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Kay Ulanday Barrett: On Dancing it Out, Revising Masculinity, and Poetry as Testimony

Kay Ulanday Barrett: On Dancing it Out, Revising Masculinity, and Poetry as Testimony

Author: H. Melt

January 10, 2017

“I want for people to have some sort of archive of their dance, night, poetry, and art spaces. I want us to remember what keeps/kept us alive when the rainbow flags and assimilation try to steamroll over the complexity of our lives.”

Kay Ulanday Barrett is a renowned poet, performer, and educator. Kay has received Chicago’s LGBTQ 30 under 30 awards, was a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Open-Mic Award, and a recipient of the Windy City Times Pride Literary Poetry Prize. Their work and words have been featured on PBS News Hour Poetry, RaceForward, The Margins, Poor MagazineTrans Bodies/Trans Selves, Autostraddle, Windy City Queer: Dispatches from the Third Coast, Make/Shift, The Advocate, Fusion, and The Trans List.

Kay’s first poetry collection When The Chant Comes was recently published by Topside Press. 

From the publisher:

Kay Ulanday Barrett has been bringing his unique poetry to audiences for over a decade, unpicking vital political questions around race, sickness and disability and gender, and chronicling the everydayness of life in the U.S. Empire with humor, poignancy and inimitable vitality.

Now at last a generous selection of his work will be available in print. Each of these poems is a brilliant little story. Taken together, they show a master craftsman at the top of his game

Lambda spoke with Kay about their poetry, the power of the dance floor, and their relationship with Chicago.

Let’s start off by discussing your relationship to Chicago, which has a presence throughout When the Chant Comes. I picked up on various street names, neighborhoods, and references to the city. What does Chicago mean to you and how has the city influenced your life and writing?

Chicago is my epicenter. I’ve lived in Jersey City and worked in NYC for about a decade now, but I always mention intentionally that I am a midwestern poet and of Chi-town. I began there, was kicked out there, started to write, became a poet, and poet-educator, ands lam coach, led my first protest, had my first kiss, got my ass beat, worked on my first play, and became politically queer and brown all in the 773. I was raised in Albany Park, Logan Square, & Humboldt Park until my mid-20s. So much of my book engages in a Chicagoan Sensibility and aesthetic that I cannot help but write from. In the ‘90s to early 2000s I grew up in Chicago’s landscape of people of color and cultural work. I was blessed to work, teach, and perform at initiatives like the first Louder Than A Bomb with Young Chicago Authors, write with the then Asian American Artists Collective, and even host events like Women Out Loud or facilitate workshops at Insight Arts. If it weren’t for poets such as Lani Montreal and Tara Betts who took time to mentor and support me, there wouldn’t be a book really. This text is my own meager mapping of Chicago from a Pilipinx queer and trans poor kid perspective. I hope that the pages help archive some aspects of what it was like artmaking in what I consider a Brown and Black poetry renaissance.

I knew where I came from: Mama Maria McCray, Patricia Smith, Sandra Cisneros, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I was brought up and taught to read by innovative women of color writers from Chicago. Whoever I worked with, these authors never let me forget the sacred soil where I dare to lay my words. Whatever I have written, Chicago has touched it. It isn’t a gross extrapolation. I do believe “I’m so Chicago…” and for that my writing has had the bones, the training, the potlucks, and the Bulls memorabilia to prove it. Currently, there are bountiful Black and People of Color political initiatives as well as poetry led by queers right now, and I could not be more eternally proud of my city.

One location you mentioned in particular was the Royal, an underage club that featured a queer night in Logan Square. You write, “We came home breathless / from dancing our queer bodies / back to valid, / each time we’d make / a ruckus / as queer as brown / not to reinforce stereotypes, / but to take back the / space that is ours.” Can you talk about the power of reclaiming space; how nightlife in particular provided a sense of community and belonging?

I wrote that poem in 2005. The Royal was a club that teenagers less than 21 yrs old could really shake their asses and troubles off. Located in Logan Square, with mostly Black and Brown working class youth, we were able to be ourselves whether we were in the streets, having trouble at home, working three jobs, or just looking for a queerness that played our music.

There’s something magical about a dance floor and house music that will forever be a salve to me. When I didn’t have words for the political oppression or heartaches I faced, myself and people like me could dance it out, fuck it out, socialize it out. Of course, the drinks were expensive, the entry was inaccessible, it was an introvert’s nightmare, and there would be some kind of drama, but not all of us have access to museums and institutions that embody our communities, moreover, have places where our communities and lives are reflected. Queer club culture necessitates an alternative system of belonging when jobs, school, systems, and institutions fail us. I could be my fullest self in nightlife, homies spoke spanish and had similar class backgrounds, and the music reflected our racialized lives. We could engage in our gendered and sexual selves in ways that the whiter, cis, and more affluent Boystown refused to do for us.

That area is grotesquely gentrified and hardly recognizable now. I want for people to have some sort of archive of their dance, night, poetry, and art spaces. I want us to remember what keeps/kept us alive when the rainbow flags and assimilation try to steamroll over the complexity of our lives.

One element of your book that I love is you have a ton of shoutouts, especially in the poem “Brown Out Shouts.” You write, “we are brown and trans and queer and out / and we’ve been told too many times that all of those / cannot belong at once.” Why did you use the shout-out as a poetic form and why is it important to name people in your work?

I believe in celebrating those who’ve done the work before and alongside you. Before social media and cultural capital by way of likes, we as a community had to work together in ways that were personal and messy. We had to confirm together and personally that our work was moving forward. I think the list poem, engaged by the shout-out isn’t just specifically POC by practice, but inherently generative and unabashed. I wanted to convey not simply respect for what the people in the poem are surviving, but identify the communal power of QTPOC being listed one after another, almost like a chant.

I am frequently disturbed by the liminal space that reinforces that cis, American, white, wealthy, and able-bodied people are deserving of celebration. I want people to have a tangible awareness that they are valid and archived in the work they are doing. From my tools, I have chosen poetry. I am concerned that QTPOC can only be honored by way of MFA, full-time jobs, and class ascension. There has to be a way we can credit one another. For those who cannot or are unable to adhere to those systems, that doesn’t make them less groundbreaking. In fact, that poem is for those peoples. I’d venture that the solace of the shout-out is a homie-to-homie refusal for anything less than celebration and props.

“Homebois Don’t Write Enough” is one of my favorite pieces in the book. It reads like a manifesto. There’s a really beautiful turn in the poem where you say “homebois we don’t write enough love poems…homebois, we don’t write enough love poems to ourselves.” You express a sense of not fitting into a binary model of gender. Can you talk more about the need to rewrite masculinity and the necessity of tenderness?   

I’m so glad you appreciate that piece. There’s an incessant need to rewrite and revise masculinity. There must always be room for tenderness. As a disabled and chronically ill person of the brown queer masculine variety, I’m not typically what you find of the #FTM life or what people conceive of as manly. Personally, I’m cool with that, but that isn’t the case with mainstream U.S. society. As a kid, I was for some reason on the periphery of what was considered behaved or acceptable and many times, respectable. This poem is no different.

With that as truth, I am  constantly in a place of internalizing misogyny and of being a threat to the very construct of gender itself. Being non-binary–no matter how you have to present to survive, get that job, be semi-respectable for food on the table–is a hard existence and a bountiful one. For “Homebois,” I wanted to stress the tension, the push and pull of battling for self-love and the ability to rejoice. Maybe, it’s that I wanted to push the boundaries to capture not only my perspective of the aesthetic of queer masculinity, but expand on its borders and bounds. It can’t help but be an anthem, I’m told. It’s a hymn in my heart I grapple with and that I find many homebois grapple with. It’s unavoidably raced and classed. White masculinity and, within that sphere, transmasculinity harbor many differences from my own lineage,what I am, and what the transiblings in my circle are. It’s the man with big hips and a booty. It’s the boi with sunglazed inheritance. It’s the masculinity that isn’t given any room on the bus to sit down when their feet are in spasms.

It’s the northwest side of Chicago and Bulls starter jackets and learning multilingual Pilipinx Brown gender from migrant kuyas and grandfathers just trying to get a fucking break under the Bush regime. It’s trying to hold those glories in the palms of your hands and hoping to be also something beyond what you’ve experienced, something better that you and the world deserve.

In your collection, the poem “YOU are SO Brave” holds a mirror up to ableism and confronts it directly, along with the ways it intersects with racism, classism, transphobia, and more. What do you think the queer community can do to be more inclusive, especially of people with disabilities?

This poem is a big point of contention. In the editorial process I was told actually that this piece didn’t make sense, it was confusing, and so long, and what was the point. It’s a found poem, a cento which as someone who comes from working class and as a person of color, I am accustomed to making something from scraps. I have been taught to make brilliance from heartache. The process of this poem, too, is make the audience work, to grapple with the scansion, with the shifts in indentions and text. There’s nothing cordial about ableism and the onslaught of its connections to racism, xenophobia, cissexism, fat shaming, and poverty. There’s nothing clean cut or tidy about it, in fact it is at its best it is grueling and sloppy.

What more could the queer community do? I think put Sick and Disabled Queers and Trans People (as coined by billie rain) people at the center, especially Black, Brown, Migrant, Trans & Gender Non-Conforming people. The fit and able-bodied life is temporary, y’all (Spoiler Alert!). We age and shift as human bodies. It’s inevitable. We are impacted by pollutive and cruel systems that make life unlivable. Ask yourself who isn’t at your event? Basic accessibility means that you create an environment that elaborates on as many needs as possible. Everyone needs to be at the table or honestly, your analysis is lacking and your praxis is self-aggrandizing. You can’t leave people behind in these political times. Productivity is a liar and it’s U.S. Empire talk. Also, google is all the rage and there are several resources out there that are guides to make your event, gathering, or cultural event accessible for your participants.

You use the terms “Pilipinx” and “Pin@y” in the book–can you talk about this decision and the power of queering language?

I am coming from an American context and I grapple with language. It’s a distinct term that plays on Pinay or Pinoy, binary terms that have expressed crucial points of political and cultural necessity. I am not all feminine or masculine and many feel that these are limited in general. Again, it’s about the beyond. It’s about making room for the lived experience of the “other.”

The title poem of the book is so intimate and an ode to lifelong and long-distance friendship. What role has friendship played in your life, especially when so many queer and trans people turn to friends for the support our families are sometimes incapable of providing?

There’s no denying when you read the text that the relationship with my family of origin is a tenuous one. If it weren’t for my friends, mentors, and chosen family in the development of my political and spiritual work, I am not sure where I’d be. I can’t say I’d still be here, that’s for sure. It was friendships that offered me a couch to sleep on when I didn’t have safe homes to return to. It was my friends that texted me at the hospital when I acquired my disabilities. Sometimes, it’s my friendships that buoy me more than anything.

I don’t have the luxury or leisure to have family come by, do my laundry, offer me cooked food, or let me crash when I need to. For some people the sense of home has to be a nebulous one. Alternative systems of care and support are essential, yes? In that deep gap, I’ve had to create and build friendships that amplify whatever family means to me. In the acknowledgments of my book, every name mentioned is someone who made the book happen. Someone else’s sweat brought this collection into fruition. Somebody took care of my dogs so that I could perform across the country. Another person checked accessibility information at events to ensure my participation. Some people gave me meals when I economically wasn’t at a place to do so for myself. This book wasn’t written in a vacuum, but is rather a community investment by many many people.

I can’t speak for all queer and trans people, but I do know the friendships that nourish us for that moment or for lifelong are what have helped me to survive. I can’t stress this enough: whatever you see on stage or in a poem is made possible because people believed in me and have shared their resources with my person, my being, and–by proxy–my craft. Perhaps, it’s the relentless queer/trans/brown sorrow, how else are we supposed to live? My book’s title wants to illustrate the inevitable connection you have with someone through time, whether they are breathing the same air or are thousands of miles away. In what ways have we maintained roots and lineage as  pushed out peoples? As a person who lives within multiple embodiments of unacceptable?

Lastly, how does it feel to finally have a book out in the world? Have you been celebrating?

I have been celebrating in small ways, although I don’t feel the weight of having a book out in the world yet. I still can’t believe it. The shock of when you work so hard on something and finally accomplish it is still residually there for me. In the duration of  writing this book, so many people have been lost. It marks joy for me, but with this fact, also a deep sense of loss. I am just elated that people are interested, buying it, and sharing it with their loved ones. My gratitude is immeasurable at this point. All I really have to say is–thank you so much for reading or for helping believe this work into existence. There’s still so much more for us to write and do!

H. Melt photo

About: H. Melt

H. Melt is a poet and artist whose work proudly documents Chicago's queer and trans communities. Their writing has been published by many places including The Feminist Wire, The Offing, and Them, the first trans literary journal in the United States. They are the author of The Plural, The Blurring. H. Melt works at the Poetry Foundation and Chicago's feminist bookstore.

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