by Chanelle Adams
Many of us witnessed record-breaking heat this summer. In a world rising in temperature and injustice, the restorative poetry of activist and artist Kay Ulanday Barrett is not only timely, but necessary. Kay’s debut book, When The Chant Comes (Topside Press, September 2016), is a collection of 13 years of poetry from 2003-2016. Kay recounts memories from his formative childhood, the awkward magic of being a baby queer and the growth pains of becoming whole, both alone and in relation to others.
Kay Ulanday Barrett, a poet, performer, and educator already has 10 years under his belt of connecting the systemic to the personal in his work. While there is value in focusing on these largescale forces, reading Kay’s poetry reminds me of the importance of paying attention to each of our personal stories.
Kay has produced such a large body of work over the years that it can be hard to track down all of his poetry in one place. As a relatively new fan of Kay’s work, I am grateful to have access to a collection of work that charts his journey by his own map. Kay guides readers through this work in 5 sections, named in both Filipino and English “karatungan: justice”, “mahal: love”, “karamdaman: sickness”, “kamatyan: death”, “kapwa: soul”.
Throughout the collection, Kay threads together storylines about his mother, diaspora, romantic love, disability, loneliness, and astrology. In each section, Kay searches to articulate even the most unspeakable parts of life with a refreshing level of humility and honesty. A series of short poems, called “Crip Sick Tankas”, demonstrates Kay’s power to connect the deeply profound, such as love and communication, to the humorous situations of the everyday. In one of the poems called “pre-op”:
when they call you to
surgery, they call you by
your assigned at birth
name. you laugh and hand them a
cup full of pee. fair trade.
With a grasp of the power of language and poetry, Kay also recognizes the powerful moments when words fall short: “Yesterday, / I held my mother close, / and of the three languages we know, / our skin is the softest” (Uncertain). Other times he finds the words to recount light-hearted stories like what it is like to love a Gemini or how to survive retrograde.
No matter the subject, Kay’s work keeps circling back to ideas of healing, reflection, prayer and spirituality. In “To Be The Prayer Nobody Told Us About,” dedicated his partner, Sonia, he writes “there isn’t enough scripture for our stories / and I have to confess, I was never any good at prayer.” I don’t really believe that last line – Kay’s ability to connect bodily movement, pain and memories, both our own and those of our ancestors, reads like a QTPOC spiritual.
“When the Chant Comes”, the namesake poem, gives a structure to the collection’s pursuit of solace that may or may not exist, or exists in valuable, but brief moments. While Kay may never say it himself, as he says he was “never any good at prayer”, this book reads as a brown queer spiritual. After reading Kay’s poem “read this whenever you are tempted,” I copied it into my diary like a hymn. Like it instructs, I read it on days when the tide of the day is too strong to get out of bed. Where do we find relief? Where do we turn when we can’t hold ourselves up?
In one poem, he writes “homebois, we don’t write enough love poems to ourselves”. Without falling into clichés about love, loss, pain and loneliness, Kay has been writing on themes of experience, trauma, family, and love for the past decade in poems, Facebook statuses, blogs and performances.
His command of the craft shows in the way he lingers on specific sensations while also painting strokes that encompass a complex array of emotions, all the while connecting them to the body and community. Kay’s close ties to community is evidenced not only in his work, but also in the bountiful dedications throughout the book, including a SDQ (Sick Disabled Queer) POC Facebook Group.
Like always, it is not an easy time to be a QTPOC. I find comfort in Kay’s words of wisdom from many years in the struggle. Reading Kay reminds me that we are not alone. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, I have found new meaning in “Rhythm is A Dancer,” a poem Kay wrote over 10 years ago about queer dance parties. He writes, “we came home breathless / from dancing our queer bodies / back to valid.” In another poem, he again calls attention to the importance of queer and/or POC dance spots, “the first trans men I saw were in salsa bars.”
It is times like these that we need to show up for each other as QTPOC more than ever. Definitely come through for Kay’s work and get When the Chant Comes. As Kay writes, “Every cane is a drum on the earth,” and I’m swooning to his beat.
Chanelle Adams loves the window seat. You can follow Chanelle’s take on stuff that matters (and also stuff that doesn’t) on Twitter @nellienooks.