Interviews

‘Queer Poets of Color’ Is a History-Making Anthology

A conversation with Christopher Soto, editor of 'Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color.'

Anthologies present a distinct challenge in that they are often expected to be comprehensive rather than representative — in other words, it’s impossible to include everything, but we want anthologies to be encyclopedic nevertheless. When I asked Christopher Soto, editor of Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, who was missing from this anthology his response was straightforward: “Oh Lord, too many people to name.”

Yet, Nepantla is clearly curated with patience and passion. Soto’s close attention is easy to recognize in his introduction and the all-star lineup spanning from the Harlem Renaissance to today. Throughout June, I corresponded with Christopher about editing the anthology, reports on expanding poetry readership, and his current full-length collection in progress. The following conversation has been slightly edited.

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Aram Mrjoian

Let’s perhaps talk first, though you cover it a bit in the intro, about how the anthology came about and the challenges of putting it together. From a logistical perspective, you must have had to ask for lots of permissions to acquire work from such a wide range of artists. From an editorial perspective, deciding who to include in an anthology requires additional intellectual, political, and artistic considerations. How did you navigate this decision-making process?

Christopher Soto

Hi, so good to be chatting with you. Pertaining to the logistics of editing the anthology, yes it was a lot of work. Thanks for recognizing that! I think most people don’t really know (unless they edit) that ever single new contributor that I included in the anthology meant a new contract to secure, a new contributor to email with about where to mail anthology copies, a new person whose approval I needed on the proofs. It was just a lot of small logistics to manage to have such a wide range of people included in this anthology. It’s hard to coordinate with so many people and make the whole group of contributors happy all the time too so that was somewhat of a struggle at times too.

From an editorial perspective, I looked at a few factors in order to determine who I should include in the anthology. Here is an excerpt about those decisions, taken from the introduction, “The poems selected in the anthology were published based on three primary factors: What is at the emotional core of the poem? What is at stake within the content of the poem? Has the poet been absolutely pivotal to development of other queer of color poets? This anthology is not interested in overly crafted poems or political perfection.” The more Queer Poets of Color that I read and considered for the anthology; the more that I felt like I was missing in the anthology. I really tried to squeeze in as many voices as possible, of various geographical and chronological and literary experiences.

Aram Mrjoian

Your introduction is also careful to note Nepantla might be the first major anthology for queer poets of color, but that using such distinctions is inherently dangerous. Can you talk a bit more about your concerns with that type of statement? Why do you think more anthologies in this vein don’t exist? Are there additional considerations you needed to make in establishing an anthology that doesn’t have many (if any) available counterparts?

Christopher Soto

I’m a bit cautious of the words “first major” because there are so many anthologies and books in the world, that I could easily have never come across a similar anthology that might have run out of print. I think there are a few adjacent anthologies, in similar veins that are easy to point to. For example, This Bridge Called Our Backs: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and Brother to Brother: New Writings by Gay Black Men. I can’t find another poetry anthology in the English language that is specifically dedicated to Queer Poets of Color and I think that has a lot to do with the language of this time. The identity marker “Queer of Color” is not too horribly old, even though people have identified as various kinds of non-white and non-hetero/cis for many decades. Pertaining to additional considerations that were made when editing this anthology, I just had to accept a feeling of failure. At first, I wanted this anthology to encapsulate every queer of color poet that I could find and then I ultimately had to accept my failure, the fact that there are so many queer of color poets that I may never know or read or publish. I think there is no anthology that could carry so much weight, as to think that it will represent a whole people. I think anthologies are in part synonymous with the world “failure.”

Aram Mrjoian

When this anthology started to come to fruition, who were the poets you immediately wanted to include? And were there specific poems you thought of right away or did you first select artists and narrow down their work?

Christopher Soto

The first poets that I thought to include in this anthology were the ones that I had published online in Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color. This project existed online as a journal with Lambda Literary before it became a printed anthology with Nightboat Books. There were some specific poems and poets that I knew I wanted to include right away, such as “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong. I knew exactly what poem I wanted from him. Other poets, I included much later in the editorial process because I may not have heard of their work yet or had access to their work before. For example, I had no idea that I’d have the opportunity to read and publish translated poetry from Ren Hang in the anthology. I only knew him as a photographer and not also a poet, so stumbling into his poems for this anthology was a blessing. I’m still shocked that I was able to publish Ren Hang in this anthology. It’s the first time his poetry is being published in English, which is HUGE.

Aram Mrjoian

Who do you think is missing from this anthology?

Christopher Soto

Oh Lord, too many people to name. The two people who I constantly kick myself for not including are Ana Castillo and Jacqueline Woodson. I was trying to secure rights and get into contact with these two poets but deadlines were passing and the page count was rising and then I just couldn’t secure their places in the anthology in time. It breaks my heart still.

Aram Mrjoian

Recent data from the National Endowment for the Arts suggests the share of American poetry readers is on the rise. Why do you think poetry is finding more resonance today? How are popular contemporary poets, many of whom are included in this anthology, altering the literary landscape? In other words, why do you think so many people are getting excited about poetry during a time when many people say “no one reads anymore?”

Christopher Soto

I have no clue why poetry is finding more readership today. I want to say because of racial and gender diversity in poetry or because of the turbulent political climate that leads people to find solace in poetry or because of accessibility to poetry via social media but I really have no articulate answer here. I think there are too many factors at play to assume why there is a rise in poetry readership, without more data and info. Also, I don’t know anyone personally who says “no one reads anymore” but sometimes I’ll come across Op-Ed articles with some iteration of that statement, which I think is pretty boring. I think instead of talking about how no one reads poetry, people should be talking about the infrastructural change that is needed to create platforms that support the creation and dissemination of poetry. I think this conversation should be reframed as “Poetry would have an even larger readership if there were more funding for presses, publicist, fellowships, etc. that value a culture of literacy.” I think the main limits to poetry readership come from investments into the infrastructures that support creative writing and seldom because people are producing uninteresting literature.

Pertaining to the more popular poets in the anthology, I think they are changing the literary landscape in various ways. Some poets such as Juliana Huxtable are bridging the art/fashion world with the literary world. Some poets such as Denise Frohman are bridging the Spoken Word world with the publishing world. The list goes on.

Aram Mrjoian

From my perspective, a lot of those Op-Eds usually come from a place of privilege and are more used to insinuate, “no one is reading what I think they should be reading anymore” or “no one is reading what I’m creating anymore.” Such articles seem mostly designed to be reactionary, but also to perpetuate elitist literary values. Can you perhaps talk a bit more about what kinds of infrastructural change you envision?

Christopher Soto

That’s an interesting take on the “Poetry Is Dying” articles that you have. I think that can make sense- people feeling like interest in the poetry they’re reading is dying and thus equivocating that with the thought with the idea that all kinds of poetry readerships are dwindling too. That makes sense to me.

With infrastructural support that I envision, there is so much! Half of the time I think about quitting my job and just starting my own literary non-profit just so I can get grants and start the programs that I dream of. I want more writing grants and emergency living grants available to support Undocumented writers. This is something Undocupoets started doing on a very small scale. Also, I want to see more “Poetry Business Classes” (I taught one) and “Poetry Publicity” classes (like the ones that Kima Jones taught) which give training to poets about how to schedule tour dates, handle contracts, promote their books, apply for jobs, and other skills needed to survive as a writer under a capitalist economy. I daydream of starting a creative fellowship that not only provides poets with a living stipend and health insurance but also provides a personal assistant and publicist too, so that poets can produce and disseminate their work widely at the same time. In other art forms, such as music, this is the status quo. Beyonce has a whole team scheduling her photo shoots and interviews and public appearances and wardrobe. I think poets deserve a whole team of support too. It’s hard to produce art when you have to handle all of the other business on your own. There are other ideas I have too but I think this would be a good start.

Aram Mrjoian

We’re in the middle of Pride Month and, perhaps especially in Chicago and other major cities, there is criticism about how celebrating queer communities is commodified. You’ll see a lot of advertisements from beer companies marketing rainbow beer cans to one demographic and American flag cans to another. From my perspective, some pockets of the literary community, especially literary journals associated with an exclusionary, patriarchal academic system, are also reckoning with this kind of duplicitousness. As a straight white male editor at Northwestern’s TriQuarterly, I certainly don’t hold myself unaccountable, because I work within an exclusionary educational system. How editors solicit work and promote work by queer poets of color can at times be problematic. One of my favorite poems in the anthology, Phillip B. Williams’ “Maskot #1: “They sure do love them some black pain” addresses this directly. The line “Is you submittin to my journal or nah?” touches on that sense of exploitation. I’m interested in your thoughts on how queer pride, queer poets of color, and poetry in general are at times used as cultural currency and the issues of trying to profit from diversity. 

Christopher Soto

I think this feeling of exploitation functions on a case by case basis. Sometimes a solicitation may feel like a welcoming home if it is made by an editor of color. Sometimes a solicitation may feel like tokenism and exploitation if you notice that there are not any other people of color being published by the journal. I think that certain types of diversity are lauded in the literary world and in the corporate world. For example, racial diversity is often welcomed as long as people of color are not threatening to white civil society. Or the inclusion of incarcerated writers may be nice, as long as the person was not convicted of a violent crime. I think the parameters of acceptable diversity should be named more explicitly. I think one of the many problems with corporate diversity during pride is that the most marginalized and ostracized members of the queer community are largely left out of the parade floats and celebrations because they are not the right form of diversity. I can guarantee you that there will be no corporate pride campaign this year that mentions Roxana Hernández, the trans migrant who died while being detained by ICE in late May. There is not enough cultural (or economic) currency to be made for corporations to consider standing against ICE and the detention / murder of the trans community. Our lives and deaths are too much of a political risk for corporate pride to speak against ICE and in honor of Roxana Hernández.

Aram Mrjoian

And I think another part of the problem presented there is that often the white civil society feels threatened anyway. In the writing community, I’ve seen this trend of white writers fallaciously rationalizing their own rejections as a result of their work not being what editors want right now. 

Christopher Soto

Yea, my mind is jumping to Frantz Fanon and a whole field of black studies contemplating notions of humanity and animality, whether it is possible for the non-white subject to ever be “human” if not assimilated into whiteness. And with white people being insecure about their rejections and blaming it on their race- I’m not sure what to say here. I don’t have numbers in front of me but I would bet my whole left arm that white people are still disproportionately overrepresented in American poetry publishing. And if I’m wrong here and white people are somehow underrepresented then I think that is exciting! White people have been over-represented for far too long. White people have legally barred people of color from reading and writing throughout American history and I think that’s something more worthy to be upset about. For example, anti-literacy laws that were enacted by Southern states in the 19th century to ban slaves from reading, in fear that literacy would encourage slave revolts.

Aram Mrjoian

To end on, your website notes you’re “currently working on a full-length poetry manuscript about police violence and mass incarceration.” Can you tell us a bit about that project?

Christopher Soto

Yes, I committed to writing my first poetry collection about police violence and mass incarceration after witnessing the police kill my neighbor, Antonio Clements, in Oakland years ago. In my process of healing, I wanted to better understand why Antonio’s death happened and if there was any way that it could have been avoided. I began to read and further understand the history of policing and incarceration as an institution and also how I related to it as an individual. Prior to this incident, I had not thought much about what it meant to have several family members incarcerated, what it meant for me as youth to have been shoved into the backseat of a police car after fleeing domestic violence, what it meant for me to teach poetry to youth in juvenile detention centers, or how mass incarceration is related to my mother’s immigration into the United States.

The poetry collection that I am working on is broad in geographical and chronological scope. The poems that I write are looking back at the past 500 years of American history in order to connect mass incarceration to slavery and slave patrols, the original project of American surveillance and confinement. I am also attempting to think about mass incarceration from a broad geographical perspective. By looking at justice systems outside of the United States, I believe that the United States can more clearly see the faults in how we are handling justice related to incidents of non-violent and violent crime. For example, what would it mean if the American justice system were more invested in healing and reintegration into society (similar to the Swedish justice system) as opposed to being focused on punishment and isolation? Or better yet, what would a world without prisons look like? By writing about mass incarceration from broad chronological and geographic perspectives, I am able to show how the ideological framework of the system as a whole is at fault. I don’t believe in prisons or police at all and I hope that within my lifetime we can move beyond them.

9781937658786_85e55

POETRY
Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color
Edited by Christopher Soto

Nightboat Books
Published May 2018

Christopher Soto is a poet based in Brooklyn. He is the author of Sad Girl Poems, cofounder of the Undocupoets Campaign, and editor of Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color.

Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Masters Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com

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