city, it’s not you. it’s me.

8 06 2013

i’ve given you so many pet names,
adding determiners,
—(the city, my city)
toying with your phonemes,
—(madrizzle, the ‘driz)
wrapping tongue around the unruly curved softness of your end:
invitingly, erotically defiant

remember that series of ink-soaked maps
torn to shreds in purse zippers,
in hasty folds, in klutzy wine,
dotted with apartment Xs, restaurant Os,
walking routes, scrawled numbers,
the secret chinese,
where to buy cilantro.

and what i brought to you –
city, did you ever read the List?
postcards (5)
letters (2)

origami paper
visa papers (incl. Apostille of the Hague)
garnier surf hair gel
nail polish (black, purple…… glitter)
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
chipotle peppers, canned (3)

the times i’ve danced with you, city,
drunken, exuberant, desperate,
full of joy, chemicals, light and fear and uncertainty,
the way you whisked me up and away,
let me push myself too far,
always made me decide.

our secrets. train tracks from the hidden park.
yellowed photographic nightwalks. sambal oelek.
luchana terrace cherries. rioja antaño.
how many times i’ve painted my nails.
that time i made it all the way back home just to bust my lip wide open, blood raging, cut nerves raw to the air,
twenty-something channeling inner teenage punk.

how heavy my heart hangs, city.
we’ve always been open to plurality of loves,
dynamic organic expression! hippie-dippy-dom!
but never would i have guessed it weighed so much.
cracked myself open wide, said yes to absolutely everything,
spreading it much too thick and biting in recklessly,
gulping only the very strongest flavors,
neophilia addiction and willingness to wander leading to unexpected depth of connection.
you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you –

but i’ve already told you, city.
it’s not you, it’s–

performed at the 10th Mad Open Mic in Libreria Fuentetaja, May 22, 2013.

2012-13 Fulbrighters to Spain: Hola!

24 04 2012

Fulbrights to Spain for the coming 2012-13 academic year – HOLA QUE HACE?

No but really. I can hear you hovering. Spain’s sent that mystical fat envelope your way at last, hooray and enhorabuena!! However, now that the seemingly endless limbo has graciously come to a close, your inner anxious academic takes over once more, peppering the innocent consciousness with queries.

What I mean is, I see you – I’m a WordPress stats nerd, and I check out what folks search for that guides them in a tomato-y direction – and I know you’re nervous. A handful of you have actually written me emailed queries regarding what’s in store for the coming year, and I figure it’s highly likely there are more who have considered it.

This post is an open invitation to ask questions of me regarding my experience, as well as what you might anticipate from yours. I’m no expert, but I’ll tell you just about anything you’d like to know according to my own time spent in Spain.

Janel Torkington, A Professional Primer:
I graduated from Earlham College with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature in May of 2009.
I spent the following year adventuring around Thailand, then received word of a Fulbright award in April 2011.
I was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant for the 2010-11 academic year.
I was assigned to one of the older bilingual high schools in Madrid, IES José Luis Sampedro.
Along with the other Fulbrighter at IES JLS, I took responsibility for the Global Classrooms (Model UN) project in my school.
I was nominated as one of two Fulbright representatives to accompany the top ten Madrid students to the international Model UN conference that year, which took place in downtown Manhattan in May of 2012.
I had such a positive experience my first year that I renewed at the same high school for a second term.
The second year has continued to be enormously rewarding, and I plan on remaining in Madrid for the time being.

I’d be more than happy to answer questions as I receive them in the comments, as well as through email (contomates [at sign] gmail [dot] com).

quicknote: probably a good time to re-mention the bit they ask you to put on the blogs – I’m in no way an official Fulbright rep, and my views don’t have to do with their official positions on anything whatsoever. That’s a good thing! You can ask me about stuff like the truth about oreja, how much hell finding a piso actually is, and where exactly to get your hands on elusive ground cardamom. Fulbright Inc. doesn’t have a heap to say about any of those.

Madrid, as of late: Fotopost

25 01 2012

Plaza Santa Ana photo expo in the afternoon sun.

Dada on c/ Bernardo López.

Partial inhabitant of barrio Conde Duque.

One of the city’s variety of authors.

Public Art in Madrid, Part Two: Mixed Media

23 10 2011

Madrid isn’t internationally renowned for its public art scene, but there’s a certain creative spontaneity wafting through its corridors that keeps me hot on the scent of evolving expression. The second half of this two-part photo series focuses on Madrid’s colorful imagination as expressed through alternative mediums, such as paste-ups, scratch art, photography, and accidental beauty. The first half can be found over at the blog of, where I did a guest post regarding some of my favorite painted discoveries throughout the city.


Paste-ups are a versatile street art strategy, allowing for off-site assembly and quick placement. Designs are previously printed, drawn, or constructed on thin sheets of paper, then affixed to the designated surface using a mixture of cornflour and water, similar in composition to walpaper paste. It’s the same stuff you see workers using to put up advertisements around town, repurposed in the name of public art. This shawled figure and her bird guard over calle Lavapiés.


This small piece’s retro-cartoon flair is complemented by the tattered out-of-use door in barrio La Latina.


Paste-ups tend to be way-up, keeping their vulnerable edges away from grabby fingers. As such, they frequently perch high and dry for lengthy periods of time.


However, sometimes even the most high and mighty take a nosedive.


Stencils are another frequent strategy to rapidly transfer art into the public sphere. For whatever reason, most stencil work I see in Madrid tends to be radically political in nature; this battleaxe wielding woman proclaims “Critical Cunt” (a word which is a million times milder in Spanish, by the way).


Someone’s indignation that “Japan kidnaps children” is foiled by Iñaki’s sharpie’d response that he kidnaps Italian girls.


These scuffed frames in southern La Latina are unique as far as I know, a striking series of modern antiquity. Each one holds a yellowing print showcasing aspects of Olde Europe.


Disregarding the rainbow “cerrajero” (locksmith) melange seemingly coating each and every metal pole in the city, stickers are a common, low-risk strategy used to quickly spread an artist’s style. The duck head is absolutely everywhere; I’m pretty sure I even spotted it during my recent foray to Berlin.


This series of four is the only instance I’ve come across of printed photographs as street expression. Based on my experience in the darkroom, I doubt they weather moisture too gallantly; not too sure that they’ll fare well through the winter.


Scratching away bits from swaths of solid color to reveal image in negative is a way to achieve striking, detailed results. The concept is the same as those multi-hued sheets of paper covered in black wax that you doodled on as a kid; in the hands of an expert, this kind of quietly stunning work is the result.


Scratch artists often choose human faces as subject, coaxing unbelievably realistic textures out of nothing at all.


Combining techniques here beckons a shy woman’s visage to peer out from surrounding chaos.


Not sure what the original approach was here, but I like it. An eye, tucked in a Lavapiés nook, that doesn’t seem to care whether it sees anything or not.


This ghostly guy is carved into a concrete façade in a Malasaña street crawling with botellón-happy revelers at night. Seems like he’s ripe for some color; I’d watch this one for sudden updates.


Some of Madrid’s advertisements traipse all over the line between the tainted world of commercialism and pure imagination. These two are hidden down an alley in that no-man’s-land of wholesale shops between La Latina and Tirso de Molina. The style totally kicks; the alley totally stinks. Madrid is due for some serious rain, and soon.


Occasionally the ads need just a little push in the right direction. This begoggled beauty is near Antón Martín.


Seen here are further stickers, plus a pair of parodic public service announcements. Madrid’s been running ads for some months now proclaiming, “Respetemos y apoyemos a nuestros profesores” (Let’s respect and support our teachers), evidently in response to an investigation that revealed that professors were regularly insulted in 74% of high schools, taking it as far as physical aggression in 13%. Yikes and yikes.

Recent educational reforms have meant budget cuts across the board, resulting in mass firings and subsequent enormous class sizes (among other things, but that’s perhaps for a seperate post). A good green-shirted portion of the city’s up in arms in a tidal wave response, including the above-pictured parody: “Despidamos y humillemos a nuestros profesores” (Let’s fire and humiliate our teachers).


Is accidental art a genre? How might it interact with found art? At what point does it become “art”? Does it have more value in being so recognized?

Good questions. Don’t know. Don’t think the sexy dog knows.

For more, take a gander at Part One of the Public Art in Madrid series, a guest post I did for, wherein I explore Madrid’s public spaces awash in the more traditional expressive medium of paint.

Berlin: In Which I Venture North

22 09 2011

Just as August approaches its close, a golden invitation wings its characteristically unexpected way into my life. Dear friend Pennie, with whom I spent many months adventuring in Bangkok over a year ago, has plans to attend a global education conference based in Berlin. Might I like to come see the city?

It was back in wintry January that the idea of Berlin as a sweet summer destination entered my pretty lil’ head; however, as they are wont to do, far-in-advance plans became beautifully sidetracked by spring surprises. The Pennie-prompting is all the push I need to book my flights.

My experience thus far with European capitals: Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and my beloved Madrid. Berlin looks nothing like any of these. Particularly in comparison to the Spanish center, the city feels spacious, each and every path including a wide bike lane. There are intersections where bicycles dominate, and pedestrians and cars alike show enormous respect for the sanctity of the reserved space. The public transportation system here is excellent, sublime in its clockwork connections between trams, buses, and both above- and below-ground metro, but there is an enormous sense of freedom in mobility by bike, one which I most notably experience in a 3:00 AM wild ride back to an awaiting bed.

The bikes are ubiquitous, and often beautifully personalized.

Eyes open, the city is replete with treasure.

Berlin is an undeniable street art mecca; the immediate impression that every available surface has been coated in color and form is soon corrected when it appears to double 24 hours later. There are some seriously stunning pieces here, several impressive in sheer several-story size, others innovative in elaborate design and execution. There is plenty of paint, but also loads of paste-ups and chip art (wherein an image is constructed in negative, painstakingly chipping flecks away from whatever coats a surface); an informal walking tour I take informs that many pieces are done by artists who specifically pass through the city aiming to leave their signature style on its streets.

Obviously, expression isn’t limited to spray painted wall bombings; wallpapered posters everywhere proclaim a plethora of exhibitions inhabiting the most unassuming corners of city blocks. I pass through one taking up residence in what appears to be a dilapidated tenement of some variety, advertised as Die Revolution Im Dienste Der Poesie (Revolution in the Name of Poetry). The mixed-media collection revolves around the theme in its title, coupled with a load of historical context presented in a “newspaper” available at the door. Of course, being in German, this escapes me entirely, and I’m contented checking out the details of a revolutionist’s take on a still life.

Infamous five-story art squat Tacheles raises queries regarding creative legitimacy, as it represents at once the city’s libertine expression of youth and a prime piece of real estate. The place is visually resplendent in its freewheeling glory (naturally I’m informed that “it was better five years ago”) and acrid in its stairwell scent; seems the big bad government has recently shut off the water in a push to convert the space to something more commercially suited for the downtown zoning.

It’s probably evident in my tongue-in-cheek wording: I find the whole David-and-Goliath storytelling to be rather blown out of proportion. I too would like to see official support for free community art displays, but my gut tells me Tacheles continues to be successful because of its mythology.  The area doesn’t need another touristy pub there whatsoever, but the auctioning of the place would certainly turn a pretty penny – which ideally could be funneled into social programs. Berlin’s identity appears to be ever in flux, but I have no doubt that the displaced creative energy would pack its tools and pop up elsewhere.

This is only one tourist’s opinion. What’s your take?