Where Poetry Meets LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

Where Poetry Meets LGBTQ Youth Homelessness
I FIRST MET Loma (a.k.a. Christopher Soto) in the midst of a poetry tour consisting entirely of trans writers traveling and reading their work across the West Coast. We first spoke awkwardly over some burritos in San Francisco and then got lost on the way to the queer collective where Loma was living in Oakland.

We’ve continued to work together since then, and I have been struck time and again by Loma’s generosity and dedication to supporting others, especially other writers of color. They have founded and edited various projects, such as Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color; they also co-founded The Undocupoets Campaign. Their newest chapbook, Sad Girl Poems, has recently come out from Sibling Rivalry Press. Upon reading the chapbook, I was struck by how these poems embrace the complexities of their author’s queer, trans, latinx subjectivity. They speak to a worldview in which the personal and the political are always intertwined.

Both Loma and I are young, trans, latinx poets from Southern California, and reading Sad Girl Poems prompted me to think more about a relatively recent phenomenon that I’ve noticed in contemporary art and literature — the prevalence of the archetypical “sad girl” alluded to in the book’s title. Embodied by singers like Lana Del Rey and theorized in essays by women artists and writers, the “sad girl” is a form of resistance to society’s often misogynistic accounts of women’s emotions. At the same time, the figure of the “sad girl” typically fits within white, heteronormative, cisgender paradigms. She fails, in other words, to account for the experiences of those who fall outside of those boundaries. Loma’s Sad Girl Poems express a sadness that emerges from the institutionally oppressive systems of white supremacy, capitalism, homophobia, and transphobia, and they show how sadness is often collective, rather than singular. Furthermore, instead of simply calling for empathy and understanding, they call upon readers to take meaningful action.

Thinking about all of this made me want to ask Loma more about their experiences as a trans person of color and the subjects that come up again and again in their work. These Sad Girl Poems ask how different forms of systematic violence and oppression intersect. They imagine poetry as a space where communities that face this kind of violence can find a voice and incite political change. As both a poet and an activist, Loma stands up for queer youth who are living through homelessness, domestic violence, police brutality, and mass incarceration. We spoke via email about these topics and more.


JOSHUA JENNIFER ESPINOZA: In your preface, you talk about a “white girl sadness” that posits itself as universally relatable and consumable. You specifically bring up Lana Del Rey as an example of this. I’ve definitely noticed her becoming more and more of a figure who stands in for a specific kind of sadness, one that is presented as playful and accessible — however, I’m not sure how accessible it truly is if its main appeal is to primarily middle-class, white women. What is your work’s relationship to this kind of sadness?

LOMA: My work is upset with the simplicity of “white girl sadness.” My work is upset because it is not afforded such simplicity. I want to live simply, on the beach with a Coca-Cola, crying about my ex-boyfriend. I don’t want to be in a state of perpetual sadness, crying about the ways that racism, classism, homophobia are murdering my communities.

The poor are never allowed to hurt in private; we must perform and display our sadness in order to survive. We must let our sadness be seen by broader community so that we can get help. We must beg for jobs and food-stamps and scholarships.

In a sense, my understanding of white girl sadness is that it often positions itself in alignment with second-wave feminist perspectives, which don’t provide space for the multiplicity of oppression faced by other groups affected by patriarchal systems of violence, such as trans immigrants of color. I am interested in understanding the different ways that “sad girls” display and perform their sadness. How is my sadness different from images of “sad white girls” which I have seen again and again in popular culture, such as Lana Del Rey or Adele?

That’s a really great way of putting it — sadness is not something you choose to perform when you become completely disenfranchised, and yet you must. Can you talk about your community’s sadness a bit more and what it looks like in the chapbook?

In the chapbook, I’m interested in the relationship between my narrator’s sadness and that of his partner, who commits suicide. The narrator of these poems is sometimes myself and sometimes fictionalized. He is an openly queer youth, experiencing domestic violence and homelessness.

The speaker depends on his closeted partner, Rory, for emotional support and housing. Rory comes from a religious household and is afraid of facing the same disapproval that my narrator has encountered. When Rory, who is scared and closeted, ultimately commits suicide, this becomes another source of sadness in the life of my narrator. I’m interested in understanding sadness as something that is experienced by the individual, but also shared within communities, and birthed from broader structures that perpetuate these forms of suffering.

I noticed that the word “love” appears quite a bit throughout your book. Many of these poems seem to address love, or some idea of it, and yet none of them read like conventional love poems. Could you tell me a little about the ways that love appears in your poems in relation to sadness, and how your work complicates love in the context of oppression?

I feel as if there isn’t love in this chapbook — not in the way that I want to know love. The love in this chapbook is so egotistical and so self-concerned. Rory, the narrator’s partner, is mostly significant in relation to the narrator, as a cause of his sadness. I want to believe that love is not about surviving with someone, or getting resources from them. Love should be more than that. Maybe there is love in the poems, the love that the narrator was capable of at that particular moment in time.

bell hooks writes, in All About Love, “Individuals who want to believe that there is no fulfillment in love, that true love does not exist, cling to these assumptions because this despair is actually easier to face than the reality that love is a real fact of life but is absent from their lives.” Maybe, writing and living as a queer youth, I was unable to recognize my ability to accept and reciprocate the love which was given to me. Maybe that is what’s captured in this chapbook.

How did you go about deciding what to fictionalize and what to bring in from your own life? To what extent do you consider the narrator to be “you,” and to what extent are they meant to represent the collective pain of a community?

The narrator in this book is sometimes not me. The decision to fictionalize my actual experiences was an attempt to make the narratives of my community more digestible for myself and my readers. I wanted to talk about my life as a queer youth, without having to name 50 different people who have come into and passed out of my life. Everything in the book happened to me or to a close friend of mine. Having fewer characters allows me to humanize and develop the characters more fully. The reader is able to follow one, cohesive story line, instead of hearing about isolated incidents involving passing characters.

In real life, Rory was a friend of mine who committed suicide. He was not my romantic partner. The poems in this chapbook are close to my exact experiences, but I chose to use the character of Rory to talk about the deaths of several friends and family members. It can get ethically complicated, if people think that the creative work is an exact translation of my lived experiences. I think many people expect writers of color to only write direct narratives of their own experiences. I found that it is useful to integrate many experiences into the voice of this one narrator, even if they are not all my direct experiences. I am always open to discussing the differences between my personal experiences and the experiences portrayed in my book.

Can you tell me about a scene when the narrator is fictionalized in Sad Girl Poems?

Yes: the opening poem, “Home.” I have never done sex work but I allude to it in this poem. I had complicated feelings about doing this. On one hand, I think that not talking about sex work and depicting those realities in my poems would erase the experiences of many folks in my community. On the other hand, I do not want the poems to misrepresent those experiences or cause pain to anyone who has undergone them. I had to check in with some friends before publishing this poem. At times, I’m still not sure if I’ve made the right choice by publishing it.

It is interesting to me that you merge your personal experiences with those of other people. This method seems to depend on a recognition that the sadness in these texts is not merely the sadness of a single individual. Your poems link personal sadness to collective oppression; they constantly blur the lines between the personal and the political spheres. Can you talk about how you navigate between these two categories, and how they inform one another in your work?

I get confused about the definition of “political” sometimes. I think about the political in terms of material resources and exchange of those resources. For example, some people think that queer sex is radical or political. I don’t think so. I think that queer sex is just different than heteronormative sex. While it is true that people face repercussions from the state and their community for expressing their differences, I don’t necessarily consider any given action “political” because of the repercussions attached to it.

For me, the personal is important as a way to shift the political. I use narrative as a way of asking people to redistribute their resources. I try to stir the heart or raise some sort of consciousness, which might propel the reader into taking political action. (Donating money to homeless queer youth at the Ali Forney Center would be one example.)

In Sad Girl Poems, moments in time are shifted, compressed, and moved around — sadness is confusing. This temporal confusion reflects the ways that trauma manifests itself in everyday life. But it is also strategic: some kinds of sadness cannot be made legible for audiences who would read and then discard them. Can you say more about how you manipulate time in your work? 

In the poems, I am writing about incidents that occurred about 10 years ago. Sometimes I am writing in the past tense, sometimes in the present tense, sometimes in the future tense. Some of my poems shift tense from one line to the next. At first, I was not pleased by the fact that time did not move forward in linear and logical ways in the poems. Now, I am thankful for this, because I think it more accurately represents how people actually experience their lives, especially when trauma is present. We are constantly experiencing different relationships to time simultaneously; our present is not divorced from our past or future.

How do you want people to read this chapbook? Why was it produced?

I want people to look through different lenses when reading this chapbook. I want them to think about the relationships between issues like queer youth homelessness, policing, and mass incarceration. How those issues are connected to domestic violence, depression, and suicide. These subjects are all interconnected in the chapbook, and in my life.

As for why it was produced, I felt like I didn’t have any other options. I needed to write my way out of my trauma and understand my community’s trauma. I was frustrated with having to recount some of these narratives again and again. Most of these poems were written before I entered my MFA program. I didn’t necessarily have an audience in mind. I was coming to understand my style and place within the literary community.

Can you tell us a bit about Nepantla and other projects that you’ve started?

Yes, I founded Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color with the Lambda Literary Foundation a couple of years ago. We have one issue per year and publish approximately 25 poets each issue. Some of my favorite poets, such as Danez Smith, Franny Choi, Derrick Austin, Fatimah Asghar, and Justin Phillip Reed are already published in the journal. There are many more people that I still want to publish. And I am still experimenting with the form of the journal too.

I’m thinking about possibly publishing nonfiction writers and visual artists. I also cofounded The Undocupoets Campaign with Javier Zamora and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo in 2015. We were protesting those first book contests that ask for proof of citizenship in order for a poet to submit their manuscript. This practice is discriminatory. Our protests led to more open submission policies for undocumented poets.

I’m interested to hear more about what it is like for you to navigate these academic and literary spaces given your politics. For instance, what was your experience like working toward an MFA at New York University? Did you ever feel constrained or forced to compromise your work in order to succeed?

I really enjoyed my experiences at NYU. I have political issues with the university system as a whole (a lack of affordability, the underpayment of adjunct professors), but I still learned a lot there. NYU was one of the best experiences of my life. As for how I navigate the rest of the literary community, that is much more difficult.

The poetry community is not solely “a community” but also a business that feeds on the exchange of cultural capital. This week, I wanted to say “fuck it” and stop sharing my work. But I know this was not a solution for me. I still have a deep love for the written word and creative language and intellectuals. I want to continue producing and sharing words and thoughts with the people whom I care about. So I’m trying to care less about “success” in the poetry world.

Gaining cultural capital in that world seems so irrelevant to everything that’s occurring on our planet right now. And I understand this interview serves as cultural capital in the poetry world. Yet, I’m less interested in that capital than in sharing this experience of talking, writing, and thinking out loud with readers who are interested in creating social change.

You’ve mentioned that your newer work differs in style from what appears in Sad Girl Poems. To that end, how has your work shifted into what you’re producing now? What or who informs your new aesthetic, and how is it related to your activism?

This chapbook was written while reading Ocean Vuong, Eduardo C. Corral, Robert Hayden, Federico García Lorca, Brenda Shaughnessy, Tracy K. Smith, and Lucie Brock-Broido. I learned a lot from these poets. They made me interested in the high lyric mode. As I read their work, my poems became more than a recantation of trauma. I took what I learned from these poets and found my own voice.

Now, I’ve learned how to listen to the language of my community, the images of my community, and speak from those experiences instead. For example, I grew up on punk, listening to power-violence and grindcore. In my newer works, I think about the meter of the poems in relationships to the “blast beats” by punk bands that I liked in my youth. I think about my word choice in relationship to growing up punk and latinx in Los Angeles.

One of my favorite bands used to be The Locust. They have tracks such as “Wet Dream War Machine” and “Can We Get Another Nail in the Coffin of Culture Theft?” I’m interested in the political ferocity, the intelligence, the sadness, the wittiness, and the playfulness of such lines. I stole some of the lyrics by one of the band’s members, Justin Pearson. I stole lines from a song by his new band, called Retox. The line is “Everything is legal somewhere.” I used this line to conclude one of my newer poems called “Transactional Sex with Satan.” This poem just got picked up by American Poetry Review and came out in January 2016. I think growing up punk has influenced my current political analysis, too. The whole manuscript that I’m working on now is about the police state, mass incarceration, and prison abolition.

Can you tell me more about the relationship between domestic violence, queer youth homelessness, and policing and mass incarceration in your work, and how they intersect with one another? How do these things inform your newer work?

Domestic violence is related to queer youth homelessness because it is one of the leading causes of queer youth homelessness. Queer youth are often socialized into heterosexual familial units and can face social isolation or rejection because of their gender or sexuality. Queer youth who are not accepted or supported by their family units can thus end up on the streets, a public space that is hyper-policed by the state. Without familial support or financial stability, some homeless queer youth on the streets can turn to alternative forms of income such as sex work or selling drugs in order to survive, which in turn leads to the criminalization and incarceration.

I am interested in thinking about alternatives to incarceration, as well as combatting homophobia and transphobia. I think that my work provides a space for queer youth to see themselves and feel solidarity with another person who faces similar struggles.

My new work is shifting more directly toward the political sphere, interrogating the rise of the prison industrial complex. I want to talk about the ways that homeless queer youth are policed, how latinx immigrants are policed, how working-class people are policed because of a lack of access to food and education. What would a world without prisons look like? My new poems seek to involve more people in this conversation.

I’d love to hear more about the upcoming tour! When is it, how did it come together, and where will you be reading? What about it are you most looking forward to?

The tour started at the beginning of February and will be continuing into June. I’ll be visiting bookstores, community centers, living rooms, and other venues as well. I’ll be reading at the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, University of Notre Dame, the Claremont Colleges, and a handful of other academic institutions. I’m trying to be as open to reading dates as possible. I have a few podcasts and internet readings going on, too!

The most exciting part of the tour so far is meeting all the people. I usually don’t think of my work as something being read by other people. I get scared sometimes, thinking that my work won’t even be able to access the communities that I hold dear. But this tour has shown me that such outreach efforts can gather people together. It has been powerful to meet with queer homeless youth, trans and gender-non-conforming people of color, and prison abolitionists who have discovered my work.


Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman writer living in California.

LARB Contributor

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her work has been published in The Offing, The Feminist Wire, Alice Blue, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!