I first met Britteney Black Rose Kapri when we were teenagers at the Louder Than A Bomb Poetry Festival in 2006. I was from suburban Calumet City, Illinois, and Britteney was from the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago. We might as well have been from neighboring planets. I can confidently say that if it wasn’t for Louder Than A Bomb, Britteney and I never would have met. In the years since that first meeting, we’ve become close friends. We’ve survived horrible first-year college experiences, we’ve lived together, we’ve worked together, and this month, we each released our debut poetry collections. Britteney’s book is titled Black Queer Hoe, and mine is titled Citizen Illegal.
We spoke to each other via Slack while sitting in our respective offices at Young Chicago Authors. The following interview was edited and condensed. — José
José Olivarez: Bee, your new book is called Black Queer Hoe, and it’s fantastic. I saw that someone online posted a photo of your book with a new vibrator. How do you feel as you’re getting ready to make the book public?
Britteney Black Rose Kapri: My place in the poetry world is strange. I’ve won an award, I’ve done some slams, and I’ve been published, but I’m not consistent. Most people who are “fans” of mine are fans of my social media presence, or one of their friends told them I wasn’t a fuckboy. I’m worried that releasing Black Queer Hoe will affirm my imposter syndrome—that I was the wrong one to give the Rona Jaffe Award to, or that people will regret that I’m teaching their kids [as the Teaching Artist Fellow at Young Chicago Authors]. Mostly, I’m scared about how my body of work will live in folks’ mouths without me around to explain. But I’m excited about going on this book tour and meeting all the people I’ve fallen in love with around the nation through Twitter and Facebook.
In Citizen Illegal, you talk a lot about your family and your partner. Did you have conversations with them prior to the book? Or are you just going to hit them with the surprise motherfucka!?
JO: There’s only one poem dedicated to my partner, contrary to my reputation as a cake ass person. I let my brother Pedro read the first draft, and he gave me a bunch of notes that made it into the book. I was worried that maybe I misremembered something, or that I misrepresented something about my family. I wouldn’t purposely misrepresent them, but memory is tricky. For the longest time, I thought that I got my middle name, Guadalupe, because the doctors told my mom there was a chance I was going to be born dead, and my mom prayed to la Virgen de Guadalupe on my behalf, and that’s how I got my name. I asked my mom a few years ago and she told me the doctors said deaf. I was almost born deaf, not dead.
What is Black Queer Hoe about?
BK: Black Queer Hoe is a collection of poems about my identity and about intersectionality. Often I find myself at odds with Black men or white women because both are always asking me to sacrifice a part of myself for their liberation. And no one ever wants to include queer folk. And I realized I am the only one fighting for the whole of me, and Black Queer Hoe is a praise song for the whole of me. I’m most excited for young Black girls to see themselves in these poems and to see I love them in these poems.
What would you say Citizen Illegal is a praise song to?
JO: I don’t know what Citizen Illegal is a praise song to. There are praise songs for the phrase “hecky naw,” and praise songs for Scottie Pippen, and praise songs for the work my parents do, praise songs for bad immigrant children, and praise songs for the ultimate Mexican home remedy: VapoRub. I’m drawn to the parts of life and culture that some people might call unremarkable. I’m talking about working-class culture, and I’m talking about the everyday. I knew from an early age that I was supposed to be ashamed of being poor and Mexican. Mostly, I think of Citizen Illegal as being against shame and about reveling in all of life. The shitty parts. The grief. The joy. The laughter.
I’m excited to add to the writing by Latinx Midwesterners. Shout out Jacob Saenz. Shout out Sandra Cisneros. Shout out Erika L. Sánchez. Shout out Julian Randall. Shout out Mayda Del Valle. There are so many Latinx people in the Midwest, and yet so much of the conversation about Latinx people prioritizes the coastal experience.
BK: “I’m drawn to the parts of life and culture that some people might call unremarkable” makes me so happy. I have this mantra I say to myself: I found God in all the small things. When I’m having a particularly bad day, I make a list of the mundane or little or unremarkable things that recently brought me joy, even if only briefly.
JO: That’s exactly it. I found God in the small things. I want to know about the style of your book. There are so many punch lines in it, and such a clear voice. Your poems are simple in the best way, but it’s hard work to make poems look so effortless. How did you craft this book?
BK: A lot of the poems are running jokes I have on my social media. “incomplete list” is one of the more well-known ones. I typically write everything in block or prose form at first. And then once the writing is down, I have to yell at myself to actually move it around on the page. I think my poems are usually very conversational, or close to storytelling, so prose always seems best. But it’s not always best. A lot of the poems in the books are broken forms. A broken sonnet or a broken ghazal. I like breaking things.
I didn’t have a vision of how I wanted the poems to look. My only concern is: How do my poems live when my voice isn’t there to accompany them? I write as I talk (I think a lot more people should try that—no shade, just tea), so I needed my voice to break through past the form and make sure the audience gets the full of me when reading.
JO: I love the broken ghazals and sonnets. I read “before they can use it against you” a few times before I realized it was a ghazal. It’s so good. As we move forward with our books, it’s inevitable that people will want to know what we think of today’s political climate and whether these poems are a response. For me, a major breakthrough in writing my book was realizing that I didn’t have to—and didn’t want to—write poems in response to every violence and microaggression I experience. Like, my life is not a response to the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. I don’t sit there and wait for white people to act, so I know how to act in response. I don’t live my life in response.
Do you think about your book as a response to MAGA and Brexit and all that?
BK: Hell naw. Fuck them.
JO: That’s what I was trying to say, but you said it way better.
BK: People want to act like bigotry started with Trump. Whites been whiting since the beginning of whites. I’ve been telling these stories. Been needing these stories. Been living these stories long before this current news cycle.
JO: That’s perfect.
BK: I feel like I should let folks know that you and I turned in our manuscripts about four months after signing our book contracts instead of the usual year that normal people who love themselves take. I thought it would be OK since I had already been working on the book. False as fuck! I overextended the shit out of myself. I was so scared of being a ghost in the lives of people I cared for that I agreed to everything and really sacrificed my health in this process. I would wake up in the middle of the night in panic and work on the book because I planned too much for my waking hours. I tried so hard to be an attentive mentor and supportive friend and available partner and reliable coworker all at once that I became none of it. Halfway through I had to be honest and take a step back and focus on me and my needs.
I know that you’re in bed by 10:30 p.m. every night if you can. Having a routine is necessary for you to feel grounded and present in your many overlapping lives. Did writing this book take you out of that practice or strengthen it?
JO: Writing this book made me dig into my routines even further. Let me first say that your process was a lot like mine. When I signed my contract with Haymarket, I had like 60 percent of the book finished and ready to go, and I knew what the book was going to be. I could see the shape of it. But a month later, I had made no progress on the book. I was failing at my job at YCA. I was probably failing as a friend and as a partner. (My therapist would tell me to clarify that I felt like I was failing but was probably doing better than I give myself credit for.) The best thing that happened to me was vacation. I took a one-week trip with my partner, Erika, to Paris in early October. I ate croissants and hella cheese, and I relaxed. I didn’t write shit. When I came back from that trip, I was jet-lagged and waking up at 4:30 a.m. Instead of trying to reset my body, I stole the hours between 4:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. for myself. In those four and a half hours, I wrote and went to the gym. I was in bed by 9 p.m. I don’t know if that’s healthy, but that’s the way I was able to finish my book while working two jobs, working out, being a present partner, a good friend, and a passable son/sibling.
One of the things that fascinates me about you is that you don’t love poetry. Like, I offer to read you my favorite Vievee Francis poem in a bar and you threaten to punch me in the throat. Why do you keep writing poetry and what brings you to this art form?
BK: I don’t hate poems, just poets. And I like throat punching people.
Honestly, the rate at which you consume poetry gives me anxiety. I used to think I was a lesser artist than you for not eating, sleeping, and shitting poems, but then I realized we don’t have to be the same. Good poems, really good poems, consume me emotionally in the best way, and I love that. And reading is a personal and sacred experience for me. My whole life reading has always been an escape. When our lights went out I still read, when people picked on me I read, when I wanted to hurt myself I read. So now when I find a collection of poems I love, I’m usually curled up in my bed or on my toilet or someplace that feels safe for me. When I am at a slam or a reading and something captures me, everyone in the room disappears and it’s just me and that poet on stage. So whenever we’re in the office or in public or a place where I feel like I have to have my guard up, where I can’t offer up the full spectrum of my emotions and you offer to read me a poem, it’s not for me, it’s for you.
JO: I think it’s true that when I offer to read you a poem in public, it’s for me. Damn. I feel exposed. For the record, I’ve never thought of you as the lesser artist for not reading the way I do. I wish I could read a lot more, honestly. I haven’t read enough by poets who were writing before I was born, and I feel insecure about my inability to quote Adrienne Rich (here, my therapist would offer some consolation about imposter syndrome or something).
BK: I just think we show love differently. Speaking of love, you are one of the softest (and I say that as a compliment) folks I know. You love love—the idea of love, rom-coms, love poems, weddings, all that jazz. What are the ways in which you love yourself when your poems may not be doing that for you? Or how do you love yourself when you’re writing that poem that you know you have to write but you’re not ready to write?
JO: This is a great question. Sometimes, the best way I can love myself is by stepping away from poetry. I used to feel more guilty about not reading or writing enough. Back when we used to live together, I tried to write every day, and I often failed, and I felt terrible about that. That didn’t seem to help my writing or my living. When I’m writing the poem that I need to write, but I’m not ready to write, I stop. I put it away. I go ride my bike. I play video games. I watch The Flash. I go read. Eventually, I’ll be able to write the poem (or maybe not), but I’m not willing to traumatize myself or potentially traumatize my readers for the sake of writing the hard poem.
You and I both work with a lot of ambitious and genius young people who are willing to write whatever poems they need to write in order to achieve a particular type of fame, or prestige, or recognition—I don’t know what the word is. I think about them a lot because that type of pressure can be an unfair burden. What advice do you give to young people who are 17 or 18 years old and already know that they want to write poems and teach for the rest of their lives?
BK: To breathe. And then breathe some more. There is literally no one path to success in this field or another. If someone doesn’t open the door for you, then you kick that shit down. But your focus shouldn’t be on the person, it should be on the door. Or the window you got to bust to get in. Focus on what you can do, not what others aren’t doing for you.
How do you deal with imposter syndrome?
JO: I go to therapy. I don’t know. That’s something that will probably never go away. I could write 20 books and I’ll be looking at book 21 like, what if I’ve run out of words? What if I’m no good at this and everyone is just being nice? Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. I’ve gotten better at not letting the losses get me down as much.
BK: I’d like to know what you’re most excited about in regards to your book and your upcoming tour?
JO: I’m excited to talk to readers and to hear what they think. I’m excited to meet young writers and to see what they write. I’ve already heard a couple of writers say that they’ve used “Mexican Heaven” in workshops. That’s dope. I’m excited to read a lot more now that I’m finished writing this particular project, and I’m excited about whatever the next book is.
Britteney Black Rose Kapri is a teaching artist, writer, performance poet, and playwright. She is the author of Black Queer Hoe (Haymarket Books, 2018). Her writing has been published in Poetry magazine, Vinyl, Day One, Seven Scribes, and Kinfolks Quarterly. She is an alumna turned teaching artist fellow at Young...
José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants, the author of Citizen Illegal (2018), the co-author of Home Court (2014), and the co-host of the poetry podcast The Poetry Gods. A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Conversation...