For demanding an end to police violence, one can be called a terrorist. Christopher Soto’s debut poetry collection, Diaries of a Terrorist, offers insights into the world of an abolitionist, poet, community organizer, sibling, lover, and friend who finds himself and his community constantly surveilled in Los Angeles, the carceral capital of the world. The end goal of this poetry collection is not a healed heart, but an end to chronic state violence.
Diaries of a Terrorist foregrounds the legacy of trans and queer Brown folks in Los Angeles who “Get the fuck up & fight,” who are the loud uproar reclaiming the streets in “chanclas with socks,” and who love ferociously and lament when “the bullets sing / Their anthem // Throughout the body.” This energetic collection of poems is book smart and street smarter. Soto creates his own rules of punctuation, using double backslashes to bring emphasis to words and to entice and pause the reader. The poems are lineated, but the slashes form alternative stanza breaks, thought interruptions, and slips of consciousness. Soto is an artist — he makes use of spaces and symbols that redirect the reader. The poems in this collection speak through form when words aren’t enough. Soto also engages with the language of anti-carceral activist communities to which he belongs, as the co-founder of the Undocupoets Campaign and a member of the UCLA Cops Off Campus Coalition.
Soto invited Los Angeles abolitionist organizations such as Stop LAPD Spying and Dignity and Power Now to speak at his pre-book launch at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in April 2022. It’s amazing to see the power that poetry can have when sharpened by the activist communities that demand it. What happens to the literary world when it finds itself filled with rebellion against the police state? These poems reach beyond the lived experiences of those in the United States too and they seek to unify the world by naming various state violences and transnational movements against imperialism and police violence. Soto writes an homage to the resistance of transnational freedom fighters, such as Salvadorean poet and activist Roque Dalton and Palestinian poet and activist Dareen Tatour, with intelligent reverence and so much corazón.
In “When The Clouds Caught Smoker’s Cough,” Soto writes: “When sentenced to death // We wrote quickly on your napkin / Scared yes // But never scared of love.” Amidst turmoil, love is the one certain thing — love for the resistance, love for a new world, love for the sacrifice. Soto earns the reader’s trust with candor and directness, especially in “Transgender Cyborgs Attack,” “Our gender was against the law // But so was your God // Yes Jesus was trans.” His ability to see behind the veil of normative impositions makes me believe in his ability to lead us into a new world of safer possibilities.
The poems in this collection also echo sentiments in the author’s previous work. For example, Soto has also edited Nepantla: An Anthology to Queer Poets of Color (Night Books, 2018), uplifting the work of the same queer Black and Brown resistance fighters who take to the streets and fall in love in Diaries of a Terrorist. “Two Lovers //In Perfect Synchronicity” honors the queer Latinx artist Felix Gonzalez Torres and commemorates his partner, Ross Laycock. “We were born the month // Ross died,” Soto writes, suggesting a shared temporarlity among Queer Latinx folks, in which Ross’s death is a rude awakening, a violent birthing. The rest of the poem delineates the time and place of the speaker’s life, but returns to the initial image of what was: two lovers in perfect symmetry dealing with the AIDS epidemic and state violences. The queer love poems in this collection remind us that love is a battlefront too, and we must commit daily to love one another because “Who’ll protect us // From police / If not ourselves.”
Soto captures intimate snapshots of Queer Latinx Los Angeles in the landscape, from the beaches to the mountains. He portrays the fullness of queer and trans lives, both in our joys and in our hurt. The poems are tender portraits seldomly drawn with this much precision. Where else do you see the image of a little gay Brown boy, with a skateboard in his hand as he tries to defend his little sister while she is fighting a chola? This teenage fight that so many Latinxs have experienced in Los Angeles, becomes a metaphor for our fight against state violence. In acknowledgement of this constant fight, the poem is titled “Then A Hammer // Realized Its Life Purpose.”
The poems in this collection are the ponderings and assertions of a so-called “terrorist” looking at the nation from outside its borders. Although a part of said nation, the poet treats this poetry collection as if it’s the only country he has left . Soto’s work is an essential addition to the legacy of queer Latinx writers in Los Angeles. Not only is his individual craft poignant, but his voice echoes his people. His concern is not to get accolades for his writing, but to open the ways that society can imagine better futures. This collection of poetry is in fact a diary, but one that is produced by a communal “we” instead of a solitary “I.”