This conversation between Rosebud Ben-Oni and Christopher Soto (Loma) is part of Variant Dreams, a Conversant series celebrating artists of color who identify as trans, intersex, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: You begin Sad Girl Poems with a Preface:
I always wanted to be a sad white girl. I wanted to be sad like Lana Del Rey… Lately, I’ve been thinking about the contextualization of POC sadness… Most people do not know how to interact with my sadness. My sadness is so multifaceted, it speaks twenty languages… Everyone was talking about Citizen and micro-agressions and feelings. But I didn’t see any of the white people in my MFA program marching next to me when Mike Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, when Erica Garner was killed by NYPD. I didn’t see any of them working to dismantle the systems of oppression which created my sadness, my community’s sadness… I want people to act, I want people to mobilize around POC sadness.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the act of writing itself and how does one enact change without the use of force. In “Ars Poetica,” I see this struggle play out: “I grind his wings into glitter/& throw him into the air // like a child.// I grind his wings into ash/ & throw him into the earth // like a casket.” You testify both existence and erasure here, just as the sole photo of you at the end of the collection “my father deleted all photos of me from our computer.” Do you think language and/or poetry alone can change the violence within culture, particularly in the U.S.? (I’m particularly thinking of the line “Language is where the tongue fails itself over & over again” in “Aluminum & Dusk.” ) Can we transform violence into something else—something even transcendent—through the act of writing?
Loma: I think, in a sense, language is violence. It erases all of the other capacities for which the individual can engage the world. It says the word seat and then we morph our ideas around what a seat looks like. I think the job of the poet is to counteract the violence of language and provide opportunities for the imagination. The poet says elephant-seat and then the mind re-imagines and tries to morph together objects we thought we once knew. Language simultaneously eliminates possibilities and provides possibilities for understanding. I think that this is what’s so scary about political writing to many people. Our words are not placid—they are actually describing realities, and opening new possibilities for people to exist in. I really do believe in the power of language to enact change in our realities but I don’t think that language alone (or anything alone) will abolish prisons, end queer youth homelessness, etc. Also, the photo you are referencing didn’t make it into the final version of the chapbook but I like that it’s mentioned here. Can we let that image exist between us here? It’s one of the only pictures I have from those years. I want to believe that my father didn’t erase those pictures on purpose. I want to stop talking about my father and start providing room for me to grow older and love him now. He has been good to me often also. It’s been about ten years since I was his little boy. I think I’m trying to let go of that now.
RB: Rory, Rory, Rory. That sprawling, eleventh-hour question “Home” in which “Rory, do you think we can outlive this?” The anthropophagi of pain in “Those Sundays” when Rory “felt my bruises, as they became a part of him.” And the deaths of Rory. He dies more than once in this collection. In “Crush a Pearl [Its Powder]”: “The night he died // I went to the beach. Waves beat statically// Against the fins of mermaids.” And in “Ars Poetica”: “None of this is about Rory./It’s all about me.” Was meeting him and losing him both turning points for you as a poet and as an activist? Tell us more about Rory and why he appears in so many of the poems.
L: Rory was a friend of mine in high school. He committed suicide. Ashley died in her sleep, James overdosed on heroin, and so on. Death was so familiar to me in those days. I used to feel comfort and strange joy at funerals. It was a place where I could show my pain and be assuaged. I could never show my pain from domestic violence in those years. American culture does not have space to mourn the pains we experience every day. Funerals allow people to mourn communally, to connect. And pertaining to Rory, as he appears in this chapbook, sometimes he is fictionalized. Sometimes the name “Rory” becomes a stand-in character for other people in my life who I have loved or lost. I made the decision to keep his name as a consistency to make the narrative more digestible. But the real Rory was not a romantic partner; he was a friend. He was a shy boy, a punk, an outcast—he was the oldest person in our friend group; he was ignored and underappreciated by me and most other people I knew, until he died. His death haunted me. It fucked me up. I used to have three guardian angels that would follow me everywhere—Rory, James, and my Abuela. My mother and I took care of my Abuela as she lost her mind to Alzheimer’s. These angels would watch after me and protect me from harm. I used to feel Rory, FEEL Rory. I mean after his death HE WOULD LITERALLY BE IN THE ROOMS WITH ME for years. I don’t think his death was a turning point for me as a poet or activist but I think that his angel protected me throughout the years that followed.
RB: There’s a weather-beaten intimacy, actually, between love(r) and violence just as there is the poet and the father in “Those Sundays”—which brought to mind, of course, Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”—and the father in “Aluminum & Dusk,” that latter which ends “I’m sitting on the bed, my lover turns to unbuckle his belt./ So I won’t see my father unbuckling his.” I mean this section of “Home”: “[The space between us was a walrus// With sharp tusks].// & the home // my father brought me to// Was a million pomegranate seeds// Waiting to explode.” You’ve carved into this collection an enduring space for these intimacies in which the experiences themselves tried to quell, destroy, silence. I mean it’s the kind of a closeness that can only happen in poetry because in real life, they are unsolvable distances. Can you talk more about this intimacy and these spaces?
L: For me, love and violence have always gone together. There isn’t too much distance between them. Violence is such a broad word though. I think right now is the first time (outside of my relationship with my mom and sister) where I’m in a functional intimate experience with another individual, my romantic partner, Irmand. Where I’m starting to become the adult that I want to become in relationships. Where I’m starting to accept the love that I deserve and refuse the love that weakens me. Part of me wants to talk about the inherent violence that one perpetuates when entering a closed monogamous relationship but maybe not right now. Also, the end of “Aluminum & Dusk” is taken from Martin Espada’s poem called “When Leather is a Whip”.
RB: In “Middle Class Fist Fight,” I found this line in particular as watershed and crisis: “I want to say that the dead // have purpose for the living—//But I can barely remember your voice // your face.” What happens when personal memory goes, the particulars that sparked your five senses and blueprinted person and place into your poems? What is survival, in this sense?
L: These lines are in conversation with Jackie Wang’s chapbook “Persephone with her Head Looped Off.” I think Jackie Wang is one of the most brilliant individuals on this planet right now. Her influence is all over my work. I think the individual stays in our bodies, beyond the memory. I don’t think our presence is solely held in memory or “cultural memory”. I’m thinking about intergenerational trauma and how we hold the pains of our families. How our bodies can hold the weight of a war we never even experienced. I hold many pains and so I try to be gentle with myself and others, so that they don’t spill like a bucket of knives onto other people.
RB: Let’s talk about all the homes and not-homes in your poem “Home.” Let’s talk about the fathers and the homeless population: “[Like the woman in San Francisco/ With the rotting hands].” The cars crashed. The admission: “[I was that kind of “homeless”].” The radicalized homes that the poet dreams like “Anarchist Island.” (Also later in “Hatred of Happiness”: “Broken-boys can’t/ Make a proper home.”) Is Sad Girl Poems itself a home? What and where is home, post-Sad Girl Poems? And why home?
L: For me, I think about home in two veins. I think about home as physical property and I think about home in a metaphor (as a feeling of security). I think about homelessness as displacement from property or security. In my personal experiences, I get uncomfortable calling myself homeless because so often I could return to my father’s house, even if that meant fighting and fear. I feel like there was always a physical place for me to go. Sometimes I just chose not to be there. Many times, I have chosen to be elsewhere, without a physical or metaphorical home. Or maybe this leaving wasn’t a choice. I like the word “housing-instable.” I’m trying not to patronize my experiences nor to exaggerate them and minimize the experiences of others. I think that is a struggle that I’m having right now, always. How do I discuss the nuance in a few words when these things have taken me a lifetime to understand? I often don’t feel like calling my history domestic violence either. I think “I wasn’t bruised most of the time” or “everyone’s father yells.” I don’t think of myself as being a person who has held the experiences of domestic violence or homelessness. And I don’t think of myself as a person whose life has been void of those experiences either. Recently, my friend Alok Vaid-Menon said, “authenticity is a fraught project in a world which ritualizes your invisibility.” This is very much how I feel. I do not feel authentic in any of my words. I feel that using words such as “homelessness” or “domestic violence” erases so much of the “truth” or the narrative which I am taught these words are supposed to describe. Am I lying by omission in order to communicate quickly with language? Am I allowed to say “domestic violence” or “homeless?” I don’t feel secure in words. I don’t really feel home in anything. I don’t feel home in the way that I narrate my histories, or my race, or my gender. I don’t feel authentic. The largest part of me thinks it would be most honest to call myself a middle class gay boy with daddy problems. Maybe this erases my pain and experiences though. I’m not sure what home feels like. Maybe I am fluctuating somewhere between those two false truths. Maybe I am somewhere in between being a “gay boy with daddy problems” and a “trans survivor of domestic violence.” But I think I need to keep writing and trying to understand the details. I will try to be most honest with my feelings and experiences along the way though. As I try to write my feelings and experiences. I’ll let you know when I find home in myself.
I know that this is a long response, but if it’s okay, I’d like to name some of my experiences. I guess, in an attempt to be my most honest self because I feel as if both language and literature create lies. And I seldom have the space to tell the details. Here it goes … My name is Christopher Soto. My friends in Brooklyn call me Loma. I come from a middle class family but have experienced poverty as a young adult. Ten years ago, I had a rough relationship with my father. I have been stripped, beaten, kicked out of the house, had the police called on me; I was arrested in a separate incident. I was not thrown in jail. I hated the world and left my house as frequently as possible to stay sane. I never went to a homeless shelter. I was going to move in with my aunt for safety, but I refused for complicated reasons. I thought my father might kill me. I thought more frequently that he would kill himself. My father has also been one of the supportive people in my more recent life and, outside of these interviews, we are working on fixing our relationship. I went to a shitty undergraduate school and then moved away to San Francisco to drink beer and write in the basement, where I lived with two (of fifteen) other housemates. I have lived in tents in Tennessee, friend’s couches in Brooklyn, in some of the most horrendous circumstances over the years. I have often not had a place to call home but I have always had shelter. I am latinx but I do not speak Spanish. My mother’s side of the family came to the US without papers but I was born with citizenship. Three years ago, I started identifying as gender fluid. Then gender non-conforming then trans-femme. Now, I am so confused about my gender that I want to start identifying as a cis-man again. But that doesn’t feel like “home” either. I have been an activist for over a decade but in New York City, I feel as if activism is new to me. Everyone here does activism professionally. Activism here is about access to language and cultural production and being the most radical. Activism in New York City has made me want to “leave the revolution” and vote democrat. One day, I want to wear nice clothes, not listen to street harassment, and be in a steady loving relationship. I want things to be simpler.
RB: You close the collection with “Hatred of Happiness” and these lines: “But all I own are these little lips./ They kiss, then close [like the lid on/ A casket]. Please, let me die alone.” I’ve sat with this poem for some time now, and each time I read, it reads differently to me. Is rejecting happiness the ultimate act of dismantling oppression? And what sort of happinesses do you mean? Is happiness too easy a way out for poets who really want to enact change? Is there something better than happiness, an emotion or way of life that one can sustain with more candor? These are the kind of questions that have been circling my brain.
L: I don’t want to reject happiness but I want to decentralize it. I think happiness is fleeting and contingent upon its relationship to sadness. I feel like contentedness as emotion is something worth striving for. I’ve been thinking about various emotions in relationship to my political organizing work also. A lot of people I know say that anger motivates their political work. Anger is not motivating to me; it is destructive to me. I feel motivated by compassion and a desire for justice.
RB: What’s next for you, Loma? What are you working on?
L: I’m going on a national tour to end queer youth homelessness in spring, and then in the summer I’m editing Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, Issue #3. I’m also thinking about launching a campaign against the classist reading fees which journals require next fall. Oh, and trying to finish my first full length manuscript too!
Thank you for taking the time to read my chapbook and speak with me Rosebud. Love you!
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2014 New York Foundation Fellow for the Arts (NYFA) in poetry, a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). Her work appears in The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org
Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latinx punk poet & prison abolitionist. For more info, visit christophersoto-poet.com