One of the greatest pleasures of this work—directing Letras Latinas—is meeting and conversing with emerging writers. Last summer, when Letras Latinas curated nine poets for “La Plaza” at the Latino Studies Association’s conference in Washington, D.C. I had fun hanging out with Joshua Escobar (a.k.a. DJ Ashtrae). Right around that time Noemi Press was in the process of officially acquiring Escobar’s full-length manuscript for the AKRLIICA series, a joint venture with Letras Latinas. Escobar’s book is forthcoming in 2020. It merits repeating that AKRLIICA was conceived—that is, Carmen Giménez Smith and I first had the conversations about the need for such a series to exist—at the Ragdale Foundation north of Chicago at a week-long NEA-funded gathering of Latinx poet-editors from October 13-20, 2010. In addition to Carmen and myself, our group included: J. Michael Martínez, elena minor, Roberto Harrison, Raina J. León, María Meléndez Kelson, and David Dominguez. We coined ourselves, The Ragdale 8.
Here’s Letras Latinas Blog’s photo gallery re-cap
of that groundbreaking week nearly ten years ago:
That said, Letras Latinas Blog is now pleased to present an incisive interview with Joshua about his genre-bending chapbook Caljforkya Voltage (No, Dear/Small Anchor Press). Deepest gratitude to Mirene Arsanios for generously agreeing to conduct this conversation.
—FA, Torquay, U.K.
MA: MIRENE ARSANIOS
JE: JOSHUA ESCOBAR a.k.a. DJ Ashtrae
Thanks for writing such an evocative poem/ short-story/ playlist. I’m really intrigued by the form, maybe because when I first met you were writing fiction, and Caljforkya Voltage is a hybrid piece combining narrative sections with more poetic parts, though even that distinction feels wrong. Maybe we should think of your text as an assemblage, a sampling of experience, a playlist that accompanies the reader through a dystopian yet exhilarating landscape. Could you talk about how you landed on this form? And how the land you’re describing informs it?
When we first met, you were working on The City Outside the Sentence, which I admire deeply, and I was struggling with form. Actually, I was 22 and struggling with many things: my artistic abilities, my upbringing, my “coming out” as queer. I had thought that writing fiction would yield some resolution. However, as I penned juvenilia about my hometown, I became disillusioned. My plots seemed reductive. My sentences ended up negating meanings, half-meanings, unfinished thoughts and complex emotions. My characters’ desires eventually overshadowed my own. Meanwhile at Bard, I was talking with you, Mina Zohal, and Alex Cuff, among others, about abstraction, fear, displacement. I saw the performances of Sound artists like Colin Self, Suzanne Kite and Nathan Young, who address the destruction and depravation that their communities have faced while contributing to the radical existence of their communities through conceptual practices. My education at Bard taught me so much about embodiment.
So I love how you’re thinking about Caljforkya Voltage. It’s a mish mash of different kinds of writing. Its lyricism accompanies the reader through a beautiful dystopia based off of my hometown, San Bernardino (which may soon be home to the most advanced shipping industry in the world). In my early experience with American arts and letters, I had seen San Bernardino cast as an inferior place. Mike Davis, Joan Didion, David Lynch (all whose work I respect otherwise) have depicted it as fundamentally broken, haphazard, deranged. One writer, celebrated in my urban studies classes, described it as the “id of Los Angeles.” At the same time I have witnessed in San Bernardino severe poverty, civic malfeasance, homophobia, the criminalization of youthfulness, and the crushing of native subcultures. I also understand it to be the birthplace (along with London) of raves and electronic dance music. From the beginning I’ve wanted my work to energize this region, this life I feel, which is readily dispossessed. However, with such ambitions, it’s easy to become overburdened and way too serious—like my juvenilia. Plus, my purpose isn’t to address these criticisms, since folks tend to discuss San Bernardino’s problems as baldly as they do the death of American poetry. Not to mention, my life beyond San Bernardino has enabled me to write. From my hometown, I have drawn a dystopia. And I’ve created a persona, DJ Ashtrae, who operates in this world where there is no difference between nightlife and the day-to-day. I find these moves to be fruitful and empowering. My form is ornate and somewhat narrative, poetic and fictional. It frequently shifts between different registers of sound, temporality, feeling. Grammar breaks down. It’s easy to become lost, but being lost feels pleasurable. Poet Leila Ortiz describes the people and places encountered in my work as “out of context and close to the heart.” She and I write a lot about the where we’re from (She grew up on the Lower East Side). And we struggle with being Latina and Latino even as we find our cultures to be deeply joyous.
You say so many interesting things, some of which I’d like to unpack: I’m interested in the ways in which being in an interdisciplinary program has encouraged the breaking down of genre boundaries and allowed you to shift between registers. I’m curious about the ways in which experimentation doesn’t know what it is, but follows an impulse or a logic that is often rooted in the body—its dislocation, struggles, desires. This openness or venturing outside set conventions doesn’t make it easier, quite the opposite—it requires that you make the rules of your own writing as it is happening, while looking at literary precedents, people you’re in conversation with. What I’m trying to say is that literary innovation rarely happens in a vacuum; it is supported by an artistic community that enables finding “a form for half meanings, unfinished thoughts,” etc.
I’m straying here but I was wondering about the relationship between communities and an increasingly atomized society. I have a sense that your characters already live in a desolate, post-catastrophic or pre-apocalyptic world, while enjoying kale smoothies and beautifully sculpted bodies. Can you talk about what kind of community is possible under such conditions?
Thanks for noting the characters! I love them fiercely. Their discipline and integrity drove me to seek something more fruitful than the retrograde coolness of the dystopian genre.
The dystopia of Caljforkya fascinates me. There are no capital markets, no weapons, and nobody works. Technology is dysfunctional. Oppression and catastrophe coincide. Subsiding in the chaos are the haunts and echoes of the old world. The characters understand this as history.
Since dystopian forces have turned the world inside out, community serves as a way to address the desolation of daily existence. Enjoying kale smoothies and beautifully sculpted bodies is not only fun. These are the very few joys that are left. Surviving in this dystopia is not based on violent domination, as it is in The Walking Dead, but on joy, ecstasy, mutual pleasure. Therefore, community restores the hope one needs to make it through another day’s, another month’s, another season’s brutalities.
Branching off my previous question, I’m really impressed by how your chapbook resists the coolness of doomsday aesthetics by insisting on history. It reminds the reader that these characters or this land are the result of a difficult migration history that no neo-liberal amnesia can’t (hopefully!) erase. Can you say more about what prompted you to insert your family narrative in the book?
Most of Caljforkya Voltage is involved with sex and nightlife, which can seem hedonistic. However, one idea that I hope comes through is that nightlife is somewhere queer people can exist openly. So I connected this work back to my great great grandmother Trinidad in order to overcome the hedonism in my poetry and the everyday erasure of queer existence.
My relatives had become somewhat tired of family lore. However, they sometimes noted a photo of my great great grandfather and Pancho Villa. They didn’t say much about his wife—Trinidad—but I felt her vitality in their words. I mentioned this to my parents, who then connected me with my great tìas, Trinidad’s children. I asked them lots of questions over the phone. The most fruitful of these conversations happened on a bench in Washington Square Park. Trinindad vis-a-vis my great tìa Norma has taught me so much about love and struggle. Being queer can be so frightening, empty and disorienting. Yet, Trinidad has taught me not to avoid who I am or who I love, but to embrace them. It’s the only way to live.
I love this, receiving advice from someone who is no longer here but whose spirit survives through stories passed down generationally. You say, “what she had to forbear, I can’t know, but she would have told me when I’m old enough that love is dangerous.” I’m interested in who you address and how. The book opens with a content warning (Advertencia) and set of instructions, followed by a track list. When writing Advertencia, who were your imagined readers? The pronouns you use throughout the text—you, he, we— keep shifting. Can you talk a little about these different forms of address? How and why they keep shifting?
Advertencia is a trigger warning that discloses the sexual nature of Caljiforkya Voltage. It is also notice of precedent. In the American scene, queerness has been painted as threatening, degenerate, and worse. That’s a history I want to undermine through erotic poetry. I also want to address the fear of intimacy many gay people share. To some extent, to “come out“ now is to accept the possibility of becoming HIV positive. Maybe you have already accepted this, but what will your family and friends think? How will this affect your love life? What if you already have it? What if it transmits to someone else? Are condoms and medication the only real answer? Are you ready to deal with a world of stigma?
I wanted to write about a region without it consuming me. I found that using any one perspective— first, second, third person—created a hierarchy. So the pronouns shift—between I, he, we—in order to work through different limitations: of language, embodiment, feeling. I thought I could break with convention because this is our day-to-day experience. Our subjectivities expand and contract (they morph?) as we work, drive, socialize, love.
The pronouns keep shifting because I wanted to play with projection and performance. Are the experiences depicted in Caljforkya Voltage real? Is this a chronicle masked as art? What do we make of a voice that isn’t easy to locate? I hope my work raises these questions before it can be typecasted or dismissed.
I read Caljforya + Voltage several times and always, my reading experience is so rich, traveling though different intensities and sensations. Could you talk about the role of these sensations in shaping the narrative: I’m thinking about sleep, speed, but also colors.
Foregrounding sensation allows me to explore southern California through a gay subjectivity, and to develop pleasures that are sensual without being sexual, which I think is healthy. It generates autonomy plus plurality. If narrative unfolds through the senses, then a reader can assemble it as needed.
The intensities are important, essential, scrappy. They develop only through lots of creative editing. Like voltas, they can change a perspective or relationship. In the future, I want to further explore these sensations and intensities by layering them, while thinking through horizontal oppression in the Inland Empire (the IE).
And to end, can you talk about the book title? How you (mis)use spelling to poetic ends and the language/s you’re attempting to create. +++ What are you up to now? Thanks Josh!!!
The title came to me after a winter of re/connecting with artists and punks—Manny Sifuentes, the Groans and Janet Hernandez, to name a few—in the IE. I wanted to highlight the kind of energy made that exists here and stays here (versus all the labor and goods and resources depreciated, stored, and exported).
The misspellings and broken grammar suggest that the English language is imperfect and somewhat broken, rather than the way people use it. The misspellings and broken grammar also show that it’s possible to relate, feel, and live even if we seem to lack the means to.
Nowadays, I am living in the IE, making zines featuring artists in the IE & queer + p.o.c. (ig: orange.mercury). I’m teaching composition at community colleges, which is my dream. I love working with these students. Each of them has so much to teach the world. I have a chapbook coming out next spring with DoubleCross Press. I am also preparing for the launch of my first full-length book, which will be published by Letras Latinas and Noemi Press in 2020. I’ll be editing it with Suzi Garcia and Carmen Giménez Smith. Thanks for these wonderful questions, Mirene!!!
JOSHUA ESCOBAR a.k.a. DJ Ashtrae makes poetry into a kind of music. He mixes gay erotica with travelogues, interviews about the HIV epidemic with biographies of Mexican immigrants, the lyrical with the actual, English with Spanish. He is the author of Caljforkya Voltage (No, Dear/Small Anchor Press) and XXOX FM (DoubleCross Press, 2019). Bareback Nightfall, his first full-length work, will be published in 2020 by Noemi Press as part of the AKRILICA series, a co-publishing venture with Letras Latinas. He is a CantoMundo Fellow. He publishes the zine, Orange Mercury, and lives with lil’ piñata in San Bernardino, California.
MIRENE ARSANIOS is the author of the short story collection, The City Outside the Sentence (Ashkal Alwan, 2015). She has contributed essays and short stories to Vida, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Animated Reader, and The Outpost, among others. Her writing was featured collaboratively at the Sharjah Biennial (2017) and Venice Biennial (2017), as well as in various artist books and projects. Arsanios co-founded the collective 98weeks Research Project in Beirut and is the founding editor of Makhzin, a bilingual English/Arabic magazine for innovative writing. She teaches at Pratt Institute and holds an MFA in Writing from the Milton Avery Graduate School for the Arts at Bard College. Arsanios currently lives in New York where she was a 2016 LMCC Workspace fellow, and an ART OMI resident in fall 2017. On Friday nights you can find her at the Poetry Project where she coordinates the Friday Night reading series with Rachel Valinsky.