Christopher Soto unpacks their journey from a budding writer to a fully fledged poet and poetry’s multiplicity in activism with host and Copper Canyon Press Publicist Ryo Yamaguchi.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:04):
Hey everybody. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press. And you are watching season 2 of our interview series Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We began Line / Break as a way to connect during the severe lockdowns of the pandemic. And we’ve had so much fun seeing poets on screen, hearing poems, talking about writing books and life that we simply had to keep the series going. So, thanks for tuning in. I have been pretty eager for today’s interview for quite a while. I have learned so much from Christopher Soto about the abolitionist movement and how poetry can help make the world better for all of us. Today gives us a chance to really lay it all out. So, I want to welcome you, Christopher. Thanks for being here. How’s your morning going?
Christopher Soto (00:51):
Pretty good. Always love chatting with you. And I have my little coffee here, so I’m ready to get into the weeds of it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:59):
Yeah, let’s get into the weeds. So, we have this tradition on the show of having poets introduce themselves and I want to keep with that if you’re good with that. So, I was hoping you could say your name again, any pronouns you want to identify where you live the most recent book you’ve published for sure. Anything else?
Christopher Soto (02:07):
Yeah. Christopher Soto. He/they pronouns. I live in Southern California, Los Angeles County. And this is my baby, the debut book, Diaries of Terrorist with Copper Canyon. Aww, twins.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:22):
So, happy to have it. And it just published and enjoying things like that. Awesome LA Times profile that got into so much, and that helped inform a little bit of this conversation here. We’d love seeing that and looking forward to more and more audience for the book for these wonderful poems. One thing that I like to get going on too, which is another tradition we have of a question here at Line / Break is hoping that you can go back in time a little bit to when you were a young person when first started engaging the arts and tell us about a moment when you first saw yourself in a book, in a song in a movie the first time you recognized yourself in the space of art.
Christopher Soto (03:06):
I’ve been writing poetry since first grade. I remember my teacher would give us rock candy when we would, writing cursive. So I’d be-
Ryo Yamaguchi (03:17):
I’ve never heard… That’s so amazing. I’ll never forget that rock candy and cursive. That’s comparing like…
Christopher Soto (03:21):
Yeah. I remember it was actually… I’m in my 30s now, but I still remember in first grade where I missed one of the loops on and when I was trained to do an M in cursive. And so, I didn’t get… That was the only word I spelled wrong because I was being pompous and trying to do cursive while everyone else was doing the regular handwriting. But so that teacher was actually really informative because she incurred us to do cursive. She incurred us to write poems. My first poem was, I like Ms. Vice and she earned, what is it? Ms. Vice is nice. And she likes rice. And I didn’t know if she did or not, but I was a first grader in really flexing monosyllabic end rhyme. So, I guess off the bat, my natural inclination was towards musicality in written text.
Christopher Soto (04:16):
But by the time that I got into high school, I was leading a spoken word poetry club at my high school that I was part of and joined in the Inland Empire slam team. The Inland Empire’s just east of Los Angeles. And I also had my first publication because there was an English teacher that I had in high school who was really supportive of the spoken word poetry club and my writing. And she sent a contest to me, and she was like, “This is for high schoolers who are seeking to get published.” And so, that was my first time being in accepted for publication in a book. And then by the time that I went to college, I started talking to writers a bit more regionally. I mean, throughout the west coast in California, because these been even in high school, I was reaching out to writers throughout all of LA County and Southern California.
Christopher Soto (05:19):
And then by the time that I was in graduate school, I really started to understand the national publishing landscape. And now, I feel like postgraduate school and in my first book and starting to think more trans nationally about literature. So, it’s been kind of nice to over the scale of my over the time in my life, continue to see the same obsession, but just different components or different camps and schools of poetry coming into my view.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:53):
Yeah. That’s such a cool way of describing. I love hearing this expansive thing where you start in a classroom or in a club and it’s just getting larger and larger until you’re in the entire world. I also love a good story about teachers, and I think of my favorite English Ms. Morrison, Mr. Saldana, I mean these were reading T.S. Elliot or whatever for the first time and things like that. So, amazing. Was it a teacher that introduced you to spoken word or had you been to spoken word events like around town or yeah?
Christopher Soto (06:26):
Yeah. So, Southern California and LA in particular has a huge spoken word history, A Mic & Dim lights in Pomona is one of the biggest open mic spoken word venues in the country. I don’t know if it’s still running or not, but at the time it was. And then same thing with DPL, the poetry lounge in Los Angeles that also had a huge following. And so, I grew up with just a lot of spoken word poets and writers around and accessible. And I don’t remember how I necessarily got into that scene. I remember at the same time though, HBO’s Def Poetry was being televised.
Christopher Soto (07:18):
And I remember being this little baby writer and just being like, I want to feature on one of these open mics. Like I want to be invited as a feature or being like, I want to be on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and it’s a bit egotistical like now retrospectively, but it was like, it felt so exciting for me as a young writer to be like, “Oh, there’s places where you can go and speak in community. You could build and opportunities for writers out there.” So, that’s always been my, I guess, part of my understanding of the literary arts as far back as I can go. It’s always been like there’s community and there’s writers and there’s more that you could do within the arts. They never felt like limited.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:10):
Yeah. I think it’s really cool to find spaces that provide examples for what’s possible, particularly in poetry and with spoken word. I mean, I think that’s especially true because it’s so public and it’s speaking truth in these ways that are very interactive, with the audience of course, and I was also a really big fan of Def Poetry and Def C Comedy jam. And I remember I mean, I was watching that when I was nine or 10 and learning and then learning how comedy stand-up and poetry are super similar to each other. In the ways that you’re trying to reconfigure reality.
Christopher Soto (08:45):
I remember Saul Williams on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam was so set on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam was so influential to me at that time in my life. And I just loved Saul Williams when I was in high school and still now. And I think it was in the Facebook days that he had reposted one of my early publications or poems. And I was like, “Oh, I was like, I saw, Saul Williams saw my work.” And I was so nerding out. And I think that’s one of the really cute things about being a writer is that you just always, those moments feel so precious to me. When someone whose work, you respect sees your work and also likes it or when you meet a writer for the first time. This is one of my favorite literary traditions is like, when you bring your book and then they like reach into your, their tote bag and they also have a book and the writers exchange like their books at lunch, there’s just so many beautiful parts to literary nerd interactions that I find really endearing.
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:59):
Yeah. That’s so cool. I mean, and here, I’m hearing you reply to that question of you seeing yourself recognized in Saul Williams or in that interaction, which is so cool. Were there other things… Were you ever into like Zine culture or anything like that or yeah? Yeah.
Christopher Soto (10:14):
Oh yeah. It’s my first Zine is somewhere over there in the bookshelves, but the first poetry Zine I did was called How to Eat Glass. And it was produced by Still Life press, which is just the name that was given to the series of things. And it was a lot of Latino, predominantly Latino, punk skaters, visual artists in the Inland Empire who were working on that Zine, the main person who was doing it was Daniel Aaron Flores. And I remember we would just print the Zines at home and sit on the floor and staple them and pass them out at readings and art shows. And on the cover of this particular poetry Zine that I created with them is artwork by Mario Ayala, who is another Latino artist based in Southern California.
Christopher Soto (11:24):
And we went to junior high school together and now Mario is having his first solo exhibition in New York City at the Deitch Gallery in fall. And so, we ran into each other at a party in LA a month or two ago and he was just like, “We made it out.” And I was like, “And we’re still artists.” And we just hugged each other. And we’re just like it just felt it still feels…I think about that all the time just feels so mind-boggling that he made it out. I made it out. He has his gallery, his first solo show coming up in New York City at the same time that I have my book coming up. And I see that like early Zine where his cover art we were young kids and his cover art is on the front of the Zine and now people want to look at Chicano/Latino art in Los Angeles, but it’s wild that we were producing work together as kids. And that we’re still here. It’s we need to write an article about it sometime or can someone write an article about it?
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:29):
No, for sure. Yeah. We’ll make it part of the publicity push. That’s such a beautiful story. I love that’s well that reconnection because then you’ve also then there’s this whole thing of your two parallel or coterminous path and I don’t know… I’ve never really had an experience like that. I think it’s just really beautiful. Yeah.
Christopher Soto (12:50):
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:54):
When you got to like the MFA, how did you feel? Did you feel that there was continuity with all of your early creative modes and output? Or did you feel the MFA came into contrast with that or yeah? What was your experience like I guess maturing quote-unquote through the program?
Christopher Soto (13:12):
It was pretty odd because I had access to spoken word poetry and histories of oration within the literary arts. But when I looked at Southern California’s literary scene on the page, we were always taught outside of school writers like Bukowski, who in the Meat school of poetry who felt very or were very masculine. And I remember seeing videos of Bukowski kicking his girlfriend or partner, on the videos are probably still on YouTube. And I was like, “This isn’t the lineage that I want.” And I feel other writers I never got to meet Wanda Coleman. I didn’t know about Wanda until later. And I got to meet him, followed at [foreign language 00:14:05] but during their lifetimes, as writers in Los Angeles. I don’t know how much the national literary landscape really paid attention to them.
Christopher Soto (14:16):
And I went to undergrad school over here in, at Cal State Long Beach. And it was… I didn’t feel plugged into like the national publishing landscape in terms of page poetry. And so grad school was a bit of shock for me because I went to NYU. So I was leaving Southern California for the first time. And there are Central Americans in New York in the way that there is in LA, the community is still there. It just looks a bit different. And obviously, there’s seasons. I remember I would feel the cold inside of my bones. It wasn’t put on another layer. It was like, my body was a body that has never experienced anything below 60 degrees. And I would feel the inside of my spirit just shaking. So, there was cultural changes when I had to move to New York.
Christopher Soto (15:16):
But I remember when I first went to grad school at NYU, part of me was… there was a lot going on. Part of me was upset about this disparities between what I saw at Cal State Long Beach and what I saw at NYU. At Cal State Long Beach. I was one in who knows how many students that was fighting and begging and looking for resources and couldn’t access it. And at NYU they were so responsive, and I felt I had everything I wanted within five minutes. I mean, might have just everyone’s experience is different, but I felt I was really catered to and well treated at that university. And I looked at my peers and I remember one of the first questions that I had. One of my professors was a former U.S. Poet Laureate, the first class I had at NYU,
Christopher Soto (16:09):
And he said, all right, can you say your names and where you went to undergrad? And I was sitting at this little townhouse, bought out by essentially a multimillionaire family for my writer’s program in the middle of Greenwich village with the Poet Laureate and everyone around me says, Yale, Penn, Columbia, and Oxford, and everyone has these esteemed undergrad degrees and I’m there and I’m like Cal State Long Beach. And I remember that a lot of them also had publications prior to entering the graduate program. So, that first year at NYU and some of them, because they had access earlier on had also received scholarships that were merit-based. But I couldn’t access because I didn’t have that merit, but I didn’t have that merit because I didn’t know how to publish or have access to mentorship, et cetera. So, I was really upset about things like that in the ways that those types of privileges reproduce themselves.
Christopher Soto (17:13):
And I remember I would come into the writer’s house early, I would leave late in the middle of classes. People would have restroom breaks. And when they were reading restrooms, I was pulling thesis from the bookshelves, the people who graduated to see who came out of the program and what they were working on. They had all these literary journals throughout the writer’s house. And I didn’t know the reputations of the different literary journals. And so, I just started pulling and reading the different literary journals and magazines and figuring out who was publishing where what eventually I found out what the distribution for the different magazines looked like.
Christopher Soto (17:54):
But all of this was like, I was obsessive that first year and I felt I was trying to catch up to my peers and understanding who the journals were, how do you publish in these journals, what does the whole industry mean. So, I definitely feel in terms of, in the written word in publishing in more of these in some of these spaces that are more affiliated with academia or major media sites, that didn’t happen until grad school.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:31):
Yeah. That’s so fascinating. I mean, I’m hearing so many different elements of this. I mean, one is like, I mean you are representing Southern California and representing the community that you come from, there sitting in this group at a cafe and also crashing into the poetry business and crashing into these forms of entitlement. And I love also any story about someone who realizes what’s in front of them and needs to and begins this labor, right? I mean all of this work, pulling down the theses, looking at what the publishing business is like, and learning how you then how you’re going to navigate it. It’s a, yeah, it’s inspiring to hear that. Well, maybe this is a good time for a poem? Like you feel like reading a poem from the new book?
Christopher Soto (19:15):
Yeah. We could do that. Let me look at this right now. I want to read a poem that is that is not particularly made for oration. So, I think maybe that’s nice that we’ve talked a little bit about my relationship to literary history of oration, and also publishing within more academic circles. And I think sometimes folks who land in page poetry and American publishing that’s lauded by more academic spaces, view it as the only poetry school or camp or whatever. And I’m like, “No,” spoken word and oral histories in the United States are so deep and have their own lineages and have their own meters for what constitutes as or their own metrics for what constitutes as quote “good poetry” or what skill or what craft looks like in relationship to spoken word poetry, for example. And there are whole economies in communities and a whole life related to spoken word and oral poetry.
Christopher Soto (20:35):
And I think sometimes page poets think that they’re the only ones who it only ones are craft or school that exist and is not true. So, it’s interesting going between those two worlds. But I say that because this poem fails in terms of its ability to be delivered via mouth. So, if you’re thinking about what a spoken word may be considering poet may be considering while writing craft, you’re thinking about the usage of repetition. How you can get the listener to walk away with the overall message of the poem, or you’re thinking about the fluctuations in your voice and how the fluctuations in your voice and the movements of your face in your body reflect the content of your poem. So that the listener, the viewer can have the most intimate relationship to the content that you’re saying.
Christopher Soto (21:42):
And so, these are all kind of things that you’re thinking about as you’re writing and you’re crafting the poem, my bodily and my tonal inflections and the audiences memories are not considerations that I have while I approach a poem to write on the page. For a place like Copper Canyon, because the method of delivery is just different. So, the craft is different. So, I wanted to say that just as an ode to various camps in schools of poetry, and also to say that this poem functions better on the page and within the craft of spoken word, sorry.
Christopher Soto (22:37):
This poem is called “Orgies for the Elderly” swayed by the world’s ugliest models and finally enjoying the mediocrity of ourselves. We sold art for aristocracy. And some days we were so desperate for touch breastfeeding mothers made us jealous, should be more ashamed. We know we looked our anus in the ugly and it was looking back at us. How we shifted from desire to desire until there was no more wanting ghastly least scared of being stuck like a Blowfish in plastic rings. Do you know how to scare an octopus? Ask about its future memories swam by a silver shark. We didn’t want to touch. We took out the trash. We took out ourselves, we got arthritis while jerking him off.
Christopher Soto (23:41):
And our dentures dropped onto his pubes. We drooled like a little dog. We came with our Walker in a mountain of Viagra, then sucked until the slow celestial release while that baristas saying they’re hymn nose in [inaudible 00:23:59]. We got life advice from pregnant teens, only salt for sugar daddies, Thursdays. We now like a horse braiding its hair in the Cypress tree. Horses are unicorns that lost the war. Always next up in the poverty line, we watched our culture sell on the stock exchange, becoming recycled TV memories, each cloud dreamt of solid form to forever love gay collage boys to forever pray beneath the Pope’s glitter thong.
Ryo Yamaguchi (24:50):
That’s great. I really love that poem and I’m thinking of so many things that you mentioned in your introduction to that and thinking about spoken poetry and page poetry, and also just as we could hear in that poem, all of these different dimensions of myth and lyricism and things. But the thing I want to talk about is sex and all the [laughter] all I want to talk about.
Christopher Soto (25:13):
Always a good topic.
Ryo Yamaguchi (25:13):
No, I mean, so the king of home I would call them the king. Okay. So, the book is obviously it’s in abolitionist work. It’s an activist poetry, it demands truth and accounting for police violence, these serious themes. But then I think of course, there’s this counterbalancing theme that runs through the book too, which is love, sex, the amorousness, the kink. Some of my favorite poems are the sex poems, the kink poems in the book. So, I’m curious what makes a good sex poem, and also how did you think about them in this book?
Christopher Soto (25:57):
Yeah, I think for me, there’s a strong history of queers pushing against police violence. And so, to have these really freaky, kinky, queer sex poems in the middle of a book about abolishing, the police felt very natural to me. So, I’m thinking about the fact that in 1966, there was a Compton Cafeteria riots in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, pushing against police brutality and the harassment of queer and trans communities by the police. In 1967 in Los Angeles at The Black Cat. There was also protest in response to police harassment of queer and trans communities. And then I believe it’s 1969, a few years later with Stonewall. So, California led the way in some of these anti-cop queer protest. And then you had Stonewall, I believe in ’69.
Christopher Soto (27:02):
That’s also noted for pushing queers and trans communities pushing back against police brutality and harassment. I think one of the things that is happening right now is that we’re positioning police harassment of… I’ll be more specific in the weird. Some people are positioning police harassment of queer communities in the past tense as if it does not continue to exist today. But we know that in 2017, Jesse Hernandez was killed by Denver police. We saw the incarceration of CC McDonald for Black trans woman for defending herself. We saw the harassment of police against Chelsea Manning. We know that Patrice killer is leading the Black Lives Matter is one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement speaking against police brutality. So, we know that right now, police continue to harass, to detain, to kill queer and trans communities. And I think this narration as policing only affected queer communities when there were Masco raid laws or when they were crashing queer bars is false and racist.
Christopher Soto (28:27):
And so for me, having all these queer poems in the middle of an abolition is the book felt very natural in terms of understanding them as sex poems. I don’t necessarily go, okay, I’m going to write some really hot shit like this is going to be… for me, I think about my relationship to punk and there’s a whole history of Latino punks in LA. And I’m even thinking about this organization called Glue; gay and lesbian Latino Sunidos, which were queer Latino activists in LA.
Christopher Soto (29:05):
And I just saw a documentary about them last week and they were talking… And these are activists from the 1980s and they were talking about their relationship to punk and so one of the components of punk for me is its adoration of… I mean, political dissonance, SAC religion, and also sexual perverseness. And so, when I write some of these poems, like orgys for the elderly. I didn’t think orgys for the elderly is a particularly hot title or hot scene. But I think about it more in relationship to my adoration for a literary aesthetic and my acknowledgment of queer anti-carceral histories.
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:56):
Yeah. Amazing. That’s so… Ah, man, I love hearing you highlight one thing. I love hearing you highlight the centrality of the queer community, in all kinds of activist circles. And of course, I think that’s something that’s part of what we would… I think what I hear you describing is what we maybe call intersectionality now which all different communities or different identifier groups that are coming together, in hopes of justice or to fight for justice, but I’m in regards to that, I mean, one other element of this book that I think is really important and it’s certainly been part of like the way that we’ve sort of talked about it when we talked to media is this use of the pronoun we and this idea of a poet speaking for community on behalf of a community.
Ryo Yamaguchi (30:44):
And that’s so strong and powerful here in this work and in the interlocutors that the speaker interacts with. I’m curious if you could talk about the dynamic of speaking in this, in this larger we voice, but also speaking out of your own personal lived experience. I mean, there’s so many stories in this book that certainly are your stories and I’m curious how you thought through those two different forms of subjectivity.
Christopher Soto (31:13):
Yeah. I changed the book to the we pronoun or the manuscript to the we pronoun from the I pronoun a bit later in really… I took eight years to write this book. So, I think it was maybe around year seven or so that I was let me look at the pronoun choice within this book. I was doing a whole bunch of different types of reading of the book. I was looking at the tense. I was looking at it through queer, trans, feminist, abolitionist lenses. And I was just doing different readings and interpretations of the text and seeing how I could read.
Christopher Soto (31:53):
So, one of the readings that I did was looking at pronouns. I did another reading, looking at punctuation, and another reading, looking at capitalization. If there is one thing in this book that is out of place. I will be so shocked, but it got to the point where even like John and I from Copper Canyon Press we’re debating the place of a period on the back cover of my biography in the book because I was like, John and I have spent so much time being so meticulous about all every aspect. Because I’m like, “You don’t need a period, like give me that period.”
Christopher Soto (32:30):
But back to your question, the we pronouns was the closest approximation to what I to accomplish politically within the book. I think that the we pronoun allows me to push back against American individualism and say that movements are made out of individuals. Movements are made out of full communities out of collectives. And sometimes these communities and collectives that form movements, often times whether you’re looking at the civil rights movement in the United States, if you’re looking at coalitions movements that were major in Salvadorian Civil War, there’s different peoples with different ideologies, even within the abolitionist movement.
Christopher Soto (33:12):
There’s some people who want abolition now such as myself and some people who want quote “incremental abolitionism” which is like we’ll slowly get there. And I don’t believe in incremental abolitionism. I think that’s another name for reform. So the we pronoun for me, felt like a push against American isolationism, allowing myself to decentralize this notion that movements happen via one solitary figure MLK, Cesar Chavez. That’s not how a movement doesn’t happen with one person. And I wanted to have this book read within the context of other abolitionists, thinkers, writers, artists, and also survivors. This story of survivors is very important to this book, but that being said, I understand that we as a very capacious pronoun and there are some people who will fluctuate into and out of that, we.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:21):
Hmm. It’s so beautifully put, I love this… Well, I mean, this hard truth that we have to… It has to be a collective movement. It has to be people together to make change. And that’s so captured so well. I think in the use of the we pronoun and also just, just in the form of vision of these poems too. Well, you bring up so many things and there’s so much to talk about more to talk about, but I think this brings us to a good point to maybe have one last element. And so, maybe I’ll pose it to you. I’ve got one more question I could ask or maybe it might be nice to just hear another poem. So, what do you think, what would you like to do?
Christopher Soto (35:02):
Ryo Yamaguchi (35:03):
Okay, great. Absolutely. Okay. So, here’s my question. And it’s a short one, but I’m hoping that it’s challenging and that’s just basically like, what about poetry specifically, do you think makes it uniquely suited to demand something like the abolition of police to be an activist voice, to speak on behalf of community? Is there something specific about poetry, like more than other forms of art, other forms of writing that make it particularly well adapted to that, for you?
Christopher Soto (35:38):
Yeah. So, when I think about the poets of abolition. I think about it in two prongs. I think the first thing is that poets are the dreamers. We don’t have answers. We have a whole bunch of questions. We create worlds that aren’t tied to reality. We’re logical. We jump from one thought or image or sound to the next and within the abolitionist imagination, I think that’s really useful. Because as poets, we can say, we don’t want police. We want land back to indigenous folks with preparations. And we could say exactly how we envision our idealized world. And then people could come to us and say, that’s illogical. And as poets we could say, I know whoever thought a poet was logical. And I think that’s really beautiful. Other people in the movement could figure out the legislative or the tactical, or how we get there step by step.
Christopher Soto (36:41):
But I think as poets, our role within abolitionist spaces is to name and to move towards the world outside of reality, name what we want. That’s the responsibility of our imagination. And then the second thing that I think poets do is we have a meticulous… We have an obsessive relationship to language, and I think we can name state violence where state violence otherwise goes unnamed. And what that looks like is for example, saying human caging, instead of incarceration saying kidnapping instead of arrest. Because when I see the police extract my community members from their social and economic lives when they assume my community members assume that they’re going home for dinner. For me, that’s kidnapping the drama of that to be extracted unknowingly from your communities. That’s kidnapping by a stranger on the street. And I think that’s the role of the poet is to provide the most specific word choice possible in order to make the reality of what’s going on visible.
Ryo Yamaguchi (38:14):
I’m so bowled over by that answer. I don’t know. I mean, you’ve just said it perfectly, I’m naming what it is and naming what it could be. I mean, that sense of… And that poets are the freest to do that. I don’t know. I’m just really… My heart is super warm. I’m just thinking about that space for poets. Of course, because I love the poets, but well Christopher, thank you. Thank you so much for being here again. I mean we could go on and on but we’ll try and keep it consumable for our audience here. And it was so great to hear the poems and just talk so much about your history and spoken word and your experiences in activism. And so, just keep fighting, keep going out, keep reading the poems.
Christopher Soto (38:57):
Thank you. Thanks for taking the time we appreciate it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (39:00):
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. And thank you all out there for tuning in and we’ll see in the next episode.