interview: Kay Ulanday Barrett

Kay Ulanday Barrett

Kay Ulanday Barrett

Kay Ulanday Barrett aka @brownroundboi is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. Barrett was featured in "9 Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Writers You Should Know" in Vogue in 2018 and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Poetry. They are the 2018 Lambda Literary Review Writer-in-Residence for Poetry and 2018 guest faculty for the Poetry Foundation. They received fellowships from VONA, Macondo, and The Home School. Barrett has featured on stages like The Lincoln Center, Princeton University, NYU, UC Berkeley, Chicago Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Museum. Their work has been featured in The Academy of American Poets, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour Poetry, BITCH, Asian American Literary Review, NYLON, and elsewhere. Their first book, When The Chant Comes was published by Topside Press in 2016. Their second collection, More Than Organs, will be published by Sibling Rivalry Press in spring 2020. This interview took place in Kay’s eclectic apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. 

I’d like to start by asking what you envision your poems as. For example, if your poetry was a house, what do you think it would look like and what kind of rooms would it have?

KUB: My poems [are] like the current apartment we’re in. It’s like kind of a dilapidated building, unassuming, in a not-gentrified-yet neighborhood. Everybody’s Black or Brown with maybe one random gay white man jogging through. And there are really curated touches but everything is purchased as a bargain.  I feel like my house and my poems aren’t essentially the most refined [or] the most functional, but also really does aim to be what is pretty, it aims to be tactile. What different textures can you touch? Is there fur? Is there shine? There’s a lot of brass and gold elements in my home, and I think that’s, in a way, what my poems are. Like, you can get a cheap-ass couch that appears to be leather—that’s how I grew up—and then you have brass and gold finishings that really shine, like who you are, and accentuate a room. As far as poetry, I think the stereotype is it is a home. So I want places of comfort, places of quiet to land. From my view, the rest of the world is considered bombast. The rest of the world is riddled with a lot of business that has nothing to do with me yet still harms me. So my home is a place where I can really fuck with things, or puzzles, games, various textures, a lot of places to lay down, stretch out, and hopefully a lot of opportunities that can nourish and feed people.

That was good, really good. I appreciate you for that. I now want to talk a little bit about specific poems. One of my personal favorites is “Aunties Love It When Seafood is On Sale.” One thing that I really like and admire is the ability to make a culture or a sentiment seem universal through this crystal-like use of imagery and narrative kind of movement. I feel like you have an urge in your work to paint a picture. I wonder where that urge comes from.

KUB: Ah, I talk about this, too, in [my] VIDA interview, where I was in a very poetic scene in Chicago. Chicago inevitably is very performative, very slam poetry and highly literary. So you catch people in Chicago, let’s say people like Tara Betts or Eve Ewing—those folks are performative and multi-genre, but also very technical in poetry. When I speak to my students, for example in “Aunties Love It When Seafood is On Sale,” you want to be able to watch me perform it, and if I mute it and you just see the image of me, then you should be able to understand the visceral reactions; then if you close your eyes and just listen, you should be able to feel the same impact. So I try to make my poetry be as multi-sensory as possible. 

Also, food is such a play: everybody for the most part likes food, and if they don’t like food [then] there’s some kind of deeper narrative around it; and Aunties is a very sweeping general Brown/People of Color term for me. For me, it was a way to pay homage, obviously, but also to really talk about how family is a political construct and how food can be something really beautiful. Line to line can give us sights of delicious, but also sights of mourning. I felt like, when I wrote that poem, I thought, Oh, I did my people right! I paid attention to my line, I paid attention to scansion and cadence, but I also really took the narrative to a place that felt like it had integrity, and so I appreciate that you pointed out that poem. Also, I really love seafood—that is like all my family eats, so of course there is gonna be a poem about it, or five.

That’s real dope—painting an image using words. Words are the paintbrush, and you do a really good job of that specifically in that poem. 

KUB: That’s the job. I want you to be able to [feel] like you’ve been in my house before though you never have been; I feel like that should always be my goal. When somebody comes to you and they’ve watched you read and they’re like, “Yo, I totally know what you feel,” and they couldn’t have written it any other way but the way Nia KB wrote it or the way Kay Ulanday Barrett wrote it, right? That’s the task I think that we’re pressed to have in this craft.

I agree. I wanted to ask a question about where you imagine your work living. I know that you’ve shared your work on stage and in pages and in different places online, which speaks to your versatility as a poet. Do you think, or do you make a conscious decision, of where you place your poem in the world in a particular way, or does it just happen?

KUB: I feel like it’s both, right? Literary doors didn’t essentially open up for me until I had a book. I’m previously anthologized in various poetry anthologies and essay collections, things like that, but I also had a super hybrid career, and again Chicago gave that temperature where I could be like a dramaturg and do dramaturgy work in theater and work for somebody who writes a play that is also a poet. One of my favorite mentors is Sharon Bridgforth, she wrote Delta Dandy, and you know her work, which is so Black, Southern, and Queer, started off as poetry and now is in theater and now hybrid dedicated to performance. So all the people I actually really look up to and came to vouch for me gave me multiple sites of places to examine my work and myself. So right now things are in format of poetry, but all of my sets, my pride is that it’s also at aims theatrical vantage and caliber. 

I try to pay close attention to places where I want people who are my audience, not necessarily people who go to literary residencies—those are my people. People I learned organizing with were artists. The idea that artists and writers are separate from political spheres is just a lie, that’s such a white, colonized, basic lens of poetry, right? If you think about many of my favorite poets—you know Audre Lorde talked about chronic illness and sickness, she did social justice and potluck initiatives. Filipino resistance, you have people at protests performing poetry and doing political theater. They’re not mutually exclusive. So where my work finds a home isn’t going to find places of mutual exclusivity. In fact, it’s just going to become more and more, hopefully, hybrid, where I get to places where I get to challenge my own collectives, my own visions of collaboration, my own ways I see poetry. There’s this thing, too—I think people are like you’re a Tumblr poet; you’re a page poet; you’re a spoken word poet; and I don’t think they all necessarily have to brawl. I think the literary scene makes it brawl. 

Carmen Giménez Smith, in a workshop I was in, said something beautiful—it was like how they used to look down on spoken word, and you know, realized, that was my own classism and in a lot of ways my own internalized racism. I think, you know, for me, I want poems where some Auntie, some Lola, somebody comes to my [house]. Some cis straight dude who does not give a fuck about poetry from my community—those are the biggest compliments, like, Wow I don’t give a fuck about poetry but that shit, wow that made cry. I get that and, awkwardly enough, people who are very literary be like, Oh, I understand how you use a line, sound, texture, and a format of the page and I never thought performance could be that way. I want to work with those people, and also younger [poets]—I Googled Transgender Filipino poet and nothing came up. I made sure during my career, that now when you do that it comes up in theater, it comes up in political essay, it comes up in poetry. I want people to make sure that my people, Non-binary People of Color, Disabled People of Color, poor People of Color can be everywhere. We don’t have to just choose where we’re told to be, right? That’s my goal, and there’s some choice and privilege in that for me, but also there’s been some navigation. We all code switch, right? I’ve had to code switch, so when I wasn’t literary enough… Theater actually helped me be more political. Organizing helped me engage in political theory, that same training with media or PR I use for my poetry career. So they like to overlap, I can’t just be one thing. I mean why would I be just one thing? That would make my work so boring. I wouldn’t want to write that. 

Kay photo 1.jpg

Absolutely. That bleeds so much into some of the things that you were talking about in the VIDA article, which is my next topic. You were saying in there a really interesting thing to me: that you don’t always think a poem is enough. 

KUB: [laughing] It’s not. It’s really not. I think there’s this false… You know, again, my job has been as a cultural worker, a movement builder, a poet, a performer. I’ve worked for homeless youth as an organizer. I’ve worked in care teams for Sick and Disabled people, and the poem is important. My concern is that poets use the word so easily, I’m an organizer now. No, that’s not one in the same. We’ve had this conversation where some poets aren’t great instructors. I think this world thwarts people, and to almost conversely flip what I had to say earlier, it’s okay if you’re not everything, friend. Sometimes I am not a singer—like, I am so passionate Filipino about the karaoke, you don’t even know, but am I ever gonna use that directly in my poetry or in a performance? Nah B. That’s just not who I am. I feel like there are actually care workers and trauma workers in the world doing transformative justice. Some of them are poets, some of them don’t have to be. Poets don’t have to do all the things. I actually respect the poet who stays in their lane as far as their experience pushes their form, pushes their innovation in that way, as opposed to someone who’s like, I’m an organizer, I’m a this, I’m a that, I’m a that, when those take skill development, mentorship, and time, too, just like poetry takes instruction. I think sometimes poets have a tendency to appropriate things that actually are separate skill sets, [although] they can overlap. I’m not being like, I’m a poet and a choreographer. We know choreographers that prefer choreography over dancers; we know people who do musical composition but actually don’t like to sing. You know there are people who are songwriters who never ever are perceived as a singer, right? That’s real, and so I would love poets to be like, Oh, these things are connected. Pero in that VIDA Review article comes from me talking to the Poetry Foundation. Talking to the incubator and being like, some of us, just because we talk about trauma don’t mean we’re trained to process it, don’t mean we know how to mediate conversations around it. Be responsible. 

I worry about what our responsibilities are as a poet—that’s only because I was trained by people who were political organizers, social workers, care workers, who did a lot of trauma-informed work. These, Oh, we’re talking about trauma, let’s hang out [people]… I just think, you know, some people are mechanics, some people drive the car, some people design the car. Some of us can do all those things. I can’t do all those things. I think poetry has this power, but also this falsified information where we actually don’t identify. When you’re an organizer, you do a skills assessment or a needs assessment, have campaigns and want a win that challenges political structures. I don’t know if poets have that same level of interrogation because we thrive on cultural capital, and we don’t get money right away, the way other people do. We don’t get movies, the way fiction or memoir do, so then we’re like, We got to be all these things all at once to be profitable! I just, you know, I have some concerns about that—like, why? Why can’t we just be a poet and the world see that as valuable? Some people are just poets; some people are just cultural strategists and thinkers—That’s okay! Not all of the things [are] valued for what they are. I think we operate from scarcity sometimes. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does. Also, in the VIDA article, it’s like this passage that I have: “currently, most of my political engagement with poetry has made me realize that maybe my audience and community may not necessarily be other poets,” which is just what you were talking about, and then, “correction, not exclusively poets. That means I want my Lola and my cousins to read a poem and get it, I feel it is an offering to them to some capacity. That’s a goal I have in my work, poetry as offering, poetry as a process of integrity… ” When writing, are you cognizant of this sentiment, and how do you negotiate the rigor that people assume comes with poetry and making it accessible?

KUB: I think for me… Again, so, obviously, you know I’m college educated and privileged. I move through literary spaces and residencies now, in a way where I can manage whiteness or manage academic language. I mean, even the way I’m talking, right? But I want for my poetry to… See, I just feel like, I want to be able to stake my claim and my identities with what poetry does, and I don’t want other people to inform it for me. Especially those who are making the decisions, right? When you’re talking about creative direction or talking about somebody being an editor, that level of gatekeeping is so sacred and only honed for specific people—not even just specific skill. Let’s not fake the code of Oh, it’s only for specific people, specific skills—we know where those skills are distributed to. So for me, I think I want my audiences to be of those communities and not at all, and for those of us who are in the middle, who are mixed class, right? [Those] who can voyage, move with tension in those communities. At home, that’s the thing, when my mom and my parents were alive, my mom would say, Oh, I’m gonna put your poem on my fridge, right? Like, that’s the big deal. She didn’t always get what it meant, but when I would read, she’d see people cry, she’d hear herself in a literary setting. Not because she’s more valuable, but it was just a clash of worlds for her and my chosen family members. 

I just think that we are the canon anyway, so might as well write about it. I mean, who gets to say that we come of interior language? I hate it when people are like, Oh, you have interior language or subtext. In When the Chant Comes, none of the Tagalog or words are italicized, and that’s just an ongoing conversation. You read Sandra Cisneros, you read Junot Díaz, whomever, and that’s the conversation I have. Like, no, my language is a language that’s everyday normative. When I talk about being Sick, same thing—Trans language, or referencing queer POC language, like butch, stud, etc. That’s essential and powerful vernacular. Those aren’t internal languages; they may be weird for you, but the people who want my books are the people who speak those languages. We were all forced to speak Americanized English, right? So I love it when other people have to do the work to read me. That reflects in my reviews—usually I’ll see people’s reviews and they’ll be like, I just didn’t know there was so much slang or so much swearing in poetry, or there’ll be like three stars or four stars and I’ll be like, I did good cause you don’t get it. You know what, when I was learning British literature it wasn’t for me either. So if I can shift that paradigm and make you uncomfortable—like, Audre Lorde spelling everything with lowercase letters was profound because white people were like white is lowercase w! Why is Black capital B? Lesbian, capital L. This demonstrates how syntax and language are so profound. 

Anyway, if I can make somebody work or Google a goddamn word—you know my mom had to like change her entire life story to be here. I had to learn multiple languages. How many times are we forced to be straight or to assimilate into straight culture? I want poetry to make people move even if they’re sitting stationary or laying down reading a book. I want their mind to be steady doing laps, and I think that’s my goal with my audiences. That’s my goal with where I want my poetry to be. We all have to do work. I’m calling myself to task. I’m calling people who may not be in my communities to task, and I’m calling my communities to also be reveling in the work of themselves, being witnessed, seen, or witnessed in nuance. 

Your new book is tentatively titled More Than Organs and is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press. When I read reviews of When The Chant Comes, a lot of people said, Oh, this is about race, disability, gender, chronicling the everydayness of life and things like that. In this new book, do you feel those themes are going to bleed over? If these two books are side by side, how related are they? Are they going to be cousins? Are they going to be siblings?

KUB: I mean, all the books I’m gonna make are all my children and are gonna be siblings. You have to understand When The Chant Comes—two of those poems were written in undergrad. So there’s a span, and you can notice it, and I admire that about that book. This book is congested—I wrote it in two-and-a-half years, so that itself is profoundly different. The issues, thematically, of course there are gonna be connections and connective tissue because that’s just my life. That’s just how I go about, and also that’s my responsibility to do so. 

I think this new book tackles the page differently, tackles form differently. I think it is not as linear. I think I’ve written very narratively, which is very beautiful in the ways that I love epistolary poems, and there’s definitely that in there. However, I think there are some things that are more curious— for a poet or even somebody who doesn’t give a fuck about poetry— about mapping and how words move. I mean, how can I not talk about depression? How can I not talk about queer fucking and joy? I mean, those are the things that I love, that I’m moving through. So that’s what’s gonna come out of me. 

I do think that I just have a more scrupulous eye and care. This book has gone through two residencies and two different workshops, and I made sure all the hands on it were Queer, Trans, People of Color hands, so that’s something different, too. I wanted to make sure it was a book that I could sieve through what I understand my communities to be and what I consider “the best of my community.” [With] my previous book I had theater artists, slam poets, literary poets going through; choreographers, dancers. I wanted the full gamut, people who work in those movements that I discuss, because I don’t want to be out of pocket. I think, again, with poets it’s like, Oh, you speak for this! Oh, what if I’m not moving in tune or not doing that work—I want to make sure [to include] people who are doing that work, so I’m not giving a false representation of what we’re building. 

With this specific collection, I used that same operation: I had an editing circle, people I trust, multiple genres, who I think really embrace drive. I don’t want to be like production or achievement, but people who have a drive who I really respect, and More Than Organs was just that book where I kind of wanted Sibling Rivalry Press to be honest. I’m just a fancy, pretty Queer, and I like their covers and the way they arrange things, and honestly I appreciate previous poets that have been published in Sibling Rivalry Press. You know, Kaveh Akbar—you have various folks who I think are really groundbreaking and important. I think Carl Phillips is publishing something with them—a new chapbook. The thought of my breath being like, me and same here, Carl Phillips, makes me a little woozy, frankly. 

But the new book is going to be more non-linear, and just Non-Binary the way I am. It’s definitely not one of those books that has that uniformity—you know, This is all sonnets and then we’re doing crowns. That’s not what I’m doing. I really love this book; I think there’s something about your second book that concerns you if it lives up to the first. It’s that, Well, that was my first book—is that all I got?’ And so far I think the answer is no. My goal still: Did I make you cry? I get messages from dope-ass people who share, I went to a protest today and I took your book with me, or I was at the therapist today and I had your book out. That’s the book I want to be—I don’t want to just be the book solely in classrooms. Classrooms are wonderful, and I also want to be beyond and more. So I want to make sure my book can be housed in an Asian American Cultural Center to the community theater up the block, to the migrant association, to a formerly homeless kid, to some foster kid’s pocket. I want to make sure that it’s there, and so that’s the goal with the second book, equally as the first. 

It’s also when you get a lot of learning and studying, a lot of school. I think, as POCs, we’re forced to be like, Are we distant now from where we came from? And the truth is, yes, however if I can still go back there somehow, I’m hoping that’s what this second book does.

Interview by Nia KB.
Photography provided courtesy of the author.

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