Friday, March 18, 2016

Christopher Soto (aka Loma): An Interview

Katy:  Hello Loma! Recently you visited the University of Notre Dame on your “Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness” and gave a really fantastic reading. You spoke very passionately and sincerely about the struggles of queer youth, homelessness, police brutality, etc., and then, before reading your poems, you seemed to put on a different mask. You became poet-Loma, making jokes with your audience, playfully requesting a cup of water, and chiding with guest poet, Nate Marshall. Really you were just as lovely and funny as I had expected you to be. With lines like “Somewhere / There is a zine / I want to write / Called “Gay Daddy / Loves / Cum Dumpster,” “I wonder if heaven got a gay ghetto,” and “I’m the donkey clanking down the hall,” it’s obvious that wit and humor are important to you as a poet and person. Can you speak to how humor plays a role in your writing? In your everyday life?

Loma: A few years ago, I heard Anne Carson read at NYU. She was asked this question about humor in her work. She said, “50/50.” Anne was saying that she used humor 50% of the time. I feel similarly, I use it about 50% of the time. I’m thinking now about Morgan Parker, who during one of her readings had talked about a friend who said, “You seem like the kind of person that laughs after saying something very serious.” This resonates with me too. I am talking about very serious subject matters and want to laugh in between (and within poems) so that the pain doesn’t weigh too heavily. Now Maya Angelou “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is in my head. I also am thinking about the use of wit and sarcasm in punk music. I am thinking about the campiness and queerness of my work. I think maybe its just pain. I laugh so hard and joke so often because I have been through hell and back, so I just want to smile whenever possible, whenever I have a chance because the opportunity may not come again soon (or so it feels).

Katy: There comes a certain anguish with writing about real-life things that have deeply hurt us and our psyches, perhaps past any chance of rehabilitation, for the sake of elusive, often flippant, catharsis. And yet sadness can be so beautiful:

“Broken-boys can’t / Make a proper home. / Just listen to my chest. / One-thousand lovers are stuck inside me / Beating--thud, thud, thud, thud, thud”

This particular moment in Sad Girl Poems strikes me with its slow, quiet nature. Vulnerability functions throughout this chapbook as a pulsing memory choking slowly on trauma. As a poet who writes as autobiographically courageous as you do, how does poetry function for you? How do you practice self-care while confronting loss?

Loma: The autobiography in this work is often distorted and not always me. The narrative is bent. Poetry, for me, functions as an attempt at making people think and feel deeply. I am not intentionally trying to capture moments or preserve memories. I want people to think and feel and act and live. And pertaining to how I confront loss, within my life and within my work. In creating this chapbook, I would cry and convulse and re-trigger myself and become a complete emotional mess in order to finish the poems. I wish I didn’t do that. I don’t believe in poets re-traumatizing themselves for a poem anymore. There are ways around this. Pertaining to my personal life, when I encounter loss I do a lot of things. I stop writing and allow myself to just experience the world and hurt and heal. I’ll take notes for this time but I won’t write intensely. I just need to heal. I spend time talking to friends and family. I exercise and watch my diet, sometimes I travel. I cry and paint and journal and listen to music. I pray… My junior / senior years of high school a handful of my friends passed away all of a sudden. I started taking hikes up a mountain by my house and writing letters to them at the top of that mountain. It’s a day long hike (to the top of Cucamonga Peak). I would sit at the top of the mountain, above the clouds and valley and I would write letters to them. Along the hike, I would feel all of their spirits walking with me and I would talk to them. This will probably sound insane to anyone who hasn’t experienced deep loss. I still hike up that mountain and talk to them once a year, in August. I want my ashes scattered there when I die. My family knows this. I’ve brought other friends with me on this hike before, when they were going through hard times.

Katy: In a collection of poetry so detail-oriented with pomegranate seeds, pigeon-shit, various sea creatures, etc., I have a very technical question to ask. What is happening in/to the poem when instances of ellipses occur? How does silence function in Sad Girl Poems, an otherwise screaming text?

Loma: It depends on where I use the ellipses. In “Home: Chaos Theory” I use the ellipses to break up different sections of the poem, as a bullet point might be used. In “Ars Poetica” I use the ellipses to pause because, as an author, I have no clue what I’m going to write next. So it functions as an internal pause in the middle of an urgent poem. Also, I completely destroy and disobey grammar in a lot of these poems. [Standard American English] Grammar is a tool of white supremacy which is used to disavow the vernaculars of brown and black communities. I love how my communities talk and I think grammar needs to be broken in order to capture the spirit of how folks actually talk and live and feel. I’m thinking about this quote that I read in Eduardo C Corral’s book, Slow Lightning. The quote is by Lorna Dee Cervantes, “only symmetry harbors loss.”

Katy: You’ve said before that punk is the music genre that you feel breathes life into your poetry. With as much wit, bluntness, and political anarchy that lives in your chapbook, I’m not surprised to learn that you love punk music. I’m interested to learn if there are other sources of meditation/personal interest that inform your writing. What’s your writing process?

Loma: Other interests that inform my writing are queerness, latinidad, Catholicism, police, immigration. If my poems could be food, they would be pupusas. Susan Sontag once wrote something like “An author is someone who is interested in everything.” My writing process is paused at the moment, as I am touring and healing from experiences earlier in this year. But when I am writing, I usually have two poems that I am working on at once. I start with an idea and take notes. I read widely and do research and meditate. I will work on a single poem for months, a year, longer. I will abandon poems and recycle lines or ideas that I like. I write in a quiet atmosphere with snacks nearby.

Katy: Are you a good mosher? What’s the difference between a punk show and a poetry reading?

Loma: Haha! I used to love the pit. In my hometown there were cliques that followed different bands and would “dance” together in the pit. I remember going to hardcore shows and waiting for the breakdown. I remember there are different “dances” from the breakdown, to the stomp, to the two-step, to the circle pit, to the wall of death. At hardcore shows, growing up, some people were really skilled and doing “windmill kicks” and backflips in the pit but I was never that cool. I was always kind of tactless and awkward in pits at hardcore shows. I used to like the pit at grindcore and power-violence shows more because you could just be closely pressed against and falling over other people while not having too much attention paid to your haptics. I hated crowd surfers above me but I loved to crowd surf. I remember people jumping off balconies and into the pit too. Sometimes I would wear neon-green booty shorts to shows and a headband and dance really faggoty in the middle of all the bros. Now, I’ve become the old guy that just stands in the back, bobbing my head to the music. And the difference between a punk show and a poetry reading is sweat. People sweat more in punk.

Katy: You do amazing activist work. I was thrilled to learn that as part of your “Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness,” you’re conducting workshops on several social justice issues, as well as on literary issues of racism, transphobia, and structural oppression. Reading your political lines like “[When will we stop defining people / In terms of property ownership]? [This is about the criminalization of poverty],” I found myself grunting positively and in solidarity. In another excerpt, you write, “Let’s talk about queer pessimism / & how to decentralize happiness.” Can you expand on this?

Loma: I just pulled this text from Sara Ahmed’s “The Promise of Happiness.” In her words, “I agree: happiness is interesting. The more I follow the word happiness around, the more it captures my interest. We can still recognize the significance of queer pessimism as an alien affect: a queer politics which refuses to organize its hope for happiness around the figure of the child or other tropes for reproductivity and survival is already alienated from the present. Queer pessimism matters as a pessimism about a certain kind of optimism, as a refusal to be optimistic about "the right things" in the right kind of way.”

Katy:  During our group’s after-reading outing of salmon, whiskey sours, and marshmallows, you mentioned that one of your dream book blurbs would be by Angela Davis. Who are other activists that inspire you? Whose activist poetry do you learn from and recommend?

Loma: Yes, I want Angela Davis to blurb my first book when it’s ready because I’m writing about the prison industrial complex and she was one of the first prison abolitionists that I read. I don’t know her personally though, so I’m not sure that will happen. Another activist who inspires me, is named within a poem in this chapbook- Tuira Kayapo. You should google her. She’s a badass. And poetry activists that I read range from Roque Dalton to June Jordan. “Poem about Police Violence” should be on every poetry syllabus right now and should be sung at every march right now.

Katy:  Over at Lamda Literary, you’ve recently had an article published, titled “I Have Punk, Langston Had Blues, Lorca Had Gypsy Ballads.” You say that growing up with punk music helped you to trust your “poetic impulse.” Could you expand on the term, what it means to you?

Loma: I think about poetic impulse as the moment in a poet’s heart when the poem is speaking to them- when the poem says “hey, you should have a line break here” or “you should have an ellipses here” or…. We listen to some of these impulses and we edit some of the impulses away. In that comment within the essay, I was talking about using forward slashes to divide poetic impulses (that I usually have in relation to image). After forward slashes, I might change the image on impulse.


Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latinx punk poet & prison abolitionist. They were named one of “Ten Up and Coming Latinx Poets You Need to Know” by Remezcla. They were named one of “Seven Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Artists Doing the Work” by The Offing. Poets & Writers will be honoring Christopher Soto with the “Barnes & Nobles Writer for Writers Award” in 2016. They founded Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color with the Lambda Literary Foundation. They cofounded The Undocupoets Campaign in 2015. Their poetry has been called political surrealist and focuses on domestic violence, queer youth homelessness, and mass incarceration. Their first chapbook “Sad Girl Poems” was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2016. They received an MFA in poetry from NYU, where they studied with Eileen Myles, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marie Howe, Brenda Shaughnessy, Major Jackson, Rachel Zucker. Their work has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Originally from the Los Angeles area; they now live in Brooklyn.

Katy Cousino is an MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame where she reads and writes poetry. She is the program's Outreach Coordinator and loves making connections with the community of South Bend. Some of her poetry can be found at Tagvverk, Deluge, and Seven Corners.

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