An Interview with Christopher Soto on Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color
Dujie Tahat (Homology Lit, Poetry Editor): Both queerness and POC-ness can exist on a spectrum. While identity is probably more multi-dimensional, or maybe even multi-vector, the idea of a “spectrum” at least reaches toward and indicates a correlation with the real-world—disproportionately higher homicide rates and worse health and socioeconomic impacts of those identities that are farther from cis-, heteronormative, white masculinity. With those high stakes in mind, the task of putting together the anthology Nepantla looms large. Did you ever feel overwhelmed by the ethical implications of putting together the anthology? What was your north star? What did you feel you had to maintain fidelity to, at the expense of all else?
Christopher Soto: Hi, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I don’t really think of queerness as a spectrum but it’s interesting to hear your thoughts. I think of queerness and poc-ness as super specifically defined by chronology and geography. Someone once said this is a dialectical materialist analysis of sexuality, gender, and race. Though, I haven’t been too steeped in Marxist theory lately. Maybe its time for me to return. Anyhoo, I think my problem with the idea of a spectrum is that it posits a start and an end, when I moreso feel like race, gender, sexuality are ever-shifting and in conversation with the plants, trees, bumble bees, sky. Though, yes, us people who live in contemporary America find ourselves impacted from the ideas of whiteness, masculinity, etc. and face very serious financial, social, physical consequences for existing outside of the dominant governing systems. Pertaining to feeling overwhelmed about the ethical implications of the anthology- yes, I felt overwhelmed. In the intro to Nepantla, I list several ethical concerns that I had when creating the anthology. But I think a lot of this is my previous traumas speaking too, which sometimes hold me back from doing the organizing work I want to do at times and also make me anxious about producing public-facing work. During this Trump era, I think intra-communal tenderness en route to the larger fight for reparations and various systems changes is my north star. There are so many fires burning on my communities and so many places to bash back that I think our energies need to be focused. My core concerns at this moment are contributing to work that supports: incarcerated communities, undocumented communities, and anti-imperialist movements. I want to continue working for these communities with queer/trans, femme, poc, survivors who are most impacted by these systems whenever possible.
DT: Did the work of putting together this anthology reveal to you something about the way you see your own identity? Or how it exists in relation to queerness or POC-ness, at large?
CS: My view of my own identity is constantly shifting. I have never seen a place for myself within white American masculinity–the idea of the stoic lone ranger hunting for his family, who rests in the log cabin before he comes home and pours a gin. I have not found space for myself to exist within this idea of masculinity for many years. But lately, I have come to feel more comfortable in understanding myself in conversation with contemporary Latinx masculinity, where the man has a greater emotional range, is tied intrinsically to the family unit, and sacrifices the self for the greater good of others. There are still many problems with machismo and how the man is conceived as the sole provider and powerholder in the family unit but I think many queer latinxs are really pushing against these notions and fucking with gender binaries at the same time, in a way that makes me feel like there might be some small slither of space for me near contemporary latinx American masculinity. But mostly I identify as non-binary, agender, trans-femme and suppressing my gender presentation because of the transphobic violence. In 2019, I really want to work on my anxiety and hopefully be able to start presenting outside the binary again. This convo is just about gender but yes, I am also always thinking about race and class and what it means to be a survivor as well. The anthology has impacted the ways that I think about my gender because it has allowed me different ways that I can see myself and understand my being.
DT: In several interviews, you’ve mentioned it being difficult to obtain the rights of certain poems by queer poets of color because their estates were managed by folks who may not have had the spirit of the work at the front of their minds. What does it tell us about the power that old white dudes can still gatekeep the rights of passed QOC poets? Did it re-instill the work with purpose or was it more of a feeling of defeat?
CS: Aretha Franklin recently passed and did not have a will. John McCain also recently passed and had been planning every tiny aspect of his passing with family members and friends. When working on securing the rights of deceased QPOC poets, I came to understand the importance of protecting the rights to our work. I began to have discussions with family and friends about what I want to happen should I pass away unexpectedly. I’ll say it again here for the record (and it is written on private emails and google docs that I have too, though I need to document it more formally sometime soon). If I die the rights to my poems and essays and paintings and creative work should go to Eduardo C Corral and Ocean Vuong. All my financial assets should go to my older sister, Michelle Soto. I want to be cremated and have my ashes spread in California. No graveyard plaque please. I think working to publish deceased QPOC poets has just made me more conscious of protecting my work and making sure my family is okay when I pass.
DT: If queerness is characterized by threshold or transition or that liminal space you mention in the introduction of the anthology, what does that mean for other identities? We’re in a moment of great dislocation and violence, so it strikes me that most, if not all, identities are in the midst or on the cusp of a huge shift. Given that, what is queerness or QOC-ness—either identity or poetics—reaching towards that is its own?
CS: I don’t think I can name what queerness is reaching towards, if anything. And I think that is part of the beauty of queerness. This question makes me think of Dr. José Esteban Muñoz when he writes, “Queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an identity. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.”
DT: How do you practice tenderness in your writing? In the face of so much everyday violence, what do you do to keep grounding yourself in that tenderness?
CS: I am thinking about James Baldwin discussing Malcom X and saying, “And that’s the truth about Malcolm: he was one of the gentlest people I have ever met.” And I wish that we were gentler with each other so that we can focus on battling the conservatives who are literally deporting our families, incarcerating our families, and executing people on the streets as police. This gentleness and tenderness within my community, building trust and strength and support amongst one another is my basis before any actual radical work is done. There are so many people and systems working to destroy people of various marginalized identities (such as queer/trans folks of color) and so I really really just try my hardest to be tender with my community interpersonally and in my writing, though I know I’m not always perfect. I think my writing is actually much more angsty than my personal self. So it feels nice to hear that you read tenderness in the work too. I think that tenderness is one of the greatest governing factors of my life. I think this tenderness is also a reaction to my history of domestic violence, my fear of repeating the violence that has been done onto me.
DT: There’s a tendency to characterize QOC poetry as timely, necessary, urgent—and it is, to be sure—but, in that characterization, is there a risk of flattening the poetry or minimizing the craft? How do you push back against people who only see the narrative or biography of the poet?
CS: Hmm there are a couple different questions here. I think poetry can be timely and not flat. For example, “Poem About Police Violence” by June Jordan was written decades ago and its content is still very timely, its craft is still influential too. And pertaining to the second question about biography of the poet- if that’s all that people see then that’s fine but then we are talking about bios and not poems. It’s getting late, sorry my answers are getting shorter.
DT: You’re unapologetic about your brownness and your queerness. You’ve even said, at readings, that you’ll yell and scream because the institutional publishing players won’t let you in. All that said, your bio highlights some important accomplishments made possible by the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Nobles. How do you square those two?
CS: I think a lot has changed for me over the years. Many people have worked very hard to open doors for me. It’s something that I’m trying to understand and adjust to in my life- privilege- what more can I do with the platforms provided to me. When I began publishing Nepantla with Lambda Literary, five years ago, I could count the publishers of color on one hand (or so it felt). Now I can list fifteen poetry publishers of color (at magazines) easily. This has made access to publishing for me a bit easier, though the magazines are usually still run by white folks and the book publishers are still very white. There is room to continue diversifying publishing and I think there are other fights worth fighting in the literary community too. I think I have struggled to conceptualize of myself as someone with privilege in the literary world because I don’t have a first book, I don’t work at a literary arts org, and I don’t have a teaching job (these are usually the metrics that people use for power or privilege in the literary world) but yea, there is a sense of access that I do have now that I didn’t have before. I’m trying to understand what it means.
DT: If you were starting Nepantla, the journal, today, would you do anything differently? Any advice for a newly launched, up-and-coming lit mag publishing LGBTQ folx, POC, and people with disabilities?
CS: Advice for new folks is to be kind to yourself and to be confident in yourself. No matter what you produce people will likely critique it. No matter how intentional you may try to be with your words and actions, you will likely still make some mistakes. Listen to people and be open to learning from them and be proud of yourself for even trying to support the literary world, we need your journals.
Christopher Soto (b. 1991, Los Angeles) is a poet based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the chapbook Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016) and the editor of Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books, 2018). He co-founded the Undocupoets Campaign and worked with Amazon Literary Partnerships to establish grants for undocumented writers. In 2017, he was awarded “The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism” by Split This Rock and he was invited to teach a “Poetry and Protest Movements” course at Columbia University, as part of the June Jordan Teaching Corp. In 2016, Poets & Writers honored Christopher Soto with the “Barnes & Nobles Writer for Writers Award.” He frequently writes book reviews for the Lambda Literary Foundation. His poems, reviews, interviews, and articles can be found at The Nation, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, and more. His work has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. He has been invited to speak at university campuses across the country. He is currently working on a full-length poetry manuscript about police violence and mass incarceration. He received his MFA in poetry from NYU, where he was a Goldwater Hospital Writing Workshop Fellow.