When I got an invitation to appear as a guest on “No Alibis,” a radio program on UC Santa Barbara’s KCSB, I was nervous. I’m not good at extemporaneous speaking, or at least that’s how it feels from the inside. My go-to tactic in public speaking situations is usually to overprepare, which can be exhausting…but this time I didn’t have time or any questions in advance to prepare. So instead I decided to just trust myself (aka winging it). And it was such a great conversation, in large part because hosts Marisela Marquez and Elizabeth Robinson asked such interesting, thoughtful questions–from the beginning of my involvement with environmental justice work in San Antonio to the meaning of “deceleration” to the transition in my own life from poetry to academia to organizing back again to poetry and fiction.
Here’s the whole show. My segment starts at 20:33, but I’ve included the full broadcast because the second segment–an interview with UCSB Global Studies professor Charmaine Chua and UCLA musicologist Shana Redmond on abolition and the Cops Off Campus Coalition–is so critical right now and always.
Over the weekend I was lucky to attend an online award ceremony organized by the Texas Institute of Letters for winners of their annual literary prizes. I was honored to have Luz recognized, and also grateful the award winners didn’t have to read or speak since I was running a fever, having gotten my second COVID shot the day before. Only the TIL’s newly inducted members read—Cristina Rivera Garza live, and then George Saunders and a singer/songwriter named Michael Martin Murphy via prerecorded videos. I was surprised, then delighted, when I realized that I knew who MMM was: as a kid I’d really liked a song of his called “Wildfire,” about a horse and a girl who died. I was even more surprised and delighted when he proceeded to play an acoustic version of that song for the ceremony. After, he talked a little about where the idea for it had come from—a dream he’d had, he said, possibly linked to stories his grandfather would tell.
I thought about the song all the next day. I’m still thinking about it. Do you know it? “Wildfire” is a song from the 1970s, just a little before my time, but I heard it because every night I would fall asleep to a San Antonio station called KQXT, which played soft whitebread music, instrumentals and easy listening from the 60s and 70s. My parents had tuned my clock radio to that station, setting it so it would play for an hour and shut itself off. They figured the music would relax me, but I’d stay up listening intently to Burt Bacharach, the Carpenters, Herb Alpert, Gordon Lightfoot, that “Send in the Clowns” song, the weird-as-hell lounge cheese of “Muskrat Love”…and then “Wildfire,” whose chorus always made me want to cry, though I didn’t fully grasp the story at the time. A few years ago, I revisited the song as an adult, and it was as musically beautiful and emotionally powerful as I’d remembered it…tho it also surprised me that what had seemed like the climax (“oh they say she died one winter / when there came an early snow / and the pony she named Wildfire / busted down his stall”) happened in the first stanza. As a kid I’d thought the song was about the love between a girl and her pony; when the girl tragically died at the end (possibly thrown in a pony accident?), the pony grew so guilt- and grief-stricken it busted down its stall and ran away. But no, the final verse was about…leaving sod bustin’ behind?
After seeing MMM’s video performance the other day, I went back to the song again and found myself struck by how much storytelling and emotion Murphy had packed into just three short verses. Now that’s songwriting! I thought. A Wikipedia entry on the song echoed Murphy’s assertion that the story came most immediately to him in a dream, and also mentioned that it had some connection to a story his grandfather had passed on, a Native American story about a ghost girl who’d died in a blizzard searching for her horse (which—who knows if it was. Which nation? Wiki doesn’t say). And the sod bustin’ part? In the final verse, the song’s narrator, crops lost to an early snow, hears a hoot owl outside his window that he understands as a terrible omen: “she’s coming for me I know / and on Wildfire we’re both gonna go.”
What I missed last time around, adding another emotional layer to the song, is the tacit acknowledgment of the narrator that his presence on the land as a settler is unwelcome. In a postcolonial literature class I took many years ago, one central idea we learned is that the ghost is often a radical figure—symbolizing the return of whatever the dominant reality (the modern, the western, the settler-colonial) has repressed in order to claim supremacy. Read postcolonially, the ghost figures the debt the settler doesn’t realize he’s saddled by—a rightful claim on the present by those others the settler assumes have been relegated, vanquished or dead, to the past. So to ride with the ghost girl and leave sod bustin’ behind is to acknowledge the futility and violence, and ultimately to abandon, the settler-colonial project of Westward Expansion via conversion of grassland plains to agricultural productivity.
God, what a great fucking song. Up there with Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) and Galveston. If you’ve never heard it, check out out this vintage 70s performance, complete with MMM’s flat-ironed pageboy:
Deceleration inherited this event a couple years back from a fellow ecowriter here in SATX (the fabulous Mobi Warren if you wanna know!). Usually it’s an outdoor reading held in high spring at a former sludge lagoon turned wildlife refuge and birding site, but last year COVID forced us to reimagine it as a zine. This year we’re doing an online reading, which allows us to open up the event to readers and viewers outside of San Antonio. One of my priorities for W4B has been to link it more deeply to local and global movements for environmental justice, and I’m really excited that this year’s call for readers has brought in so many new voices.
Okay, here’s the basic info…more detailed info on readers and how to tune in can be found HERE.
About a year ago, one of the earliest signs for working artists that we were living in a changed world was the almost wholesale cancellation of San Antonio’s usually overflowing calendar of National Poetry Month events. One of the few exceptions was URBAN-15’s Mega Corazón, a marathon broadcast of South Texas spoken word that survived by virtue of its already-online format.
Still, even Mega Corazón had to scramble to figure out how to film readings without bringing poets physically into URBAN-15’s online broadcast studio, and the solution it came up with was to have poets record themselves reading and then stitch these recordings together into a pastiche of nonstop poesis. While rougher around the edges, these little poetry home videos—shot from living rooms and on cell phones—in many ways had a poignancy and intimacy unmatched by the more polished production of previous years.
Because of our work on Deceleration and general technolust, Greg has accumulated a lot of video equipment, and so we had a lot of lockdown fun last year putting together some poetry videos for Mega Corazón—so much so that I was excited to do it again this year, even though we also had the option of shooting a live set in-studio. Honestly, I don’t know why there aren’t more non-narrative types of televisual entertainment. If music video was at one time a massive global phenomenon, why not a YouTube channel or Netflix series devoted to poetry video? Not everyone would be into it, but some weirdos would be. And think of the chapbooks it could sell!
Here, for instance, are a couple of my favorite pieces from last year’s show:
All that’s to say: watch this year’s Mega Corazón on Monday, April 5! It’ll air online free of charge from URBAN-15’s website, with a student-focused segment running 10am-1pm and another segment from 6-10pm for poetry lovers broadly. The whole thing will be rebroadcast MWF throughout National Poetry Month on U-15’s Facebook page, so if you miss it on the 5th, not to worry.
Tune in!! I’ll be unveiling some new literary video, along with performances by some massively talented poets I still can’t quite believe I get to read alongside.
They plopped the Alamodome down right smack between the highway and the train tracks, so every couple hours the soundscape shatters, the massive horn of a slow moving rail convoy blasting the air apart. I briefly lived in the neighborhood just south of here, on the access road of the highway, and I must have gotten used to the trains like they say you do, because I don’t remember ever losing sleep as they passed.
It’s definitely annoying if you’re mid-conversation, but mostly we don’t small talk with the people rolling by inside their cars. Mostly it’s business. Asking for ID and checking their names off a list, or inspecting their paperwork to make sure every yellow highlighted section has been filled in. Most everyone is masked, but more than a few are unmasked, absentmindedly or perhaps defiantly in the wake of the governor’s repeal of the mask mandate. I’m double-masked and standing outside in wind as wild as Gulf Coast beaches, so I’m not too concerned about it—but if I could do it again I think I’d ask those unmasked to cover their faces before I checked them in.
We do have a few surprise exchanges:
Comforting a well-put-together, unmasked woman in a nice car—I don’t know cars but it’s sleek and shiny, something European—who arrives in a panic, crying a little behind shaky hands as she sucks in air to calm herself. She’s late for her appointment; she mistakenly went first to the other stadium in town used for mass drive-thru testing. We murmur soothing words, but they glance off the forcefield created by the trance of her panic before the assembly line of cars crawls forward, carrying her on.
Or—asking a man who expresses surprise at how orderly the process is what it was like a month ago, when he came for his own appointment. Today he’s driving a relative or friend, an older man in the passenger seat wearing a Kente cloth mask over his long grey beard. It seems orderly to me too, orderly from the top down but also autonomously self-organizing from the bottom up.
Here’s how the assembly line works, as gathered from the inside after some advance online wondering about what it would be like:
the way it's set up, you sign up for two six-hour shifts and then become eligible for a vaccine. i signed up for two morning shifts from 8:30-2:30pm.
when you get there, you put on a vest. there are different colors for different roles: green for team leaders (metro health staff). orange for city employees (they have to work 3 shifts before they become eligible for a shot, vs 2 for volunteers from the community). turquoise for medical volunteers. blue for community folks.
this latter group serves either as runners or translators. runners basically handle all the clerical work involved in moving cars through a big assembly line process, and translators translate, of course.
when you arrive, you're placed in a team of about 10 that gets assigned to various points along the assembly line.yesterday my team was at the very start of the process, so after pairing up (5 groups of 2), our job was to approach the lines of cars as they entered the alamodome parkinglot and verify they had an appointment. basically checking name/ID against a list and moving them thru.
after about three hours they let us break for lunch which was nice. on return, we moved to another lot since traffic had slowed and basically continued to process incoming appointments all afternoon, tho this time by scanning QR codes with tablets.
there were four lanes of cars steadily coming in for appointments, two busy and two less busy. busy lanes were shaded and less busy in full sun which was probably the hardest part about it (i had a big floppy sun hat on tho which helped a lot).
busy lanes had a couple teams of three or four: one to scan foreheads with a digital thermometer, another to scan QR codes, a third with backup paper list in case people were missing their QR code, and a fourth to hand them paperwork to fill out.
on the second day, i was assigned to a team managing the very end of the assembly line—getting the filled-out paperwork back after people had gotten their shots. those collecting paperwork would give it to runners who would take it back to a tent where other volunteersdisassembled and filed it, sanitized clipboards and pens so they could be reused, loaded up new clipboards with blank paperwork, and delivered them to the folks running check in.
halfway between check-in and check-out stations was a huge tent of eight drive-thru queues where people actually got the vaccine, sticking arms outside their car windows for fire department EMTs to jab.
i think what struck me most was how well organized it was. at various jobs i've had to help plan enormous community events, including figuring out which and how many volunteer roles are needed and recruiting enough bodies for each role. and then managinng and directing all those bodies. it's tough af.
but, also, i was equally struck by the level of self-organization at work. the metro health team leaders told us at the beginning of each shift what we needed to do, but most of the work of figuring out how to coordinate things efficiently happened on the ground, spontaneously.
also struck by how much my body has craved the sort of incidental physical activity that accompanies working not-at-home, via screens. and how much i've missed talking to people i don't know, asking them questions.
i'm a huge introvert too so this was quite surprising to me, honestly. but the experience made me realize it's basically been a year since i've talked in person to strangers.a privilege in many ways, during a pandemic. but also a vital connection lost.
why write all this? i love writing field notes...and this felt like one of those experiences where the minutiae of lived experience intersects with the grandest sweep of the world historical in critical ways.
not sure if that's what raymond williams (marxist literary critic, early cultural studies person) meant by "structure of feeling." but feel like it was.
Then there’s the older woman with bleached blond hair and big clip on earrings, giddy as someone just freed from a cage, asking what I do that I’m able to volunteer during the day. I’m a freelance writer, I’ve learned to say. To other folks who ask I might say I’m self-employed. Both are kind of true.
This woman takes it further, wanting to know what it is I write.
“I’m a novelist?” I say with some hesitation. Am I? I guess I must be, since a novel’s what came out. “And I do some stuff that’s more…journalistic, I guess? Mostly about, uh…environmental stuff.”
Is that what I do? I’m not a journalist, not really, not by training, but that’s the closest way I can think of to talk about this moment of transition, trying to launch a career as a creative writer and at the same time start up an online environmental justice news/theory publication. How to translate the weird inbetweenness of what I write and do, the reality that much of it is unpaid and thus not really employment, self- or otherwise, the reality that my primary occupation really, at least time-wise, is taking care of the kids, so that volunteering has required lining up six childcare shifts of two hours each, three on one day and three the other. Mama, I like can’t take it anymore, my older one texts me from home at the end of his shift on the second day, referring to babysitting the little one so that I can be here giving or taking or checking paperwork, so that I can become eligible to get the shot myself a little earlier. I don’t have any officially recognized conditions that would put me in the preexisting conditions group, but awhile back I started to feel kind of in my guts or bones that other conditions I do have would lead to bad outcomes if I were to get COVID.
So here I am, standing double-masked in the Dome parking lot with the wind whipping the papers around on my clipboard like I’m at the beach, and here she is in the car.
“Oh,” she says at my admission about what it is I do (sorta, maybe). She’s not quite sure what to say. But the cars ahead of her are starting to move up now, and the fire department EMT stationed with us to make sure people are medically cleared before leaving the site—as a bunch, I have to say, the firefighters are jovial and friendly and jokey, unlike the cops who seem uniformly either cranky or silent and scary, and I wonder whether police ever feel jealous of firefighters, resentful of their public image as fun sexy lifesavers instead of dour racist murderers—is waving her forward.
She’s gotta say something, though, before she moves up. “Well,” she finally says before driving off, “Have fun!”
A few weeks ago, I saw my grown baby officially leave the nest and venture out into the wide world to chart its own course and never call home. For those who missed the online release event hosted by FlowerSong Press, it lives on in perpetuity, here, with special thanks to Jo Reyes-Boitel for running tech for the event and preserving the recording:
On Friday, March 5 at 6pm CST, join FlowerSong Press in celebrating the official release of Luz at Midnight! As y’all know, Luz tells a climate change story unique to South Texas—belly of the beast for boom-and-bust extraction—challenging regional histories of environmental injustice while weaving a universal story of love and longing. Arts writer Nicholas Frank recently wrote in The San Antonio Report that the novel has proved “eerily prescient” in its depiction of the rolling blackouts that have recently rocked the state.
Launch will happen online via Zoom: click HERE to attend.
ALSO! RAFFLE ALERT! Cuz it’s fun: between February 20 and the end of the reading, if you purchase a copy of Luz from FlowerSong, we’ll enter your name into a drawing for a chance to win prizes! Books can be purchased HERE. To learn more about the book and view the trailer, visit https://mcortez.net/luz/
Here are the deets in superconcentrated visual form, with thanks to Jo Reyes-Boitel and the FlowerSong familia:
In the past week, a couple of the environmental subplots in my book (Luz at Midnight) have leaped from page to real life here in South Texas. And I’ve been stuck inside, even more deeply inside than I have been for the past year’s pandemic–the four of us confined not just to the house but to one room of the house to maximize the power of three space heaters—with nothing else to do than to reflect on the weirdness of it all. It’s kinda freaky, until I remember that I crafted those subplots based on what I imagined to be the most plausible scenarios for climate disruption in this part of the planet, based on historical patterns to date. So it makes sense. But then it quickly goes back to being freaky.
The first and most obvious, of course, is the polar vortex that has dipped down into Texas to knock us flat on our unaccustomed asses for a week, tripping rolling blackouts across the state. Here’s a passage from one of the early chapters of the book, when I’m setting up the widest stakes of the climate change subplot:
And so the energy descent the movement people had fought for, even before Al Gore made his famous PowerPoint presentation of a film, had arrived. There was nothing left to try but the sun and the wind, sucked up into industrial scale battery storage, if possible—and if cities could make the shift quickly enough while also keeping the lights on. Time was running out, time was up: since 2010, each summer had seen more triple-digit dog days than the one before it. And the winter before Lali’s return to San Antonio was, bizarrely, the coldest on record—rolling blackouts blanketing the city during a winter storm that stalled over South Texas for several weeks, freezing the river hard enough to skate on for the first time in over 100 years. In what they called a polar vortex, the Arctic circle had been knocked off its perch at the top of the globe, a hat tipped by bullies off a kid’s head to slip over the eyes, farther south than ever before. Deep in the Rio Grande Valley, the oranges and grapefruit had frozen on the trees and dropped to the earth from glassified limbs.
Then, later, when the journalist character reports on the freeze and blackouts that follow, he opens with a description of the experience of one San Antonio resident whose power was initially cut during ERCOT’s planned outages and then didn’t come back on for days:
When the power cut off for 22 hours at José Hernandez’s house this past February in the middle of a record freeze, he didn’t know why. “I thought we had gotten disconnected,” he says. The summer before, they had gotten the dreaded pink disconnection notices in the mail from CPL due to a $425 bill they couldn’t pay. But Hernandez had arranged an installment plan and paid it off faithfully after seven months.
Regardless, he knew what to do. “With no power to run the space heaters, we had the kids sleep with all the dogs to keep warm,” he laughs, remembering. “Like they do in the Arctic.”
It’s an anecdote that feels less quaint now that the Arctic circle is melting during summer, then dipping down during winter to encircle South Texas, with flooding and hurricanes and drought in between—all of which portend further power outages.
But what Hernandez learned only later was that this particular outage was, in fact, intentionally orchestrated by the city’s public utility, in concert with a shadowy state regulatory body that oversees Texas’s sizable corner of the grid.
“On the news the next day, they said they had planned it to save power. They were supposed to shut off the electric in different neighborhoods around the city for just 30 minutes each, taking turns, kinda spreading it out. So I don’t know why, at our house, it took a whole day to come back on.”
Welcome to the wonky world of the rolling blackout.
Written in the style of a news report, this chapter is in fact completely speculative (read: made up)—but I made it up after reading about a freak February freeze in 2011 that was much like this one in terms of both causes (climate change-fueled polar vortex) and consequences. Writing this chapter also required me to read extensively about blackouts and heatwaves in historical context; about how ERCOT, the agency that operates Texas’s power grid, works; and about energy deregulation. And so now here we are, living out these speculations. As of Tuesday night, nine people in Texas have died during Winter Storm Uri, including one here in Bexar County, either directly from exposure or from desperate, hazardous efforts to keep warm. That also happens in the book, though there it’s from high heat and rolling blackouts. But there’s nothing particularly prescient about these parallels between fiction and real life. It’s just that we already know who suffers most when the power goes during a heatwave or cold snap: those who are homeless or housing insecure or living in older, energy inefficient housing, who are more likely to be poor, of color, elderly, ill or disabled.
The second parallel that had people who’d read the book emailing me incredulously—did you see this?—involves the news that an Australian mining company is about to open a rare earth processing facility outside San Antonio:
In the book, the rare earth subplot involves a shady local mining startup that discovers a huge cache of rare earth minerals beneath South Texas and embarks on a frenzy of extraction and backroom wheeling and dealing. True, the proposed Hondo plant has a different political context and thus resonance. Whereas in Luz rare earth mining holds the (ironic) key to a rapid transition off fossil fuels, Hondo’s proposed rare earth processing appears geared toward more 20th century kinds of concerns: production of defense technologies and consumer electronics, Trump-era obsessions with one-upping China. So that’s different.
What’s not is the naïveté (some might call it corruption) of the local government interests which salivate at the short-term benefits of boom economics, as well as the environmental manners of transnational mining companies that crap all over other countries before leaving for tiny Texas towns known (like SA) for the entrenched colorline between its majority-Mexican residents and its majority-Anglo decisionmakers.
Like, I’m not saying I told you so or anything like that. I’m more just saying…it’s weird. But it’s also not weird, given what we know about how climate change has unfurled in Texas thus far, who it has affected, and how. But still…it’s weird.
One of the givens of small press publication is that most of the book marketing stuff you do yourself (and, from what I’ve observed of the press side, production is largely a DIY hustle as well). Once I got past several months of extreme overwhelm, I’ve actually found this kind of fun, in the way most DIY stuff is. Years spent working at various nonprofits have taught me a number of skills I never knew I was acquiring at the time (graphic design, press releases, website maintenance, social media stuff, and more recently media production), all of which have come in handy.
Like, for instance, did you know that YouTube has a function where you can set an uploaded video to premiere at a certain day/time? I did not. I’ve had a YT account for like 15 yrs and have pretty much used it only for making wacky playlists (“Music to Poop To“) and writing short stories in response to Bette Midler videos. Only the other day did it occur to me that it’s a sort of an artistic medium in its own right, or at least a medium for sharing artistic stuff. But then, the idea that you might actually want other people to look at artistic stuff you did occurred to me only very recently as well.
So. Here is the book trailer I produced with Greg, who has a natural knack for the audio/visual. You can’t watch it now–it premieres Sunday, January 3 at 4pm CST. YouTube says to tell you that you can click on the little bell icon to get a reminder just before it airs.