Nepantla’s Queer Women of Color Odes to Literary Ancestors

An image of the cover of the Nepantla anthology. The words QUEER POETS OF COLOR are in a large bold font at the top, above a photograph of a light-skinned person with short dark hair. They're bent forward, and only the front half of their unclothed body can be seen. Their gender and race are ambiguous.Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color is coming out from Nightboat Books on May 1, 2018, though I originally began editing this project about four years ago with Lambda Literary, as an online journal. The anthology covers 100 years of queer of color history, since the Harlem Renaissance. To celebrate the launch of this historic project, VIDA has provided the space for several of the queer women of color in the anthology to write odes for the other queer women of color who also appear in the anthology but are deceased. Below is an intergenerational literary dialogue, from one generation to the next, from the living poets to those who have passed. I hope you enjoy these conversations, these love letters, letters of appreciation, across time and space. — Christopher Soto


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, and on the right, the late tatiana de la tierra.

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza on tatiana de la tierra

tatiana de la tierra—you, unsavory, unapologetic, unashamed, carried yourself through the world as a beacon of light for the Others, the Latina lesbians who never had the chance to experience home the way those whose identities are socially permitted and empowered do—you empowered yourself and the other unsavory lesbians with your beautiful, raw words, your language that cut and healed in one stroke, and your spiritual practice, and your love, and your unwillingness to speak of your sexuality in the terms of the structures determined to crush it—you, of the earth, but not of this world, dreamed into life a better world, one where lesbians who are ugly, who are broke, whose bodies are made to feel unworthy of love could be joyously celebrated and uplifted and desired—tatiana de la tierra, your cleansing fire continues to burn in the words you have left us, and will spread always through the women you so generously and selflessly gave your light to.  —Joshua Jennifer Espinoza


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, a black and white photograph of Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and on the right, an image of Ai in profile.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths on Ai

I want to write about what shivered through my body when I first encountered the poetry of Ai. My words would be inside of her words: snow, ice, heart, silk, sex, mouth, animal, want.

And of course, the furious declaration of her selected name, Ai, which means love in Japanese. While I know that her father was Japanese I believe that her choice of name was Hydra-headed. There is a deafening announcement of the self, the “I” and “eye.” Next there is the insistence and Othering of love, which would be reflected through the personae in her poems. Love is a foreign country, domestic yet lawless, a wilderness, which grapples with how human beings articulate, achieve, and asphyxiate love, even if that should require perversion, violence, torture, and death.  

In the word “Ai” too there is something utterly primal for me. Kin to Lorca’s theory of duende, I return to Ai over and over again so much so that her words drift like loose teeth inside my guts. To meet Ai in her poems requires both resistance and will. Her poetry is neither meant to entertain nor suffer fools. I place Ai next to the long line of black women who have employed (and subverted) forms, traditions, and code-switching to electric, raw effect. Her poems side-eyed us long before the gesture was appropriated. The crafting of these feats by black women, which occur as organically and deliberately as the black body that delivers and cultivates them.  Immediately I think of sound and how the lyric happen, nearly ordinarily in Ai’s writing, until one realizes the sum of the entire experience. I think of a singer who uses the device of the standard to offer us something that belongs to us whether we want it or not. These are women who literally use their voices to become your own voice, bringing you to your knees or to your ecstasy. I would have loved to listen to Billie Holiday or Nina Simone sing out one of Ai’s poems. How those women would have had to charge their breath, their beauty and power to hold the music of such wounds. No riffing, no making this blues into something palatable for a man’s pain. In fact, some of Simone’s versions of such songs as “The Other Woman,” “I Put a Spell On You,” or “Don’t Smoke in Bed” achieve this effect. There are no victims in these standards. Rather, sadness mingles with a veiled, or explicit, threat. The beloved is urged to think twice, to not underestimate the lengths and depths one undertakes in or beyond love. Whether the body confronts its own mercy or cruelty or, often, death, the loved and loveless bodies in Ai’s work are first going to speak and with agency. The terror is often charming, wide-eyed even as the injury or possibility of death is considered and appraised. As readers we will be told. Our complicity in devouring these bodies rendered as an unforgivable yet necessary intimacy.

In “Twenty-year Marriage,” Ai defines the severe and impossible terms of desire, and even, love. She writes, “I’ll pull, you push, we’ll tear each other in half.” Worship, possession, separation, obsession arrive with a clarity that makes me breathless.

Lately I’ve been looking again at “The Kid” because it embodies and defines the terrorism of primarily young, American white males, “I’m fourteen. I’m a wind from nowhere. / I can break your heart.”

On the other side of that spectrum of massacre there is the contrast of survival. In her poem “Nothing But Color,” Ai’s ending is “I mean to live.” This is the line that helped me write my fourth collection Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books, 2015). She shadows my tonal explorations in the collection frequently. The first poem of the book, “Woman to Lightning,” is explicitly written to and after Ai. While I crawled through my own psychic ruins, attempting to reconstruct my own ribs and heart, it was Ai who hissed and breathed for me. The mid-wife and lover who helped me die then birth myself into a full, uncompromising woman after my mother’s death.

To read Ai is to meet her in labor, in the devastating contractions and seizures of life itself, being born or in many of her persona poems, murdered. There is also the notion of reclamation (pre-Maxine Waters). The lovers and their bodies offer themselves in modes of vulnerability they can’t withstand, can’t tolerate, can’t control. It’s the voice of certain women in these poems who acknowledge this, make that mortal offering, and then remind us that everything can be different, can be returned to something far more powerful in its awareness beyond its site of origin.

It is this voice I hear in myself when I read Ai or when I’m working through/against my difficult inner life. The sweetness tinged with sadness and fury. The mercy and violence I find inside my body is often both old and new. It leaves me in a state of half-death, half-life, which I suppose is living. And then the complicated, profound act of living remains wonderful to me, as Ai remains wonderful and terrible to me. I could keep going but I’ll end here, inside of wonder and terror. This is the ending of Ai’s “Woman to Man:”

But open your mouth,
I’ll give you a taste of black
you won’t forget.
For a while, I’ll let it make you strong,
make your heart lion
then I’ll take it back.

These are the lines of Ai that wrecked me wide and make me hot. These words are blackety-black-black. There’s no hinge, no ceiling, no hell. There is abiding and indefatigable blackness. Inside that black mouth there is a beast of ancient, great-gold strength. There is hunger and a feeding. There is blood and teeth. There is possession and communion. A kindness laces an explicit threat.

This feels unbearable and amusing, like the wonder in Eartha Kitt’s raspy voice in a now, viral video considering love and self. Against a backdrop of wild, surging purple curtain of hibiscus, her cheekbones are regal, her eyes are clear. Kitt purrs, laughs, and finally roars at the notion of surrender in intimacy: Compromise for what reason? For What? What is Compromise…(cue more of Kitt’s amused yet defiant laughter before she spits out the word) Stupid!

This is the timbre and texture of voice that makes Ai’s work both sacred and plainspoken to me. There is not much to think about because the work itself is knowing, intuitive, intelligent in its discerning of where intimacy, desire, and fear tear us into shattered halves of unutterable words. Ai attempts to come towards herself, towards us, enduring those muddied shards and truths. I’m astonished. I’m bothered and I want to stay that way. Live in the voice of a woman who had shit to say.  —Rachel Eliza Griffiths


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, close-up of Irene Villaseñor, and on the right, a black and white photograph of Paula Gunn Allen.

Irene Villaseñor on Paula Gunn Allen

Paula Gunn Allen, 1939 – 2008
(Laguna Pueblo, Métis, Scottish, and Lebanese)

“Human beings need to belong to a tradition and equally need to
know about the world in which they find themselves.”

There are things about contemporary society I still don’t understand 
and refuse to accept: the supremacy of men, the need to control women, the condemnation of queer and transgender peoples, the use of race to justify domination, the exploitation of nature, the necessity of borders, the attraction to war. By contrast, Paula Gunn Allen’s “The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions.” (1986) presented the idea of worlds and legacies where I wasn’t a fool, savage, or bleeding heart for believing in something better. Allen created a space where someone like me (like her) could exist in the center instead of the margins–a multiracial women closely identified with her Indigenous heritages who responds to world’s insanity with activism, education, and poetry. Furthermore, her cogent analysis of how we got here made me feel situated instead of abandoned to the harsh realities of misogyny, colonialism, and homophobia. She provided a philosophical framework for what I sensed but don’t discuss yet with my parents. They grew up being shamed for their heritage and I have come to understand their reticence. The Philippines has the highest number of indigenous and environmental activists murdered last year in Asia. Recently, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Kankanaey Igorot), the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was placed on the Philippine government’s list of terrorists after advocating for the rights of people in Mindanao. —Irene Villaseñor


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, close-up of Joy KMT, and on the right, a black and white photograph of Pat Parker.

Joy KMT on Pat Parker

To Pat Parker from a poet who lost her voice: 

You saw the invisible lines choking and spinning and jerking and conniving. You machete for tongue. Cut the lies out of thick dead air, make us see where we have allowed ourselves to disappear, where we have shushed ourselves under choruses of violence. 

Thank you. I have a language. You named crazy:

Rage and also/sometimes love. You show me how we can Be crazy rage love & open ourselves, tender & thunderously, to each other. Because of & Anyway. —Joy KMT


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, Ryka Aoki, and on the right, a black and white photograph of Audre Lorde.

Ryka Aoki on Audre Lorde

Ms. Lorde. I would never call you by first name. I would never be that close. Mother, sister, aunty…  No, no, no… No.  Not because of you, but because in that closeness, I would never to arrive late to you, roll my eyes at you, fall asleep in the back row of your words. I would never rant against you, post crap on about you. I would never scoff at your philosophies, your lessons, your songs, yet hear them whenever I face the next blank page of day. I would never picture you holding the tools of our trade, cutting poems from the inside of our skin. I would never write despite you, in defiance of you, in honor of you. I would never write and write, think of you, then write some more. I would never hope that one day I might meet you, cry to you, say thank you. I would never hope to one day hear you, Ms. Lorde, say so knowingly,  “You silly girl. You had it in you all along.” —Ryka Aoki


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, Samiya Bashir, and on the right, a black and white photograph of June Jordan.

Samiya Bashir on June Jordan

But what about sunlight though? What about thousands of miles from home? What about what is [in-breath—nepantla!] home anyway? What about how you made it, home, the light in the trill of a giggle? How you evinced it, love, a rose garden pruned and pruned to grow thick and so worth the trouble. What about self-defense? (Heh.) What about why? (Heh.) What about what’s-that-now, Baby? [out-breath] What about no, really, somebody better tell me something or things bout to get wildly out of hand up in here?! What about fuck modification? “We have choices,” you reminded you remind, “and capitulation is only one of them.” What about to recreate and always and already and hmmm? What about walking streets and corridors and stairs and yards and parks and streets and pulling people along with you, people rendered bird-sight, rendered metal-eyed to magnet? What about you, field, who did not leave us? Oh, June. What if we won’t let you? [breathing](We won’t let you?)[breathing] What about how? What about where? What about sunlight though? What about chant and giggle and contralto? What about hmmmmmm? What about gift? To be: the verb we activate. To be the verb, we activate. [no::contralto] To be the verb, we, activate. What about now? (Breathing.)(Breathing.) —Samiya Bashir


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, JP Howard, and on the right, Monica Hand.

JP Howard on Monica Hand

Letting Go/Holding On (a Haibun dedicated to Monica Hand) 

Dear Monica, Tonight I found some of our old emails and texts. I am always letting go and holding onto you friend. I found those Haibun poems you wrote and sent to me during your residency in Greece over seven years ago. In one you wrote about a fellow poet in residency, “Many of her poems are elegies for poets she has known. They are both sad and beautiful.” Years later, all I see is my reflection in your poem. I am living through a whole season of elegiac stanzas for lost sista poets. When April draws to a close, I remember how you wrote to me, after thirty days of exchanging a poem a day, during the first of our many years of national poetry month poetry exchanges. You told me, “J, I love the way we write each other, the way participants in a dream circle dream together. I am going to miss the 30-day exchange, but hope you and I have begun a new connection.” Soon after, you are one of my first friends I tell that my lover and I may break up and that I am feeling uncertain of everything, especially my poems. Your words lift me up, “JP, I love your poems and your spirit. Trust I will stay in touch.” Monica, know that I am holding onto you daily, your stunning poet words, your mentoring, how to walk through the world as a loud, proud, black, queer wymin poet mama. When I nurture my children or my friends or my lover (I will always remember how happy you were to learn we worked through our struggles), when I remind them they are a gift to the world, I am reflecting and gifting our friendship.

I am letting go

Holding palms open for you

Your friendship, a gift

—JP Howard


Two photos of queer women of color side by side. On the left, Fatima Espiritu, and on the right, Beth Brant.

Fatima Espiritu on Beth Brant

Beth, Degonwadonti, I have the luck of having been introduced to your work recently. You are that rare person who has made an art-form of living, turning the wholeness of moments into moments of wholeness within your writings. When I reach back to find other queer multiracial women writers, you are there, and that is a gift. It is rare for me and so many others you have blessed to see themselves as dynamic creators in history. In allowing yourself to live in the ways that you needed, you have shown me my second wind as a woman, writer, and reader. Thank you for choosing to share your life with us. Thank you for making me feel giddy and awe-struck again. —Fatima Espiritu