Dear Reader: A Q&A with Christopher Soto

Tin House and the Ace Hotel

This month’s letter-writer at Ace Hotel New York is Christopher Soto, author of Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016) and editor of the forthcoming Neplanta: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books). Soto, also known as Loma, isn’t afraid to write dangerously. He’s been chased by snipers and hacked by right-wing advocates on account of his activist affiliations and endeavors, which are inseparable from his poetry. Soto’s work appears in The Nation, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Poetry Review, and more, and he’s been awarded the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism.

As this month’s Dear Reader author at Ace Hotel New York, Christopher Soto was selected by Tin House to spend one night at the Ace, penning a letter to an imagined audience. What he wrote remained a mystery until earlier today, when his letter was placed bedside in each room. To celebrate, we caught up with him to talk revolution, gratitude, and writing the truth.

If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?

I would like to correspond with Roque Dalton. He was a poet and revolutionary during the Salvadorian Civil war who fought for the rights of campesinos. My mother and her family migrated to the United States from El Salvador. Roque Dalton is one of the most well known poets from that country. He ultimately gave his life for the revolution and refused to be simply a poet. His words were supplemented by political action and he has been an inspiration to me for years.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

A bit of both. I have ideas about poems that I want to write and I have ideas about lines that I want to incorporate. Ultimately, I try to avoid too much structure and predetermination though. I want every word, line, stanza, poem to be a surprise to me. I want to feel myself jolted and shocked and dancing with my own process of writing.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

Often my work feels dangerous. I have been chased by snipers in NYC; right-wing ex-military people have followed, hacked, and harassed some friends and me after a friend’s engagement in public activism on a national level. So when I write I am always thinking of my audience in that sense. I understand that words have weight and some people are afraid of the realities that I am describing. Some people are afraid of the conversations that I want to have about police, prisons, queerness, gender, race, capitalism, immigration. I am often afraid of my own writing and unsure about whether or not to publish it. For example, when I wrote the poem “In Support of Violence” that was published in Tin House, I was not sure if people would understand what I was attempting to say. I was unsure if there would be verbal or physical retaliation against me. Unsure if people were ready to have that conversation. There are still a few issues that I will not discuss publicly. This is something a lot of activist knows to be true—harassment for difference and dissidence. For example, when James Baldwin first published Giovanni’s Room he asked to not have his image on the book, afraid for his physical safety. In this sense, I am always thinking about my audience.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

So many books that I wish more people knew about. Right now, I hope everyone knows about Layli Long Soldier’s new poetry collection, Whereas. That is one of the most formally, syntactically, politically acute books I have read in recent years.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?

I have a pocketbook of techniques that I use when writing to help incite my writing process. There isn’t one ceremony that I have before or during any poems. There is one ceremony that I am trying to practice after my successes now, though. My friend, poet Ocean Vuong, would always give silent thanks to his family and the people who’ve made his existence possible, after receiving an award or publication. I have copied him in this process and also try to bow my head in thanks after every nudge forward I receive in the poetry community. So many people have made my writing possible. My family and friends.

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.