As part of our commitment to offering great books at reasonable prices, Unlikely Books has combined Soy solo palabras but wish to be a city by León De la Rosa with Monolith by Anne McMillen. The two books are available, bound together in print, for $14, or as downloadable e-books from Smashwords for $4 each.
Soy solo palabras but wish to be a city is a graphic longpoem, beautifully illustrated in comic-book style by Gui.ra.ga7, sharing an adventure in hope for León De la Rosa's city, Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Behold the introduction by Donna Snyder:
León De la Rosa is the quintessential fronterizo, blending and describing his life on either side of the Mexico/U.S. border in multiple art forms in multiple languages. And when the blend is less than seamless, he limns the mismatched fragments of life with a kryptonite gold leaf and makes you call it beauty.
A fronterizo is someone of and from the frontera, the border. León grew up and attended school on both sides of the Juárez/El Paso urban area—an area of some two-plus million people crowded on each side of the twice-named Río Bravo/Río Grande, on either end of a short walk across a bridge, rendering such things as political boundaries superfluous. He also breaks and reconfigures the lines between his total fluency in both Spanish and English, both visual art and literary art, both written and spoken word.
León is a highly educated and sophisticated reader of world literature, yet is always in the vanguard, pushing and breaching every boundary he confronts. His performances combine aspects of spoken word, installation art and "videopoemas," often collaborating with videojockeys who are "spinning" and manipulating both digital and three-dimensional images. Sometimes images are projected behind or on his own body as he performs his rants and poems. The visual and verbal aspects fluently transition back and forth among the media: text, video, images, performance.
León, with a masters in multidisciplinary studies from the University of Texas at El Paso, lectures in art at the Universidád Autonomo de Juárez. Along with his illustrator, Gui.ra.ga7, he curates The Gun Gallery in Juárez and performs regularly both there and in El Paso. He is the product of academic and intellectual approaches to the literary and visual arts, yet his spoken word performances reflect his long time dominance of the El Paso/Juárez slam poetry scene. His performance at the 2010 Conference of the Association of Writers and Writers' Programs in Denver blew the roof off the joint, blasting the international audience into the stratosphere, educating them on the realities of life in EP/Jz, triggering their stereotypes and then exploding them, one after another, like verbal Molotov cocktails. León has effectively transcended the limits of what is fine art and what is street art, and he has not bothered to ask for permission.
Those audiences lucky enough to hear him live experience a sonic barrage in three languages: Spanish, English and code-switching Espanglish, soon to be the pan-cultural demotic of modern society. Although he is an academic, I don't think the writers and intellectuals in León's audiences see him as an artist of the academy. I think they see a bad, bad Mexican boy, with a black leather jacket and unmitigated rage, who lives daily in a city that is currently known as the murder capital of the world, with its years of mass murders and assassinations, in both the drug wars and the grisly serial murders of women and girls.
León grinds our faces into the grime of the squalid poverty stemming, as always, in grotesque injustices and gross disparities in access to common necessities, the things that make life livable and worth living: food, sanitation, health, homes, education, jobs, the arts. Leon has to traverse a harsh and mortally dangerous terrain every day, where safety and peace are vague memories of a less dystopic reality.
This is a very particular time, the beginning of the 21st Century, and León is from a very particular place. There is despair and anger enough now to fill our prisons as fast as the two states of Texas and Chihuahua can build them. León's ability to express this catastrophic destruction and despair in such compelling form makes him a rare individual. He is a gifted citizen of the new 21st Century world, flourishing and wielding every tool at his disposal to translate that world into intelligible meaning.
The last few decades have seen an upsurge of interest in the use of graphic books. Originating in the action comics of the 20th Century, this art form has begun to dominate our films and our popular culture. The illustrations of R. Crumb's stories, originating in the underground comics of the nineteen sixties and seventies, are now seen regularly in New Yorker magazine. Hollywood's attempts to make movies from Alan Moore's spectacular graphic novels have generated massive aesthetic and moral controversy while greatly popularizing the art form. But León is one of a small handful who has claimed this format for poetry.
León's work is political in every way. For a boy growing up in the world of daily mass murders and haunting femicides, a region of people starving and dying from lack of potable water and access to health care, the very act of giving voice is a political act. As a man, his poetry internalizes all these complexities: lingual, political, and artistic, and creates one powerful whole. León wanted to be a city and maybe he's only a word, as the title of his book suggests. But his sphere is the transnational, multilingual, multicultural 21st Century and he knows how to speak the language. There is no one better to show the world how it's supposed to be done.
Monolith, with cover art by Cecilia Ferraria, is Anne McMillen's first full-length collection, detailing everyday horrors of life in Cleveland and San Francisco; failed relationships, awkward sexual encounters, and always the specter of abuse. Consider the introduction by Jonathan Penton:
Some years ago, a friend called me in the middle of the night—she was taking a cross-country train ride, and knew I'd be awake when she was unable to sleep. We talked as she rode through northern Ohio, when she suddenly interrupted, "What's that smell?"
"Elyria," I promptly replied.
The "Rust Belt" can be roughly defined as the area of the United States beginning around Scranton, Pennsylvania and stretching westward over Pennsylvania, the western edge of New York, Ohio, Michigan, the northern parts of Indiana and Illinois, and the eastern part of Wisconsin. This region, the former industrial center of the US, has a high urban concentration centered around the Great Lakes, freshwater lakes which are ideal for commerce but create bitterly unpleasant winters. The area to the southeast is coal-rich, the area to the southwest is easily farmed, and the area to the east contains the US's original urban centers, so this area became the center of the country's industrial revolution.
In the latter half of the 20th Century, the US moved away from a production economy. The term Rust Belt became popular in the 1970s, when recession through the rest of the country became complete economic collapse in this area. The Rust Belt had produced generations of blue-collar, economically stable families; these people were now bankrupt, in miserable weather, on inferior soil, in a time when sustenance farming was unknown.
The rest of the US was aware of the problem, but in the same way that it was aware of Apartheid—other Americans didn't understand how the Rust Belt effected them. It would be some time before the popularization of the realization that the US had traded in an industrial production economy for an imaginary one—that the US economy after Reaganomics was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, superficially based on useless real estate. After the 2007 collapse, it finally became clear: the 21st Century collapse of the US economy began when the factories of the Rust Belt first shut down.
Various Rust Belt cities have tried to redefine themselves according to the new economy. Cleveland, Ohio on Lake Erie has been relatively successful at this, establishing itself as a convention and commerce center with an active tourist trade, modeling itself after younger cities like Atlanta, Georgia and Albuquerque, New Mexico despite the fact that its Januaries average at 25.7 °F and it has set the Cuyahoga River on fire at least thirteen times since 1868. To the east of Cleveland is Lorain County, home of Toni Morrison, Sherwood Anderson, and innumerable lesser-known authors. The county seat is Elyria, a twenty-square-mile city ten miles from the lake and thirty miles from Cleveland. Like most of the communities just outside Cleveland's economic center, it has been in an essentially static state of financial and emotional depression since the 1970s. Also: it smells terrible.
Anne McMillen was born in Elyria in February of 1981 with the spinal anomalies that create congenital scoliosis. She was treated for this with multiple childhood operations and became addicted to prescription painkillers. Her physical body, born in that town at that time, serves as an ideal metaphor for America's social necroses—a metaphor she exploits without self-mercy, without discretion, without logical or linguistic error.
Typically, someone dying a slow death will turn to psychological escapism: religion, spiritualism, racism—anything that allows them to distance their own actions from their unfortunate destiny. Annie is the least delusional person I've ever met. She takes full responsibility for her health, her innumerable physical and emotional mistakes, her economic condition, and how her circumstances affect others. She addresses these issues with severe anxiety and depression but absolute clear-headedness, analyzing her situations and behaviors with ruthless precision, then using that same precision to condense her observations into poetry. And while contemporary poetry of this sort is not usually musical, Annie's often is: she uses unconventional line spacing and post-projective breathing patterns to establish rhythms as discordant as her subject matter, woven together into violent punk opera. Only a few pages into Monolith, you'll understand why she's often invited to perform with Cleveland's noise bands.
Here, you'll find Annie's childhood analyzed and eviscerated. You'll find excruciating analyses of a wide variety of sexual and emotional encounters, and the continuous theme of drug abuse. She handles this last theme with perfect factuality, fully acknowledging that this symbol, symptom, and cause of her impending destruction is her own choice and failing. Her poems offer wisdom without romanticism, entanglements without fantasy, sincere and lasting passions without a shred of hope.
Annie uses her self, her body and her life as metaphors for American decay because it works to do so; she's a good symbol, and any novelist presented with her life would be inclined to use her in the same way. One thinks of the "canary in the coal mine"—Annie, like the Rust Belt, represents the near future of the US.
Here's the thing: canaries are stupid annoying little birds. Annie, raised in a family of talented amateur artists, is a literary genius (an assessment with which I believe you'll soon agree). Her circumstances certainly contributed to her wisdom, but her talent and analytical mind are in part genetic luck—she would've created art of some value if she had been born a hotel heiress. While we are grateful that we can now use machines, rather than canaries, to measure the oxygen level of coal mines, canaries were the sane and humane option at one time. Today, when we use families like the McMillens to measure the emotional toxicity of social structures, we find ourselves endangering our intellectual betters.
This is the result when societies ignore their own emotional development. Annie, who has more reason to pursue escapism than the average American, refuses to do so, while her middle-class countrymen bury themselves in any fantasy that allows them to blame their problems on others. What Annie observes, we ignore; while Annie raises blunt but precise criticisms, we merely bitch. Lacking intellectual commitment to our emotions, we stumble meaninglessly through our personal and political lives; we are as ignorant of the factors which destroy our relationships as we are ignorant of the factors which define the political races of our immediate past. The issues are related: we try to act, politically and personally, with compassion and humanity; but without any willingness to analyze ourselves and our mistakes, without any dedication to remembering, our decision-making processes remain childish. We have a culture in which empathy and charity are valued, but mindless optimism is mandatory; we must feel bad about Darfur, but we must not despair about anything.
With Monolith, Annie joins a long and proud tradition of working-class US writers demonstrating the tools necessary to overcome our childishness, to learn from our mistakes. She wrote it, and we at Unlikely Books publish it, knowing that its cultural impact will be far smaller than what it deserves; if Americans wanted to start learning, they'd start buying books of poetry. But someone bought this copy of this book, and you hold it now. We don't hope for much by publishing it, but we do hope it grows to mean as much to you as it does to us.
Grab these two books for just $14!