The Incredible Attack on Grammar, a.k.a. ¡Go, Monterrey, Go![uds-billboard name="JP"]It’s 6:30pm on the second day of a writers’ gathering in Monterrey in mid-March 2012. The crowd is slowly settling down for the show. I’ve already been blown away by the boundary-shattering, interdisciplinary work happening at the encuentro called La increíble degramaticalidad (The Incredible Degrammaticality), but the performers up next are about to take things to another level.
Up first, Yaxkin Melchy, a young, diminuitive poet from Mexico City in a green soldier’s helmet takes the stage, arranging a series of objects around the microphone: scissors, long multi-colored ribbons, tape. His poetry emerges in long, vertiginous tirades, swirling around the stars, new cosmos, galaxial development mixed with a sense of impending urban collapse, all as he incorporates his assembled objects into the performance, draping ribbons over his shoulder, whipping the air with them, cutting them.
Next up is Benerva!, a collaborative project between Minerva Reynosa and Benjamín Moreno. They start with a digital poem written in Flash: a poem appears on the screen to an accompanying electronic beat, the letters of the poem degrade, pieces of them sliding out of place, down the screen up and left and right. The words degrade as a cut-up digitalized voice stutters and repeats endlessly: you can tell there are words, but they are just as massacred as the visual images. The visual images of the words dance and move as the voice continues its jerky delivery, finally ending some time later as the poem reassembles on the screen and the voice (Minerva’s) reads the poem without interruption or breaks.
The organizer introduces the next poet, Enriqueta Lunez, and reads a short note to the audience from the writer, advising everyone to leave behind the folkloric ideas about indigenous culture in Mexico and open themselves up to a different kind of non-stereotypical experience. She plays rock music from her region, the highlands of Chiapas, where her Tzotzil community has its roots. Then she reads her bilingual poems, first in Tzotzil then in Spanish. The poems are grounded in relationships between women, between mother and daughter, between people and the plants and animals around them. Wedged between digital poetry and the locura of the dance performance up after her, Enriqueta’s poems in Tzotzil remind us of a longer historical arc and the creative impulse behind cultural resistance.
After Lunez, a dancer from Mexico City (by way of Xalapa, Mazatlán, New Orleans and France) named Hunab Ku Mata Caro takes the stage in dark sunglasses and tattered jeans. He places a television in the middle of the stage, removes his shirt and prowls the perimeter with a menacing bat. Using looping software he builds soundscapes with his voice: growling, wailing, laughing and screaming. Moving frantically around the stage, sometimes seeming possessed or deranged, he undulates his hips and grinds the space in front of him, on the floor and standing up. At a climactic point in the performance, he breaks the television with a bat and then pronounces that “Change is constant sex.”
After all of these intense, emotional, interdisciplinary performances, the local Monterrey electronic music duo Colective La Lucha Libra plays a kind of chill-out electronic music with neon, Atari video game images on the screen. Normally I might get bored, but after the rampant intensity of the preceding performers, I can use the mental break to begin to process what I’d seen. The collisions between all these different forms are evidence of a thrilling, post-everything interdisciplinarity.
This writers’ gathering, organized by poet Minerva Reynosa and others with support from the local government’s artistic department, called CONARTE, is part of a series of annual encuentros called Los Límites del lenguaje (The Limites of Language). These events look to move beyond conservative ideas about writing as solely in books—providing a whole world of opportunities where writing collides with performance, dance, visual art, slam, digital programming, music, and more.
I’ve been going back and forth to Mexico participating in many of these kinds of events since 2006. Most of the writing encuentros in Mexico have programming that tends toward pretty staid or boring affairs: tables set with tablecloths and microphones with 4-6 writers on a stage, long days with too many writers back to back, too many people doing the same thing as everyone else. It’s like most academic conferences in the U.S.—a lot of insecure people hewing as closely as possible to the designated form without questioning it or messing with it in any real way. The only difference is that usually the actual events of the encuentros are like a sideshow to the long nights of alcohol-drenched partying. By the last day of most encuentros, the crowds at 5am are a lot bigger than the ones at 10am.
Not at this encuentro. We did party, don’t get me wrong, but the main star was the stage, the many writers and interdisciplinary artists doing amazing work in the middle of a difficult, tense time in Mexico. As you’ve surely heard, the situation in the country, especially in Northern cities near Texas like Monterrey, couldn’t be worse: with over 50,000 dead in just the last five years, the country is suffering and wounded, with no real promise of a respite. I’ve written more about this here.
But during this event in March, I also saw an amazing, promising creative resistance to fear and pessimism. All the parties were in the hotel and not in the bars and clubs, since most of them have closed down in the last two years and people are not willing to risk going out anymore. It’s a sad, maddening state of affairs, but artists, as in any conflict zone, keep on innovating and experimenting, pushing boundaries.
Besides the performers I’ve already mentioned, here is some more of the incredible work being done by young artists:
- Marco Antonio Huerta, a writer from the violence-ravaged state of Tamaulipas on the Texas border, is experimenting with the conceptual, anti-creative writing approaches of U.S. writers like Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith. [Both of these authors have done recent anthologies of conceptual writing (like this one or this one) that deserve more readers.] Marco appropriates language from phone books and Youtube videos of the violence, from U.S. Department of Homeland Security brochures on visa rules and from the daily crime reports in local newspapers, making troubling textual snapshots of contemporary realities.
- Efraín Velasco navigates the interstices between conceptual art and writing with a wild array of interventions: stereoscopic visual poems, innovative book-making, textual installations in galleries (like covering the floor of a gallery with river stones marked with all of the letters in the second chapter of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch), appropriations of text blocks from Stanley’s Kubrick’s The Shining and fascinating video work, like this one, in which he asks the owner of a barber shop called Poema in his native Oaxaca to translate one of his poems into a haircut.
- Paulino Ordoñez in Monterrey showed a video made of found footage from the ’90s from a prep school in his city. As the images of mom jeans, baggy white T-shirts and Saved by the Bell haircuts flashed on the screen, he read a continuous stream of racey, funny, awkward fragments from letters he received in his final years at his Tec de Monterrey high school, one of the elite educational institutions of the country.
There were too many others to mention—but I have to mention at least D.F. slam poet Rojo Córdova’s sound poetry stylistics and Mikeas Sánchez’s haunting poems in the indigenous language of Zoque, spoken by only about 60,000 people in the world. Oh, and it all ended up with the amazing hip hop flows of Monterrey-based group Menuda Coincidencia:
There’s a whole world of cultural innovation happening just a few hours south of the Valley in Texas. The literary scene I witnessed this weekend is taking risks and messing with form in ways I have never seen in Texas. Despite all the creative writing programs in the state (or perhaps because of their often conservative aesthetic approaches), a program like this one is very hard to imagine happening in Texas under the auspices of literature. All of us in Texas could learn a lot from the daring interdisciplinary moves being made by these writers in Mexico.
Images courtesy of the author.