Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Jos Charles

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What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

I have been reading Clarice Lispector (always, always), Turn Your Illness Into a Weapon—a little collection of the writings of the Sozialistisches PatientenkollektivMoten’s In the Break, and Wave’s gorgeous selected poems of Robert Lax. I can’t get enough of Hiroshi Teshigara’s collaborations with Kōbō Abe and Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu’s scores especially in those films are unmatchable. Perhaps not unrelated I started watching more early Resnais who has several films that feature similarly elegant serialist scoring by Hans Werner Henze. I’ve been listening to, of course, the new Frank Ocean, but also Elza Soares’ latest; it’s a must listen.

The poems of Esdras Parra as translated by Jamie Berrout is something you should go and check out now. In fact, one should check out all of Jamie Berrout‘s work and buyeverything they can.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

Self-care is hard. Like I have to begin with realizing there’s no ‘self’ in any transcendent sense—I am just this small white trans thing here. For me to care for this self is to care for this white trans thing. Sometimes I warrant care. There are a lot of things I will never write about because I don’t owe it and I don’t want to deal with it. Me caring for this white trans thing is what’s important. Then there are other things I don’t want to deal with, but I must, because this white trans thing isn’t what’s important. This is where ‘self-care’ can become obscurantist, a tool of power. There are many selves with a disproportionate distribution of care. Sometimes one needs to cut off their own care so someone else can get a little. Sometimes you need to suffer for another. That’s what justice looks like. 

What advice do you have toward readers who want to be allies?

Don’t. Or rather what passes for “allyship” is often these easy practices one can adopt to make one feel alongside whoever it is they’re oppressing. Ethical branding. But that’s just it with power, right? One fundamentally isn’t alongside another. One’s position is contingent on the other, one is assuming and profiting off the labor of another. Sure, it’s messy and sometimes more mutual or symmetric, but often it’s very plainly exploitative. When I am on the negative end of that, I more often just need support—real, material support—than aphorisms or posturing. Which is to say a cis person won’t ever read a poem I wrote and have associated themself out of structural transmisogyny. No matter how many tears.

So the question then is how does one support people whose oppression their position is contingent on. To run with the example that applies to myself: how many trans women have you defended from harassment? How many trans women have you provided housing, food, financial support for? How many trans women have you been a friend to? For me, and for most any other trans woman, the answer to these questions is years and years of inter-communal labor and support. We are providing it for each other because no one else will. The ones with the least power in any given situation are likely the ones distributing what little they have to each other. So one way to start to help is to pick up some slack and help undo that hurt. More importantly than always saying the latest correct word or phrase is simply to support us, hire us, house us, pay us. 

How do you feel that writers or editors can engage in topics of oppression and violence without falling into tropes of exploitation?

Writers without money: write what you know, write transparently, write your limits. Writers with money: do likewise, sure, but more importantly support the aforementioned writers without money. Editors: publish both writers without money and writers with money. Then give what money you earn to the writers without money and not the writers with money. Eventually everyone has money. Then you make your journal free.

~~~

JOS CHARLES is a trans poet and author of Safe Space (Ahsahta Press, 2016). They are founding-editor of THEM: a trans literary journal. They have writing published (and/or publications forthcoming) with Denver QuarterlyWashington Square ReviewPEN AmericaAction YesGLAADLambda Literary, and elsewhere. Jos Charles received their MFA from the University of Arizona in Tucson where they currently reside.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Rio Cortez

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What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

I’ve been reading Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. It’s a series and some of her more classically sci-fi work, written in the 1980’s. I’m obsessed with her.

I had once shied away from science fiction as a reader. There is something heartbreaking about a genre where there are no rules, no history, wherein widely white writers still manage to depict other worlds as having still white-dominant characters, excluding us even in space, so to speak. There are still kingdoms of men, those kingdoms are white. There are still forces of evil, those villains, though they may not be human, are still rotely cast in darkness. Liberators, heroes, golden-haired. These imaginations kept me from the genre. What I have found so liberating about Butler’s work, and other Black science fiction writers like Nnedi Okorafor, is that I trust them to know us. There is a freedom outside of earth that is so seductive as a Black reader, I’m in love with it.

I’d also use this opportunity to challenge her publisher, Grand Central, to come up with better, more original cover art for her books, to publish her individual volumes rather than anthologize them, and to enroll her into their line of classics. I think she deserves that much.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I feel like an expert in self-care. Some things I wouldn’t publish in this response—but mostly I give myself permission to unhinge, be carefree. Sometimes that means watching Nancy Meyers films (I’m particularly charmed by middle-aged romance, happen to love the image of Diane Keaton as she puts her reading glasses on to check the cholesterol of her lover before sex), sometimes I take selfies with my cat, I listen to records, I drink rosé with my friends, I open all the curtains and do nothing.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption? 

I do. I think that’s a pretty human assumption. We are trained out of it in writing workshops, but I’m certainly guilty of making the same assumption of other writers’ work. Even when, on an intellectual level, I know a poem is not necessarily autobiographical, when I read “I”, I almost, for a moment, don’t believe it isn’t. Maybe that’s the credit of the poem, or maybe it’s more of an expanded definition of what comes from us, what is autobiography. I think we are really asking readers not to judge us, because maybe the poem isn’t from our direct experience. That’s interesting to me.  And so that is a practice I find valuable, non-judgment.

~~~

RIO CORTEZ is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA program at NYU. Her manuscript, I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space Between Mountains, was selected by Ross Gay as the winner of the 2016 inaugural Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, and is available from Jai-Lai Books.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Tanaya Winder

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How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter? 

I breathe. I run outside along the creek with foot to pavement, on dirt, and mother Earth to remind myself that I am but a small human on this Earth that needs protecting. When my hurt or problems or difficulties feel so immense, I run, I cook food, I meditate, and I take care of myself physically, emotionally, and mentally because I know that we can’t take care of others until we first take care of ourselves. I try to practice these acts daily because I write to reflect the world I exist in.  Because, most of what I write about is difficult subject matter because the lives we live in the brown bodies we exist in is difficult. It’s difficult trying to exist in a settler colonial country where systemic processes are set up to see you fail. For the sake of our survival, we must practice self-care daily when we write our hearts onto the page and then live with those hearts outside of our bodies so that the ones we write for can see that healing is possible.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

I’d say that my writing isn’t for them. Anyone who thinks my writing is too upsetting or too intense isn’t whom I’m writing for. The way our people are treated in this country is upsetting and as a poet I do my utmost best to be the necessary mirror into what we need to heal. I write for people who know that healing comes from work, that our ancestral traumas and historical hurts were all ruptures that require their own breaking to come together in light. Life is intense. Love is intense. I write for those who understand that Love can be a gun, for those of us who have pulled the trigger or had it pulled on us; for those who believe our hearts are stray bullets we keep trying to call back. If some folks can’t understand or handle that then the writing and art practice isn’t meant for them. I think that’s the hardest thing for the establishment and maybe academia or privileged writers to understand–not everything is meant for them. We have to keep some things for ourselves.

What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Best writing advice I ever received was from my mentors. Cherrie Moraga always told me, “The writing always knows better than you.” And Joy Harjo, her advice wasn’t so much the things she said, but how she continues to live her life–by continually practically any and all art forms she’s drawn to. My advice…You have a purpose. You are unique. You have a gift. You owe it to those gifts to share them with those in your circle of influence. If your gift is writing (if writing is what called you) then write. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can and can’t write about. You have a body. You have a voice. You have a story. Each person’s story is worth telling. You are worthy. You are enough.  

~~~

TANAYA WINDER is a writer, educator, motivational speaker, and performance poet from the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations. She grew up on the Southern Ute Indian reservation and attended college at Stanford University where she earned a BA in English and the University of New Mexico where she received an MFA in creative writing. Since then she has co-founded As/Us: A Space for Women of the World and founded Dream Warriors, an Indigenous artist management company. She guest lectures, teaches creative writing workshops, and speaks at high schools, universities, and communities internationally. Tanaya writes and teaches about different expressions of love (self love, intimate love, social love, community love, and universal love); she is an advocate of heartwork and believes everyone has a gift they’ve been placed on this earth to share.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Amber Atiya

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How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I listen to songs for the Orishas, Minnie Riperton, Stevie Wonder. Or I sit in the dark, in silence, and just breathe.

Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question?

Black folks are too busy dodging bullets to write about flowers. Or Black folks write about flowers as metaphor for Black folks. Or as something blood does. More often than not, the blood belongs to Black folks. Black folks are afraid to write about flowers because Black folks are psychic and know that writing about flowers leads to funeral services for Black folks. Have you ever written an obituary for a Black person? Have you ever combed through the details of a Black person’s life—date and city of birth, favorite color/rapper/food, profession, volunteer work, hobbies—in order to write about their death? Black folks have a complicated relationship with flowers which makes sense if you believe flowers and Black folks are interchangeable, both on and off the page.

We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

Black people have been at war with the u.s. (whether or not we know it) ever since our ancestors were dragged here kicking and screaming. Surveillance is just another tactic of war. Recently, I was talking to an elder Black activist about why I don’t attend rallies and protest marches in NYC anymore—false allies with their own agendas, (what I suspect are) undercover cops leading people down side streets where officers are waiting with rubber bullets and batons. People think this kind of infiltration of organizations, events, and communities ended decades ago—no sir. I assume there are plain clothes officers everywhere, including at literary events. I assume there are artists informing on other artists. I assume at least one person in my social media network is watching, listening, and reporting back to someone. A few years ago, I started adding date, time, and location when I journal because I can’t shake the feeling that, at some point, I’ll need an alibi—how crazy is that?

Sometimes, I ask myself the following questions while I’m writing, posting about the president on social media, or doing battle with white men on the streets of NY:

Am I willing to go to jail for ___?
Am I willing to get my head cracked open for ___?
Am I willing to die for ___?

More often than not the answer is yes (and yes and yes) and then I write or post or do battle accordingly—although there was that one time I got into it with a white dude who admonished a group of Black teens for talking and laughing on the train. (Oh, the terror of Black joy on public transportation!) He ended his little speech with “I mean, this isn’t the jungle” and I lost it, jumped up and cussed him out so loudly the conductor came into the car to find out what was going on. I contemplated breaking his cell phone and tearing up his papers but didn’t want the teens, who were visibly shaken, to see me getting arrested if cops were called. (I do try to choose my battles carefully.) Instead, I tore into dude until he stormed off the train. I made sure the teens were okay, let them know they’d done nothing wrong, that he had no right to speak to them that way. As I exited the train, one of the teens thanked me for defending them. My response:

“Always.”

~~~

AMBER ATIYA is a poet, performer, and self-taught book artist-in-training. Her work has appeared in Boston ReviewNepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, and on Poetry Foundation’s radio and podcast series PoetryNow. Amber’s chapbookthe fierce bums of doo-wop, was chosen for The Volta’s Best Books of 2014. She resides in Jamaica, Queens (by way of Brooklyn) and is a member of a women’s writing group celebrating 14 years, and counting.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Michael Wasson

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What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

Because of my lack of instant access, I haven’t had the ability to purchase books online for a long time, so when I finally had the chance, I got C. D. Wright’s The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All and have been reading it over and over on my ferry rides. Other than that, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds has me transfixed & its edges are so worn out & thumb-stained from reading it so much, Murakami’s many books because, well, they’re at every book store in Japan, and I’ve been returning to this book in Japanese: けろけろけろっぴの徒然草, or Kerokerokeroppi Frog’s Essays in Idleness of the Hello Kitty series—some really cute lessons on stillness.

Music’s like water. It’s also great company when you live in such simplicity and silence out on a distant island. And I like to practice my Japanese by sharing music with a music teacher and some friends on the island. Recent things that’ve stuck with me: HitorieYole Yole, Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Arvo PärtPerfume GeniusBen Howard’s I Forget Where We Were, Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop’s Love Letter for the Fire, and Saosin just released a record called Along the Shadow with their original singer (of Circa Survive)—Anthony Green—who fronted the band back in the 2003 days, and Schuman’s String Quartet Op. 41 No. 1—thanks to my favorite music source, the lovely Ishidou-sensei.

New/emerging poet: Monica Sok. I first read her at New Republic last November, and her poem “Cambodia” just opened something in me. There’s an unbridled energy, a sort of no-apologies-about-it urgency that’s so clear both in the telling and the stark language: “We sleep / in bed at night / but do not dream” had me thinking of the privilege to even dream a dream through the night when sometimes there are fields, wherever—far away, back at home, or here in my village—where “nothing grows. Nothing.” That emptiness. Memories of stillness, of gathering, and of violence. Incredible. Oh, and her essay “On Fear, Fearlessness, and Intergenerational Trauma” is so powerful and necessary. Read her, please. She’s at NarrativeTriquarterlyOmniverse, and her chapbook Year Zero is out with PSA.

What’s the earliest experience, or stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you? 

This is such a wonderful question. Because I’m usually so timid and shy, I’m easily frightened. Writing, at first, was a way into the world through language. Lots of curiosity and playing around. But the first time I truly felt I could write into a space that both frightened me but lead me to a moment of discovery was when I was maybe 21. It was a moment where I almost felt like I wasn’t writing but I was being written—& not gently, but being pulled under into a place where I didn’t know if I could learn to breathe again.

It was this poem one night while I was in undergrad—I titled it “Godless Coyote in Love.” It carved out an entrance into a world where all my animal-people feel guilt & shame, are given space to be disappointed in humans, & offered a chance to re-examine their grief. That was the opening for me to start searching the page for my ghosts & dead who never stop telling me—touch us and let us remember the flesh of being alive again. After workshop, my professor asked me, “Did something happen?” So I told him about it. 

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I listen to a lot of music that stretches the emotions. I go for walks on the island. I drink tea & sit with silence. I run a lot. I watch the ocean move in and out. I speak strands of my ancestral language to myself—as if it saves me. I remember my late grandmother’s words: “Put your hand on your tim’íne. Feel that? That means you’re alive. Remember that.” And my other grandma who told me before I left the States: “Wash the cry from your hair.” I like to replay that moment in my head to remind myself of how I can stay gentle while inside the most frightened versions of myself.

Do you differentiate between poetry/art and “political” poetry/art? If so, how do you make that distinction?

For myself, as an indigenous person, I don’t. I find that language shaped in the mouth of an indigenous person is a unique form of political resistance—no matter the context. There’s a weight of living that I know—a sort of space divided between the living and the dead. I say ’ipsúuski and it means creating or working something with my hands—which is to say I am practicing being worthy of my watchful ghosts. Or I say hands, and the English of it might mean violence or a sensual touch to stay alive. I say animal or myth, and I hear my tribal language—all the sáw sáw and quqú quqú—being translated into this tongue. When I hear body in so many contexts, they each mean something different in the writing of so many people. Our bones we carry are carved out of histories. It’s as deep as DNA. We surrender our current selves to those old ones who gave us this life-hollowed space to stay alive. We say I—and mine means ghost or implies indigenous existence = oxymoron. I don’t know—I’ve never intended to write anything political—but of course, my being in this skin is a political hostility. I never asked for this, but it has become part of every pattern I scribble into the page. Like a language you only began to speak by simply living.

What question do you wish we had asked?

How are you is a beautiful place to start. In any language.

~~~

MICHAEL WASSON is the author of This American Ghost (YesYes Books, 2017), winner of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Prize. His poems appear in American PoetsDrunken BoatNarrativeDenver QuarterlyPassages North, and Mud City Journal. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives abroad.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

I’m rereading June Jordan’s essays. I just finished revisiting Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha. Trying not to binge on Luke Cageright now! Enjoying Solange’s brilliance and style. I want to check out the Diane Arbusshow but what I really can’t wait for is Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition, MastryRita Dove and Robin Coste Lewis read at the 92nd Street Y next week and I didn’t want to miss that. Too, I want to read Ari Banias and celebrate him, have been looking forward to his first collection, Anybody, for years. Aziza BarnesJayson P. SmithJeremy ClarkAngel NafisRio Cortez, and Ricardo Hernandez are poets whose works and vibes excite me. I’m not sure I’d call any one of them ‘emerging’ because when you’re so fierce and devastating it’s right there. These poets are full-throated worlds. There’s no waiting or recognition needed from anything or anyone else. They already know.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

For me, being vigilant about self-care on a daily basis is critical. I think I add even more rituals and spaces to my life when something feels very difficult in the creative realm. I check in with myself frequently and keep things around me as low-key as I possibly can. So, more meditation, more laughter with friends, more sleep, more painting. I don’t just wait to practice self-care when difficult things arise in my work. A sustained practice allows me to get even deeper with hard material because I know I have tools and strategies to get myself out once the work is doing what I need it to do.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

This is an interesting question. The thing is that I’m not reactive like that. I don’t need to say anything to anyone. I have too much work to do. And honestly, my writing is not nearly as intense or as upsetting as what’s happening in this country right now. My writing and art is, currently, in tandem with an ugly, complex American narrative. If people can speak and listen, the work is there for them. But I also write about imagination, art, grief, desire, and joy. I would like to think I work across a number of mediums in an effort to exist in a three-dimensional space. Not flat or isolated. I’d never write or create anything if I had to worry about someone thinking whatever about me. They’ll do that anyway. That kind of control, or the need to police someone’s opinion of me, does me no good. So much of the time I’m thankful for the support and friendships I have with various communities where our commitment to the arts is mutual and shared.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

My recent writing has been much more transparent and autobiographical. My mother died in 2014 and most of my poems have lived and emerged from that grief and love. In the past I don’t think it has always necessarily been clear that I may or may not have been writing about my own life. In our time, people are very fixated on a breed of truth that sometimes doesn’t hold as much breadth or depth than how either ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ are defined. Because I sometimes write about something that may not be inherently autobiographical doesn’t mean it isn’t true or that it doesn’t hold some significance or meaning to an event or relationship in my life. I don’t need to convince anyone whether something really happened to me or not. I’m not writing non-fiction and I don’t think I’ll ever write a memoir. All of the believing and disbelief occurs in the truth of writing. The narrative or stanza bleeds in and through me. Certain types of assumptions can limit imagination and be charged with politics and fears that are narrow. I’m not a narrow artist. My workwriting, photography, painting, proseis all about expansiveness without sacrificing nuance, intelligence, or body.

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently? 

I’m not sure yet. It feels as though we’re in the middle of that impact. In immediate ways it’s evident that poets are connected, engaged, and able to communicate quite a bit of information. It’s been wonderful to receive links about articles, essays, and poems that would have traveled out into the world at a slower speed. Poets who may feel isolated are able to access a frequency or ‘hive’ in a number of ways whether it’s direct discussions on threads or simply posting drafts or thoughts about readings, current events, or interviews. For me, the frequency often tilts. Where social media happens, I often go and return. I need breaks. It can get noisy for me and like any room of creative and gifted individuals, there can be a range of opinions and tastes, some which I respect and others not as much. But that’s the point. For me, it’s more about social media being a space to connect to another person or group. I find out about cultures and people I don’t know if I would have ever discovered otherwise. But, too, I never forget that there is a human being behind that screen, not just a name, no matter how I feel. Even if I may not connect in opinion, I consider my agency and engagement with the space. I think social media allows groups, especially groups who have fought to have a collective voice, a way to urgently verbalize and recognize their needs. This may be a celebration or confrontation within the group or reactive to some event.

We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

We’ve always lived in some incarnation of a police/surveillance state. In this country, black bodies have never lived without being policed. If anything, the policing that happens now includes the people, who are now equipped with technology, at least, to participate in how the gaze and the narrative happens. But this relationship can also be broken down in so many ways, defended or accepted, for better and for worse. I’m certain that this current state has affected me. Sometimes I will need to ask friends, or even family, to refrain from photographing or sharing personal details when I want to be private, which is much of the time. I don’t think anyone cares where I’m having dinner or what I’m eating but I really need to have a private place. I don’t want to accommodate an internalized gaze…sometimes cameras can feel that way. And I’m a photographer so I think I’m a bit more sensitive to how and when and why a camera is needed and what the purpose is. I’m aware that when I’m in a public space I can’t have that kind of privacy on my terms. If I’m presenting my work, at a reading, or am working with others, I know that I am opening myself to community, but also to strangers. Risk has always been important to me and the work I create. Which makes a certain kind of visibility part of the experience. Though it makes me nervous, I don’t try to avoid it when I’m the role of artist, at least the part of it that arrives after the work is finished. It’s the work and the intention of the work that asks and insists for a response, a single reader, or a wider conversation.    

~~~

RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books), was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. A Kimbilio and Cave Canemfellow, Griffiths’ poetry and visual works have appeared widely. This month Griffiths’ photography and mixed media exhibit, American Stanzas: 2006 – 2016, will open at Poets House. She teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Sarah Lawrence College.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Lauren Yates

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Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

The vast majority of my writing is autobiographical. I actually find myself getting annoyed by people assuming my writing isn’t autobiographical. I’ll read a poem about injustice or trauma I’ve experienced and have people ask me, “Did that really happen?”

English classes always taught me to separate the speaker of a poem from the poet. I was taught not to assume. Now, I find myself seeking out poets’ biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs to try and map out which personal experiences appear in which poems.

I have had cries for help in my writing be ignored in favor of conversations about craft. I have written about feeling suicidal and have had people say, “That’s a beautiful poem,” instead of them acknowledging my threat to harm myself. I’m now training to be a therapist, and clinicians have to take every remark seriously. If a client is mad at their partner and says, “I could kill him,” we have to assess for homicidality. If we assume it’s a joke or an exaggeration and something goes down, that’s on us. So many poetry admirers forget that poets are people. This mindset is definitely one of the things that encouraged me to get a Master’s in Counseling Psychology rather than an MFA in Poetry.

Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question?

I see myself as a black poet that used to write about flowers. When I was younger, I was apolitical. I grew up in mostly white spaces, and my family always taught me to keep my head down and avoid making waves. Most of my poems were about unrequited love. Then I started writing about mental illness. Then my experiences with misogyny. And finally I started talking about race. I understand now that my family had discouraged me from talking about these things because they wanted to keep me safe. They tried to protect me, but it got to a point where the urgency with which I needed to speak on these topics outweighed my need to make my family feel comfortable. I think the short answer is that everything is political. Even if I name myself as a queer black woman then try to write about flowers, people will read into whether the flowers look like vaginas or what color the petals are. If I try to write about flowers to avoid being political, people are going to politicize it anyway. If that’s the case, I may as well write about whatever I damn well please.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

I am absolutely in support of self-identification in author bios. I used to say that I wish I had the luxury of being seen as just a “poet,” instead of being seen as a “black poet,” but that just isn’t possible. I wanted to be seen as a “poet” when I was writing about flowers, but that isn’t where I am anymore. I will say though that I think it’s unfair for white, cisgender, heterosexual male poets to get to be “poets” while everyone else ends up othered. I like to think my desire to be seen as just a poet was less about colorblindness and internalized “-isms” and more about wanting a shot at the privilege that white, cisgender, heterosexual male poets have. But I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

As a therapist-in-training, I specialize in bibliotherapy and poetry therapy with the LGBTQ+ community. Part of my research is coming up with a way to categorize poetry by the identity of the poet as well as the content of the poetry. If a black woman comes to me for therapy and says she is a lesbian who is married to a man, I would want to be able to point her in the direction of Audre Lorde. It’s not to say this woman couldn’t find comfort in the work of writers that don’t share her identity and experiences. But representation is so important.

Sometimes, you just need to know that you aren’t the only one out there. I once had a white woman come up to me after a reading and say my work really captures what it means to be a woman. It didn’t sit well with me. I appreciate the fact that my work spoke to her, but it felt like she was erasing my blackness. The two of us will never be alike. She has privilege that I don’t have. I don’t expect her to feel guilty about that, but at least be aware of it when addressing me.

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LAUREN YATES is a Pushcart-nominated poet who is currently based in Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared in NerveXOJaneCrab Orchard ReviewVinylSoftblow, and more. Lauren is a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly and a member of The Mission Statement poetry collective. In Winter 2015, she served as Poet in Residence at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University. When she is not writing poems, Lauren is working toward her M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology at Temple University.

Source: vidaweb.org