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 indiv