Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Christopher Soto

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

I try not to force myself into retraumatization when writing. I don’t think it’s necessary. If I’m not ready to talk about particular subject matter, then I will simply write about my unreadiness to talk. This in itself is addressing the issue at hand, while allowing the author to have control over how they address their trauma. There are several small techniques like this that I use.

Mayakovsky Wikimedia Public Domain

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

I’ve only had a few hate emails at this point in my career. My work is definitely disagreeable, but I think most folks like learning new perspectives or being challenged to think differently. I think about my work in relationship to punk (as Langston had Blues and Lorca had Gypsy Ballads). For anyone struggling with my work, maybe consider the music of my poems in relationship to these two other figures. Or maybe consider the literary history of agitprop (agitative propaganda) poetry, such as Mayakovsky. There are literary and political lineages in my work that I hope make the read worthwhile, even to folks who disagree with my opinions. My ultimate desire is not to disengage people but to inspire critical conversation and to keep legacies of artistic resistance alive.

What poets do you identify with, or feel you are grouped with by editors, readers, conference organizers, or educators? What misconceptions do you see about these groupings of poets? Do you feel these groupings can be useful, can be potentially marginalizing or disenfranchising, or can be both?

My two great teachers are Yusef Komunyakaa and Eileen Myles. They are both very different aesthetically and in how they communicate with poems. I don’t really see myself fitting in any particular camp or poetry movement at the moment. Though I enjoy much of what my peers (such as Solmaz Sharif) are producing. I identify as a political surrealist and look to poets such as June Jordan and Roque Dalton, mostly. Some folks are grouped according to social circle in poetry, as opposed to aesthetic. I think this sort of happened to me with the Undocupoets Campaign. I become affiliated with Javier and Marcelo, though I write much differently than them. I actually feel like a more appropriate grouping for me would be next to Ocean Vuong, Eduardo C Corral, and Natalie Diaz. I think of them as working very close to political surrealism.

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

I think it has made me more afraid. I’m afraid of the poems that I write sometimes and how they will be received. I’ve faced employment discrimination and been stalked by rogue militia in the US because of my politics. Standing up against injustice can be daunting. My newer work is still addressing the police state and police brutality but I’m trying to be more inviting (as opposed to militant) in my opinions. Hopefully I don’t end up on a terrorist watch list after my manuscript comes out.Christopher Soto Sad Girl Poems Cover

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

I had a conversation with my friend Elisa Gonzalez about the way that different generations engage with poetry. Many of my peers do not read hard copies of literary journals, but rather circulate poems on social media. Many of my predecessors will read hard copy literary journals but not be present on social media. Because of this I think there is a possibility for disconnect between what folks of different generations are reading or considering to be the center of American Poetry. I’m interested in how social media has democratized, in a sense, the publication of poetry (re: CA Conrad and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza often have well-circulated poems that they publish online). Danez Smith has great online circulation and presence too. Now, I’m thinking about social media in relationship to branding. I think social media has changed distribution and branding of poets. (Or maybe not, I’ve always existed with social media in the literary world.)

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

This is difficult to name. I don’t think I have a concrete answer. I don’t want to put up a wall around what people can and cannot say. Maybe it’s about intentionality. I heard that, in an article, Roger Reeves asked for permission from the deceased to speak their names. This is the sort of reverence with which I want to approach my work. I don’t want to exploit suffering but I want the suffering to be addressed.


Christopher SotoCHRISTOPHER SOTO (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet & prison abolitionist. They edit Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color with the Lambda Literary Foundation. They cofounded The Undocupoets Campaign with Javier Zamora & Marcelo Hernandez Castillo in 2015. Their first chapbook Sad Girl Poems is available from Sibling Rivalry Press.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.