"Outside is the Side I Take" An Interview with Roberto Bedoya
“Outside is the side I take”—Patti Smith
Part 1 of an email interview with Roberto Bedoya conducted in September and October 2008
RTM: In a book entitled Opposite Sex (NYU), you have a conversation with two other gay men about gay men's perception of lesbian sex--a very interesting conversation by the way. You sketch out a narrative of your own coming out. You write:
..in the seventies, when I was in my twenties, it was about being a Chicano, doing organizing work for the Farmworkers' Union, being a part of Latino Activists' work. I grew up in the Bay Area and I was there when the Castro came into being, but I didn't become active in that world, maybe because it was too white, or maybe because of my age, my own homophobia. In those days it was hard to be a Chicano fag (229).
Later on you discuss how Patti Smith and AIDS moved you to think of yourself as queer.
So much to unpack here! Can you talk more about this trajectory? What was it like being at the intersection of so many identities--at a time when identity-based movements were really becoming powerful and the boundaries of which were perhaps less porous? It sounds as if your first allegiance, so to speak, was to identifying as a Chicano.
Roberto: Yes, there is a lot to unpack. In the 70s “identity-based movements” that crafted and informed Feminism, Gay Liberation, Chicanismo, multiculturalism, the alternative arts movement that created artists’ organizations like Intersection or New Langton who supported the experimental writing community, these movements were grounded in an ethos of self-determination – which is “my allegiance.” It was not so much about identifying as Chicano but about my political right to be myself. The dominant US ideology of Whiteness had policies that made me invisible which I challenged, still do.
A story: Racism California style in the 50s (I was born in 51) was played out in many different ways, not so much as overt discrimination but more along the lines of you’re “less than”… and in acts of belittlement. For example, I grew up in the SF East Bay, the barrio Decoto that is part of Union City, which is halfway between San Jose and Oakland. My schools were integrated, Anglos, Asians and Latinos, no Blacks lived in the south bay at that time. But the classrooms were not. For example, there were 2 classes of 1st grade, 2nd grade….. and one class was primarily for the Anglos and the other for the rest of us. A few of us got to cross, meaning on occasion I was in the white classroom, which is how I understood the situation as a kid – there’s the white classroom and there’s our brown classroom – I saw it as our classroom because that’s where my cousins and neighborhoods friends were. Our Asian population was very small, a few Japanese and Filipinos which played out with the Japanese in the white classroom and the Filipinos in the brown classroom. That’s how racial profiling worked then and it still haunts me - more on that later.
When the emancipation movements of the late 60s/70s upended all that crap, the Chicano movement was where I found myself engaging in political work: The UFW, grape boycotts; student walk-outs for ethnic studies, anti-war activities. The VISTA teachers who chose to work at my High School cuz we were poor and the Franciscan priests who I grew up with and who had a Berrigan Brothers/Dorothy Day impulse in them shaped my activist thinking. I remember Father Henry taking our teen church group to the People’s Park protests in Berkeley and telling my mom and Tia who were watching the protest on TV that I was going to join them and …they rolled their eyes and gave me permission because it was a church outing. Oh glorious 1968!!
This a long story but it informed my work at Intersection for the Arts and my career in the cultural sector – making the space for inquiry, making policy arguments, feeding the mechanism that supports the social imaginary.
As to Patti Smith, two quotes from her: Jesus died for someone’s sins but not mine” and “Outside is the side I take.” I remember the Jesus quote spray-painted on the side of the Catholic Newman Center in Berkeley – cool. And “Outside,” well if you find yourself more often in the terrain of “outside” than in the dominant ideologies-- embrace it.
RTM: Do you find Queer to be a more capacious way to construct your location and actions in the world? Teresa de Lauretis, the theorist who originally coined the term Queer Theory has moved away from it, since she sees it as having been co-opted by the status quo. What's your thinking about this?
Roberto: Queer is akin to “outside” which I am comfortable with but Queer is not my location. Where is my location? - My interrogations into place, home, shelter? In part. My life as a reader? To answer my own question I think of Edmond Jabes’ influence in my life and answer – the location is the question.
In 1988/89 I was living in NYC and working on a play dealing with AIDS and engaging with ACT-UP actions. At that time Queer was how we self-identified and it was a way to name ourselves and our form of activism. I wasn’t heavy into ACT-UP but went to the meetings and the protests. I was actively a part of the Day Without Art efforts and Visual Aids, the group that produced the red ribbon.
To circle back to the first question about my sexuality and this question about Queer-- it is linked in part to my notions of public and private. The AIDS activism dictum “SILENCE=DEATH” was a powerful cultural claim that changed society and altered the border between private and public. I believe Michael Warner’s writing on Publics and CounterPublics is very insightful on this moment of activism and he does a wonderful job of animating the meaning of queer and it roots which I embrace.
AND…. As to the Queer clothing line at a trendy boutique near you, well I prefer the DIY Cholo/dandy style of Latino homeboys.
RTM: It is interesting to me that in The Grand Piano, the Collective Autobiography written by 10 of the Language Writers, there's an assertion that part of their project has always been queer. For example in Part I, Carla Harryman writes that "...it almost goes without saying that opposition to the regulation of gender in literature had everything to do with formal innovation produced by us, as men and women" (38).
You were very much involved in the SF Bay Area writing scene in the 80s. What's your response to this?
Roberto: So many stories about the 80’s scene and I feel very lucky to be a part of it: as a presenter, a reader, as an observer/listener and writer.
I do agree with Carla’s statement that “opposition to the regulation of gender” prompted much innovative writing. The new narrative posse of Bob Gluck, Bruce Boone, Steve Abbott, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy… and the How(ever) group of wonderful thinkers, these creative mining’s I found exhilarating. They embedded in their practices an “opposition to regulation.”
I also appreciate the community of women writers that included Genny Lim, Canyon Sam, Karin Brodine, Susan Griffin, Paula Gunn Allen, Judy Grahn, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Eileen Myles, all of whose investigations of the regulations of gender social systems were queerish in their ways.
These writers gave readings or talks at Intersection.
RTM: Tell me a bit more about your literary work in SF during this period. You ran the reading series at Intersection for the Arts. Who did you invite to read in that series? You brought Harryette Mullen to SF didn't you?
Roberto: I started off at Intersection as a volunteer in the early 80’s. Prior to that I had been in the creative writing program at Fresno State studying with Phil Levine. The program at Fresno was known at that time for being a creative hub for Chicano poets. Fresno was not working for me so I went back to the Bay, got a job at Bookpeople which was the largest distributor of small presses in the nation at the time and I started volunteering at Intersection. Jim Hartz was the literary director at the time. As a volunteer I set-up the room and took the money at the door. I would produce an occasional reading, primarily with writers of color. And because of my connection to Bookpeople I worked with some of the poetry publishers outside the Bay Area whom we distributed and presented readings of their authors who would be traveling through town. Jim was great as the director and he was very supportive of the Language School writers, who initially I found very bewildering. Yet my bewilderment became part of my education as a listener and reader. When Jim became the director of the Poetry Center at SFSU I became the director of the literary program at Intersection. I worked at Intersection from the early 80s to 88.
Intersection has a long history, 40 years plus as an artists-centered organization. In the beginning of the 80s we were in North Beach and then moved to the Mission. The North Beach venue was a former church, the Mission venue a former mortuary. Where Intersection is today, that was formerly a furniture store.
You asked “who.” Well, over the years so many. The abundance of writers in the Bay, and Intersection’s curatorial philosophy of supporting the breadth of this community manifested in an eclectic program. Of the many different poetics at work in the literary community, I was committed to presenting the most innovative/fresh/probing voices for the public. How I defined innovative, fresh, probing was based on my reading of the many works that came across my desk. I understood my curatorial responsibility along the lines of contributing to the aesthetic education of the public.
I took a great deal of pleasure in presenting new voices to the community, often through programming an emerging writer with an established writer. Most of the time it worked. I don’t know if Nate Mackey introduced me to Harryette or not, but I did offer her her first SF reading and she was very well received. I introduced Harryette’s work to Lee Ann Brown which resulted in Lee Ann publishing Harryette’s book Trimmings.
I often thought of my job at Intersection as a connector. And, to use some popular jargon, to be a contributor to a “tipping point” moment in an artist’s career or a publisher’s effort to establish themselves or expand their audience. I loved working with the independent publishers whether it be the local efforts of Tombouctou Books, Tuumba, MOMO’s Press, City Lights, North Altantic Books, Kelsey Street Press, the Figures or beyond the bay - Copper Canyon, Coach House. Gray Wolf. Many of these relationships with these publishers were created when I worked at Bookpeople in the sales department.
I also loved working with the editors of literary journals and so I would present group readings associated with ACTS, Five Fingers Review, Jimmy and Lucy’s House of K, Mirage, No Apologies, Soup, Little Caesar, Temblor.
I could go on with a lot of names associated with some memorable readings: The Frances: Frances Mayes, Frances Jaffer and Frances Phillips; The Bob’s: Bob Gluck, Bob Perlman, Bob Kaufman, Bob Hass; Leslie Scalapino and Leslie Silko; Bill Barich and Bill Berkson; Jane Miller and Jane Hirschfield; Victor Martinez and Victor Hernandez Cruz; Jessica Grim and Jessica Hagedorn; David Henderson, David Meltzer, David Melnick, David Highsmith like going through the alphabet A- Aaron Shurin, B- Beverly Dahlen…..
I had very much a catholic-- with the small c --POV, which I employed as a presenter. How fortunate to be a part of a very dynamic community with the wide range of poetics during the 80’s. I was especially fond of the experimental feminist writing community loosely associated with How(ever), Kelsey Street, and women who were associated with the writing program at New College – Norma Cole, Mary Margaret Sloan, Edith Jenkins, Susan Gevirtz, Kathleen Fraser Jean Day, Laura Moriarty, Beverly Dahlen and many others due in part that I found in their poetics an understanding of the “outside”-- the gender outside, the class outside of mainstream culture, mainstream writing.
I recall a conversation with Bob Holman who programmed the series at St. Marks’ while I was at Intersection, and we were joking about the “no’s” we said to authors who wanted to read at our organizations … something like artists say yes and bankers say no and that our challenge was how to say no as an artist to an artist – not always easy. One guy was into harassing me and complained loudly to my board and other writers about me while I told him no. Yet, this trash talk was not the norm.
In regard to talks/lectures-- what Bob Perelman was doing at Langton with his talk series was mirrored at Intersection in spirit- offering an opportunity to writers to speak about their practices, their poetics, their reading habits.
Some of the talks I produced were by Bill Barich, Leslie Scalapino, Kit Robinson, Rosemarie Waldrop, Jessica Hagedorn, David Henry Hwang, Benjamin Hollander, and Carl Rokosi.
I have too many stories…
RTM: How did you negotiate the "poetry wars" of the 80s? What's your understanding and/or experience of what those wars were about?
Roberto: ….by keeping moving. I am joking a bit but I and Intersection were not inside those heated debates. Believe me I heard from folks -- how could you present the language poets; the North Beach beats types; the sentimentalist AWP types; the queer/sexual outlaw types; the multicultural nationalists; those odd ducks from LA, NYC, Seattle, Fresno, Vancouver; the Eco Humboldt County types; the Minnesota “Bly” sensitive types; the non-fiction New Yorker writers…. But really those that were complaining to me were often those who were not readers of the work they often criticized. I just listened because I could not understand all this animosity (antagonism is a different story).
People knew my taste preferences, which were more towards the new narrative and the experimental feminist writers, but Intersection was about the public we, the we of a probing literary scene.
Post Intersection, I came across this quote by Emmanuel Levinas: “We is not the plural of I,” which speaks much about the aesthetic battles I’ve witnessed, especially the cultural war of the 80s/90s. I recall a conversation with David Levi Strauss about the privatization of culture that those 80s battles were much about. In many ways these battles were and continue to be about the privatization of the pronoun “we” – whose definition of “we” were talking about in these 80s battles?: the Jesse Helms’ “we” of ultraconservatives, the Reaganomics’ “we” that David pointed out was rooted in California’s Prop 13. Prop 13 can be marked as the beginning of the dismantling of the tax system, a system that was supposed to support the public community. Levinas’s “we” is not a “we” of me and my friends and associates. It resonates for me because it speaks to a meaning of “we” that includes people you don’t know.
The cultural wars of the 80s and 90s were a battleground for me. The attack on artistic freedom of expression and the NEA by conservatives was where I found myself in the battle. Maybe one way to read the attack on the poetics of the LANGUAGE School writers, or multiculturalism or the sexualized writing of Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, is that these Poetry Wars were part of a conservative turn in our culture. I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to serve on a number of NEA funding deliberation panels for the Literature and Interdisciplinary programs. While on the lit panels, I was often surprised by the hostility to experimental poetics that I heard from other panelists. I was on panels dealing with publishing and presenting – not the fellowship program. This, coupled with my experiences on the Interdisciplinary panel which supported new works, helped me to begin to understand how the Culture Wars were really about content, whether it be experimental poetics, performance arts, images of sex as well as artists’ support systems. In regards to artist support systems, the Culture War battles resulted in the unraveling of a system that provided financial support for artists-centered organizations that presented innovative art: the elimination of the NEA Fellowship for individual artists and the support for new experimental artworks; the efforts to destabilize artists-centered networks, such as the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture, The National Association of Artists’ Organizations, The National Performance Network, the National Network of Organizations of Color, Alternative Roots which, as service organizations, exist to support artists and their development – all eliminated because of probing content.
The political and cultural conservative attack on most contemporary art practices and arts presenters was in many ways part of a developing US Cultural Policy of constructing complicity with the aims of markets and state. Now I know I am talking shop here as an arts administrator, but I had my work questioned because of who I presented at Intersection or the organizations I supported as the ED of The National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO). My work was questioned by artists, private and public funders, or Joe Citizen, who did not believe there should be any public support of the arts. My responses to these questions in part took me down the path of cultural policy- the path of making arguments about the role of artists, freedom of expression, the value of artists-centered organizations. I used these arguments to defend the policies of the organizations I was a part of as well at those national cultural policymaking tables that included me.
The dogmatic position of some writers against other writers and their animosity bothered me. I’m cool with antagonism because really that is the terrain of politics, to believe or not believe in a position, such as a particular poetic investigation, and to argue about it is great. But animosity – too much divorce court and hate speech drama which unfortunately occurs and is poison. Intersection as a public venue felt some of the animosity out there but it didn’t change our policy of supporting innovation. Maybe a different window into the Poetry Wars is to look at Poetry Flash-- that's where a lot of dishing happened.
To talk politics here for a moment, I’ve gained an understanding of the affects of antagonism and animosity at work in the public sphere through the writings of Chantal Mouffe, which have informed greatly my work as a policymaker. Her riffs on “negotiated equivalences” are rich and they upend the democratic ideal of some greater good on the horizon that we work towards as a democracy. She argues for democracy as a chain of equivalences that we create among ourselves informed by the ethico-political value of liberty and equity.
Intersection for me was in many ways about creating a chain of equivalences -- which is not about engaging in happy-face reductionism of “can’t we all get along” as a presenting strategy. It was about working with community difference, working with antagonism. Today, you and I together are admirers of George Oppen, tomorrow you and I are arguing about Adrienne Rich - who is the you and I in the scenario – the reading public, the writing community.
RTM: Can you also talk a bit about what it was like to be a person of color in a fairly white San Francisco experimental poetics scene? What about your sexuality? Were you out at this time?
Roberto: It had its odd moments. I can’t speak to the “white” writer and what he or she thought when they looked at their audience and saw me, so often the only person of color in the audience. But I don’t want to dwell too much on that point; it was at times odd but never an obstacle.
Remember the story I told earlier about my elementary school education and my classroom experience with the “white classroom.” The experimental poetics scène at time felt like the “white classroom.” It’s surprising how that feeling lingers. Earlier this year there was a symposium at the University of Arizona Poetry Center “ Conceptual Poetry and its Other,” which was wonderful, but at the same time my first impression was it was a return to the “white classroom” - there were maybe 150 folks at this conference and there were the poets Tracie Morris, Sherwin Bitsui, the scholar Carlos Gallego and myself who were the only folks of color at the event. It was one of those scenes that I have often encountered-- where their background determines the foreground, where I am in a ‘white space’ that brought into focus by my browness, my otherness at that moment. The questions the symposium prompted within me were not just about aesthetics but also about sociology and dramaturgy in the art world.
In regards to dramaturgy, I have often been invited to be a participant on panels about some contested cultural issue and I look at the setting, stage, actors, and script associated with the event. If I am invited to speak because of my diversity, because the scripts ask for the Post-Colonial other, I think hard if I want to participate and if I do, how do I problematize my own positionality.
The sociology of the art world is odd. I look at the various worldviews at play. In Tucson I see the tension between a strong Latino and Indigenous culture worldview that places great value on place--making place rub up against an Euro-Centric avant-garde view of the non-referential, the non-place. Further to the point about the sociologies of art within various disciplines--whether it be letters, music or the visual arts--one needs to be aware of the politics of taste and the politics of resources and position that are a part of these sociologies. These politics shape how artists and art works are validated and supported. They inform how distinctions are made, tethered as they are to ethics and aesthetics.
Another story – back to the experimental poetics white classroom characterization- (which I know is problematic.) I remember a reading/talk at Intersection in the North Beach Days-- early 80s-- and I was at the back of the room listening and feeling frustrated. I don’t remember who read but someone associated with the LANGUAGE School and I wasn’t getting it – too much vertigo for me. There was a talk, Q & A, afterwards and I rarely spoke at those occasions but somehow the conversation was becoming too academic and I was having that intense “white classroom” reaction – feeling that folks were not addressing the politics of marginalization at work in the world. Bob Perelman was next to me and he just leaned over and encouraged me to speak, to ask my question – which I did do. He read my tension, my awkwardness and made an opening for me. Kit Robinson, Steve Benson and Leslie Scalapino through their generosity of being and poetry dislodged some of my white classroom framing often by the conversations we had after a reading at the bar – where my aesthetic education about their lines of inquiry was fed.
I am not shy but the belittling I received for being a racial “other” in my early years still lingers and effects my voice, my presence. I suspect everyone has some “other” like this in their life.
To circle back to the question about being a non-white in a white scene, here’s another story. There’s a cool group of activist artists out of Chicago associated with a group called Temporary Services. I recall going to a lecture a few years ago at their space called Mess Hall and there was all this talk about aesthetic intervention. Again I was the only person of color in the room of young spirited anarchist /prairie socialists’ types all with deep passion. At a certain point I was getting fatigued with an on-going dialogue about intervention. I think what triggered the conversation was that they were recently in a show at MASS Moca, anyway I spoke up and questioned their privileging, romancing, and fertilizing of the term Intervention. I told them how when I walk into a high-end fashion store like a Barney or Saks often I’m clocked-- security follows me. I am marked as an intervention. I then spoke of Project Row House in Houston, which they did not know about, an artist-centered community development effort and how for some folks of color reform strategies were a course of political and aesthetic action which is different from intervention because of the conditions of privilege. I don’t recall the upshot of my questioning but the meeting ended shortly after.
Stay-tuned for Part 2 of this interview!
Roberto Bedoya is the Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. He is also a writer and arts consultant who works in the area of support systems for artists. As an arts consultant he has worked on projects for the Creative Capital Foundation and the Arizona Commission on the Arts (Creative Capital№s State Research Project); The Ford Foundation (Mapping Native American Cultural Policy); The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (Creative Practice in the 21st Century); and The Urban Institute (Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for US Artists and the Arts and Culture Indicators in Community Building Project). He is the author of the monograph U.S. Cultural Policy: Its Politics of Participation, Its Creative Potential (www.npnweb.org <http://www.npnweb.org/> ). He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Artists№ Organizations (NAAO) a national arts service organization for individual artists and artist-centered organizations, primarily visual and interdisciplinary organizations. NAAO was a co-plaintiff in the Finley vs. NEA lawsuit. Bedoya has been a Rockefeller Fellow at New York University and a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.