Interview: Christopher Soto

Christopher Soto is a poet based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of How to Eat Glass (Still Life Press, 2012) and Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), and the editor of Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. He holds an MFA in Poetry from NYU and his work has appeared in Tin HouseAmerican Poetry ReviewThe Guardian and more. His work deals with gender and sexual identities, Latinx realities and police violence, among other topics, and he is currently working on a full-length manuscript on mass incarceration.

Pøst-: You once wrote in an article that your use of double slashes as a new kind of poetic punctuation comes from your interest in punk. In an interview with Vinyl, you also said that you were “pushing too much to be like other poets” while writing Sad Girl Poems and that your new voice is more directly political, less concerned with the personal. What poets or artists have influenced this new voice and this formal shift, and how?

Soto: My boyfriend is a graphic designer and looks at headstones at cemeteries for different font inspirations. Similarly, I’ve been looking outside of what is traditionally viewed as poetry for inspiration. I find the lyrics that Justin Pearson wrote for the Locust (a Southern California grindcore band) to be inspirational. Basically everything from Three One G records is literary gold for me and has been used as a framework by which I’m producing the new materials. I’m working on a literary essay that will be released soon about aestheticizing punk lyrics from the San Diego grindcore scene. Punk lyrics are witty, politically conscious, hyper-sexualized, sacrilegious, anti-authoritarian, with an affinity for the grotesque. This is what I strive for – a seriousness and playfulness.

P: French author Nathalie Quintane – who will be featured in our first issue – once said that poetry is never going to shoot real bullets and that literary activism must therefore be coupled with concrete social activism and political philosophy. Your position seems to be similar, since you are involved in several political and social initiatives, such as The Undocupoets Campaign. You even write in the Preface to Sad Girl Poems, “I don’t care if my stories make you feel bad about queer youth homelessness. I don’t care if you read my work and talk about it with your friends at brunch. That doesn’t matter. I want you to […] financially support queer homeless youth.” What do you think poetry still has the power to achieve that social initiatives do not, and vice versa?

S: I haven’t heard of Nathalie Quintane so thank you for this new voice. I appreciate and tend to agree with that quote. Now, I’m having a hard time writing about the difference between poetry (at large) and social initiatives. They are separate and also the same. How I imagine this to look is, in the body of social activism, poetry is the heart and social initiatives are the hands. Both are important to the movement but both serve different roles, which I do not wish to create hierarchies amongst. Hope this answer suffices.

P: “Every corner has a cop [coddling a liquor store]. Protecting their / Notion of freedom. // My neighborhood eats fear.” These two lines from “[Somewhere in Los Angeles] This Poem is Needed” seem to summarize the way you see the authorities, i.e. as a means to keep underrepresented, impoverished and marginalized communities under control. In your opinion, what is the relation between state control (the police force, the government, the prison system) and cultural control (limited representation of POC by mainstream publishers, etc.)? Do they stem from the same systemic problem? What has your experience been with both forms of control?

S: I like your questions. No, I don’t think both those forms of control in the United States come from the same systemic problems but I think they do come from the same ideological hierarchies – white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy – all of the -isms. I think these ideological hierarchies in the United States lead to various systemic problems such as fucked up state control and cultural control. Again, these two forms of control have overlapped in the ways that they suppress people of color, etc. whether intentional or not.

P: As a reader of poetry and as the founder and editor of Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, what do you consider to be the most valid and necessary kind of poetry nowadays? Is there any kind of poetry that you think has become obsolete or irrelevant?

S: Hard to answer. What is seen as obsolete or irrelevant to me may be at the center of poetry experience for another individual. What I enjoy reading, and wish there was more of, is long poems and poems of political urgency that don’t give too much of a shit about “craft.” I’m thinking about the urgency that I feel when I read works by Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Audre Lorde; I wish I felt that political rawness and urgency in more poems today. I wonder if it is the MFA that has taught too many writers to stick to one page or to overly workshop our words? I wonder how major publishers (and myself) might have reinforced this? I’m thinking about the pursuit of the poem as a timeless artefact of language manipulation, as it is sometimes positioned in opposition to the pursuit of the poem as heightened feeling. Lastly, I don’t think any poetry is most valid or necessary. I try to read as broadly and deeply as possible. Right now, I’m actually reading a lot of European fashion magazines that include the occasional poem or prose piece, created by some fashionista existing outside of the literary community. These creative works in fashion magazines are often very interesting to me and have helped me to think about my current manuscript outside of the genre “poetry” and more so as a genre-less creative and intellectual literary process.

P: What emerging poets do you want people to know about? Whose work have you been reading lately?

S: I am currently reading thousands of poems that have been submitted to Nepantla so that is taking up much of my time. On the train I have been reading Stags Leap by Sharon Olds over and over again. I also have been keeping Mai Der Vang’s Afterland in my backpack and dipping into that from time to time. Emerging poets (well, people whose first books are forthcoming this year or next) that I am excited about include: Jenny Xie, Kaveh Akbar, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Javier Zamora, Erika L. Sanchez, Nicole Sealey, Sam Sax. There are likely a few more who are slipping my mind at the moment.