A Year in the Life: Manuel Paul López's '1984' | KCET
A Year in the Life: Manuel Paul López's '1984'
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In 1949, George Orwell wrote a very important book called "1984." It was a novel that prognosticated the demise of life, civil society, and culture as the world knew it. What actually happened in 1984 was (arguably) less depressing. In 1984, the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. In 1984, Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize, but South Africa was still divided by apartheid. Mark Zuckerberg was born, and Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple Macintosh, the first apple PC. In 1984, the world was introduced to The Karate Kid, and The Terminator. Civil wars raged in Central America. Tina Turner asked, "What's love got to do with it?" In 1984, Ronald Regan was reelected president and gas cost $1.10 per gallon.
In 1984, Manuel Paul López, poet and Imperial Valley native, was nine years old. He says he was really into metal and he was part of a neighborhood break-dance crew called "The Driftwood Breakers," named for the street over which these cardboard kings had dominion. "In 1984, I didn't read '1984' because I was really young and couldn't read that well," begins "1984," the 2010 chapbook by Lopez. "And even if I could've, I probably wouldn't have read it because who wants to read a big fat boring book about a miserable year anyway." This collection of poetry borrows the Orwellian title and the prose-poetics of Joe Brainard, the late great writer and collagist extraordinaire. "In 1984," he writes, "I didn't read Joe Brainard. He didn't write 1984 but he drew a lot, assembled a lot and wrote a lot too. He wrote a book called "I remember" and that's kind of what I'm doing now."
Joe Brainard, is most well known for his collage and assemblage work of the 60s and 70s. These works use a variety of media, techniques and cultural signifiers to create a hybrid visual language that melded "high" art with the low. "I Remember," Brainard's most well known literary work, is a sort of assemblage, or collage of memory. And, as with his visual work, Brainard commingles memories of his parent's favorite movie stars, fashion, artists he knew, bodily and sensual experiences all on one page:
I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world...
I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie...
I remember that little jerk you give just before you fall asleep. Like falling...
I remember rings around you neck. (Dirt)
"When you read [I Remember], it's not tortured, it's not extremely literary, but yet it's elegant, and sincere. You read his work and you feel you're reading something produced by a higher intelligence," muses López, who calls "1984," "A Chicano-Style tribute to Joe Brainard." Prior to finishing the chapbook, López, a San Diego- based educator, had used the writing structure with students as young as 7, finding the work produced by these youngsters to be quite amazing. So, "Writing '1984,' was simply me thinking to myself, 'I want to try it now.'"
Manuel Paul López is a writer's writer synthesizing his encyclopedic knowledge of modern and contemporary literature with a border-child vernacular sensibility. He produces work that illustrates an understanding of where it comes from, both in terms of geography, and literary history. "I thought [the title] would be funny. But in addition to the Orwell gag, I thought it would be fun for those old enough to remember the year to think about their own experiences." López experience took place in El Centro, county seat of the Imperial County minutes from the Mexican border, and while "1984" is not a strict memoir, in anyway. Actually, López thinks of it more as an embellished encapsulation of his 80s childhood; the setting and characters in the book are López's friends and family in the Imperial Valley.
Each remembrance feels like an intimate disclosure, and while so many of these disclosures are particular in nature, somehow they are also timeless and universal episodes of childhood. Exciting moments of discovery, sadness, embarrassment, and curiosity are exposed in each look back:
In 1984 I started a collection of bellybutton lint, but it didn't last long because I forgot to collect it...
In 1984 my cousins thought they were the fifth and sixth members of Mötley Crüe...
In 1984 I sang 'Born in the USA" whenever we crossed back into the States from Mexicali...
In 1984 my dad had to pull over every time we traveled long distances because I was prone to car sickness. Puking on the side of the road with my mom holding a 7-up hear my mouth, I cried (quite dramatically), "How am I ever going to see Moscow?" (I still haven't been there).
The repetitive structure of these disclosures becomes the perfect medium to speak about memory. Memory is a psychological process of returning to an event, to a place, to a sound, to a feeling. "1984" is a text that compiles a set of "memories" in such a way that it evokes memories outside of the text. Recollections about 80s icons like Mötley Crüe, car-sickness, or a collection of lint that never came to be, spark one's own memories and allow the reader to revisit their own experiences as part of that generation.
As in Lopez, first book, "Death of Mexican and Other Poems," for which he won the 2006 Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize, 1984 is subtly infused with the border vernacular of "Spanglish," English punctuated by moments of Spanish. This dialect spoken largely by Anglophones of Mexican descent is considered by some to be the mutual slaughter of two languages, but in López's work as in most border communities it is a dominant form of communication. "Mi Cantito" from "Death of a Mexican and Other Poems" opens: "Spanish trembles beneath my Nine Inch Nails tour shirt/ like a beaten mutt,/ a crackhead in church, / a funeral for someone who could've been, / the sound of "Aren't you a Mexican?" This concern with language, and with the ability to communicate with one's family and community seems to come to fruition in "1984." Often memories of childhood are articulations of what we now understand, but didn't at the time. In order to articulate a memory we must first pass it through the filter of time, and then through the filter of language. In "1984," memories string together in such a way that they form a narrative that is silly, sincere and revelatory, telling a story about communication and connection. Not just connections between the then and now, or between literary histories and discourses, but between families, and generations; the adults we have grown into, and the adults we dreamed of becoming, as children.
Manuel Paul López is currently working on a manuscript called "The Yearning Feed" that will culminate in a reading at the 10th Avenue Theatre in San Diego this October.
For more information visit: http://moolelo.net/2012/05/07/news-from-paul/
"1984" can be purchased from López himself through his blog: