I was in high school when I first saw Staceyann Chin perform, barefoot and incensed, on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. She was fearless in her rage, her sexuality, her eloquence. Whether taking down the “war on terror,” naming the difficulties of immigrating to the U.S., or detailing some kinky, nails-down-the back sex, the visceral truth of her poems could hardly be contained by the stage. In the twenty plus years since her debut, she has performed all over the world, released a memoir, and written and starred in her one-woman show Motherstruck!, which has now been made into a series. All the while she’s chronicled her journeys as a lesbian, an immigrant, and a mother with the same beautifully unapologetic voice.
Chin’s Crossfire: A Litany for Survival may be her first collection of poems, but it is already situated in a powerful lineage of queer black writers, featuring an introduction by Jacqueline Woodson, an epigraph quoting June Jordan, and a titular homage to Audre Lorde. I guzzled it down in a day and a half, unable to stop thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading. It’s the tonic I needed and that I hadn’t realized I’d been thirsting for. There were the poems I remembered, but beyond nostalgia, I felt the same sense I felt all those years ago — as if I were being granted permission. From the start, Staceyann’s work has been about embracing and confronting the fullness of her life and community, with all of the conflicts, heartaches, triumphs, and the fullness of humanity laid bare.
Staceyann and I spoke about this piercing new book and how she tackles queer community, relationships, and staying present to our capacities to harm and heal one another.
…this book stands as testament to the Black lesbian life that has been lived in Brooklyn for the last 20 years. The kind of robust, sexy, political presence of it.
Jehan: I was surprised to learn that Crossfire is your first collection of poems. What led you to publish this collection now?
Staceyann: I was thinking of legacy and royalties. I think post-child, you’re thinking, ‘What would I leave to her?’ And also I’ve been watching the way that this administration has bent truth. It got me thinking about how, for example, some people say ‘these are Africans and these are what there experiences of slavery were,’ and I felt like a lot of the reason that those people can sell those narratives is because there weren’t many first-hand accounts of that experience. I have been living in New York and I‘ve been experiencing a particular strain of New York life because of gentrification and because of the way that the world changes rapidly. Neighborhoods are existing in a way that entire communities are being erased and our experiences are not documented. And I thought to myself that this book stands as testament to the Black lesbian life that has been lived in Brooklyn for the last 20 years. The kind of robust, sexy, political presence of it. And I look around me and I don’t see it anymore. All of my friends have moved to upstate New York, to Charlotte and Jersey, and Brooklyn no longer belongs to the working class lesbian. And so, many of my poems reference a New York that I lived. So I felt like the book was necessary.
Jehan: Particularly when we’re talking about queer and lesbian communities in New York, and what ends up happening when these spaces are no longer able to exist, and the places that queer people would congregate in the city are diminishing or almost gone? It’s interesting what you say that it’s about documenting—
Staceyann: —and bearing witness. Because we were here. Absolutely we were here.
Jehan: Exactly. And one of the things that struck me about the poems and the theme of documentation is that they weren’t dated. I thought it was an interesting way of framing the poems to not have them mark those specific times. My read was that, in some ways, there is a timeless quality.
Staceyann: Yes. I think that also the context, the work is so specific. The references are so specific. Like “Open Letter to the Media” that openly references the Afghanistan War, the towers falling. I mean, the poems were created on Microsoft Word documents. So it’s easy to see when. But I didn’t think that the poems were speaking to each other in a chronological way. I thought that they were more thematically related. So I decided to see how they work together. I wanted it to present the fullness of a life. And also, in my own life, and in the tradition of oral storytelling, like how my grandmother would tell me stories, dates were largely inconsequential. Time was presented only in relation to other things. So if she was telling me a story, she would say “Oh, I think it was Christmas because your mother had just come in from ‘so and so,” or “I think it was before your brother was born.” “No, I don’t think you were walking yet.”
Jehan: I was definitely noting the subsections and the thematic overlaps of the various poems. I think what was interesting is that there are so many resonances — for example, the multiple forms of violence you’re marking throughout the book, particularly in the first two sections where you’re thinking about historical and colonial violence, as well as gendered and sexual violence.
Staceyann: Mmhmm. I think towards the end of the book I also started to look at the ways I represented violence in my relationships, whether or not it was unwittingly. I’m thinking of how we bruise each other. I mean, the bruising of each other is inevitable. What’s most important, I imagine, is how we deal with that fact. That is maybe the true mark of the kind of human you are. What’s the imprint you leave on someone? Because it’s not that you never hurt them. There’s no relationship in which there is no hurt. But it’s the way that people deal with that hurt that makes it tolerable or not.
Jehan: That sort of violence definitely resonated for me, particularly in the “Love” section. What does that reckoning look like for you? How do you recognize the violence and stay attuned to it?
Staceyann: So June Jordan wrote one of my favorite lines. She wrote “I am the terrorist I must disarm.” And we’re all perpetrators of some sort. This is why, this notion of this person who is monstrous… we all have the capacity to cause great harm to each other. The closer we are to people, the more we say we love them, the more they render themselves vulnerable to us, then the greater their capacity for hurting us. Even as I raise my daughter, one thing has remained consistent: my ability to acknowledge that I have hurt her and my willingness to apologize and make amends that, at the center of it, is in consideration for her needs. That’s what I think will allow us to survive. I think much of my work is to center her feelings and her needs, and to stay open to listening and being better.
But the ones who make the co-creation of the healing, the ones who acknowledge that they were capable of hurting you, I find that those relationships are thriving. Even, I think, in the midst of great difficulty or challenges.
Jehan: Hearing you say this makes me think of one of the stylistic choices you make in Crossfire. You have these forward slash line breaks in the middle of a verse. I’m wondering if, in that way, the slash was signaling to this ethos of staying in the midst of what’s on either side of that break.
Staceyann: That line break is the slanting of the line forward to leave space and is also about the line moving forward. It’s not necessarily a new thought or a new thing. And I would go as far as to say that one can completely see how the work that happens on the page has been informed by my relationship to the work in performance. Because the speaking cadence moves it. It has the voice in it. Is it the lowering of the voice? The deepening of a louder roar? Those nuances have certainly added color to my writing and my choice to write the thing down.
Jehan: I was certainly hearing your voice as I read. In large part because of the orality that you preserved on the page. One of the things I wrote down was ‘protest songs.’ I was thinking of poetry from the trajectory of oral history, and how many of your poems feel like these rallying cries and anthems. They work so beautifully on the page and could also be performed or sung at a protest.
Staceyann: I kind of ran away from that for a long time because the idea is that a working performance, the text is somehow substandard. And so, it’s not as complex as work that’s meant to be consumed on the page. For a long time, maybe I didn’t allow for them to be published because I didn’t want people to tell me that they weren’t complex.
Jehan: I always think it’s part of colonialism to privilege the written over the embodied and the spoken. Those are so often our communities’ ways of passing down knowledge and history.
Staceyann: But it’s funny because when white people perform it’s always so celebrated. Opera is all performance, right? Or like when Sting releases a song they go, “Oh it’s so beautiful, it’s so complex!” But when we do it, when there’s melanin, it’s no longer complex.
Jehan: This is part of what you address in poems such as, “Words Like Rape,” right? There it seems you’re addressing demands that poetry use metaphor and simile.
Staceyann: Thank you, I think that’s right. What I was trying to do there was show that sometimes the word is needed.
Jehan: That same complexity is clearly marked in the shifts in your family relationships. Specifically you talk about evolutions in your relationships with your parents and brother.
Staceyann: The poems about my mother and father are from when I was younger, late twenties, early thirties. And the poem from my brother was written this year. And I think you’ll note that I was still in the immediacy of the hurt from my parents and the poem from my brother was written from up here (gestures above her head). Back then I was very aware of being hurt by them. I felt it personally. Now I don’t take it so personally. Which doesn’t take away from the pain of not speaking to my brother. That’s still there. But I realized it’s not unique. In that way that I was talking about my parents, there’s no way to be in a relationship and not hurt someone. In fact, maybe that’s one of the universalizing themes of the book, that we are all going to hurt each other. So while it is definitely painful, I’m able to see what’s happened between me and my brother from a distance.
I make community. Nowadays, people live where they can, not where they choose so community is not always a given. So I go to people’s houses. I bring them in.
Jehan: How do you find community?
Staceyann: I make community. I always invite people into my home for tea. And I go for tea. I haven’t dropped my coloniality! (waves tea mug) No, but all jokes aside, I’ve been really good at making community. I wouldn’t say I’m an extrovert but I do like having people around. My child has a queen sized bed and I have a king sized bed because we need room for flesh. I have a couch because I need room for people to sleep. Nowadays, people live where they can, not where they choose, so community is not always a given. So I go to people’s houses. I bring them in.
I used to have these parties at my home every Saturday night, where friends would come over and we’d have these black lesbian parties. And they were sexy — black lesbians would be giving each other lap dances and talking about sexuality. The parties still happen now, but people live farther away, they’re not as frequent. And now we have kids, so you might be there one Saturday and then there’s seven children running around. It’s not as sexy anymore but there’s something really beautiful about that evolution too.
Jehan: What do you want people to take away from Crossfire?
Staceyann: I don’t know. I think that what Jackie [Jacqueline] Woodson says in the foreword is really true — this book invites you to step into the crossfire. And that will be a different experience for different people. Some may try it and say, “Well, I tried it but it wasn’t really for me.” And others may really find it a powerful experience. But either way I think you really have to let the poems wash over you.