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This article was written on 20 Sep 2019, and is filled under Books, Literature, Performance, Politics, Sexualities, Theory.

Home and Homelessness in Queer Poetry, Politics, Places: Reading Loma’s Sad Girl Poems

When the poet Christopher Soto, aka Loma, debuted their chapbook Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, January 2016), they took it on what they called a “Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness.” The tour took a kind of hybrid form that is beginning to look familiar as QTPOC spoken-word poets and collaborators, with DarkMatter being one of the more well-known among them, become more mobile, at least within the university activist scene. (At least where I work, the last few semesters have brought as many QTPOC performance poetry nights to campus. It’s worth noting that these events have drawn crowds that had little overlap with the people attending the more standard poetry reading events on campus, were at least double in size, and were comprised of at least 1/3rd non-university affiliated people. This, I think, marks a kind of difference – in terms of substance and reception – worth thinking about.)

Loma’s tour in particular had the express goals of “raising consciousness” about the relationship between queer youth homelessness and mass incarceration (both topics represented in the poetry); raising funds for homeless queer youth centers; and of course promoting the chapbook (thereby forestalling their own homelessness). In practice, this took the form of an introductory lecture, followed by a session of close-reading and audience discussion of poems like June Jordan’s “Poem Against Police Violence,” and ending with a recitation of their own recent poetry. This itinerary speaks to how, for a poet like Loma, poetry and politics emerge from the same conditions and speak to the same ends, and thus warrant the same venue. For example, Loma won’t deliver lines like, “Waves taped to my face, I’m crying / Then sucking dick for rent. When the / Police lights drift across me like rose petals” (“Home: A Villanelle”), without having already taught you about the criminalization of sex work, thus encouraging a more politically informed reception. Loma is part of a new tradition of poets who are thinking about how the performative reading format can work to pull their political and poetic work into the same space.

We encounter this in the preface to the chapbook, too, where Loma demands a kind of compensation or reparation from readers who are moved by their stories and the stories in other QTPOC poetry. They write, “I don’t care if my stories make you feel bad about queer youth homelessness. I don’t care if you read my work & talk about it with your friends at brunch. … I want you to give your money to the Ali Forney Center & financially support queer homeless youth. I want you to donate your money to Black & Pink to support queer folks in prisons” (8). Thus Loma extends the question of how certain kinds of poetic and political practice might merge from poet to reader.

Consistent with this practice of insisting on the proximity of politics to poetry is Loma’s demand that we think politically about how many of our modes of engagement with poetry are implicated in the mechanisms of capitalism and neoliberalism that they critique more generally. In a roundtable conversation about the relationship (or perhaps non-relationship) between poetry and political movements published on The Volta in 2011, Juliana Spahr notices, “When I ask what has isolated them [poetry and political movements], I think, of a series of privatizating (or should we say professionalizing?) gestures that define the genre in the U.S. The prize structure. The degree structure. The academic job structure. The grant structure. The literary criticism structure” (7). From here, Loma (as poet-activist) has extended this thought to bring to attention the whiteness and nationalism of such structures; many poetry contests, grants, and first book prizes in the U.S. bar undocumented writers from applying. In 2015 they, along with two other poets, drafted a petition calling for the elimination of proof of citizenship as a qualifying criterion in poetry contests. They write, “It should be the duty of poetry organizations to find ways to support poets, not to mimic the nation state.” The campaign tries to bring consciousness to and alter (and in fact has successfully altered) some of professional poetry’s more rectifiable prohibitions.

So far I’ve mentioned a couple of ways we might consider Loma as a performing poet/activist – first, through the poet’s tour, with its pedagogical and politically-motivating aims; and second, as a tactical reformist working in material ways to make the career of poetry in the U.S. a little less white. Now I’d like to dip into the actual Sad Girl poems, which in part theorize the performance of affect across subject positions.

To do that I have to give a little context; the title of the chapbook—Sad Girl Poems—refers to an idea often credited to artist Audrey Wollen and circulated mostly through fashion and style magazines (Dazed, Nylon, Oyster, Vice’s i-D, and Artillery) in late 2015-early 2016: Sad Girl Theory. In Wollen’s words, Sad Girl Theory proposes that the sadness of girls should be recognized as an act of resistance. … Girls’ sadness is not passive, self-involved or shallow; it is a gesture of liberation, it is articulate and informed, it is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives” (Dazed). She proposes that we recast various “sad acts” throughout history and art history (with suicide and self-harm standing in as prime examples) as not personal failures or instances of weakness but instead quiet, and, in her words, “less masculine” forms of political resistance.

The breadth and ambiguity of this notion of “empowered sadness” has of course proven both a source of intrigue and of criticism; while the gesture has appealed to some on aesthetic or descriptive, if not prescriptive, levels, it’s been criticized by many for its smoothing over of crucial historical and diagnostic distinctions. In the chapbook’s preface, Loma mounts a critique on similar grounds. They begin, “I always wanted to be a sad white girl. I wanted to be sad like Lana Del Ray. I wanted a sadness so universal, it’d move everyone to tears.” In contrast, Loma explains, POC sadness is always contextualized: “My sadness is about domestic violence, homelessness, gender dysphoria, intergenerational trauma…. My sadness is something to observe, consume, sympathize with BUT NOT EMPATHIZE WITH (not mobilize for). Most people do not know how to interact with my sadness. My sadness is so multifaceted, it speaks twenty languages” (7). In other words, it is too fractured by its particulars to be pliable or attractive enough for Wollen’s universalizing and revisionary aims.

Indeed, the prehistory of the “sad girl” internet phenomenon tells a similar story about the whiteness behind the longed-for “summertime sadness” Loma opens with. The aesthetic from which the theory derives originates in Tijuana chola culture – specifically the feminist girl gang “Sad Girls y qué,” who take their name from a character in the 1994 Mexican and Chicana girl gang movie Mi Vida Loca. Their anti-machismo feminist aesthetic – which features the aggressive and unapologetic use of a typically demeaned feminine style (pastels and glitter, “girl” instead of woman) – circulates into the U.S. white mainstream mainly through the music videos and persona of white pop icon Lana del Ray before it becomes articulated by Wollen as a “theory” that seeks to reinterpret a more unspecified feminine suffering under patriarchy.

But Loma’s response is that Wollen’s theorizing gesture disqualifies people like them from participating in it. The act of putting one’s sadness on display can only be understood as political, in Wollen’s sense, when its demands are not particular and when the person has the freedom to decide whether such a display occurs publicly. They write, “The poor are never allowed to hurt in private; we must perform and display our sadness in order to survive. We must let our sadness be seen by broader community so that we can get help. We must beg for jobs and food-stamps and scholarships” (LARB). One of the most visceral displays of sadness in the chapbook occurs in the poem “Home [Chaos Theory]” when the narrator relates an encounter between the police and a homeless woman: “& the tourists watched / [As the police walked towards her] / [As the police went to grab her] / [As she continued yelling]. / ‘I HAVE AIDS, I HAVE NO MONEY, I HAVE NOTHING LEFT. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?! I’M GOING TO DIE HERE. JUST LEAVE ME ALONE & LET ME DIE!!!!’”

This moment, and this poem, center the necessary conditions prior to the decision to perform, politically or aesthetically, one’s sadness – a decision available, to borrow Jasbir Puar’s words, “only to those who inhabit the fantasy of, and can mark and traverse across, bounded notions of public and private” (Terrorist Assemblages 125). In Loma’s poetry, this turns up in the language of home and homelessness. The chapbook, as many reviewers have pointed out, is brimming with sadness – it tells, over and over again, of the suicide death of Rory, a first queer love; of domestic violence at the hands of a queerphobic father; of constant disappointment in language’s inability to conjure one’s objects of loss (“This is such a useless fucking poem,” they write). There is no sitting with this sadness, though, because the narrator is constantly being dislodged from the homes that might give it ground. Thus, though we see the narrator’s exile from their family home, this is not so much an originary event as it is emblematic of their condition of insecurity. Even as they dream, “I hope heaven got a gay ghetto,” a “straight dude,” “working to get into that Reglr Hevan,” appears at their door “aside the police.” “You know he’ll be breaking up the potluck.”

This culminates in the book’s last poem that performs, finally, a privacy bound in verse. Having previously asked, “When will we stop defining people / in terms of property ownership?,” they arrive, in the end, to make a property of themself: “You say / the eyes are the windows to the soul. / Well, I’m drawing the curtains / & asking you to leave. [I don’t want any visitors]. … My porch lights are turned off. My doorbell won’t be answered. … Please, let me die alone” (Hatred of Happiness”). Spectatorship cannot proceed, at least not without self-reflection. I read this as Loma’s proposal for an alternative kind of sad girl politics that is premised upon material conditions but isn’t obligated to transparency for its hopefulness. In tandem with the work of the poet’s tour and the preface, it can function as a call to action. Their poetry and practice encourage us not to take for granted the material conditions of our theoretical gestures, our writing, our reading.

 

Noelle Dubay is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Johns Hopkins University.

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