Poet Kit Yan gives workshop and performance
This article was originally published on Dec. 7, 2015.
Students packed Java Joint on Friday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. for the slam poetry performance by Kit Yan, who controlled the stage with his urgent, dynamic voice and dramatic hand gestures. The award-winning one-person show, called “Queer Heartache” and directed by Jessi D. Hill, is a series of sixteen different poems “about the micro-aggressive societal failures that break our queer hearts,” according to the program.
Yan, who describes himself as a “queer, transgender, polyamorous, sexual and Asian-American slam poet,” is originally from Hawaii and is now based in Brooklyn. His work has recently appeared in the 2013 anthologies “Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics,” and “Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry.”
The pieces in the show follow him from an impoverished background as the child of immigrants in Hawaii, to his experiences with gender, sexuality, family, health, hate crimes and more in the continental U.S. Wearing black shoes, black pants and a black button-down with a fox pattern, he occasionally used a chair for a prop, his snapback hat often falling off from his theatrics.
While his poems discussed serious subjects, humor was an important aspect of his performance. In his second poem, “Plastic Bag,” he described his family re-using plastic containers like peanut butter jars and yogurt cups to store food: “I found shredded cabbage in a Lay’s bag.”
In “Josh and Drake,” he discussed his younger brother Edwin’s tortoises, who “love each other.” Using one hand to show one of them eating a tomato, and another hand slowly descending behind it in a penetrative motion, he made a low grunting noise, leading the audience to erupt into laughter. He advocated for this “queer tortoise activism” when they openly have sex in the front lawn. “I tell my mom that everything she raises is queer,” he joked.
His vulnerability about the intersectional identities of him and his family point out stark and important critiques of the American social services and medical systems, and the personal implications of a white supremacist, capitalist, cisheteronormative patriarchy.
In “Pussy Stitches,” after making the mistake of shaving his pubic hair with an electric razor and damaging his vagina, he debated going to the ER because of the ways his trans body is misunderstood and “put on trial” by the medical system. His final poem, “Speaking English,” was a heart-wrenching story about the language barrier between his father and the medical system, interfering with adequate access to health care.
Other pieces delve into the process of taking hormones, and how he used to hate when people used the pronoun “she.” After considering the ways this might come from a fear of the feminine, he decided that “in she there is nothing but power.”
In his eighth piece, “Queer Heartache,” he described attending a straight dating meetup, in which the men wore keys and the women wore locks. While he “almost gave up being queer,” because of the horror of gender roles, he brought it back to the importance of queer community. “There’s a big queer sea waiting for me to find my compass,” he wrote. “Let’s take this queer heartache and make us a little home that’s always unlocked.”
He had ties for sale, along with tote bags and patches, each with a print of a name tag reading, “Hello my gender is… f*ck you — mind your own business!” a line from “Bumper Stickers.”
Earlier that day at 4 p.m., about twenty students attended a slam poetry workshop. In his introduction, he explained his background and what brought him to slam poetry. He’s been a spoken word artist professionally for about eight years, and competing for about twelve. He first performed at age nine, when he covered a Shel Silverstein poem with his friends. After moving to Boston, he found himself swept into the slam scene: “At the time I thought anybody could do it, anyone could share a story,” he said. Later, he realized that the platform isn’t open to everyone at all times. For instance, he performed in bars with stairs and a cover fee, making it inaccessible to those under twenty-one, to disabled folks and those unable to attend because of the cost. Most of the poets, judges and employees were white, cisgender, straight men. He competed in the slam every week for an entire year, and lost every time. “I kept going because I had things to say,” he said.
Because of this, he stressed that he wanted the workshop — and other slam spaces — to be about exploring intersectional identities and lifting marginalized voices.
After the participants introduced themselves, Yan asked them to make a list of what was on their mind. Then, a list of identities that were important to them. They were given five minutes to do a freewrite picking one from each list. After sharing this with another person, they could write a second draft for seven minutes, sharing this again. Back in the big group, everyone took turns leading the group in a quick stretch. Yan then asked everyone to do a few different things with the pieces: whisper them, yell them, say them as fast as possible, and as slow.
The workshop provided a valuable space for students to engage in their own self-expression, especially about identities and experiences they might not get opportunities to explore otherwise. Yan’s voicing of first-hand oppression and hope were important as the campus continues to strive for inclusivity and acceptance of marginalized identities.