Five Questions with Christopher Rey Pérez

Five Questions with […] is an experiment with flash interviews. The series on poets continues with poet Christopher Rey Pérez. Pérez situates his geographical provenance near Alamo, nicknamed the “Land of Two Summers.” The land of two summers is also where I situate our friendship. First there was a chance meeting in the swelter of upstate New Yorkchance because I was on my way to live in Palestine for 11 months, and Christopher was already making a life there. Before he departed from Annandale-on-Hudson that summer he left a note with a sketch of an angelic donkey on my windshield. Then came the second late summer in Ramallah, the kind that teases with cooling winds before you’re ready to face autumnal obligations. Christopher cooked Mexican mole sauce at his home. Under usual circumstances the elaborate meal would be called exquisite; in the context of entrenched occupation, I recall it as miraculous. Where others implode in the pole between knowing and unknowing, Christopher’s myth thrives: he is a Virgo, but his exact birth date is vague; he is alternately a beloved educator and an opaque bandido mascarado; his poetic architectural structuring is severe, like his grasp of exacting facts, but his enunciation insists on informality, like his flaneurian trespass of artificial geopolitical borders. From Reynosa (Elephant Books, 2018):

1 p.m.

around now the people huff // or put themselves to sleep // lack of military presence oddly discomforts // that’s how i’ve come to belong

Are we what we make, what we are making, or what we have yet to make?

I think there’s something about the nascent act that incorporates all three. Whether that act constitutes what we are, I don’t know. It’s increasingly difficult to look at autonomy with a straight face unless you have the means to do so and it’s more often the case than not that many of us are without those means. But I do think that what we did, or are doing, or will do informs something akin to a ghost self, which is not who we are but rather a haunted sense of self that can’t materialize among this moribund world of little thought and scant emotion. That’s not to say we’re living in decay. I think there is an abundance of moments some of us share with each other that work toward a better reality but it’s sustaining them over time and across geographies that makes self-realization difficult. In Palestine, I used to teach a course that included an English translation of the 12th-century novel Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Neither my students nor I knew anything about medieval Arabic thought influenced by Plato and Aristotle, so we read the novel as poets confronted by ideas in language. What I loved about the novel is that absolute reality is argued as being ineffable and terrifying. The protagonist, who at one point in the novel is emaciated and has deprived himself of his senses, experiences the All, which is portrayed for the reader as a number of mirrors and suns and writhing mouths. Whenever I read Hayy Ibn Yaqzan with my students, this part always confuses us, and I think that’s a valid response to encountering knowledge that can’t be articulated in its experience.

Edward Said wrote of Tahia Carioca, who he considered the “finest belly-dancer ever”:

As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic Arab belly-dancer’s art is not how much but how little the artist moves; only the novices, or the deplorable Greek and American imitators, go in for the appalling wiggling and jumping around that passes for ‘sexiness’ and harem hootchy-kootch.*

*“Homage to a Belly-Dancer,” London Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 17, 13 September 1990.

What else depends on how little the artist moves?

Imbibing the dregs of registers that include words like “hootchy-kootch,” which is a word that provides immense pleasure to the ear and lips and eye, is a great skill when tasked with loaded mouthfuls like “the essence of the classic Arab belly-dancer’s art.” In the simplest ways, my memories of Edward Said revolve around equally simple occasions that illicit a thin sliver of friction between my body and its reach. I remember an interview in which Edward Said mentions his love for clothes. Between statements on Palestine and literature, that caught me off guard and touched me at the same time. I also recall his elegant prose and the moment I came across his novel use of the word “muscular” that made me return to language to remember what it can say and do. I am not the most subtle writer, partly due to my attention to the awkwardness of excess and partly because of my idiosyncrasies growing up with wrongness in language, under a sort of medieval autodidactic utopia of attraction and chance that formulated how I now communicate, so with someone who enunciates so well as Edward Said does, I try to stop and listen and take note of the moves made not so much on a linguistic level but on a diffuse one of feeling (onda). It’s good stuff and maybe why we play around with form so much. There’s a way of delineating the no’s and yes’ of one’s own art via slight jags even in the most cramped or policed spaces or by just doing the same thing again and again, which is like moving very little but better.

Aside from Edward Said’s own eloquence, I think a good example of the little movements that make art is Masao Adachi’s theory of fukeiron. Adachi’s theory claims that by filming the landscape, one can show the oppressive social and political structures of a place. His film AKA Serial Killer blew my mind when I first saw it. Scene after scene of busy street and countryside and people living and doing concatenates into a slow-moving experience. The film’s one long landscape portrait that’s juxtaposed with the narrated story of a serial killer. I haven’t seen much of Adachi’s work because it can be difficult searching for torrents and generally subsisting on the circulation of poor images over faulty Internet connections, so I can’t speak for his oeuvre, but I have also seen The Japanese Red Army-PFLP: Declaration of World War, and in it, aside from similar newsreel style scenes this time highlighting Palestine’s landscape, there’s a line that goes something like, “Resistance is to be on standby.” I’m thinking about the artist on standby and what that could mean, especially for resistance and how little one moves in order to accomplish something.

If Google were a country, what would be its national flower?

This is a hard one. Maybe the answer’s in Lory Money’s music video, “Vacaciones en Google Maps” (Vacations in Google Maps):

At first blush, the video looks like another of many hybrid parodies uploaded instantly to social media but this one’s eerily dystopian in its implications. Virtual experiences of bourgeois habits and the simulation of a thin form of worldliness play out in ways that make me think Google’s national flower would have to be something ubiquitous and visible but not entirely accessible. The fact that Lory Money is a Senegalese immigrant who traveled to Spain by boat, began his new life by selling movies and sunglasses on Valencia’s streets, and has now moved on to producing satire also makes me wonder what would exist outside Google, if it were a country, and naturally, what would its border look like, so it could “protect” its national flower from foreign forms of life deemed to be biologically threatening? I remember crossing the Progreso-Nuevo Progreso International Bridge as a kid whenever my family would head to Mexico to pick up some cheap meds or just have a Sunday lunch. By the border, it was common for vendors to sell bags of avocados with the seeds removed so that you could legally cross them at Customs. Without seeds, the avocados didn’t last long but they were still good for a meal. If anyone, including my parents, attempted to cross avocados with seeds, they were mechanically confiscated and tossed. The logic governing the State’s regulations with regards to not only produce but also animals, merchandise, and even humans seems almost algorithmic when experienced on-site as opposed to in theory, as law, or according to undergirding philosophies. I don’t think it’s very different from how Google operates as a search engine.

What bodily organ is under-recognized and under-appreciated?

I’m inclined to say the salivary glands don’t get much love even if they’re at the forefront of many expressions of it. The salivary glands are really perceptible throughout most of the day, and they inhabit an uncanny spot in our lives, providing obvious biological functions while also being affected by our desires. They’re both sensuous and intellectual, sometimes turned on by the mere thought of something. In Mexican Spanish, you can call someone a “baboso/a,” meaning they’re a slobberer, and the term can be used for sick creeps or for friends who always have sex on the mind, and it has even evolved to just be another synonym for “idiot.” Moreover, salivary glands allow us to produce enough saliva to spit, which can be a defense mechanism against the dangers of poisoning, an expression of outrage, a sexual practice, and even lubricant, or just a simple habit (I stopped spitting once I grew older and became self-conscientious upon leaving the Rio Grande Valley—land of spitters). A dry mouth also makes speaking as well as swallowing difficult. Plus, all the enzymes in saliva are necessary for proper digestion.

In what font would you direct a biographer to print your story?

The thought of my biography horrifies me enough to conscientiously avoid thinking about that possibility. Still, my love for Helvetica and stark, san-serif fonts is professed by the books I’ve designed. I also have a soft spot for the handwritten and slightly illegible. My wildly unfixed penmanship allows me to appreciate those who write with a uniform script, especially if it’s aesthetically pleasing. Bob Brown’s 1450-1950 speaks to me as one example and so does José Juan Tablada’s Li Po y otros poemas. Mirtha Dermisache’s asemic writing is beautiful too but useless for a biography. Right now, I’m working on a book that’s more or less about Cantinflas and Tepito market in Mexico City. I’m using the font Menlo Regular for part of it that continues my work with stuffing writing into text boxes. I like using Menlo Regular because of its clumsiness. It comes across as clunky and flat. To me, it helps make reading in English a more laborious and self-reflective process.