Jenni(f)fer Tamayo talks with poet, performer, and activist Kay Ulanday Barrett about definitions of work/labor in Sick and Disabled Queer People of Color experiences, how different levels of systemic violence impact one’s poetics, writing as embodied spiritual practice and activism, the ethics of performance, and how expansive definitions of care can be a source of resistance in Kay’s new poetry collection, When the Chant Comes (Topside Press)
Jenni(f)fer Tamayo: This summer I took a workshop with Alexis Pauline Gumbs and she opened the space by asking us to bring our ancestors, our mothers into the space by saying their names. I’m on my bed on a lush green comforter—your book is on my nightside table. Beside it, there is a yellow candle and blue candle. Above it is my rose quartz. Who is in the room that this book creates? Who am I moving with? Who should we call into the space as we begin?
Kay Ulanday Barrett: I love Alexis and appreciate her work! She actually has been supportive of this book and I worked with her when she hosted the QTPOC Dream Retreat. Thank you for opening with the place of ancestors and mothers, for sharing where my book has been in your home.
Before any poem, even before the title page, is the dedication: For my ancestors, my auntie yoly, my lolo guillermo, & my mama. Look we made it! Like many children of migrant brown families, my successes aren’t ever just my own but undoubtedly tied to the people that raised me.
The book has two sections at the end: kamatayan (death) and kapwa (soul). The text’s architecture came from inquiries I have with my ancestors, a call and response with them, a taut conflict and joyful collaboration, it seems like. I find that the use of an epistle (letter poem) can’t help but offer an intimate and confessional energy so I use that form widely in this book. It allows me to express internal workings of emotions that I struggle with: the sloppy, the mourning, the grieving, the confused. How do we as QTPOC talk about death? There’s no manual for when your homie suicides in this white supremacist and cissexist world. There’s no manual for children of migrants with class struggles whose parents died from the excruciating effects of U.S empire. I don’t have any living family of origin left; my family is comprised of ancestors. Many people who this book is dedicated to are no longer living. There’s something to say when you carry the memories when others have gone beyond and aren’t breathing with us. I feel like I’m the only person who lived it, so why not create an archive in a poetry book?
In the 13-year duration of this book’s making, I lost five family of origin members (father, mother, grandparents, aunt), and another five QTPOC chosen family. I’m an only child you see, so that’s pretty much what I’ve got. This book has an entire section for death because I am that guy during the holidays and at parties. I carry the dead with me, in constant ritual. In my mid-20s I didn’t have the experience of parents to come by to bring food, do my laundry, assist with rent or even argue with. I had a council of dead people I could talk to. I also didn’t have the money or privilege to witness my love ones in their final breaths of transition, so this book carries that particular experience as well.
I am answering this question on my mama’s birthday. I bring my deeply passionate and contemptuous Scorpio working class single parent. I bring my patient stubborn and loyal lola. I bring every trans pilipinx elder I don’t know about. I bring all my trans pageant titas who helped me feel safe in my body when others said it was threat or deserved violence. I call on other homebois who couldn’t make it in this binary and racist system. I beckon my lolo who developed compassion even in this heartbreak and hard hitting place of a country. I also call on all my previous selves that brought me here, the pudgy genderqueer kid in midwest cattails & sunsets, the awkward teenager and the rowdy ripped jeans wearing college student that worked three jobs to get through school.
JT: Thank you for sharing this with me. I feel honored to be in this room with us. Your articulation of this book as a “call and response with your elders” feels central to the book’s energies in lots of ways. I’m thinking of James Snead’s work and the importance of repetition and circularity within call and response—the vital energies it creates because it reminds us that we each have a place within and in connection to the voices of our ancestors. In other words, ‘when the chant comes,’ how do we respond, chant back?
With that in mind, I also wanted to ask you about the role of sweat in this book. It’s doing a lot of versatile ‘work’ within the poems. For example, in “Homebois Don’t Write Enough,” this line arrives: “…that means this whole system needs a revision. That means, we have to ask ourselves daily/ are you doing your homework?” This line has lingered with me in its encapsulation of what it means to do home work and homework. Homework and home/work is something that feels related to sweat—later in that same poem you write: “let us hold our breaths for the Sakia Gunn’s and the Fong Lee’s, as it /could easily be our sweat on this sidewalk.” Can you say more about sweat and-or home/work?
KUB: I take comfort in the circular, in the hope that there’s response and even if that response is quiet, is deep breath, is a pause for waiting or even confusion, it’s something, right? It’s not stagnant. I want the check-in via poetry with my readers and with my ancestors, to make sure we’re moving together.
As far as home/work, it’s a perpetual theme, and of course, your investigative poetic skills would notice that right away. Think of it, I am from a migrant household where both home and work practices are in constant dispute, tension, and it’s a dance, actually. Home is also built as a dream sequence, what homeland meant for my family, what I’ve inherited from that constant tugging of loved ones never feeling that they can go back home or create home anew. The most obvious for me is that delineation between the two gets blurred, each are hard won, and sometimes we can only stay in our homes if we work hard enough to keep them. This book moves with me as I construct and deconstruct how we perceive and internalize both home and labor. In another poem, “Uncertain,” I directly excerpt a hard lesson my mama gave me where she states that she knows “work and home / work and home / … what do you know?” Therein lies the framework for how I’ve come to understand what home means, what work means, and by proxy the sheer sweat of making and sustaining both in a climate that wants to undermine each. In 2003, Sakia Gunn was murdered for being her true self, a person who was Gender Non-Conforming, Queer, Butch/Stud, Black, in Newark and NYC. Now, three years later in the midwest, Fong Lee is murdered by police. This is from racism, xenophobia, anti-migrant hate. There’s something in my experience that doesn’t identically fit either scenario, but there is a bridge. It takes work to be who you are authentically in this world. When you do so, there are hazardous, dire consequences, and now, cue: the sweat. I thought about how many people move on a sidewalk, any sidewalk each day and how when a body falls, the blood or sweat could be anyone’s, on the same street, a union happens. The same goes with tears. We leave morsels of ourselves from all this work, all the truth we live, and with that, all the scrutiny that comes with systemic oppression.
Now to sweat and home/work from my perceptions of chronic pain and disability. This book takes a charge for this embodiment too. A disabled and chronically in pain aesthetic learns to take solace in the roughest of waves. It means coming up against the challenges of medicalized racism, the eugenics practices and ideals of white supremacy, which also means being light-skinned, able-bodied, and skinny. Consider this coupled with gender binaries enforced by medical examinations that determine what normal health is. We are bombarded with painfully rigid scripts. For some of us, we are monitored by the state in this perpetual assessment. That takes some fucking sweat and work to love who you (to find home and pleasure under your skin) are after all that. In “Crip Sick Tankas” I wanted to recreate that work for the reader, to show how much work it takes to shoulder those “You are SO Brave” comments and other daily epithets and microaggressions that Sick and Disabled Queer People of Color experience on any given day. It tackles several voices and has phonetic chaos. It makes the reader work to an almost enervated state. Your body, essentially your home, takes work to sustain and to protect. Not necessarily maintenance, but frequently it occurs to me how much the actual anatomy of the human fights for you. It is the semi-reliant system of skin and bones and organs that for many of us is impacted by climate, more oppression, and lack of resources. I’ve gotten sicker. I revel in the beauty, severity, and discord of it. Contrary to popular models of blame/shame, the home of my body is not to blame for this. Instead in what ways do systemic disparity and violence impact a body? Bodies within the same communities? How do we constantly recover, find home in ourselves (and with each other) in lieu of this incessant onslaught of annihilation? In these times, friend, I don’t know what else to call it.
JT: Thank you for this response. I’m glad to hear a bit of your reflections on “YOU are SO Brave” and its phonetic chaos. Formally the poem is doing so much work to surface and texturize the aggressions Sick and Disabled Queer People of Color experience daily. Some of the conditions that this poem also materializes for me are types of erasures and overwritings that happen through these violences and aggressions—paradoxically, the erasures happen not only by exclusion (say, not having Disabled Queer Poets in their purview at all) but by a misguided (if not harmful) attempt to include. The speakers in this poem “erase” by talking over, through, around and past the “you” of the poem. The capital letters, underlining, italics, etc., create little room for the “you” to be heard, to live, to exist as they want. Some of these questions and comments are expressed with “good intentions,” (for example, “YOU are SO brave”) but fail at accounting for their own violences.
These projections/projectiles of the Disabled person and their body also conjure a false story that able-bodied people like to tell and have been telling for years: people with disabilities are “flawed” and need to be “cured” (from Sins Invalid in “YOU are SO brave”). At many instances, your poems are re-telling, re-narrating a story the body (and its embodiments) can tell; the lines “every cough is an altar at the bend of ribcage/ every cane is a drum calling into the earth” in “to be holy & underwater” position a body as something malleable and expansive and connected to the spirit and the land. This body-story then feels essential, vital to those of us who are disabled, sick, those of us who have complicated relationships with home/lands, who have lost loved ones and not been able to be with them. If our bodies are expansive, we can imagine ourselves part coral or wave and create new bodily-spatialities across “moments of silence over phone wires” as you write in the title poem, “When the Chant Comes.” So much of this feels connected to a spiritual poetics for me. Not sure there is a specific question here but wondering how some of this *lands* for you.
KUB: The landing is in the spiritual and natural poetics, how reverberations of violence can charge and pain a body, how we can feel this pain as an extension of the world we belong to. This question is one of the first questions I’ve answered in a decade in an artistic space that has an interest in the disabled poetic. Isn’t that terrible and intense? Disabilities and chronic pain in art and poetry have been at a space where it is solely about an individual experience overcoming, frequently inspirational porn almost, never questioning the way ableism affects everything we do, including how we create and write. This work is important and it doesn’t necessarily address the impacts of systemic oppression or even more vital, Disabled community as a culture. I just attended what is considered a prestigious literary poetry conference and of the 100 participants, I was 1 of 2 who identified as Disabled and one of the only people who discussed access to events, seating, locations to readings, and the like. The onus was on me. The labor was on the Disabled person as it usually is on the marginalized person surrounded in the privileged minority. Doesn’t this sound familiar though? If I am to be considered a poet by profession, ableism insipidly takes precedence in the ways in which white supremacy and misogyny do. What does this do to the human spirit? How do we create among creators who consider your entire life as fiction or worse, not even a reference.
Unfortunately, I’ve heard other fellowships and conferences are similar, where insert -Disabled Poet, chair user, cane user, Deaf person, sick person- is left to fend for themselves and if not, they are left behind. Survival of the fittest is very much a framework that exists in artistic culture. We can write poetry all day that call to the public and even community concerns, but frankly it’s an able-bodied public. There is little awareness of political disability and interconnectedness with people who have disabilities especially Black, Brown, Queer & Trans people. We are always in competition, forced to pull up the bootstraps; if you can’t get to the reading or produce art in particular ways, why then, you aren’t dedicated to poetry, the practice, or the discipline, now are you?
The thing about this is that ableism (much like racism, cissexism, all isms in life) thrive on erasure, both oblivious and vile, that casual ableism where each excerpt within this cento is said without remorse or question. Day-to-day harm and aggressions are a ubiquitous experience, and when all kinds of aesthetic and cultural identities oppose traditions of able-bodiedness and whiteness, the question of inclusion and exclusion come into play. Are these our only options? Is there anything outside this dynamic? Can we create something new? Questions that do a lot of work in this poem: Does inclusion always equal success or evolution? Better yet, do I want to be included in a setting/climate/landscape that primarily annihilates or erases me and if so, who is being left out? Do I want to be among the privileged and at what cost? What will I lose if I am the token of pity, exception, self-aggrandizement? This unsettles ideals brought about by the eugenics movement and what is standardized as “normal.” If I am afforded this opportunity, that fundraiser, among the clamor of the canon, how does inclusion actually operate as a weapon or tool?
In “YOU are SO brave,” these aren’t lines I have written. These are quotes from direct conversations or interactions with Sick and Disabled people in my life that have resonated with me. These crude and sometimes subtle exchanges came from abusive romantic relationships as well as well-intentioned doctors. As a cento it pushes us to consider climate and landscape; the poem does channel the natural, perhaps not a pastoral approach [the way of the farm and field], no, this is a chaotic rambunctious bombardment. The voice of the poem is in a landscape of ridicule, argument, conflict, where there are physical and psychic attacks coming from every angle. Isolation is a recognizable painful reality for many people who identify as Sick and Disabled. How do you connect to the outside world, when its elements, its manmade structures, impair your access to what is rightfully connected to you?
I used to work at the Natural History Museum for a curator-emeritus. I was misgendered all the time. What I learned as a kid from the midwestern woods and chicago hood was a connection to poetic botany. An understanding that broadened into the knowledge of the racism of white middle amerika and urban racial segregation. A deeper sense of how science has shaped or misdirected human worth via colonialism. Spatiality in each poem is a malleable concept because it has had to be. Inhabitation and investigation of the body can’t help but call for a re-assemblance of the spiritual and natural. The example of my cane being “a drum calling into the earth” decentralizes the industrial notion that my body is a robot, is a mere thing meant just for labor. Instead, it has a legacy beyond even just the human anatomy. The cane itself is object transformed from the welding of metals of this earth into an assistive device (Shout out to an extended metaphor from Moraga’s poem, “The Welder!”). The cane is a part of a defined queer aesthetic. The sound and weight of it has its own rhythm, its own music. Fire did that. Earth did that. Air is a collaborator too. I am a part of this extension and how wonderful that is instead of the isolated narrative of ableism and fitness. If we can consider our wobbly and weird bodies as something of an orchestra of the natural world and worlds beyond, we can feel a sense of presence [beyond the medical, or even clinical], yes, as well as a sense that belongs to a future. Let’s commit to that in our poetry. That level of hope challenges the idea of the individual as alone, sovereign, or separate and that denies the ancestral and innate connection to earth. That’s constant work and by proxy, Brown Disabled Queer work. The Body-story in my work is an optimal catalyst in poetry, a means of re-mapping to re-evaluate the body and spirit on our own terms. Make a home of your body, I tell myself. Make it yours and make it beyond.
JT: Fuck yes to all of this! I am thinking that in many ways the “narrative of ableism and fitness” is (also) the narrative of the straight/white world. By “straight” I mean both its immediate and extended senses—that which refuses the curved, the bent, the queered, the unregulated. There’s an image at the end of “tools to survive mercury in retrograde” that mediates these concepts for me; you write, “if crumpled up, now is not the time to underestimate yourself: the fetal position is a damn fine place to write.” Here the curvature of the fetal position feels essential to the writing/the creation it generates. It could only come from that “crumbled & creased” place, the “wobblyness” of our bodies. Our futurity is not about robots and droids, but about returning to the curved spatialities that nurture and collaborate with us.
KUB: It’s refreshing (though refreshing feels trite) to know the work does movement and care in ways I had hoped for. “Bent” is a British term for Queer, no? I think there’s stamina in the circulatory, in the curvature. This is how humans began in this posture and somehow I think that the skill of turning inward, from the hibernation and internal development is seen as weakness. I welcome that weakness in the poem. What this line works to do is revel in the way we began, that raw and unknown, the kinetic moments. Also, infants are known to cry and are known to need the warmth of another human, need subconscious collaboration. So exactly what you said about the “crumbled and creased” which happens to many when our lives are rife with systemic injustice. This poem disses my own poetry, makes a list of mistakes, and in some respect, there is humility in confession. Consequently, confession means an awareness, an acknowledgement. This last line isn’t a question, it isn’t statement; if we read closer it serves as a reminder, as if to say, you know this place and it’s havoc AND you know what it is capable of. I think of the “squash and stretch,” a foundational principle of animation. Each movement of a drawn object/character feels bigger coming from the squashed place to the stretched place, a cyclitic function. Naturally, each loses impact without the other. From these two stances we get to understand a matter’s rigidity, it’s displacement, in this case—the body in sorrow. Stretch tells us about volume. Inevitably that fetal position is a coiling and by proxy, we know or hope to find expanse eventually. Futurity for me means we’ll feel our possible volume.
JT: I’m reading back on the interview questions and realize I haven’t told you how much your book means to me, how intricate and brilliant I think it is, how it has hugged me tenderly during these brutal months, and the recent sharpening of violences that many of us are living through, some more intensely than others. I sincerely hope you have felt the love and admiration through these questions and I thank you for all the work you do on daily basis, especially in light of the way our communities and “poets of our time” fail to do even the most basic gestures of acknowledgement or care.
KUB: Thank you for sharing this connection and it means so much that I am very shy after reading your actual feedback. Your acknowledgment is stunning to me. The love and admiration is unwaveringly mutual and felt!
JT: In looking back, I also noticed that you describe this book as a sort of archive for you. I want to ask you about how that archive gets destabilized by the knowledges that are held in your body as you read or perform from this work. Does that happen while you read or perform? Does something else happen? I have never seen you read from this work live, and as someone who loves performance, I’m wondering about how this (reading and/or performing) plays or doesn’t play a role for you?
KUB: I am a performer by trade more so than a poet, I think. Chicago did that. The practice of archive innately calls for the skills of containment and channeling. It’s crucial in this work or else I would be triggered all the damn time. To witness/focus on being present is a prerequisite for this work. And if that fails, what’s the aftercare plan, ya feel me? I want to be responsible with myself and my audience as the content I perform is politically heightened and trauma informed. I am in perpetual practice to channel, harness, and use tools to enhance my live work. This includes the spiritual work of self-protection and grounding. My mentors Sharon Bridgforth and Adelina Anthony both workshopped me into that, teaching me as well the importance of the spiritual care as well as emotional work when you perform autobiographically or work that resonates with your communities. For the past decade, on any given academic year, I perform poems to about 20+ places not including poetry readings. Over and over again. It has taken training and teachings to maintain the momentum emotionally and performatively. It is a separate job from the actual writing process. To respect the lineage of emotions/experiences of the pieces is laborious. Wonderfully/devastatingly, I talk with my audiences at length afterwards. Of course, there’s disarray and destabilization. After a performance, students may come out as disabled in an able-bodied place or process their family’s migration story and the queer bashing they’ve faced from their own families or at school. My material supports these channels by the compromising nature of the work. It’s what makes it durable for those that want to watch a live show. There’s an availability and openness that occurs in performance. I adore that intimacy. There. I have mentioned three skillsets that are mutually exclusive but here, coexist—writing, performing, and then speaking on work. For me, my poetry must exist in this indelible way. I don’t know what else to do with it. LOL.
I was mentored by community theater artists in Chicago and often they were poets too. In this text, a majority of the work is performative, to be read aloud at the very least. I workshop each poem in its textual mechanics, as I do in my body as if were a script, monologue, or vignette in a play. It was how I was taught, an intention for every line: What does it do for my audience? How do I want them to feel? How do I want to feel during? What will the takeaway or aftermath be of this poem? What care do I need before, during, after a set?
JT: Your thoughtfulness here makes me think of when I first began training as a performer—how it contrasts the training that you describe above. I was regularly instructed to not consider ‘the audience’ when performing, to not even think too much about the work. In other words, to try not to intend. To just be and do. LOL. (As if this were possible, as if it would not be wildly harmful in some contexts!) What this practice ultimately generated was a type of performative carelessness that was dependent on harm: I’m going to do my thing, and you get out of my way because I can’t care about you! At times this resulted in intense, moving, interesting pieces, but more often than not it was exploitative of the performer and its audiences, who don’t often know the room they’ve walked into. If we center the well-being of ourselves and our audiences, that doesn’t mean we can’t do “politically heightened and trauma-informed work”; it means we shape and maneuver these spaces very differently than many of us currently do.
With performance and readings in mind, what events, collaborations, work, spaces do you have coming up?
– 4/18 Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
– 4/21 Women and Children’s First Books, Chicago, IL.
– 4/25 Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.
– 4/26 University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
– 4/29 Queer Students of Color Conference, Portland, OR.
– 5/6-5/7 allgo (Guest Artist-in-Residence), Austin, TX.
– 5/16 Portland Community College, Portland, OR.
– 6/23 Asian American Writers Workshop, NYC, NY.
– 7/19 Equity and Excellence Conference, Orlando, FL.
JT: Yes!!!!! So exciting, K. These future audiences are so lucky! Thank you again for your time, your insights, and wisdoms.