Three Poets of Color on How their First Book Came to Be

Jan-Henry Gray mai c. doan Xandria Phillips

This Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m., at Women and Children First, three poets will celebrate the publication of their first books of poetry together.

Jan-Henry Gray’s first book, Documents is, among other things, about living in the US undocumented for more than 32 years. It was chosen by D.A. Powell as the winner of BOA Edition’s Poulin Poetry Prize.

mai c. doan’s first book of poetry, water/tongue, released this month from Omindawn, grapples with intergenerational trauma and the articulation of lineages and healing and resistance from within colonialism and American empire.

Xandria Phillips is the author of HULL, which will be released by Nightboat Books in September. HULL explores emotional impacts of colonialism and racism on the Black queer body and the present-day emotional impacts of enslavement in urban, rural, and international settings.

These are just parts of their stories (as told to Jera Brown) about how their books came to be and why they write poetry.

The Ideas

Jan

I used the undocumented experience as a magnet, and that’s why the title Documents was really helpful for me. Being undocumented, you have a special relationship to forms because you are constantly dealing with various forms of legal documentation.

There came a time in which I said, I’m just going to take one of these legal forms and make a poem out of it. I was compelled to. There’s a poem in here that takes one of the forms, strips it, and weaves it with questions that my lawyer asked me in preparation for an interview with an immigration judge. Many of these poems take forms–poetic and legal–and try to queer them or modify them.

mai

I’ve been writing poetry since I was very young and, as I got older, I began contextualizing my family’s experience within larger systems and histories such as capitalism or colonialism. As I became more aware of the many dynamics my experiences were embedded within, I became more interested in writing into intergenerational trauma and the root causes of trauma and violence.

My great grandmother was an inspiration for writing this book, although I’ve been writing about her since before the book started. I had a close relationship with her before she passed, and then after her death, she has shown up in my life in important ways that have impacted how I live in the world and also my poetry.

Xandria

I started feeling the need to write this book around the time I took a semester abroad when I was in undergrad. I was in Ghana and, at that time, I remember a lot of extra diasporic feelings and also feeling particularly engulfed and entranced by the ocean. I wanted to write something that, in one sense, felt like an autobiography and, in another, was a graphical depiction of the Atlantic Ocean.

I had a tiny chapbook-length project called Brine which was very obviously the underdeveloped version of Hull. I finished that my last semester of undergrad, and I think only one section of one poem made it into the full length manuscript and became a whole other thing. That work was a place for me to fail a lot. At that time, I was coming into a more complex world view around blackness, but my poetics weren’t quite up to a place that they could really support the complicated concepts and histories that I was trying to engage with.

Ideas Become a Book

Jan

A lot of these poems came out of workshop during undergrad and grad school. They had to. I took a 12 year break from school to work in restaurants as a chef. I didn’t finish undergrad until I was 35. I saw each day of workshop as an invitation to write a new poem. It wasn’t practice time; I made myself “finish” poems in there because I didn’t have the luxury of time on my side.

The poems about the undocumented experience are really specific, and they started to cluster together. Then, other poems that weren’t about that but were related entered the book. There’s a poem in the book about the time I met Allen Ginsberg in 1997. Technically that has nothing to do with being undocumented. The poem ends with the image of him shaking my hand, touching my arm, and feeling my pores open up. There’s this sense of boundary or barrier or limit that I can’t ever escape. I’ve been so aware of division and access and privilege: these things inform everything.

And so, I scooped up older poems that weren’t specifically about the undocumented experience and they came together to tell a story. That feels authentic because I don’t think about being undocumented every day. So it didn’t seem right for the book to have a singular focus because I don’t have a singular focus. I’m also queer. I’m also interested in weird art. So I felt like I had to get all that stuff in, otherwise it wouldn’t feel right.

mai

I was working in the nonprofit sector and trying to avoid getting my MFA mostly for the cost and wanting to continue to be self and community taught.  But I got to a point where I was really burnt out and wanted to figure out a way to drop out of the nonprofit workforce, rest, and give time to the stories I felt called to write into. I decided to apply to Mills because I had already been living in the Bay Area and knew they had a Community Engagement Fellowship that would cover full tuition. I told myself that if I didn’t get in with the fellowship, I wasn’t going to go at all. I ended up getting the fellowship and stepped into this two year opportunity to figure out how to write about what I wanted to write about. I really struggled through those two years to write what is now water/tongue.

I came in thinking a lot about suicide because it’s something that has shown up in abundance within my family of origin, specifically amongst the women in my family. It took me a while to figure out how to write about things like suicide and mental health, but also migration and war. Writing about suicide felt really complex, and I wanted to connect it to larger issues without either glorifying suicide or contributing to stigma around suicide or mental health. Writing within academia after being self / community challenged my self-worth and inner truth and intelligence but it also exposed me to new poets and new kinds of writing while giving me and my work the space to be challenged, questioned, and discussed amongst faculty and peers. I didn’t write for a year after I graduated and didn’t actually finish my manuscript probably about two years after I graduated.

Xandria

I started writing a lot differently when I left graduate school. I went directly from undergrad to grad school, so it was my first time living in the world outside of academia. I was also living in a city for the first time and having all of these new “queer in the city moments.” I’d never dated in a city, and I was actually constantly freaking out about my queer visibility. One queer by themselves is not that loud, but kissing is like yelling if it’s in public.

So I started having major panic attacks about queer visibility and feeling like someone was going to try to hurt me, and I started writing about it a lot more and suddenly my work opened up to the intricacies of my emotional life. In grad school, I felt like I was writing for my humanity. I was engaging with social death and intergenerational trauma and the middle passage. Then I get out and I’m like, I can write about sex, I can write about weed, I can write about whatever I want! I don’t have to go to a workshop and look at people who aren’t going to try to understand my work. I can choose who sees it. I afforded myself a lot more leniency and the work changed.

Finding a Publisher

Jan

Winning a contest is one way to get your first book of poetry published, but it’s also really competitive. The “first book prize system” isn’t ideal, especially because submitting to prizes is expensive ($25 or more for each). And so when I applied to ten prizes, I was basically like, This is the year I’m doing this. This is the year where I submitting it to ten places.

The year that it won the prize at BOA it got rejected nine times. And when I say rejected, I’m not even saying it was a semifinalist or finalist. It was just flat out rejected. I kept thinking, Clearly this thing that I believe in is not working for whoever is reading it on the other side. After a while I thought, I don’t know if this is going to happen. I began to think that it wasn’t cool enough, not fresh enough, not whatever enough.

When I sent this out to BOA, I knew that the judge for the prize was D.A. Powell but I also wasn’t sending it to him. I sent him the same manuscript that everyone else got. Then, when I got the phone call, I started connecting the dots. I thought it made sense.  I think the book needed a poet in the West Coast to read this collection. And it helps that he’s gay because there are some gay-ass poems in the book, but there’s a lot of California in the book, as well.

mai

I’d worked with Truong Tran who was both a professor at Mills and led a community-based workshop I participated in while living in San Francisco. I was really excited to work with another queer Vietnamese poet and stayed in touch afterwards. After graduating, he introduced me to Jennifer S. Cheng. She and Truong were applying for a grant to publish the first books of three writers who are on the periphery of mainstream literary communities. So they invited me to submit work and then they’d go through a process of accepting it or not.

After grad school, I had taken a year off of writing, and was waiting to hear back from Jennifer about the grant. They ended up not getting the grant, and I kind of figured, This project probably won’t get published, and that’s okay.

I had kind of forgotten about the project when I got the invitation from Rusty Morrison, one of the senior publishers at Omnidawn. Jennifer and Truong gave everyone they had sought work from to submit manuscripts Omnidawn directly, for the chance to have their manuscript published. It was even more surprising when I heard back from Rusty and she let me know that Omnidawn wanted to publish the book. It was really exciting and unexpected. I definitely cried!

Xandria

I submitted my manuscript knowing that the version I sent out would change, but I really wanted the editorial support and a deadline for myself to make the edits that I wanted. The most daunting thing for me about piecing together a manuscript was just the fact that I’d never done it before. And I really wanted to honor the process and have people ready to look over the work and help it into the world. That felt really important to me.

I looked at mastheads, thinking about who I could work closely with and do intimate edits with. That informed a lot of my decision making in terms of where I submitted. I went with mostly small presses and then ended up matching with Nightboat Books as the Editor’s Pick by Stephen Motika.

My manuscript was accepted in the first round of submissions, and I felt relieved, and I recognize it as luck that I wouldn’t have to do that round again. It came down to it being financially very burdensome. A low submission fee is $25.

Readers

Jan

I was never supposed to write a book. I didn’t grow up reading books, I don’t come from a family that reads books, so I never thought that this was ever going to happen. So the fact that it is happening is already kind of a dream. What I would love to happen is for people to read the book and think, ‘Oh, I have a story to tell, too.’ And they are somehow inspired and propelled because there are parts of the book where they see themselves.

Being queer, Filipino, and undocumented, I’m very, very familiar with how things aren’t for me. I watch a movie and that couple is not me, or watch a TV show and that family is not mine. You find a way of adjusting your lens so that you can view the world a certain way so you can be a part of it. But when you see yourself represented in art, when it accounts for you, it’s fucking great. I would love it if someone could pick up the book and see themselves–especially if it’s someone who doesn’t usually read poetry, that’s my dream of dreams.

All that stuff is really important to me. There’s another part of me, and this is a little radical, but I also wish that a book like this might change people’s minds about how laws get made.

mai

I’ve been thinking about the difference between audience and readership. I might have a sense of who I want my audience to be, but my actual readership might be really different.  Just within this first month or so of being available, it’s been interesting to see whose hands the book lands in. Not surprisingly, it has been mostly been people that personally know me including friends, community and family members. Even a younger cousin I grew up really close to got a copy, and it has invited deeper conversations between us about family.

But in terms of audience, I definitely want it to be in conversation with other contemporary queer and trans writers who are changing what mainstream poetry looks like right now. I also want it to be read by other people who maybe have struggled to talk about their personal experiences because they just feel so complicated. Especially those who who have experienced violence and intergenerational trauma in their family. So other trauma survivors, femme people of color, other mixed race people and Vietnamese people.

Xandria

I‘m having a very hard time figuring out the kind of forward-facing persona I want, especially tied to social media. I really just want the work to stand on its own and don’t want to necessarily be standing next to it. I’m more interested in building a readership and what that means.

When I studied at Callaloo for the first time, I studied with Vivee Francis and was so juiced about reading her book after hearing the way she talked about poetry. I think there’s a really strong bond between educators and students in every capacity in the writing world. Folks that I’ve taught may be the people that I’m most excited to read my work, only because I feel like I’ve been able to forge really nuanced modes of talking about poetry with them. ‘They gave me critiques on my poem. How does that manifest in their work?’ It’s really fascinating to see a poet stricture as a teacher first and then move on to their work.

Why Poetry?

Jan

I grew up speaking English, but technically English is my second language and I was always hyper-aware of how to use it. Poetry makes me feel like I am equipped to play with language, even though I often feel under-equipped to write a perfect sentence.

A grammarian can read a sentence that I write and say, ‘Oh, this is what you’re doing right, and that’s what you’re doing wrong.’ What is so intoxicating about poetry is that it generally doesn’t have that. There is no template or formula. Yes, there are forms and some of them are very ancient, but poetry has an openness toward play, an openness for the broken phrase, the broken sentence, or the fucked-up image. The physical and visual opportunities on the page are exciting to me as well: the freedom to move words around. That feels like deliciously breaking a rule.

mai

Poetry has no boundaries. I like poetry because it can say so many things in nontraditional ways. There are more tools to both disrupt language and also write our own narratives, and like really own them. I like reading like poetry by queer poets of color, or poetry in general, because I feel like there’s a lot of space for nuance that isn’t really available in other forums, and it’s something that can be anticapitalist in nature. You can’t like easily consume it. You have to sit with it and digest it. It’s not always an easy form.

Xandria

I think poetry can play a role that the archives or documented history doesn’t. I’m reading Saidiya Hartman’s new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, and it feels one-of-a-kind. It’s an academic text, but it adds a certain level of visceral texture to history and more importantly to the lives of these studied black women that has never been afforded to them.

When I think about poetry at its heartiest, for me it’s taking an image and adding temperature or taking a tragedy and adding not just empathy but actual emotion and a level of viscerality that we take for granted.

At its most serious, that’s what I hope poetry is doing. At its least serious, I hope it’s distracting me from the monotony of everyday autopilot language and the way that we fall into these really normative ways of greeting each other that skip over emotion and actually listening. Poetry makes me listen because it unsettles my strategic ear. It unsettles all the things that trouble me most about living in a postcolonial capitalist society.

1 I like it
0 I don't like it

Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.