Three award-winning queer poets of color came to NYU’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House last Friday for a reading and discussion to celebrate the release of “Nepantla: An Anthology of Queer Poets of Color,” published in May by Nightboat Books.
The title of the collection comes from the work of queer Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa — it’s a Nahuatl word that she uses to describe the in-between spaces that people of marginalized identities occupy physically and figuratively, in their own minds and in the minds of others.
The night was one of recognition and solidarity in reaction to a country that seems to treat people of color and LGBTQ people with increasing hostility. “How’s everyone’s apocalypse going?” asked Saeed Jones, an executive editor at Buzzfeed and the author of “Prelude to Bruise” (Coffee House Press 2014), to a wave of laughter.
But more than just a somber recognition of a suffocating social and political climate, it was a night of community.
“Oh my god it’s all my people in this room! This is why I did the anthology, so you look out and you see hella [sic] black and brown faces,” said Christopher Soto, the editor of the collection and an alumnus of NYU’s Creative Writing MFA program. After an initial tentativeness, the audience clapped and snapped enthusiastically along with each poem.
Soto opened the night with a reading of two of his poems.
Jones read some of his work, including the poem anthologized in “Nepantla” and “Boy in a Stolen Evening Gown.” His booming voice, brimming with emotion and determination, filled the room.
“In this field of thistle, I am the improbable/lady. How I wear the word: sequined weight/snagging my saunter into overgrown grass, blonde/split-end blades. I waltz in an acre of bad wigs,” Jones said.
Pamela Sneed, a performer, visual artist, and visiting professor at Columbia, read her poem from the anthology, “Survivor 2014,” her voice sardonic and witheringly derisive, opening with “Contrary to what’s popular I never liked Diana Nyad.”
The three writers also read some of their favorite works from the anthology by poets like Audre Lorde, Danez Smith and Franny Choi.
“Nepantla” has been called the first anthology of poetry by queer writers of color.
In a Q&A session after the readings, Soto asked Sneed and Jones about the function of poetry in a time of political turmoil.
“I feel like the times are really making poetry really important,” Sneed said. “I feel like poets are really responding to it, and that we’re the people to look to as leaders, as healers.”
Jones, however, feels that what’s changed isn’t necessarily the function of poetry itself, but how people respond to it.
“For those of us where the stakes are higher, urgency burns bullsh-t away,” Jones said. “I think maybe as readers, we are maybe a little more honest with ourselves about what it is we feel we need from poetry.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 29 print edition. Email Alex Cullina at [email protected]