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Kay Ulan­day Bar­rett on An­ces­try, Dis­abil­ity, and Iden­tity For­ma­tion

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - THE FACTS ISSUE - By zaynab sha­har

A con­ver­sa­tion with Kay Ulan­day Bar­rett.

When the Chant Comes is the lat­est col­lec­tion of po­etry work from Kay Ulan­day Bar­rett, a sea­soned poet, per­former, and ed­u­ca­tor whose work cen­ters on nav­i­gat­ing life in the United States as a self-de­scribed dis­abled pin@y-amerikan trans­gen­der queer. On top of per­form­ing on stages glob­ally, Bar­rett’s ideas have been fea­tured in POOR Mag­a­zine, Huff­in­g­ton Post, Color­lines, and Buz­zfeed. I caught up with Bar­rett in Chicago for a dis­cus­sion on creativ­ity, queer and trans peo­ple of color (QTPOC) iden­tity, and how queer and trans is­sues in­ter­sect with dis­abil­ity and an­ces­try.

The work of mourn­ing is a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­cur­rent through­out your work. When I saw you per­form, I no­ticed that you make space to bring the an­ces­tors into the room be­fore be­gin­ning, and then close out with a sim­i­lar mo­ment of call and re­sponse, as if to say, “good­bye for now.” I’m cu­ri­ous about what an­ces­tral re­mem­brance, grief work, and com­mu­nion looks like for you.

Mourn­ing is piv­otal. It has con­di­tioned me, the very force of it, its im­pacts and wreck­age that nat­u­rally begets rit­ual. I’ve known that death is a force, and with no blood fam­ily avail­able to

me, like many queer and trans peo­ple, I’ve had to cir­cle back to an­ces­tral prac­tices of grief and celebration.

Loss is—for me at least—com­pli­cated by in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma. What have I in­her­ited emo­tion­ally, sub­con­sciously, and phys­i­cally long af­ter some­one has died? Fan­nie Lou Hamer asks, “Who are your peo­ple?” And that’s some­thing I’ve had to think hard about. I grap­ple with the same guid­ing ques­tions: What hap­pens if your peo­ple don’t ac­cept you? How do you con­nect with peo­ple beyond con­ven­tional trap­pings of com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Are your po­ems enough for this? Is it pos­si­ble to

honor some­one whose voice you for­get more and more ev­ery day?

The com­mu­nion finds you when you are ready for it. I stopped writ­ing for six whole months af­ter my ma died. What could I do with the ma­jes­tic may­hem of grief? My quiet mo­ments are ex­actly that. There’s in­deli­ble weep­ing in­volved. There’s al­tar build­ing, like the al­tars of my mama and lola [grandma] and the lola be­fore her. Since I was lit­tle, I learned you could talk to the dead and their spir­its, even mum­ble to them in the other realm[s]. My ma would lose her keys and wal­let and talk to her sis­ter all the time: “Idna, where the fuck did you put my wal­let? Quit play­ing games! You are al­ways a joker!” I never thought this was a strange prac­tice. In­stead, there was a de­lib­er­ate un­der­stand­ing that the ex­is­tence of the phys­i­cal

“I am not in­ter­ested in hav­ing white Amer­i­cans take my fam­ily’s tongue and prac­tices for some po­etic get­away.”

world and the spir­i­tual one over­lapped and could en­chant and en­gage one an­other.

My ma’s lola was a Virgo, and her birth­day was days af­ter my own. I re­call my fam­ily mem­bers rem­i­nisc­ing on her be­hav­ior and they flatly said, “You’re much like Matea. Did you know af­ter she met you and shortly af­ter you were born, she died? She was so happy to meet you.” It was never lost on me that I was her re­place­ment, a ver­sion of her, con­stantly re­minded that her man­ner­isms, and even my com­mu­ni­ca­tion style, re­sem­bled hers. I learned that isn’t just chance, but a prac­tice teth­ered to prayer and rit­ual and, in some sit­u­a­tions, a macabre sense of hu­mor.

How does the au­di­ence af­fect the way you en­gage an­ces­tral re­mem­brance? I can imag­ine the en­ergy is very dif­fer­ent when you’re in a room of mostly queer and trans peo­ple of color than, say, if you’re in a room with white folks. How do you nav­i­gate those mo­ments?

I am not in­ter­ested in hav­ing white Amer­i­cans take my fam­ily’s tongue and prac­tices for some po­etic get­away [laughs]. It does change for me from show to show. I don’t do a Bagsak! chant with au­di­ences that are mostly white peo­ple. There are times when I ded­i­cate the per­for­mance to qt­bipoc [queer, trans, Black, In­dige­nous, and peo­ple of color] or sick and dis­abled peo­ple of color and ask peo­ple to clap/cheer/stomp for that in­ten­tion. If white peo­ple are the pre­dom­i­nant de­mo­graphic, the in­vest­ment and the tone set­ting is dif­fer­ent, so I ask peo­ple to take a deep breath and do a ded­i­ca­tion to whomever is im­por­tant to them.

I think there’s a barom­e­ter about how to ap­proach loss for me, and I am clear about how white supremacy and trans and queer an­tagony play a role in my grief. I don’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve in cul­tural ex­change all of the time, as in­evitably white­ness, wealth, and, in some cases, straight­ness ap­pro­pri­ates. I like to avoid that as much as pos­si­ble. I grew up with a parched ex­is­tence, and I am try­ing to fill that hunger with oth­ers with whom I share the same kinds of breath.

Through­out When the Chant Comes, your an­ces­tors play a role in main­tain­ing a sense of lin­eage that con­nects back to the Philip­pines and helps you nav­i­gate life in the United States. Within those po­ems are mem­o­ries of fam­ily mem­bers you’ve watched nav­i­gate chronic con­di­tions and have lost to ter­mi­nal ill­ness. How do you bring those an­ces­tors into the work you do?

My mama and Tita Yoly were the first cane and wheel­chair users I knew. As a young per­son, I was their pri­mary care­taker and com­mit­ted to other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties en­dowed by many first-gen­er­a­tion peo­ple. I learned how forced mi­gra­tion and heartache en­gages ableism. I learned how racism, misog­yny, and ableism co­in­cided to iso­late peo­ple I loved. My po­etry and praxis in­volve my an­ces­tors’ ev­ery ac­tion. I think about how the

med­i­cal-in­dus­trial com­plex cre­ates fis­sures around class ac­cess and shames/blames peo­ple who may not meet the Amer­i­can-dream ideal. In­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma has be­come a tool: They aren’t up­lifted in self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, but white peo­ple, able-bod­ied peo­ple, and Amer­i­can peo­ple are al­ways the ex­perts on our lives. I yearn to make us ex­perts on our own lives.

I also grew up in multi­gen­er­a­tional or­ga­niz­ing and artis­tic spa­ces. It helped me en­gage a politic that looks to my elders—from mech­a­nisms and pol­i­tics to spir­i­tual strate­gies—so that I am not learn­ing ev­ery­thing from scratch. The con­cept of whole­ness as stated in Dis­abil­ity Jus­tice by Sins In­valid is cru­cial for me be­cause it urges us to con­sider that we are more than com­pet­i­tive con­structs of la­bor and pro­duc­tiv­ity. Peo­ple have mul­ti­ple forms of con­tri­bu­tion. When I think of my rel­a­tives, most of whom faced ableism and saneism, I think about how main­stream so­ci­ety treated them when Brown la­bor couldn’t serve white­ness, clean up af­ter white­ness, and take care of wealth. We are beyond those lim­ited func­tions and de­serve bet­ter than those nar­row ideas.

What ways do we care for each other? It can be bring­ing food, at­tend­ing a med­i­cal appointment, sup­port­ing some­one when they are ad­vo­cat­ing for their med­i­cal and psy­chi­atric needs. My elders taught me this ethic be­fore I be­came dis­abled and, later, po­lit­i­cally dis­abled. When I say po­lit­i­cally dis­abled, I mean that I un­der­stand how abil­ity im­pacts us as peo­ple emo­tion­ally, phys­i­cally, psy­chi­cally, and sys­tem­i­cally. I am aware that dis­abil­ity should not be lived in iso­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, as a work­ing prac­tice to­ward jus­tice, I am aware of how in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized ableism lim­its lib­er­a­tion work and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion for my com­mu­ni­ties, how it works to in­form and con­nect with trans­misog­yny, racism, misog­yny, an­tiblack­ness, anti-mi­grant [sen­ti­ment], fat­pho­bia, queer an­tagony, et cetera. I want my book to be one of many re­sources that holds peo­ple who are po­lit­i­cally dis­abled.

Who are some of the an­ces­tors and elders of dis­abil­ity jus­tice move­ments that in­flu­ence your work?

There were many peo­ple whose work fused my ideas around ac­cess, dis­abil­ity, and chronic ill­ness. My lolo [grand­fa­ther] was a won­der­ful em­bod­i­ment of ac­ces­si­ble care and ac­cess in­ti­macy. He pow­er­fully sup­ported his fam­ily mem­bers as they faced chronic pain and men­tal health strug­gles, [and] un­der­stood the over­lap­ping el­e­ments of their lives in ways that didn’t com­part­men­tal­ize or triv­i­al­ize them.

The first per­son I read was Aurora Levins Mo­rales, and shortly af­ter, the work of Sins In­valid and vi­tal writ­ings of Pa­tri­cia Berne el­e­vated my aware­ness. Eli Clare’s po­etry con­tin­ues to so­lid­ify po­etry and dis­abil­ity jus­tice as core tools. My on­go­ing learn­ing and work are based on th­ese for­mi­da­ble voices. You’ve pub­lished a col­lec­tion of po­etry, and that’s no small feat in an in­dus­try that’s whiter than what the pa­per books are printed on. Get­ting pub­lished means strug­gling against par­a­digms that as­sume a per­son is able-bod­ied, neu­rotyp­i­cal, and can op­er­ate on the same pub­lish­ing time frame that able-bod­ied and neu­rotyp­i­cal peo­ple can. What moun­tains have to move in order for sick/dis­abled qtpoc to get pub­lished?

Se­ri­ously, it’s a feat. I ran into many com­pli­ca­tions. Not new pat­terns, mind you, just pat­terns I am too fa­mil­iar with. For in­stance, the po­ems that elab­o­rate on dis­abil­ity or transness were hard for some pub­lish­ers to con­sider. I was of­ten bad­gered to choose: Is this a race poem or a poem on dis­abil­ity? Can you just dis­cuss how sex­ism af­fects you? Why do you dis­cuss race in this way?

Amer­i­can English for­mal­ity dom­i­nates those spa­ces. I am told that list po­ems are “rudi­men­tary and bor­ing,” and yet, for me, this form is uti­lized by poets I love, like So­nia Sanchez.

This form is in­can­ta­tion and per­formable, but I was told by many lit­er­ary edi­tors that my ver­nac­u­lar wasn’t lit­er­ary and that there is no flex­i­bil­ity around dead­line. There are po­ems that many of my sick and dis­abled queer trans­gen­der con­tem­po­raries adore, but al­most didn’t make it in the book be­cause of lack of cross-cul­tural un­der­stand­ing. I know my au­di­ence. My read­er­ship has grown with me, so I fought for many po­ems in the book. I fought for the book—pe­riod. Un­der main­stream and small-press stan­dards, I am con­sid­ered an emerg­ing poet based on the fact that I just pub­lished my first col­lec­tion. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’ve an­thol­o­gized up the booty or per­formed on stages for years, there’s a fixed no­tion of pro­duc­tiv­ity and ac­com­plish­ment. It doesn’t bend for those of us who need flex­i­bil­ity. The goal is to com­pete and pro­duce, which is di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to my dis­abil­ity jus­tice ethics.

Ad­di­tion­ally, once you find a pub­lisher, this doesn’t en­sure that you aren’t their to­ken. It doesn’t en­sure they will pro­mote your book, en­gage a broader au­di­ence, help you book your tour, or even dis­trib­ute your books on time. It doesn’t mean your con­tract re­flects what you need it [to] for you to grow as a writer. I am blessed that I de­vel­oped a com­mu­nity and read­er­ship prior to this book and that I have been able to move with in­ter­net and so­cial-me­dia waves.

For an up­com­ing re­treat, I was in­formed there was no ad­di­tional fund­ing for my ac­cess needs. I can­not stay with strangers due to my as­tro­nom­i­cally high pain at ran­dom hours and also my res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease. I need scent-free ac­com­mo­da­tions. I’ve been told that if I want to at­tend, I have to pay more for a room. There isn’t space for aware­ness on ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and frankly, peo­ple are just get­ting on the “white supremacy is a thing” train. There’s no ac­tive cor­re­la­tion with fi­nan­cial ac­cess and abil­ity and peo­ple with mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties with fewer fi­nan­cial re­sources. You can’t say you are for

crit­i­cal po­etry and in­no­va­tive con­tent if you don’t let poor, dis­abled writ­ers and poets in. This ex­ists in slam po­etry and lit­er­ary po­etry, and maybe that’s what they have in com­mon: their ableism [laughs ]. It in­evitably cre­ates a net of wealthy aca­demic and/or cul­tur­ally cap­i­tal­ized poets who talk amongst them­selves. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, in po­etry, themes of dis­abil­ity are writ­ten by able-bod­ied poets and given ac­claim by able-bod­ied au­di­ences. Ex­am­ples in­clude a hear­ing per­son per­form­ing about a deaf stu­dent or sib­ling, or dis­ease be­ing used as a metaphor. I bet if you ask any main­stream poet, they couldn’t come up with more than three peo­ple who are sick and dis­abled in po­etry. Thank good­ness for Deaf Poets So­ci­ety!

I be­lieve they do not want us there. I be­lieve they want us to as­sim­i­late like any other damned ma­chine here in the U.S. em­pire. I be­lieve that we have to write for our­selves. We have to cre­ate our own path­ways for each other and vouch for each other. I be­lieve we have to have ac­com­plices, in­clud­ing neu­rotyp­i­cal and able-bod­ied peo­ple who will not just share, but be in­formed about up­lift­ing our work. I be­lieve that giv­ing ac­cess to re­sources is a fun­da­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­tend care, craft, and sup­port for writ­ers and poets who don’t have that ac­cess. I am for the un­der­dog. My body and my wal­let aren’t able to get an mfa in cre­ative writ­ing or at­tend an mfa po­etry pro­gram. Many of us were built for ac­tivist work, move­ment build­ing, cul­tural work, and strat­egy. Many of us are just try­ing to sur­vive. We have to bring peo­ple with us and ex­pand as best we can so our lives and art aren’t iso­lated.

I love read­ing your posts on Face­book where you’re able to vibe with peo­ple who con­nect with your work. What ad­vice would you give to young folks who are look­ing at you and might be think­ing to them­selves, "Wow, I want to do that!" but just don’t know where to be­gin? This ques­tion makes me ner­vous ev­ery time. I don’t have real ad­vice. I would say that a job like this [re­quires] a range of skill sets and, in this world, might not guar­an­tee rent or a meal or even friends. It’s not right, but that is the state of things. I feel strongly that you need to seek men­tor­ship, sup­port the work of oth­ers, and cre­ate con­nec­tions that are mu­tu­ally en­gaged and ben­e­fi­cial. The things I say sound al­most para­dox­i­cal:

Don’t act like your shit doesn’t stink. It does. Noth­ing you or I are do­ing is ac­tu­ally cutting edge; we’ve just got­ten plat­forms or re­sources that sup­port our work. Be­fore me, I watched, stud­ied, and sup­ported poets I loved, in­clud­ing trans­gen­der poets of color and per­form­ers like Ryka Aoki, Imani Henry, Ig­na­cio Rivera, and An­drea Jenk­ins. They helped shape my method, my prac­tice, and my per­son: how to ne­go­ti­ate, how to write with dis­ci­pline on the

“I be­lieve that we have to write for our­selves. We have to cre­ate our own path­ways for each other and vouch for each other. I be­lieve we have to have ac­com­plices, in­clud­ing neu­rotyp­i­cal and able-bod­ied peo­ple who will not just share, but be in­formed about up­lift­ing our work.”

road, how to edit and re­fine, how to eat well city to city. Not many of us come from money, so we don’t have wealth to give us this knowl­edge.

You de­serve to be pub­lished and/or to per­form. You will likely have to ad­vo­cate for your­self. It is a tax­ing en­deavor where you might feel like you are fic­tion, un­real, not pos­si­ble. Re­mem­ber, there have al­ways been oth­ers, you aren’t alone, and it’s nec­es­sary to build webs of ad­vo­cacy for your work. Re­mem­ber, a Tum­blr friend you’ve talked to since you were in your early 20s could be the de­signer of your book cover. I have the fol­low­ing quote from Oc­tavia But­ler in my jour­nals:

Habit is more de­pend­able. Habit will sus­tain you whether you’re in­spired or not.

Habit will help you fin­ish and pol­ish your sto­ries. In­spi­ra­tion won’t.

Habit is per­sis­tence in prac­tice.

Make your own writ­ing spa­ces. Fol­low the poets you love and see where they teach, work­shop, read, and per­form. Check out the re­treats or con­fer­ences from presses that you like. I can’t rec­om­mend any­thing, as I have strug­gled in spa­ces on ac­ces­si­bil­ity and get­ting my pro­nouns re­spected. Your iden­ti­ties can lead to re­treats and work­shops that can help you hone your skills. Some peo­ple say solid work­shop spa­ces are Can­to­mundo, Kundi­man, Lambda Lit­er­ary, VONA [Voices of Our Na­tions Arts Foun­da­tion], Cave Canem [Foun­da­tion], and The Home School.

Make your art your habit. I fall asleep in pain all the time, and as soon as I wake up,

I try to write again when­ever my body lets me. With that said, some­times if you can’t write, honor that too. There’s real-life shit hap­pen­ing and a body/spirit needs to process it all. It is ex­haust­ing. Some­times, I wish I could do some­thing else, but this is one of the things I am solidly good at. It’s one of the things that help me feel like liv­ing is a good idea, so I keep do­ing it.

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