Trans & Non-Binary BIPOC Poets Discuss Human Rights & Poetics of Justice with Kay Ulanday Barrett
Author: Kay Ulanday Barrett
April 6, 2021
For this new year of 2021, I’m celebrating survival and also a great deal of mourning. The sweep of painstaking systemic oppression was ongoing and amplified for many Queer people in the pandemic life: white supremacy and the police state committed onslaughts of outrageous violence, by way of murdering Black lives, to continuing to displace Indigenous communities from sacred land, to the lack of support for many communities already vulnerable during COVID, and so much more. 2020 was treacherous. Frankly, typing that very sentence itself reads as trite and couldn’t possibly encapsulate the devastation many Queer, Trans, and Non-Binary people have each faced. This includes kindred artists and writers.
On December 10th we celebrated Human Rights Day, in January 2021 we honored the pivotal impact of Martin Luther King Jr., and faced the inauguration of a new president. Almost as an orientation to the new year, we witnessed an attempted coup by (mostly) white and fascist conservatives. Currently, there’s no kind of pretending for me that the immoral and devastating things will abruptly end, Poof! like magic! Instead, I feel it is important to ground and honor the work of Transgender and Non-Binary Black, Indigenous, and People of Color poets as we continue to re-imagine and re-build. For this, I prioritize poets who amplify justice poetics to the absolute front.
Poetry is not in a vacuum. Additionally, 2020 highlighted evident and longstanding disparities in poetry and the larger U.S. literary world. I feel like we’ve learned and confirmed egregious ways where Literary Industry fails people, whether it’s access to book deals, agents, MFA pretension, publication, gravely out-of-touch nonprofit leadership, magnifying limited voices, or just a select group of gifted tokens. For me, I cherish poetry for what I’ve learned it to be: poets are brilliant, durable, and oftentimes are community workers, educators, and activists. Poets are splendorous and can move outside of the limited landscape of academic and industry-based milieus.
Yes, I’m biased. My favorite poets are ones who use poetry as a means to strategize and imagine ways in which we can live in a world where resources aren’t scarce but abundant for everyone; a world where carceral systems aren’t rewarded but abolished entirely. Poets are known for Hella Big Feels™ but we all know for real: poets are known to bring in the ruckus.
For April 2021, it’s National Poetry Month in the U.S. What better way to celebrate the jubilation and crucial change poetry can bring than feature Benji Hart, féi hernandez, and Dane Edidi Figueroa! This offering hopes to share poets who live in the non-linear, poets who range in approach, lineage, gender, sexuality, race, spirit, and migration experience, among other identities. Here’s an installment of ruckus, a dialogue on how poetry can be embodied in an ever-changing, achy, and still incredible world. Here’s to poets who aren’t just writers at a solitary desk, in a classroom, or even in a book, but ones who construct stanzas that embody change-making in their communities, each line, each breath.
To poems & ruckus,
Kay Ulanday Barrett
Titles, Identities, Occupations, etc: interim president of the advisory board for Gender Justice LA, co-founder of ING fellowship, author of Hood Criatura, (trans)(non-binary), Mexican, once undocumented, Inglewood-raised, visual artist, spiritualist, conjuror, anime fanatic, dream walker, manifestician, manga collector, soft bad bitch, alien ho.
Upcoming work/projects: book of essays, new poetry manuscript, poetry film and portrait series about QTBIPOC resilience in Inglewood
Let’s begin with this question–with the insurgence Transgender and Non-Binary writing, could you talk about how your writing engages human rights? Describe yourself, your art, aesthetic, politic?
Benji Hart: I’m a Black, femme, gender-nonconforming performance artist. While I consider myself a poet, much of my writing is made for the stage and meant to be read alongside physical movement. The pieces I make are often minimal, my voice and body the only elements, mixing dance and poetry to illustrate the histories of social struggles. As a prison abolitionist, my work imagines futures where Black people are free, which inherently means envisioning a world where police and prisons no longer exist, are replaced with networks of mutual support. I see poetry and art-making as crucial to this world, an antidote to the carceral state.
féi hernandez: It is my divine purpose to translate my transness within the context of my body, a byproduct of colonization and in all its nuance, in order to shed light on the necessary expansive force that is being trans. Although my written work is motivated by spiritual and alien means, it is for the necessary terrestrial shift to raise consciousness, therefore, expand the longevity and aliveness of my BIPOC trans siblings, therefore the human rights of everyone.
Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi: My writing really centers Black Trans people and celebrates our divinity, and essentiality. Through my writing I explore healing, liberation, love, accountability, rage, spirituality, and dismantling oppressive systems. I am a Black Cuban, African, Indigenous Trans woman. My Art is one of remembering, revolution, revitalizing, and rebirthing. My politics are born from the ancestral knowing of Black Trans Liberation.
Why did you start writing and why poetry? What makes poetry the genre of your choice? What other medias and mediums do you feel are in tandem with your writing towards liberation?
Hart: My favorite poetry is economic and precise, but also disregards the conventions of colonial language, and revels in a lack of rules. I think the best poetry defies categorization, is as sonic and visual as it is literary, and understands itself inherently as belonging to multiple worlds, linking opposed visions and experiences in unexpected and illuminating ways. Any writing, any art that is able to achieve this, is poetry to me.
hernandez: Succinct worlds: words, two words stitched together by hyphen, words together in a sentence. A mono-stitch, two lines in a stanza, a couplet and so forth. There are a million worlds in me that need to live their own ecosystem. Poetry, essays, text-based artwork, and visual art are distinct soils that brew entirely different worlds. In order to provide diverse ecosystems for diverse seeds to grow, I tend to them all. The hybridity of my existence requires that different gardens be grown for the revolution towards liberation. Soil, words, water, each their own force, together: a new world, new life.
Figueroa Edidi: Poetry was my first gateway into writing. In my opinion poetry has this way of cultivating space to describe things in ways that can feel ephemeral, ethereal, otherworldly and beyond. I write plays, novels, and screenplays. At the root of so much of this work is storytelling.
Talk more about how being Transgender, Non-Binary, and BIPOC influence your work? What ways does your hybrid approach to writing inform craft and technique in creating?
Hart: For me, transness is a rejection of set and expected structures, living out your deepest desires for yourself in real time, with no one’s permission but your own. I try to write, move, and create from a similar place, allowing my work to shape itself into what it wants to be, without worrying about where it will land, or how it meshes with outside notions of genre. I sometimes struggle to find an audience, venue, or clear home for new work, but generating something that is authentically itself matters more than ensuring it will be successfully consumed by someone else.
hernandez: The moment I took my first breath I pulled the vastness of space into this world, as many of us BIPOC trans folks have. It was decided in a past life, staged in the future, that I would return here to shift literary craft and technique by guiding language to become the chimera it was meant to be, especially from dominant colonizer languages like English and Spanish, with their: rage, fangs, and body of a cage. To be the multidimensional being I am: Mexican born, “alien”/“illegal”, Inglewood raised, (trans)(non-binary), healer witch bitch, and all the other markers that define me means I was born to chew the world as we know it and spit it out as rich soil.
Figueroa Edidi: Everything I write typically has a Black Trans Character in it. Typically one that shares one or more of my identities. I believe that it is important to craft worlds that honor the reality of us existing. I have the gift of writing and I believe I have the responsibility to make literary worlds in which Trans BIPOC Folks are the default, not the token, not the afterthought; the default. We existed before the white man came, we will exist long after the white man’s bones have become dust. We have a right to craft our beings, our politic, our legacy free from centering his gaze. We have a right to center ourselves.
Share more about being a writer in multiple struggles fighting for human rights–how crucial is this for you and how does that engage your audience/readership? Who is your work for? What is the impact of your writing?
Hart: When I first started making performances, I saw the function of my work as critique and confrontation—railing against academia, white supremacy, and capitalism. Ten years later, I still see many of those same systems as sources of my oppression. But a decade in movement has taught me the power of imagining new systems. I now spend more creative energy speaking directly to Black people, trans people, rather than addressing the systems which harm us. Ignoring them is a practice, a reminder that they will one day cease to exist. The communities I love are more deserving of my attention than the doomed structures that can’t love us.
Hernandez: My work is for Inglewood, trans (&) undocumented, BIPOC people and all the rivers of intersections that bind us. My work gives us a shade, a nudge, a hand hold. A slap on the neck, a clock, a kiss. We are all nuanced and intersectional and my hope is that my work reveals: the singular crystalline heart of quartz we carry, our power and immortality. If my work lands in the hands of those that specialize in violence against us, may it bewitch the reader into a rebirth that ensures my people’s freedom.
Figueroa Edidi: My poetry talks about my existence, my experience, politics, our right to thrive, and my hope for our future. My writing acknowledges the past, demands we dismantle oppression, and that we understand we have the right to the future. My work is for Black/ Indigenous/ Brown trans people. People who believe we all should be free from oppression. People who know something but don’t have the words to articulate the knowing. My work is for our ancestors, ourselves, and the generations who will come after.
What are you reading right now that you consider absolute must-reads? We’re talking readings you carry with you, something in your bag at all times, any genre crushing? All genres apply!
Hart: The multidisciplinary performance I am currently crafting, entitled World After This One, looks at bomba, voguing, and gospel music all as examples of how Black folks have historically used the very markers of their oppression to envision freedom— challenging preconceived notions of which tools are at our disposal to abolish death-making systems. From a research standpoint, Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico by Guillermo A. Baralt has been hugely informative and has traveled with me everywhere. Poetically, I’ve drawn inspiration from Magical Negro by Morgan Parker, 1919 by Eve Ewing, and sermons and speeches by Cornell West.
hernandez: I carry Natalie Diaz’ When My Brother was an Aztec, Toni Morrison’s Sula & Beloved, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Vaster Than The Sky Greater Than Space by Mooji, and Audrie Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. I carry a lullaby my great great great grandmother passed down from the mountains of Arroyo Hondo, Chihuahua. I carry Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz, Zadie Smith’s Intimations, A History of my Brief Body by Billy-ray Belcourt, and Manifest Destinies The Making of the Mexican American Race by Laura E.Gomez.
Figueroa Edidi: The Black Trans Prayer Book.