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Spitting Venom: An Interview with Elana Chavez & Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, Part 1

I interviewed Elana Chavez and Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta on March 28th in Oakland, California about their new Cantíl Reading Series, which features only poets of color. We met at “Books for Days” bookstore on Telegraph Ave., where the series is held to talk about race, intersectionality, and what poetry can and cannot due. Below is a description in their own words. 

"A cantíl is a venomous snake. It's a minor deity, hiding in the rainforest, guarding the temples: one of the ones who molded us from corn & mud; yellow lipped.

We are poets of color tired of hiding in the forest, of reading for others, of going first, of being an afterthought. We want to shed our skins, and spit venom from our own yellow lips."

Image drawn by Cody Conway


Cassandra: How do you two know each other? Where did you meet?

Tatiana: We actually met here. At what is now called “Books For Days” but at the time was called “Temporary Bookstore at Rise Above.” This used to be screen-printing place, but the woman who ran it decided to move over to the Omni Commons. David Brazil was putting on a poetry reading called…What was it called?

Elana: It was called “Rise Above: A La Commune Reading,” it was in the tradition of a series that he and Jackqueline Frost had done during the Occupy Movement.

Tatiana: I think that was called “Emergency Poetry Reading.”

Elana: It was supposed to be in response to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and the whole series of events happening around that time. Well, David Brazil put the reading together and asked us to read and some other folks. Tatiana and I introduced ourselves to each other and then she asked if I wanted to help her do this series and I said yes. It was her idea.

Tatiana: I remember coming up to Elana after the reading because what she read was just so exciting to me. I have to admit living in San Francisco has been an isolating experience. I was just really excited to see Elana read, to meet Elana. I remember I went up to you afterwards and I was like “hey, I really liked what you read, can I get a copy of that?” And Elana was really confused, like “Why? Why do you want this?” (laughter) so we didn’t actually get connected until I wrote to her over Facebook. I had been thinking about how crazy I’ve felt being the only person of a color at a reading, or reading at a reading; and the feeling of tokenization that inevitably haunts one. I asked myself, I wonder if Elana Chavez who read that righteous poem that she wouldn’t let me read later, (laughter) would be down to help me curate a series centering poets of color and we started hanging out and telling each other lots of jokes.

Elana: All really good.

Tatiana: And we talked about Robert Creeley at some point and ultimately, really bonded over his poetry. After that it was just strategizing. Scott, who helps run the bookstore with our friend Marlo, came up to us after the Rise Above reading and told us anytime that we wanted to read here, we could. It felt like we were given carte-blanche. I have no experience organizing anything like this at all. Do you?

Elana: Nope!

Tatiana: I mean I don’t have a degree or anything, I’m as uncredentialed as you can get.

Elana: That’s not true.

Tatiana: Well, I mean like institutionally credentialed. I think one of the things that we realized when we were trying to organize it was who do we ask? Where do we find these people?

Elana: I think it’s gonna end up being about getting people to come to the reading, then we can meet more people, that way we can invite more people, to come to the next reading, etc. and keep it going.

Tatiana: Right. I also realized the other day that we also have a responsibility to support poets of color reading at other spots too. After our first reading that happening last week, I was speaking to Cheena Marie Lo and they were sharing pretty much the same story with me: how they had been the only person of color reading to an all white audience and it would feel as if their work was failing.

Cassandra: At the reading I was really affected by the incredible variety and openness to many different types of practices—from self-identifying poets such as Cheena, who has a book coming out with Commune Editions, to those who gave their first public reading from their private journals and don’t necessarily think of themselves as “writers”—which I would say is a radical gesture not seen at most readings. To explicitly engage in the personal for poets of color is to risk being called as Cathy Park Hong wrote in her “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” article, an “identity-politics poet.” “To be an identity politics poet is to be anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism.” What is your curatorial motivation in relation to politics of the personal? Do you hope to break down or further reveal how aesthetic tendencies such as “stylistic choices,” “form,” or “voice,” can all be used to discount poetics outside the canonized field of whiteness?

Elana: I guess to think that somehow you could tear the personal out of you and put it aside is just ridiculous. I don’t think that necessarily work or poetry, or at least for me, is about this, this and this happens because I am brown and has been this way forever and I live in this particular world and this particular place and this is who I am. I just did what any other writer would do and picked words and put them together to express myself. What Cathy Park Hong is saying is that the avant-garde is against the voice and expression when this is what people who have been traditionally voiceless need, they don’t have the luxury of voice. So we need that.

Tatiana: I keep thinking of how not being white in a world built by whites and for whites, you are constantly forced to bend your body because you don’t have the easy body. You’re continually forced to bend yourself to fit and navigate this entire plane and that continues to inform your existence. The other day I was worried before the reading that we would have writers reading about whiteness, about their experiences in relation to whiteness. Would our series pass a race version of the Bechdel Test? Or meaning, is there an equivalent of that for race? Can I write something and not have it be about an interaction I had with a white person? Can it not be about a white person? Can my writing and the things that I talk about not pay any mind to whiteness at all? Then I realized one of the really beautiful things about this series is that it shouldn’t matter. I really just want it to be a space for poets to come and read their work, and their work can be about anything.

Elana: We’re gonna take it and make it.

Cassandra: As a sort of follow-up question, at the “Reports from the Field” meeting at Artists' Television Access about gendered violence in poetry communities, when the question of race and organizing were brought up, Tati, you mentioned that you didn’t even necessarily need white people or feel the need to create integrated spaces. Do you think white poets are capable of creating truly intersectional spaces? Or will most attempts to curate reading series in a race-conscious way appear mostly as tokenizing gestures?

Tatiana: I don’t think it’s possible. Integration is not going to come from white people. I’m really deeply interested and invested in the self-determination of Indigenous peoples; and I grew up in one of the most segregated cities in the country: most of the violence I’ve experienced has come from white people that consider themselves liberal, or even radical. I’m really not down for white people to use their privilege on my account, especially given the history of segregation. Instead of just waiting for white poetry to recognize us and give us a space and give us time…

Elana: I have a different experience because I was not really doing a lot of readings, or pushing to get any writing out there. I was kinda encouraged repeatedly before I finally did. Encouraged so hard that I saw I should do this. I never felt a strong frustration of being tokenized. I still had that response of being confused why someone would even want me to read, like “Why? What for? Sure?” So I read at Jackqueline Frost's Red Element series then realized yes, this is my jam and found something I can do and feels good doing it. I don’t know if that is identity politics, or whatever that means, or if it is not conceptually sophisticated enough. That doesn’t mean shit to me, it doesn’t mean anything to me. What matters is figuring out how living in, as Tatiana said, a world of whites made for whites made me so incredulous of being asked to read poetry I wrote anywhere, ever. I don't care about my poetry being judged under oppressive ideas of aesthetic or beauty. There is more than enough of that. Not here. That’s the spirit of this project, for people to get out there and up there and know that this is the spot and this is the jam. We are the electricity.



Elana Chavez is from the Central Valley of California. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz, her first ever chapbook, Of a Substance, was released by Asphodel Press last summer. Her most recent work in progress appears in Materials #4: Economic Ophelia published in the UK.

Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta is an artist and casual historian from California. PDF, a chapbook published by Solar Luxuriance, was released in June of 2014.

Originally Published: April 10th, 2015

Cassandra Troyan is a writer, organizer, and ex-artist who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where they earned a BA in History of Art and Film Studies at the Ohio State University and an MFA in Visual Art from the University of Chicago. Troyan is the author of Throne of Blood (2013), Blacken Me Blacken Me, Growled (2014),...