Gentefication and The Politics of Poetry with Antonio De Jesús López

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Just as A.E. Stallings began a craft talk on meter, I passed a Post-It pad to Antonio De Jesús López to figure out why all of a sudden he’d grown inordinately happy. I would later learn he had checked his email moments before. The Post-It note he handed back said, “I won the Philip Levine Prize from Four Way Books for my book! Literally right now. I’m shaking.” He then excused himself from the class to call his family with the good news.

Gentefication, selected by poet Gregory Pardlo, considers a community gentrifying, and cultural identity also in flux, as he uses language and form to build a bridge or to rebuke an ideology. In a way, Gentefication is a love letter to his hometown of East Palo Alto, where in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, López returned home, ran for city council, and won. I drove to EPA to learn more about his fusing of poetry and politics.

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The Rumpus: The interplay between English and Spanish is in every poem. Do you think it self-selects who understands what in the poems?

Antonio De Jesús López: We’re having this conversation in my house, my parents’ house. My father bought this house in 1985, and we were able to live in East Palo Alto because of how affordable it was because of the crack epidemic and all that. That is to say, the book starts and the poems are structured almost like a house, and language mediates who’s allowed to come into that house. We’re going to learn how to be part of this house.

Who am I referencing if I give a Spanish reference that’s meant to only apply to Spanish-speaking audiences? [Take] slang. Even if you are Spanish-speaking, if you didn’t grow up in a working class, Mexican culture, like I did, you might not know what chácharas is. You may not know that maceta, yes, means flowerpot, but also means head. You see what I’m saying? So there’s a lot of ways that one could think that my poems can alienate people a little bit, but I consider people to understand that I’m re-enacting the same alienation that I felt and that a lot of people felt reading English, learning poetry, this elite form that we’ve received and its associated genres.

The language, I think, is at the heart of opening and closing doors and opening windows and shutters. I want people to really sweat when they read the poems, because the people I talk about sweat.

It’s a kind of honoring and mimicking of and rehearsing of the struggles that I’m writing about, that I went through, that my parents went through, that my community went through—I want the reader to really sit with that, no matter where you’re from, I don’t care what color you are. You are invited to the poem so long as you bring that heart and spirit into your reading.

Rumpus: That leads me to think how this collection bears witness to your hometown, your childhood, your family. There’s this line from “Triptych of the Adobe-Cotta Army” that sticks with me: “Consider this Aztec sacrifice: / a father offers an empire / his daily flesh.” This moment encapsulates how family, community, and the challenges of living in the Bay Area right now all converge.

López: East Palo Alto is a speck on a map. You know what I’m saying? It’s a city of 30,000 people. When I was writing, probably 20,000, in two and a half square miles. We’re thirty plus years old. In the grand scheme of things, are we that grand? And my insistence is yes, because the challenges, implications, ramifications, and struggles are emblematic of a larger issue.

And so, I think poetry lends itself well to East Palo Alto because it’s in its nature, crystallized. It’s in its nature dense. You have to really diamond these issues and topics into these beautiful prismatic ways. And so, you know, I’m going to bring in civilization because the issues that we’re talking about—ruin, collapse, conquest—these are issues that I feel that we live and breathe.

When I talk about “this Aztec sacrifice,” I want people to really sit back and say, “Damn, this is a lesson, not just in American history, but in world history of wholesale communities and immigrants coming to an empire and learning to use their bodies as the only thing they have to offer.” And, as a son of that, witnessing my father going through that, my aunties and my tíos, how do I honor that? But also, how do I use this received form of poetry to humanize? To beautify, to advance the political project of making us part of the American fold and, by virtue of that, transforming the ladder, really saying that the United States that people think of, and maybe Whitman, or, these forms, that it’s there, but it also has to make space for our folks to really sing and holler.

 

Rumpus: Yeah. It’s like, where do we go from there? Gentefication takes on gentrification, but that wordplay underscores so much more as the poems evoke a journey and identity of becoming and re-making oneself, even as EPA is re-made. Can you speak to the role of transitions like this one in “Barrio Brittanica”:

“Where am I? No answer, / but an essay where Octavio / calls you a tangle of contradictions.”

López: Going back to the density of poetry, how do you artistically and eloquently or elegantly pivot between topics, or do you do that? You know, do you want to have that seamlessness, or do you want to show the rough stitches?

You know the abruptness, because there is something to say about, for example, my transition of going to university higher ed. I left EPA for eight years. I left when I was 18, in 2012. And I came back in 2020, and you can imagine [how in] the span of eight years my city transformed dramatically.

Transitions in my poetry, for example in “Barrio,” [function] almost like a collage because I’m such a nerdy kid that I really have taken to heart the idea that knowledge is power, and that education is really going to liberate our people, our communities. And what it does is it allows you to have access to a whole panoply of traditions, of voices, of disciplines that are maybe highfalutin’ or inaccessible, but there’s a way that we can weave and incorporate all those elements in the same way a city incorporates so many populations into making it this singular, beautiful, complex song.

When I’m transitioning and going from different texts, whether they’re visual, literary, all of the above, I’m trying to articulate that sense of, I’m feeling alienated or not fully part and enveloped into this conversation. And so there’s a restlessness to my work and unruliness like, “Yeah, it’s kinda’ long. Yeah, like you don’t know when it’s gonna end,” but all of that is accumulating tension, accumulating meaning, accumulating these traditions in archiving these stories. 

That’s all to say that the transitions are tricky. But I [also] use humor a lot. I’ll try to make somebody laugh. Maybe I’ll go to the academic, maybe I’ll quote my parents. But all that is, is trying to really present this idea that the full story is not being told at this moment, that there needs to be [a sense of] who is left out of the conversation, and what fragments of my identity still are in the community, not being honored or made visible.

I think whether it’s Octavio Paz, whether it’s James Baldwin—I’m calling on all these homies and luminaries that I’ve spent years understanding and trying to think, “How am I in conversation with them? How is my city and my community part of this larger fold of literature, of history, of cultures?” I cannot begin to understand who I am if I do not excavate and unearth those imaginations of my childhood and of my community and the aspirations. If I sever myself from my city, I’m left to wither.

Rumpus: You also bear witness to your own transformation too. There is one line in particular that stood out to me in “Source C: The Memory of Hunger: A Response to Richard Rodríguez:” “Maestro, I am afraid that London fog will dissolve / my champurrado heart.” (Champurrado is a warm, chocolate masa drink popular in Mexico.) How do you feel like food connects you to place, into yourself?

López: When I talk about “London fog dissolving my champurrado heart,” that’s like a little tiny way of saying, as I begin to navigate these elite spaces that I’ve been doing for a long time, I’m always concerned about how do I not compromise my integrity?

How do I not compromise that the reason why I stepped into these spaces is to really leverage and level and provide opportunity for, and let it be known, that there’s a larger collective of people who don’t access this stuff. And how can I share that wealth, share that resource, share that power?

There’s a lot of unresolved frustration in my political work and my poetic work. And the reason why I write so much is because I’m at pains to be like, “Have I said enough, have I really done justice to these topics, to myself, to the changes? As these things, as these communities are eroding, how do I preserve it?” And so, food is kind of like this on one level, it feeds me; it motivates me. But I think on a sublime level, it reminds me of like, “Hey, yo, like, this is where you started.”

 Rumpus: Was it important for you to come back to EPA? It’s not often that someone sees gentrification and injustice in their hometown, writes about it, moves back, runs for city council, and wins, all the while championing, “Putting away the saco and corbata politics.” How does your poetry play into your politics? How do your politics play into your poems?

López: We’re working with the political imagination and we’re only as effective, as expansive and as vast, as our imagination is. I don’t think our poverty is economic. I think our real poverty—what really hits us—is our imagination, our ability to really meet the moment and understand that these issues of gentrification are not going away. There is no romantic revolt where we push back development and we preserve EPA in this time capsule.

How do we play ball in a way that advantages us? There is no playbook. There is no recipe. There is no other EPA case study where we can say, “Oh, he did it like that. Let’s do like that.” This is it. Like, we’re going to have to improvise. We’re going to have to be organic.

Poetry is all about that. It is all about this, aesthetics of understanding how do you create in a space of lack? How do you really compel and push the poem and really transform it? Don’t just perpetuate and mimic. You know, Cathy Park would tell us at Rutgers, like, “It’s not enough that you just write in your poems of sorrow and struggle, and you don’t change the standards. You have to reconceive this genre and really understand how does your identity, your background, your experience affect the very nature of the work, the very structure of the work.”

And I think when you go back to East Palo Alto and the politics of it, the poetic lens that I bring to it is, Just because it hasn’t been done before, does not mean we can’t do it.

 Rumpus: I’m so glad you brought that up because I’d like to talk about form. How does form—familiar and inventive—give you freedom? What is it about presenting this entire collection of poems in the form of a syllabus that feels instrumental to communicating this body of work?

López: I’m gonna answer that in a paradoxical way. I think the restriction gave me freedom. Poetry to me is just a re-enactment of our lives. We begin with circumscription; we begin with constraints of how much money we have in our daily budget, constraints of our city’s budget, constraints of how much food or eggs we have in the fridge, how much money we have for the rent. And, on the one hand, we can look at that as, and it is, a source of anxiety, and a source of frustration.

I began with that sense of lack, that sense of especially living in the Bay and living right next to Palo Alto. Why do we, the Black and brown folks, have these small houses that we live in? And these guys got these big mansions. We see that in close proximity. And so, the forms that I use in the syllabus—they’re very restrictive in a way, because it’s like, how do you jam in all of these elements? So, the syllabus has the course description. It has the texts, it has the methods and it feels so clunky and heavy and overdetermined, and it’s massive.

I think it elicits freedom in [how] it’s not about transcendence, it’s not about just living in a different, alternate reality in terms of “How do we prosper,” at least in this moment. I think it’s about understanding that, even within the restricted nature of our movement and our mobility to navigate and traverse the lines, we can be subversive and we can undo a lot of the damage. By way of humor, by way of satire, by way of appropriation, by way of reclaiming. A lot of the forms that I do are ways of speaking back and laughing at and lamenting at and haunting at. It’s that I’m looking at you, looking at me, and I’m talking to you talking back to me. There’s this social commentary where it’s not going to be a one-sided shot.

You can make anything a syllabus, but how are the odds already stacked against us? You know, in terms of who has access to that language, who has the ability to interpret and make legible these sections? Right. I understand that this book has attention because it uses these highbrow forums to talk about lowbrow ideas. But that is who I am, like that tension is, that very paradox is, who I am at heart.

Rumpus: I’ve heard you read “Conjugations of My Tía’s Back” and the language is electrifying. But on the page, the way you pull all these characters together and make them heard is exciting. How did you get to the poem’s structure of boxed columns to move the story along, but also show the constraints of the characters?

López: Yeah. Because you can only write as much as the box lets you write.

On the one hand, I’m talking about restriction, I’m talking about space and narrowness and how people have to make space in these very narrow pillars and confines. On the other hand, it’s a political thing to say, in the same way that you study French or Arabic or Chinese or Japanese, and you really take seriously the rigor and the difficulty in doing that, I want you to understand that the labor of my Tía’s back, the labor of my father, the labor of my mother, the labor of all these characters have value, have linguistic value, the vernacular and the slang that I use is just as impressive, just as important as Don Quixote or whatever you’ve read in AP Spanish.

I’m using humor [in the conjugations] because sometimes the weight of what I’m saying is so heavy, the only way I can say it is by laughing at the same time, because I just don’t want to hold the pain of saying, I workshop; they shop for work.

It’s the pain and pleasure of having the privilege of really studying language, sitting with it, really meticulously sifting through it, but also understanding that I’m part of a tradition of people that don’t have that luxury and don’t have that privilege of understanding the worth of who they are, and I’m able to spend years honoring it.

Rumpus: The collection ends on such a high note of calling to action. So how do you think “Ya Es Hora” is the culmination of what this course has been all about and what’s next?

López: It’s a reference to Amiri Baraka’s “It’s Nation Time.” Remember Baraka was one of the foremost leaders of the Black arts movement in the late sixties. It’s all about telling Black people to be powerful, who they are, the artistic arm of the Black Power movement.

On one level, the culmination is about honoring what’s been laid down before us, the elders, the activism, the struggle. Now I’m doing that in a very EPA local sense, but at that point I was in Newark. I was in his backyard. So, using that aesthetic to speak to the moment right now:

When I read it I get winded because it’s a very demanding poem, from the imagery to the memories—it hurts. A lot of the shit I’m talking about is painful, but it has this sense of triumph.

It’s that moment to say, “Let’s venture forth and really re-imagine what’s possible. Let’s go to the demonstration. Let’s go to City Hall. ‘Let’s exhaust any, and all possibilities,’ like Malcolm said, ‘By any means necessary.’”

It’s almost a crazy foreshadow that I got into politics. At that point I didn’t imagine being in the space. But what my girl says, “The poem is smarter than we are.”

Let’s make it happen. The time is now. So, it’s a charge, but it’s a charge that’s for everybody.

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Author photograph by Annelies Zijderveld.


Annelies Zijderveld is a poet, cookbook author, and writer of arts, food, and culture based in Oakland. Her cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea (Andrews McMeel, 2015) was selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of their favorite cookbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Scapegoat Review, The Acentos Review, Ethel Zine, L.A. Taco, and more. You can find her articles in epicurious, Eater SF, San Francisco Classical Voice, the Kitchn, and others. She is Assistant Editor of Interviews for The Rumpus and holds an MFA in poetry from New England College. While she doesn't really tweet anymore, you can find her there @anneliesz or on Instagram. More from this author →