch speeches back to back they are quite similar. Why does Sanders have so much more traction in this moment than did Kucinich? He isn’t any more personally dynamic to my eye. It’s the moment. It’s the people. I think it has to do with how much Occupy changed the national conversation. Long after this campaign is over those dreams and demands will remain. I want a lot of those things too. Like universal access to healthcare and education. I want that and I want that for everyone. But I also want all the free stuff. I don’t call it free stuff, but I mean I want access to stuff on the basis of having been born. And yes I want it all. All that can be produced in an environmentally safe way that does not exploit human labor. So I maybe dream a little bigger than most. But if increasingly because of advanced robotics in production material objects are produced absent human labor then why not? Why shouldn’t people just get things? In my mind anyone who disagrees with that proposal is either some kind of workerist or a hater.
STREET: Now that you mention “haters”, in one of the poems in your collection, “The Devil”, you create a character that is both “A Hindu nationalist/Calling for ethnic cleansing” and “…a Washington lobbyist”. In past interviews you stated that you do heavy research while writing your poems. Why do you invest so much time researching and drawing connections between international struggles when there are so many “devils” in this country?
SEDILLO: It is important to remember that all this nationalism; all this chauvinism; all this dressing up brutality in cultural garb; is most often the preferred method of fascists and kleptocrats. I see Donald Trump and I see both. I take this stuff very seriously. Whether it’s the campaign of white restoration of Donald Trump that we are all familiar with, the vicious xenophobia of Western Europe, the chauvinism of Japan or Turkey, Zionism, Hindu Nationalism, the colorism of Latin America etc. I take all this very seriously. I also deeply care about what happens to other people whether they live in Newark or New Delhi. Like most people, I am most invested in the people I actually know but beyond that I don’t feel any particular national affinity. I am internationalist in perspective and sentiment. To be otherwise is to be foul hearted.
As to Washington Lobbyists, I don’t even know what to say about how ridiculous and corrupt this political system is and has always been. This is the land of the company town. This is the land of the Pinkertons. This is the land of the private/public partnership which means the public pays for it and private interests keep the money. This is the land of for profit prisons. And really this is an economy that was founded in chattel slavery, a system where people were literally owned on a land mass drenched in blood. That legacy is still here. It is the reason why the injustice we all live under manifests itself most unjustly against African-Americans and Natives. Its why the numbers of incarcerated and slain by the state bare those out. It is also why the African- American freedom struggle carries so much power to so many people both here and abroad. There is no way around that. All those historical legacies are still felt.
STREET: In The Same Stretch Of Sidewalk, you paint an image of Southern California that many 12th Street readers may not recognize from popular culture, yet it is a very vivid image… Especially intriguing are the poems “The History Of My Family”, “El Sereno” and “Orange County” where you dive more into your personal connection with the region and mention local events like the Anaheim uprisings. How much of Southern California’s geographical and cultural location do you think has impacted your work and general outlook?
SEDILLO: The presence of Mexican and Mexican-American culture and not just presence but foundational nature of that presence makes Southern California quite different from the East Coast. That’s true not only of Southern California but of the American Southwest in general. In many ways the US is, culturally speaking, several different countries. At this moment the politics of the Southwest in many ways are going national. The wall politics of Donald Trump have been the politics I have lived under my whole life. Never before though has anyone been able to make that the cornerstone of their national platform. Well, maybe William Polk. So people better start understanding this history and its implications wherever they are in the country. Also there are aspects of the history and struggle that are foundational for everyone Miranda vs Arizona for instance. Miranda rights affect everyone.
STREET: While on the topic of the Southwest, your very presence as a guest speaker at a middle school caused quite a controversy in Arizona. With the press comparing you to the likes of poet-revolutionary Rogue Dalton; poems like “Here Is A Nation”; and your open devotion to Communism, it’s no wonder that in a conservative state like Arizona, parents would be alarmed by your presence in their children’s classroom. Would you say that this kind of attention has worked to further your message?
SEDILLO: Let’s be very clear I am a Chicano who was born on the East Side of Los Angeles. Some people were going to hate me in Arizona no matter what I said unless I debased myself. It also goes without saying that acceptance based on the conditions of self-debasement is also a form of hatred. I wouldn’t refer to Arizona as a conservative state, but rather a reserve of fascist sentiment. Oppression breeds resistance so some of the greatest freedom fighters of our day call Arizona home. But for the fascists of Arizona I have no warmth or sentiment nor am I trying to speak to them as it were.
As to the Roque Dalton comparison, when someone says something like that, the appropriate response, I believe, is gratitude and humility. Roque Dalton is one of the great voices of the historical struggle to be free. Que viva el movimiento. Que viva Roque Dalton.
STREET: You’ve worked with organizations such as The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and the California Student Union (where we first met). Both of these organizations have been criticized for taking Far-Left stances compared to other groups organizing in their respective struggles. Why do you choose to associate with these groups?
SEDILLO: Let me begin by saying that my statements reflect my views alone. But I believe people should have access to material things. And if CASU is fighting for free education and they want me to do a poetry workshop, I am there. If PPEHRC is fighting for free housing and they want me to do a poem to open up the social forum, I am there. This is what I do. This is what I believe.
STREET: In “Hammurabi”, you compare television sitcoms such as “I Love Lucy” and “Married With Children” as well as “go go gadgets” and the Internet with the Code Of Hammurabi and the Medieval Catholic Church– institutions of control. Can you elaborate on the parallels between sitcoms, technology and ancient laws?
SEDILLO: Well firstly, I would like to say that technology is really anything beyond your hands and teeth. A spoon is technology. A toothbrush is too. Too often the term technology is made synonymous with whatever breakthrough is happening at the moment. Technological development has been occurring for the past few thousand years, one generation to the next. Some have lived in periods where the technological advancement is quite rapid others less so but either way it’s all technology. One could even make the argument for language as a form of technology. So it also what’s between your ears as well, not just objects that augment your physical grasp. Languages are systems of words and words are historically developed tools used to better grasp the material universe. As stated earlier physical tools also develop over generations. The command of such tools, the command of who can access them and the struggle for that command are what are traditionally called politics. The poem Hammurabi is about the ideas that justified the politics of my parents’ early development, my early development and the politics of a time that is considered by many to be the early development of society.
If you sit down and actually read the code of Hammurabi it becomes quite clear that there wasn’t some set group of people wandering around and then the law was introduced to give order to things. The code includes all types of laws about how land owning men are to deal with one another when one or another had done injury to each other’s property and family, particularly to each other’s daughters. It also includes laws as to how merchants are to interact with the sons of landowners while they are away. What one really walks away with is a clear understanding of what patriarchy looked like in that setting as a direct economic system, the commerce of patriarchy as it were. The writing of the Code of Hammurabi was not the establishment of such cruel and unjust system. Rather it was the codification of terrible interactions that were already taking place. Hammurabi was the chief voice of property and politics laying down the law. However none of this arose out of political will or unbridled greed or cruelty in a vacuum. This all took place within the context of the development of city states which require a certain level of technological development. For the majority of our collective existence we wandered around in small groupings. It is only at a certain level of technological development that mass surplus can be produced and labor can be controlled, deployed and profited from. All this begs the questions, what is the difference between law and technology? To my thinking that gets into questions of property and production, use vs exchange value.
What gives physical objects are their physical qualities? That’s easy, physics. What makes a physical object property? I would answer that as law, contracts and receipts and various other pieces of paper and forms of agreement. Of course organized force is employed to hold up said agreements. To my thinking what gives physical objects their material dimensions is material reality whereas what makes physical objects forms of property is social phenomenon. That is to say, that which we recognize and that which we are forced to recognize.
Hammurabi really isn’t about the state apparatus or its command of force. It is about the ridiculous ideas we internalize so that that force or the threat thereof need not even be brandished.
STREET: Poems like “Storm Warnings” and “Hammurabi” could be interpreted as supporting anti-technology ideologies like Anarcho-primitivism or Deep Green. Knowing you more personally, I know that you are no Luddite. How do you reconcile your views concerning the negative impact of technology with the need for further advancement?
SEDILLO: Well here again we are getting into questions of property and production. Regardless of economy, aspects of industry are destroying the possibility of life on the planet. None of this can be dealt with rationally because of that property question. Aspects of industry will kill off future generations and because in the short run that allows for a world of billionaires and beggars and because the billionaires love it that way, we can’t do anything about it. The drive for property, the drive to control and deploy the time and energy of others and have limitless access to the fruits of its production is insatiable. There is something profoundly wicked about the people who make the decisions we all have to live with. As to what I think about the advance of technology, I welcome it. Even under a liberated factory system you still have a stultifying division of labor. The advances in technology particularly in robotics is driving forward something completely new. Things that were once impossible are now possible. You cannot politically achieve what is technologically impossible. So no matter how you organized the labor around a dirt lot with some gardening tools it’s still a dirt lot with gardening tools. Same is true of a series of railroads connecting factories. Whole different world when advanced robotics enter into the life of society. If that happens in a way outside the bounds of a society organized into property than it frees us all up from doing things we don’t want to do. I hate doing things I don’t want to. The more advanced robotics there are in the world the better. I am emailing you now. I find this preferable to writing you a letter on a typewriter, which I am old enough to have done. But only because I was a precocious child. I am not that old.
STREET: I’ve seen you perform your spoken word multiple times and each time you deliver a very powerful performance. I felt it while reading The Same Stretch Of Sidewalk, but I know that not every nuance of your performance can be captured by the page. How do you go about translated spoken word onto the written page?
SEDILLO: I try to write in a way that can both be performed in a dynamic fashion but also looks good on a page. I try my best.
STREET: Do you have any plans to perform in New York City any time soon?
SEDILLO: The Left Forum 2016. See you there. Hit me up. Bring me to your school