Poetry Matters with Rebecca Schumejda & Manuel Paul López


The Yearning Feed
by Manuel Paul López

THE XOCO LETTERS, juxtaposes a collaboration of voices that address a major controversy in this country, which I consider the lack of humanistic responses to the treatment of people. Can you discuss the various perspectives explored and your intention? Can you discuss what inspired you to write THE XOCO LETTERS?

First, thanks so much for the opportunity and the space to write a few words about this particular poem.

I can’t necessarily call the impetus for THE XOCO LETTERS an inspiration. I think THE XOCO LETTERS was and is a reaction more than anything to the border politics that many times feels devoid of any human compassion. As the politicians in Washington stage their theatrics each session, people are dying in the deserts in very real ways. THE XOCO LETTERS began literally with the email that begins the poem. I found it one day online as I was researching different local humanitarian organizations for another project I was involved with. This particular email was posted on the organization’s website and was identified simply as a message received, along with others from people in support and in opposition of the mission of this group. I was struck immediately by the author’s willingness to advocate violence, but I was especially taken by the author’s suggestion to do harm to some of the most vulnerable among us, calling for an “open season” on those who clandestinely cross the border. Not only is this repulsive, but it is far more common than we might think. (We must not forget a certain Republican presidential candidate who suggested employing electrical fences to support better border security. He later called his statement a joke and apologized, but the damage was done.) After reading the email, I wondered about the note’s authenticity? Was it a gag? Was it propaganda? Or was it really the seething hatred of a racist psychopath? Nonetheless, I copied and pasted the letter into a Word Document and saved it on my desktop, opening it periodically over a year or two when I felt its tug. When you combine something like this with the constant vitriol in the comment streams that follow articles about immigration and immigration reform, it’s hard to stay composed and compliant, especially after the recent $46 billion dollar proposal to militarize the border with Mexico.

If I had it my way, THE XOCO LETTERS would read like a Google search, because that’s really what it is. It’s one person engaging torrents of information online and being affected by it.

Why did you decide to include the yelp reviews of XOCO?

Including the Yelp reviews in the poem was literally a result of having searched for things to do while in Chicago during one summer. I’ve enjoyed Rick Bayless’ PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time, so when his new restaurant at the time XOCO popped up in the search, I was curious to read more. I especially took interest, though, in the name of the restaurant, which I learned shortly after meant “little sister” in Nahuatl. I remember thinking to myself at the time: “Wow, what a beautiful name.” I must admit, I obsessed over it for some time, completely enamored with the sound of the word, and the associations that began to take shape. In the XOCO LETTERS, XOCO is the figure addressed, where various speakers ask for her guidance, support and love. After a quick Wikipedia search on Rick Bayless, I also learned he had completed some doctoral work in anthropological linguistics, which only added to the intrigue.

The planning of my trip to the city coincided with a number of border-related materials I was reading and watching at the time. This was also during the controversy surrounding Arizona’s SB1070, so my nerves were exposed and rubbed raw by some of the commentary I was catching in the media. In time, I started to think about how my online searches during this period, in addition to my other preoccupations might look if they were static instead of just a bunch of fleeting online activity, an act that says a lot in itself, no? I mean if you’d ask me to list ten topics I searched for on the Internet yesterday, I’d probably be able to name three tops, though I’m sure my browser would report hundreds. From silly, offensive and often times, clever YouTube comments, to endless Yelp reviews on places I’d never visit or eat, the information and time wasted is incalculable, but most frightening, irretrievable. When I paused things for a bit, I started to think and react to how the Yelp reviews behaved next to some of the other documents I had copied and pasted into an ongoing Word Document. After a while, I began to ask myself: What does this mean? What does this reveal?

Can you discuss the significance of the + poem?

The first time the + [crucifix] graphic in THE XOCO LETTERS is introduced is immediately following the Imperial Valley Press article by Silvio J. Panta entitled “Undocumented Buried in Holtville Cemetery.” As reported in the article, a section of the Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California is designated for John and Jane Does, or unidentified people who died in the desert. As expected, a large percentage of those buried in this section (in the back) are undocumented migrants who could not be identified and therefore could never be returned to their families. I’ve been to this cemetery, and it’s overwhelming. Small wooden crucifixes have now been placed next to the original small rectangular concrete slabs that are neatly lined up to indicate that people have been buried there. The Border Angels is an organization that has provided these crucifixes; unfortunately, due to the continued deaths in the desert, they must continue to do so.

Manuel Paul López is a CantoMundo fellow. He is the author of Death of a Mexican and other Poems and The Yearning Feed. He currently lives in San Diego, California with his wife.

Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Cadillac Men published by New York Quarterly Books in 2012. Falling Forward published by sunnyoutside press in 2009, The Map of Our Garden published by Verve Bath Press, Dream Big, Work Harder in 2006 and the postcard poem “Logic.”. Her first chap-book The Tear Duct of the Storm was published by Green Bean Press in 2001. She earned degrees from SUNY New Paltz and San Francisco State University. She lives, teaches, and writes in New York’s Hudson Valley. You can find out more at RebeccaSchumejda.com.