A Counter-Interview with Heriberto Yépez

A (counter)interview is closer to an audacious conversation in which words are thrown like knives at a spinning reader.

I am not experimental

By Will.

English is not my mother

I cannot be but experimental

Inside Empire.

— “2001”

If an interview is a polite conversation wherein the interviewer thoughtfully poses questions and the interviewee eagerly answers, not unlike a racquet sports match, a (counter)interview is closer to an audacious conversation in which words are thrown like knives at a spinning reader.

A regular interview won’t do, especially if the knife-thrower is none other than Heriberto Yépez. Yes, his name is struck out, indicating recently deleted information, in this case, traditional authorship.

pez was born in Tijuana, the world’s busiest land border crossing, in 1974. During his teens, he worked in a maquiladora and later studied under German philosopher Horst Matthai Quelle. Since the early 90s, pez has been on the frontline of experimental writing and radical politics on both sides of the border.

His ruthless criticism has brought him admirers and detractors in English and Spanish. Controversies include the Olson Affair, in which Il Gruppo (Benjamin Hollander, Amiel Alcalay, et. al.) accused him of deliberately misreading Charles Olson in The Empire of Neomemory (ChainLinks, 2013), and regular Twitter-based confrontation with members of the American and Mexican cultural establishments.

When his weekly column of cultural journalism, Archivo Hache, was shut down, he finished off by saying: “I was critical in all directions. If I did not critique someone, I apologize for the oversight.” Ever since, Heriberto has favored blogs, social media, and other alternative options to traditional publishing. Last year, he worked on Mexiconceptual, a month-long project that involved him posting a different poem reflecting on the museum as an institution every day on a website. The texts would disappear 24 hours after being displayed and could only be read afterward through links shared on social media. It is now available in book form.

The works of Heriberto Yépez are numerous and multiform—fiction, visual art, translation—and are preoccupied with topics such as decolonialism, psychoanalysis, poetics, and the border. Among his most recent writings are a series of cultural essays (borderdestroyer.com), a prologue to the Nahuatl translation of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (Ediciones RM, 2017), and, most recently, Transnational Battle Field (Commune, 2017).

The counter-interview was conducted by email.

Sergio Sarano (S): Heriberto, English is not your mother, and it isn’t mine either. And since we are doing this in English, we cannot be but experimental. Hence, I will be calling this operation a (counter)interview. It is one thing to read and speak English, even to translate from it, but to write experimental texts in it is quite a different, politically-charged action. Transnational Battle Field collects a good portion of your writings in English. Is the Heriberto writing in Spanish and the Heriberto in English two different poets? And if so, is there a border between these two writers?

Heriberto Yépez (HY): Yes, there is always a border. When I write in these two languages, I do feel a difference. At the level of thought, I think readers wouldn’t entirely get my writing in translation (in either direction). At the level of form, I enjoy writing in two different languages and for two sets of readers, so I do feel that I am two different poets. And this is very exciting; there is a new field opening. The neoliberal market “translates,” but what I like to do is to struggle with two languages I find uncomfortable. Living in Tijuana gave me that opportunity. One of my first jobs was to talk to American tourists on the street and bring them down to the dance floor where they could experience and unsettle their “desires” (dance, drink, do the after-hours, break racial and cultural barriers). When I write, this position between Spanish and English is always on my mind. I feel border writing is critical today, even more than in the 90s. “Literature” is still too nation-based.

SS: Now that you mention the current opening of the field, the Transnational Battle Field, such post-national spaces of insurgency demand us to become wholly new readers and writers, and to change our lives. In “Ethopoetics,” your new book’s second section, you disarm given (neoliberal, colonial) assumptions many of us not only have, but perpetuate through our work (it was not an easy read). Jerome Rothenberg—whom you have translated and edited—developed the term ethnopoetics in the 60s. Ethopoetics is a coinage of yours. How does ethopoetics as a concept/practice differ from ethnopoetics? Is it a move away from the center towards the borders?

HY: Ethopoetics was kind of an accident in my work and thinking, something that happened to me on the way. What kind of poet are we meant to become? What do national literatures or even university programs or publishing houses or reading series, want from us? What kinds of subjects do these systems need to perpetuate themselves? And then, on the other hand, what kinds of poets can we become to change our lives and the world? These questions have determined different histories of poetics in very different traditions, and not only non-Western ones but also very canonical Western legacies such as Rimbaud’s and Pessoa’s in their desire to become “an/other.” That has been from the start on my radar, the transformation of the poet as a production of new subjectivities, something which includes shamanisms, Marxisms, feminisms and decolonial movements as part of the discussion, my very concrete formal training as a therapist, and my Latin American and North American contexts with their radical differences. Ethopoetics for me became a space inside writing to keep asking: how has poetics contributed to the actual transformation of the human? And how can we continue transforming the poet-human through writing? These are broad questions, so ethopoetics is not a question of offering a style or a literary movement, but an actual problem that guides my writing, and I hope can be a possible or virtual collective endeavor.

SS: Your training as a therapist is particularly sharp in “Bad Tripping the White Dream Poem,” a fierce psycho-poetic critique of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Beatitudes Visuales Mexicanas,” a piece published in Poetry in June 2015. Mexico has long been a place for North Americans to play out their colonial fantasies, be it in the form of literary retreats, spring break vacations, you name it. You mention “imperial nostalgia,” and “Being Larger than Others,” as emotions at the root of the imperial gaze, going all the way back to Walt Whitman. “Neomemory,” a psychoanalytic concept you have developed and notoriously applied to Charles Olson, comes to mind. You even get a shout-out in the Spanish translation of Olson’s The Maximus Poems; Ammiel Alcalay writes: “In a context in which Olson has been caricatured in Mexico as a representative of North American Imperialism…” What is neomemory and why has it caused such contempt among different literary groups on both sides of the border?

HY: We share a patriarchal subject-formation at the heart of poetics North and South and across the oceans in what should be called Planet Water instead of the anthropocentric “Planet Earth.” Alcalay and Il Gruppo, as they named themselves to oppose my 2007 book (and even wrote a book against me), reacted violently to my critique of their daddy figure. It’s a question of the fragility of the predominantly white patriarchal poetic figure. It was also a very racist move by them, as the visual imagery they deployed against me showed on the websites they used. I think the translation of my book took some members of the North-American experimental community by surprise, they weren’t expecting a critique, in the form of poetic theory, by a Mexican, on one of the experimental holy fathers.

Neomemory is the state of fascist appropriation and re-mixing of cross-cultural images to maintain white supremacy, and it involves the spatialization of time. My book was a kind of bomb right in the middle of that fascist poetic regime. And that is why the Olsonian boys literally screamed once they were able to read it in English in 2013. It is probably the first time a Mexican book on poetics shook the core values and paradigms of North-American experimental poetics.

The process of decolonization, according to Fanon, necessarily involves some level of violence. In this case, the violence of critique was necessary to identify North American nationalism and inferiorization of the Southern-other as still very active ingredients in experimentalism today. This question was collectively and very efficiently brought up by the Mongrel Coalition in 2015, which I think was the moment when conceptual writing finally faded-out as hegemonic experimentalism.

I don’t belong to a single tradition. My book on neomemory and Olson as a case in point about broader issues of experimentalism and imperialism appeared too early for the Mexican poetry scene. At that point, they were just barely recovering from the death of their own daddy figure, Octavio Paz, and starting to inform themselves about Language poetry. By 2011, that scene became fascinated with the colonial figure of Kenneth Goldsmith.

My book was basically a radical critique on experimentalism when most of my colleagues were not familiar with North-American experimentalism at all. While in the USA most of my colleagues first lacked a transnational capability to read Spanish and then just were not “comfortable” enough, as they say in liberal lingo, to “deal” with this “weird” book by a Mexican poet who isn’t easy to pin down.

SS: In the Americas, despite repressive governments and hateful nationalisms throughout the continent, there is a growing number of decolonial writers and texts. The poems of Humberto Ak’abal in Ki’che’ Mayan or Frankétienne in Haitin Creole; the new Pedro Páramo Nahuatl translation; the works of Cecilia Vicuña; the performances of Guillermo Gómez-Peña; the writings of Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Claudia Rankine, they all point towards an ongoing process of moving from the national to the transnational, of opening the battlefield to new bodies and subjectivities. In a time where NAFTA is in crisis, where new states are fighting to be born, and journalists are being murdered, what is the role of electronic publishing, social media and translation in this process of decolonizing literature?

HY: In the last piece of Transnational Battle Field, I address the role of a decolonial-revolutionary writing versus not only mainstream colonial literature but also the colonial-revolutionary inertia very much in place inside newer avant-gardes. I am not sure “literature” as such can be decolonized or even if the agency of decolonization is human. It could well be that the planet, animals or even plants will be the ultimate agencies of a decolonial future, that is, we need to challenge the assumption that decolonization is still an anthropocentric project. And at the human intellectual level, this is a fight on several fronts, including the Internet, where we can spread ideas and dispositions, help organize ourselves as collectivities, and as writers put out there what publishing houses and magazines censor or simply co-opt very quickly. In respect to writing, struggle and not “experiment” will probably be the leading force of change. We are now entering a post-experimental phase. I believe this will be a transnational fight from which new poetics, thinking, and narratives will arise. Social struggle will affect aesthetic form. And a new aesthetic form will participate in energizing radical social transformation. I am very optimistic at this level, writing pieces on my website, borderdestroyer.com. An online one-month project I did last year, called “Mexiconceptual” (a series of posts/poems on the conflictive histories of Mexican conceptualisms in art and literature) is now a printed book in Spanish. I very much like using the Internet, but I also love printed books. I am currently also working on a big anthology with Jerome Rothenberg that will cover poetries from the different Americas. I keep busy, and enjoy working on a daily decolonial project with others. It’s sometimes a slow process, and sometimes violent ruptures can occur.

Sergio Sarano is a writer and musician based in Monterrey, Mexico. He is the founder of Meldadora, a new publishing house focused on innovative writing and translation. He is currently finishing the Spanish translation of Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations.


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