Chicano revolutionary poet Matt Sedillo met up with Viva Padilla (proper masks were worn) in El Sereno this past weekend to catch up and talk about his newest poetry collection Mowing Leaves of Grass (published by FlowerSong Press). During this interview they drove around the Eastside. They came upon a squeaky clean Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police protest in Pasadena, boarded up and tagged “R.I.P. George Floyd” storefronts in the belly of high gentrification in Highland Park, and the homeless encampment at the Veteran’s Monument in El Sereno — a proper backdrop for the political insight Sedillo delivers like a gun-slinger in his book where American institutions rooted in white supremacy are dragged out by the hair and left on the side of the road to rot.
Viva Padilla: Over the past decade you have built quite the reputation traveling the country and establishing yourself as a celebrated political poet. Much of your work is very historically dense and well researched. Why have you chosen poetry as the vehicle to get out your message?
Matt Sedillo: It wasn’t so much a choice as something I really fell into. The reality is I learned all I know from a library card and Wi-Fi connection. My route into the movement came not through the academy nor a background in organizing but rather from writing poetry that tackled issues of class struggle, Chicano history, general US history, US imperialism, the destruction of the environment and various other issues and causes of our day.
There are some real advantages to being a poet in how fluid I have been able to move from rallies to conferences to performance to workshops to working with historians and journalists. For me poetry has always been more a vehicle than a destination but I do take the craft very seriously. I love fighting the good fight. I love writing poetry. I am a lucky guy to get to do both simultaneously.
“The Melting Pot / Was never meant for the hands/ That clean it” (Pilgrim)
Viva: Your latest collection is entitled Mowing Leaves of Grass. Why did you choose to go after Walt Whitman and have you have gotten any blowback?
Matt: “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race?” – Walt Whitman
That is a direct quote and there is no context to rectify it. The book is largely about the Rebrowning of America and the political response, namely the rise of Trump and his base of support.
As to backlash, white liberals in the literary community have attacked it on a few occasions as many of them see Walt Whitman and Donald Trump as polar opposites. I am Mexican, Chicano, I make no distinctions between anti-Mexicans.
I think Walt Whitman was talented. But he was a racist who hated Mexicans among others. I am also talented. Lots of us are. You’re very talented. The authors you publish are very talented. Our community does not need to look up to the Walt Whitmans of the world. We do not need to look up to people who look down upon us. Our efforts would be better spent seeking out, supporting and fostering the genius from within our own community.
“I am feudalism /I am slavery /I am the free market /I am the one percent/ I am capitalism/ And I will watch your children starve/ To satisfy my greed” (The Devil)
Viva: Who are you trying to reach with this book?
Matt: In many ways Mowing Leaves of Grass represents my Chicano studies book. It has found a home with radical educators much more so than the literati and I am happy with that. I want people who share these politics to get the book and feel engaged and ready to contribute to the struggle. As a political poet I really want to rally people and ignite their passions. If they are encouraged to further research some of the allusions made in the poems all the better; my primary goal, however, is always to rally people to fight.
Viva: You are published under FlowerSong Press who have been doing dope work in Texas. How did this working relationship come about and what has your experience been?
Matt: With a handshake. Edward Vidaurre and I were booked for an appearance at UCLA. He was staying with his mom in Boyle Heights. I picked him up and we just started talking—next thing I knew I had a deal with FlowerSong.
As to being on the press, the experience has been incredible. It’s a growing press with a lot of ambition. In the coming years FlowerSong is a place where legends will be made. I have no doubt about that.
Viva: Anything else in the works?
Matt: Yes. I am working on a few all to be published with FlowerSong. My next title is going to be called City on the Second Floor. If Mowing Leaves of Grass is my Ethnic Studies book then City on the Second Floor is very much my poetic foray into Marxist Geography. Look out for it next year.
“The boys in blue/ The killing crew /
Authorized lynch mob / Death squad /
America signed with a bullet/
Five pigs to one teenager / Hands cuffed behind his back /
Loud proud frat boys walk by / Drinking from flasks/
Black youth is criminalized /
White crime / Is state sanctioned…” (Once)
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