Poet in the Mirror: Kay Ulanday Barrett
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Kay Ulanday Barrett—author of the new More Than Organs (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020)—graciously reveals their strategy of minimal submission, their post-crisis spiritual overhaul, and the specific struggle of undoing the capitalist script in front of family and friends.
On Rejection & Revision
Kay Barrett: I applied to four contests that I truly respect and though two of them were quite reluctant to decline (yet possibilities), and another was an outright rejection (totally a strong profile press but not the right fit in the long run), one of my top three choices offered an acceptance and I was thrilled to hear from Sibling Rivalry Press. I was selected in a contest in 2018 and had sent out submission for that year. The waiting was gruesome. Me, all nerves as I checked my email. But I realize it’s about timing and honestly, branding. My work is hybrid and not necessarily primarily literary with it’s accentuated performance and hyper-political content, so I know that when a press says yes, it’s because they not only believe in my craft but the richness of the message I hope to convey in my written work and work-at-large. During this time, MTO was going through an overhaul in fellowships/residencies, took it to Lambda Literary as a fellow and to organize and polish as a Writer-in-Residence. I took poems to three very different poetry fellowships where I refined, worked on organization and composition. I knew it would find a home, and I just knew I wanted it to undergo a treatment first.
I wanted to make sure my communities had their hands on my book and I trusted it with poets I felt had the sharpest mechanics and integrity. My first book was throttled out of scarcity. I didn’t think as a Trans Disabled Person of Color that I would be published. I know that sounds bleak, but that’s what 2015-2016 felt like, because very little poets of these demographics were gaining literary platforms. In this book, about a fifth of the book was scrapped. Those poems weren’t ready and needed another manuscript or more re-tooling that just weren’t suitable for the reality of this book. The entire time I was in high chronic pain, editing from bed or a couch in some city not mine, submitting individual poems to journals and online magazines and to larger publications that I felt could launch my own personal momentum but generally, give me morsels of excitement to balance the hella anxiety when an MS is in the hands of publishers. Poems were rejected and published in the meantime, to give me glints of fire that I was moving in the right direction.
On Becoming “Professional”
I do not have an MFA. That hasn’t been a route accessible to me on multiple fronts. I took English as a minor and poetry courses there. All my training has been informal or in fellowship and workshop settings. Instead, poetry work began haphazardly (or fated depending on how I feel on any given day?) and though it was my dream to write, teach, revel, and perform poetry, I was working at a large Not-profit that was grossly unfulfilling and still afforded me new adult amenities: insurance, a steady schedule, a fixed salary, the guise of stability. To say that I was miserable is a diplomatic pageant answer. I was injured at that job, attacked actually, which caused my physical Disabilities to be amplified and subsequently unable to work a conventional 9-5. As many work environments do, instead of being accommodating, they discard Disabled people.
During this job, I toured and performed poems, self-published chapbooks, hosted open-mics in Queer spaces. I actually worked in theater as a dramaturge or as stage manager along with performing poems in slam settings to keep creative focus. Still, I couldn’t fathom poetry as a career. I was previously a youth poetry slam coach and worked with Young Chicago Authors, although at that time, I was the only Trans and Non-Binary person in the folds. I didn’t think poetry was life career. Poetry spaces were all kinds of hostile too. Weird, right? Circumstances taught me otherwise. My body couldn’t operate in the same ways. I couldn’t stand for prolonged time. I could hardly get up from bed. The ableism and go-getting fast-paced nature of NYC, the way I socialized and my arts practice had to be utterly revised. A spiritual overhaul.
In all my social justice trainings and conferences, poetry was a key component, so I amplified that. It became a career, poem-by-poem, mic by mic, every workshop I facilitated, until I realized maybe my poems resonate with people? One university called, then a community event, then arts organizations and foundations, the whole time I was hustling to live and facing medical complex, poetry gave me platform. Friends and community booked me, vouched for me. Back then, there were no agencies for spoken word or poets on the road, you xeroxed a chapbook and folded it with your friends in exchange for a pizza and some friend hang outs. There’s no formal professional development for Transgender POC poet careers, there’s a circle and mentors who you try to work with. There’s trial and error for touring, until you find your own rubric. It was a risky thing. It still is.
On The Surprising Moments of Their Debut, When the Chant Comes
I don’t know if it was surprising so much as the sincere shock that now there’s this thing, 90 something pages (truly was banking on this as my only book b/c Trans lives are forced to be hella short!) in the world and people will vibe with it or not. The fact that Transgender POC poets are like Surprise! I have a book! shouldn’t be our barometer for creative accomplishment. I can say that yes small presses struggle, and also the care of the book, how it is treated post-publication was difficult. Not surprising. What it takes to craft a book and trust people to value it and profit from it isn’t automatically flowers and skips in the park. It was grueling getting publicity support.
I think what was surprising was the audience reception from small towns where there’s one lonely Trans student booking me, to Disabled people in not-profits who wanted to read my book in their book clubs or use it as a tool to discuss accessibility. I knew my book was more than literary conversation, but to the degree this book has traveled still feels like a blessing. Titas from churches who used to organize in the Philippines to Filipinx students who said I never read a Transgender poet, especially a Filipino one before! all have given me a grace I didn’t expect. I was just some scrappy Brown kid who fought hard in everything and missed his dead (contentious) family and needed to write about the ache it ensued. How this book was a survival tactic for me (writing the book while houseless, after being fired, facing misgendering by hospitals) and then, somehow maybe others is peculiar to me. I legitimately cried when someone on my IG in a message said I am attending a protest today and your book is with me to help protect us. I was like, y’all I can’t even protect myself in this empire, but I’m honored. How do we engage a poem to be beyond the poem? I think that is what I try to do every line? I don’t know if it lands every time. When it does, there’s the surprise, I guess.
I just led a workshop at Asian American Writers’ Workshop and my students asked this specific question. I think there is a place that isn’t cerebral when it comes to poetry. Currently, the political state of affairs grossly violent towards so many communities and people. What escalates my interest and re-invigorates creativity is trying to be submerged in arts whenever possible. To find the art of something. Watch stand up. Read a memoir. Visit community murals. Watch crown control and audience at a concert. Engage in talks on justice and justice seeking. Pet a damn puppy. I try to honor when my work isn’t flowing and listen to it. I am not one of those writers who thinks that there’s only one formula for a creative practice. It is a stylized personal thing, a clock within us that calibrates under the right recipe, ingredients, pressure, heat, etc. If I expose myself to good glorious art, art of merit, art that guts me or has exhilaration in it, I cannot help but feel moved or at least have writing on my mind.
Disability Justice has taught me that hyper-productivity is a sham.
Sometimes I need a dormant period of just rest, of spooning out, of not typing a thing and that is intrinsic to my writing process too. I have real things I have to handle outside of poetry, constant misgendering, medical complex, racism, chronic pain, so poets like Eli Clare and Sharon Bridgforth have taught me to honor versatile understandings of labor, of the spirit.
If I have the privilege, water, bodies of water are really great for me. I am a country rural kid at birth, so places where you can see the sky forever help to shake out all the social media and dire news in this reality. Sometimes you just need a beat, to reset, to renew. Sometimes if you don’t listen to this cues or the exhaustion, it catches up with you and you feel it into your capillaries. I eat a lot of dim sum and seafood, I make sure I have my protein and water, I ask my friends and chosen family what art they really connect to and what shakes them in their core. I lean into that kind of collective genius. I seek advice from my ancestors when I feel stuck, when I feel invalidated, I reach for something bigger than the skin I am in. The world feels like obliteration. That’s a reality. Again, I pet my dog and surround myself in truly talented people. Or turn inward if that’s what’s needed. It’s not osmosis. It’s just seeking and being geeked about the ability to articulate emotion, that riles me up so right that it doesn’t matter how shitty I may feel or how mundane things feel, I realize culture is being re-imagined and questioned and made every second. If I cannot contribute that, I can certainly witness it until it moves me to my own humble attempts.
On What a Poet’s Family Finds Surprising
Hahaha. My family. My blood family? Surprise! You can pay rent with poetry (or a chunk of it). Now insurance and retirement, that’s something else. I believe most confusing to people not in it, is with my artistic practice, I can meet new people and create broader connections because we witnessed one another read something for three minutes and that meant something.
My mom died ten years before my first book published. She went to poetry readings right before her graveyard shift and though she thought poetry was aimless, she saw how many people showed up. She saw how talking story, a skill she herself had, could be catapulted. This country often reminded her which stories were valued. I don’t think she didn’t believe in poetry, but I recognize from her own experience, she was worried how my poetry wouldn’t be valued. After all, she knew firsthand what hard work was and for it to be erased or undersold. She wasn’t entirely wrong at all.
My family was forced here to the U.S. and believed (then didn’t) that success was a very specific brand. I think I am still consciously trying to undo those scripts myself (on-going), the capitalist programming that writing poetry is not a failing. An extension to that– if you aren’t white, abled, cis, skinny, and rich, you are a failing. What other careers are there besides arts or let’s say acting, where rejection is built in at such a frequency, yet we are compelled to continue? Many of my friends that stuck around are artists and creatives of some kind, they understand the community connections we need to thrive, to keep writing. They see writing as “real work” where so many others I have known couldn’t because there wasn’t a fixed salary or 9 to 5 schedule. The idea of art = wasteful is what people want us to think so we don’t archive our stories, our communities, our grief and joys.
I notice much of being a poet is debunking what work is. When the Chant Comes was written in a slew of dim sum restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, laid out with ice packs on couches, in the middle of workshops at conferences, in Disabled isolation, after a medical exam that was emotionally obliterating. How poetry is durable, flexible, and fanciful in that way. For me, that’s inevitable but seems to catch so many people off-guard.
On Bright Poet-Moments
I don’t have any one moment. Right now, it’s going to change, na? I can say it was when I had my first book launch at for When The Chant Comes, I can say it was before that when I was like 20 and my ma and aunty put my first chapbook on their refrigerator. There are serious highlights: being selected for Poem-a-Day for Academy of American Poets by TC Tolbert was one of them. Doing a keynote and Q&A at the Lincoln Center was a highlight. Anytime a student tells me: We are so excited you are coming to our school to perform! fundamentally feels like a new swoon, a big crush, every time. That thrill never goes away. Once my high school team that I coached made nationals in slam and I cried when I saw them on stage. Just balled. Once, I read in front of 2000 Queer Asian and Pacific Islanders at a national conference, which felt magical on its own, every line and landing felt like we were choreographed in our bloodstream, it felt like we were one creature. It could be that one time after reading alongside Aracelis Girmay and afterwards, she talked with me about my poem “While looking at photo albums” and called it beautiful and said it was also so funny (she giggled, even!), I may have been emotionally high for a full month after that. Honestly, anytime someone says this guy, this person, let’s have them be the faculty keynote or the keynote plenary at The Poetry Foundation or Lambda Literary Review, hallowed places where I am likely the first of my kind there, that’s sad, surreal, an honor. This means somebody had to vouch for my work, deem it worthy, even if I might feel defeated, somebody deems it something bigger than the page or stage. Over all, the good moments (not necessarily bright as so much stunning happens in the darkness) are when we vouch for each other and manifest creative sustainability.
There are luscious moments that keep me nourished and I would be lying if there weren’t an onslaught of grim moments too. Nobody publicly talks about their failures because it might squelch this façade of success. Here are a few of mine: the rejections lodged in my submittable; the acceptances to residencies that I cannot afford whatsoever; the ways in which Poetry Inc. circulates the same tokens; me on a perpetual waiting list; or how I will be asked if I am a student or a service worker (nothing wrong with either but the intention of the statements misguided) when I’m at poetry and literary conferences when I am in fact, an invited Guest Faculty or keynote; the dangerous ideas of canon formation just actually being erasure of Trans, Disabled/Sick, Black, Brown, and Indigenous poets who aren’t groomed in MFAs. Maybe some of those heartbreaks aren’t actually what poetry is though. Maybe it’s just the rude interpretations by gate keepers, racism, people who want to be the only via scarcity, systemic human ignorance. Maybe the bright moments I crave are how we feel that sorrow as poets surviving, surviving this very industry, and re-shift somehow, possibly together, and still write lines that re-imagine space, content, impact, a better world.
Named one of 9 Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Writers You Should Know by Vogue, KAY ULANDAY BARRETT aka @Brownroundboi is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. K. has featured at The Lincoln Center, The U.N., Symphony Space, Princeton University, Tucson Poetry Festival, NY Poetry Festival, The Dodge Poetry Foundation, The Hemispheric Institute, and Brooklyn Museum. They are a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Best of the Net Split This Rock 2019 nominee, and a 2019 Queeroes Literary Honoree by Them.+ Condé Nast. They received fellowships and residencies from Lambda Literary Foundation, VONA/Voices, Monson Arts, and Macondo. They have been Guest Editor for Nat.Brut & Guest Faculty for The Poetry Foundation. They have served on boards and committees for the following: The Audre Lorde Project, Transgender Law Center, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, The Leeway Foundation, Res Artis, and the TransJustice Funding Project. Their contributions are found in American Poets, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Asian American Literary Review, PBS News Hour, Race Forward, NYLON, The Huffington Post, Bitch Magazine, and more. Their first book was When The Chant Comes (Topside Press). More Than Organs (Sibling Rivalry Press) is their second collection. Currently, Kay lives outside of the NYC area with his jowly dog and remixes his mama’s recipes whenever possible.
Some Praise for More Than Organs:
“‘What is hunger … but the carving out of emptiness.’ And so in their defiant poetry collection, More Than Organs, Kay Ulanday Barrett excavates and hollows out a queer, trans, brown body to expose, examine, and interrogate the difficulties and heartaches of such existence. What is discovered is forged out of anger, injustice, defiance and love. These shapeshifting poems are insistent and persistent in their brazen attempts at making flesh and whole the undefinable nature of gender, race and physical/social being. I admire their direct honesty, how they rage! And how ultimately ‘the body is a letter/folded backward, all strange angles, confessions.'”
-Joseph O. Legaspi, author of Threshold and Imago
“I am so excited for this book, More Than Organs, by Kay Ulanday Barrett, a self-described queer brown Filipinx disabled transgender boi. In observation they are also a poet who through years of work is stepping into the peak of their powers. This well-crafted, necessary, and moving book of poetry is about hunger that is physical, spiritual, and queer. It is also a book that names, makes visible, and feeds those who’ve been erased, made voiceless, misgendered, colonized, and experienced various forms of violence. The poems in this collection are shaped into a song of survival and love. I was struck, too, by the poem dedicated to the victims of Orlando: ‘there were boys holding hands with other boys for the first time.’ Reading Kay’s work, I am reminded of the pioneering and important work of Pat Parker, wry, full of longing, grief, humor, and rage.”
-Pamela Sneed, author of Funeral Diva and Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom Than Slavery
“Kay Ulanday Barrett’s More Than Organs journeys between the worlds of memory and the living, acting as a map that leads the reader into the sacred. Charting the space between ‘the kinship of hunger and pain,’ poem after poem refuses the reader rest as the lines grapple with tensions erupting from the queerest art of living. Sometimes joy; sometimes grief. Witness loss, legend, survival, betrayal—all canyons and mesas crafted in the topography of the heart—sear with honesty their testament to chronic pain and endurance against a toxic America. What a gift to drink deep these queer, brown, fiercely resisting poems and to crack open your palette. Reader, follow this fearless, vulnerable speaker into the magic and you will ‘want to lay down / and just / live in it.'”
-Rajiv Mohabir, author of The Cowherd’s Son and The Taxidermist’s Cut