by KB Brookins | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of the series On Failure.
I published a piece of writing for the first time in 2015. Ecstatic, still learning the ins and outs of what poems could do for me and my people, I heard that my undergrad’s student-run literary journal was accepting work for their upcoming issue.
The idea of seeing my words somewhere outside of a YouTube link intrigued me. At this time, I had only known poetry through the spoken word group at my high school and many of the poets I watched on Button—Danez Smith, Franny Choi and the like. Many of them had secured books deals, were starting MFAs, making a career turn from the stage to the page, and getting millions of eyes on their work in the process.
I wanted this, something to make my words feel real. Something that told me I could make a life out of writing poems. Something that taught me how to make money from stanzas; after all, we all are artists living in a country run by capitalism. After submitting to the undergrad lit journal twice, one of my poems was accepted. With that small confidence boost, I submitted to a couple MFA programs hoping that I would become the capital P-poet I saw on my laptop screen.
I thought the MFA was like a place to find my community. Since I didn’t have one at my undergrad, and I had no knowledge of community spaces that would give me the knowledge I thought I needed, surely this was the place I’d get friends and answers to all my questions. I got into two of the four MFA programs I applied to, and it felt like a sign that all the claps and awards and happiness were an arm-stretch away.
And then reality set in.
The MFA I attended was ridiculously white. I mean, “ask you to explain Blackness” white. I mean, “I’m the only Black person in all three years of the program, and when I’m micro-aggressed the teacher checks on the other person” white. It was white as in violent as hell. I had never been in classrooms so tense and prescriptive, and that’s not what I expected for a terminal degree in something subjective as poetry. “Show, don’t tell,” they said. “To make this poem stronger, explain more to the reader or axe this line,” they said, even though we spent most of our time deciphering poetry collections rife with jargon and the type of clunky syntax I only ever read in textbooks. It didn’t help that there was no post-MFA path taught at this MFA except 1) get a PhD, 2) be a teacher, though the field is highly selective, 3) be an editor, but only in the free time you have between being a teacher or getting a PhD. None of those paths felt right for me. We had no classes on submitting poems, submitting a manuscript, booking a show, getting an agent, connecting our words to social justice or any kind of deeper meaning. I didn’t learn any of the shit needed to actually be a writer outside of the page. The type of writer I wanted to be—unapologetically Black, queer, and gender-confused; touring America; making the outcomes for kids like me better—wasn’t taught in that program, and the more I questioned why it wasn’t more helpful, the more I was pushed away by the academic engine.
Though I could’ve stayed and got the Blackness (and queerness) (and transness—though I didn’t know it was transness at the time) beaten out of my words, I took the road less traveled and voluntarily left. Even if that program didn’t work out, surely something would get me to where I needed to go, right?
The hottest summer I’ve ever survived was probably summer 2018. Texas felt like it was melting, and being in a perpetual state of confusion on what to do next with my life didn’t help. With a layer of wet dirt and a dream, I packed up all my shit and moved to Austin, TX, with a gang of other lost queers. I didn’t have a job, so I spent hours on social media and at open mics soaking up everything that everyone said about what being a poet was like. I also spent a lot of time trying to figure out my gender and sexuality (since I finally moved away from the judgy eyes of my at-home friends and family).
“We are the truth-tellers,” writers with checkmarks and an ounce of influence said on Twitter. If you scrolled through their comments enough, it felt like everyone agreed that writers were moral beings sent on earth to wave their magic wands around to make art—a.k.a. be ambiguous and pretty. As I was learning more language about who I was and what I desired, I was also peeking into this literary world that made it seem like writers were beautiful.
Who doesn’t want to be beautiful, especially after all the turmoil the academy inflicts on Black/queer/trans people?
After a couple months and google searched, I landed on “non-binary” as the closest thing to how my gender felt. “Why that line-break?” & “Why this inflection of voice?” felt like bigger questions than “Why have boobs?” and “If I was mistaken for anything, would I want it to be a girl or a boy” at the time, so I pushed medical transition thoughts out of my head. I put all my writerly questions into Google and compartmentalized everything else. After many non-answers and dead-ends on poetry career stuff, I knew that I needed to find a literary space for folks severely underrepresented in the canon (like me) that needed a space to learn amongst friends. The classroom, after all, is a community space if you make it. Unfortunately, those spaces come few and far between, so I had to make one.
This is it, right?
This is the part where the awards, and financial stability, and progress for my people, and happiness for myself come in, yes? This is it, the moment I’ve been waiting on, right?
2019 was a terrible year. I was trying so hard to prove something—to show myself and others that I could be a non-MFA writer. I probably submitted poems once a week. On top of that, I was the host/sole organizer of a new artist showcase/open mic that was giving everybody everything but me. Friends told me I was “thriving,” but I was actually suffering mentally. It takes a lot out of you—scraping up the little money you have to submit to contests and journals when over 70% of them tell you “unfortunately, your work was not accepted at this time.” It takes even more to be the person that gives other people a community that you can’t even enjoy; how can you commune at the open mic while also moving chairs, checking on performers, getting money to pay people, etc.? Some places I submitted to never got back to me at all. It was a rough time, to say the absolute least.
Often, marginalized people are tasked with creating their own spaces without the money, resources, time, and education to make them successful long-term. I was also, directly or not, asked to be the Token Black Writer or the Token Queer/Enby Writer all the time. My writing interests have never aligned with making my experience palatable to the white gaze, so I suffered. This type of suffering is often specific to Black, queer, and trans people like myself.
What happened to the magical writer? The one who did the right thing, and spoke truth to power when nobody else would? Where were those writers when I was wondering how I could get closer to my dream of being a Magical Poet™? Those same checkmarks that edited at the most-revered publishing houses and magazines didn’t give me the time of day, and all the prosperity was going to the (consciously or unconsciously) token writers. I didn’t know what to do next.
During the hellscape that was 2020, I focused mostly on my personal transition and working full-time. I got top surgery and started HRT, and these long-put off decisions saved me during the most emotionally taxing year of my whole life. I also took 2020 as a break from the constant cycle of rejection and bad business practices in poetry publishing. Most acceptances were solicitations that I’m super grateful for receiving, and any fellowship I did was good timing and boredom. I somehow find myself writing prose during my fallow season of poeting, so I found a new reason to get out of my “fuck trad publishing” slump.
When I started participating again—this time in poetry and prose—literary entities proved true what I had known in my body since 2015: we, participants in literary America, are not in any way untouchable.
From Bad Art Friend and call-out letters to Cat Person and disrespectful discourse, so many writers’ true colors shined. The true colors told me that writers are not anything special when it comes to Having Morals or Being Humans™. As I presented more like a “Black man” to the gender-ignorant eye, literary interactions became even more volatile towards me. I tried so hard to get essays in my favorite magazines, and a number of times, my opinion on masculinity and Blackness were invalidated by white, cis, straight culture editors or the occasional white queer at the LGBTQ mag. I could assume that it was transphobia and anti-Blackness stewing together to make something terrible, but the being-too-scared-to-be-wrong thing is too present in poetry and prose for me to ignore.
Often, it feels like the obvious points (women are people, save the planet from climate change) are revered, while intercommunal conversations—like how Black men need to do better, or how queer and trans communities shun Black people—are deemed unworthy of having. Conversations that pertain to reproductive justice, masculinity, transness, and Blackness are almost always missing a Black transmasculine perspective. There is a reason for this, and we can’t chalk it up to human error or “needing a blind process” (which is ableist, btw) anymore. There are none of me at the editorial meetings, and to add insult to injury, many poetry-publishing entities charge people fees just to submit. For issues and contests, a $3 or $5 or $25 price of admission has become commonplace, even though most people with working fingers to google anything know that barriers = inequitable outcomes. Because this (lazy) (wack) practice of charging people to have their work read has become normalized, the price of admission has only increased over time. It’s hard to feel motivated to participate in a canon that wants so badly to both advocate for justice and price marginalized people out at the same time. You can’t have both.
The truth is that there could be so many more people like me getting writing we need published and celebrated if literary America actually welcomed them. Who I am shouldn’t need a news angle to be worthy of publishing. The plights I face trying to exist in America are not “too niche” or “incongruous to the experience of being a Black man.”. Folk straight up forget that folks like me exist, and that doesn’t change no matter how politically left the space is.
It’s hard as well to not want to delete all my social media since the same ideas from 2015 still fly and go viral. “Art is truth-telling” and “Poets are the good ones,” they say, but my personhood has been dampened by the literary ecosystem continuously. I want to be able to talk about it, the dishonesty and binaries that we impose but say we resist, but I am often met with tired editors claiming they’re “doing the best that they can.” Why can’t we decide, as a supposed community, to do something different? Something that doesn’t always ostracize people like me?
It’s time to be honest with the ways presses, magazines, journals, colleges/universities, community spaces, and all other participants in traditional literary publishing move, and if we—people in the literary ecosystem—actually want justice and to amplify voices, then inequitable practices need to end. Homogenous editorial boards, underfunded literary spaces, relying on hopeful writers to fund staff positions and operations—all of this needs to end. We also need people and entities with influence, access, and money to stop hoarding influence, access, and money. Being quiet and greedy in moments where solidarity and support is needed is antithetical to what writing is supposed to do. There is no reason why negotiating contracts and other practical advice needs to be left to the writer to figure out; telling writers that writing is all it takes to be a Pulitzer Prize winner or whatever is not true. Period.
We’re not starting a movement when we put pen to paper, but we could be. That takes honesty, organizing, activism, and less wanting so badly to be morally superior to others. We can’t keep lying to ourselves and saying that we are better than anyone when news, history, and everything else has proven otherwise. What do we gain when we lie to each other and the page? What do we lose when we think of ourselves as untouchable, or continue inequitable practices in the name of palatable production and faux-acceptance of Black/queer/trans poetics? I should be able to put “nigga” in a poem and not sift through journals to find one with a Black editor. I should be able to get all the things that my non-trans, non-Black, non-queer counterparts get, but I can’t if it’s paywall and “request a waiver” everywhere. Who has time to do that every single time? Who wins where we keep operating in this scarcity, individual-minded way?
Each averse experience and day of literary discourse on Twitter should be radicalizing us to create a new literary America. Will that take people being more creative with the ways we write, create, and live with others? Will it take embracing the totality of people’s personhood inside AND outside the page? I think so, and I believe it’s possible if we address and solve the huge problems present. Writing is an extension of living, so we have to study and practice love in the same ways that we study and practice craft. We are not untouchable by the ills and devils of our society, which also means that we can be touched. So let’s live, and do, better.
Poem Against “Black ____ Magic”
After Hanif Abdurraqib
When James Baskett didn’t win the Oscar for Uncle Remus &
Viola Davis did win the Oscar for Aibileen &
Hattie McDaniel did what she did & what Viola did to win these Oscars &
Will Smith didn’t win the Oscar for Hitch—
it never was
his her our Oscar—I started to believe our magic
came from the crack our back has to get
bending over continuously. They defined
what’s good—what trophies & CV fluff to get to be prestige &
we praised the Magical Negoes who wedged they way through
violence. This poem isn’t meant to bash our elders.
The blank space in textbooks &
the blank space in Viola’s regret &
the blank space in syllabi &
the inclusion of Sound of Music &
the blank bookcases of niggas that were overqualified
for all these white awards says
enough. This poem won’t give magic a false definition.
only a new standard for Black folk who fancy themselves
only when their boots are drenched in driveled licks. If white
people dictate magic, then it’s Black magic. Not
Black girl magic &
Black boy magic &
no supernatural negro made themselves 2nd to a white dream
for this & no white director gets the Oscar at
the mercy of the academy for my divine powers &
what even is my power when whiteness eventually
wipes all of us out?
Who are you outside of the
everywhere / ominous / Always calling us “magic” in efforts to unalive us / white gaze? You know what is my magic?
The clarity I feel after laying down for 7-9 hours.
The slam of a laptop when I’ve said “no” to working
one more hour. The feeling of falling apart
in the arms of someone that cares whether I thrive
or perish. Knowing that there’s people who will make a stink
if whiteness unalives me. You know what is magic?
You being here after all these years of killing
us off—on & off-screen. You feeling
the furthest away from any eyes, & letting
pressure perspiration precision
perfection go. Freedom is the opposite
of trophies given by white leaders,
so find it.
KB Brookins (also known as KB) is a Black/queer/transmasculine poet, essayist, and cultural worker from Fort Worth, Texas. Their writing is published in Academy of American Poets, Huffington Post, American Poetry Review, Teen Vogue, Electric Literature, Okayplayer, Oxford American, and elsewhere. KB is the author of How To Identify Yourself with a Wound (Kallisto Gaia Press, 2022), a chapbook selected by ire’ne laura silva as winner of the Saguaro Poetry Prize. They have earned fellowships from PEN America, Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Lambda Literary, and The Watering Hole among others.