RTM: When did you leave SF and why?
Roberto: I had grown to experience SF as having a severe case of the cutes. I love SF but it can be provincial and smug. My own curiosities and aspirations prompted my move. While I was at Intersection, I was elected to the board of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO), which was a national network of artist-centered organizations, primarily visual and interdisciplinary spaces. As a board member I became engaged in national policy discussions about artists’ support systems, which took me to DC with some frequency.
Many younger folks don’t know the history of the NEA prior to the Cultural Wars of the 90s and the significant role it had in creating networks and supporting new works. (Its current history under Dana Gioa’s watch is about branding American sentimentality and calling it great art. It is captured with their slogan – “a great nation deserves great art.” Bull! Especially the politics of naming “great”-- whether it is a nation or art -- give me new art!!)
Anyway at one point NAAO had received some NEA support to see if we could build a national network of literary presenters so I worked on that. We had a meeting at the Loft in Minneapolis. At the meeting were representatives of Beyond Baroque LA; Woodland Pattern In Milwaukee; Just Buffalo, Buffalo; St Marks, NYC; Writers and Books Rochester; Painted Bride, Philly and some independent presenters. For a while these organizations were part of NAAO but the connection didn’t deepen over time. Efforts by Jim Sitter and Liam Rector to create a network that included independent publishers and literary presenters took center stage for awhile and then when the attacks on the NEA resulted in a de-funding and reorganization of the NEA, the effort to create a literary arts network passed away, as well as NEA support for individual artists and new work development. I met Eileen Myles who was running St Mark’s at that time at that meeting and we became fast and close friends.
I left SF in 89 and moved to NYC where I had a residency at INTAR Theater working with Maria Irene Fornes. In 87-88 I was involved in taking care of two men with AIDS, Jack Stellman who was my neighbor and Danny O’Neil who was my on-off-on-off-on boyfriend for years. Danny had moved back to NYC for work and then he got sick and I radically reduced the work I was doing as I traveled between SF and NYC and was involved with being part of the caretakers’ team for both of these men. The board and my colleagues at Intersection were so compassionate and accommodating about how I was handling my work obligations. Jack and Danny’s illnesses were at the beginning of the epidemic and both lived less than a year after being diagnosed. (Danny worked in TV and I introduced him to Bob Holman, which resulted in the WNYC poetry spots, a precursor to Bob’s PBS’s United States of Poetry.) After their deaths I needed some chill time. So… I applied to the INTAR Workshop and was accepted.
While I was in NYC and because I was on the board of NAAO I would often travel to DC as the Cultural Wars started to heat-up. So my advocacy life took an odd turn. After a year in NYC, I returned to the West Coast and ended up in LA for a number of years where I worked at the Getty Research Institute creating community partnerships and producing public programs for them. I left Getty to return to DC and run NAAO. NAAO was a co-plaintiff in the Finley vs. NEA case, which was argued before the Supreme Court. I was on the board when we joined the lawsuit and nine years later I was the ED. The lawsuit argued against the standards of decency language of the NEA as unconstitutional-- many stories from that front.
RTM: You've worked a lot in a variety of arts and literary settings. Much of your work Roberto is at the intersection of politics and the arts. For example, some of the projects you've worked on include consulting on: The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations: Creative Practice in the 21st Century; The Urban Institute: Arts and Culture Indicators in Community Building Project and Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists projects; The New York Foundation for the Arts: A Cultural Blueprint for New York City, and The Center for Arts and Culture: Cultural Policy at the Grassroots: Los Angeles.
For you, how do the arts intersect with politics? Do you see art and literature as capable of political action or impact?
Roberto: Interstices is kind of my ballgame. While I was working at the Getty and then at NAAO my sense of my work had focused on making the “space” for practice, making the arguments for arts values in a politically hostile environment. I am not a big policy wonk but I found myself at those tables where resources are allocated, whether it was Ford, Rockefeller or the NEA. I was also at those think-tank tables--the Getty or as a Rockefeller Fellow at NYU--where arguments were being crafted about the public purpose of art.
Art intersects with politics when it makes societal claims, when it operates as a form of citizenship, e.g. the AIDS red ribbon created by artists; Mel Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill Project; Bill T Jones’ Still/Here, the voices of Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller-- the NEA 4 who had their fellowships denied by the government because of their queer/feminist claims.
Art’s political capacity resides in the social imaginary – how we imagine our plurality and realize it. I’m keen about Charles Taylor’s writing about the social imaginary. He describes it “ the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underline these expectations.” He goes on to say “I adopt the term imaginary because my focus is on the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surrounding, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms but is carried in images, stories and legends.” The images, stories and legends are art.
Another quote from Robin Blaser: “Cultural conditions always approach what we mean by the word ‘world’ or the process of composing one… The world is never separately- by simplicity’s trick-social, political, artistic or scared but rather, it is made up of entanglement of discourses having to do with men, women, earth an heaven.”
“Composing the world” is political work. My work with Foundations, Local Arts Agencies or National Art Service organizations (NAAO, NAMAC, NPN) as a researcher and through policymaking is informed by a sense that in the US context Cultural Policy is a system of arrangements. My position in that arrangement is as an advocate for artists and their support systems. And to be dramatic for a moment --the demon in the “arrangements” are the forces of privatization that exist as a barrier to “composing the world”.
Cultural policymaking is a form of administration and critical inquiry. It is a sphere of practices dominated by technocrats out to measure audience participation, art’s economic impact, art’s impact upon school test scores, not a foul activity, but measuring the world is different than composing the world – which is what I speak about at those tables crafting policy. I’m an odd duck because I am not trained as some hard-core empirical researcher whose work is about separating facts from value, who pursues empirical regularities -when A occurs, then also B and … which future conditions can be predicted. I take my cues from a group of public policy scholars who offer up a post-empiricist approach in social and policy sciences. Post-empiricist policy studies acknowledge our complex social world in an analytical process that allows stories, argumentation, deliberation, and community visioning by the subjects of research to be utilized in policy analysis and planning, which I embrace in my cultural policy work.
Policy, poetry and the public that entanglement, those arrangements, those mambos, is where from my perch I see where action and impact reside. The social action(s) of policymaking and its ties to the social action(s) of imagination is where I find myself. In my work I employ deliberative cultural policy practices which seeks to understand and organize the ways in which individuals use their imaginations and the language of imagination, which is poetic as opposed to scientific. What post-empiricist approaches offer to policy practices are methods of working with experience, with poiesis, the bringing into being, that is central to art-making and aesthetic experiences.
RTM: What about community? (see below)
· You've written: "A number of years ago I taught a class at CalArts entitled "Community As Verb." It was a survey class on community-art practices and philosophies that focused on community as action rather than place. This articulation of community as verb does not deny its meaning as a noun, but frees it from being a meaning fixed in location or longing — community as a network of interests working together." (The Dynamism of Art)
· In the San Francisco Chronicle's series on Intersection that appeared in June of 2005, you said: "...the upside of a competitive community is that when you're competing for audiences and resources, you have to refine what you are, what distinguishes you." ("Art in a Time of Peace June 14, 2005)
· Recently, Small Press Traffic held a conference called Aggression: a Conference on Contemporary Poetics and Political Antagonism that attempted to address how competition, contestation and aggression effected and continues to effect the Bay Area literary scene and the poetics forged there.
How has community helped or hindered or fostered your own writing and how do you see community in relation to the complex intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc?
Roberto: Community is a wonderfully slippery word- that’s its beauty. I work on being mindful of when community is being communicated as a noun or verb. I try to be as precise as I can when I use the word.
I’ve witnessed how community as a noun is often scripted by the forces of the US ideology of whiteness especially in the context of public resource allocation, political deliberations on public matters or debates on contested cultural issues. So often people of color are invited to participate in meetings, panels, forums, or on boards or management committees because he or she represents the community and is a minority voice in these larger civic contexts. What is scripted in these civic contexts is the meaning of community as fixed, as heritage, as the voice of the disenfranchised, as a form of other and that what he or she is asked to do is play a part in this narrow frame of the civic. I understand how some folks of color are willing to do this because that is the only way that their voice is heard and an understanding of a community of shared experiences--whether they be cultural or other interests-- is spoken and becomes part of the knowledge being used in civic analysis or the decision-making process. The repercussions of this role are that someone is acting out a new articulation of a Native Informant for better (upending preconceptions about say race or place) or worse (the paradise lost lamenting that is peppered with anger or guilt).
It’s complicated for sure.
Three citations: Community by Zygmunt Bauman; The Coming Community by Giorgio Agamben, and Mom.
Bauman’s work has provided me with a historical understanding about how the concept of community came into being, its relationship to security, how currently it is embedded in the politics of recognition and (re)distribution and how it operates as a form of “paradise lost.” Agamben is such a brilliant philosopher and his work takes up the relationship between singularity and belonging, community not as essence but as “towards.” Mom- “Turn off that TV and do something, do something for …. somebody else!””
RTM: You've written some poets theater, for instance, your play “Shattering the Curve,” a piece developed at the Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab at INTAR Theater. Can you talk about how you write for performance and how that is different from writing poetry?
Let me respond by talking about Ntozake Shange, Eileen Corder and Nick Robinson; and Maria Irene Fornes.
Sometime in the mid 70s at some place in the Mission District I caught Jessica Hagedorn perform her poetry with a back-up group called the West Coast Gangster Choir which included Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange. It was a wonderful experience and lead to a close friendship with Jessica and Ntozake.
Ntozake’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf was first presented in the Bay Area. I didn’t see the show and I don’t remember how our friendship unfolded but I became a fan of her work and a friend. (The poet Alta was the first one to publish “Colored Girls…” and “Sassafras” through her Shameless Hussy Press in Berkeley and gave me copies of her books.) Ntozake’s composition opened the door to me on how to perform words – how to work words. I got to know her while I was working at Bookpeople and I had arranged to have a broadside of a poem she had written distributed at the annual American Booksellers Convention which was being held in Atlanta that year. The poem was a response to the serial murders of children in Atlanta.
Nick and Eileen – I was TOTALLY enchanted with their work. How they played with the power of words and gesture. Text as action. Cool and joyous.
Irene- she is the most amazing writer I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I got to know Irene when I was a participant in the INTAR playwriting workshop that she founded. She is a master. If you do your research on Latino/a playwrights you will discover Irene’s fingerprints on a group that includes Cherríe Moraga, Octavio Solis, Cadich Sivch, Nelio Cruz, Luis Alfaro, Migdalia Cruz, Jose Rivera, Carmelita Tropicana and Eduardo Machado, who are significant contributors to our contemporary theatrical world.
Prior to working with Irene, I had written a play called “Decoto”, which is the name of the barrio I grew up in, in the East Bay. The play was based on the history of Decoto – its initially rural Latino composition, how that changed when suburban sprawl developed-- as one elder told me “they started to plant houses instead of plants”-- and Decoto was no longer an autonomous Latino neighborhood and was incorporated into a new city called Union City. The new Anglo residents in the track homes that surrounded Decoto clashed with the Latino who had been there for generations and the tension between them was intense and resulted in the murder of the Union City Police Chief at a Decoto town hall meeting where these tensions were to be addressed. My source material for Decoto was interviews with Decoto residents, which I used to create a piece that was modeled in part after Ntozake’s work. Decoto is a two-character play that is a pastiche of some of my poems and Decoto stories. Decoto is what I submitted to the INTAR workshop, and lead to my working with Irene.
I learned a lot from Irene – not so much about “playwriting” but about the ways of imagination. I wrote “Shattering...’’ at the workshop and it is an okay piece. Irene liked it. With Irene it was about characters, not plot –thank god. Irene had a way of taking you to this place where the characters that you created were full bodied, that they dictated so much, that they processed you. I remember worrying that my writing, my dialogues were going on and on without incident- she told me not to worry because if my characters were real they would have drama. They will take you there cuz drama is a part of life.
If Decoto is a pastiche work, Shattering is episodic and with both of them, the overarching allure of cadences in speech is the driver.
As much as I loved working with Irene and enjoyed having my words spoken by others and seeing their affects/effects, I realized after the workshop and the staged reading in NYC, that I don’t have the temperament for directors and all those other parts that make a play – the lightening designers, the producer, the individual actors, the stage manager and their needs.
RTM: Who are some of the writers whose work has been most important for you and why?
Roberto: Gosh, the who/what/where black hole of my reading life, where do I start? In junior high I was all over Edgar Allen Poe and still have the paperback that I bought when I was 12 or 13. My father died when I was 11 and for a few years my mom lost herself in the library – reading was one way out for her grief. An important book in her reading life, which she gave to me, was Children of Sanchez by Oscar Lewis. It was a window into the life of my grandparents from Mexico and my mom’s early years as a first generation US citizen. I remember reading Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography while she read Children of Sanchez and we switched books after we were done. In mom’s library she had Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals which I read sometime in High School. Mom worked for Fred Ross on voter registration of Mexican-Americans in San Jose and Decoto with Cesar Chavez as part of the organizing work of the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group that Ross started. Ross had been trained in community organizing by Saul Alkinsy. Other High School books: Soul on Ice, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man; the poetry of e.e.cummings, Pocho by Jose Villareal, J.B. by Archibald MacLeish.
Right after High School for a number of years, I was very much into Latin American letters, I ate up Paz, Lorca, Neruda, Borges, Vallejo (Trilce – tripped me out), Julio Cortazar – whom I met on an adventure in Spain. Intersection presented him shortly before he died. Julio influenced the Mexican writer Roger Bartra whose book the Cage of Melancholy trumps Paz’s exploration of the Mexican character and is a stellar book.
Important books and admired writers: I love the work of Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian; Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Writing Is an Aid to Memory; Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries; Giorgio Agamben, Robin Blaser, George Oppen, Leslie Scalapino, Eileen Myles, Juan Felipe Herrera, Frank O’Hara, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Bob Gluck, Edmond Jabes, Emmanuel Levinas; Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina; Jean Genet’s, Prisoner of Love; Bob Perelman’s Virtual Reality; Thom Gunn’s Boss Cupid; William Gass’s On Being Blue; Adam Phillips’ Houdini’s Box; Wittgenstien’s Culture and Value; Adorno The Cultural Industry; E.M. Cioran Tears and Saints; Gianni Vattimo’s Belief; Lee Hickman’s Great Slave Lake Suite; The Diaries of Paul Klee, Todd Baron, Harryette Mullen, Lee Ann Brown, Fanny Howe, …..
My joy as a reader lies with those cited above and many more.
RTM: Right now you are the Executive Director at Tucson Pima Arts Council. Tell me a bit about your work with this organization and its mandate.
Roberto: The Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC) is the designated local arts agency that serves the city of Tucson and Pima County. I have a civic mandate to serve the public which I do through a grants program, facilitating the public art for the region, professional development opportunities for artists and arts organizations, support of heritage practices, arts education activities, community cultural development projects, and advocacy.
I work with the big organizations – the Opera, Museum, Symphony and the small ones. I work with individual artists, which range from the experimental to the classic in their investigation. I work with Business Leaders and Politicians. It keeps me busy.
Tucson is a mid-size American city; the metro area is about a million people - a million people in the desert. Tucson is part of Pima County, which is larger than the state of Connecticut and has the largest Native American reservation in terms of square miles in the US. I have a rural and urban constituency. Tucsonans pride themselves on being thoughtful stewards of the land, such as its preservation of open spaces. On being stewards of its heritage, evident in how it celebrates its diversity, history and neighborhoods. On being stewards of Native American, Latino and Old West ethos, of mining and ranching legacies that animate this place. And I see TPAC’s work as being a steward of imagination.
When some of my visual artists friends ask what I’m working on – I say I’m doing “civic.” Sort of in the spirit of Beuys' theory of Social Sculpture, working on shaping civic culture, working like some kind of a poet-paladin – crazy as that sounds. Working as an intermediary between artists and audiences, the public and its plurality.
Roberto can be reached at: email@example.com