“Still Evolving”: A Conversation with Staceyann Chin




STACEYANN CHIN MADE a name for herself performing poetry on Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam, but her work extends beyond her electrifying spoken-word performances. She is a civil rights activist and teacher, published a critically acclaimed memoir in 2009 called The Other Side of Paradise, about her childhood and young adulthood as a lesbian in Jamaica and then New York. She’s performed multiple one-woman shows, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and Pittsburgh Daily, among other places. Her new book, Crossfire: A Litany for Survival (Haymarket, 2019) is her first full-length poetry collection, gathering work from decades of writing and performing. I sat down with Chin to talk about imagination and liberation, truth and lies, the particular privilege of the Gay Games, how poetry changes over time and how to make a collection out of years of work.

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SARAH NEILSON: In the title poem, you write about being “trapped by the limitations of our imagination.” Later in the collection, in “Some of the Things I Believe,” you write, “Imagination is the bridge / between the things we know for sure / and the things we need to believe / when our worlds become unbearable.” Can you talk a little about imagination and its role in your writing, and how you see it being both a limitation and a tool to your activism?

STACEYANN CHIN: That’s a very interesting question. I don’t think of myself as a creature of imagination at all. Even as a parent, I have super logical conversations with my kid and worry that I don’t play enough pretend games with her. But I suppose if you can conceive of something you haven’t had an experience of, that is facilitated by imagination. As a child, books took me away. I had a very rough go of it for the first two decades of my life, and I needed the window to that rabid, crazy imagination. I didn’t imagine fantastical things, but it seemed fantastical to me to have basic needs met, for my health and safety, for there to be people around who cared about me and were kind to me. In that sense, I needed imagination.

I’m always dreaming of a different world from the world we live in. Around racism, around sexism, around classism. I live at a fairly busy intersection of these things. Without imagination, none of us could conceive of a different way of being. Almost every poem talks about a different world, whether we fight for it, whether we conceive it, whether we co-create it.

I’m thinking about the poem, “Tweet This, Motherfucker.” It has such a perfect blend of alliteration, dark humor, and a rage that doesn’t hold back — it feels liberating to read it. Many of the poems in this collection express this rage at the patriarchy and everything it has created. Activism is very present, and it manifests in a corporeal way. In poems like “Tweet This, Motherfucker,” “Jamaicans in New York,” and “On Prop 8 and Being in Jamaica,” but really throughout the collection, the body both experiences and is a tool for rejecting/unmaking the inherently harmful politics of the United States, a country built on genocide and white supremacy. How do you experience these poems in your body, either when you’re writing them or when you’re performing them, and how, if at all, do you find liberation in writing and performing the poems?

When I write poems, there’s definitely some kind of release. Poems begin as a worry, an anxious knot inside of me, like a thought that just won’t go away: a decision that needs to be made, a thing that needs to be explored. Pieces of lines float across my brain, and I have to find a way to put them together, make them relate to each other or have them make sense. The other part comes when I perform it. When I perform, I’m trying to see if other people feel the same way, or if the language I used is actually what I intended to say. Sometimes, you write something and you think, “I’m saying the bag is blue,” and then you get up on stage, and what you’re actually saying is, “I love the blue of this bag.”

On stage, you have a conversation with people and you get to hear it out loud in a way you can’t when you’re inside of your own house by yourself. When you’re reading in front of people, you can’t edit at the same time. You’re really trapped in the presentation of it, and so I think my body is, first, forced to listen to a thought; second, to assess whether that thought is accurate; third, to see whether that thought translates to other people; and fourth, to see how people feel about what they’ve heard.

The performance is also a physically explosive thing for me. I hold it quite tight when I begin to read, and then, by the time I’m done, it’s an exhalation. Maybe it’s also an implosion. It breaks up something inside of me. I think some people experience it as an implosion, as in they’re watching me break myself to pieces inside a little bit. And then some people experience it as an explosion, where the matter gets to them and breaks something in them, opens something in them.

The structure of this collection seems to move somewhat, though not strictly, chronologically; it feels like it moves inward toward the end. You write in “Women of Color” that “every poem / is always a love poem.” That idea comes across in every poem here. In order to love, you much challenge, you must ask questions and you must push, whether it’s oneself, one’s lover, or one’s nation(s). But the last few poems are certainly more personal, perhaps more easily recognizable as love poems, focused on your experience of parenthood and a long-distance relationship. Can you talk about the structural decisions you made with the collection, and maybe also how you see more personal poems as different or similar to more overtly political ones?

My editor was amazing, in that she largely asked me questions rather than giving directives. It was a very slow, deliberate process because we didn’t want to curate the poems too much; we wanted to let them evolve sequentially, in an organic way. We just kept going back and asking questions. Over time, we narrowed down the poems, and then we had to figure out how to break them in different categories. We realized that we couldn’t break up the love poems because love happens everywhere. So, we started to figure out which one leads us into the next. The title helped us to get there. It was a litany, and litanies are sequential occurrences like rosary beads.

I called the book Crossfire before we decided that “Crossfire” would even be included. I just knew that this book of poems started as if it was at a crossroads, with heat coming from the various pathways leading out of that crossroads.

In addition to moving outward to inward, the structure of the book seems to move from past and present tense to future tense — not literally the tense, but in the last section, it feels like the poems are reaching toward the next chapter. Maybe they’re a little less sure of themselves, but more open to possibility.

Yes. Definitely. And at the end of a book, shouldn’t you leave the reader with a sense of possibility?

My younger self was so finite and so sure of herself. Now I’m less sure of what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad, what works, what doesn’t work, what is a permanent fixture in my life, and what is still evolving.

To continue that thought, how do you envision the future for you and your poetry, and how has your writing and poetry changed in the decades that you’ve been engaging with it?

When I was younger there was definitely more anger in my work, and maybe less directional anger because I was angry at everything. I was recovering from my familial trauma, and I think now that I’m older it’s less about the recovery from the trauma and more about asking myself what I am going to do with this knowledge I’ve gained. What am I going to do with all this progress I’ve made emotionally? And, I am raising a kid, which means I’m co-creating my life at the moment. Since she came into the world, we’ve been doing these things called “LRPROTEST,” Living Room Protest [A series of videos on YouTube].

The other thing is I have to write a second memoir about my mother and her journey, because the more I learn about my mother, the less I seem to know about the details of her life. In my youth, my mother’s life was crazy, and I was affected by and a causality of that craze. And now, I think maybe she’s magical, and I benefited from being in the fear of her magic.

The concept of truth is one you’ve written and talked about often in your career. In a 2008 piece for The New York Times Magazine called “Paradise of Lies,” you wrote about constructing a life on lies when you were in high school, and “overcompensating” with incessant truth-telling when you went to university. In the poem “What We Long For,” you write that “this truth ain’t no easy balm.” How do you conceive of truth personally, and in the context of the blatant lies that make up what is commonly called “news” in America?

Yes. I also have written a rather scathing rant, an open letter to the media. I grew up in Jamaica. There was very little opinion in the news as I knew it growing up. It felt dry, so as a kid I watched American TV, the news particularly.

I remember when the whole Clinton–Monica Lewinsky thing broke out I was watching TV, and this was before I became a person who was interested in political matters. I always enjoyed the way people told stories that were supposed to be true. Even now, I watch more news than I should, only because I enjoy the phenomenon of watching different accounts filter through different people and to see how truth can shift, depending on one’s perspective, one’s desire. I think that maybe the whole world is like that, but the news here shows how blatantly human we are, and how flawed in the context of recounting.

Watching the news just reminds me that I have to tell my own version of whatever I experience, and to encourage people of color, trans people, queer people, immigrants, people who have had experiences that are not necessarily covered by mainstream TV or movies. It is imperative that we tell our stories. The stories about women who have been sexually assaulted that have been flooding the news, they’ve had more effect on people than the secondhand news report.

My only quarrel with American news is that I don’t think the primary focus is bringing stories to the public. The primary focus is to create an addiction, so that people can’t turn away, so that they can commercialize the telling of anything that happens. The minute I know that, I get less upset with it. And when I say less upset, I mean I’m not walking around tearing out my hair asking, “Why?” Because I know why.

People don’t come to the news looking to see what happened. They come to speculate, to gawk. Even the videos of African Americans being killed by police — there’s definitely some benefit to forcing people to acknowledge that this thing happens to African bodies at the hands of the police force in this country, but there’s also much of it that is really about seeing the “un-seeable,” very much like snuff films.

I think that we have to all have an understanding of truth as being slightly different from one perspective to the next. It is subjective. However, the pursuit of truth is not, and so I’ve found that no matter how different our perspectives are, if we are both looking really hard for it, and open to hearing and sharing and seeing what could be different from what we think we see, we often arrive at a place where we can share truth. The definition of it might be wider than we expect.

In 2006, you performed at the Gay Games in Chicago with a poem that’s included in Crossfire (“Speech Delivered in Chicago at 2006 Gay Games”). It challenged a lot of commonly held notions of queer politics, both internally within the community, and externally. You wrote:

Every day
I become more afraid to say
Black or woman — every day
under the pretense of unity
I swallow something I should have said
about the epidemic of AIDS in Africa
or the violence against teenage girls in East New York
or the mortality rate of young boys on the south side of Chicago.

The poem continues, “the companies that sponsor our events / do not honor the way we live or love / or dance or pray.” It’s been almost 14 years since those games, but I wonder if you see any difference in how LGBTQIA+ people create community, and/or how LGBTQIA+ people are perceived by the nation or the world as a whole? What was your experience or perception of the Gay Games like?

I’m always challenged by how all of the sub-worlds we inhabit mimic the larger world we see. It’s flawed, and the LGBT community has been white-facing for a really, really, really long time, and they have been challenged quite a bit, and they have been forced to make some room, but the central force, the fuel which drives it, I found, is made up of two things.

It feels as if most LGBT people, particularly the privileged white folk, really just want their piece of the American pie. They want to be acknowledged by the larger cis, heteronormative, white, patriarchal world. Radical progressive politics require that we dismantle. According to Audre Lorde, we have to dismantle not just the structure, but the tools that we have used to build those structures.

So, of course everyone should have the right to marry if they want, but I have never believed that marriage equality is where we should spend our capital as queer people. I also feel as if we are taking our place as a subset of the larger capitalist world that we live in, where we’re just trying to get them to market to us and to represent us in their marketing plan or their marketing execution. And I know for sure that that’s not where I want to be; I want to live in a different world where people don’t spend more than three-quarters of their working hours leaning into work and almost no time leaning into family.

I feel like we’re not concerned about other communities outside of the LGBT. We’re very concerned about quite a few of the representative letters in the alphabet soup of the queer world, but we’re not concerned with gay youth who are homeless because they usually come from underserved communities. We’re not concerned with straight women who are being sexually assaulted in ridiculous numbers; the statistics are horrendous. Girls are being trafficked. The LGBT community hasn’t really shown up for the kids and the immigrants who are being battered at the border, people fleeing terror to come and seek solace here. Historically, the LGBT community has been in the context of progressive, radical politics. But the mainstream LGBT community isn’t showing up for that now.

And that’s what I saw when I was at the Gay Games. I saw privileged people who could take the time off, fly there, participate in what amounts to be the gay Olympics, dress up in cute shorts and hang out and have drinks at night; it’s a very privileged party.

That’s also what happens at Pride, which is why I signed up with the Gay Liberation March, which is about a radical politic. I think that the privileged queer group, they’re embarrassed by Trump, but they’re not deeply troubled by him. They’re just embarrassed that he’s our president, but they’re not concerned about poor women in this country who can’t have an abortion. They’re not concerned about communities that are not LGBT thriving. They’re not interested in making sure there’s an LGBT center in those neighborhoods, and I feel as if, when I’m in the gay community and when I’m in the queer community, I’m always fighting with people to have a conversation about race. I’m always fighting with people to have a conversation around class. I’m always fighting with people to have a conversation around a different way of partnering, which is what’s amazing about partnering outside of heteronormativity.

We don’t partner just to produce children. There’re so many reasons why we partner, why we choose to throw our lot in with someone. And throwing our lot in with someone, or someones, is different when you’re not trying to tie yourself together, have a house, have two children and participate in the economy, as we know it. We’re trying to make a new structure, and so we’re experimenting with different kinds of tools.

It’s a very commercial world. I’ve always said that I have no interest in being rich; I just want to be able to do the work that I love and do the work that I think is important and be able to have enough to take care of myself and my child. Black communities, black lesbians, black queer people, young people, people of color, we are under siege in our communities with gentrification. We are being ousted at record numbers in communities we have lived in for decades, some of us for centuries. We are being systematically ousted from an economic point of view, and largely by queer white people in addition to straight white people. I’ve never heard the LGBT movement from any corner talk about gentrification, and how it’s affecting communities of color or poor people.

I like to end interviews by asking people if there are any writers, books, artists, et cetera, that they’d like to shout out. Who or what are you reading/listening to right now, or would recommend to other readers?

I would like to tip my hat to some fellow Jamaican writers: Nicole Dennis-Benn, Marlon James, Kei Miller. To widen it a little bit, people should just read Edwidge Danticat. Read some Walter Mosley. Since Toni Morrison died, I’ve been trying to get through all of the Toni Morrison books I haven’t read yet only because if she made the effort to write these stunning, sweeping stories of black survival, it is my duty as an activist to read them. And in the time we live in now, I feel like everybody should be walking around with a June Jordan book in their bag because June Jordan’s politics was about multi-issue coalition building; you can’t just be speaking for your own rights. You have to be talking about the rights of other people all the time because that is how we will topple this administration, the administrations before, the ones that will come after.

I think Audre Lorde’s work is important, but if you want to know how to start the revolution first, read Marge Piercy’s “The Low Road,” and then keep June Jordan in your back pocket, and keep talking to people and being human with people and read stories. Read stories; read stories. We can be inspired to take our next breath by inviting accounts of other people surviving. We live because we see other people living, and we can’t see other people living without ingesting their stories.

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Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in LARB, LitHub, Electric Literature, Seattle Times, The Millions, Rewire News, and Bookforum, among others. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and on her website, sarahneilsonwriter.com.

 

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Open to any author writing in English about the Chicanx/Latinx experience, the Rivera Book Prize is committed to the discovery and fostering of extraordinary writing by a first-time or early career author whose work examines the long and varied contributions of Chicanx/Latinx in the US. The Rivera Book Prize aims to provide a platform that showcases the emerging literary talent of the Chicanx/Latinx community, to cultivate the next generation of Chicanx/Latinx writers, and to continue the rich literary memory of Tomás Rivera, Chicano author, poet, activist, and educator.

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