Poetry In Conversation
Christopher Soto with Jan-Henry Gray
Migrant Justice and Abolition with Christopher Soto
Diaries of a Terrorist
(Copper Canyon Press, 2022)
I’ve been looking forward to this debut poetry book, Diaries of a Terrorist, for quite some time. Christopher Soto is someone I think of as a poet and activist in the same breath. His taut debut poetry collection is a testament to queer defiance of policing in the United States and abroad. His activism off the page (with UCLA Cops Off Campus, Writers for Migrant Justice, and Undocupoets) has pushed back against policing, human caging, and the mistreatment of migrants. Through language, his poetry and activism share some of the same concerns: an urgency for action, a clarity of vision, and yes, a new sense of hope.
If a debut poetry collection serves as an introduction of a poet to the greater literary world, Soto’s Diaries reveal a poet who is unafraid to make material of their lives in service of a call for a better world. The book soars by imagining a future through abolitionist poetry. In many ways, Soto picks up the mantle of Queer Latinx scholar José Esteban Muñoz who writes that “queerness exists for us as an ideology that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness's domain.” For Soto, queering the future means letting poets and abolitionists lead the way.
Diaries of a Terrorist makes its intentions clear. The book begins with the lines “Police killed our neighbor” and ends with the lines “Get the fuck up & fight.” Soto shows that urgent writing provides the fuel necessary for both the political and the lyric.
Jan-Henry Gray (Rail): Do you identify as an activist or abolitionist, both?
Christopher Soto: I think the word “activism” feels too hollow to me. There are white supremacist activists that I have nothing in common with. I identify as an abolitionist: as someone who wants to see an end to policing and human caging.
Rail: What lineages, as an abolitionist, do you see yourself as a part of?
Soto: Lately, I have been thinking about histories of anti-carceral Queer Latinx activism in Los Angeles. Nancy from East Side Clover (Nancy Valverde) was a butch Chicana lesbian born in 1932, who still lives in Los Angeles. During her lifetime she was routinely harassed and incarcerated by the police for not abiding by “masquerading” laws and conforming to gender expectations. For decades, Latinxs in Los Angeles have been resisting police harassment. I consider this debut poetry book to be part of that lineage of resisting police harassment.
Rail: How did abolition influence your work with Undocupoets?
Soto: Undocupoets is a mixed status collective that petitioned against publishing guidelines in the United States, which prohibited undocumented writers from submitting first book contests by requiring “proof of citizenship” in order to apply. At the time that we launched our campaign, literary activism was not in vogue. We were looking at systemic racism and xenophobia and classism in our literary industry and decided to speak up. Publishing contests were also charging fees for people to submit their books for consideration. So we began to create grants for undocumented writers. Abolition is about making sure all of our community members have access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive.
Rail: How did abolition influence your work with Writers for Migrant Justice?
Soto: In the Writers for Migrant Justice Campaign, people hosted readings nationally in order to raise funds and pay bail so that incarcerated migrant families would be let out of detention. This type of mutual aid work is also part of abolitionist praxis.
Rail: The poetry in your book also works at the intersection of migrant justice and anti-carceral activism. Can you talk about why this intersection is so critical?
Soto: My family migrated from El Salvador. I have family members who have been detained, prior to deportation, in both Mexico and the United States. The intersection between migrant justice and anti-carceral activism feels very apparent to me. As youth in Los Angeles, we used to walk over the border without passports into Tijuana on day trips. After 9/11 this changed and the border became more heavily guarded. We could no longer walk across the border without passports. ICE was created around these years too, in 2003. And during the Trump presidency one of the main rallying cries was to “build a wall” along the US-Mexico border. In 2020, Kumeyaay people were standing against the creation of a border wall on their lands by the settler state. When I think about policing, its function is eliminatory, to disappear people. This is similar to how migrants are being treated at the moment. There is a very strong push by the Republican party to disappear BIPOC and migrants (whether that be through prisons, deportations, or erasing our histories from school books). It is a frightening time to live on the precipice of Republicans’ white nationalist authoritarian dreams.
Rail: You spend a lot of time in El Salvador. What do conversations about abolition look like there?
Soto: The United States and El Salvador both incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world. Yet, their homicide rates are extremely different. These outcomes show that there is not a correlation between incarceration and ending homicides. If there was, then El Salvador would be one of the safest countries on the planet. Since it's not, there isn’t the same mythology around policing in El Salvador as what I hear in the United States. In the US people will wonder “who will protect us from the murderers” if we don’t have police? As if, in the US the police have not committed over 30,000 murders since 1980. In El Salvador, there is a broader understanding that not everyone who commits murder is incarcerated. People in both nations can be pretty punitive and conservative. Yet, in both nations there are pockets of abolitionists who understand policing does not solve violence. I think the abolitionist movement is larger in the United States, but in both places I find inspiration from activists who put themselves on the line to narrative shift and help us move past a carceral world.
Rail: Has living in California, particularly Los Angeles, shaped your work in any meaningful ways?
Soto: Much of the publishing industry and literary arts administration is based in New York. In Los Angeles, the poetry community is small enough where we kinda all know each other. Writing in a major metropolitan city, yet outside of the nation's literary capital, changes how I approach my creative work. Poetry in Los Angeles feels very interdisciplinary because of this. I find myself speaking with visual artists, screenplay writers, and photographers in Los Angeles more than I would when in New York. This is probably part of the reason why there are so many gestures towards and collaborations with other queer artists from Los Angeles in my work, from Rafa Esparza to Fabian Guerrero to Joey Terrill and more.
Rail: In the poem “Two Lovers In Perfect // Synchronicity” you mention another queer Latinx artist, Félix González-Torres. You close the poem by writing “We didn’t do enough // We did so much.” Why?
Soto: Near the end of the poem, I was wanting to continue writing. The poem is made to be a bridge to Félix and his partner Ross who both died of AIDS-related causes. I never had a chance to meet them but wanted to connect my queer youth to my queer elders on the page. At the end of this poem, I was coming to terms with the impossibility of bridging myself to Ross and Félix. I was coming to terms with the impossibility of depicting my queer California youth in its entirety. The ending was a moment of relief. I was proud of what the poem had accomplished while knowing it would never be enough. In a sense, this is also how I feel about my activism. Sometimes I feel the push of capitalism to do more, to accumulate more (whether that’s accumulating publications or social media followers or money). In the end of this poem, it feels like just enough. Content and present and filled with love.
Rail: In your poem “All the Dead Boys Look Like Me” you speak to your nephew “As if / The whole world was his for the choosing.” There’s something so bittersweet in that kind of imagining. How do you think about hope for the future?
Soto: I want a world without prisons and policing. I want land to be given back to indigenous nations with reparations paid. I want environmental biodiversity protected transnationally. History is very long. The United States is very small within this history. My life is even smaller. With these tiny words, I hope to move us towards a more sustainable and equitable world.
Rail: In May, I attended your book launch at the Ace Hotel in New York City. That night, you read the long poem that ends your book titled, “Then A Hammer // Realized Its Life Purpose.” It was an emotional moment for many people in the audience. Can you talk about that reading?
Soto: That poem discusses three different ways of being hit: domestic violence, kink, and boxing. In the poem I attempt to unpack the idea of violence and responses to it. I was interested in how one action, such as hitting, can result in such different responses, depending on the context. In the audience that night was my little sister. I told her about the poem beforehand and she asked me to read it aloud, before she approached it on the page independently. That poem is, in part, an apology to her. While surviving domestic violence, I was so hyper focused on my needs that I could not see her and the ways that she was suffering too. Her suffering was invisibilized for years. While reading that poem, she was sitting in the back of the room directly across from me. During the reading, it felt like it was just my sister, me, and this belated apology. I remember hearing other people crying, sniffling throughout the room, but it was only my sister’s face that I saw. That reading wrecked me more than I usually allow. I never read that poem in full and I tend to avoid the most emotionally heavy poems while reading in person. That night, I stayed at my little sister’s house and we poured a glass then just talked. It was one of the most life-changing moments in our relationship, I think.
Rail: I want to close by discussing the word terrorist, while is the title of your book and in your poem “The Terrorist Shaved his Beard.” It’s such a loaded word, one that has become both common yet ever more high-stakes. Can you speak to this?
Soto: I grew up on grindcore in Southern California. The lyrics of many grindcore and punk bands are sacrilegious, sexually-perverted, and flippant in a way that almost dismisses the importance of their political rhetoric. My poems are highly influenced by my upbringing on grindcore. Both the title of this poem and the collection at large show “the terrorist” in intimate portraits, either shaving a beard or writing in a diary. I am interested in this juxtaposition and tension. For me, the terrorist in my book can be various people that get targeted for elimination by the police, and are deemed to be a threat to the white settler society. In different instances, the terrorists are Queers, Central Americans, and survivors. Policing has expanded so far that basically all kinds of people—working class, unhoused, neurodivergent, non-white people, and more, are treated as terrorists at this point.