On Friday, April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington, Split This Rock presented the 2017 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation, to Christopher Soto, aka Loma. The ceremony, cosponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, the Institute for Policy Studies, and Busboys and Poets, was an inspiring celebration that packed the house.
Judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 Freedom Plow Award Recipient Mark Nowak, the 2017 award went to Christopher Soto, who was selected for his advocacy on behalf of undocumented writers and queer homeless youth and for supporting queer poets of color. Christopher offered an acceptance speech by video, as he had a prior commitment in Boulder, CO, meeting with the leaders of the Undocupoets Campaign, one of the initiatives for which he was selected.
The three award finalists, Francisco Aragón, Andrea Assaf, and JP Howard, were also celebrated and each delivered memorable and poignant words as part of the award program, including poems!
The finalists are:
Francisco Aragón for supporting and promoting Latinx poetry and poets:
Andrea Assaf for telling stories of the Arab-American experience and of US service members and Iraqis in the Iraq war:
and JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard for building community among queer poets of color:
Additionally, the program included a welcome from Arts Club of Washington President Judith Nordin, opening remarks from Split This Rock Executive Director Sarah Browning, and words from CrossCurrents Foundation Chair Ken Grossinger.
Jay Chavez, a member of Split This Rock’s Youth Programs, courageously helped open the event with a breathtaking poem about their mother’s experience immigrating to the United States.
Visit YouTube to watch videos of the entire program. And check out photos from the event, all by Chelsea Iorlano, on Flickr.
Prior to presenting the award to Christopher Soto, Holly Bass delivered the following judges' statement:
In his bio, Christopher Soto (aka Loma) describes himself as a “queer Latin@ punk poet and prison abolitionist.” Loma’s proclaimed identities challenge us to think about the seemingly incompatible inhabiting one body and working from that one body to write searing, critical poems that alter the impact of lived reality.
In the prose poem, “Rework,” Loma writes:
[…]There was a manner by which the oppression was normalized; by which the feeling of liberation was long forgotten; by which everything revolved around capital. But you could no longer afford to stay in your father’s home. There was no rent control and some nights you thought that he would kill you in your sleep. Language is where the tongue fails itself over and over again[…]
This excerpt is much more than a traumatic personal narrative. The oppositional nature of things is laid bare: “oppression”/ “normal”; “oppression”/ “liberation”; “capital”/ “liberation”; “rent control”/ “capital”; “no rent control”/ “death.” Loma calls our attention to the impossibility of existence with the experience of trauma, and yet one survives. There is also an insistence on the failure of language in the face of these layers of lived experience. The poem is riddled with layers in which the incompatible happens simultaneously. And, how do we speak these things, the poem seems to ask, what words can struggle an approximation?
Christopher Soto’s multifarious work bridges the gap between literary activism and organizing, as the very poetry he writes is often investigative of the cultural and structural barriers of toxic masculinity, misogyny, heterosexism, racism, and xenophobic nationalism. In his literary activist work, Loma creates spaces for the intersection of identities to be expressive—such as in Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, where Loma is editor. He is also a co-founder of the Undocupoets Campaign whose mission is to “promote the work of undocumented poets and raise consciousness about the structural barriers that are faced in the literary community [and to support] all poets, regardless of immigration status.”
We exist, as poets, in an era of egregious politics, an era where #MuslimBan and #BuildAWall flash across our iPhones built in China by other poets like Xu Lizhi, the 24-year-old migrant factory worker who committed suicide by jumping out of a residential dormitory owned by his employer, Foxconn. Social media allows us to be anywhere at anytime, to trace social upheavals by hashtags, to be there from our living rooms.
The poet, the poem, the iPhone, the world… We’re all articulated within the “invisible-visibleness” of a Global north perpetually attempting to dominate the Global south. It’s a poetics (and an economics) of consumerism, migrant labor, and the deep loss of empathy and agency. And it’s a poetic response to these arenas that we find in Loma’s own poetry, dragging out the underbellies we refuse to look at unless we’re forced to look.
Of the many deeply engaged poets who were nominated for the Freedom Plow Award, we have chosen Christopher Soto as this year’s winner. It was far from an easy decision. What is happening in the United States at this moment has re-energized a bounty of magnificent projects to address the almost daily injustices that flash across lighted screens. The assaults upon the environment, our bodies, who we choose to love and how we choose to live and where we choose to sell our labor power. These and so many more areas of our lives are seemingly under attack at the present moment. And we were deeply heartened by the many, many poets currently working against these assaults.
One of these poets, Christopher Soto, inspires us with the depth and variety of his engagements. In addition to his work with the Undocupoets Campaign, he has helped to establish Amazon Literary Partnership grants for undocumented writers. These fearless and necessary contributions, defiant in the face of Trump-era hatred and bigotry, make Loma a model Freedom Plow citizen. We are pleased to grant him this award on behalf of Split This Rock.
The ceremony concluded with these moving words from Christopher Soto:
We are grateful to the Arts Club of Washington for hosting the awards celebration again this year. Our thanks especially go out to Sandra Beasley, Judith Nordin, and Yann Henrotte for their help and hospitality. We extend our deep appreciation as well to all the Freedom Plow sponsors, Upshur Street Books and Anna Thorn as the event book seller, ASL interpreter Billy Sanders, Skies The Limit Entertainment for videotaping the ceremony, Grace Toulotte of United by Love Design, and all of the Split This Rock interns and staff.