A Los Angeles poet's revolution of everyday life

by @etammykim September 6, 2015 5:30AM ET

As gentrification sweeps the city, Sesshu Foster has quietly become the poet laureate of a vanishing neighborhood

Los Angeles
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — In this high-turnover city, the Eastside, more than the moneyed west, has seemed to hold on to its past. There are eccentric bungalows and blanched murals, and shopping corridors with the foot traffic and feel of a village market. Neighborhoods such as Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and City Terrace have thus far escaped the peculiar affliction of the upscale coffee shop. Their residents and business owners are still predominantly Latino and Asian, and largely working class — though perhaps not for long. According to trend-spotters, East LA is the molten core of gentrification, full of hipsterpreneurs with backing from friends in venture capital.

To see the real Eastside, ask the writer and teacher Sesshu Foster to take you on a little tour. He’ll pick you up downtown in his Toyota SUV, air conditioner whooshing, a Ry Cooder track pulsing. You’ll cross the LA River — thin puddles in a long concrete ditch — and keep going down Cesar Chavez, originally named Brooklyn Avenue by Jewish émigrés. Every few blocks, you’ll glimpse a faded mural and Foster will explain the story behind each one. If there’s graffiti, he’ll denounce the taggers’ “total disregard for their grandparents’ social art” in his unhurried Angeleno drawl.

Foster, 58, the author of four award-winning books of poetry and prose, is an encyclopedist by nature, the Diderot of the neighborhood. His writing is political, experimental and consistently local, even unfashionably so. A family man and full-time public school teacher, he’s never focused on self-promotion, yet he is praised within literary circles and counts U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, novelist Karen Tei Yamashita and poets Claudia Rankine and Amy Uyematsu among his friends and peers. Herrera says Foster might be better known if not for the day-to-day “pressure [on] working-class writers, writers of color… writing for the community.”

Foster met Dolores Bravo, his wife and the mother of their three daughters, on a high school science trip. "Dolores bears no responsibility for books I publish, my ideas, the things I say in print or in public, ... but none of the work I've done would have been done without our collectivity."
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

The project currently on Foster’s mind is a multimedia, quasi-fictional history of East LA, which he’s compiling with his friend, artist Arturo Ernesto Romo-Santillano. Their research includes a lot of driving, walking, looking and talking, and so in March the three of us drove to Boyle Heights and parked in view of the Sears tower, an Art Deco complex slated for mixed-use redevelopment. We’d come to see the murals on the Estrada Courts, a grid of two-story public housing. “The Chicano movement always had artists as cultural ambassadors,” Foster said, gesturing at some their creations.

We passed walls depicting a pointing Che Guevara and a haloed Jesus on our way to the “Black and White Mural” by the renowned Chicano collective ASCO. In humble monochrome, abstract scenes from the Chicano Moratorium, the radical, Mexican-American movement against the Vietnam War, read like frames in a strip of film. Like ASCO, Foster and Romo-Santillano see their approach to art making as “by and for the people.” In a city “where everything gets constantly built over,” Foster described their experimental history of East LA — already more than five years’ work — as an attempt at salvage.

East LA is Foster’s assembly and holy land, where he was raised and where he raised his three daughters. Not far from the home he shares with his wife, Dolores Bravo, is the house in City Terrace that he and his six siblings grew up in, and where his mother, a 90-year-old second-generation Japanese American, still lives. She brought the kids to the neighborhood after leaving their father, an Anglo painter who was thudding his way through the Beat era.

The Eastside that groomed Foster in the 1960s and ’70s has little in common with the polished, commercially cool destination featured on food blogs or portrayed on “Maron,” comedian Marc Maron’s sitcom. As a kid in City Terrace, a rough neighborhood prone to violence, Foster neglected school and ran the streets with a Chicano gang, avoiding his abusive uncle and the chaos of home. Though he is hapa, half-Japanese and half-white, he came of age in a Mexican American milieu, at the cultural and political peak of Chicano activism.

Since his teenage years, Foster has had an unwavering partner. He met his wife, an East LA Chicana, on a high school science trip and just kept “following Dolores,” says his cousin Tom Ogawa. In college, Foster stayed tied to Bravo while bouncing from one University of California campus to another. His jobs were as varied: In Palo Alto, he was a strip-club bouncer; in Colorado, a summer firefighter — the best gig he’s ever had, he says. “I was reading Mao, Stalin, Che Guevara, anybody, Carey McWilliams or novels or whatever and waiting around for fires. And then you get called out on fires… There’s a certain element of risk to keep you on your toes.” He only quit on account of their firstborn, Marina, who arrived when his wife was a graduate student in Seattle. “I wasn’t going to do what my dad did, which was never be there.”

Above: A sampling of the dozens of postcards Foster has sent to penpals in 2015. Mouse over the cards to view the opposite side.

After Marina came Umeko, then Lali — three daughters spaced almost 12 years apart. The girls were raised on their parents’ schoolteacher salaries, first in a house near City Terrace, then in Alhambra. Between his work schedule and young children’s needs, writing became a jigsaw, which was just as well for someone who refused to be “a lonely poet writing in an attic, starving.” There were unclaimed minutes here and there, around the edges of family, teaching and the teachers’ union. On Saturdays, Bravo gave Foster time to write. Summer breaks were sacred.

Foster’s craft is inseparable from his day job and family: “None of the work I’ve done would have been done without our collectivity,” he says. In his most recent volume, "World Ball Notebook" (City Lights 2008), he presents a collection of numbered “games” that allude to his daughters’ soccer matches as much as his own wordplay. One of my favorites, Game 114, reads in part:

the mayans failed, civilization collapsed.

dinosaurs failed, became birds.

the sun went down, came up on a foggy day.

the moon failed, so shut up.

dirt failed came out in the wash.

your mom failed, look at you, kid.

In 1994, on the heels of heated union talks, Foster, Bravo and the girls, then ages 2, 9 and 13, decamped for Iowa City and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It was the nation’s most revered MFA program and a Midwest respite from the chaos of LA. By that time, he had already co-edited an anthology of poets of color, "Invocation LA" (West End Press, 1989), and published a book of poems, "Angry Days" (West End Press, 1987), which bears the characteristic tensions in his work: the funny, grotesque and polemical, on the one hand (“agribusiness required a constant surplus / with wages controlled”); a gentleness and naturalism on the other (“little halfmoons of dirt / wax underneath my fingernails). As someone who zigzags between poetry and prose, Foster turned out to be a poor stylistic fit for Iowa. “He was different from the other students,” says Warren Liu, a former classmate and a professor of English at Scripps College. “He wasn’t out to prove anything to anyone.”

By the end of this MFA, a poetry project long in the works was set for release. "City Terrace Field Manual" (Kaya, 1996), Foster’s most popular collection, is a paean to the East LA of his childhood. Published by a small press specializing in the Asian diaspora, the stanzas are rich with references to local landmarks and people: the Santa Ana Freeway, Arthur Buell, Priscilla, Highland Park, Chemo, Xochitl, Manny, El Sereno, Areceli Cruz and Wanda Coleman. After two years in the Iowa snow, Los Angeles beckoned:

I would dream about City Terrace and

my friends in East L.A. They kept coming back, talking

to me … the same old things.

The success of "City Terrace Field Manual" might have tempted another writer to shake off his geographic fixation. Foster, though, wasn’t yet done documenting East LA. “This is what I’m going to do because who else is going to do it?” he says. “Even Chicanos who want to do it don’t do it. [Representing the community] is one of my principal tasks.”

For over five years, Foster and his friend, artist Arturo Ernesto Romo-Santillano, have been compiling a quasi-fictional history of East L.A. The work will eventually be published in book form by City Lights.
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

In his basement study, as on countless pages and screens, Foster is an artist of accumulation. He says Facebook deactivated his first account, mistaking him for a spamming robot. He’d posted too many aphoristic scribbles and links to articles — about education, Mexico, Palestine, poetry, capitalism, the immigrant rights movement and criminal justice, to mention a few. He’s constantly blogging, sending emails and participating in poetry readings and political fundraisers. “He’s a worker,” says artist and fellow teacher Romo-Santillano. “Being an artist is about working.”

Foster is prolific on paper as well, particularly when he’s in epistolary mode. He grew up exchanging letters with his dad, a Dharma bum on the road. “That was really our basic, tangible relationship, one of correspondence,” he says. These days, he mails up to 20 postcards a week, inked with grocery lists, diary entries, dialogues and literary family trees in arty spirals of red. Lisa Chen, a Brooklyn-based writer who met Foster at Iowa, estimates that she’s received well over a thousand of his postcards since the mid-1990s. Her fridge is covered in them. “It’s a form of diary or journaling, reflection — and also a way of saying ‘hi’ to people far away,” Foster explains. He delights, too, in how postcards allow for an “often arbitrary juxtaposition” of image and text: “I don’t think in linear, standardized, ‘First they woke up. Then they walked out the door,’” he says. “Things come to me out of order.”

Books, CDs, pamphlets and artwork spill everywhere in the basement study of Foster's Alhambra home.
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

The same might be said of his books, which resist a neat progression from one to the next. "City Terrace Field Manual" raised Foster’s profile and helped define him as an Asian American poet, yet his next volume would be an avant-garde “Chicano” novel. "Atomik Aztex" (City Lights 2005), which won the Believer Book Award, imagines the life of a slaughterhouse worker in an un-colonized America; the prose is shot through with invented dialects and pages-long paragraphs in italicized script. “It was sort of hard on purpose,” Foster says. “I was in that mood.” The language is by turns zany and brutal, especially in the slaughterhouse scenes: “Esophagus tracts raw from chlorine… The sky might already be lightening, backlit that cool electric blue.” It’s a futuristic Aztec civilization — the indigenous people now ascendant — yet still oppressive, empire all the same.

In any other city, and in any neighborhood besides East L.A., it’s unlikely that a half-Japanese, half-Anglo poet would be so enmeshed in Chicano cultural production. “His culture is L.A. culture, which is fluid; a mishmash,” says Chen. “His Spanish is better than his Japanese.” Herrera calls him “a sci-fi Argentinian. He’s like Borges.”

To be biracial or mixed race is to be permanently neither. It’s also distinctly Angelean, says Ruben Martinez, a professor at Loyola Marymount University: “Sesshu’s mixed parentage and geographical weaning in East LA made him, like, post-Mestizo.” Because of this, Foster worries that his oeuvre has a narrow reach. “Being mixed — that never puts you in solid with one group. That means you’re always kind of on the border, you’re on the margin, one or the other. Inasmuch as my work plays to Asian Americans and Chicanos, that’s the minor leagues,” he says, adding, “If I’m not doing some crossover thing with white people, I’m always going to be [minor].”

The return on investment of Foster's prodigious postcard habit. He sends "two to maybe 12 or 20 postcards per week," he says.
Joyce Kim for Al Jazeera America

To those familiar with his work, however, Foster is vital; one of the “iconic voices writing from Los Angeles,” says Elaine Katzenberger, his editor at City Lights, the bookstore and publisher founded by beatnik Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Like everyone interviewed for this story, Katzenberger spoke of his unassuming industriousness — “as a teacher and activist [he’s] making all kinds of cultural connections, but he’s such a quiet presence, not tooting his own horn.” Foster’s rootedness also sets him apart, says journalist Ben Ehrenreich, who befriended him while writing about "Atomik Aztex" for the Village Voice. “He’s extraordinary today in his quiet, humble insistence that writers can and ought to relate to the world around them [in a way] that’s not just dictated by the market, agents and MFA posts — that whole world of bullshit.”

Foster’s commitment to write about the world he sees is matched by an equal impatience for the commercial cultural establishment attempting to whitewash it. Last September, just before the closing of "Made in L.A. 2014," a biennial exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, he paid a visit with his wife and mother, who trained as a painter. The show featured 35 LA-based visual artists, mostly young and “emerging,” working in photography, video, painting, performance, installation and sculpture. Foster was unimpressed by what he saw, in part because his companions were so disappointed; alienated, in fact, from the purported art of their city.

He went home and wrote a poem about the experience, posting it to the blog he’s maintained since 2008. Like much of what he writes, this was a textual doodle; aesthetic and institutional critique in a lowercase, stream-of-consciousness style:

it’s okay that the artists are all white, even the nonwhite artists (2?) are kind of white

it’s okay that the curators are all white …

it’s all right because the ucla hammer museum curated and hosted ‘now dig this! Art and black los angeles 1960 – 1980’ which exhibited from october 2011 to january 2012

so it’s okay, because ‘black los angeles’ had its day …

it’s okay that the apartheid imagination remains in place and is not disrupted

thank you

His real target was “racism in the institutions of LA,” Foster explains. And the blog post went viral, provoking an extended debate within the city. Even those aligned with Foster accused him of being too prescriptive and orthodox. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, writer Nikki Darling pointed out that 11 artists of color had been part of the Hammer biennial and criticized Foster for “expecting artists of color to produce work that explicitly addresses identity.”

Foster stood by his critique. The blog post was not journalism; it was a poem, he says. And it did what so few poems do: spark controversy.  

In the weeks following, a local art space hosted “decolonizing the white box,” a public forum inspired by his post. More than 150 people turned out; there had been a hunger for conversations about race in the art world. “His work was able to draw out such ire and tension,” says Raquel Gutierrez, the young poet and activist who moderated the event. Foster is “very terse in his online presence and his work,” she said, but he is “our [Juan Felipe] Herrera, [Sandra] Cisneros, Junot Diaz, [a writer] who endured the whiteness of the MFA machine and raged against that machine.”

Foster has always seen words as “adjunct to political activity.” He never wanted his fiction or verse to exist only in a white box, far from the street. “I’m politically involved in the things I write about,” he says, “and my politics are informed by actual experience, not just things I saw on the news.”

His work can be incredibly funny, as he is in person, but it’s also sincere and serious in purpose, much like the Chicano murals painted during his youth. His fondness for that era’s art leaves him open to accusations of being retrograde, an “identity politician.” Yet Foster’s work isn’t “preachy,” says Lauri Ramey, director of the poetry center at Cal State LA. “The aesthetic sensibility of his work serves his ethical vision. … That’s what keeps it from feeling like a polemic.”

At some point soon, in some form resembling a book, City Lights will publish Foster’s collaboration with Romo-Santillano: a multi-genre assemblage premised on a fictional corporation, East Los Angeles Dirigible Transport Lines. Borrowing from the Beats as much as Melville, the project includes a faux-tourist website, letters, advertisements, interviews, drawings, complaint forms, doctored photos, commercials and mail catalogs stamped with the company’s oblong seal. It’s a thought experiment and travelogue through a real, imagined, lost and found East LA.

On a hot Saturday in late June, Foster invited a dozen or so friends to Romo-Santillano’s house for dinner, poetry readings and a short PowerPoint presentation. We sat around a large dining table and watched images projected onto an ersatz screen, a white sheet tickled by the ceiling fan. The guests were unwittingly impaneled as the official board of directors of the ELADTL, and so, following our hosts’ lead, we slipped in and out of character, chuckling at old-timey images of zeppelins, earnings projections and bar charts depicting “growth in daily ridership.”

In this “real history of a fake transportation company,” we glimpsed actual snippets of a bygone city: a mural effaced, incompletely, by white paint; the 1930s tombstone of an African American stunt pilot. The older artist-activists nodded in recognition at the slides. “Oh, there’s Willie!” or “Hey, didn’t a bank used to be there?”

Toward the end of the night, we watched an earlier product of the ELADTL: a silent, rickety video from 2011 entitled “Pollos Rostizados.” In it, Foster and Romo-Santillano walk along a freeway overpass, chatting about chicken, hot dogs, pickled eggs, old murals, a long-gone gas station and our aerial destiny, the velocity of their mouths mismatched to yellow subtitles. Airships, Foster tells us, are the future of Interstate 10. Soon enough, like the streets and sidewalks that came before, these “fourteen lanes of blackouts, migraines, auditory hallucinations… revolutionary fervor, the ghosts of people buried underneath the asphalt” will fade into the history of East LA.