Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela

15 Years This Corner

by Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela

2016_OYO_Poetry_Reading_024

Little Monica told me

she would lay

out her outfit

the night before

And mine

is a different

corner

from the one

she sold on

but both have

chicken ,

loosies, and

debilitated men

So I could’ve taken

her advice and laid

my clothes out

It’d make me better

with timing, with

attention to detail

More like the woman

in the park

refusing

the man begging,

saying she doesn’t

do that to women

she likes

Meaning to herself

Meaning he ain’t it

Meaning it’s not

personal

when probably it was

Streetology

Degrees in

Pay up or pay me

For generosity

of spirit

For the consultation

required

in the audition

all the notes

taken

And the symbol

may be

ice cream

The increase

in ice cream

American ice cream

Because Yoga left

She was replaced

by records

I don’t want to buy

Meaning

it’s even

Meaning

not really

Nowadays

just a different

problem on

the opposite corner

that shit bar a hotter

uninviting scene

when many of the

leather cut bikers

didn’t have bikes

When all queers

were ageless

Nowadays

Abdul Faruk is dead

But forget him or his

carpeted sidewalk

scene? Never

On top of that matted

brown square:

Sofa-bed, coffee table

and dresser

with streetlight lamp,

Chinese store

as kitchen, and the

neighborhood

the TV

Better step

into the street

because to walk

through his living

room

is rude

And that day

it rained he,

wet and unlucky,

cold melted

into the couch,

such a contrast

to his first day

in the sun—

evicted—

my heart wanted

to take him in out

of the depression

But he was mean

On her only hit record,

Nonchalant said

ya better get

yourselves together

Don’t just stand there

on the corner

watching

things change

without you

But do what about

the click of heels

and their mothers’

on the sidewalk

going to the beer

going to heaven

going to graduate

soon

so fast forward

through this part

it is all the corners

in America

you gotta let

them play

Don’t tell me

there’s something

me and my

keloid don’t know

about living despite

opulent violence

This is love mama

this is love—

people and place—

that has nothing

to do with the fact

there are fewer

tiny plastic bags

fewer shells

and stroller

after stroller

Stroller armies

and hey, I like

kids even though

I kill them

There has always

been black fabric

for death and fashion

And I don’t mind

the changes

at the state store

it’s the reason

why, the whiter

reason why

the remodel

But Peking Inn

and Choy Wong

stay bulletproof

and open

Someone is still

eating

Generous

car system

subwoofers

reflecting

sound waves,

24hrs a day

Meaning there

are sounds

I don’t want

to wake to

bitch beat bass

and crying

Once, when I

was breaking up

on the front steps

we’ve come

to the end

of the road,

still I can’t let go

it’s unnatural. . . .

rolled by

and we both

had to take

a moment

a pause

In so many

I’ve known

on this block

And I wanna

be bulletproof

In the search

for honesty,

One + One

dollar store

became

One + Five

In the search

for coffee,

likely a long line

of unhappiness

or patience—

it’s all about who

you are—

and six people

you’ve known

before

Bricks in need

of pointing

More dogs

on leashes

Monuments

to thieves

Elena burnt down

and left,

and her soul

I still mourn

She had

Hennessey

She had

real possibility

She had

range

 

 

Sieve It

By Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela

 

The following is an extended version of what I read at the opening reception for OYO in Philadelphia:

 

By choice and by force I’ve traveled far from the communities into which I was born and raised, so when I was initially asked to be a part of OYO, I wasn’t sure who my own was—in a traditional sense. But then I remembered, like many people who cannot go back, I have long sought intentional community. Radical weirdos. Queer family. A loose network of writers of color from across the country. These are the people I organize with. And the small press I founded, Thread Makes Blanket, which released a book by Martine Whitehead as part of OYO, is one of the most tangible ways I’ve organized as of late.

 

Another way is through the West Philadelphia collective house I live in. The archival materials that provided the foundation for OYO are rooted in neighborhoods and change, and in creative responses to systemic oppressions. And so, I’ve started by riffing on the complexities of one corner on one block in Philadelphia.

 

Further, this work is inspired by an idea I first came across years ago in Robin D. G. Kelley’s book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Kelley argues that if we judge movements by whether or not they met their goals, then everyone has failed. But if we instead look at what they were able to imagine, then we truly have something to build upon. As he writes in his introduction:

 

Trying to envision “somewhere in advance of nowhere,” as poet Jayne Cortez      puts it, is an extremely difficult task, yet it is a matter of great urgency. Without         new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution            is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must   transform us.

 

 

In August of 2000, a big house at 50th and Catharine was bought by AIDS activists whom I’d never met before I arrived with everything I owned in the trunk of a car. I came from Wichita, by way of Lawrence and Detroit and DC and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where I’d gone to learn from an indigenous uprising known as the Zapatista movement; an impressive asymmetrical war for dignity.

 

Where I remember looking at a La Jornada photo spread of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and finding myself for the first time, oddly, still somewhat disturbingly, proud to be American.

 

The Europeans and Chilangos who’d so easy dismissed Estados Unidos were also in awe at the pages of photos. Even the ever unamused IRA guy leaned in to see the images of clashes with cops, teargas, barricades, and people in the streets resisting global capitalism. That moment taught me something about responsibility.

 

Add in the US military helicopter ostensibly given to Mexico to assist in the “drug war” that instead aimed its machine guns at unarmed villagers—and at foreigners like myself so a soldier could take our picture—and responsibility is compounded.

 

And then, a few days later, when I was in the internet cafe fielding emailed questions from friends in the United States who said the coverage there was much more limited and vague than what I’d read in the Mexican newspaper, I learned something more about the intentional dismissal of rebellion by media outlets. And how to join in the taking of responsibility when we don’t even know about the efforts of others?

 

When, with roughly $30 to my name, I returned to the United States, to Wichita, to the top of a friends’ bunk bed at her dad’s house, I started thinking about a next move. In the way that one’s options at age 20 can seem simultaneously endless and yet so limited, I’d narrowed my choices between going back to college at KU, renting a trailer home and being a foster mom—somehow I’d already been approved— or moving to Philadelphia.

 

I chose Philly. And its history of collective houses around Baltimore Ave. And a college that, even when I scammed to get in-state tuition, I didn’t know how I would pay for.

 

The continuation towards a college degree was residual. Was a way I was lacking imagination.

 

Where I planned on learning, where I had already learned so much, was in a loose network of people I had, long story, stumbled upon. People who wrote political zines with names like ATR, which stood for After the Revolution, who organized benefit shows and protests and alternative spaces like the A-Space and the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore. Who talked about racism and voluntarily, so eagerly, went to trainings on how to combat it—in the world and in the self.

 

I resist the ways that radical communities and spaces are so often written about. The way that to this day some people in Philadelphia seem to write off the West Philly weirdos. Mocking dismissal and easy critiques. I also resist romanticism. I know the critiques are easy because there is truth in many of them. But I am forever indebted to my communities; my chosen family. I believe that daily they make this life worth living.

 

But yeah, the so called scene I speak of was predominantly white. Yes and. Let’s not whitewash it. There were many of us who weren’t.

 

And shout out to every white activist who gave me shade until they heard my mom is Mexican and wanted to be my new friend. Yeah— hope ya’ll went to anti-racism 2.0. The class that covers tokenism and people collecting. And still, I wonder if I can’t mark my poc-ness, my poc-markedness, by all the white people I scare. With my ambiguously ethnic. With my blunt. With my earnest insistence that we can all do better.

 

The color of capitalism, maybe even of racism, is beige resignation.

 

The collective house I moved into was trying to extend the affordable housing model beyond the standard five 20-somethings with marketable skills sharing a kitchen. Its organizational structure resists traditional rent and ownership models. It consists of both sides of a twin so it has 4 apartments on one side and a 3-story, 6-bedroom group side on the other. This allowed for 3 of the apartments to be occupied by older members of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP who were in recovery from addiction. The founders of the house imagined a new model, and they created it. And when it worked, it worked.

 

That first month, Abdul Hakim, an older bearded man dressed in the traditional white robe worn by many American Muslims, and I, a young woman with purple hair and lip rings in black Dickies and a black t-shirt, went to some scratch and dent place in North Philly to buy 5 fridges, and he was amused by my assertive deal-making attempts. As if I knew anything about fridges. A few months later, we paired up again to remove an ugly stubborn deep rooted bush in the front yard, and he laughed when I caught him trying to bullshit me, when I shook my head and pointed out that crack was just shitty coke.

 

But we weren’t a recovery house. We had not proactively figured a way through relapse. We did not want to monitor each other in that way. Of the three housemates with histories of drug addiction who moved in, only one successfully moved out. He’s since passed away, but his impact on people in Philadelphia, particularly those with HIV and histories of incarceration, was so great that he now has a health center named after him: the John Bell Health Center at Philadelphia FIGHT.

 

However, because of what went down as the result of their relapsing into addiction, we had to ask the other two housemates to leave. It was awful and felt like failure.

 

We went back to mostly housing queer white women. We asked some of them to move out, too.

 

Of course, the West Philadelphia I first moved to has changed in other ways. From what I gather, UPenn no longer, in orientation, advises their students to not go past 44th, 46th, 48th, 50th? Higher incomes have moved further and further west into rentals and mortgages that have “followed the market.” Without exaggeration, my house could easily be sold for 22x its year-2000 purchase price.

 

I no longer have a key to the co-op grocery store that allowed me to go in at 1AM on a hot summer night and, on the honor system, write down the name of the ice cream I was taking.

 

More significantly, for my ideals of hybridity, cultural-crossover, and solidarity at least, even the segregation segregated. By which I mostly mean the weirdos subdivided. I can now go to a party made up primarily of radical people of color, or one that is mostly trans and genderqueer folks, or even one that largely consists of radical trans and genderqueer people of color. And sure, this is a good thing. I am an advocate for people finding community.

 

But I’m still a bit sad that there may never be another new year’s eve party like that first one I DJed at Cindergarden (another West Philadelphia collective house with probably my favorite name of them all). The party happened just a few months after I’d arrived, and it was one of the first times I ever DJed in Philly. I had this old Gemini Scratchmaster mixer— the one without the sampler. Didn’t yet have two turntables, so I borrowed one from Bull. And we had to ground the sound system to the kitchen sink. As midnight approached, I was running out of records, so I took a risk. After playing hip-hop and R&B most of the night, I prepared a song I wasn’t sure would work for the punks, activists, weirdos, artists, queers, and especially for the other folks of color. But I had to try for an anthem of some sort. It was New Year’s Eve. I went for Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”

 

Here again, I want to resist nostalgia. I have to. It was never not flawed. I mean, I played Bon Jovi.

 

But everyone sang along. Knew all the words. We’re halfway there. Take my hand we’ll make it I swear.

 

How to resist nostalgia, oversimplification and “back in the day” self-limitation, but not forget what has already been proven possible? Rather than, so savvy and studied and serious, reject cheesy moments of exception, how can we enjoy such emotion and sieve it? How to, even as we get older and so many go back to the seeming security of traditional family structures, not forget our collective accomplishments? Which surely must contribute to some sort of collective possibility? Some sort of collective imagination.

 

For, as David Graeber so eloquently puts it, “If you’re not a utopianist, you’re a shmuck.”

 

Recently, some random guy was insistent that we need a leader, and I was immediately exhausted. My exhaustion begins with a questioning of who the “we” is—who was included/excluded in dude’s “we” and who would be in mine?—and moves on to how I am much more interested in collective responsibility.

 

No matter one’s rhetoric, waiting around for a leader to follow is a cop out. And it’s worth noting that capitalism is subsistent on such inequality (which is why we will not soon, if ever, be post-racial).

 

Yes, some well-known radical people did some well-known radical stuff, but mythologizing them does us little favor. In fact, it harms because it may make it harder for many people to realize that they too can act, and because such heroism almost always comes with a failure to recognize everyone who marched with, took care of, and otherwise nurtured the person being deified.

 

Rather, if we are serious about the need for dignity for all; about our demand for a more just world, we need more examples like the ones OYO offers of non-famous people organizing and creating together. And we need to know we need them. Examples that transcend demographic boundaries such as the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association in Oxnard, CA, in 1903, who stood in solidarity against the bosses and against the racism of white unions, or like the successes and complications documented in books like Detroit: I Do Mind Dying and Freedom Dreams remind us that humanity, however briefly, has already proven itself capable. Change need not go slow. It need not be left to those with positions and degrees and questionable investments.

 

 

I’ll end with a poem that “flips” a quote from the family of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida on Feb. 26th, 2012.

 

 

Line for Collective Song

 

Many solace in old-fashioned surface skimming

While some of us look like splashing

fools for rescue;

 

puce, humorless.

 

And clearly can’t repeat wrongs to correct them,

so maybe the skaters are getting off

easy. For such whiteness not only blinds,

 

it coddles;

 

not only starves, it feeds.

 

So basic that babies know: cry or stop crying.

Coo innocent, coo cute. Spit it all up

because the difficulty / humility

 

is so hard to digest.

 

Which is what the Zimmermans said about their sadness,

We live with a situation that cannot be easily imagined.

Even in dissonance, a line for collective song,

 

a plea for imagination.

 

Necessary though only some of what is selling is sold.

Necessary because, though people may try fire and bleach,

there is no new skin.

 

We live with a situation

 

that cannot be easily imagined

 

or forgiven. Eaten and swallowed

as god-witnessed dirt. What looked like

alternative routes brought us

 

to the same watered sand.

Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela’s poetry and prose has been recognized by The Leeway Foundation, Hedgebrook and others, and can be found in print and online. She is a 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow and the editor of their annual anthology for that year, is a member of the Rogue Poetry Workshop, and is the organizer of a quarterly literary salon, still untitled, in West Philadelphia. She is the founder and primary obsessor at Thread Makes Blanket press, which publishes a range of historical and creative work including Dismantle, the VONA/Voices anthology. As part of her teaching at Community College of Philadelphia, Marissa teaches in Philadelphia jails. threadmakesblanket.com

 

 

 

 

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