Chicago is my hometown, I grew up here as a poor brown queer awkward butch girl, and snuck into open mics at Aloha Café to watch Mama Maria Mccray and Patricia Smith. I co-hosted Women OutLoud with Tara Betts, Lucy Anderton, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai in Wicker Park when it was actually Wicker Park. I had a fake ID that had a random Chinese woman’s face (b/c white supremacy seems to think all Asians look alike) on it just to sneak into bars for slam poetry events. I say these things because I was never a drinker, but poetry was the one thing I could count on as a poor kid growing up. Poetry continues to be the thing of which I am never enough of and where I feel most enough in the best of times.
I say this seriously: poetry has raised me when adults couldn’t.
If I were to share with you my practice, here, there are no lies:
- 50% of my book, When The Chant Comes was written laying down. I am not telling you this in any sexualized way, but in the chronic pain, my bed is my orbit, all the gravity of what I have to give, goes into this bed. So sick, I am eating just peanut butter maybe, kind of writing. Means poetry lines at twilight, spasms on stanzas, the body unruly, the poem in chaos, a sonnet felt skeletal, a line shaky in my sinew. I wrote from blood memory.
- If you hustle in multiple ways and rep just as many communities, you have been a translator all your life, you have been doing the advocacy of your communities and that has been a skill built into your poetry. I have been a server, a martial arts instructor, a homeless shelter programs director, Gay for Pay, consultant for disability accessibility, dog walker. Each job, important, each job there’s a poem. Each job, I learned rhythm, I failed and flailed, each job taught me texture and contrast, an awareness that colors poetry making.
- I write from some kind of obliteration of disabled Black and Brown Queer Ancestors, may Femme, that came before me–Frida Kahlo, Harriet Tubman, Grace Lee Boggs, Martha P. Johnson, Pauli Murray. Come correct: They did not choose me, I have in fact, found them, longed for them, searched, I had to survive, you see.
Simultaneously, my practice is directly engaged with finding home, a constant recalibration of the word. That is political work, as someone kicked out, left out, family forced out & migrated, I have learned that poetry is both cultural and political strategy, a way to carve praxis as a cultural engagement where my migrant domestic worker ma, my strange and precarious young queer brown scholarship ways, Trans Justice organizer, as Disability Justice advocate, can carve out wholeness in ways that are impossible in other fields and crafts. I can write among poets who share values, who uplift difference not flatten it, who push back on whatever normalized humanity may be. I do this with various organizations, not in a vacuum, as a Disabled person, if arts organizations don’t have ramps, scent-free space, ASL translators, realize there is a Disabled poetic, I contribute to groups of Disabled space, Sick and Queer community. I circulate the names of those who may not be in the literary or MFA track. It isn’t just a counter narrative, it’s narrative, period.
It means more than writing poems. Sometimes it means chosen family–helping one another get food, go to the SSDI office, send text messages of support or sit with someone in the medical lobby before people get misgendered or body-shamed. It means being on someone’s care team when they are in suicidal ideation and creating a response plan.
It means the best potlucks and the DJ who’s your cousin’s friend who emcees at the spot up the block. Poetry has brought me the best relationships, where I found a poem on a microphone, I also found a couch to sleep on when there was nowhere to go. I believe poetry comes from this capacity. To find a witness to your life and ancestors when mainstream world thinks you are dust; thinks nothing of you at all. I’ve learned that the real good poems might have nothing to do with writing but more so, showing up for your people, making home when we all are looking for it or have lost it. To capture that, is the landscape from which you write, is the fieldwork, is the real work.
How many people ask themselves during their poetry writing process, or when you address any piece really, Who is this for? This is a primary concern for me. Poetry isn’t just about craft or my work ethic, it involves a spiritual commitment for a job or skill that gets very little compensation. Poetry stardom has only been a recent development, in the last decade. As Trans Japanese Hawaiian poet and writer, Ryka Aoki said at the Lambda Literary Retreat in 2017, “People do not make movies out of poetry books. We don’t have that level of extension. What we do have is intimacy.”
I think our goals as poets are to create words for that published book or self-published chapbook to get raggedy, to be folded in someone’s pocket, be the poem at someone’s pot luck or strategy session, be the text taken to a protest in a backpack, to be durable. I believe that the goal is to fuel the urgency and be the grace that gets to be the book at a stranger’s bedside when that person feels the most lost, in need of consolation. Are you ready for that responsibility? I can say, I am never ready.
Currently, most of my political engagement with poetry has been to realize that maybe my audience and community may not necessarily be other poets. Correction: not exclusively poets. That means, I want my lola or my cousins to read a poem and get it. I feel it is an offering them to some capacity. That’s a goal I have in my work: poetry as offering. Poetry as a process of integrity. I have a circle of kindred poets in my life who range from theatre, slam poetry, literary publishing, community organizing, social workers, moms, all kinds of poets who can give me a temperature check, who help me deliberate where can I be the most tactful, the most poignant, at the very least, the most raw and the most whole with my work.
Questions I ask myself or when I teach a workshop with other poets include – Write these down and answer when you need:
- Is the integrity there?
- Does it bring exhilaration?
- Does it hold silence in ways that work for the poem?
- What would your ancestors say?
- Are you doing the work the poem needs to be honorable?
- What does the care before, during, and after the poem feel/look/move like?
- On the 7th city, when you miss your dog, your bed, every stranger asks something of you, and schools / auditoriums / community org rooms all smell the same, the news is perpetually something horrible and all the food is gluten, and you are clearly the token slash spectacle here to represent your people, tell me–what elates you? What eases you? How do you find these things and what network is in place for you to access a buoy of care? What keeps you alive to write, read, & live the poem?
Poetry is a political strategy, if you urge it so. I was born in the US Empire. The state imposed and continues to havoc, real talk: A QTPOC median age of survival is 35, even less if you are a Trans POC and a Trans Woman of Color. I have buried and prayed over many friends. In my book, the acknowledgments herald about seven people who are no longer with us due to a cruel world that hinders those who breathe at the intersections. Sometimes poetry the strategy, a practice I want to aim and focus margins to the center is what keeps me living. It’s an alliance of research + mindfulness + needs assessment + scarcity + just the dream of abundance. I am an organizer by trade, a social worker from training, a poet because Chicago made me do it. I’ve learned that too many times institutions, Poetry Inc. included, only pave the way for the privileged. Poetry Inc. is not collective, it is competition. From a communal standpoint, from a climate justice perspective where we are all connected to the land, that the land and sea and elements exist before us, with us:
- How can we incite connectivity in our work?
- How can we use interdependence here?
- Do people know what interdependence is?
I have served on boards in arts and cultural organizing spaces like Leeway Foundation, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Trans Justice Funding Project to consider which communities need resources to create programs, organizing development, movement building, and spaces that don’t consider art as an insular singular practice, but a practice that tangibly invigorates those who are at the margins to be at the center. First and foremost, my strategy is one of witness and nuance. My core audience is Transgender, Non-Binary, People of Color, Disabled and Sick people who can’t afford to go to events or speak literary or organizing semantics. People who may not be able to navigate respectability anything but just want to survive, have housing, self-determination, food, access to hormones, access to medical care, not be harassed by the cops. It has never been a question if my poetry practice engages politics and comes from community, because from the start, I had no say in the matter.
Something I have learned and keep learning is that poetry, or any art practice, may have political content and reside in the solo experience, may process through the violence, but does this make for political strategy alone? I don’t think so. Political content does not equal liberatory practice. We are not always the best organizers, containers, mediators, we are not trained in crisis management and response, each separate and necessary skills to remember as a poet. Honor those separate skills and don’t appropriate them.
To push further:
As poets, how can we move from individual feelings into cultural social change? What does transformation feel like in the work you do, in the relationships you build? Is that something you want to do? I don’t always think writing a poem is enough. I don’t always consider writing about any given topic is plainly transformation–knowledge building, exposing content and subject, igniting issues relevant to this climate, yes, but until we connect our poems outside the static milieu of Poetry (Inc.) will we realize the level of promise and power poetry actually has.
Additionally, I think for Black, Brown, Indigenous, Migrant & Queer/Non-Binary Transgender writers, we have known this to be true–we write even when we aren’t considered for publication, not asked to be the table, invited but for no pay if invited at all, dissected into palatable discourse, parsed from self-determination. We usually are your tokens, the brief guest. It’s been the lineage of over kitchen tables: poetry. At the protests: poetry. While organizing fair wages: poetry. At the drag queen show on the west side or in Harlem: poetry. To keep her company while she cleaned white peoples houses, my ma made me read: poetry. Poetry has been rapture and rupture, has been bloodline all along.
I made a list of what poetic politic means for me, what brought me here to writing, to speaking with you:
- In my family, everybody is dead and I am all that is left. I write a living archive to remember my ancestors.
- My elders got on a boat, a plane, crossed borders, fled martial law, lived in forced migration, and survived check points so that I could tell their stories to my best ability.
- I never read a poem in high school or college settings about Trans people. I never read a poem that talked about our joy. Our love. Our magic.
- When I was an 11-year-old kid in rural Michigan and then a high school student living in Logan Square Chicago, I looked up at each library, the kind of old libraries with the pull out wooden drawers, on the huge box screen computers, I typed in the words “Transgender” + “Filipino” + “Poetry,” searched for any combination of those words and nothing came up.
- According to the True Colors Fund, LGBTQ Youth are 120% More Likely to Experience Homelessness. Of those stats 1/10 homeless adults transition to having permanent homes. As a young Queer & Transgender POC who has survived, it is my duty to write about what I have learned.
- “The first function of poetry is to tell the truth, to learn how to do that, to find out what you really feel and what you really think.” – June Jordan
- Name 3 Disabled Poets. I bet many people just can’t. Bet all the ones people know are white people, and mostly cis white women. Cis white people in general can make careers and stories of suffering and have it be award-winning, lucrative. Why is that? Whose pain is allowed to be artistic and canon?
- TRUTH: I am the first Transgender and Non-Binary person published/interviewed in the Asian American Literary Review. This was in 2017.
- TRUTH: In panels at Split This Rock, AWP, and Thinking Its Presence, I am usually the ONLY Disabled person of Color and/or Transgender Person of Color if not, of a couple people. Usually surrounded in white voices or isolated in cis abled Black, Indigenous, and POC community.
- Question: What does it mean to love something like poetry so much, but feel like the only? Here is an example of some inquiries I receive in this year alone from students and young Queer & Trans People of Color, Disabled People of my communities after 18 campuses, 5 conferences, 7 workshops, 4 keynotes:
- I’m the first to go to college in my family, how did you make it?
- What did your parents say when you came out?
- My school isn’t accessible, the bathrooms are still very gendered, so I can’t really concentrate because of all the systemic dysphoria. Will it go away?
- I am the only POC in my class and all I hear are microaggressions, what do I do?
- My parents are dead, too. How does the missing stop hurting?
- I am working 2-3 jobs and going to school. I realize that I am surrounded by rich white and straight people. How do I find community?
- How do you stay alive?
- The chronic pain is so bad sometimes, that everyone thinks I am lazy, because I am late to that class/meeting/event, but none of those spaces are built for my body.
- I see my people attacked or killed all the time, it is really hard to focus on anything else. I can’t get up out of bed. How do you do it?
- Would you take an IG video/story with me? I want to send it to my parents–They said they don’t know any other Transgender Filipinx and I want to them know we exist–so let’s do a video and I’ll send it to them, ok?
Poetry engages in the body-mind, a term that disability justice activists such as Eli Clare use to describe flesh and blood, skin and neuron, tremor and tension, shame and acceptance. How these interact in concert, as wholeness, beyond the binaries enforced usually by white and US standards, is where I want to create, dream, and aspire.
At a Lincoln Center feature in 2016, during a Q&A of mostly white abled straight arts educators, a kind white cis woman asked but more like exclaimed: Aren’t you scared of who you’ll alienate with your poetry and how your politics might push people away?
Naturally, my answer was: Which people? If that is your immediate reaction to my work, then perhaps my work isn’t for you and that is okay. However, if you think about it in a quantifiable sense, I actually cast a hilariously wide net. That my perspective embraces communities four to five fold. Have you heard of a two-fer? I am basically a five-fer. In my text and conversations, there are inevitable realities in tandem, in struggle, in consideration. I actually benefit, learn from, and embody so many kinds of people. It was my turn to ask her the question: Who gets the privilege to feel alienated?
I want to find out, how do you care for the body-mind? What ways does your poetry ignite the catharsis and in what ways do you release it? The forces that hurt you, what ways you internalize harm, are they a residence in your heart? How do you let go? Can you? What is transformation for you, for those you share experiences with?
Currently, I am wary of the use of “the body” in poetry as a place of the individual. Everybody talks about the “the body” as a theoretical device and I am concerned how we treat bodies–our own, our friends’ and lovers’, our work after the work, the earth, this universe. Bodies for many aren’t simply a concept but a constant target and joy in multiplicity, whether via invasive racism, ableism, and cissexism, we are told above all: to produce. We are taught the American way of work hard enough and eventually, glory. We are taught as poets that writing is a labor of constant output, of competition, corporatized or circulated with the goals of able-bodied exceptionalism deeply out of touch with the realistic systemic impacts of oppression in general, plus the isolation that follows it. We are in a world of disaster and able-bodied society wants little to do with many of us who experience chronic pain, disability, mental disabilities, and neurodiversity or any experience not in the scantron of Good American Law Abiding Citizen.
In my dedications to social change, in order to transform how poetry functions, is rendered, and remembered, I am curious about:
- Who gets to be cited, quoted, and published?
- What about those patterns need to re-thought & possibly dismantled?
Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan wrote:
- They are afraid of the magnificence of our works,
- They are even afraid of our songs of love.
Knowing this, more questions I am dedicated to:
- What do you do with heartache?
- What do you do with urgency?
- What ways does poetry push us to the urgent and also to the trauma?
- What ways do we collaborate and build trust?
- What ways do we examine our privilege in this empire and redistribute the resources and spaces we create for one another?
- What communities and gaps are missing in the journal, anthology, groups, book, collective you’ve created?
- What ways do you envision transformation in your writing? In your work practice, in your relationship building?
- How does poetic transformation extend imagination to goals for liberation?
- Tell me about joy?
I would like to close with Sins Invalid quote:
“All bodies are unique and essential. All bodies are whole. All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them.”
My poetry practice is beholden to queering, browning, wobbling words. Identity formation is only surface. How you treat people and how you are kindred to them, how you try and gather stories for your chosen families help to illustrate and illuminate perceptions of your people. When I think of writing, I think of loss, making mistakes, and a sense of nourishment. How can you use a poetic strategy to nourish your self and those who came before you? How do you honor those in your communities who’ve done this work, work you have not invented but take nourish from? How do you name the QTPOC and Disabled people who brought you here even if you haven’t met? How can you use a poetic strategy to build a future where we may be intergalactic? I hope for us a poetry practice that is beyond resilience, beyond boasts of survival, BEYOND any Special Issue in the literary world. I want a new lexicon that develops a map, a map where we find our words to envision a new world or a world we belonged to originally. I know some of you are living this work now, being the archivists we need to stay alive and to dream beyond apocalypse. I am so blessed to be in your company. I cannot wait to find your poems if I haven’t already. All our bodies, the human, and the poetic are essential.
Lastly, don’t let the bootstraps choke the joy you bring and the poems you create. Again with food as my fave metaphor. There is no pie, we can make enough for everyone, no limited number of words or awards. That lie won’t make good poetry. Pretention doesn’t make for good poetry. That game will starve you. Poetry is nourishment, friends. Think about the first poem you read or heard at an open mic that utterly gutted you, made you cry, made you scream up from your seat, made you throttle holler. That’s the poetry, the sweetest spot. Know this: you are worthy of so much more than that. You are your grandmother, this galaxy, this full gulp of water, the next student whose name they butcher on the roster. No, pressure but let them protect you. Liberation lives inside you, it always has.
Adapted from “Poetry as offering: To practice in poetry & live in the body-mind,” Poetry Incubator Guest Faculty Speech July, 2018.
KAY ULANDAY BARRETT aka @brownroundboi, is a poet and cultural strategist. K. has featured at The Lincoln Center, Princeton University, UC Berkeley, Brooklyn Museum, The Chicago Historical Society, New York Poetry Festival, The Hemispheric Institute, and National Queer Arts Festival. They are a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and has received fellowships from Lambda Literary, VONA/Voices, The Home School, and Drunken Boat. The have featured, served on boards, and panels for FIERCE!, The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, The Transgender Law Center, Leeway Foundation, The Trans Justice Funding Project, and more. Their contributions are found in PBS News Hour, them., NYLON, Fusion.net, Trans Bodies/Trans Selves, RaceForward, Everyday Feminism, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, and Bitch Magazine. They currently co-curate at The Asian American Writers Workshop, are the 2018 Lambda Literary Review Writer-In-Residence in Poetry, and Guest Faculty at The Poetry Foundation, and Crescendo Literary. When The Chant Comes (Topside Press, 2016) is their first collection of poetry. kaybarrett.net. Photo by Jess X. Snow.