I never refuse seconds. You can tell this by looking at me. Since I don’t make a habit of stepping on the scale, I really can’t say in precise numbers how overweight I am, but I can say that the label gordo would not be inappropriate. I often joke that my favorite mispronunciation of my name is heavier because it describes me so well. Other ways of joking around about my weight: “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones” (Whitman), “The girls, the girls, they love me because I’m the overweight lover Ja-a-vi” (Heavy D), and “Un kilo de papada no es papada!” (Paco Stanley). Do I have a weight problem? No, because Maria, my partner, the woman I love, does not seem to mind. She actually likes that she has difficulty wrapping her arms all the way around me. She even likes to pull up my shirt and bite on my belly. I don’t get it either. But if it works for her, it works for me. All of this is just to say that I would make an awful hunger artist.

I often wonder if I would have grown up skinny had my family stayed in Mexico. The day we crossed the river my seven-year-old body had not an ounce of fat on it. It didn’t take long before I transformed into a pudgy little bastard. When we returned to Nuevo Laredo eight years later, one of my uncles commented on my size by grabbing mine and my little brother’s stomachs and saying, “Y dicen que hay crisis en los Estados Unidos” (And they say there’s an economic crisis in the United States). What are the reasons why my little brother and I gained weight? It could be a Houston thing. Men’s Fitness magazine ranked Houston at the top of “America’s Fattest Cities” for three straight years, 2001, 2002, 2003, and suggested the following reason: “Given the region's climate (hot and humid), air quality (abysmal) and relative lack of outdoor recreation, staying active presents a Texas-style challenge.” It could be a poverty thing. Many studies have found a relationship between poverty and obesity.

“It’s a question of money,” Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said. “The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.”

During our first years in Houston, my mother worked two jobs. In the day she worked in the kitchen at Luby’s Cafeteria; in the evening, she worked in Housekeeping at the Westin Galleria. This left my little brother and I on our own until almost midnight. We walked home from school and locked ourselves in the apartment for the rest of the day. My mother bought frozen dinners for me to make while she was at work. I like to justify the ways of my bulge to everyone by citing these early experiences: lack of exercise and unhealthy foods. Even when I was at my fittest running around Coronado Island about five times a week, I was never able to lose my fat completely. Still, those early experiences don’t justify why I don’t exercise and eat healthy now. The mayor of Houston after hearing about the city’s notorious ranking hired a fitness czar to get the city into shape. I refused to take part in the city’s Get Lean Program, but I thought I should do something to do my part. So I left the city.
Linh Dinh is my favorite Harriet blogger. I especially appreciated his posts on “Border Poetry” and “Tongued.” In his last post, I admired his critique of hunger strikes and hunger artists. He writes, “These stunts shouldn’t count unless you starve to death, really. Put your corpse where your mouth is. Push that envelope, dude. Die, or shut up.” The refusal to eat when so many individuals starve to death in this world—30.000 a day, was it?—seems to say more about one’s privileged position in this “plantation mansion of the world” than about one’s commitment to any particular cause. To refuse is to exercise one’s advantages. The only way then to prove one’s full commitment in a hunger strike is to starve to death.
One thing I’m still trying to understand is why Linh does not extend this critique to Tehching Hsieh’s refusals. In the Cage piece, Hsieh can refuse America because he has the advantage of having managed to “escape all the way to America.” In the Time piece, he has the advantage of, well, having a whole lot of time on his hands. Of the Outdoor Piece, Linh writes, “As an illegal alien, Hsieh was already ‘homeless.’” The quotation marks suggest that he wasn’t actually “homeless” before the Piece, that there is some difference between being an illegal alien and being “homeless.” I wonder if the other homeless man with whom he fought would have refused the advantage of being a squatter. The final and biggest refusal depends on his advantage of being an artist.
Don’t get me wrong. I find all four pieces fascinating, sublime and probably will use Hsieh’s work in the Literature of the Undocumented class I’m planning to teach, especially with the video that Jasper Bernes posted in one of the comments. But again I don’t understand how these pieces differ formally from Blaine’s “stunt.” Linh says, Hsieh “knew how to invest refusal with meaning.” But Blaine does attempt to invest his “farce” with meaning. Linh quotes him as saying, "This has been one of the most important experiences in my life. I have learned more in that box than I have in years." Whether we believe him or not, whether we are satisfied or not, Blaine identifies knowledge and self-knowledge as one meaningful purpose for his Piece. And we know that he has thought about the meaning of his work because, as Linh points out, he not only cites Primo Levi but also references the Kafka story. In relation to that story, the mocking during his Hunger Piece—and I guess even Linh’s mocking—probably added to the meaningfulness for Blaine, who may have thought, “this, too, happened to Kafka’s hunger artist.”
In the end, I think Hsieh’s work differs from Blaine’s primarily in that it is deemed to be Art. One hopes that we will eventually refuse such distinctions.
Hsieh’s work fascinates me because it does provide an exciting answer to the question I’ve been asking myself since I started writing poetry: What would an undocumented poetics look like? The Time Piece seems to attempt to document time itself. The Time Cards say something like I existed at this hour and this hour and this hour and this hour. Linh puts it well when he says, Hsieh’s “every act has been calibrated to convey the most symbolic meanings.” But I’ve always thought that an undocumented poetics would be against symbolism. This poetics, like the lives of undocumented immigrants, would be all about practical considerations. As Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur says, “ibi panis ibi patria is the motto of all immigrants.” Where there is bread, there is my patria is echoed in Ramon “Tianguis” Perez’s “logic of el mojado”: “If luck isn’t with you in one place, surely it will be better in another place.” What is missing from the descriptions of Hsieh’s Pieces are the practical considerations. How was he able to dedicate years into these projects. Was he funded? Did he save up money? Did he have volunteers? These questions are more intriguing to me than “the most symbolic meanings.” I see the symbolic realm as inhabited by Hsieh as an individual artist; I see the practical realm as inhabited by “Immigrants of all stripes [who] have been drawn to this country” and “super hungry and insanely industrious first generation immigrant.” The energy behind those immigrants is not one of symbolic refusal. I believe an undocumented poetics is to be based on those same practical considerations that led “illegal aliens,” including Hsieh, not to refuse amnesty.

Originally Published: October 23rd, 2008

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. October 23, 2008
     Rich Villar

    I often wondered myself what I would have looked like had I grown up in Cuba. On my 2000 visit to Santa Clara and Havana, the only (and I do mean ONLY) other gordo I met there was my uncle Mongo. Thing is, a) he wasn't really that fat, and b) at age 75, he had successfully FOUGHT OFF five assailants in a mugging two weeks before our arrival. They were trying to steal his bicycle. So I'm guessing he was getting his exercise. As for me, I stuck out, literally, like a sore thumb, hopelessly gordo, and occasionally dressed in guayaberas. (Younger Cubans have dispensed, mostly, with the whole guayabera thing. My elderly relatives appreciated the gesture, but still laughed at me.)
    Hunger Art: Making gourmet out of something distinctly non-gourmet. Arroz con Bumblebee tuna. Spam sammiches. Spaghetti with ketchup. Maybe I'm limiting myself, or showing my crotchety viejo side, but I am far more interested in the everyday acts of survival from mothers and fathers and kids with no means but the meager work they can find and turn into meager foodstuffs.
    The fake starvation art stuff, paid or not, is highly ironic when it's done in a country where one can STEAL any variety of bread imaginable. Once you're past that realization...and it's not a particularly earth-shattering one...the rest is pure artifice. I simply can't understand why one would put him/herself in the position of having to defend suffering as an artistic medium, unless the artists in question donated those honorariums to actual needy people.
    Undocumented poetics. Well now, since everyone's in the mood for anthologies these days, how about a REAL one, Mr. Huerta? :-) I'd shell out for that.

  2. October 23, 2008
     Tom T.

    "I've always thought that an undocumented poetics would be against symbolism." The calibration between this brilliant post, its engagement with Linh Dinh's and distance from Wanda Coleman's on dreams makes this the hottest discussion on contemporary poetics I know of going on right now.

  3. October 23, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi Javier,
    Thanks for raising these questions. In a 2003 interview in the Brooklyn Rail conducted by Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey, Hsieh was asked, "How did you afford to do the first piece?" He answered, "I had 5000 square feet in Tribeca, I rented to several people and I made a total of 150 dollars a month profit and that was enough to sustain the project." He also said, "My mother and brother lived in Taiwan and they both supported me. When I asked for money they could sometimes send it. Even now I ask for money, but they are tired of me." In Art Asia Pacific Magazine, Paul Latser writes, "After working four years as a busboy, and with funds from his family in Taiwan, Hsieh rented a loft in Tribeca and began life as an artist. He divided the space into rentable studios, keeping one for himself."
    The Rail interviewers also commented, "After looking at all the pieces, I felt a sense of sadness or loneliness and the difficulty of survival." Hsieh answered, "I would say that is part of it. We don’t look at survival that closely. We pretend to smile. We are all taught to say everything is OK, we are in control, even if we are not. There is a need to be positive in public. But art is not doing that. We try to tell the truth in someway, to touch a part of it, to not be so typical. This kind of work is not about suffering, it is about existence. It is about a technique, my concept is to show this technique."
    Whether Blaine's piece was art or not is debatable. I just wanted to point out all the different contexts for starving, of which Blaine's was the least interesting, poignant or tragic, yet most pompous. The concept of the hunger artist was more than a century old by the time he got to it, so he really added nothing but the corporate sponsors.
    It's speculated that Kafka's hunger artist was based on Giovanni Succi, famous for fasting all over Europe and even in the States. From the New York Times, November 6, 1890: "Signor Giovanni Succi, an Italian gentleman who has attained some fame as a professional faster, began last night what he declares will be a forty-five days' fast. Persons who would like to see how he fasts can find him in the small hall over Koster Bial's place of entertainment, in West Twenty-third Street, at any hour of the day or night."

  4. October 23, 2008

    Hey Javier,
    You're not overweight, Javier!. But the connection between poverty and obesity, or alternately, in much of the developing world, poverty and plain old starvation, is a very real one. You probably already know this book, but Raj Patel's _Stuffed and Starved_ is excellent on this point.
    I've been thinking about your undocumented class. It's a great idea. One person you might look at is Mahmoud Darwish, if you're willing to extend undocumented person to "stateless person"--that is, to Palestinians living in Lebanon (as was his case) or the occupied territories. _Memory for Forgetfulness_, also about time, would be the book to go with. . .
    You know, it's a stretch, but _Invisible Man_ kind of fits as well. The book's a blast to teach.

  5. October 23, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    This is a great topic and discussion.
    Javier, you probably know of Heriberto Yepez, in Baja? He'd probably have some good suggestions as far as the anthology idea goes. Mark Nowak would be another obvious person to contact. And it IS a great idea that Rich offers.

  6. October 24, 2008
     Javier Huerta

    A fellow gordo! It's also good to know you're a proud member of the Brotherhood of the Travelling Guayabera.
    Tom T.:
    We should be careful with our use of the superlative. Thanks for commenting.
    Thanks again for your post, and thanks for the link to the interview. I guess as poets we won't ever have to worry about refusing corporate sponsors. Or maybe this is the case: by writing poetry--there's no money in it, everyone says--we are refusing corporate sponsorship. I agree: Blaine's was pompous. I've been thinking about this, and in the end I believe Blaine and Hsieh differ in this way: Hsieh, unlike Blaine, is able to transform the critique that one can only refuse something if one already posseses it into a paradox. And as you say, Hsieh does have a talent for paradoxes.
    I have to say I first misread your comment as saying, "but the connection between poetry and obesity." And thus a new class is formed. Thanks for your suggestions. Statelessness and Invisibility definitely fit into the idea of being undocumented. One question: Which INVISIBLE MAN?
    Yes. I should contact Yepez and Nowak. I'll probably post something here on a compilation of "undocumented poems" I've been working on over on my own blog. Thanks for the encouragement.

  7. October 24, 2008
     Miguel Murphy

    I'm really in love with this part of your discussion: the distance between a vision of undocumented poetics that perhaps demands if not refuses the weight of symbolics and the documented hours punched in, kept track of, used--that can be used to "invest farce with meaning". The luxury of symbolism, which perhaps deflects the issues of basic understanding, equality, political justice, or that can be interpreted so that Blaine's work is read as a kind of gimmick, a condition of sheer ego, something only the wealthy can accomplish, but which cannot ultimately serve as true protest.
    I wonder about the work of someone like Bei Dao, political orphan, in exile, having had to hopscotch Europe and the United States, and how his poetry is characterized by intense symbolism, has been characterized as "oblique", and abstract. How would we consider him in light of this idea of an "undocumented poetics"?

  8. October 25, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    However, having mentioned Mark Nowak, who lately blogged here, I went to his web site, to see what projects he is up to recently:
    And I saw that the lead photograph on the home page is of Muslim women in the UK demonstrating in full burkha, with one of them holding up a sign saying "The Veil is Women's Liberation."
    That's odd, to say the least. I hope Mark comes back to explain the meaning of that.

  9. October 26, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Well, somehow I missed the mention of Jack Straw on the other posters, which puts the photo into context...

  10. October 26, 2008

    I meant Ellison's _Invisible Man_. I haven't read the Wells, so I wouldn't know whether or not it works.

  11. October 26, 2008
     stv ptrmir

    Thanks for an interesting post. Last Monday, I heard an interview on the radio with Michael Pollan who has written about why unhealthy food is so cheap:
    Pollan's essential point is that corn and soybean subsidies developed mass agricultural production resulting in cheap corn syrup based products, like soda (or as we say here in Minnesota "pop").
    I think there is something strange about people in affluent societies' choosing to deny themselves food. It's one thing if you can't afford it. Anthony Braxton chooses to eat unhealthy food because it is cheaper and he can't afford expensive restaurants and health food when he is touring. Going hungry is no joke or stunt or art for millions of people.
    I like your idea about an undocumented poetics. Another idea is a secret or hidden poetics, as I'm reminded of indigenous people who have had to sometimes keep their real beliefs, their real names, and even their languages secret in order to survive.
    Here in Minnesota there is a controversy around the genetic engineering of wild rice. Check out this article by Winona LaDuke:
    Here we have corporations and scientists wanting to document and codify and then alter or "improve" and ultimately patent or "own" a plant and food source that has been around for thousands of years, providing sustenance to people.
    What does it mean to be documented? My family emigrated from Germany in the 19th century. My immigrant status has a pedigree, but why does that give me any more rights as a human being than Hsieh?
    One more note: My wife and I recently watched the movie "The Visitor." I thought it was an excellent look into what it means to be "undocumented."
    pac, lov and undrstanding (nvr giv up!)
    stv ptrmir
    no man's land
    minnapolis, mn