Q&A with Kay Ulanday Barrett
Editor’s note: Below is an interview with Kay Ulanday Barrett, someone I admired for a long time from afar about a new book of poetry by Kay, More Than Organs, available now from Sibling Rivalry Press. We also talk about the publishing industry, dreaming, creating, performing and more. Enjoy!
Tell me a little about yourself!
I am a Transgender, Disabled, Non-Binary, Queer Filipinx person and Snack eater galore, Dog pops. I love dogs. I love poems. I love liberation. I am an earth sign, Virgo. I’m curmudgeonly yet known to be on a dancefloor if given the right variables. Beat boxer wanna be. A+++ napper.
You are a poet, activist, educator, performer, and super dapper dresser. More Than Organs is your second work of poetry to be published (Sibling Rivalry Press, March 2020). How does this book differ from your first book, When the Chant Comes (Topside Press, 2016)?
Two books?! Yooooo. Can you believe it?!! I really can’t. Given my demographics I didn’t think I would be able to get passed my 30’s, moreover have two published books. It feels tremendously different. In 2015 when I was looking for presses to publish that first manuscript, I was told that much of my Disabled or Transgender content was too much or if I could edit it out. My elaboration was something to edit out. There were few presses at that time publishing Trans poets and many Disabled poets getting literary shine were (still are) Cis White people. My external world was like many spoonies living in the U.S. empire, wayward, confusing, constant advocacy. WTC (When the Chant Comes) moved through time by surgeries, written in bed culture, me couch surfing houseless, or trying to hustle worker’s comp systems. I put every damn stanza I had, squeezed out of every pore, because I really didn’t think I would publish again. So you have this long-ass book that holds thematic connections from college Kay to adult 30’s Kay that is told isn’t literary enough, but doing community POC, Trans justice, and Sick and Disabled work.
WTC differs in that it’s framed a lot in how I started: performance poetry with slam poetry tendencies. It was a place of me being a community poet for years and finally getting a book deal. It was a book that was emotionally spiraled and also seeking process for grief, as I lost so many family members and chosen family from death and suicide.
MTO (More Than Organs) is a book where I am able to take similar elements, because I am of similar body-mind, and pay closer attention to the line, to the space of the text or emptiness of the page. This book has a quieter, internal consideration, something maybe I am developing, something about rumination in the text or the structures. The pace of this second book feels different in approach, a more subtle examination. My understanding of potentiality in being multiple embodiments of Trans, Queer, POC, child of migrant, working class/Poor, and Disabled feels hopeful. Hopeful adjacent? Is that a thing? I think this new book utilizes new forms and still maintains a sarcasm that feels accurate to people who know me, a humor while in oblivion. Anytime there’s food content, there’s joy in there from chosen family or blood family that was irresistible and wonderful to write about.
More Than Organs is described as a “a love letter to Brown, Queer, and Trans futures.” What do you want to share that speaks to the future in a world that can be bleak and hostile for multiply marginalized people?
Bleak is like part of my gender expression.True story: I was voted Most Pessimistic of my H.S. Senior class (Lane Techhh!!! #chitown *chants with chicago h.s. pride*), which now makes utter sense. Queer, Disabled, Trans, BIPOC (obviously in various different degrees among them) sorrow and the hostility faced at any given formula of those fronts aren’t to be glazed over. I start this book with a prologue that defines the term Mahal, which in Tagalog to English translates to two definitions: 1) Mahal, noun meaning love. 2) Mahal, adjective meaning expensive. I thought it was vital to share that word. That the way I was raised and now as an adult, love is a cost, a deep investment. I don’t even mean the capitalist sense of monetary gain, I mean the heart pang, spirit ache, psychological gymnastics it takes to actually love. And all the communities that are facing violence right now and hxstorically, how much love is there to offer and how bittersweet, how decadent, how necessary it is.
I’m not an expert. I am struggling a lot. Weekly. Often. This empire systemically destroys people. I am not being kitschy: Love has brought me so much that when I had nothing to eat, when I faced rejection after rejection, or when I made heinous mistakes and hurt people, the generative aspect of love was what kept me afloat. My books are community projects. My top surgery was a community project. Collective care has kept me alive when hope felt like a cerebral theory. I know this empire discards and disposes people like me and so when we find each other, that’s kindred. Our future is based on how we will show up for each other– sharing food stamps, accompanying someone to a medical exam, ordering food delivery, creating low stimulation quiet space for friends to quietly co-exist, sitting with someone as they ride out pain, funneling meds and money to get supplies we need.
I feel like working class, poor, Disabled, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Femmes, and Trans people know this hustle. Our panic and isolation is not new. Our ancestors have laid groundwork for us to be here. I hope my book contributes to some salve that we aren’t alone. That as a lonely kid, a poor kid, the POC in class who gets their name mispronounced, the person who has to send money back home, the person who keeps a steady advocacy in front of doctors, the person zeroxing death certificates and wills, the person who is misgendered by just breathing, the person just trying to enjoy dim sum while white people prod a saturday morning, that we have this united front. We have networks where we can replenish ourselves and each other. We’re creating the art, skills, strategies, with support from our ancestors to be the people who show up for a life that strives for liberation. Every moment. You’re here. We can be smitten and in pain. We can swoon and feel devastated too. We can hold complications. I have to believe it. If I don’t, I watch videos of fluffy cats and dogs, cry, text my circle, and try to eat something delicious, to get through this breath by breath. We are all just trying to be bountiful, breath by breath, and I want you to know that I uplift that you’re trying. That even when you might not want to be here, that here you are, here you wonderful magical person, here. Just be here.
Can you tell me about your experiences working with an editor for More Than Organs and what you learned from this relationship as a writer?
I think my first book was a hella hard check in reality. I am an earth sign in the very brutal sense of the word– a harsh self- critic, a perfectionist from trauma, a goal- oriented and often times, undoing my own internal ableism, kind of writer. By the time I got to Sibling Rivalry, I discussed my contract with people in the book industry (which I recommend) and I stated what I wanted for my book’s vision not just in print, but afterwards. How I needed to tour, how queued up social media, and my calendar, I brought those things up as much as any structure of the book. To be real: How all that can go to shit if my chronic pain, mental health, ableism, or medical complex (or a sweet teaming of those) throw a curve ball. Sibling Rivalry Press has been very thoughtful and kept the vision/mission of my book so far. My book had undergone three workshops and two residencies at that point, so my edits process was a lot of copy-editng and striking poems that just weren’t ready for this collection. I feel like Bryan Borland has trusted me and I trust him, in a way that is indispensable in creating a whole new book creature. If you don’t trust your editor, the book might reflect that. A poem can be fly as hell individually, but not be a great member of the collective book. That’s ok. That poem will come through in another book project. The cover art was beautiful and I definitely sent an exhaustive list of type settings, color schemes, book art, illustrations that would influence the aesthetic and spirit I wanted.
This is to say also, it’s not like there’s a long line of Trans and Disabled poetry editors or publishers in charge of presses – medium or big. It is very rare. Poetry Inc. sets us up for that gap from the get. So trust is imperative. Example: a previous editor said they thought list poems were lazy, me as person in spoken word but also BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) poetry, came prepared to share formidable and credible poets who wrote otherwise. Already, it’s hard to write the poems, to find the privilege to sculpt and craft them, so by the time if we get to an editor, the editor doesn’t have to just respect what you’re writing but where you are coming from. Your poetic lineage and line, are just as critical. My current editor has published people I deeply admire and supports work I admire. At Sibling Rivalry Press, contest winners and previously published poets go to larger presses and opportunities. I feel as a non-MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) poet, someone who relies on fellowships and residencies (if they are made affordable and accessible) this was also critical to gain momentum.
Which poets and writers are your major influences? Would you like to give a shout-out to any poets people should know more about?
I really love Transgender and Non-Binary BIPOC poets like Golden, Jaden Fields, Angela Peňaredondo, Cam Awkward-Rich, Jimena Lucero, Aldrin Valdez, Chrysanthemum Tran, and Jayy Dodd. Catherine Chen and Jasmine Reid have new chapbooks I’m excited about. Sick and Disabled poets – Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samaransinha, Eli Clare, Amir Rabiyah, Ryka Aoki, Leslie Contreras Schwartz. Femmes like Mejdulene Shomali and Terisa Siagatonu are truly salve.
How is poetry a form of resistance, survival, love, and celebration for you? What do you hold dear about the creative process and being an artist?
I find that poetry is this visceral thing like music, like a reflection of the contemporary. It nourishes me in ways that in essence are somewhat affordable. I can write a poem with paper and pen or on my phone. I don’t need extra supplies — clay, instrument, large studio space. Poetry is a way for storytelling and archiving to be circulated, whether spoken or written, its pulse that reflects whatever interpretation of the life and the people the poet holds dear, furthermore whatever formulas of structure that a poet wants to question, interrogate. Poetry holds things. Poetry is a container and holds hard observations up to light, in a communal platform. Poems aren’t meant, I think, to be written in silos. They are distributed, shared, repeated, quoted, they are in cadence, like songs, they are in critical assessment of themselves and the innovating world. I love how poems are seeking, are bare bones, are urgent if they want to be, this lasting process of making of a poem is the one think sometimes I think I am decent doing. I think there are a lot of questionable dynamics with canon formation and who gets to be literary, however the scratched throat and nervous heartbeat of a poem feels like nothing else to me.
I love writing with others and began in ensemble, collective work, this common understanding of being alone on page, but being in communal artist practice has always been a priority for me. I love how being an artist challenges time and productivity, much like Disabled and Sick people, white american constructs essentially fo 9-5 or produce specific object for sale aren’t what makes poetry real good and the most provoking poems don’t come from some imposed mainstream structure however even more indulgent, the uttermost interruption of expectations. My life doesn’t fit in a conventional office job. My body-mind spreads and pains and spoons out in ways that art can facilitate. Even if you are working in form or format, an artist is to be an explorer, a questioner, an on-going experiment of curiosity. Why is this world that way? Why is there poverty? How can I share how I feel like shit without sounding verbose, with impact, striking? I can be the most depressed from a shitty medical exam, supremely misgendered and thrashed and only in poetry is professionally suitable for me to harness those confusing dynamics in stanzas. Whether abled, cis, and white audiences support that content is a separate thread.
I’m interested in speculative and whimsy and swoon and what can be the most gutting. So much of my books center grief, both When The Chant Comes and More Than Organs. In those books, I wanted to write a project that tears me (and hopefully tears the audience) apart with reflections of movement work, with tendrils of swoon, of hope, morsels of nourishment.
Can you share a little about your writing process and how you develop and write a poem?
It depends. I am of the Octavia Butler school of thought, “Habit is persistence in practice.” The body-mind does what they want. I cannot control my depression, my spikes in spasms, the systemic and archaic degradation of the world, but when I am able, I try to absorb poetry in any way I can. I watch poetry. I read poetry. If I cannot write, then I honor that pause place. I honor that rest. That hibernation. So you are getting the Disability Justice and interdependent answer, everything in me is connected and poetry, even if I am twisted in my body from exhaustion, somewhere the rhythm or the vacancy of isolation is a poem. I am not romanticizing pain, actually conversely, I believe that artistic process isn’t this rigid academic formality. I never received an MFA. I honestly was doing organizing and grassroots political work long before I graduated undergrad, for me then, immersion is poetic and creative. To try to be in the moment whatever it is, the throng of pain, the cusp of heartbreak, the last bite of the most awesome meal, the delight and hella succulence are the poems that are uncovered. If I can catch those moments then, even more exhilarating.
June Jordan says, “The role of the poet, beginning with my own childhood experience, is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words.” I know that part of my schematics is dedicated to Jordan’s techniques and guidelines, every time I write. Some other questions I ask myself as well as my students:
- What would your ancestors think of that? How would they feel/push back/comment/revise?
- Where’s the exhilaration in the poem? That inexplicable gut punch or momentum that makes a listener or reader go “mmm” or touch their chest, or latch onto a memory?
- What lineage does this poem belong to? Who has written about this and how and how are you any different in contribution? What makes your offering yours?
What do you love about performing your work that feels different from writing?
I come from a theater background, specifically community theater in migrant and POC spaces in Chicago. In college, I was in a theater ensemble as my main job and that shaped me on how to process and internalize and eventually, how to externalize words. I think POC, Poor, and Disabled people have had to amplify and channel some savvy with performance to access care and resources. If someone says they aren’t a performer, I find that most of us are pressed to perform. I want people to know the line, the work of the stanza in its most impactful form and if it’s performed, you can sense the true intentions. Furthermore, when people read poems aloud, that gives it its own life, a new interpretation. Just like with any cover, how the poet has mechanically composed the line influences the live texture of the words and makes it an unruly breathing testament of a thing.
Writing is where I plan, chart, estimate, and test things out. On stage though, that’s where I experiment on those plans, on my hits/marks of emotion with a live audience. If what my goals were are having tangible and emotionally intimate responses. Again, my aim is to gut and to swoon and to spark big curiosity, loneliness, anger, in a short say 3 minute amount of time. I want to survey a spectrum of emotions and political connections that aloud does. Even if you can’t hear what I am saying, my embodiment and facial expressions are the telling. If you cannot see what I am doing, then my breath, rate, pitch, and vocal composition has to be able to carry the elaboration of the poem.
I love being on stage. I am not a formally trained poet, I learn by workshop, residency, and study. So my confidence there is tame and shy. On stage? It is the one place in all the world, even in my own skin, even with lovers or in my own home those places are hijacked. Sometimes a stage is my best and my most true self. Sometimes to be frank, the mic and stage are the places where I don’t feel dissected or torn apart, I feel my most whole.
As you start promoting More Than Organs this year, how do you plan to crip your book tour plus all the other related events and activities?
I’ve been touring for over a decade. I’ve learned so much about myself and about the restraints of the world around me, how that is systematically in place to hinder Disabled and Sick people, police Black bodies, harm POC and Brown bodies, I tour and lecture sometimes as much as 4-6 cities a month. I push teh fuck out of myself so that after that Spring (all my tour was just canceled or postponed) not only do I have funds for my 3-4 months, but that means I am in bed care immediately after, full hibernation mode, salonpas-coated back, heating pad limbs, ice packs, and pain meds in rotation.
Cripped out and spooned out bodies are constantly in full hustle mode. From the pre-care, during, and the aftercare. The smiling at white people, the inaccessible locations, The introductions before i perform where I am misgendered repeatedly, or where my name is butchered. The empire takes over and ableism is swift. Yo, even if you send a full-ass rider that is specific as hell, states every access need I know and can project, institutions expect bootstraps and don’t ever fulfill their end of the brief. They forget that just because you are an expert, that expert reads as someone that can work at an inhumane level. They are milking me for all I am worth and I know that if it weren’t for the community and students in those spaces, I wouldn’t be here. In which case, spoonie friends and kindreds and even complete strangers who are building towards Disability Justice show up. They order the food, they carry the bags, they explain pronouns or needs for all gender bathrooms when venues or organizations may not have that awareness.
Intense travel mode means exposure to chemicals and highly scented places (incessantly perfumed passengers, ugh), so I bring filtered masks in my pocket and a spare in my carry on bag to defend myself against asthma and migraine flare ups. As a diabetic and someone in chronic pain, I try to bring all my meds in my carry on & also a spare bag with backup meds/equipment in the case of it being lost. I bring a sick kit in a small pouch with my medicating needs (salonpas, cough drops, nyquil, aloe, ginger candies, probiotics, edibles, lidocaine, crystals, calamine, salves, tinctures, back up meds) and carry small ice packs to put in hotel small refrigerators or instant icepacks, that way if i need immediate relief, i have it with the snap or a shimmy. TSA a trash fire and usually, a horrid experience as a cane user & part-time wheelchair user, especially as a Transgender & Nonbinary person, so I usually have 2-3 accomplices i can check in with as I travel to vent or strategize hard experiences with.
I have friends in care circle who can either send me food, help me with a script response, or just send tenderness when institutional obstacles feel like trashfire.
I also carry a small list of blurbs I say when I am in a public binary gendered bathroom in case of verbal assault or gender policing in towns/cities where I am unfamiliar. In my pocket at all times are $20 worth of bills in change for food emergencies and wheelchair service tips.
Currently through COVID-19, this pandemic uplifts and brings long utilized tools and Disabled, Sick, Crip, and Mad practices to the forefront. Ableds are getting the breaks, are taking zoom meetings, are pushing back deadlines. It’s all in good humor, this “staycation” I see people reference. Funny (not at all) how they move these normie and abled limitations for themselves when Sick, Disabled, and Mad people have been striving for these accommodations and points of access forever and ever. Accommodations are only the new vibe when it serves Abled expectations and labor.
My goal and hope for us is to be brilliant and forward—as well as be tender and acknowledge the full scale of commitments and possibilities. If that means to pause or reschedule, stating that aspect in all my paperwork is critical. We pivot. We practice. The possibility models for us to challenge white american cis productivity are vital. The stagnant formula to be an expert and creative is rigidly minimizing to those of us who live in resilience. I find the ways in which we are in dialogue with kindreds and chosen family, how we are transparent with our pain, shame, and joy is where Disabled, Sick, Neurodivergent, Mad and Deaf writers and artists will amplify a new plane of living and work. We are doing it. We have known this apocalypse. We’ve been “social distancing” but for us that was just isolation and self-protection from ableist U.S. Empire violence.
What kinds of changes in the publishing industry would you like to see that uplifts and centers Brown, Trans, Queer, and Disabled poets/writers?
I think it is very rare that I even see BIPOC and Disabled Queer, Non-Binary, and Trans editors in poetry. The folio collaboration I edited with Nat.Brut, Beyond Resilience was one of the few where I feel Trans and BIPOC curation occurred. I find that white editors and mostly, straight cis people dominate literary space for Disabled mainstream publication. I was asked to be a on a panel where I was a last minute addition and so many of the white poets spoke about Disabled and Sick life separate from the institutional trappings of racism, poverty, xenophobia, and queer/transphobia. I realized at the moment how oftentimes I can move back as someone who acquired physical Disability as a young adult and not someone born physically Disabled. I also learned how the extent of what gets play in CripLit is very white, straight, and cis.
It is crucial to note that white and BIPOC Abled and/or Abled perceived poets and literary leaders rarely want to make events accessible, rarely have a Disabled Poet included in their rosters or worse even, tokenize where there’s this white Disabled person, so that is the check box met. I’m frequently the only Transgender and/or Disabled person on a panel or featured event. Is there this unsaid rule that there can’t be more of us, that we are to compete even with each other? Interestingly enough, I have seen poets who didn’t identify with Disability, Disabled culture, and community, now co-opting “spoons” yet make little to no effort to make basic accommodations at their readings or events, have no sense of Disabled poetry, arts, and activism that paved way for that word to even enter their mouths.
Privileged people want to steal language and yet do little to shift the cultural landscape to center BIPOC Disabled, Sick, Neurodivergent, and Mad poets. We notice this now with COVID 19, how so many readings and events would apparently “suffer” if contributors or readers were online reading remotely, however as soon as Abled people are in fear, accommodations are now viable and streamlined. Again, about a year ago, it was frowned upon and deemed lazy, undedicated, what do you mean this reading/event/conference isn’t accessible? Well, too bad for you! The onus is on you, not the general literary culture invested in Abled productivity and labor.
The key point is, re-imagine the landscape. Make applications accessible and fees optional. So many fellowships, residencies, contests, and events are financially out of reach for many Disabled, Sick, and working class/Poor people. This isn’t by accident. So many places that dub they have accessibility, actually don’t, have highly scented areas or no alternatives for stairs, no active captioning or caption descriptions, have climates entrenched in a limited assumption of what Disability even is. I applied once to a writing retreat that deemed itself “accessible” and it was a nightmare, beds on the ground, crowded rooms, food meal times being pushed out of schedule. There was no acknowledgment of the inaccessibility. Instead I was told, “I’m so sorry this experience is not working for you. I am so sorry that you’re having a hard time.” The space’s flagrant inaccessibility somehow became my fault for not bootstrapping it, for knowing my own access needs, for not being able to assimilate to Abled standards.
I want to say that many Disabled and Sick, Neurodivergent, and Mad BIPOC have been doing the writing, the community work. Our communities create concrete strategy on a day-to-day basis due to the erasure and the institutionalized oppression we face on multiple levels. If literary space doesn’t open up these avenues of accessibility, then dance, theatre, and performance arts has filled that gap. Lastly, I receive many rejection letters. The criticisms are in this vein:
We thought your submission of XYZ poems were beautiful, strong, and engaging reads. We did feel however, that we had a problem connecting with the subject matter. Our concern was that there would be a disconnect with our readers.
LIkely Abled, White, Cis Straight Editorial Team.
This isn’t to say that every poem deserves a home, that there isn’t revision or big edits I need to do. I am curious: What if my audience isn’t the intended audience and therefore not publishable? What if people in power make assumptions of audience long before it even gets the option of being published. What if Disabled and Sick poets wrote for each other, that was our standard? What if in our stanzas, we longed for a new world we kept creating, line by line, spoon by spoon, the same $10 venmo back and forth? Dear Disabled & Sick Poets, I will read you, we make space for each other on page the way we do in real life, in skype calls, in chat threads, in neighborhood mutual aid collectives. I don’t think people will make room for us, we must take it, spasm in it, cough and mask in it. We will write, read, and buoy each other.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?
Hey Y’all: If you can, please support my book and other books whose beginnings were thwarted by COVID-19, as our art is the main source of income and also community. If you are interested in an online workshop or booking a Zoom/Online performance, please reach out here as I’m down to work with students, schools, organizations, and collectives! Of course, I prioritize collaborations with Queer & Transgender BIPOC!
Named one of 9 Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Writers You Should Know by VOGUE, KAY ULANDAY BARRETT aka @Brownroundboi is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. K. has featured at The Lincoln Center, The U.N., Symphony Space, Princeton University, Tucson Poetry Festival, NY Poetry Festival, The Dodge Poetry Foundation, The Hemispheric Institute, & Brooklyn Museum. They are a 2x Pushcart Prize nominee, Best of the Net Split This Rock 2019 nominee, and 2019 Queeroes Literary Honoree by Them.+ Condé Nast. They been offered fellowships and residencies from Lambda Literary Review, VONA/Voices, Monson Arts, VCCA, and Macondo. They have served on boards, panels, and committees for The Audre Lorde Project, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, The Leeway Foundation, Res Artis, The Disability Justice Collective, and The Trans Justice Funding Project. They were Guest Editor for Nat.Brut & Guest Faculty for The Poetry Foundation. Their contributions are found in Academy of American Poets, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Asian American Literary Review, PBS News Hour, Race Forward, NYLON, The Huffington Post, Bitch Magazine, The Advocate, & more. Their first book, When The Chant Comes was published by Topside Press (2016). More Than Organs, published by Sibling Rivalry Press (2020) is their second collection. Currently, Kay lives outside of NYC area with his jowly dog and remixes their mama’s recipes whenever possible. Kaybarrett.net
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