At its best, literary culture is a public conversation. Starting out in Chicago in the mid-1980s, the spoken word poetry movement flourished in the 1990s and continued onward into the 2000s. Stories that seldom found their way into published texts took forefront in these circles. In this arena, the usual literary gatekeepers didn’t call the shots. Instead, spoken word poetry offered a more democratic access to self-expression that challenged canonical expectations of literature
Before the Internet provided a universal broadcasting platform, spoken word poetry was a supportive and nurturing space for writers at the margins of society. The best rose to the top. In the decades prior to social media, spoken word poetry launched the careers of writers whose subject matter and background didn’t fit into conventional molds. Staceyann Chin was one of those writers.
Born in Jamaica in 1972 of Chinese-Jamaican and Afro-Jamaican descent, Chin moved to the United States in 1997. She has been an out lesbian and political activist since her arrival. Winner of countless awards, including the winner of the 1998 Lambda Poetry Slam; a finalist in the 1999 Nuyorican Grand Slam; the 1999 Chicago People of Color Slam; winner of the 1998 and 2000 Slam This!; and the 1999 Chicago People of Color Slam, Chin is also an acclaimed performer. Her work includes co-writing and performing in the Tony-nominated Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. She has performed at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café as well as in numerous Off-Broadway one woman shows, including 2015’s MotherStruck!. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter Zuri.
Confronting abuse and abandonment, Chin draws from her own life in her work. Topics such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, colonialism and gentrification are woven into her performances and poetry chapbooks. Her candor lends itself beautifully to unmasking the taboos surrounding women’s bodies and sexuality, but her sensual focus also makes room to celebrate the joy also found there. Her legendary work has captivated audiences for over twenty years through her ability to blend activism and passion with performance.
Because of her wide acclaim and audience, it came as an incredible shock to me that while Chin had published a memoir (The Other Side of Paradise) in 2009, Crossfire was her first published collection of poetry. At last, this celebration of pleasure, political activism, and radical forgiveness allows readers the opportunity to read and return to Chin’s work on paper in a volume that should sit alongside the likes of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, as well as Wordsworth and Eliot. I wanted to talk with her about why she held off from publishing a formal collection of poetry until now. Over rooibos tea with honey, we shared her couch and spoke in her apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, earlier this month.
Observer: When did you begin to write?
Staceyann Chin: I don’t think that I became a writer until I landed here from Jamaica, and I didn’t become a writer, because America makes you a writer. It was the specifics of the shifts that I had to endure that deepened my understanding of my life or my story. I had attempted some terrible poems before I left Jamaica but this was before I felt like I had anything to write about, before I came to any understanding of myself. I was still trying to write formally like Emily Dickinson, John Donne, T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. I was trying to regurgitate the ideas that they had, because those were the ideas in their work that moved me—some grand sweeping life or the notion of seasonal changes. I was also attempting the language they were using, which wasn’t a language I was native to. It wasn’t a language that I thought in or felt in so those poems were very clumsy. I dispensed with the desire to write poems very early, but I kept journaling before I left Jamaica.
I came here in search of a freer place to be as a queer person. As a lesbian, I mean, the word queer wasn’t in my mouth at that time but decidedly I was lesbian so I came here in search of a lesbian life that was safe. Then I ran up against American racism and xenophobia and what it was like to be undocumented here, what is like to try to make a life in a new city without resources. And for the first time in my life the seasons changed. I’d been reading about it for so much of my life without ever experiencing it. I came here on August 20, 1997 and I was very happily exploring New York then the seasons started changing. In September, it was cooler. By October, it was really, really cold for me—like really shivering dying cold. I finally understood why Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot wrote about the changing of seasons as I was realizing how much my life had changed exactly by coming here.
You’d had so much success as a performer and published chapbooks for years before publishing a memoir, but why did you wait so long to publish your own book of poetry?
I started to write in America from a place of resistance. I write to make the world better. I write to set things right. Restorative it’s not, but for a long time I didn’t know exactly how to make these poems that I wrote sit in the place that I hold and esteem poetry (like Dickinson, Eliot, etc.) The things that I loved about poetry when I was younger and studying it weren’t necessarily political things.
Derek Walcott, for me, was and still is one of the gods among poets. “A Far Cry from Africa” is one of the first poems in which I saw my political self. It made sense of the English in your mouth and the Africa in your blood. It’s the kind of dual consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois writes about. But Walcott never wrote about things like women’s rights and he didn’t talk about sexual violence or different kinds of families, or queerness. What’s missing from this serious poetry was any kind of celebration of not just my sexuality but my mind, my sexualness as a woman. Every time they talked about consummation it was always about the man and his own explosion, never about what happens with a woman’s orgasm or a woman’s body or the struggle to find her own space. And then I was so overtly sexual and so overtly political and then my work was performed—not published. So that’s another thing that takes it out of the realm of the serious. My work was behind a podium and because it lived so deeply in my body it didn’t make sense—like, I didn’t see myself as them. Even the poets that I loved like Audre Lorde, who is upheld as a god in the feminist world, but in the in the rest of the world most people don’t know them and certainly don’t value their poetry because it speaks so plainly of things that are not right in the world.
So I made like a small category for myself. People knew me and people enjoyed coming to see me and people paid decently to have me in rooms to speak, but I wasn’t sure that people would pony up their pennies to take my work home if I was not attached to it on a stage. I worried and fretted and when people insisted that they needed to have the poems I made these chapbooks, which I remember selling like 50 to 60 of at the end of every reading. After a while, the more well-known I became, I couldn’t go to Kinko’s anymore and it didn’t feel right having these stapled, printed, folded booklets. It felt like I shouldn’t be selling a chapbook, I should be selling a book book.
But I wasn’t ready to put them out and then they weren’t ready yet. That’s how I talked about them. “They’re not quite ready yet. They’re not finished.” One day they would become poems. At the time, they were like political explosion that existed onstage and called people to action, but they were not poems because poems in my head lived between the pages that I would sneak underneath the house in Jamaica and mutter the words quietly to myself. They were not said from stage or not the poems I loved.
How did that perspective on your own poetry change?
I met Derek Walcott and he invited me to come study with him for six months in Boston and studied with him and learned quite a bit of poetry from him and how to write and how to turn of phrase and how to make meaning of a thing. And then he said to me, “You’d be a great writer if you would stop writing about your vagina and this feminist stuff.”
So I’d say no and I folded that dream away and thought, “Okay, I do this important work, but I’m not a poet.” And you know it was interesting because the thing that he said that I should get rid of was the thing that made me a writer. And so if I if I stopped doing that, I knew I couldn’t write anymore.
So I didn’t quite know what to do. And so I just wrote the way that I knew how to write and didn’t publish. So they weren’t really poems, but I could still have their power onstage. And you know I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to find an audience for these poems for a long time. It’s been 22 years since I’ve been performing them. And they had a home; they weren’t silent. In fact, they existed on YouTube. Tons of them. You can Google and find them. Professors would say, “I’m teaching this work. Can you send me the words for this poem? I’m so tired of transcribing it from YouTube.” And I would just email them the poem and they would teach it. But then I had a kid (in January 2012) and I started to think about legacy and permanence.
Then I started to think that so much of what we espouse, and even attempt, to live is just every day in our life when we become parents. It really forces you to grapple with these ideas you say are your own because, in a weird kind of way, you can keep them away from yourself if you’re not really living it. But when you have a child who’s watching and not just watching but taking from you what they see you do then it forces you to really kind of have a come to the Lord—and when I say Lord I mean Audre Lorde—moment about who am I and what am I. What silences am I perpetuating, if I’m afraid and I don’t speak because I’m afraid people won’t welcome my words, then I remain afraid anyway so why not just speak?
When I realized that I was having a daughter I felt that I had to be fearless because I didn’t want her to be afraid of anything. It became clear that she would need to recognize that kind of confidence and honesty in her mother in order to live fearlessly.
Yes, until you have to model it and the only way to model it is to live it. You know, maybe other people who don’t have children have been better able to live a more deeply fearless life than I have in my past. And I don’t know if it’s about having a child but it’s like living up close with someone who holds you accountable and they don’t hold you accountable in the way that a lover holds you accountable. A lover says, “You’re not doing this and you said you were gonna do this,” and then you can get defensive. But a kid just does what they see you do and then you see them do it and you’re like, “That’s not what I want you to be doing.” There’s no malice.
So having a kid really kind of shifted my world and I want to just be very careful because sometimes you know we get into this narrative about, “Oh now you become a mother and it’s so amazing.” But I’ve always been able to hold some part of myself as my own. And so when I came into my house and closed the door, I was my own animal and I didn’t need to be accountable to anyone. But now I don’t have any time except after bedtime or if I fall into a coma or stupor. I’m 24 hours a day being watched by this kid. And I’m watching them learn from me without them articulating it. So I had to find my fearlessness. And I know, if I’m quite honest, I’m a single black artist lesbian mom. I don’t have a lot of money. And so putting a book out means that you know that’s another stream of income and it helps with the tiny things you need. However, it’s important to publish this work for a number of reasons including the fact that these poems deserve a place in the American literary narrative. For twenty years they’ve taken up space just like anybody else who participated in the story of literature in the 1990s onward in the United States.
It may seem unimportant, but I need to be there or else you know they’ll say we weren’t there. Without the proof of it, it’s quite easy for a thing to disappear as if you were never there. Allowing that to happen, you participate in the lie of the history that is sold to us. So I wanted to be a big girl, take up some more space, and participate in my own history, leaving something for my daughter to read after I’m gone. And for my daughter’s kids if she decides to have them after I’m not around anymore to speak of it.