Meet Harvey Mudd Guest Speaker: Poet, Writer, And Public Intellectual

On April 12, poet and writer Matt Sedillo came to Harvey Mudd College to speak about his work on political and personal commentary on historical accuracy and perform several of his poems to students. (Courtesy of Zachary Ritter)

This past Wednesday, poet and writer Matt Sedillo came to Harvey Mudd College to speak about his work and perform some spoken word poetry to students in the intimate space of Harvey Mudd’s Office of Institutional Diversity. Deeply personal and passionate, Sedillo’s work is based on his pursuit of political and personal commentary regarding historical accuracy. Sedillo spoke of his contention with racism and injustice as a Chicano man who grew up with uncertainty, and he uses poetry and writing as his artistic mediums of expression in hopes of educating the public. He addresses the cross-fertilization of cultural, racial, and gender identities – among many others – to portray a nuanced self.

TSL: Tell me a little bit about your work. What do you write?

Matt Sedillo: I write poetry. Most of it’s very political in nature, a lot of it is very historically dense, so generally speaking, it carries from the sweep of time. I don’t just say, “I don’t like this, or I don’t like that.” It usually carries historical roots of what any given problem or any given thing that I’m writing about.

TSL: Why did you gravitate towards poetry and writing as an artistic platform?

MS: Well, it’s kind of an interesting story. I always wanted to be a writer as a kid. But then things happened in life, and then I had to get a job, I had to do this, [and] I had to do that, and more things happened in life, and I ended up in a situation where I was out of work, out of home, just everything. I just couldn’t understand everything that was going on in my life. … Then I met a friend who was organizing sweatshops off of [University of Southern California’s] campus, and he had been a student there, and he was a poet, but he was also this activist — we knew each other that way. He took me to a poetry reading, and I saw someone do a poem, and I saw how they did it, how they introduced concepts, how they moved it around, and how it ended with this big punchline. … What happened was that I actually made a lot of friends, and I actually got to be a fuller version of myself. Before that, [I] had always been angry, hurt, and I felt like I was cheated, [and I thought] “I have so much to say, and nobody [wanted] to hear it.” For the first 24 years of my life, [I felt] that way. I got this opportunity to do poetry, and I’m going to do it as long as I can.

TSL: What are some of the recurring themes that you address in your work?

MS: Earlier in life, I probably wrote a lot more stuff about class struggle, about just working people, and the things that they faced. [These issues] can never be divorced from the history of racism in this country [in terms of] how things are ordered and how the history of discrimination has become the basis of many things, from the basis of race and ethnicity, but also the basis of gender and the basis of sexuality. I was always informed of it, but I think with the rise of [President Donald] Trump, [my work has] become super Chicano and super Mexican, and super like “fuck you,” and much more antagonistic on that line. Not that I was ever one to back down on that question, but with the rise of Trump and the rise of how explicitly bigoted and anti-Mexican he’s been. [The number of] eggs he’s put in that basket has really forced me in many ways to say something and do something. I am Mexican, and I am Chicano.

TSL: Where does your inspiration come from?

MS: My own things that I’ve experienced in life and how much getting a hold of this knowledge informs my own experience. ... I was born on the Eastside of Los Angeles, so there was a lot of things that happened to me at an early age that I didn’t have the context to understand till relatively recently. Because my understanding of history [became] much broader, I [began] studying about things that happened internationally, [like] what happened in Chile in the 1970s, what happened in Indonesia in the 1960s. [This knowledge] is very valuable to me; it’s very valuable to look at patterns. I really wasn’t invested in looking at my own history beyond a surface level. My understanding of Chile, my understanding of Indonesia, my understanding of Ghana, all that stuff is also at a surface level. And I understand my own history at that same surface level. It wasn’t until I delved in deeper into the history of places and where I’m from, the things that happened, that my own life was made that much clearer.

TSL: On your website, I saw that you identify as a poet, writer, and a public intellectual. How do these different roles affect or influence each other?

MS: Well, [I identify as a] poet, because that’s literally what I do. Writer, because I don’t just write poetry. I write essays. I write opinion pieces. I do a couple things. I work on plays — haven’t got one produced yet — but I do other kinds of writing [as well]. And the public intellectual part is just because people invite me to come speak, and I think that’s really important. I’ve managed to do this without even getting a [Bachelor of Arts], and I think to have that kind of organic intellect is very important, [to show] people that they can actually do this, and that they can come deliver not just art, but also have it be informed with speeches, with analyses, with these kind of things. At this point in time, I’ve spoken [at] over 70 different colleges, and I’ve done that without a [Master of Fine Arts], without a B.A. in Political Science, without any of that. So putting that public intellectual part there is not necessarily to big myself up, it’s more about letting people know what’s possible. And really telling people that you really just have to get out there and do it.

TSL: Is there a piece of work that you’ve done that you’re especially proud of?

MS: There are sections of poems that I’m really proud of. … There’s sections of the poem “Morena” that I’m really proud of. You kind of step away from it, and you don’t even think about it as if you’ve written it. You just think someone else wrote it. You have your normal self that you just walk through life with, and then you have your little inspired self that’s like half-awake. It’s not even like [this inspired self is] fully awake; you’re in a dream state almost. [Imagine] you went to bed at 2 a.m. but you had to be up at 6 a.m., and then you’re up. You’re kind of walking but not even awake. You’re groggy, and then something just comes to you. And it’s so perfect. It’s not over explained. It’s not sloppy. It’s just perfect.

TSL: What’s your ultimate goal with poetry?

MS: My ultimate goal with poetry is really just to participate in the bigger goal altogether, which is the establishment of a world where people can live in peace and dignity, and be able to celebrate who they are — without anything trying to hinder that. That’s the ultimate goal. With poetry, I just want to be a participant in that process. … [My work comes out] very fiery, and it comes out like Latin American rhetoric. It comes out like the guy giving the speech pounding his fist on the table. That’s what I do, [but] I just turn it into a poem. If anyone influenced me, it’s probably Amiri Baraka. He was a very famous African American poet in the last century and this one too; he passed away not too long ago. I actually had the opportunity to read with him at the San Francisco International Poetry Festival, which was a very big honor. [My work] is definitely under the umbrella of spoken word.

TSL: Why would you like to target and speak to college students specifically? Why do you think speaking [at] colleges is important?

MS: It’s interesting, because it’s not just college students. It’s specific students at different campuses. So there’s three different [types] of campuses that I [visit]. There’s campuses that are very expensive, there’s community colleges, and there’s campuses that are like the size of cities. All three are different. I’m just really trying to provide whatever I can to, again, participate in the struggles there. The people that bring me to campus aren’t people that are just coming in to get their degree and get out. These are people who are passionate, otherwise they wouldn’t bring me; they’d bring [in] somebody else. And so, that is why I just try to participate [and] bring whatever skill I have to whatever it is [the college] is doing. With expensive campuses, it’s usually a question of people doing horrific acts of racism, where people [like me] are being brought in to look good on a brochure. Then, when [these people] get on campus, they’re treated horribly. So that’s more of the wealthy campuses. With the campuses [like] the size of [cities], oftentimes there’s some labor struggle going on, with the cafeteria workers, with the custodians, or something like that. And with the community [college] campuses, it’s often the case [that] half the student body is homeless, or they’re facing brutality from the police on their campus. … They’re all different, but whatever it is, I want to be part of the big fight, and I want to do what I can to add my voice to the choir, to put my hand on the banner, and lift it as high as I can.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.