The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation and co-sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington and Busboys and Poets, recognizes and honors poet or poetry collective doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 award recipient Mark Nowak, is being given for the third time in 2017. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington for the Award Ceremony!
About Christopher Soto (AKA Loma)
Christopher Soto aka Loma (originally from Los Angeles) is a poet based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of “Sad Girl Poems” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016) and the editor of Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books, 2018). 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, The Advocate, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Poetry Review, Tin House, and more. His work has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He has been invited to speak at universities campuses across the country. He is currently working on a full-length poetry manuscript about police violence and mass incarceration. He cofounded the Undocupoets Campaign and worked with Amazon Literary Partnerships to establish grants for undocumented writers. He received his MFA in poetry from NYU.
Split This Rock interviews Christopher Soto (AKA Loma)
By Melissa Bittner
Your poetry highlights injustices with the judicial system. Would you share why you’re committed to doing this? What is the goal of illuminating these events and what changes do you hope focusing on them will bring?
I love this question. And interviews are often boring.
For me, I think about the prison as being one of the major epicenters of racialized state violence. It is a place where the dichotomies of innocence versus criminality are so blatantly false. You can physically see people being held against their will and tormented in prison, while the state refuses to acknowledge their actions as violent and refuses to think creatively about what justice might actually look like.
How can prison possibly rehabilitate communities or help individuals heal or help individuals learn from their actions? Why is punishment the only way that we think about justice? How do we create communities which do not NEED to steal in order to eat or pay rent? I don’t think that prisons are a solution to the myriad of problems that they are supposed to be addressing. Thus, the prison becomes a place where I can examine the various social issues and how they are inappropriately addressed by the state. My relationship to writing prison literature is also personal as someone who has been hyper-policed, arrested, and seen family members incarcerated too.
My goal in these writings is to make racialized state violence legible as violence. I believe that is only the starting point in building a more equitable world. First, I want to name the harm by the state and then I want to help people imagine justice outside of the states retributive violence.
The relationship between form and meaning in your poetry is complex. Could you discuss those choices in "Home [Chaos Theory]" for example?
Dear God, two good questions in a row. I’m happy.
Yes, I love the long poem as a form to drift and meander in. The long poem allows me to make connections between ideas, which may not seem immediately relevant. For example, in my poem "Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center: Unit Y2" I discuss everything from human zoos, to the creation of ankle monitors, to teaching poetry to incarcerated youth, to being transgender in solitary confinement. In long poems my thoughts are allowed to drift more and I give myself more permission to jump logically, imagistically, to have looser lines and more experimentation with form across the page.
This is how I felt while writing the other long poem you mentioned too "Home [Chaos Theory]." I often feel most in my natural poetic voice during the long poem. My shorter poems play with form in different manners but that’s another conversation.
What’s your definition of “home?” Is there a place or a feeling that means home for you?
I define home as a feeling of security. My home will always be with my mother in Southern California. My home right now is with the community that I’ve built in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve had and lost many homes.
How does the current political climate fuel your activism and how has that changed, if at all, over the last few months?
The current political climate has made me take my laughter and joy more seriously. If I do not find a place to enjoy political protest then I will burn out. Thus, when marching on the streets I am singing and dancing and carrying poems and hugging my friends. I have been marching and protesting for over a decade now and I know that I can keep on fighting, as long as I’m able to find pleasure and healing while resisting too. The struggle is serious but my activism must also be sustainable.
I think the current political climate has provided a great opportunity for innovation. What new and creative and fun ways can we resist? For example, I made a GoFundMe account the other day and wrote a letter to Betsy DeVos there, asking her to pay my student debt. This page is a small way that I’ve been able to resist her online presence and also be silly.
Would you share with us an example of a time that made you keenly aware of the impact of Undocupoets?
I still don’t know / feel the impact. There are still contests that don’t allow ALL undocumented poets to apply so I feel a bit defeated there sometimes. I want to celebrate what we’ve done but every time that I hear praise, I can’t help but think about some of our shortcomings.
What inspired you to go on your Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness* and what is one experience you’ll never forget from it?
I was inspired by poverty. I had no money and no job and touring was the only way that I could survive or else I would have been on the street again. The Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness was very literally a tour to keep the roof over my head.
As a youth, I faced displacement in the face of domestic violence. On tour, I talked about the systems that keep our most marginalized folks down. For example, if you are a trans person of color then you’re likely going to face employment and housing discrimination. If you can’t find a job then you might turn to alternative incomes such as sex work or selling drugs in order to survive. If your community is being over-policed and you don’t have access to private space and you get caught by police then you might be incarcerated for simply trying to get by.
I’ll never forget the youth I met during that tour. Youth doing sex work coming to my reading at Harvard, homeless punks and anarchists at my reading in Chicago. Every stop on that tour, I saw “my people.”
To be honest, I’ve been pretty quiet lately. I’ve stopped talking about some of my histories and I’m presenting inside the binary more now. I feel like a hunted animal that the world is trying to kill when I exist otherwise. Sometimes I miss being a freak, skateboarding down Sixth Avenue with a blue wig and a black dress. A little drunk with the lights of Manhattan all spinning around. I’ve been free (as Nina Simone says “freedom means no fear”) and that is so threatening to others that we do anything to stop you i.e. all of the murders of trans women of color).
Can you tell us what encouraged you to start Nepantla and how has it been received by Queer People of Color?
Jameson Fitzpatrick helped introduce me to William Johnson at Lambda Literary and that’s how Nepantla started. I think people like it. We always have a lot of submissions and people reading it internationally. This year, I am working with Nightboat Books to create an anthology for Nepantla so that people can find it in stores in 2018.
Your work and activism cover a broad range of social issues. What strategies do you consider as most effective or that you wish more people were using?
I don’t think any strategy is most effective. The strategy depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, Undocupoets was trying to change poetry contest guidelines and create grants for undocumented writers. Nepantla was much different. I was trying to publish and distribute the work of Queer People of Color. My only wish is that people be careful when considering who/what they would like to tear down and why they think that tearing down a person or system is needed instead of rehabilitation.
In the work that you're currently doing, what issue do you feel most personally passionate about and why? And what projects are on your horizon?
I’m passionate about my full length manuscript addressing police violence and about editing the Nepantla anthology. They both feel necessary.
*To read more about the Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness, visit The Advocate and Poets & Writers Magazine. Learn more about Soto at his website.
Melissa Bittner is an arts supporter, Split This Rock volunteer, and writer. Her passion is to help nonprofit organizations thrive, and she has coordinated community outreach efforts and nonprofit programs for years across multiple cities. She currently works in DC and lives in Stafford, Virginia with her husband and their rescue pup, Rosco.