Is your work political?
In my poetry, I often use that space to work through whatever it is that I am wrestling with at the time. More often than not, a social issue will be weighing on me and I will let it work its way into the poem. Sometimes it is subtle, while other times it is more overt. I have never directly criticized the government in my work but I do not think art has to directly address politics in order to be political. I have at times examined the housing crises when multiple homes were foreclosed on my street, looked at immigration issues with a critical eye because of friends and loved ones as well as our proximity to the border in Los Angeles, and other topics as well. With my prose I have been working on an experimental memoir about the time I took care of my grandmother as she succumbed to dementia and I criticize the healthcare system as well as elder care in this country. I think everyone has social issues that concern them and by addressing it in their work it is political. As an editor of a literary journal I make the intentional effort to publish more women and BIPOC than white people because there are plenty of outlets for white people as they make up the most of publishing.
I feel like my most intentional political act is my work in the college classroom. When teaching, I strive to provide my students with an equitable learning experience that includes reading material that are more representational of their background and Identity, as well as present topics and assignments that actually reflect their lives and help show them that their voices matter. Every student has read enough white writers already, so I hope that I can show them there are some amazing works out there that are relevant and interesting. When I read the various works I present to my students it inspires me to create as well. Well… most of the time. Sometimes I will come across writing that is so good that I will just sit there afterwards thinking that this person has done something indescribable and that there is really no point in trying to address something similar. “On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong did that to me. But at the same time, it allowed me to see things in a new way.
What is the place of literature in politics?
Literature, as well as any form of art can and should hold a prominent place in politics. It is a space where one can examine issues in society such as the seemingly never ending murder of Black people in this nation by the police. It can be an act of protest. It can give voice to unrepresented groups and spark a social change. As well as the fact that certain voices, namely BIPOC writers putting words down on a page is a political act in itself. Then you have the dystopian fiction that is becoming more and more like premonitions into our not so distant future. As cliché as it is, we have been moving closer and closer to 1984 and the rest of those books. That ties into the fact that commentary in literature has seeped into popular culture with references in other mediums as well as memes. It is one of many tools people can use to express their support or contempt for things that are occurring in the world.
What is your favorite political work?
I have a few in various genres, but I will stick to literature. Recently I have been using the short story collection “Sabrina and Corina” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine in my college composition classes. The book examines various issues Latinx and Indigenous women experience in the world. The stories are set in the Southwest of the United States (primarily Denver and the surrounding areas). My students have been really connecting with the work. Not just that, the stories are vivid and beautifully written. Kali has the ability to grab at your heartstrings and tear them apart. I am not afraid to admit I cried after reading the story “Sugar Babies.”
Another writer whose work is more directly political that I am very into right now is “Tell Me How It Ends” by Valeria Luiselli. It is a nonfiction text that recounts the time Valeria spent as a volunteer translator for unaccompanied minors going through the court system. She contrasts that experience with the process she went through while applying for resident status in the United States as well. It is powerful and thoughtful and a great reminder and examination of our political systems’ true cost on people in the world.
Lastly, I really enjoy everything that Steven Dunn writes. His work examines poverty, social systems, the armed forces, gender roles, parenthood and many other deep subjects with a tenderness and vulnerability you do not often see in writing. He also has a way of writing that is approachable and everyone can connect with. His ideas are quite deep and elevated without the pretentiousness many texts can easily fall into.
Oh! I couldn’t forget Ánuar Zúñiga Naime. He is a writer from Mexico City whose work I have really connected with. His work makes use of popular culture, music, film, videogame references, as well as images of daily life, to create poetry that captures the essence of “the average citizen” in all their pain, anger, struggles, and beauty. I feel like Ánuar’s voice is one that resonates across borders. I am starting to translate some of his poetry and hope to have publications of it out soon.
Do you feel voting is important?
Voting is very important. Is it the only tool in our arsenal to enact political change? Not at all. But voting, especially in local elections where we do not have the worries of the Electoral College system, can make some real changes. The House and the Senate, in many ways, have more power than the president and so voting in those elections as well as voting on local measures that directly impact your life matter. That being said, I am fully cognizant of the fact that the people in power make it as difficult as possible for BIPOC to vote through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, false information (the fake ballot drop off boxes in California), and terror, so I also fully support peoples need to protest or incite unrest ¬– especially when an issue is being ignored.
What are your hopes for this election?
I really hope that the Democrats retake the Senate. I also hope that there is a change is the highest office. This election may feel like a choice of lesser evils for many this election, but there is only one choice who is actively and wholly committed to serving only themselves and the richest out there while stoking the flames of racism and violence against immigrants, the poor, and BIPOC in this country. If we could end that presidency, I would be hopeful for the future.
Zachary Jensen is a writer, journalist, translator and educator from Los Angeles, CA. His work has appeared in Pank, LA Record, Cultural Weekly, Entropy, Circulo De Poesia, Palometa, the San Diego Reader and other places. He is the Managing Editor of Angel City Review and the editor for the Animals Chapbook Series at Business Bear Press.
Public Intellectuals is a magazine that analyzes politics, economics, race, labor, socioeconomic class, popular culture, and literature. We publish daily.