Audio

Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Kay Ulanday Barrett

January 25, 2022

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Kay Ulanday Barrett

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Kay Ulanday Barrett:

(READS EXCERPT FROM “Sick 4 Sick”)

How
I prayed there, on the ledge of inhale
sternum sacred, coughed hymn,
spasm luminescence.

Suzi F. Garcia: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor Suzi F. Garcia. Today, I have the honor of speaking with Kay Ulanday Barrett, a self-described queer brown Filipinx disabled transgender boi. And I want to add to that list, generous. Kay is one of the most generous people I have ever encountered, no doubt due to their commitment to care, which is another way of saying his commitment to collective survival. His essay on cryptology in this month’s issue of Poetry is an absolute must-read. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Suzi F. Garcia: You open your essay with a direct question to the reader. You say, “I use the word Disabled. Disabled disabled disabled. How do you feel when you read that?” I love that opening. Why did you start with that question?

Kay Ulanday Barrett: I know that people listening can’t see me, so let me do an act of description. When I hear the word “disabled” and Suzi said “disabled, disabled” I danced to it.

Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)

Kay Ulanday Barrett: I made it a singsong. That’s ultimately for me saying, my imagination, my being, my connection channels joy and channels difficulty beyond a stethoscope. Beyond somebody’s interrogation of what a body should be. Beyond medical stigma, or this kind of solo ideal of an epic disabled person who inspirationally becomes just like abled people that you don’t notice.

Suzi F. Garcia: Right.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Right? So I say “disabled” because I want to get under people’s skin. It’s like, you know, it’s, we’re reconfiguring language. When Audre Lorde’s like, “Hey, if I capitalize this, and don’t capitalize this, oh, this troubles you when I decenter whiteness.” Well, for me, I capitalize Disabled all the time and people are like, “Oh, why would you want to claim that?” And it’s just like, wow, why are you uncomfortable? Because I, I have a whole culture, my love. It’s ever present. And so I’m gonna use that term, in my American context. That feels like a revelation to me.

Suzi F. Garcia: I love that. I think that there’s an interesting connection to—we talk about gender, and race, etcetera, and class, but also like, fat phobia. You know? It’s the same conversation.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Oh, absolutely.

Suzi F. Garcia: Where you’re like, “Hey, I’m fat.” And they’re like, “Don’t say that about yourself!” And you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m okay with being fat. It’s pretty cute.”

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Yeah, like, why are they uncomfortable?

Suzi F. Garcia: And it’s the same thing about being disabled. It’s like, it’s like, “Listen, I’ve been looking at canes recently and some of them are pretty fly, and y’all don’t have canes, and you don’t realize that I’ve just like opened up a new realm to my accessories closet, so, sucks to be you,” (LAUGHS). Like, they think everything’s about the struggle. They don’t— there’s a pushback in, I think, American culture against celebrating being disabled.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Mm. Any kind of art form that is semi-public is impartially, I want to say, buying into, like, performing and the performance of wellness, and how that’s perceived to be that authentic or real person. And I just, I just don’t think that any of that is really accurate. That’s not really looking at our whole selves. Like, come on, we’ve all, on this podcast, have lived through a pandemic for what, two to three years now. How can we even endeavor a false perception of always being okay? And I think that’s the gorgeous, and very painful grieving thing about this time is like, oh, yeah. Especially abled people, or people who are forced in neurotypicality are like, “Wow, I really am so exhausted. I’ve had to be somebody in all of these facets of my life that actually isn’t me at whole.” And so it’s a reckoning, you know? Whereas disabled people like ourselves don’t have the time, like, if we’re performing it’s for the medical complex, or it’s for, you know, we have very little energy in spoons, right. But our authentic selves will show up whether we want it or not. Pain does that.

Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah, I think like, when the pandemic first started in the US, and we went into lockdown, people were like, “Oh, no, how do I do lockdown?” I was like, “I have depression, I’ve been training for this my whole life.” (LAUGHS)

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Like, “I can do this. I can do two weeks.” Two weeks without leaving my house? Now it’s been two years since I’ve left my house and I’m a little itchy, but. (LAUGHS)

Kay Ulanday Barrett: (LAUGHING) Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: I was like, “I got this! It’s about power.”

Kay Ulanday Barrett: We have a worth, an inherent worth outside of commodity.

Suzi F. Garcia: Right.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Right? And outside of like, being made for money, like capitalist notions of productivity. And like, recognizing wholeness, as Patricia Berne from Principles of Disability Justice suggests it’s like, there are fuller histories in this. If we could just really reinvigorate what that means within our individual self, then extend it to our circles and then extend it to the network and climate, right. We’re talking about ecopoetics, climate poetics, crip ecologies, like, expanding beyond yourself and seeing how we are interdependent.

Suzi F. Garcia: Yes.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Like, it’s, I feel like it’s such an important concept that I worry about, especially in the United States.

Suzi F. Garcia: I am really excited that you have a new piece, you have a new project coming out. I know that the world is very excited about this. So, if you wouldn’t mind, maybe giving us a little sneak peek, reading us a poem from your new project, that would be amazing.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Great. So, you know, there’s like, femme for femme, trans for trans, it’s just this term that, that I think queer-specific community has utilized to find their kin, and to be romantically, to just be romantic of some nature. And I wanted to endeavor that the communal commiseration, the love, the access intimacy that Mia Mingus calls this untouchable, breathable force of intimacy that happens with usually a disabled person, but sometimes somebody who’s not disabled, who understands your needs, y’all have created a rhythm. So here’s this poem, “Sick 4 Sick.”

(READS POEM)

Their body patched, swollen skin,
hair flecks gone rogue, mismatch
knees, ache knits quilts through out.
Curvature is a soft thing.

They said
if we hum close,
close enough that our chests touch,
shared breath comes from belly up,
             —that, that is not platonic.

                           Now, breathe same air, nostril kinetic
                           by way of brow cleft pirouette of migraine.
                           Syllables swirl temples. Strain is
                           something to lull here, together.

                           When nerves are ablaze, I’m told
                           to be blanket. Lay my torso on hers,
                           abdomen to abdomen, core to core,
                           is this what a field does to a hill,

             spill it with poppies? I wait on
             their skill. How they will sigh.
             The human body is heating pad.
             Limbs bonfire, flip sheets, you can’t
             reverse sick. Today we don’t want to.
             Chests pulse softest lake.

Come spring we never do this again.
There’s only memory of it,
how their lungs cathedral. How
I prayed there, on the ledge of inhale
sternum sacred, coughed hymn,
spasm luminescence.

Syllables stretched, muscled
             sacrament more than splay,
             us, petals in overlap
us, an ampersand
on fire.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Suzi F. Garcia: Thank you so much, Kay. I love that. I think that a love poem about being sick for sick is just, I don’t know, it’s really cool. It reminds me of my partner, who also is neurodivergent. And sometimes when our mental illnesses align, (LAUGHS) it’s pretty cool. I’m like, like, they’re like, “I like to cook to disassociate.” I’m like, “I like to eat my feelings.” (LAUGHS)

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Yeah! I am both, yes!

Suzi F. Garcia: I’m like, when our, when your ADHD matches my ADHD, or something.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: Like, those kinds of like really cool, beautiful moments of just creating a world in which you both get exactly what you need. So, thank you so much for sharing that beautiful poem. Can you tell us a little bit more about the project as a whole?

Kay Ulanday Barrett: So I’m working on two projects. One is a nonfiction essay project, and that’s called “Eat Good for Me.” And then I’m writing a third poetry book, and it’s entitled “Root Systems.” I always want to take myself back to like, I started before I came to this earth. Somebody laid down roots, multiple people, whether I know my transcestors or disabled sick people, or my own blood family. And so I think what “Root Systems” is going to try to do—and that’s the working title, that could change tomorrow—I think it just tries to endeavor poems again, that answers to like, Are you lonely? Are you disabled? Are you brown? Did you grow up poor? Those are, I’m going to speak to those audiences always. I’m going to speak to queer and trans audiences always. Because when I was younger, looking up books, there was very little. (LAUGHS) I couldn’t find myself, back in the day when you had to pull out those little wooden drawers and the little, the little card.

Suzi F. Garcia: Uh-huh.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: If I looked up Filipino, it would be like, the Philippine-US War, like, the Philippine-Spanish War. If I looked up transgender, who knows what would come up in 1990-something, right?

Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah, if it was there at all.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: And disabled conversation has usually been led by white and straight, moneyed private insurance people. Right?

Suzi F. Garcia: Right.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Like, so I just always want to build and continue to contribute to a larger canon that may not be perceived as mainstream or literary, but that’s been there. Like, trans people have always been here, disabled people have always led our movements. And so for me, I think it’s always that goal when I write, no matter what the genre is.

Suzi F. Garcia: Mm-hmm. Now, you say you want to be a part of a larger conversation. But I also feel like I’m seeing, and, sorry, if this is a little presumptuous, but some, some personal evolutions here as well. I think when I think about like the poem you just read, there’s such a tenderness in there. And I think that, you know, there, it does kind of remind me, sometimes, of coming out, when you come out as queer, or, you start finally writing against marginalization. You know, I grew up in a different kind of writing community than you did. Mine was very white and literary. So, for me to start writing against marginalization was like, very angry. (LAUGHS)

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Yeah! Get that anger out.

Suzi F. Garcia: You know? You have this amazing humor, too. A lot of times your humor is like this really biting sarcasm. But to see like this tenderness, it feels like, at that moment, you’re really writing to your community. And this is almost like a love poem for the community itself. And like, less about the abled world, and more about like, I am writing directly to these new readers, to the readers who are looking for me. Is that accurate?

Kay Ulanday Barrett: I think there’s something about … mmm. I grew up when I was perceived as a woman, as a woman of color, who had to be very stern and hard and very, like, don’t let white people see you cry. And then I was this hard, hard butch, where I was like, nobody shows emotion, right. But I’m such an emotional guy.

Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)

Kay Ulanday Barrett: So, you know, what white supremacy does with us is amazing. And for me, it’s like, I think our most—I’m interested, now, in investigating what does, when we’re given and allowed, whatever that means, the quiet and the tenderness, right. And “Sick 4 Sick,” I always have to reframe. It’s not even—it’s beyond sexual. It’s beyond romantic. I’ve had those very moments when I was writing that poem, I thought about the first people who showed me access intimacy, I thought about my friends now, they’ll just come out, we’ll spoon out on the bed, eat a snack, watch Steven Universe, and my dog will snore on them. And we’ll both spasm. You’ll see both of our feet, legs go out, or a migraine or something, and we’re sharing meds. It’s, it’s a deeper … it’s just this spiritual engagement that I didn’t know when I was abled, that I couldn’t understand. You ever—I’m sure we all are—if you’re ever in a room where people say some fucked shit, and then you find the mutual accomplice or somebody who shares your life. And you’re just like—

Suzi F. Garcia: When you make eyes at somebody.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Right, give them the nod. You’re just like, mmm. You may be strangers, you may not even respect one another’s work, there could be so much happening there, but that human moment, where you’re just like, “Mm, here we go. Let’s team up.” Right? Now I’m interested in the underbelly of that. Like, what happens when we team up simply because? You know, beyond resilience. There’s always this talk of resilience. It’s a beautiful word, but it’s becoming a buzzword. And I’m interested in, but yeah, but when you get that illumination, that gut feeling, when you’re like, “Ooh, yeah, this person gets me.” “Ooh, I’m in such high pain, but look at how beautiful this is.” Like it doesn’t, if we live in binaries—I’m a trans person, so binaries fail me. Like, sometimes the beautiful comes from whatever is perceived as the ugly. Sometimes there’s very little distinguishing the line between them. So I think that’s the goal. I’m always gonna chase that, and always be thirsty for that. I don’t know if I’ll always accomplish that in poems, but I’m always like, “Ooh, what if?” That feeling, that good good, even in this harangue of difficult things. Wow, look at look how bountiful, look how bountiful we can be, even for a moment. A moment, a mere moment. That’s more than something. And that’s something to be archived, and that’s something to be read. And that’s something for many of us, thousands of us, to write about. And for that to be circulated and then to be shifting a narrative, shifting and reimagining. That does the bigger work. Wow, somebody’s seeing us joyful and laughing and holding our canes together and being like, “Hey, friend, do you need weed, a casserole, a new cane? Here. Let me get that for you.” Wow, to see that, with such ease. My friend, Bilen, and I, we really Venmo the same $15 back and forth.

Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)

Kay Ulanday Barrett: You know Beavis and Butthead back in the day, they’d buy chocolate with that same $1 bill. Now, I’m the sick disabled, like, BIPOC version where it’s like, “Boo, you need boba? Cool.” “Boo, you need pain meds? Cool.” And it’s just, you really watch your history. And I have that communication with so many people, where there’s a collective pot. This is a cultural thing, Korean community, African community, working class, migrant community, you have a collective pot. And when somebody needs it, there, and we replenish it back. That is disabled skill. That is a migrant skill. That is a Black Indigenous POC skill. That money is a thing that is withheld us in capitalism, but actually is also, we can talk about what collective is like, and if we can channel that, in a poem, right? Like, just that same back and forth. How many people have had that moment? And if you haven’t had a sick for sick moment, long for that moment. Well, here’s a possibility model. Wow, I didn’t know that. So many people are like, “I’ve never seen a trans Filipino person.” “I’ve never seen a person perform a poetry set sitting down the whole time, and then pausing when they’re in pain.” People tell me that, university to theater. And I was like, “Really? Wow.” You know, I grew up in slam poetry, there’s a very specific way. And I was like, “Wow, no, sit the fuck down. Your work will be better for it.”

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Suzi F. Garcia: If I can’t breathe, while I’m standing up, because I’m in pain, and I’m just trying to get through my poem, who does that benefit? It doesn’t benefit the audience, who’s gonna hear like, “Okay, here’s my poem, I’m gonna try to get through it before my back starts hurting, too late. Okay. And I’m gonna end there.” (LAUGHING) You know? I’ve ended in the middle of a reading because I’ve been in too much pain. Because I didn’t ask for a chair or something like that.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: But you were forced not to ask, right?

Suzi F. Garcia: Right.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Because there are these professional protocols of what literary or presenting our professionalism—for me, I want to debunk that. Like, for me, here, you had my rider, we had a conversation, you Googled me, there’s my media. I’m not gonna lie to you about being trans and disabled.

Suzi F. Garcia: Right.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: That’s what you bought. You want to talk in capitalist terms—this is what you’re going to get. I’m gonna lay down now. Like, (LAUGHING) so many Zoom calls, I’m like, “Alright, friends, like. I’m spooning out now. So, here’s the ice pack.” And that’s our whole realities. It brings the work to a better place. Now we’re working in Zoom, and we’re seeing parents chase their kids or the cat peeing on the rug, or the, yeah! There’s more beyond this window. So for me, yeah, I feel like crip ecologies is like, we have to recognize the whole, not just the small sound bite of what we’re supposed to be. But who are we? And who we are is important in the now and we can imagine and become more quote-unquote “authentic” for our futures. We can have a crip futurity in a way that’s thoughtful. You know, yes, ask me fifteen years ago, I would have stood up, then had spasms and had so much pain. And now I’m like, “Hi, loves, I feel it coming on. Talk amongst yourselves. Alright, so here we are.” And the poem breathes a different body or the body it belongs in that way.

Suzi F. Garcia: I just think it’s so interesting what you’re saying. Because I’m like, I would never have thought to sit down and be like, “Y’all talk amongst yourselves. I’ll be—BRB.” Like, I would never have thought of that. Because I’m just so used to saying, “How can I make my body conform to what they’re asking of me?” Instead of asking, how can—I mean, that’s not even conforming, it’s just talking amongst yourselves, and I never would have thought of it.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: I want to give people the best of me, whatever that means. So for me, I was like, this is what I’m going to ask. When I’m at a set, like, I’m going to make sure that yeah, softback chair, it has to be a scent-free event. If not the first two lanes, the first two aisles when we’re in person need to be scent-free, so that I’m not getting that exposure. Because if you want me to have a migraine and throw up, that is performance art, and that costs extra, right?

Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS) No that!

Kay Ulanday Barrett: That costs extra.

Suzi F. Garcia: It costs extra for me to throw up at your event. (LAUGHS)

Kay Ulanday Barrett: That’s a deeper vulnerability for all of us, you know, like that’s interactive in a way that is way too theatrical. And so, in a controlled theatrical environment, because I’m thinking about sonically, symphonically, the sound, I’m thinking about—disabled people, we have to think about our space. If you’re a dancer, a mover, or even a person of color or a fat person, you’re constantly thinking about your space, right? And those skills are transferable in poetry, because we cannot learn alone. And that’s what I think when we’re talking about crip ecologies is that nothing is done in a vacuum alone on this solo heroic journey. That’s the pity model. That’s, “Oh, look at that inspirational disabled person. They can do XYZ, too, just like any abled person. I didn’t even know they were disabled.” What about if it was a reframe, to say, “Wow, look at all these disabled people and all these remarkable ways they care for each other. How beautiful is that?”

Suzi F. Garcia: When we think about literary landscapes, I will say, you know, the pandemic has allowed me to have access, in some ways, to so much more than I did pre-pandemic. And I also think about, you know, growing up where I grew up, which was the middle of Arkansas, without a literary community. These kinds of Zoom readings allow me to access writers I didn’t have access to growing up. And residencies that are online, I’m applying for a huge residency this year for the first time because it’s online. I don’t trust the residency to have everything set up for me if I went in person. And you speak a little bit about this in your essay in Poetry, about going to a residency and finding, like, air mattresses. And I’m like, listen, if I have to walk 500 feet, I need you to put thirty minutes in there for me to walk, and then for me to rest. I’ve skipped dinner before at residencies, so I can make sure I have the mobility time to get somewhere. And those kinds of things are just harder to do in person. So, seeing the negotiations happen during the pandemic, and you’re like, oh, my gosh, in some ways, this is so much more freeing for me as a disabled person.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Yeah, I think that’s the conversation we’re having, right? We’re talking about crip ecologies, and then extension of, like, climate justice and ecopoetics. How, how can we discuss accessing that residency or even just a natural, what is considered a natural—let’s reframe, like a non-urban setting, right? A place that has an abundance of trees, fresh air, perhaps animals, you know? The costs to write in this country, right? And the implications of, “Well, we have one disabled person who got this big award, so we are not ableist. We have that one or two trans people or those two token Black people. So, we’re no longer facing those terrible white supremacist, ablest circumstances you’re talking about, because these people.” Whereas what happens if we dethrone that idea, and said, “What could we make this? How could we re-engineer the collective thought of writers so they can be fed, so they can be taken care of? To really access their full imaginations?” Right? And to be, to have room for that. When you asked me when we’re doing a grant application together, let’s say, or rather, a residency, they ask you, “What do you need in a studio?” Oh, friend, I am the most specific, because disabled life taught me that. I need a place to lay down, I would like a tiny little fridge. Do you have an air purifier? I need a queen mattress that is firm. I need to be able to walk to the food, like, walk within fifteen minutes, less than three blocks. If so, I need a windowscape or windowsill. I will be lying down during most of my writing, so I still want to access nature, even though I can’t physically walk or move into it. Like, I need a freezer, because I have ice packs. Like, there are these things that I created that aren’t just my disabled sick kit, right? That I use when I travel on a terrible, you know, flight or airport but also that I know I need. And I’ve had to practice that. I didn’t know that at first. I had to watch the possibility models as I saw other disabled writers, right, be like, “Oh, do you have this? What about this? Are you thinking about this?” And then together, I was like, oh, oh, there are these skills I didn’t have before, because I was privileged, and now that I need. And I think that’s the place where a lot of writers now and a lot of artists are realizing now, because right now, we are going through and have been going through a disabling event. There are abled, non-sick, quote-unquote “healthy” writers, physically healthy, who knows with mental illness, mental disability, depression, etcetera, who are facing COVID. Or had COVID and felt okay about it and, like, got through it, but now have long COVID. And I’m like, oh, wow, what is this— Stacey Park Milbern talks about newly disabled people, and how there are disabled doulas, and how we move each other through these understandings. If there are writers like yourself and I, who have meandered and worked through and stylized our body-minds and collective care in the way of writing and creating art spaces, what are our roles with the new folks? And how can the new folks be humble and also be in catastrophe, to relearn this world? It’s like when I first came out as queer, and then I was like, oh, I’m losing friends. When I radicalized my politics, I’m losing friends. So, you’re at a momentous time artistically.

Suzi F. Garcia: It’s so funny because you were talking about being in a residency, needing a window. And that’s somewhat of a new way of thinking of crip ecology, too, is like, what is our version of nature? What do we think of nature, especially if we are in an urban setting. And you talk about the inaccessibility of subways, of taxis, of just walking, of the lack of benches, etcetera. So when we think crip ecology, how can we interact with nature, when the nature is so limited to us, it might be a weed in the side crack, in the sidewalk crack, that might be our version of nature at some point. So we have to think about, not just our perspective, but what nature has become, too. That’s the new idea behind ecology is, nature is transforming for each one of us. And it transforms a little different in crip ecologies.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: And I think when we talk about interdependence, the first time I learned about interdependence wasn’t in a disabled or sick space. It was in science class, when you’re talking about the environment. And you learn that interdependence is that all elements are connected, are interconnected and need each other to thrive. So for me, disabled people have always been connected to nature. It has been, you know, abled systems and white supremacy—when you’re even talking about parks and rec, and how they had, you know, National Parks, for example, had this big, fervent campaign to connect people, very particular white people, to the leisure of park and nature, right? If we’re talking about farming and land, if Black people were unable to own land, specifically, through policy, and migrant undocumented people can only touch certain crops because they’re growing it for white farm owners, this is a framework we have, right? There’s been a framework to deny nature from the most marginalized, most struggling, and altogether most brilliant. Oh, great possibility model to connect with how nature connects with sick and disabled, neurodiverse, deaf, blind bodies is to look at Sins Invalid. “We Love like Barnacles.” And one of my mentors, Maria R. Palacios, you know, she has this reckoning speech. And the quote is, “The day will come when crip world will be the only world that survived. Crips will do anything to survive and that’s what they want to deny when they kill us. Our will to live is greater than your ability to get rid of us.” We have been a part of nature. So much of what we understand about nature, if you just look at plants, if you look at trends of hibernation, are very essential to disability justice and crip living and crip spirit. We rest, we hibernate, we are not go, go, go, go, go, like what the demand of capitalism or whiteness or literary success demands of us. There’s actually a rest moment. There’s time to honor the dark. There’s time to be watered. There’s time to put your feet or your energy or moments in the soil, right, like these—and I’m not trying to be just a metaphoric poet, but these are actually standards of practice that I’m like, yeah, there is a built-in pause with nature. Nature knows when to rest.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Suzi F. Garcia: Do you mind reading for us “The Groove of Tito Bong”

Kay Ulanday Barrett: Yes. I’m so excited. I love this poem.

(READS POEM)

The Groove of Tito Bong

The groove is so mysterious, we’re born with it. And we lose it. And the world seems to split apart.
—Lynda Barry

On the weekends during lunch,
a cigarette balanced on a grin,
BBQ marinade of RC cola, B96 blaring bass,
Tito Bong made the meat.

                          Other days, he would call collect,
                          tired, broke, she left me
                          —he would croon,  somewhere
                          jukebox, somewhere speaker

like a cough, reached for air.
Tito, a grown man brown, mud
thick arms, bull of a face, softened
when girl cousins dressed him

                          up in lace, mama’s best avon lipstick
                          samples, sparkle bullets on cheekbone,
                          while he danced cha cha, they’d dip together,
                          under summer moon.  His sad melted like butter.

Tito, had no bed. In the back porch,
next to roaches he slept on a fold out, beside that
taped polaroids of his parents waving,
this is right before I left home, he’d tell you.

                          We would peak through the screen door,
                          watch him dance alone, beer bottles
                          a chorus behind, as if to wail was so simple. 
                          At the same time as he rested, he was still on the way

out. Harmonies hummed him to snores,
the tape deck digging holes the size
of his heart.   Also, the groove.
Also, the give up.   Also, he always

                          knew all the words to every song
                          —the dance this country
                          made him do
                          made him ghost.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Suzi F. Garcia: Thank you, Kay, I love that poem so much. I think that it is an interesting mix of celebration, but also morning. I also think it’s interesting because you talk a little bit about, in the essay in Poetry, the idea of migrants, and their special relationship to the land, which is, do they get to touch Earth? Do they get to touch land? They physically are usually put to the fields to do that work. What does that look like for their connection to ecology?

Kay Ulanday Barrett: I think when we talk about environmental racism, from my framework, if we think about—my mom cleaned houses as a domestic worker, or cleaned motels and hotels, so was exposed to chemicals a lot, harsh chemicals, right. My father was a merchant marine who worked under ships, the belly of ships, selling militarized equipment. He was just a cog, right, and he was exposed to oil, chemicals, both of them very poor working class. We were rural, in Mackinaw City, Michigan. Big ups to the mitten in the middle finger. Both of them were forced through class and/or for my mom, race and gender, to work jobs where she was isolated and couldn’t access nature. She came from an oceanic, beaches, one minute away, I could hear and smell the salt water, taste it on my fingertips, to a place where she was isolated, where she was cleaning house, where she was frequently chemicalized. What does this do? Right? What does this do when people are forced not just away from their loved ones, their families, culture as they know it, but also to the nature they love or grow up with? Right? And so for me in this conversation, when we’re talking about crip ecologies, there is a lot that we’re mourning. And again, I will say there are people who need to check me in my place that I listen to who are like, this is, some of this is new for you, ten, fifteen years in. The world has always limited me to nature. The world has always told me that a disabled person can’t do this XYZ. Can’t run, swim, jump, hike, enjoy the natural world. And you know what by default that says to disabled sick bodies? It says we are unnatural. And that is the biggest farce of it all, right? So when you’re feeling like white supremacy makes you unnatural, ableism makes you feel unnatural, you didn’t get that college pedigree, you’re unnatural as a writer, what does that speak to us by the time we finally get to the page? If a book is even published. We’re disconnected on purpose. That wasn’t by choice.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

To see BIPOC, queer, fat, people using canes in different mobility devices together, so much of my, uh, disabled writing workshops, Liberation Shows Up! Ableism 101 workshops, are just photos. So people can really understand that simple notion that we exist, and we create and connect with climate in ways that are unimaginable to white supremacy and ableism. Because they can’t even imagine us. They refuse to. It’s disgusting, right? But if we understand the bountiful that we are, and I’m not just trying to be like, toxic positivity. Because we know that’s not that, that there’s a nuance in us. Then there are these models where it’s like, yes. Okay, every call we have now, I always have my pain meds and ice packs ready. And sometimes, Vicks VapoRub, you know, like, this is what I’ve been taught. These are actually practices from my Filipinx culture to be prepared. My mom was a domestic worker in chronic pain. So she modeled like, have an ice pack, or “Oh, I bring my heating pad,” or, “Oh, I always have to have my Tylenol.” “Here’s the Salonpas.” These are skills. They’re not new skills. They’re very cultural. They’re very spiritual. Disabled ecopoetics, um, crip ecologies is not a new term. It’s just new because abled people are just like, hip to it now. But these are age-old collective models that are rendered through time, that are sharpened strategies, emergent strategies of survival. And it’s only prescient now because we’re in a pandemic. But as we know, if you think about storms and natural disasters, disabled people are the first people who are sacrificed. And so we’ve had to understand collectively, what it’s like to build these and employ these strategies. So yeah, poetically speaking, you know, a lot of people say, “Oh, I write better in workshops with other people.” There’s a reason for that. There’s something about the communal, the collective. When we’re talking about spiritual or religious spaces, and people like to—the communal vibrance and vibration, the bigger picture, right? That’s what crip ecologies is about. It’s not just about exceptionalism reigning supreme in these confines of me being an exceptional writer of merit. It’s about, I come from ancestors and peers and communities. I didn’t just get here from scratch. I really didn’t. How magical is that? That I’m a community project. That every poem, I can cite a person or people that brought me to that poem. It’s not just me and bootstraps. It’s not.

Suzi F. Garcia: Do you have any advice for disabled poets trying to connect with nature? It’s hard because I know disability is not a monolith. We all come with our different experiences. But I have learned so much hearing you talk about being disabled, as a disabled person, that if you have any advice for poets, I know they would love it.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: I think for me, it’s an internal work. Pre Saturn returns, before I turned twenty-nine, I frequently faced rejection with such heartfelt ache that I was the problem. And I think there was a spiritual, emotional, but also, whatever this means, intellectual pivot, to realize that systems were set up for devastation. And literary and publishing institutions are no different. And so, when we can’t reap the benefits of what capitalism has promised us, when we can’t access land, whatever that looks like, water, whatever that looks like, know that your natural landscape from a bed, that small sliver from a windowsill where you can see the sunrise, is monumental. And imagination can come from there. Right, so much disabled, sick, spoonie, neurodiverse conversation, writing, art now, is connecting with nature. It’s there, it’s connecting with space, and the cosmic, because we have had to dream beyond these oppressive manmade structures to stay alive. Medical system, police, whatever, whatever that rubric is, has not served us. So, our imaginations are really some of the most beautiful and bountiful creative imaginations there are. And just because there are bootstraps, and because there’s white supremacy choking that away does not mean that it doesn’t exist. So, whether you have an accomplice who can send you photos—imagine, you know, we’re doing this on Zoom. There are times, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, where people didn’t, couldn’t access media.

Suzi F. Garcia: Right.

Kay Ulanday Barrett: So, some of us who are in the first world or who can access this media, how do we find accomplices, and more so, let’s repivot, how do accomplices find us to fund us, to resource us? It is not you. The pain in obliteration is not your birthright. That is imposed. And there’s a collective it’s being imposed on. So please know that whatever your productivity is, is not you’re worth. No, there isn’t a moral compass. You are not any less of a writer if you cannot access land, water, the elements. It’s the systems that are much less, the systems were built to be—you know, the systems were built broken. So please, you know, if we were to cue into what the Nap Ministry says, for example, that is Black woman run, with disabled folks, let’s disavow these white standards of what normalcy is for writers. Let’s disavow what it means to be in nature. You know what? My body, connecting to the land and the grass and watching it move from across the street and reimagining that, is nature. My whole apartment is plants and plantitos. That’s my nature. Watching something blossom. Now, if we need more for that, then this is an institutional problem. And institutions need to come to task and say, “How do we create a more comprehensive and thoughtful protocol for our infrastructure to support multiply-disabled, multi-marginalized community?” Because nature is being curated. And that’s not okay. That’s not okay.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Suzi F. Garcia: A big thanks to Kay Ulanday Barrett. His most recent work, More Than Organs, is the Lambda Literary Award finalist and Stonewall Honor Award book. You can read Barrett’s essay, “To Hold the Grief & the Growth1: On Crip Ecologies,” in the January 2022 issue of Poetry, in print and online. If you’re not a subscriber to the magazine. there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcast offer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcast offer. This show is produced by Rachel James. The music of this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thanks for listening.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

This week, Suzi F. Garcia had the honor of speaking with Kay Ulanday Barrett, a self-described queer brown Filipinx disabled transgender boi. Barrett is one of the most generous people we have ever encountered, no doubt due to their commitment to care work—which is another way of saying his commitment to collective survival. Their essay “To Hold the Grief & the Growth: On Crip Ecologies” in the January 2022 issue of Poetry is an absolute must read.

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