It is impossible to read Christopher Soto’s debut poetry collection without having a visceral reaction. Diaries of a Terrorist, out this month from Copper Canyon Press, is not a collection of pretty poems, though there is great beauty in Soto’s words and deep courage in his vulnerability. This is a book that will move you—rock you. Soto is unapologetic in the demands he makes of his readers. He challenges us to look closely at the damage caused to individuals, to families, and to communities by police violence and by the inhumanity of caging human beings. Soto’s collection calls upon us to feel the world as it is and to imagine alternative possibilities.
Christopher Soto, an abolitionist and transfeminist Salvadoran poet, is the Assistant Director of Development for UCLA’s Ethnic Studies Research Centers and teaches at UCLA’s Honors College. He is the author of the chapbook Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016) and editor in collaboration with the Lambda Literary Foundation of Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books, 2018). A National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Poetry and recipient of The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, Soto co-founded Undocupoets, which successfully lobbied numerous poetry publishers in the United States to remove proof of citizenship requirements from first-book contests, and Writers for Migrant Justice to protest the detention and separation of migrant families in the US.
Christopher Soto and I exchanged a series of emails, discussing his debut Diaries of a Terrorist, violence and non-carceral solutions to violence, and the power of poetry to affect change.
The Rumpus: From the first line of the first poem in the collection, “METEOR SHOWER//OR WHERE THE SKY SKID ITS KNEES,” you drop the reader right into the message: “Police killed our neighbor.” “A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE PSYCHIATRIC//GARDEN” begins: “Policeman panicked & pulled the trigger // & Poof / The blue black boy beneath moonlight disappeared.”
There is an immediacy here that we sense comes from your own lived experience. Can you talk a bit about your background and how that has informed your poetry and your broader activism?
Christopher Soto: I feel nervous to speak to the murders that police committed, which are mentioned in the opening poems of my book. I think I still have some healing to do there, and I didn’t want to write those poems. I spent years trying not to write those poems. But those poems were pushed out of me, in the middle of when I was writing this debut poetry collection.
I began writing the poems in this collection around 2012 or 2013. I can’t remember what began first, the Black Lives Matter movement or this poetry collection. But around that time, I had moved to New York City and was hanging around with people who worked at the Audre Lorde Project, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Streetwise and Safe, and other queer of color abolitionist spaces. I remember first thinking that abolition of policing was an illogical and impossible endeavor. Then conversation by conversation, I began to unpack with my community the ways that policing impacted my life (especially as a queer Central American survivor) and all the ways that my community could find healing and liberation outside of the police state. Healing is never the task of policing.
This book was being written and edited up until 2021, a bit after the end of the Trump presidency. Thus, much of its thinking and feeling has walked alongside the Black Lives Matter movement. I remember in the early days being yelled at and scolded by white allies during BLM marches. I remember being yelled at and booed by white gays in the Pride parade—both times, when I shouted in front of police demanding their abolition.
Much feels to be changing now. Abolition has entered the lexicon of the general population. And for the first time, I think I may see the abolition of policing within my lifetime. With this manuscript, I hope to contribute to the movement so that one day we can move beyond human caging.
Rumpus: In “THE CHILDREN IN THEIR LITTLE BULLET-PROOF VESTS,” a poem about teenage boys in a detention center writing poetry, you bring this home quite powerfully: “Every sentence ended with / The word prison / Every prison began before / the sentencing.” Then later in the poem: “We celebrated Julian / For his release from / Caging in Unit Y2 / Confetti & balloons but / We felt uncomfortable / Proposing / He was free.” There is a sense of trapped-ness in many of the poems—from transgender individuals trying to get through security at the airport, to immigrants forced to wear ankle bracelets, to driving and living while Brown. Can you say a little about these other cages and how you address them in your poems?
Soto: Yes, often language in poetry is muddy. But when speaking about caging in this interview, I want to speak literally. There are almost two million people who are currently being held in human cages in the United States (and I want to attribute the term, human caging, to Kelly Lytle Hernández, professor of History, African American Studies, and Urban Planning at UCLA). Fathers, brothers, neighbors, cousins, many people who thought that they would be going home at the end of the day to sleep in their beds—before being kidnapped by the police and forcibly extracted from the social and economic lives of their communities. This is the reality of the country we are currently living in. The liberation of people from human caging is a core component of the book.
Also, I try to speak more to the broad topic of policing and the surveillance state. One of the fears I have is that as abolitionists make moves to close prisons (such as in the Close Rikers campaign) then the state will just morph into other forms of controlling the autonomy of minoritized individuals via tactics such as algorithmic policing or the usage of house arrest. Here, policing and surveillance should be read in conjunction with (but not the same as) human caging.
Then there are other poems in the collection that more broadly reference notions of freedom, captivity, and what constitutes violence or innocence.
Rumpus: You write about police violence baked into our system: “It’s so American // the constant grieving of violets / Blooming state violence,” and you challenge the reader to question the status quo, to take nothing on faith, even the language we speak.
Soto: I think that’s one of the problems of policing—it is merely accepted as the status quo. Many people equate a challenge to the police state as a challenge to their personal safety. This makes a reimagining of the social order very difficult. Over the years people have asked me for an elevator pitch “What do we replace the police with?” But there is not a 1:1 conversion here; we need to completely alter the social order in order to move past policing.
Rumpus: When did you start writing poetry? Have your poems always had a social justice/political focus?
Soto: My first-grade teacher gave me rock candy for writing poetry. Her name was Ms. Vice. My first poem was “Ms. Vice is nice and / she likes rice.” My mom would practice cursive with me after school. I was so proud to know cursive before my peers, but I was ashamed when I missed a point on my spelling test because I forgot an extra bump in the cursive “M.” I remember thinking I should have stayed humble and not written cursive ahead of my peers. My Catholic roots, a proximity to shame.
By the time I was in high school, poetry became a tool of activism for me. I started a poetry club at my high school and would throw huge poetry readings with hundreds of attendees and the readings would feature prominent LA poets, high school poets, breakdancers, drumline, hip hop artists, and more. We would raise funds for various causes. I was writing about domestic violence then, too. I was competing on a Spoken Word team at that time and I dreamt of being featured on Def Poetry Jam. Saul Williams’ reading of “Coded Language” was transformational to hear as a young poet.
My whole life, writing and reading and activism.
Rumpus: You dissect words, shift them and their meanings. Here’s a particularly moving example from “THE CHILDREN IN THEIR LITTLE BULLET-PROOF VESTS”: “NothhIm,ing’s changed / Not // Him // Changed / Not // Him // Chained / Nothing’s // Chaineded / Knot / Him // Chained / Knot // Hymn // Chain / No // Hymns / Nothing.”
In “THE TERRORIST SHAVED HIS BEARD,” you examine the root of the word “terrorism,” play with its forms, and then end with
Is it writers only // Who obsess over punctuation /
The question mark // So cute in curiosity / Question // Who do we call terrorist & why.
How important is questioning language, changing language, to the abolition movement? And how can the language of poetry shake up and wake up people in ways that, let’s say, a video of police violence, may not?
Soto: I believe in the possibility of language to change the material realities of minoritized communities. In this interview for example, we have used the words “human caging” to refer to what some may call “incarceration.” We are using the word “kidnapping” for what some may call “arrest.” This is what poetry and precision of language allow us to do—more accurately contextualize and make state violence legible, so that we can reimagine our possibilities for living.
Rumpus: You chose to use the “we” pronoun in the poems—to very powerful effect. Can you share how you came to that decision?
Soto: The least important part of this book is the author, myself. This book is written and spoken through and thought through and has marched with so many queer of color abolitionists. I want it to reflect our lives, and not just my own. I want it to push for our liberation and not just my own. For me, refusing the “I” pronoun, in favor of the collective “we,” is a renunciation of American isolationism and a move towards collective art making and social practices.
There is one place in the book where I embrace the “I” pronoun, though. I use it only once in the book, in the final pages. There is a line that says, “After domestic violence / I thought there would be me.” In this line, I felt a need to use the “I” pronoun. So much of healing from domestic violence was wanting to escape the situation, and then eventually it was wanting to return to the old version of myself, the trusting and loving and laughing and unbroken version of myself that I remember from my childhood. And I searched for years, thinking I would find that person again. That I had survived. It took me a while to understand that person was dead, gone, could not be resurrected. Domestic violence has killed that youthful part of me and I was not going back, I could only go forward. The “I” from my past no longer exists but “we” as survivors are still able to thrive. In large part, the “we” of this book is a song with survivors who want alternative ways towards healing outside of the police state. For too long, our stories have been used to augment police budgets, while our access to actual healing services is defunded.
Rumpus: Most of the poems express the desire to push back against injustice, but in “ALL THE DEAD BOYS LOOK LIKE US,” there’s a bit of resignation too: “How can we imagine ourselves when / All the dead boys look like us” and “We lost our reflection / We’re tired of writing this poem.” Then there’s the loneliness, the apartness, expressed so beautifully in “TWO LOVERS IN PERFECT//SYNCHRONICITY”: “Of a whole generation of queer youth // Being raised // Without elders // Who’s Ross to us // A whole generation // Lost to AIDS.”
How does one keep fighting and find mentors? What feeds you, renews you in this long battle? Who are your mentors?
Soto: Resignation is a return in this book. In the final poem, I also battle with the feeling of not being able to continue as a poet, an abolitionist, of just feeling defeated. One of the best lessons that I’ve learned over the years is that to be in the movement for abolition and trans liberation and racial equity is a lifetime of work. There is no finish line where the work ends. This work and joy and resistance and laughter is embodied in how I fuck and what I eat and how I laugh. Thus, as long as I am alive this work is in me and will not end. So sometimes this movement work gets sad, sometimes it needs a break, and always it needs humility and to learn. Now, as I am entering my thirties there is a generation younger than me. My students and their peers are some of my greatest teachers. They intrinsically see the world completely differently from how I have.
Rumpus: The last poem in the collection “THEN A HAMMER // REALIZED ITS LIFE PURPOSE” deals with domestic violence and with how it impacts individuals, families, and communities. Can you talk about the intersection of oppression, state violence, and domestic violence in your poems?
Soto: For me, this poem is a meditation on what constitutes violence. I was interested in the different ways that my body has been hit—from domestic violence to kink to boxing. How can these three different forms of touch create such different responses from me? Violence feels like such an arbitrary word sometimes. News commentators will call the burning of a cop car violent, after the police murder a community member without accountability. I wanted to write this closing poem, in part, to name the ways that the word “violence” morphs and I wanted to demand support for survivors that don’t involve the police state. Because the police do not solve violence, they are violence.
Rumpus: You have been an activist for quite some time and have done some truly impactful work. Are you hopeful for the future?
Soto: No. We need to keep fighting. I am worried about the rise of authoritarianism and ethnonationalism in the United States. Despite massive protests to abolish and defund the police, policing budgets continue to grow. We do not seem to be making quick enough progress in the environmental justice movement and so many other efforts too. I am not optimistic. We need to keep fighting. There is so much at risk these days.
Rumpus: Your words, they live, they breathe, they scream, and they love. There is so much love here, so much appreciation of what’s been lost, who’s been lost, for what lives on. But your words are also hard. They make demands on the reader. Look! Look at what’s happening in your neighborhoods, in neighborhoods around you, all over your country. Do you ever worry that your readers may resist looking so closely, may turn away?
Soto: If I have readers, thank you . . . If I am audacious enough to imagine this reader, then I imagine this is a person who has never had the option to look away.
Author photo by Obidigbo Nzeribe