Jake Skeets and Christopher Soto: On Literary Activism During Covid-19

Intro: Jake Skeets is the author of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019) and Christopher Soto is the editor of Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books, 2018). In this interview, they discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the Navajo Nation and how the pandemic intersects with mental health. They also discuss activism during the Trump era and their desires for the future of the literary world. This interview allows space to reflect on one of the most chaotic moments in the 21st century.

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CS: First off, I want to give a quick congrats about your new professorship! I read you just got a full time Assistant Professor position in Creative Writing. That’s huge! How do you feel?

JS: Thank you so much. I feel very strange, honestly. It’s so strange to celebrate good news during these times. I did, however, have a small celebration. My partner and I drove to Farmington, NM to order a curbside breakfast burrito from Weck’s, a bomb New Mexican eatery. We had been on a month-long cleaner diet and it was so good. I’m just very happy to be home with my family and community. I often fantasize about assistant professorships at larger universities but I do feel like I am needed at my tribe’s college. We are so close to a BFA in Creative Writing and it will set us on the path toward an MFA. So I am very excited and hopeful that there is some handling of the Covid-19 so we can continue to do important work in-person.

CS: Covid-19 is hitting the Navajo Nation pretty hard. How are you and your loved ones holding up? Is there anything you want the poetry community to know at the moment?

JS: Most Native Nations and marginalized communities were already dealing with so many injustices and genocidal tactics by the government. So when the first positive case was confirmed on Navajo, I immediately began to worry about the families. Home life is different here. In addition to most families not having access to water or electricity, families are known to live with many generations within the same household. When I was growing up, I lived with many cousins and uncles. My family is going strong. Both of my parents are still going to work, my dad works as a lab technician at the Gallup Indian Health Service that has been making rounds on national news since Gallup has become a super hot spot. Navajo now has the most cases per capita than any other state and most are within McKinley County and Gallup. This is because of Gallup as a border town that forces families into the town for groceries and supplies. So right now what many can do is continue to support and give to mutual aid networks. There are several funds set up but I give to the K’e Infoshop because they are more grassroots. The K’e Infoshop also has a list of networks as well. How are things going on in your community?

CS: Your statements about families on the reservation without access to water and electricity reminds me about this posting I saw via UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center a few weeks ago. One of the lines in the report says “COVID-19 cases were more likely to occur in tribal communities with a higher proportion of homes lacking indoor plumbing” and this makes sense. If people don’t have access to water in their homes then they can’t wash their hands and stop the spread of the disease as easily. You’re completely right to explain how other forms of inequity have compounded the impacts of Covid-19 for the Navajo Nation. Pertaining to my community, I think most immediately of my biological family and closest friends. Overall, my people are doing okay in terms of respiratory health and finances. But if I’m being honest a handful of my friends are really struggling with mental health at the moment, in ways that worry me. I’m trying to be present and supportive of everyone but I worry that I’m not doing enough or I’m not equipped to help them or direct them to the services they need. I’ll only write about the following instance because I know this person will never read this article. But I spent a day on the phone with a friend recently, my phone ran out of battery and so I plugged it in and just laid on the floor talking to them for hours, started to cry a little and was saying “I’m scared you won’t be here in five years,” as he told he sold the gun and not to worry. Hearing about all the pain some of my friends are in and not being able to hug them, having that tick in the back of my head that is afraid they won’t answer my next text message, is probably the hardest part of this quarantine. So, I send solidarity from my community to yours, as we both push through this moment in our ways… These days, it feels like we are living in a moment where it is impossible to be a poet and stay silent while there is so much happening around us all. What do you think are the possibilities for literary activism currently?

JS: I feel record and archive will be necessary in the future. My tribe’s newspaper, the Navajo Times, has been featuring stories on medicine folk who have been telling stories about times our people were hit by viruses. Storytelling is survival. So literary activism can be keeping record and archiving the community consciousness at this moment. It can be a way to talk with our future selves and relatives. For me, that’s futurism as its finest and it’s hope not tied to a capitalistic notion of hope. What do you think?

CS: I love that “storytelling is survival.” Lately, I have been recording my family’s oral histories about mediums in El Salvador prior to the Civil War and so this feels very true to me at the moment. Some of these histories, I still don’t have access to because of shame or trauma or assimilation into American respectability. It feels like a balancing beam, to honor my family’s boundaries, while still trying to record our culture and experiences before they are lost forever. It’s really heartbreaking, when one is trying to record and can just feel all of the lost stories around and all the holes that need to be filled instead by the writer’s imagination. On a different note, are there any shifts in literary activism that you have seen occur since the inauguration of Trump, and subsequently the acceleration of the Covid-19 pandemic, which you think should be taken note of?

JS: I have seen that more people who don’t consider themselves writers begin to narrate their experiences and thoughts through social media. My mom, for instance, has been posting her thoughts about the situation, which I haven’t seen. To me, that’s a type of literary activism when ordinary folks begin to tell their stories.

CS: That is gorgeous! What campaigns, or actions, led by poets do you want to see recreated as we continue to tackle the socio-political issues of our times?

JS: I came across the docu-series The United States of Poetry and it was very interesting to see these poets in moving image recite their poetry. I think it would be a great way to reintroduce poetry to the general public using something similar. I feel like often poets can be stuck in lecture or essay when talking about their work. For me, I love a good stylized recitation or a more conversational approach to the craft essay. How was your approach to community action changed since Trump and the pandemic? What are your next literary activist projects?

CS: I think I used to do a lot more rapid response protests before Trump. For example, he threatened to cut the NEA and then I quickly organized a vigil outside Trump Tower with my fellow poets to protect arts funding. Ultimately, Trump didn’t cut NEA funding and he was likely just talking out of the side of his mouth. This happens so often with him, where we don’t know if he is making a serious threat and we need to organize, or if we should save our energies and fight another actual threat. He is so erratic and nonsensical that it is impossible to fight against everything he says. This has led me to having more of a programs based approach to activism in the current day. I work slowly and consistently to build programs that might support communities threatened by this Trump oligarchy. Then I also try to support people emotionally and economically on an individual scale on the daily. Much of my activism now feels less public or responsive than it has been before, because I am trying not to burn out. I’m trying to find a sustainable practice for me to stay committed to a lifetime of movement work, of moving resources into the hands of those who need it. And pertaining to my next literary activist project, I have been talking to some people about creating a prisoner submission platform to make access to publishing and storytelling easier for people on the inside. This likely won’t happen for a little while though. I am just starting now to think through logistics now. When is the last time that you heard someone say poetry is not political?

JS: The great thing about my upbringing in poetry is that I sought poets of color. I studied at the University of New Mexico so I can work with professors of color. I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts so I can work with Native mentors who would be able to dissect a statement like “poetry is not political” in a way that includes my worldview in their analysis. So I don’t think I heard someone say poetry is not political except for the various white commentaries that show up on my Twitter feed. Within the Native poetry community, poetry being political or not is a very nuanced discussion because of how heavily moderated Native identity is by the American consciousness. I think it’s entirely possible to create a poetics without the old white American foundational poetics. What do you think that looks like for you: a poetics existing in the United States without old white poets?

CS: I think one of the next steps towards undoing white supremacy in publishing is continuing to talk about editorial diversity. The industry is still largely run by well intentioned white folks that we have to pray will understand the urgency of getting our stories in the world. I think this is one of the successes of Myriam Gurba and Dignidad Literaria: they have helped to raise a national conversation about who gets published and why. What is next for you? And what do you want to be next for the greater literary world?

JS: I’m currently working on various projects. Right now, I am experimenting with prose. I have written several essays and want to write more about Navajo aesthetics and poetics. I’m thinking a collection of poetry may be in the future if I can get enough written. I’m also wondering how the short story operates. Prose scares me and I think I should face it to see what happens. For poetry, I am continuing to write more as I create more constraints for myself. I believe in constraint and prompt. For example, whenever I mention the human body in a poem I immediately replace it with a body part of the land. Originally, I had planned a tour of abandoned uranium and coal mining this upcoming summer with a Navajo geologist and traditional plant person so we can just examine how the landscape was changed by mining. However, the pandemic paused that planning. Finally, I am working hard with Saad Bee Hozho, the Dine writers collective on the Navajo Nation. We want to start community programming in literature and the arts. As for the greater literary world, I want there to be more Native and Indigenous poets and writers winning awards, showing up on lists that aren’t “Upcoming Native Writers,” and more folks paying attention to the way Native and Indigneous poetics continue to inform American poetry.

CS: Yes, I like that vision for a future where more Native writers are celebrated too! And I can’t wait to read all of the talented Native students that will be publishing with us, after having the opportunity to study under your brilliance as their professor now. Thank you so much, Jake, for taking the time to do this interview with me! I am grateful.

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