An Interview With Poet Matt Sedillo

by Brian Dunlap

downloadMatt Sedillo is a hard working poet. Having no connections and little knowledge of the literary world or how to build a literary life, Sedillo’s built his career from the ground up. He was driven to write poetry as his way to speak out against the injustices he saw and experienced as a Latino and what he experienced growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Ángeles. The strong armed, racist police policies of former LAPD chief Daryl Gates, such as Broken Windows, terrorized his working class Latino neighborhood. Poetry became Sedillo’s first avenue to speak out against these systemic problems facing people of color in America.

Having been mentored in L.A.’s spoken word scene, he brings that passion and emotion and sometimes anger, to his words, whether he’s talking about little Davey Crocketts or fascists. His intensity forces the audience to listen. It’s what’s led him to be a two time national slam poet and Grand Slam Champion of the Damn Slam.

Recently, Sedillo’s hard work—running workshops and delivering guest lectures at colleges and community colleges on various topics in political science and education and the contacts he’s made—had paid off. He recently became the dA Center for the Arts’ first Literary Coordinator. Located in Pomona, the dA Center is “a diverse, multi-discipline, non-profit organization [that] enhances the quality of life for the greater community by educating and providing opportunities to experience, appreciate and support the arts.” Since 2000 it’s hosted the popular open mic A Mic and Dim Lights.

I emailed Matt Sedillo about the poetry he writes and his role as Literary Coordinator of the dA Center.

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Congratulations on becoming the first Literary Coordinator of the dA Center. Before we discuss what your position and role is at the dA Center for the Arts, tell us about the poetry you write. I’ve heard you read several times, seen several of your performance videos and know you write very overt, blunt and at times angry political poems that hit at the root causes of so many of America’s biggest problems: from racism, the military industrial complex, to Mexican American/Chicano history. What compels you to write about these issues and to write your poems in the way you do?

There is a lot of injustice in the world. It seems to me the least I could do is write some poetry about it. Honestly most of my life is consumed by reading about what are called politics, thinking about what are called politics, and trying to figure ways to enter the struggle against this stuff called politics, which is really just oppression its past and its trajectory. It’s what I think most about and in turn it is what I write most about.

You came up through the spoken word/performance poetry world in Los Ángeles. How did that impact the development of your poetry?

Before I was a poet I was an autodidact student of history. I was already very politicized before I started writing poetry. This was my passion which informs my content. Watching spoken word I saw a style that made immediate sense to me. This is how I formed a style.

This is a question of form and content coming together. My form is based around slam to a degree but actually far more patterned after political speeches condensed into the length of a spoken word piece. Basically I write poems that are in both form and content designed for rallies.

So Matt, tell us about the dA Center for the Arts. How did you first hear about them? What do they provide for Pomona and the surrounding community?

I have known about the dA for years. I used to go to second saturday a lot and check out their exhibits back in the mid 2000s. At the time I had no idea all they did in the community. Today they either conduct or host summer camps for the youth, poetry workshops, mariachi classes, violin classes, figure painting and the list goes on. In addition to being a fantastic gallery they are also an incredible art lab and community resource.

What initially made you apply to be the dA Center’s Writer-in-Residence? Was it something about the organization is run, the programs they offer, the opportunity it offered you to bring writing and art to underserved communities of color, a combination of the above or any other reason?

I met with John Brantingham from Mt. Sac and was asking him questions about different venues and outlets for poetry. He gave me a list of publications to submit to as well as a connect to Margarent Aichele the director of the dA. Margaret and I met and the ideas began to flow and she brought me as the writer in residence that day.

Also, in the span of a few months, you became the dA Center’s first Literary Coordinator. What does the job entail?

The first in 34 years. I am very proud of that fact. Essentially I am overseeing the writing workshops and adding literary components to every exhibit that comes in. I am responsible for coming up with ideas presenting them to the team and if we can do it, doing it.  There are some really incredible people at the dA. After Margaret I work most closely with Jason and Isela in executing plans in both augmenting whatever it is they are doing and taking in their input on whatever I am doing. It is a real team effort.

Please describe what you’ve accomplished so far in this role and what do you hope to accomplish in this role going into the future? How do you view what your role is as Literary Coordinator in terms of community engagement?

The literary component here at the dA Center for the Arts is always executed with the intention to add to the exhibit not overwhelm or stand in place of the exhibit.Imagine Pomona was an art installation that mapped out the districts of Pomona and tried to get people to take a closer look at the city as a whole.  For Imagining Pomona Jason and I came up with a series of prompts and questions to make people do just that. It began simple and concrete, with questions like, “Where is Pomona?” and “Who lives in Pomona?” and then progressively moved to questions and prompts that could be read in multiple ways such as “How does Pomona sound?”, “Sound out Pomona.”, “Why Pomona?”  The effect was really good and I was happy to be a part of the team.

The next project was Sanctuary curated by Jimmy O’Balles, Marcella Swett, Gloria Ing and Mario A. Hernandez. Sanctuary was a great exhibit that really tapped into a lot that is going on here in California over the struggle of sanctuary cities. And while its point of entry and emphasis is clearly the Mexican border and the American southwest its themes were universal. Later Trump’s assault on migrants escalated into the crisis with the separation of children. So the literary component had to address that. I ended up writing Crossing Stations, which were 14 meditations that were written in a way that it could take place anywhere in the world within the past few thousand years or at least the parts of the world that have had borders and states of one form or another during that period of time. In addition to the meditations I wrote poetry and prose that specifically addressed the struggles of people leaving their home crossing through Mexico and to the American border.

Up next is East of East, Fringe of Fringe.

So this is still all new.

In addition we have had some excellent poetry workshops as well as incorporated solicited poetry into the exhibits.

I know the younger generation in California, not to mention in L.A. County and Pomona, is now majority minority, as Pomona itself is 52% people of color. As a Latino yourself, has that identity influenced how you have engaged with the younger generation in the surrounding Pomona community so far and in your plans to provide literary, and by extension, arts opportunities to them in the future? If so, in what ways? If not, what has influenced you most in working with the younger generation?

People need to see their reflection or something like it. I remember when Time Magazine came up with the 100 best of everything from the 20th century. It was early 2000. The second best novel by their estimation was Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude. I had not read the book, had not heard of Marquez and was not an avid reader of Time Magazine. But I knew what Time Magazine was and for them to say some guy who looked like one of my uncles wrote the second best novel of the 20th century was a huge moment in my life.

People need that kind of stuff. Latinos are the least represented group of people in American media given their numbers. They are the least represented in higher education given their numbers. They are the least represented in children literature given their numbers. Seeing people like them writing at high level,  winning awards, touring the country, designing and executing projects is important.

Finally, what are your plans to grow the reach and visibility of the dA Center to better accomplish its mission to “ enhance the quality of life for the greater community by educating and providing opportunities to experience, appreciate and support the arts” in terms of the literary programming you coordinate?

You will have to stay tuned, but big things, big things. One thing I will say is we are developing a partnership with Mark Torres from Travel Tips for Aztlan which is going to be extremely fruitful.  Everyone at the dA is committed to taking what we produce and putting it on the world stage while simultaneously involving artists from Pomona and surrounding areas. It is not an either or proposition. We are taking the concrete steps to make that happen. As the first ever literary director I am responsible for one aspect of much larger mission. I am thrilled and honored to be doing it.

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