A Queer Black Poet's Quest for Liberation

Aziza Barnes​ tells us about her journey to find herself in a country ruled by tired notions of race and gender.

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Jun 3 2017, 3:41pm

Twenty four-year-old afro-surrealist poet Aziza Barnes words are "quite black and quite gay," bursting with a voice that is sassy yet curious with conviction. The author of two books of poetry won the Pamet River Prize in 2015 and hosts the Poetry Gods podcast with Jon Sands and José Olivarez, where she conducts lighthearted interviews with contemporary poets. She's also made her mark on the slam circuit, performing everywhere from Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles to Urban Word NYC. When the Los Angeles-born NYU alum recites powerful lines like, "You are an unstiched doll learning her parts as she loses them," from her poem "Hypnophobia," she lets the words simmer in the listener's mind.

As a queer woman who was born with a polycystic ovary that has enabled her to grow facial hair since the age of 12, her presence and distinct aura defy the tired norms of race and gender in this country. These qualities which help make the up-and-coming artist's perspective so vital and powerful, also make her vulnerable on the streets of New York. Last month, walking down Queens Blvd to her aunt's house, sporting a bright purple wig and a dark brown goatee, she ran into an older white man who caused her to do something that was pretty out of character—be silent. As the man looked Barnes up and down, he ignorantly asked "What in the fuck are you supposed to be?"

Later, she recounted the run-in on Facebook, posing the same question to herself. Amongst a flood of posts from pissed off friends and concerned family members threatening to "dispatch a fleet of hungry eagles with a taste for man-flesh" on the stranger, Barnes's unsolicited query was also met with stories from transgender, non-binary, gay, black, Latino, and Asian folks who empathized with the hostile encounter. "'What in the fuck are you supposed to be?' Realized I actually don't know," Barnes wrote. But how could that be? How could an award-winning poet who's performed everywhere from PBS News Hour to Nuyoricans Poets Cafe with work that specifically explores black, queer, and feminine identities not know who she is?

To find out, I spoke with the poet a couple weeks after the verbal assault, just as she was on the verge of debuting some new material from an upcoming collection called SLAVEPOEM! at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. What I found was an introspective artist with an uncompromising voice who is still coming into her own. Here's what she's learned about herself so far.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

VICE: What do you want people to know about you?
Aziza Barnes: To quote Octavia Butler, "I'm uncomfortably asocial—a hermit in the middle of Seattle, a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive..." What's important to me is trying to understand humanity and doing something of consequence that doesn't hurt people—that liberates people. I'm about doing that safely and with integrity and consent and security and fucking bias and prejudice and healing and forgiveness.

How did you develop this ideology?
Working with my therapist and healer. Over the past year, I was reminded quite clearly that that's the only work worth doing. This ego art doesn't last—that's why I love The Internet's album Ego Death, because it's like, look at what we can do when we're not focused on ourselves, but when we're seeing ourselves.

How do you think your work fits into what's going on in the world today?
There's a desperate need to be understood—[and also to understand] that things are subjective. There's no objective truth—there's no gender, there's no race. There's none of those things because if you are able to get over the fucking constraints of the cage that we're in, in a way that is creative, fluid, and honest, you can have a pretty fucking great life. I think that's how my poetry plays into this world. We're starting to question things that we were taught even at the most seemingly simplistic levels.

You decided to let your beard grow out. How has your concept of beauty evolved since accepting the effects of polycystic ovary syndrome?
I've learned that just the act of going out and trying to feel comfortable and happy is a dire political act. I don't want it to be that way. I like my beard and it's taken me a long time to admit that. When the white dude yelled at me in Queens, I just let it happen and I let it hurt me because I really thought I looked so beautiful. My aunt wanted me to let it go. I said, "Yeah, but he's the world." He's the world's representative for how people react when they see someone like me. But I'm not willing to go back to straight presenting or straight passing, which for me is what any alteration of expression would be.

Which poem of yours captures the coexistence of your black and queer identities?
"Alleyway" was the first poem I wrote about the shape and scope of my body, and how I didn't feel comfortable inside of it. It's a woman's body and I don't know how I feel about it sometimes. It's not that I want a man's body. It's just that I want a different body altogether—one that more reflects how I think and how I think I look.

Some of your poetry explores your fears. How have you confronted them in your work?
I'm really learning this obsession I've had with death is not incorrect. It doesn't come out of nowhere. It belongs to a politic of people who have not been allowed to live without deep amounts of fear. I wrote about killing a house centipede. A centipede got in my house so I called it a "house centipede." I named it something that it's not even a name, and then I killed it because it scared me. I'm unpacking what it is to kill something simply because it scares me. In reality, we're seeing it done on such a large and abundant and obvious scale.

How has your method for dealing with people's perceptions changed?
I just can't care anymore because they're deciding to be limited humans. It's boring to me. With the man, in the past, I would have carried that into a poem. But I don't want that man in my poem. He's not interesting at all. Right now, I've decided to work on things purely out of my own pleasure, delight, and intellectual rigor. Before, I was working on things to understand myself. My first book, me, aunt jemima, and the nail gun, was about understanding my blackness. i be, but i ain't was about understanding my queerness and blackness. Now, I think I understand and I can have more fun.

What have you been writing about lately?
I'm working on this play BLKS that's going up at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago at the end of the year. A lot of my time is dedicated to work-shopping, editing, and refining this play before it goes into rehearsals. I'm also writing a series of works titled SLAVE POEM! There's a trend among black poets occasionally to use buzzwords from the "national black canon of suffering" like "slave" and "massa" and "pickaninny" and "plantation" randomly in a poem that has nothing to do with that. I'm using the buzzword and then getting you to read about what we're actually slaves to as people. What is "slave" shorthand for in black American English? I don't think we've actually defined it for ourselves yet.

How has poetry helped you find your identity?
Poems will not save your life. But what poems can do at best is provide you a roadmap so that you can save your life. They're just little maps. If you're listening to yourself—if you're trusting yourself. And for a while, I did not.

Buy Aziza Barnes's i be, but i ain't here.

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