HERO WORSHIP: an open letter to North American readers
An Open Letter to North American Readers—The View re: my Tijuana Hero, Heriberto Yépez (and his Imperial Fantasy, Sir Charles Olson), now strangely honoring (or not) his hero, Charles Olson, at the June, 2015 Berkeley Poetry Conference, commemorating the anniversary of the July, 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference
Since Any Utopian Vision Should Be Without Panel or Place
For Eddie D.
I write this letter from the North by Northwest and I come from the Middle of the Middle East and there are a few from the Global South who know me as Carla, the letter b. (once Carlo b. Carlo to you), fabled descendant of the great Egyptian-French Kabbalist, Carlo Giuseppe Suarès, but I digress. No doubt, I contain multitudes because I am always talking.
“Americans are easy pickins,” I said to my friend, John, as if I could have heard it in dreamtime from my hero, Heriberto (Hache, the letter “H”), in Spanglish (“Spanglish, our double happiness, our double struggle” writes Heriberto Yépez), when John and I were driving one day, after he had picked me up at the palatial home I worked at for a few dollars for the one known as “the kind scholar of SoCal,” who had in her generosity whisked me away on a free ride, so to speak—as I was always speaking in a language and through a name not my own—by running me to the orange groves of SoCal to be, yes, a scholar, a graduate studies student (on scholarship) in American Literature (my thanks to her for the money for my intellectual training), soon to be schooled up North in what the poet Robert Duncan called in 1965 The Multiversity of Berkeley, California:
Not men but heads of the hydra
his false faces in which
hired minds of private interests
Here: Kerr (behind him, heads of the Bank of America
heads of usury, heads of war)
the worm’s mouthpiece spreads
what it wishes its own
I admired this Duncan for calling out the university administration and faculty of 1965 and I was pleased because I thought how far from these exclusively “hired minds” of men were we today, in 2015, since we could be men and not men, at what I had heard would be the new Berkeley Poetry Conference, which would commemorate the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. I had heard that in its homage it would be different from back then: this generation of faculty and students would finally “address the gender and racial biases of the original conference, to identify poets who would help lead diverse, challenging conversations and present work that embodied a range of geographical, aesthetic, and social concerns.” I was pleased by the program. Yet I wondered: I remembered the poet, Carlos Williams. I remembered in The Times he said “it is difficult / to get the news from poems /, but men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,” and I did not want to be lackluster and I did not want to be lacking and I wanted to find the real news of The Times behind the program and to be true to my near North American namesake, Carlos.
Yet, as I said, I was pleased. I knew that, unlike those poets in 1965, there seemed to be a pointedness of diversity in who was chosen this time, obedient to what scholars in the North and South have come to raise as the question of la raza, the race question, or the feminine man question, which was close to me, Carla, the letter b, once Carlo b. Carlo, who could be like Carlo Giuseppe Suarès, who believed we could go either way and could have come from the trans-lettered Q’abala Tree, or from that which I learned in my graduate school came from the Greeks, the ethnos, the ethnicity question, which is like the Palestinian question, the Negro question, the Jewish question, the Indian question, and what I had heard was the poetry of witness question and the Place of Conceptual Witless Whiteness question—I discovered there are so many questions.
And I was content, although some voices warned me about my satisfiedness: one warned me in his own language that news of diversity and tolerance could, he wrote, “occlude a culture of craft professionalism suffused with a light drab of poetic secularity”: that “unlike the unaffiliated tribe of ‘poet-seers’ in 1965—Duncan, Dorn, Wieners, Olson, Spicer—this current tribe of ‘poet-critics,’ needing jobs of course, were affiliated with ‘the academy,’ as they continued to labor within the North American university creative writing provinces” (one of these warning shots from the mast came from the scholar, Mr. al-Quala, who would say: “We have pretty much come to the point of removing poetry from knowledge, and sticking it in the creative writing department”). And another voice warned me: “do you really think you will see visionaries here, at The Multiversity of Berkeley, in 2015, as some had seen seers in ‘65?”
Perhaps, I thought, I would. Why not? Perhaps someone would have the true vision of una escuela de poesia, not of people paneled up against the walls in a conference reading from pre-ordained academic categories, so unlike 1965, when LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), refused to appear as a black man and asked Edward Dorn ( his “The Poet, The People, The Spirit” was no category, I was told), to go for him, which he did and recalled, later:
I was not actually asked to attend the Berkeley conference of the summer of 1965, but went as a substitute forced on the organization of the conference by LeRoi Jones, who had begun to withdraw from such contact. And that’s how I went as an Indian.
Strangely enough, a beautiful letter in this true “school” spirit came my way, as if from Spicer’s letters to Garcia Lorca, from one Alana Siegel, who called for a school of poetry in the commons which “could meet [our desires] of imagination and humanity.” Her letter, she wrote, was inspired by no less than “the entire incoming class of MFA students at USC [who had just] dropped out. This act,” she wrote, “inspired [her] letter, to think from the malevolence of what has been constructed and perpetuated, and the fiery individuals who left it!”
Yes, if the spirit of these fiery individuals who had “dropped out” could be captured in June, 2015, then we would no doubt hear the echoes of another time and space for poetry, as my friend Lorenzo, the love of “Jack( Spicer)’s” language, had reminded me happened in July of 1965 when the North by Northeast beach of San Francisco did cast a sort of cold eye on the compassed authority of the Multiversity of Berkeley when “Jack” appeared there, only to drop out a month later, dead in August in the poverty ward of San Francisco General Hospital, with the sweet guitar and voice lament of Trini Lopez’s lovely lemon tree song still strong in his heart, “part of Jack’s essential view of the world,” Lorenzo told me, “the anguish of approaching the beautiful to find it essentially untouchable, although the big song for Jack on Gino’s jukebox was Quando Calienta el Sol.” Ah, yes, “when the sun was hot,” translated in the North as “love me with all your heart.” It was, Lorenzo told me, what Jack and Lorenzo and Trini and Garcia Lorca imagined as the Real they had in common—strange, drunken bedfellows who would love each other with all their hearts and correspond “in every place and every time [where Trini’s lemon could] become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of washed up seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One did not need to imagine that lemon; one needed to discover it,” but where? Under whose authority? At what “school” of the future could these things sing and correspond. Ah, yes, it could be sad and lovely with heroes in common, but I digress.
Who knows how these things wash out? I only knew that on the one day of rain in May 2015 during a decade long drought, I was forced to take cover and think: under what open umbrella of tolerance would this generation’s news appear, where would the authority of their facts lie? “Well, Americans,” I said, because I was always talking, “they’re friendly and they don’t judge and you can say anything to them, they never look back to check the facts,” which is fine by me, let it be, I told John, because I was forward thinking just like them and I was remembering that fine line of the North American poet, Charles Olson (who I discovered was also at the Berkeley conference in 1965)—when I was watching a film where he had this crazy straight-ahead gaze in his eyes and drove off in his car which had no reverse gear, and he was asked, why do you do it, that’s crazy, man: “Well, I like it that way: my philosophy has always been: never look backwards.” Maybe that’s who the austere New England poet, Robert Creeley, had in mind when he wrote:
Anyway, I thought, Americans—North Americans to be specific—are easy pickins, these days, particularly the liberal avant-garde ones guarding the Conferences of the Academy—we call them the avant-garde(rs). I discovered there would be no need to show these avant-garde(rs) a researcher’s credentials. Take what my hero has done, the poet from Tijuana, Heriberto Yépez, who would appear at the June 2015 Berkeley conference (and then—like Jones in ’65—refused to appear because of la raza question), and whose book, El imperio de la neomemoria, translated as The Empire of Neomemory by a collective of translators for a publishing venture called Chain Links, had been making the rounds for a few years to make this point so well. That point, as I had kept in my memory after reading a text somewhere by Northern scholars, was twofold: “1) concerning his theoretical fantasy about the imperialism behind Charles Olson’s work and 2) the image North Americans want to guard and keep and project when they take in a critique of their nation’s politics to appease their consciences.” “This work,” so write the publishers and editors (Chain Links) of Heriberto’s book, “is a dismantling of Olson, and of empire, and yet it is also clearly an inside job, a book that could only be written by someone who had spent hours thinking with and through—and beyond—Olson.”
Yes, my Heriberto has spent hours thinking so way beyond Olson that his thinking is beyond belief, which is fine because Heriberto can be funny at times, a merry prankster, the Yépez yapping I am proud of (who else would tell me that “the first characteristic of the Mexican body is that it transcends colonialism; it is an unknown body” and then disappear, no longer remain, become unknown), which brings me to the second point about what my hero has accomplished: he can make you dupes of your own gringo guilt and turn authoritative, academic avant-garde(rs) upside down (as one of your black Americans, not Black Mountain College Americans, Diana Ross, sings it) and, in the northern desire for a south of the border perspective on how anglo poets are, as Fidel would say, el colonialismo y imperialismo del norte, you will accept Heriberto, in fact, you will be simpatico and take any Sancho’s or Señor Wences’s word. “In this his authority lies.”
This is what Heriberto, my hero, has done to make you fall for him. He has done it with theory, theory even he knows has no foundation in reality:
Right now I’m studying a master’s degree in psychotherapy. The first book I reread before getting into that was The Myth of Psychotheraphy by Thomas Szasz, so I won’t say I believe in what I’m doing. But who cares? I don’t believe in writing either.
I pursue both activities anyway—without believing in them—because from a very young age I learned any praxis is better than actual reality.
So why would readers believe what he says about Charles Olson? He even confesses straight up: “I am not interested in Olson”. How transparent can one’s motives be?
Olson in and of himself does not interest me; I am interested in his character as a microanalogy for decoding the psychopoetics of Empire.
My friend, the thick moustached Chiapas poet Juan Hirsch Luria, known as “el hombre Tzimtzum” among the bearded mountain mystics, has written me:
“Oh, yeah, Heriberto, I’ve heard of him. He’s a fucking riot, his theories are crazy but interesting even though he doesn’t know shit ‘bout Olson el polis hombre, which is great, I mean he’s fun to have at a party, for a few minutes, like he’s doing shaman tricks: I mean he’s got this new book on Carlos Olson that the North Americans are taking seriously, but even he knows it’s a crock—”eso some pretty hilarious caca there hombre” I say—cause he’s calling the big American Olson a sexual impotent—hitting him in his post-modern polis nuts, so to speak—an emissary of Empire, who lived and studied with the Mayans only to steal and freeze their sense of inhabiting multiple times into a conquistador’s North American expansionist space, also suggesting he’s an apologist for fascism (cause Olson, so Heriberto says,
managed to simulate that he had understood a culture by describing how it ‘mixed’ with his own. He simulated contact through the hybrid. He thus gave life to a new avatar of kitsch, the happy-hybrid, possibly only in the mind of the remixer. But the mix of the one and the other is fascism itself. Fascism goes hand in hand with kitsch because they are two sides of the same false coin. (The coin that pretends to be another.) Fascism is remix” – (The Empire of Neomemory, pgs.118-119)).
You can tell from the start Heriberto is lying through his teeth. How do we know? Well, he says he is not interested in Charles Olson, in his Carlos, but the fact is he’s obsessed by him— Are you joking me, he fawns and fantasizes over him. He wants to breathe through and kill daddy poet at the same time. (“Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”) Ironically, he’ll do what no academic before him could: put the big guy on the map.
Those avant private college poet boys and girls in the poet biz will eat it up in the States, where they’re so repressed they want so desperately to believe anyone who will fetishize (or give him fascist eyes) and kill their father, any father, and Olson el grandioso hombre is a ripe target, cause he’s the breath on the big dick they can’t get a hold of, if you know what I mean.”
From a feminine man perspective, I know what he means. It’s satisfying how Luria reads it: what the Norte-Americanos don’t really know about their own poets, in this case Olson, is that someone from south of the border can get away with saying just about anything and no one will check, or, as I like to put it, give blowback. You could call this their “Olsonian inertia,” so Heriberto would phrase it. Good for Heriberto: if he really knows the facts of Olson’s life and is ignoring them in search of a theory to prank Americans—more power to him. Or if he doesn’t know the facts, which I think is more likely (I mean—why would he even bother if he just wanted to do a parody), so much the better, no one will be the wiser. Either way, it doesn’t matter: he makes the point, and the North Americans look a bit guarded defending him. I applaud Heriberto. He realizes the effects of theory, which is why he can say anything, and why he confesses he won’t have any sex:
In reality things work very differently. There sex sometimes happens. And if sex happens, sometimes other things also happen, like kids, love, family, hate or orgasms. Sex has consequences. In theory-world there are no consequences / just hypothesis.
“In theory world there are no consequences”: I can imagine Heriberto telling you:
“I will stage you a theoretical monster, one Charles Olson, because you don’t know the facts, and you want to fit the big man into the sexist authoritarian archetype you have of him (‘look at how he harassed women,’ you will say), and in your tolerance to accept me as a literary representative provocateur of my people as victims of literary border patrols, you will accept my facts about the evil paleface, although I’m just making them up as I go along… you don’t even notice that I use the word “imperialism” without in my book referring to any specific historical instances or events. I can create the bogey-man Olson to carry that word into his practice, I can make “projective verse” a military manifesto. I can ignore all the salient facts and relationships of Olson’s life. I can say the Holocaust was fiction, Saddam is Hitler, 9/11 is Pearl Harbor. I can turn water to wine, and, well, if only not to offend me, you Americans will say ‘he has a right to his perspective; we need to learn to see ourselves from the point of view of ‘the other.’ A win-win for me. Even the Mexican government will sponsor my trips to conferences up North so that I have the Norte-Americanos in crisis and lit-quaking in their books or wondering how I will stage the drunken paleface of an Olson 50 years after he staggered across the Berkeley stage.”
And, if that is not enough to warn North American leftist anti-imperialist types of Heriberto’s aesthetically rich theoretical fantasies, readers who will actually read and take seriously almost 300 pages of his riddled-with-errors, imaginary-Olson text, well, the joke, Heriberto says, is on you, refracted in a trickster text published years earlier by the same editors who may be in good faith or maybe not (who knows, their intentions no doubt were good), who printed the translation of the possibly fraudulent Olson scholarship in El imperio de la neomemoria. Way back in 2002, Heriberto winked at all of us—about his follies:
In recent years, I have been involved in translation-criticism experiments involving certain types of critical fantasies in which I mix real interpretation with secret self-parody or even readers’/editors’ deliberate deceptions. I have succeeded, for example, in getting non-real “criticisms” (heteronomy) or supposed translations published in major magazines, or in simply developing concepts or applying points of view in which I don’t actually believe, systematically attributing false quotes to real authors or manipulating data, mixing unknown fictional authors in with canonical ones—in short, considering criticism, at every point, to be fictional prose. I write fictive and parodic translation-criticism (crítica-ficción) without revealing it to the readers of the books or magazines that have published those essays or pseudo-translations. In many cases my use of fiction is simply indistinguishable from my true beliefs. Even though most of the time you wouldn’t know it from reading my texts, I always write criticism from an insincere point of view, as a way to destroy the confidence and authority we give to the critic as a literary subject or a credible voice.
— Text, Lies, and Role-Playing, published in Chain 9, 2002
So there you have it: the crítica-ficción jig’s (or is it the giggles are) up. You, dear North American avant-garde(rs), who have taken Heriberto’s Olson “bio that explains empire” seriously have just been had. Maybe, like me, you know this, or maybe you don’t—what does it matter? (It’s all good and all in fun.) You have been taken for a ride. You have just given him your authority. But the question remains: Why would readers believe what my literary make-up artist says about Charles Olson? Because he’s got image conscious avant-garde(rs) from the North and the South by the balls and he knows it. As someone cool enough to be branded an avant-garde provocateur Mexican poet—I remember my niece once saying that what never stops through life, is that everyone wants to sit next to the cool kid in school—he can get away with claiming Charles Olson as a colonialist serving empire, only because the anglos in their tolerance are too afraid not to welcome “a Mexican perspective,” their words justifying the attack by saying “Olson himself is not really the target but U. S. expansionism, in all its cultural forms, is….”Of course. Brilliant. My hero, Heriberto. A “know nothing” Olson scholar. And, ironically, if the more liberal gringos are told this could be a joke, the more sensitive they get and say, no, “he’s serious, he’s a serious scholar,” the more they take Heriberto at his word, as long as he gets to kill their fathers, their families (“families are artificial structures” he says), through theory, as long as he plays his anti-imperial role as oppressed Mexicano. As my sister, the insistent “Carla, the double lettered b. b.” said to me, “the more you get under the skin of the North Americans the more literal they get defending their agenda. Or, put another way, the more they’re taken for a ride, the more they talk about the rights of the person taking them for the ride.” Call it their inertia.
So the jig’s up: because if you don’t know the salient facts of Olson’s life, which are just the opposite of what Heriberto claims and which Heriberto could secretly know (although I doubt it)—as Juan Hirsch Luria wrote me, “Heriberto is lying when he says he’s not interested in Olson, since he’s, well, obsessed by him, are you joking me, he fawns and fantasizes over him”—then it don’t amount to a hill of beans. Even Heriberto would agree—that in a time of crisis, that when poetry is in a time of crisis—strangely, this sounded similar to one of the subjects, “Poetry and the Rhetoric of Crisis,” at the new Berkeley conference—then as Mexican popular culture says: “No he hagas pato” (lit. Don’t make yourself a duck, meaning, don’t pretend you are not you, don’t turn into a third person in order to not assume the responsibilities of knowing you are the person you accuse, don’t become 3 in order to not accept you are both 1 and 2. Which is why, in time, I would plead with Heriberto in order to protect him, plead with him to take responsibility for himself, to not be “the other”: “No he hagas sitting pato, por favor” (lit. don’t make yourself the sitting duck), I told him. “Don’t hide. Be true to your crisis, Heriberto, Hache (the letter “H” in Spanish), be true to me, Carla, the letter b.,” as if our motifs could be in natural correspondence, H and b, a musical cryptogram, so to speak, as if we could be singing under a lemon tree.
And if, as Heriberto writes, “Iraq… is Bush’s way to hide, he is the crisis itself,” then perhaps “Olson is Heriberto’s way to hide that he, Heriberto, is himself the crisis.” Which makes me sad. To know these facts about Heriberto, who himself admits that he “came all the way from Mexico [to Berkeley] with nothing to say.”
And then—this is what is funny, I mean not ha ha, but curious funny—that the time of crisis came when Heriberto really did, not in theory but in reality, wind up with nothing to say in Berkeley since he never came and refused to appear. So he resigned—he likes to do that, resign, re-sign, arrive and leave under a different name at times because of la raza question: that is, because a poet of whiteness was to be paneled with him at the place of the Berkeley conference, and because she was tweeting racist ”mammy” tweets among others, this had made him resign from Berkeley under his own name, which name I knew he, Heriberto, Hache (the letter “H” in Spanish), was always giving up the letters of for one reason or another (por hache o por be) and trying on others until he disappeared, so it was no big deal, although it was for the North Americans who, like me, had loved him and published him and been chained to him and read his imperial fantasy of Charles Olson with admiration, who were really sparring with him just like the poet of whiteness, he said, as if they were standing like imperial fighters in her place, so to speak, so I heard Heriberto had said, you “gringpo morons, [I am accusing] the whole system of being co-opted and being a manipulating system to promote neoliberal agents,” he said, when before this day they were more innocent avant-garde(rs)—somewhere I had once heard James Baldwin saying “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime”—who had welcomed him with open arms (and whom he welcomed back) with sympathy as an oppressed Mexicano charging up the Black Mountain impaling the great imperial paleface, Charles Olson. Well, Heriberto believed the Norte-Americanos singled out this woman poet of whiteness at Berkeley to save their own ass at the conference and so he turned on them and refused to appear to be always talking and so he wanted to put them in their place, so to speak, which was ironical, because the conference was meant to place this progressive conference in place of the exclusively White Paleface one in the year of 1965, since this one was announced to be Diverse, and it was, for a few weeks, announced as just that—wonderfully Diverse, pointedly—and I was pleased, but then the day came and it was not and I was not, pleased, as me, Carla, the letter b., had wanted it to be since others, well, the diverse ones and the not so diverse ones cancelled and disappeared like bees, flew out of that place with Heriberto and did not appear because they were asking why, here, in this so-called Diverse Place & Time, where they were invited, was this Conceptual Witless Whiteness Person Pointedly not Impaled but allowed to tweet among them, and I asked why, indeed, because I was in need of answers but also wondering why was not someone sent in like the clowns in Heriberto’s place, the way Jones in ’65 sent Edward Dorn, why was no one coming in the spirit of the people and in the spirit of a poet like Eddie D., “and that’s how I went as an Indian,” he said, to talk about the Real in the Poetry Commons to talk about The Poet, The People The Spirit and Color. or how that piece of lemon could become this particular color of gray in the ocean when stones had been thrown where some poets of color and some poets of no color earnestly remained and some earnestly refused to appear as one color or another one and then before we knew it and all at once some were “gone with the wind” and the Norte-Americanos on the one day of rain in May 2015 during a decade long drought were forced to take cover and think: “under what open umbrella would this news appear, where would the authority of our facts lie,” well nowhere, since once again they were left holding the umbrella, and it collapsed, and the Place Flooded, and frankly no one wanted to have the conference day have its say, everyone was washed up, exhausted, no one wanted to put humpty dumpty together again, and the Place Flooded almost to South of the Border, beyond Houston beyond Mr. Dobbs beyond B. Traven and then, like a miracle, while so many were rescinding the waters were receding and others rose up bobbing with umbrellas and mouthing “lets re-group” so they re-grouped because the North American agents were always re-grouping and talking of blowback and saying “get us witnesses, back-up singers, poets of some color for “the other” poets of some color, and for the poets of no color (we only have 4 white poets remaining) who left us in this Place, drowning, get us witnesses whom we can impanel and cross talk and we’ll call it, why not, Cross Talk, Color and Composition, to position our poets of color like new constellations in conversation,” at this cross talk conference which took the place of the conference which had been planned it was said to “address the gender and racial biases of the original, what else, conference in the summer of 1965 but which obviously could not be because this one came with racist mammy tweets and failed as it was imagined which saddened them they said and which it now turned out to be the pointed purpose of the cross talk to amend (“the conference to end all conferences” they said) which would not be a referendum on race even as some poets had been impaled and had raced out of the place like Heriberto himself who I heard had said:
I was invited to the Berkeley Poetry Conference and I accepted the invitation (not without some personal hesitancy: am I a poet in the (North-)“American” tradition? How to participate in an event with a genealogical spirit and not contribute to its Olsonian inertia?) And amidst these on going questions, the Vanessa Place scandal happened and I decided I had to cancel—not because she was going to be there (or not) but because all of us (probably) were (still) going to be there
to save their ass because they were always cross talking—I heard him say—he, Heriberto, who I knew knew just a little history about Charles Olson—to all of Berkeley and to “the whole system” and to that whole “co-opted” place on the one day of torrential rain in May— I heard him say (and I agreed because I was always agreeing): “Frankly, my dear place, I don’t want to build a dam,” and we “don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badges!” In this our authority lies.
And, you may ask, how do I know these facts, how do I, Carla, the letter b. (who in my imaginings could in fact BE my hero Heriberto Yépez, Hache, the letter “H”), know that Heriberto Yépez really knows very little history about Charles Olson and fakes his Oedipal critique of him as a possible joke on the repressed gringo readers who cover their asses? How do I know, here, from somewhere north and south of a border, with only a few dollars and the hermeneutic lessons I learned from a kind SoCal scholar? That will be the subject of my next epistle in which, sadly, I talk about Heriberto, how that young man I once knew was gone, how it could be said that his oeuvre had concluded before it began, / and how a little history and the promise of sex with consequences broke his links with me and my bond with him, my hero, Heriberto Yépez, Hache, and his theory of the empire of Charles Olson.
Banner collage by Larry Kearney
Like Heriberto Yépez (Hache, the letter H in Spanish), “Carla, the letter b.” in English–once Carlo b. Carlo, fabled descendant of the great Egyptian-French Kabbalist Carlo Giuseppe Suarès– writes from a signature that is not her own.