Tag Archives: PEN America

A Virtual Interview with KB Brookins

Thursday, February 10, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-presents-kb-brookins-and-renee-rossi-tickets-230165259487

Background

Features KB Brookins and Renée Rossi will be reading to celebrate their recently-released titles from Kallisto-Gaia Press. 

KB Brookins’ chapbook, How to Identify with a Wound, was selected as the winner of the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize from Kallisto-Gaia Press by ire’ne lara silva. KB is a Black queer nonbinary miracle: a poet, essayist, educator, and cultural worker. In addition to authoring How To Identify Yourself With A Wound (Kallisto Gaia Press, 2022), their debut full-length poetry collection, Freedom House is forthcoming in 2023 from Deep Ellum. KB is a 2021 PEN America Emerging Voices fellow and an African American Leadership Institute – Austin fellow, and has words published in Cincinnati Review, ANMLY, and elsewhere. Follow them online at @earthtokb.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

KBB: Probably around the time I was 12 in a 7th grade class. My English teacher did a reading of one of her former students’ poems, and I remember it really impacting me. Though it was essentially about a boy not texting the girl back, I — for the first time — felt like I felt all the emotions the girl felt, and it felt heavy! That piqued my interest in poetry, and I started writing poems of my own 3 years later.

CH: What draws you to poetry? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

KBB: Reading and experiencing other people’s poems draws me to poetry. Since the beginning, I’ve been a communal poet — one that really thrives when other poets are doing their thing around me. Though I had been writing on and off since I was 15, I think I thought of myself as a writer around 23. It was the year I started really moving inward and seeing my body as less of a nuisance and more of a mainstay. I guess that’s when I started being embodied, so I started being a writer.

CH: You are an essayist as well as a poet. How would you describe your identity as a writer?

KBB: I don’t know that I have an identity as a writer; just vision and purpose. I write to acknowledge my feelings, learn about my emotional/physical self, be reminded of my genius (we all have some genius in us), and to archive my life. A Black, queer, trans life that often goes unarchived. I share that writing to validate the feelings/ideas/experiences of folks like me, to give others access to new feelings/ideas/experiences, to connect to other writers writing on similar topics, and to contribute/offer material for movement work — especially movement that leads to justice for marginalized people. Whatever medium that’s necessary to help me achieve this vision and purpose is fine with me. 

CH: I understand you were a PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow last year. Tell us a little about that program, and how it has impacted your life.

KBB: The PEN fellowship was exactly what I needed at that moment in my writing path. In my application, I shared that I was feeling like I didn’t have mentorship, or affordable education opportunities, or a consistent community of writers that were passionate about the work of words. I’m a Black queer & trans poet without an MFA or the luxury of money/literary industry access, so these things are often hard to get. During the duration of my fellowship with PEN, I was able to connect with other writers in similar positions as me, get education on things like “getting essays published” and “getting an agent”, and have the confidence/mentorship to finish a manuscript of poems. I also got connections to folks that could answer questions the fellowship couldn’t, due to my mentor and PEN staff generosity. I don’t think I would have my amazing agent (Annie DeWitt), my debut full-length forthcoming with Deep Vellum Publishing, or other awesome connections fostered from June-October without PEN. And for that, I’m very grateful.

CH: Your focus and determination have been evident for quite some time. How have you charted your path toward the writing you want to do? Where do you seek sustenance?

KBB: Thanks for that! Due to (honestly) anti-Blackness and queerphobia inherent in many literary entities, I’ve had to do a lot of digging. Digging in books, digging in myself to write the most authentic stuff, digging out of the holes made for me to fall in/for others to patch up with me in them… it’s been a lot. Over the years — especially from 2018-now, I just marketed myself super hard. On social media, at open mics/readings, in Submittable. I’ve shot a lot of shots! To this day I’ve submitted to 500+ opportunities and maybe…. 75 of those have been Yes’. The Yes’ come as you work on yourself, I think. I’ve been just staying alive and staying dedicated to what I believe is my purpose and vision. I seek sustenance in community, and in the words I produce. I also seek sustenance in reflection and listening. 

CH: Congratulations on the publication of How to Identify Yourself with a Wound, winner of the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize. Over how long a period were the poems of this chapbook written? How did you approach sequencing the work?

KBB: 90% of the poems were written from 2018-2019. There’s maybe… one poem from 2020 and one poem from 2021. I think I went to an event at Malvern Books in 2019 where Ire’ne (the 2021 judge) was speaking with Natalia Sylvester I believe. Ire’ne said “when you identify yourself with a wound” at some point in an answer during the Q&A, and I was so struck by that phrase. I went home and researched and wrote what ended up being the How To Identify Yourself With a Wound poems (all of which have the same name) and… the chapbook just happened from there I think. I thought I had another chapbook, but I abandoned that because the premise of this one felt more interesting. Then I sent it to 7ish places, and KGP picked up. Also, sending the manuscript to friends and trying out like… 5 different orderings of the poem helped.

CH: I understand your first full-length collection, Freedom House, is slated to come out from Deep Vellum in 2023. Tell us a little about the book. How does it relate to How to Identify Yourself with a Wound? How did the process of collecting a full-length volume differ from that of putting together a chapbook?

KBB: I honestly think they’re polar opposites; haha. Though some themes like Blackness, queerness, and gender come up (I can’t escape my life’s context), the premise is a bit more place-based, and large in scope. I see How To Identify as this self-facing debut that’s so much about me trying to find my place in poetry/the world, and Freedom House’s process is different. These poems are more 2021, more critical of politics, gender as a construct, and more. If I could give it a sentence, it is a speaker exploring personal, systemic, and interpersonal freedom through the metaphor of a house. 

Collecting it was surprisingly easier than How To Identify. I was a lot more confident this time around, since it doesn’t have the pressure of being MY FIRST BOOK, haha. 90% of the poems were written during my time as a PEN fellow. Hint: a number of individual poems that got picked up by me last year are in that book. I think people will like it, and see my growth as a writer after reading both. 

CH: Your bio identifies you not only as a writer, but as a cultural worker. How has your work as a cultural worker impacted your writing?

KBB: Cultural work is what I’ve done for almost as long as poetry, so I see them as inherently linked. When I say I’m a “cultural worker”, I mean I work toward dismantling harmful cultures through education, art, and community-building. For me, that looks like offering workshops, keynotes/lectures, conflict facilitation, and publishing art that critiques culture — especially the rampant cultures of anti-Blackness, queerphobia, transphobia, ableism, and other things inherently American.

In the past, my cultural work has been participating in protests, being a part of advocacy groups, starting the nonprofits Embrace Austin and Interfaces, and other things. All of that has been in the name of finding justice. Writing is not just words on the page; I can’t act like I don’t live a politicized life. And I hope that comes off in How To Identify, Freedom House, and all other writings I choose to publish. My hope is that my words start much-needed conversations and actions that create a better world. 

CH: What’s your vision of yourself in 5 years?

KBB: My vision is that doing the things I’m already doing with more financial/social support. I’d like to have stellar physical, mental, and spiritual health. In December 2021 I started doing artivism and consulting full-time, so I’d like to be doing that still — performances, workshops, etc. — in 5 years.

I’d like to have a CNF book out, and a 2nd full-length out or under contract. I’d like my work to be translated to at least one other language — Spanish especially since it’s the 2nd most spoken language in Texas. I’d like to be fluent in Spanish and ASL. I’d like to be exploring work in other genres — plays, songwriting, TV writing, and Afrofuturism intrigue me. I’d like to have tried stand-up at least once. I’d like to have a band, and assistant, and some video-poems out.

I’d like to organize toward an Austin and Texas that is livable for poor, disabled, Black, queer, and trans people through my art and cultural work. I also envision being able to do some kind of artivism fellowship, and regularly contribute to literary/social good causes that I love. Last is that I’d like to be somebody’s poet laureate, and at least a finalist for an NBA/NBCC/PEN award. Those are my manifestations. We’ll see. Haha.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry that you’ve read?

KBB: Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva.