Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Kenyatta  JP Garcia

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

I would assume that my writing is read as being autobiographical even when it’s particularly disjointed, disorienting and filled with sci-fi/pop culture references. I am fine with these assumptions. My work is my way of trying to translate my thoughts for others to read when I can’t actually speak to them. If I use the body of a cyborg to speak for my mixed self, I’m fine with that. If the wasteland is a metaphor for asexuality, that’s fine too. And if a genderqueer writer such as myself writes a bit of a surrealist, futurist epic without any pronouns there’s probably a good reason for that. Read my poems and maybe you can read me.

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

Reading should be listening. You need to use your “mental ears” as JH Prynne put it. Allies should put their ears to the poem and listen closely to the message. Do a deep hearing. Allow a poem to be immersed within their self. Then an ally can respond/reply to the piece. Then a reader can decide what to do with the message and how best to spread that message. An ally needs to do more than mimic. An ally needs to be engaged with the battle. They need to be in the line of fire and not merely enjoy the victory because a loss can no longer be endured. And yet, an ally doesn’t always need to take up arms or words but can also serve as a shield. Sometimes silence allows for sounds to be transmitted, voices to be heard. Allies can quiet the noise of those who are opposed to the struggle but they can only do this when they truly understand why one is struggling, what the struggle is and how one struggles.

Does gender or gender performance affect your writing?

Yes. I remove gender pronouns from the vast majority of my work. In fact, I rarely even use gendered words like mother/father or sister/brother in favor of parent or sibling. In this way, I open the poem up to all folks to either relate to the poem or to be distanced from the poem in the same ways I have as a genderqueer poet. That is to say, ‘he’ feels uncomfortable to me. I don’t feel he in me even if I was assigned male at birth. And yet, I am not ‘she.’ I’ll never understand that no matter how much make-up I wear, nor if i wear a dress, not even if I’ve been catcalled before the realization sets in (for the catcaller)  and I’m automatically returned to the male gender that I was removing myself from. So, in my poetry I set out oftentimes to voice a variety of selves. Of perception. Of how I am perceived. I use poetry to present multiple identities and to allow those identities to perform against the restrictions I feel in my actual life. I perform a freedom of gender.

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?

This absolutely resonates with me. As a geeky person, I face this question also in terms of bringing in speculative elements into my poetry. That is to say, why can’t I write about robots and aliens the same way white folks do? So, in response to Barnes, I would say, we can write about flowers. We just can’t write just about flowers. We have to bring flowers into our fields. We need to give space to flowers within our poems and to allow flowers to grow in those poems. In fact, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been really giving flowers room to bloom in my work ever since I first read that line. Of course, for me, flowers mean something a little bit different for me as a queer black writer who refers to themself as a pansy.


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

Social media has allowed poets to speak outside of their poems. We’ve been given another way to express ourselves. We are allowed to redefine or further refine our selves beyond the stanzas. We can speak to each other and our audiences without the restrictions of our form. Social media has allowed me to write about certain topics I would never write about in a poem and in a way I never would in poetry. Also, social media has given marginalized writers a space for expression. We can go around lit mags and presses or we can use social media to spread the words within the mags, journals and books. In many ways, social media and poetry are perfect for each other. Poets are many times very concise writers and social media is all about the short form. I mean, if you can master the couplet, drop a hook, coin a phrase, make a new word, then social media is for you.


Kenyatta JP GarciaKENYATTA JP GARCIA is the author of several books including: This Sentimental Education, ROBOT, and Playing Dead. They were raised in Brooklyn, NY before moving to Albany, NY where they received a degree in linguistics. In addition, Garcia spent a dozen years as a cook and currently spends their nights being paid to put boxes on shelves while using the daylight hours to write poetry and humor, read lots of comic books and edit Horse Less Review.


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.