Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Interview with Christopher Soto (aka Loma) 2017 Freedom Plow Award Recipient

Freedom Plow Award logo

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


A young latino man with earplugs and red lipstick, standing on the beach in a pink tank top. Loma stands smiling lightly into the camera.
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.

A young white woman with brown hair and a red tank top, smiles while sitting in front of a book shelf
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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

10 Fabulous Reasons to Attend the 2017 DC Youth Slam Team Grand Slam Finals!

Each year, through a series of poetry slams held throughout the city, Split This Rock selects a team of youth between the ages of 13 and 19 to serve as ambassadors for Split This Rock and the DC metro area as part of the DC Youth Slam Team (DCYST). Members of the DCYST are coached on writing and performance; speak out on social issues; serve as leaders within Split This Rock Youth Programs; participate in youth poetry gatherings such as Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival (BNV) where the team took 1st place in 2014; and travel to perform regionally, nationally, and periodically abroad. 

Find out which five brilliant youth poets will be on this year’s DC Youth Slam Team! Join us for the 2017 Grand Slam Finals, this Saturday, March 25, 2017, 7-9 pm at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater (1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC). Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and $5 for youth 18 and under. Group sales are available. Buy your tickets online today!

Need some convincing to attend? Here are 10 fabulous reasons! Plus, videos from past events like BNV to get you energized for Saturday!

1. Get your hope renewed by the deep wisdom of youth poets!

In the face of a 24 hour news cycle that often leaves us feeling dismayed, distraught, and down-right in despair, the poetry of DC’s young people is a burst of energy, fresh perspective, and hope. Upon hearing their powerful and socially engaged poetry, one thing becomes clear: these youth are not the leaders of the future, they are leading us today into a more equitable, peaceful, and poetic world. Check out Malachi Byrd and Thomas Hill performing Columbusing at Brave New Voices in 2014 to see what we mean! 

2. Help sustain the DCYST as it amplifies youth voices!

Split This Rock’s DC Youth Slam Team provides a space for youth to break through barriers and build their confidence by performing in front of audiences of their peers, the greater DC community, and beyond. Split This Rock Youth Programs provide young people the opportunity to travel nationally and internationally to perform their poetry and spread their messages of hope and resilience. Even when youth perform here in our local community, their words have a far greater reach through performance videos posted online, with thousands of views. The video above by 2013 team, which went viral, has close to two million views! Be among the thousands to be deeply moved by the necessary words of our youth!

3. Find out who'll represent DC at Brave New Voices!

Each summer, the DC Youth Slam Team has the opportunity to travel and participate in poetry slams and open mics, including the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival. Annually, Brave New Voices convenes outstanding youth poets from around the world for 5 days of workshops, showcases, community service, civic participation, and a series of poetry slams culminating in one team of youth poets being crowned  the champions. In 2014, the DCYST took 1st place (see video above of one of their performances at BNV finals). Last year’s Brave New Voices was hosted right here in DC and youth had the opportunity to perform onstage at the Kennedy Center. Come cheer on all the outstanding youth as we find out who'll be selected for the 2017 team and participate in Brave New Voices this summer in the Bay Area.

4. Affirm youth by listening to their experiences and perspectives!

Whether its celebrating culture and community, recounting trauma and healing, naming injustice, professing love, or commentary on Kim K's cornrows as in the video above of 2016 DCYST members, the poetry that youth write and perform onstage takes incredible courage and vulnerability to share with an audience. When a young person writes a poem, practices performing it, and then shares it during a slam, we witness youth empowerment. The slam becomes less about competition and more about the courage it takes to get on stage and speak truth. Come be part of an audience of people reflecting back to the youth onstage that their voices and their perspectives matter!

5. Resist the proposed cuts to arts funding by investing in your local art scene!

Agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, that are being threatened make programs like Split This Rock’s DC Youth Slam Team possible. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that we value at Split This Rock. Through youth programs, like the DC Youth Slam Team, we witness the power of youth expression to transform the culture of  classrooms, schools, communities, and young people themselves. Lauren May, for instance in the video above often tells us poetry saved her life. Attend and stand with us!

6. Get the teens in your life inspired!

Are you a parent, guardian, auntie, cousin, teacher, youth worker, mentor, coach, or anyone else who works with and cares about young people? Then come and bring a young person along (or a whole group!) to watch their peers perform and get excited about the power of the written and spoken word! Show them that poetry can be fun, like the video above of Morgan Butler and Malachi Byrd. Attending Finals is a great way to inspire the teens in our community and demonstrate to youth that their perspectives, experiences, and struggles matter! Youth group sales are available! Contact Chelsea at chelsea@splitthisrock.org! (Be aware, however, that this event offers space for youth to exercise free speech. Poems shared by youth poets may include profanity and sensitive subjects.)

7. Support youth efforts of resistance!

The youth on the DC Youth Slam Team are aware of and connected to many of the social, economic, and political challenges that adults are discussing each day. Whether it’s funding cuts at schools, street harassment, or the political climate of the nation’s capital, youth are taking part in the resistance and by supporting them and their poetry, we too resist! Give a listen to 2017 DC Youth Slam Team Finals participant Kenny Carroll in the video above for an example.

8. Shatter your misconceptions of youth!

Stereotypes work against all of us, and when it comes to young people, many adults think of teens as being preoccupied only with cell phones and selfies, school crushes and social media. DC Youth Slam Team Finals will introduce any adults led astray by these misconceptions to what’s really going on in the minds and lives of DC's young people, such as Nesha Ruther in the video above. From reclaiming the power of a selfie as an act of self-love, to speaking with wisdom and insight on surviving trauma, these youth prove to us that they have their own voices and the ability to speak for themselves. Let’s support them by showing up!

9. Be part of a youth-led movement of love, acceptance, and empowerment!

Through their poetry, youth invite us into their dreams and visions for themselves, their communities, and the future. Together, these youth poets are leading a movement that includes everyone, where there is space for everyone to be accepted and to thrive. Connecting to the DC Youth Slam Team and Split This Rock Youth Programs helps them build a sense of community and family among their peers. Come feel the love! Prepare for all the goodness by listening to what Amina Fatima has to say above.

10. Get engaged with a community imagining a new world!

Whether you are a poet or not, everyone has the ability to be creative and engage in generating new ideas, new solutions, and new ways of connecting. Attending the 2017 DC Youth Slam Team Grand Slam Finals is an incredible way to join with others and revive your own sense of possibility. Hearing these youth share their cultural, familial, and community experiences -- like Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern in the video above -- helps us build bridges across difference. Feel the transformative power of poetry yourself as we cheer them along and leave with new understandings, deeper compassion, and revived determination to work for change!