Tell Tell Interview Series: Poet and Activist Nico Amador Chats with Tell Tell Poetry.

Having trouble giving in to creativity and staying true to your poetic voice? We sat down with poet and activist Nico Amador to chat about his work and hear his advice for the literary community. Plus, don't miss his binge worthy book recommendations!

Meet Nico Amador: a poet and activist

“It translates somehow into how I’m moving in the literary world. I’m there to find my people.” Poet Nico Amador is quick to center his work as a community organizer and activist when he discusses his poetic practice. In this conversation, Nico explores how these two parts of his identity overlap and intertwine, sharing great advice for how to stay true to your poetic voice: “you’re only going to be successful by following your curiosity . . . whatever is moving you at the moment.” We’ll chat about how to give ourselves over to the experiment of poetry and not get stalled out by putting too much pressure on the process (and more!), and Nico’s got books to recommend in this interview with Tell Tell Poetry!

Nico Amador‘s writing has been featured or is forthcoming in a number of journals and anthologies including Bettering American Poetry, Vol. 3Poetry UnboundPANKPoem-a-DayARC Poetry Magazine, Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, bedfellows and elsewhereHis chapbook, Flower Wars, was selected as the winner of the Anzaldúa Poetry Prize and was published by Newfound Press in 2017. He is a grant recipient of the Vermont Arts Council, an alumni of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Writers Retreat and an MFA candidate at Bennington College. He also works with PeoplesHub, an online platform for popular education, cultural organizing and training for social change.

If you’d like to hear more from Nico soon, check out I’m Not a Writer BUT…A Writing Workshop for Organizers, Activists and Movement-Builders which will take place on three consecutive Wednesdays – September 29th, October 6th, & October 13th: Many of us who are on the frontlines of working for racial, gender, economic and environmental justice hold important insights, tools and hard won lessons that other organizers could learn from. Yet too often we let our anxieties and imposter syndrome get in the way of writing them down, leaving it to others to be the narrators of our movements. This workshop is meant for anyone involved in grassroots organizing, cultural work or other forms of leadership for social change who want support to write about their experiences — whether or not you already identify as a “writer.”


Layla Benitez-James: Hello, this is Layla Benitez-James for Tell Tell Poetry, and I’m sitting down with poet and professional troublemaker, Nico Amador. His writing has been featured or is forthcoming in a number of journals and anthologies including Bettering American Poetry, Vol. 3Poetry UnboundPANKPoem-a-DayARC Poetry Magazine, Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, bedfellows and elsewhereHis chapbook, Flower Wars, was selected as the winner of the Anzaldúa Poetry Prize and was published by Newfound Press in 2017. He is a grant recipient of the Vermont Arts Council, an alumni of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Writers Retreat and an MFA candidate at Bennington College. He also works with PeoplesHub, an online platform for popular education, cultural organizing, and training for social change. Nico, thank you so much for chatting with me today.


Nico Amador: Yeah, thank you for having me.


LBJ: So I’ve been really interested in thinking about overlapping identities and recently heard a brilliant talk about a new book coming out called A Black Gaze by Tina Campt. And in her bio, she says that she is a Black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art, and they chatted a little bit about how important it was for her—of naming where she was coming from in that way. And when I first heard your work and heard you read your work at the Unamuno Poetry Festival, I was struck, not only by your poems which are amazing, but by the way you really foregrounded your creative work by talking about your social justice work and I found that really admirable and impressive. And personally, as a poet, I feel like those two things are more separate than they should be in my own practice a lot of times. I read a couple of your thoughts about this already, and I wondered if we could start by hearing you elaborate about how reading and writing poetry keeps you creative and allows you to deal with the pressures and demands of social justice work and if you could share more about how these passions either balance each other or feed into each other.


NA: Yeah, I mean thank you for the question and I feel like we could spend the whole interview exploring just that. I feel like there’s so many ways I could come at that because it has just been so—the overlap between those two has been so central to my experience of both, you know? One thing that I want to share about it is that when I became politicized as a young person, a lot of that was reading, especially women of color, queer people of color’s writing, and so there was something about literature and poetry and writing that really supported my growth and my consciousness as a young person. And I think at the time, you know, what that did for me was that it gave me a kind of language that allowed me to understand myself. It allowed me to put my experience as a queer person, and a trans person and someone who’s mixed race into context of a larger movement for justice and political identity that connected me to other people. So that was really important to where I landed in terms of the work that I was doing. I think over time where that started to feel limiting was I think I built a sense of my own identity around this kind of language of struggle and oppression, and movement work and that’s still very close to my heart, close to how I think about the world. But there’s also a moment in time where going into my early thirties where I’ve been organizing for you know, at that point, at least ten or twelve years, where I just felt tired, you know? Like, I just felt like I couldn’t access the same things that had given me drive previously, and riding on anger was not enough for me anymore. I felt like there was a sense of exhaustion around that and a sense that there were parts of life that I was missing out on in some ways, because I had devoted so much of my energy to working on grassroots campaigns and learning how to be an organizer, learning how to be a trainer and mentor to others, and I just needed something else that could sustain me in that work.

And I think what I discovered is adopting an identity as an artist just gave me a different way in or a different way of moving in that work that just felt a little more freeing, you know, like I think I got to know myself as a person outside of the idea of struggle and really got to ask deeper questions about who I was, about what drives me and what gives me a sense of joy in the world, and I think by engaging in that I felt like I could come back into organizing from a sense of curiosity and a sense of being really engaged in a question I’m choosing to do something that I’m really interested in, and the things that I’m not interested in or curious about right now I’m just not going to do. And so I think it was a kind of shift of I’m no longer doing things out of a sense of obligation or a sense of I have to but just a sense of here’s where my energy’s at right now, and I think that’s one of the things that writing poetry teaches you is—you’re only going to be successful by following your curiosity or whatever is moving you at the moment. I think there is something about being in that, the practice of that craft that just helped me bring that attitude back to my organizing work.

I think there’s just so much pressure that activists feel. As a poet, I couldn’t—I can’t ever sit down and say, you know, today I’m going to write the poem that’s going to win me the Pulitzer Prize, like, we can’t work under those conditions. We can’t create if that’s the kind of pressure we’re putting down and sitting down with. But I think activists do that all the time. Like I think we come at our workday, we come at the campaign that we’re working on with this sense of if I can’t solve climate change, what am I doing?


LBJ: Oh right.


NA: If I can’t figure how to close a prison today, then I’ve failed. And I think that can become a very taxing and a very difficult condition to work under. And so I think it was helpful to have that shift where I’m like, you know, all I can do today is be present with the thing in front of me and with the people that I’m talking to today and employ all the tools, all the strategy, all the learnings that I have available, and that’s all I can do. You know, all I can do is sit down with that and see where it leads me. I can’t ask myself to solve the biggest problems, it’s just—I have to be in the experiment of it.


LBJ: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Also, I’ve never really thought about stakes in that way. I’ve talked a lot to people about what the stakes are in their poems and then there are the stakes of activist work. But putting it in that light, it makes a lot of sense why coming to the page would be refreshing and you would almost get—I guess they call it burnout but instead of getting writer’s block you have a kind of “activist block” where it’s hard when you can’t fix a problem immediately because they’re really, really big problems. I also wanted to know if it goes both ways? So you got into poetry as a respite from wanting to go back to activism a bit more refreshed. Does it work both ways for you getting more involved with things when you can’t write? Or what do you do when you feel like you can’t write? Or do you have that problem at all? Are you one of those magical people that sit and write?


NA: No. I do, and you were saying the practice of social justice work and writing sometimes feel really separate in your own experience, and they do in mine too. I mean, I think there’s a compatibility to them in some ways and they also can feel in competition with each other in terms of my actual time and having to make decisions about where am I going to put my energy. If I have a limited amount of creativity to use in a day, am I going to put that towards a political project or am I going to put that towards my own writing? And I do feel that split or that tension. I think I’ve just come to be okay with a sense of different seasons around it, and the feeling that it’s okay for me to choose to work on a book at times, and I’m going to give a lot of energy and time to that, and then that will shift, and I will feel called to put more of that energy into a campaign that I’m working on or training that I’m building or whatever it is. I do think it goes the other way. I think mainly in terms of perspective; I think being part of a political project or a collective of people who are working towards ambitious goals around social change does keep the writing in perspective in a way that’s helpful. If the work that I’m doing outside of writing means that one less person is deported or one less person is in prison or I helped a young trans organizer find their confidence or their sense of leadership and purpose, that’s probably more meaningful than any poem I’m ever going to write. And so that has been helpful, actually, just to be able to come to the page and know this is something I feel moved to do, it helps me, I like the practice of it, and I don’t need to feel anxiety about where it leads me. There’s certainly a piece of me that wants to be successful at it and wants to feel some recognition, but it’s helpful to just remember that that doesn’t—my life’s purpose does not have to revolve around that and probably, at the end of the day, if I’m remembered for other things and not my writing, that’s okay. That’s also been a success.


LBJ: So, not that you have to have it all figured out right at this second, but would you have more practical tips for poets who are either working outside of the more normative mainstream poetics, or who are looking for tips on how to balance their poetry with being socially engaged? Or maybe even for people who don’t think those things can be mixed? I know I’ve heard as well some people who are more socially engaged want to be able to talk about their work on a craft level and not always talk about the ideas, and sometimes that gets lost a bit. I don’t know if you have tips that you tell the people who you’re working with who also want to explore poetry.


NA: Yeah, yeah. Part of it is knowing what your goal is. I think the mainstream literary world is always going to be pointing towards a notion of success being winning awards, selling a certain number of books, getting published by certain publishers, getting the fancy residencies, and those are all nice things to have, and I, you know, like I said, there’s a part of me that wants some of that for myself. So I don’t reject it fully, but I think it is helpful to not let that define your purpose in the work and why you’re doing it. I know an organizer, Ociele Hawkins, who’s also a poet and self-published their second book of poetry. And they have sold more books by self-publishing and being super engaged in the communities that they work with, and people have really loved and embraced their writing and it’s been a way for them to show a different side of themselves to the people that they’re organizing with. Those are helpful reminders, to see someone say, I don’t need to go through these other channels, lots of people will read these books and be moved by them, and it will mean something to the people that come into contact with them. So I think it’s just important to remember that there are different ways of being in the work and different ways of sharing it that are still really impactful and can still feed you as a poet.

The other thing, just to speak more to my own experience of it, is I think it’s just trusting that my pathway is going to look different than it’s looked for people who went straight from undergrad into an MFA and who are maybe more on an academic track. I think I’ve still had a lot of touches with the mainstream literary world, but maybe that’s been spread out over a longer period of time and based on when I had space for it, when I had a need for it. Now maybe I hit a moment in my writing where I just felt like I needed more instruction, or I needed more resource, so applying for workshops in those moments. I’m doing an MFA now, and I’ll graduate the same year that I turn forty, so it’s been a long kind of stretched out journey. But I feel like I’m really able to make good use of the program now because I went into it knowing what I wanted to get out of it and what questions I was asking, and it’s felt like a really generative time for me. Yeah, so I think it’s being okay with making your own path and not having that mirror what other people are doing. I also think that just being more focused on building relationships than on chasing publications. I really don’t do that many submissions or applications to things. Partly because I just don’t feel like I have a lot of time for it, and it’s not always the best use of my time. But I’ve spent time just getting to know people who I like as writers or attending workshops where I can build relationships with people that have been really helpful and supportive contacts over the years, and so I think that’s also just a different way of being—prioritizing the relationship over the accolade or the publication. And I feel like there’s a lot of invitations that have come out of that, just because I know people and they’re thinking about me. I think in some ways too, people have been generous towards me because they know I’m not doing the same thing as everyone else. So sometimes people have reached out because they know they have an opportunity to highlight something that I’m doing that they know isn’t going to be highlighted through an institution.


LBJ: Yeah, I was going to ask—actually maybe I’ll just skip to that. I was going to ask you about your submission philosophy. A lot of people don’t have one, but is there any sense of your social justice work in your submission policy? If you do submit, are you more gearing towards places that are reflecting more diverse work? Or is it more that people are reaching out to you and that’s—I guess that would feed into each other, your work would kind of be a self-selecting process where people are interested or already know that they’re interested in what you’re doing and then they’re reaching out to you to see if you have anything to submit.


NA: Yeah, I think it’s more that second thing. And I think I’ve been paying attention to conversations in the literary world about power, about access, about who’s in charge and making decisions, and more and more I’m attuning myself to the publications that really seem to care about representation, that are—that have more editors of color and queer and trans editors on the masthead and that kind of thing. I think it’s probably annoying for some people to hear this, but most publications that I’ve gotten it’s because the work was solicited, and I don’t think that that’s because I’m a really fantastic poet, who’s really sought after, I think it has—


LBJ: I’ll say it. I think it’s probably a little bit of that.


NA: Thank you, thank you. I mean, I feel like I work hard at the craft, and I try to be thoughtful about when something is really ready to go out in the world. In my own process, I try to really think about quality and think about what standard something has to be at before I want to publish it. But in terms of the actual process, I do think it’s been nice just to be more focused on who I’m in conversation with. Who have I met? Whose writing I really appreciate, and because of that I’m going to put myself in more spaces with those writers, whether it’s taking a workshop with them or making time to sit with people at conferences and letting people know that I’ve read their work and that I appreciated it. And so I do think it’s a little indirect, but I think that really does come out of my social justice practice because for community organizers, you know that relationship is your main form of influence and of resource and power. You know a lot of organizing is about being in relationship with people in a way that is mutually beneficial and has some integrity in terms of like, here’s the way we want to move forward together. Here is where we’re meeting in terms of shared interests and goals, and I do think that that translates somehow into how I’m moving in the literary world. I’m there to find my people. I’m there to be interested in what other people are doing when it speaks to something that I’m also interested in doing. And so it’s not about networking with that question of how do I get ahead or how do I work my way into particular opportunities. I think it’s really just about wanting to gravitate towards the people who have something to teach me and have a shared interest in terms of how we’re thinking about our work.


LBJ: Yeah, and you talked in an interview about your advisor, Jennifer Chang? And how—I don’t know if she was introducing you in the class context or if you guys are just talking about image in de-colonial poetics and craft—I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit more about how you work from the page, and if that influences the forms or the languages—working in both Spanish and English. I was revisiting Flower Wars for the Sealey Challenge this month, and I was trying to think about the poems in relation to de-colonial poetics and so I was noticing more poems in couplets or tercets, and you open with a prose poem. But I was really struck by one poem, “The Principle State of the Erotic is Confusion” that has super, super short lines, and one line is just, “Wait, wait.” And then there are other lines that are just one word and it’s really broken, so form and content are really working together but to destabilize. So we are not working to bring some cohesive form together, but then there were also a couple poems that were thirteen lines or sixteen lines, and so it was almost like they were sonnet shaped without conforming to that at all. So when you’re composing poems and getting them to that stage, how are you thinking about how to shape things up formally?


NA: I mean, I think with Flower Wars to be honest, I was really teaching myself to write in those poems. A lot of those—I think the oldest poem in that book I wrote for the first or second creative writing class I took at the community college of Philadelphia when I was just really starting to get into poetry more seriously. So I think there’s a lot in there that’s instinct, you know, it was trying things out, feeling what different forms feel like on the page and what they do. So I can’t say there was, at that stage, a really developed philosophy around what I was doing, but I think in hindsight as I continued to develop in my practice as a writer, I can look back and understand what instincts or what questions are governing the shape that those poems took, and I’ve been really moved by some of the more recent conversations and contact that I’ve had with people. I took a workshop with Myung Mi Kim a few years ago, and she talked a lot about this idea of composition by field versus a more conventional approach to form and allowing a political process to shape what was on the page and what shape that it took. Particularly around this idea of what’s acknowledged or what goes unacknowledged, what’s allowed to be included or represented on the page and what takes the form of silence, and I think in a lot of my work there’s a kind of play between what am I going to tell you and what am I going to withhold or what’s the thing that I feel like I know how to speak to or represent and what are the things that I’m still struggling to articulate in some way? And I think in Flower Wars a lot of that, a lot of those poems are being shaped out of a sense of—there is an experience that I’m having particularly around my identity as a trans person and as someone who’s mixed race that I can get at in these poems but I don’t know how to represent fully, and so there’s also a lot of unsaid things that sit around the poems, and I think that definitely shows up in the shape of them.


LBJ: “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” is more recent, and I loved that collaboration with making it into a video poem with Irit Reinheimer. But I was thinking specifically about how you say, “The days slide by uncapitalized.” Thinking about the differences and even just to play like that, somebody unfamiliar with Spanish might not fully get it, but I like the idea of putting more of those moments in, and that too destabilizes the idea of the English only audience that a lot of poetry written in English might have, and I feel like that’s happening more and more, maybe I’m just noticing it more.


NA: Yeah, I think that idea of translation also really shows up in my poems. I’m aware of the ways that I’m in and out of different cultural contexts and trying to represent one to another. I’m also aware that I will—that I can feel differently or feel my experience differently when I’m working in one code and then having to switch to another, and so I think that with “uncapitalized”—here’s my reality in one place, and then I’m immersed in a different identity or a different cultural context and that really changes my sense of shape in the world. So I think that really plays into the poems, and I work a lot by collage for that reason. There’s a lot of—even the poems that take a more coherent or more formal shape are often still me taking different pieces of things and trying to put them together and making sense of them.


LBJ: Yeah, yeah I love that idea of collage. And then to wrap things up, I always love to ask who people are reading, and you know, who are possibly some of your readers or poets you really like to read who don’t even get mentioned enough, or who are you reading just now?


NA: Yeah, I left my stack of books at my desk.


LBJ: Oh yes.


NA: I wanted to hold them up to the screen, but these are a couple books I wanted to mention. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across another person who’s read it, but a novel called Ways of Dying by a South African writer, Zakes Mda, and it’s this really beautiful book about a character who is living unstably on the margins of society but has assigned himself the role of a professional mourner. And so he goes around to these different funerals in Cape Town and grieves for the person who has passed. And you know, there’s a lot of social context within that book that’s important. But it’s one that I read years ago, and I’ve kept it out on my nightstand recently with the idea that I’ll go back and read it again because I think we’re just in a time of such deep grief, and I think there’s something really beautiful about how that book speaks to the kind of imagination that could be possible within a context where there’s a lot of violence and a lot of loss. So that book I really want to advocate for more people reading.

And some other ones that I was thinking about, the writer Pat Califia (Patrick Califia), I really love all of his books and he’s someone that I think has a—someone that was writing about trans experience and gender many years ago, starting in the 90’s. I think he’s gone underappreciated for his particular body of work, and I’ve gone back to some of his essays recently, and I think they really stand the test of time. There’s still things that feel really important and timely in terms of how he’s thinking and talking about gender and politics and public sex. I think a lot of his writing about sexual taboos and things like that are really important. So definitely Pat Califia.

And then I think one of the books that has really been a big influence recently is the Lou Sullivan Diaries. Lou Sullivan was an early trans activist who, from a very young age, identified as someone who was a gay man and really thought of himself as a gay man but could not really find an example in the world of someone who was identified as a trans man and also identified as gay. And so just getting to read his journals and his exploration and how he came to formulate his identity is just incredibly moving to me. And then all the activism that he did to promote community and access for trans men during the 80’s and 90’s was really important, and I think I could draw some direct lines between the work that Lou Sullivan did and some of the things that I benefited from in my time.


LBJ: That’s great, yeah, I haven’t read any of those, and now I want to read all of them.


NA: Yeah, yeah, sounds great.


LBJ: Nico, thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to reading those, and I’m looking forward to reading what you put out next as well!


NA: Yeah, thank you. Hopefully there’s a lot more coming soon.


Book recommendations

Don’t miss Nico’s book recommendations here!


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