An Interview with Christopher Soto
Christopher Soto completed his Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at New York University, currently works at University of California, Los Angeles's Ethnic Studies Centers, and sits on the Lambda Literary Board of Directors. He is the editor of Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. He co-founded the Undocupoets Campaign, which successfully lobbied numerous poetry publishers in the United States to remove proof of citizenship requirements from first-book contests, and co-founded Writers for Migrant Justice to protest the detention / separation of migrant families in the U.S. He has received The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism and the Barnes & Nobles Writer for Writers Award and he is a 2019 CantoMundo Fellow. Soto’s poems, reviews, interviews, and articles can be found at The Nation, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and Tin House, among others.
From “I’ve Been Yearning for a Riot” (originally published in the January 2020 issue of Poetry):
[…] Then a fly flies // Onto the spine of a gazelle // A gazelle
Who’s lighting a blunt while // Resting her hip against the ice cream stand &
The alligators are starting to pour margaritas.
Alligators used to be enemies with the gazelle // But now they’re together.
They hijack the stereo & start dancing to Selena’s
“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” […]
Brett Hanley: Family seems central to your work, from the poems dealing with your father in Sad Girl Poems to the address to your mother in “Concerning the Necropolitical Landscape.” How do you feel like family has shaped your identity as a poet, and how do you perceive your familial experiences inform what you write?
Christopher Soto: Growing up my mother would always say “You don’t have friends, you have family.” I think this is still very ingrained in me. I am very close to my siblings, a cousin of mine is living with my friends in New York where I just moved from, and I adore reading to my sobrinx whenever I have the chance. Before my sobrinx was one year old, I was reading Saidiya Hartman and Subcomandante Marcos around them. One of my cousins is actually an Ethnic Studies professor and she would leave pamphlets for the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) on her kitchen counter, and I would read them as she would cook. Before the age of 20 I had the DSA sign tattooed on my back. Those politics felt more scandalous during those years. I remember picking up books by people like Bell Hooks and Cornel West from her table during High School and early college years too. Though, it took me a while to understand what I was actually reading and living through, beyond just my signifiers of leftist politics. Part of my family also lived through the Civil War and were communists and mediums, so that is important to me too. The Salvadoran side of my family has completely shaped my worldview in the most important way. Though, I will say quickly that I often mix stories and write embodiment poems, so my literary works should never be read as exact translations of my experiences.
A few months ago on Twitter, you wrote: “I’ve been drafting interview Qs for my family, wanting to preserve our oral histories. Interviews will highlight life in El Salvador before the war, during war, during migration, & in LA. I’ll annotate / file the interviews so future generations of my family know que pasó.” How is this project going? What do you envision for it in the future?
Currently, I’m writing a novel about mediums in El Salvador around 1920-1950. My abuela was a medium and there are a lot of sensitive people and interesting histories in my family. We have lost so much of our culture and we have stopped telling so many of our stories about our previous spiritual practices, as we continue to assimilate and become embedded into America. So, this novel, foremost, is coming from a desire to preserve my family knowledge before it is forgotten. The interviews and deep research are happening now. It will take me some time before I can commit anything substantial to paper.
That sounds like an amazing project. What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned from your research so far?
There are a lot of interesting things that I’m learning about El Salvador at the moment. Who knows what will actually make it into the novel, from my interviews and readings. This past week I was reading about indigo plantations in El Salvador, Anastasio Aquino, and Indigenous uprisings in the early 19th century.
In the preface to Sad Girl Poems, you write: “I want people to act, I want people to mobilize around POC sadness. Don’t just feel bad about our stories, consume us, and spit us out…That doesn’t matter. I want you to give your money to the Ali Forney Center and financially support queer homeless youth. I want you to donate your money to Black & Pink to support queer folks in prisons.” In addition to the Ali Forney Center and Black & Pink, which organizations and causes do you believe it’s most urgent for people to support now, in the midst of the pandemic and protests?
The first donation that I made, when the mass protests began this year, was to the Minnesota Freedom Fund in order to bail out protestors. After that I started to message some friends, predominantly Black abolitionists, who helped radicalize me. I asked them if I could make a donation somewhere, in their honor, as a thanks for their work. It was really beautiful to connect in this way, to learn about what they support and share a brief space of mutual love and admiration. Maybe my advice to others would be to just keep fighting like hell for abolition and connecting with your communities, remembering who has helped you get to where you are. Stay focused on your work and don’t feel burdened by the fact that you are one individual, trying to do the most you can. One person can’t solve every problem, but together we can try to make our contributions to the movement. Contributions can be made with our money or time or voice, etc. I think self-care can also be a contribution to the movement towards abolition, because we need our community to be okay in the present, so that we can fight like hell together in the long run. Together, we will win this fight, in the memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless Black people who have been murdered by the hands of the white supremacist police state.
What lead you to becoming an abolitionist, and why did you start writing about the police state?
I started identifying as a prison abolitionist in 2013, when I moved from LA to NYC. In New York, I met a handful of Black and Native TGNC activists who identified as abolitionists and they were critical to the development of my political analysis about the police state. It was sex workers, homeless youth, and folks who were formerly incarcerated that introduced me to an abolitionist politic and I am indebted to their intellectual and emotional labor for the movement. The people I met in NYC allowed me to begin questioning my relationship to the police state and understanding what role the police played in my life, as a survivor of domestic violence. During DV, I was harassed by the police and would never call the cops for help. The police chased me in my car, thinking I stole it, while I was running away from an abusive home. And more. The police would have ruined my family financially and left my mother and sister homeless, if we had ever called on them to arrest my father. I started to understand my personal experiences with the police, and how they don’t help survivors of violent crime, and then my community in NYC led me to the academic texts and language I needed to be able to articulate these experiences, and to be able to imagine alternatives outside of punitive systems.
What changes have you witnessed in the abolitionist movement over the years?
In 2013, it felt very lonely. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Angela Davis and so many other abolitionists who were doing the work years before then. I would go to protests and expect to not see any abolitionists, unless they were my friends. We would constantly have to be pushing against reformists who were calling for policies like increased budgets for police body cameras. I remember trying to think of wording, all the time, about how to explain prison abolition to another white liberal in a 30 second elevator pitch, as they marched aside me, and gazed angrily at me for challenging their police state and world view. White liberals would tell me their stories of hurt and how the police state protects them, they would get mad at me for wanting to abolish the police. These days, I ADORE the language of “defund the police” because it gives reformists and abolitionists a shared language and framework to work on together. I think it was last year that Ruth Wilson Gilmore was profiled by The New York Times, and that was maybe the first time I had seen abolition spoken about seriously by a major newspaper. Now, abolition is being spoken about on so many news networks and even by so many elected officials that it is much more mainstream. This is the first time where I feel, in my heart, that abolition may actually be possible within my lifetime. I think these recent protests have changed racial justice movements forever. For me, this feels like the first time in the last seven years where reformists and abolitionists are largely sharing a framework and demands. It feels like people, at large, are very open to completely reimagining what public safety looks like. This energy is powerful and feels rare and new and palpable to me.
You’ve done such important work for projects like the Undocupoets and Nepantla. How have undertakings like those helped sustain you creatively and/or otherwise as a member of the poetry community?
I think those projects really were created from a point of survivalism. If I did not move to NYC and meet so many queer of color poets while editing Nepantla, then I am not sure if I would be alive or in what kind of life I would be existing. Thank God for the opportunity that I had to leave Southern California when I did, when my spirit could no longer survive there. With Undocupoets, that was a campaign launched with close friends to help them survive too and have access to a fraction of the resources that were available out there for people with citizenship. I think all the projects that I have launched have blessed me with discussions with other writers, but they all feel to have sprouted from survivalism, for me. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to do any of these projects, so that I could have just been focusing on my book writing instead. Those projects feel like a privilege in paradox.
I love the playful and poignant daydream of the animals (and speaker) revolting against capitalism in “I’ve Been Yearning for a Riot,” your most recent poem in Poetry. Many of your poems seem to be poems of protest, even when they dwell in the personal. This poem feels different from much of your previous work in Sad Girl Poems perhaps because it is less overtly personal, though. Is “I’ve Been Yearning for a Riot” indicative of a new direction for your poetry, something perhaps we’ll see more of in your full-length collection?
In Sad Girl Poems I was not yet confident with my literary voice. There was still a lot that I was trying to learn how to do on the page. To be honest, there was also so much that I was working to understand in my personal life at that time too. I was trying to understand my gender, queerness, relation to domestic violence, loss of friends, social class, home, and so much more. Sometimes I look back at those early poems and interviews with shame, because I was so confused and traumatized and I was trying to figure out who and where I was. I remember feeling, in those years, that I was publishing too early and wasn’t ready to speak yet. But people wanted my poems and so I sent them. At times, it has been painful to learn in public, to look back on my juvenile works and say “that’s not right.” A couple times I have even written editors to have early content changed to match my newer thoughts, which I hope are more truthful and thought-through with time and work. I know the tonal shift that occurs in my debut full length manuscript began in part because I wanted more time to understand my experiences, with myself and a therapist, before talking about them publicly. In the debut full-length collection, there is only the “I” pronoun once. The rest of the poems are written from the collective “we” pronoun. The narrators bounce from El Salvador to Palestine to India, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Most everything about the full-length collection is different from Sad Girl Poems.
I think so many writers feel similarly about our earlier work. It can be a record of our growth (as people and creatively), but that growth was painful, hard-earned, and ours to shoulder alone in many ways. Having a testament of that online and on people’s bookshelves can be difficult, but it can also be tremendous evidence of what we’ve been through and how far we’ve come. Of course, readers aren’t aware of any of that. And from my standpoint as a reader, Sad Girl Poems was heart-wrenching and powerful, and I was in awe of your bravery in it. I’m so excited to read your full-length collection. Are you still fine-tuning it? Is there anything else you’d like to share about it?
Thanks for your kind words here. And pertaining to your question, earlier this year I signed with an agent at Folio Literary and so now I am just working with her to prepare the debut manuscript for its next steps. It’s an exciting and nerve-wracking process, but every day I feel one inch closer towards bringing that debut collection into the world.
Otherwise, what’s up next for you?
I’m researching for my novel about El Salvador and I’m starting to conceptualize a few other projects that will be announced in the coming year or two as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me!