“It’s My Turn to Yell”: KOKUMO on Poetry and Survival

Photo courtesy of the author.

KOKUMO is a poet and musician from Chicago singing truth to power. Writing in a lineage inspired by Ntozake Shange, Sapphire, and the music of Erykah Badu, KOKUMO reclaims the power of her own body, her own voice, her own narrative. Moreover, she is committed to accountability, calling out others’ bullshit within resistance movements: “So you wanna revolution huh? … Are you invested in making the world a better place for all / Or just you and yours?” Her work offers a vision of a revolutionary world that truly centers its most marginalized. We sat down to talk about her book, Reaquainted with Life, which recently won the 2017 Lambda Literary award for Transgender Poetry.

Noah Fields: First of all, congratulations on your Lammy. What does this recognition mean to you?

KOKUMO: It means that the work we’ve been doing has finally paid off — to some extent at least. That a fat dark-skinned intersex trans femme woman from the South Side of Chicago — poor, survivor, you name it — is able to put her truth into a body of work and be appreciated. It shows strides.

NF: You open Reacquainted with Life with a prologue about your principles and values that you call “Galactic Bitch-Slap.” Can you talk a little bit about how your values inform your writing?

K: I feel like as a survivor, as a fat dark trans femme — I feel like people like us, we have a different set of principles and morals. We’re forced to survive in different ways, you know? So for me, it’s about surviving, and that’s basically my principle: survive. Survive, survive, survive. Without oppressing others. And I feel like, as marginalized people, that’s something we try to do more so than people who aren’t living in the margins.

For “Galactic Bitch-Slap,” I wanted to write down a list of things that I have realized growing up in this body, living in this world as a dark-skinned intersex trans femme. How I survived. So people know how I survive. I see the stupidity of the world, and I thought, well listen, if I could just write down this set of principles I have, y’all would understand. The world is just awkward.

NF: When I read your poems, I am taken by how oral they are. They’re so rhythmic and practically musical in their flow. Like when you say: “I said I wanna fuckin know! / What about my body? / What about my body? / What about, my body? / Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Building up to this guttural scream on the page. And I know you have a history as a performer and musician. So could you talk about how this background has influenced your poetry?

K: Most definitely. I don’t want to say too much about what I’m working on next, but I’m working on a body of work that some would call musical. And I feel like what I have to remind myself of as a musician as well as a poet is that all music is poetry wrapped up with song. That’s how I like to write my poetry. So for me, there’s a connection with whether I write a song or poem, it just needs to be honest.

As a performer, I was trained in the art of melodrama. So sometimes I write melodramatically. But more so than melodramatically — I’m not gonna pathologize my femme anger, my dark fat femme trans intersex femme energy, I’m not gonna do it. I feel like poetry just has to be honest. Sometimes the honesty is loud. Sometimes the honesty has to be heard. Sometimes the honesty can’t sit quiet. I write like that, and I sing like that. Hear me: this isn’t just words on a piece of paper. It’s someone’s actual feelings towards life.

NF: You list your compound identities now in our conversation and also in your book. How do you express your full self and all of your intersecting identities without being caged by other’s expectations of your identity?

K: Whenever I write poetry, I always think of it as a confrontation, as a calling out. So what helps me is thinking about how all ways in which the intersections I reside in silence me. When I create, I’m always thinking about finally telling off that person who raped me, who was emotionally abusive, who was a light-skinned supremacist. I feel like that helps me: that’s what makes it so honest. And to go to the earlier question, that’s why I’m yelling. It’s my turn to yell. I’m 29 — my birthday just happened yesterday. I’m thinking about how all these years of my life, I’ve been silent because, quite frankly, as a dark fat trans femme, you better be silent, you know? And I was silent in spaces where I had nothing but the right to speak: I’m the one who’s been abused, I’m the one being humiliated. But I’ve been so well-groomed into silence that I didn’t speak. I didn’t yell when I had to. So that helps me when I’m writing poetry or music. It’s my turn to yell.

NF: Absolutely. I feel this theme of reclaiming your body, your voice, your narrative so strongly in your book. There’s one poem called “Ursula’s Lament,” an homage to the queen of Disney villains. Can you talk more about your identification with the dark side of the Disney channel?

K: So much of Disney is racism. The people who are vilified: it’s racism, it’s homophobia, it’s ableism. So sometimes the good guy isn’t actually the good guy, and sometimes the bad guy isn’t actually bad. It’s never really that simple. And that’s why I wrote “Ursula’s Lament.” Because as a dark-skinned fat intersex femme, my body is always vilified.

And that’s what I realized: all of the oppression, all the humiliating instances I’ve had to endure, most of the time I wasn’t being Othered. It had nothing to do with who I was or what I do: my fat dark-skinned trans body was the problem. And so when you’re dealing with privileged people — which is what Disney is all about, princesses are literally privileged — when you’re dealing with people like that, you’re trained to see your body as the problem. So the reason I identify with Ursula is: was Ursula really evil or was Ursula the fat woman of color who wasn’t given the same opportunities everybody else had?

Reacquainted with Life, by KOKUMO. Top Side Press, 2016. 64 pages, poetry.

NF: Your book is such a powerful project of healing, in response to violence you describe and have faced from others and society at large. How do you take care of yourself?

K: (Deep breath) I would say music. To be honest, I used to take care of myself rather negatively — I would self-medicate and stuff like that, I even eat. I would try to take the anger I have for the world out on myself. So that I was how I was taking care of myself. But I realized that I wasn’t taking care of myself, I was hurting myself. I still struggle with learning how to take care of myself. I still struggle with learning to take care of myself. But moving forward into the future, I’d like to work my medication within my music.

NF: I’m also struck by the resilience you describe — how you “wade through rock/ punch fist through earth.” Such a power image: so tough, so physical. When do you feel most strong?

K: As an artist I feel my strongest on stage because that’s when I finally get to speak to the people who hurt me. Even if the people who hurt me aren’t actually in the audience, it helps because I know I’m speaking out in one fashion or another. So I really feel my strongest on stage.

NF: So much of the book is filled with dark humor. What role does comedy play for you?

K: I feel like humor gives me a chance to not feel as much of the blow. It’s like cushioning your rear with a pillow even though cannonballs are coming at you. Humor is the privilege of the bound.