Category Archives: Interview

In Conversation with Enrique Chagoya

Enrique Chagoya is a professor of Art at Stanford University. His work ranges many media, and is currently in the collections of the country’s most major museums. The exhibition “Borderlandia” which surveys his work of the past twenty five years will be visiting the Berkeley Art Museum from February 13 – May 18, 2008. 

Leland Quarterly: I was hoping you would start by describing your childhood and how you first began your artistic pursuits?

Enrique Chagoya: Yes well, I grew up in Mexico City throughout the late fifties and early sixties. During these years, my father was definitely the greatest influence on me. He gave me my first paint set and my first art lessons when I was seven years old. He studied art quite a bit, but he never made it as an artist, though I think that’s what he would have wanted—he ended up working at the Central Bank in Mexico. It allowed him to pay the bills, to feed us—we had a large family—and to send us to school. But he would paint at night, landscape paintings and some architectural drawings; I wanted to do the same as a little kid but I don’t think my father wanted to encourage my artistic instincts too much because he saw no future in it. It was only because I was so persistent in bothering him that he decided to teach me. He had no choice, I was in love with art, and I knew I was in love with art, even before I was old enough to know anything about what that meant.

LQ: What art was it that inspired you besides your father’s work?

EC: Primarily cartoons and comics actually; some Mexican ones and the famous American ones like Batman and Superman. I began to make comics and I also sold my old comic books at my home door; it allowed me to get new comics. I also liked to get the forbidden “underground” comics; occasionally they could be found in the record sleeves of risqué American vinyls like Janis Joplin. Some of my friends in elementary school and high school shared the same interest, so often we would make caricatures of each other and our teachers—it got me into trouble more than once, I can tell you that. But we would spend most of our free time drawing and painting, or at least I would; it was never a chore, always something that I reveled in and waited for when I wasn’t making art.

LQ: Nevertheless though, you chose not to pursue art during college?

EC: Well not immediately. Yes, that’s true… During my undergraduate years I studied an array of subjects—anthropology, sociology, history. I finally settled on political science and economics. I was offered a job before the end of my last year; I went to work as an economist in the countryside. Not strictly an economist in the American sense of the word, it was social work. The rural class was extremely poor and I was involved in a program to help bolster their incomes. The world and capitalism was speeding forward and they were being left behind, so I tried to facilitate the development of low income business cooperatives.

LQ: But you stopped that work in order to come to the San Francisco Art Institute. What kind of a change was this for you?

EC: Yes, that’s right. It was an enormous change. I felt a huge sense of guilt at the beginning. My wife at the time, an American sociologist, didn’t want me to go to art school; I’d met her in Mexico, and she was doing the same kind of work that I was in the countryside—so when I mentioned the idea she was not very encouraging. In Mexico she had gotten very sick, because we’d been living in such harsh conditions in the villages in which we worked. She contracted a parasite that nearly killed her. So moving was less the issue, we had to for her health, but my choice to switch careers only happened after we got to California—I think she thought it was selfish of me, or that I’d stopped caring. And to be honest there was a part of me that agreed with her. I couldn’t help feeling the whole thing was somehow frivolous. But the schools of economics in the Bay Area were not as exciting to me nor the kind of work that would be available to me after graduating from them, so I decided to take chances and change course. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was the beginning of the end of my marriage for one thing. However, for me it was the right choice, I do not regret it, not at all. I am a better artist than the economist I could have been.

LQ: When you say you that you realized how difficult it is to effect real change, is it that sentiment that catalyzed a shift in your work towards content which was socially and politically motivated?

EC: Actually, I think 1971 really caused that shift. I was taking part in a demonstration with other students from my university in Mexico; we wanted changes in the curriculum, and we were contesting a set of new fees the university had recently put forward. Our protests happened to coalesce with the electric workers’ strike and it turned into a kind of social outpouring… something much bigger than we expected. The army came to quell the disturbance, and I remember being chased by paramilitaries dressed in civilian clothes, armed with bamboo sticks that had long blades at the ends, and hand guns. About seventy people were killed… It was a real massacre. That’s the first time I can remember feeling that I could die for my ideas… and it changed my understanding of society, my artistic ideas as well.

LQ: So you came to the San Francisco Art Institute with political and social motivations?

EC: Yes and no. One of the earliest series at the SF Art Institute was for a group of Salvadorian poets who were touring the country protesting the invasion of Central America by the Reagan Administration, and I made a couple of drawings for their show. The greatest reward of the experience was that I would not be killed, I would not even be threatened, for my ideas—art was a kind of exorcism for me, an excavation of the anxiety that had formed inside of me during my time in Mexico about the state of the world and my powerlessness to change it all. So it wasn’t with a sense of empowerment that I took to my graduate education in art. I was in need of a therapeutic outlet; it takes a very tough spirit to do social work—to not become overwhelmed by the grandness and intricacy of the world, the underlying sensation that one is barely, if at all, significant. So while my work was politically and socially motivated in terms of the content, I was really making art for myself… exercising my freedom of expression. Occasionally I feel a bit guilty about the self-indulgence of it, but I think we must be self-indulgent in exercising our rights, our political and social voice. And I welcome others to be self-indulgent in that regard as well. Vive la difference!

LQ: How did these feelings manifest themselves in your work?

EC: Well very early on the notion of words and language was under attack in my work, because I’d become so suspicious of rhetoric in my youth and even more so upon arriving in America. Words like justice, equality etc. when spoken by politicians, in any country, more often than not conceal manifestations of their opposites; and the greater the injustice in a country the more fervently these buzz words are used. The words freedom or democracy, for instance, may mean something different for, ancient Greeks, for the forefathers of this country who owned slaves, for Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, or in the statements of George W. Bush. The same word may have different meanings in different times and places. I always had a feeling of how ambiguous words are and consequently I felt the need to address the falsity of language, and satirize it. I think the very visual mural-based art of the pre-Columbian books by the Mayans and the Aztecs were a great influence on me; if we look at the art of these cultures we can appreciate how they invested visual representation with exact meanings; its so easy to forget how insufficient words often are for describing the world around us; I think my art, though socially and politically critical, also seeks to remind people of this more basic fact.

LQ: And what did you do after leaving the SF Art Institute?

EC: First I went to the San Francisco country jail to teach art to prisoners for about three years. They were mainly low crime criminals; but they weren’t really criminals for me, they were just students. The experience made me realize, and would make anyone realize, that these people were sufferers of poor circumstance. They’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and it was extremely sad to see, because so many of them were smart, or talented, but they had more opportunities to go to jail than to go to school, falling into a cycle they couldn’t lift themselves out of. To see their hunger for education and the arts awakened me to the short distance between normal citizens and those that have slid to the margins, the collateral damage of a society’s structure, those for whom it doesn’t work out… we often believe they are to blame; but eighty or ninety percent of those who take any educational classes while in jail do not return (except for those with life sentences, or in death row). Many learn how to make an honest living thanks to the classes they take while in prison: gardening, art, creative writing, drama, computer programming, etc. Given the opportunity to learn from an interested teacher they really revel in it—ever since I’ve felt we need fewer prisons and more schools; but I think its going in the opposite direction.

LQ: And after working at the prison?

EC: After leaving the jail, I was offered the curatorship at the Galeria de la Raza, a Chicano gallery. And actually for my first show I displayed only work of inmates that I had taught. I negotiated with the jail to have the prisoners come over for the opening, accompanied by the sheriff of course… but nonetheless, they were overwhelmed to see their own work hanging in a real gallery and appreciated by people outside of prison; it was very rewarding for them, and for me. It was a great way to start, because it instilled in me a sense of always wanting to work with specific communities in my exhibitions; The Galeria de la Raza had a history of community oriented shows like the one on apartheid in South Africa right before I started. I did other shows like Puerto Rican political prisoner’s art , and organized an enormous and ever-growing annual Day of the Dead exhibition in the Mission, things like that. But I had also started to teach at UC Berkeley, and my job as a curator became overwhelmingly busy very fast. I decided to leave the Galeria de la Raza, after three years, just after starting the plans for a large Day of the Dead exhibition at the Smithsonian, which would have been a really major and wonderful exhibition—that was my only regret about leaving those years of work as a curator. Other than that show, I was thrilled to be done with it. So I left to teach full time at Berkeley in 1990, and it was soon after that that Cal State offered me a tenured track position; that gave much more time to make my art, and solidified my future in education.

LQ: And how did you get to Stanford?

EC: Well I was at Cal State for five years, and I truly loved it there; my students were amazing and wonderful people, my schedule wasn’t too burdensome, and I could support myself comfortably; so I was totally happy there and never even thought of leaving. But then I received a call from David Hannah in the art department here asking me to try out for the tenured track position. I turned the invitation down immediately, that’s how uninterested I was in moving and how much I loved Cal State. But then I said to myself, “maybe I should have asked what they were offering at the least.” [chuckle] So I called back a week later, I figured I might as well see if I’d get the job and then make a decision. Sure enough I became a finalist and got the position, even though deep down throughout the process I was thinking how relieving it would be not to get the job, and not to have to face my students and colleagues at Cal State that I’d grown so close with. What clinched it was the studio space Stanford offered, I couldn’t afford anything like it in the bay Area and their offer was just hard to refuse… So, when I got the job offer I left Cal State with a little bit of a heavy heart, but everyone there understood and supported me, and I managed to keep in touch with them.

LQ: Around that time your work began to undergo a somewhat meteoric rise in the commercial art world and the museum world. When was your first watershed exhibition?

EC: That was in 1989 in New York City, it was a solo exhibition at the Alternative Museum. And the experience of showing in New York at that time was so amazing. My reception there was astounding to me because I never expected to become a “popular” artist, only an underground artist or alternative artist. So when my work started to be purchased by the Metropolitan, Moma, the Whitney, I realized I’d been a bit too reticent in my expectations. But I think that was always a good thing for, I was never working in order to become successful. You know the Taoist maxim: if you want something you should not want it or the less you look for something the more it comes to you. I think that’s sort of how things have happened to me.

LQ: And now you are having a twenty five year survey at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa…

EC: Yeah, to have my first major survey in the heart of the country is ironic and great; because I really first got notoriety in New York City and then in the Bay Area and have mainly been popular in those places. So to have it hosted in a state that’s perhaps more symbolic of middle America is a fantastic for me—as someone who has always felt torn between to cultures and two countries—I feel exceptionally grateful.

LQ: And what would be your advice for young artists out there who are experiencing doubts about pursuing what is often a very precarious future as an artist?

EC: I would say trust yourself. Trust yourself. It’s easy to say, but often it’s the hardest thing to do, and the biggest obstacle in our way. But if you are brave enough to trust yourself, and chose work that you love, you will get very good at it, and the rest tends to work itself out.

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Filed under Interview, Vol 2 Issue 1

Not Man | Apart

“The aim is to find a form of speech that touches the common denominator. Find poems that speak deeply and then animate them clearly for the common reader. I’m trying to hammer every bit of pretense out of my writing, make it sharp and intense.”

LELAND QUARTERLY: Okay, to start: in your article for the American Poetry Review, you call Romantic John Clare’s attitude toward nature “a unique, witnessing energy.” Is there something about the poetic disposition that might change people’s attitudes toward the environment, and if so, how?

JOHN FELSTINER: Oh, we’re going to start like that. You don’t want to know where I’m from?

LQ: Well, we could start that way, but we kind of figured that we would just dive right in. Do you want us to go back?

JF: No, no, it’s fine. Is there something about the poetic disposition…?

LQ: Right. Is there something about the poetic disposition that might change people’s attitudes toward the environment, and if so, how?

JF: Well, it sounds like you’re asking why even address the question through the lens of poetry when there are so many other avenues that seem to be more to the point—natural history, science, economics, politics, law? All of these seem much closer to our needs, environmentally speaking. Why go back to what so many people consider frosting on the cake, even self-indulgence?
Personally, I believe that all those approaches are absolutely necessary, but without a human acknowledgment of the crisis and the need at the core of it, these efforts are not going to go anywhere except in reaction to a tsunami or worse. Tsunamis, hurricanes, massive shortages have an immediate impact, but the memory of things that seem to jump in your face and say ‘Pay attention to global warming’ is minimal. It can peter out in a matter of months sometimes.
Ezra Pound said: “Poetry is news that stays news.” Actually, he said literature is news that stays news, but I’ll take the opportunity to change that a bit. Poetry—poetry is news that stays news. To make news stay fresh on our agenda, we need a thrust to the gut, the fiber, the grain of what makes us work. More than ever, I believe poetry can do this for people. This hope drives the book I’ve just finished.
Let me make an aside, if I may.

LQ: Absolutely.

JF: This quarter I’m teaching a course called “Imagining the Holocaust.” It used to be “Literature of the Holocaust.” I don’t believe we can grasp what happened back then except through acts of imagination. Imagination’s no substitute for the real thing, but short of actuality, all we have is imagination—psychic actuality, which may yield an even sharper sense than having been there.
In this course I deal with “creative resistance”: poetry, art, photography, music that emerged in Nazi-occupied Europe. In those conditions poetry occurred for its terseness and coherence. We need to touch people at the core as well as laying out fatal statistics.
And I think we have to start with the 11th grade. College is often too late. Many college students come with a pre-professional aim, but in about 11th grade people are beginning to think what they might devote their lives to. Call it an almost galvanic shock of realizing what can and should be done with one’s life. The recognitions poems can incite may trigger such realization.
Now, for some folks, the environmental cause remains external—an abstract question of natural surroundings, of wilderness. But what matters is the connection, the interaction between humankind and what lives around us. We nearly extinguished the Californian condor, but at the last minute began to bring it back. Because our stance toward non-human nature will make all the difference, we must move through the human element, the human dimension and perspective. Poetry is always opening up and unblocking new perspectives for us.
Are you familiar with the William Carlos Williams poem: “To Waken an Old Lady?”

LQ: Yes, we are.

JF: Then you know the phrase: “But what?”
It marks a fresh recognition. The same thing happens in Shirley Kaufman’s “Jacaranda” or in Williams’s “Spring and All.”
“Rooted, they…”—what?
The line itself grips down; it’s taught a whole generation of poets: “rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken.” Just the crisped energy in that “stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” new growth taking form, has bred a whole strain of possibility in modern poetry.
My book is called So Much Depends: Poetry and Environmental Urgency. As Williams would have it, so much depends on seeing things afresh and saying them anew: seeing by saying, and saying by seeing. So much depends upon getting a grasp on the natural world that does not smother it. And “so much depends” is an open-ended phrase. We’re not told how much or what. We are beginning to learn what is needed and how very much.
This may not be the crucial question for my children, perhaps not even for yours, but it is a question for the generation that’s coming very soon.

LQ: I’m interested in how the implementation of this perspective might be carried out. It takes a pretty dedicated teacher, and a pretty personal connection to make you get into something on your own.

JF: That’s very true. I would have to respond with Coleridge’s word “Joy.” Give people joy and they’ll go with you. If you just scare them or hector, they won’t. Catch them where they live—somewhere more than in the mind—I would call it spirit. The spirit—the inner energy we feel when we’re most ourselves and most pointedly engaged. Catch people there, you’ll enlist them in some way.
I try to do this via poetry. The honest answer is, I’m not a scientist, a natural historian, an outright activist, a nature writer, a policy maker, or a lawyer. I’ve decided to do what I do best, for the time being. What’s more, I’ve gotten more energy out of this task than from anything else, with more socio-political urgency.
The aim is to find a form of speech that touches the common denominator. Find poems that speak deeply and then animate them clearly for the common reader. I’m trying to hammer every bit of pretense out of my writing, make it sharp and intense.
Trying to work out this perspective has given me a great deal of pleasure, and American Poetry Review has been a godsend. Publishing columns throughout 2007 has allowed me to choose six poets I thought would be most striking and accessible: Williams, Clare, Dickinson, Millay, Swenson, Haines. Meanwhile, I’ve become more and more taken by finding images to accompany my essays. APR is publishing more graphics than they ever have, among them an unknown shot of Robinson Jeffers and Edna St. Vincent Millay at Hawk Tower in 1930, also Millay protesting against the Sacco and Vanzetti murders.

LQ: It’s interesting that you mentioned Robinson Jeffers. I was recently reading a book of Jeffers poetry, and the introduction touched on something I’m interested in. They were discussing Jeffers’ style, and were opposing it to the experimentalists, who they claim did not have the “spiritual nerve” that Jeffers did. I’m interested in the attitude that comes from such a statement because it seems that experimental and more “traditional” poetry seem to polarize people. Do you think these two approaches to poetry are actually opposed or that they are just two different ways of getting at the same thing?

JF: Of course, there’s also a question of what “experimental” signifies. To say it’s something that blasts beyond the tradition is one thing. But Frost was experimental in trying to wrestle colloquial sound and sense together in his voice, and on the page. Williams was experimental, but so good at it he may not seem experimental now. Everything is relative to what has come before.
Really, I don’t fully credit that distinction. Certainly Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Lowell, T.S. Eliot—all of these were experimenting in some way. What made Jeffers experimental was his impulse toward “inhumanism”—the extreme this carried him to. His so-called misanthropy: the idea that humankind was a botched experiment and that we could just let the vultures take over. In one poem, he’d wish to be eaten by a vulture and end up as mulch.
Jeffers, for me, turned out to be one of the epicenters of my book. A phrase of his became very famous in 1965, in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in a Sierra Club book called Not Man Apart, put together with Ansel Adams photography and Robinson Jeffers poetry. Praising “Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,” Jeffers then says: “Love that, not man / Apart from that”—a loaded line break!
Jeffers was saying we ought not to worship man as distinct from the natural world. The Sierra Club book title misquotes him by leaving out the line break in Jeffers’s phrase.
Two other key poems occur in my book. William Stafford’s “The Well Rising” ends, “I place my feet / With care in such a world.” It’s akin to the Native American spirit. And George Oppen’s “Psalm” ends on “this in which the wild deer / Startle and stare out.” This marvelous poem leaves off where I want my book to leave us. Will the deer bolt in panic or go on feeding? A wildness in our world has carried on for millions of years: Will we continue to live with that and let it live?

LQ: Our last question moves in a slightly different direction. I’ve always been attracted to German poetry, much more so than English poetry. Paul Celan was one of the main poets that struck my interest, and it is frustrating for me because I feel that I am not really getting the poetry directly. It is like a treasure chest that I am not able to unlock, so I am studying German in order to read the poetry in the original language. My question, though, is whether or not there is a fundamental difference between German and English poetry.

JF: There are easier ways to make your way into the German language, but I don’t know if there are better ways. Poetry in another language, such as German, may even constitute a different thing—not just in another language with different overtones, but a different gestalt, a different grasp of things.
Two of the people who first cottoned to my book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, were Eavan Boland and Tobias Wolff. That Celan should matter to them was so heartening back in 1995 when the book came out. But even before then and since, I have become aware of many poets and writers to whom Celan offered a touchstone, if not the touchstone, for seriousness and absolute honesty in poetry.
Take Jorie Graham. She writes so differently from Paul Celan—her voicings, line lengths, figures, much else. I could add John Hollander, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Michael Palmer, Robert Pinsky, Heather McHugh, Geoffrey Hill, Sharon Olds, Edward Hirsch, Rita Dove, Bob Hass, on and on. This trust in him must have something to do with historical awareness, Celan’s utter dependence on purging German language, his fierce introspection. He’s a touchstone for honesty and seriousness. So, whatever inevitable differences exist, there must be a fundamental kinship between this German poetry and some English/American poetry.
Back in the mid-1970’s, I’d just come back from a year teaching in Israel, from meeting poets of all kinds, some of whom knew Celan. I came back and read a review of a recent book of Celan poems in English and thought: I can’t pass above or around this—I’ve got to go through it. It was a forced option. If I’d known it was going to be seventeen years before I came out with a book, I hope I would not have hesitated. This was poetry of such challenged, challenging intensity. Furthermore, I believe that to get to the heart of it, translation was the only way. Not from outside, but inside.
Now, as it happened, when I began writing on Celan I had no deadline. That was both good and bad. I didn’t hurry, but it did take seventeen years. Now I look back at a road not taken. I can’t imagine who I would have become without encountering Celan, can’t imagine not having lived through that experience and having learned what I did.
Funnily enough, people who take my IHUM course and come back to me later often remember only the St. Lawrence String Quartet, or my giving a banshee cry to demonstrate Yeats’s belief system. But a few more students now are coming back and saying they remember Paul Celan.
If there is anything Johnny Appleseed-like about me, aside from environmental awareness and urgency, it’s the necessity of Paul Celan’s poetry.

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Filed under Interview, Vol 1 Issue 3

A Seam of Silver: Professor Eavan Boland

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Filed under Interview, Vol 1 Issue 2