“Poetry has a net good for our communities and our kinship practices”: An Interview with Kinsale Hueston

Kinsale Hueston is a force of connection. The poet, activist, and editor is tethered strongly to community. As the founder of the changing womxn collective, Hueston collates said community—one bound by the celebration of BIPOC creativity—with digital media. She is acutely aware of the power of a platform, as she turns passing the microphone into a lifestyle. On her social media, Hueston spotlights not just her own work, but the work of other artists as well.

It is fitting that I found her through her online platform. I first met Hueston through a series of online poetry workshops she was hosting (a testament to how Hueston uses her poetry and her words to bring people into the fold). In our interview, Hueston discusses taking part in the National Student Poets Program, being Indigenous in an urban setting, and her role as an editor.

First off, how did you become a poet?

I’ve been writing poetry forever. I remember in second grade performing poetry in front of my class. I never called myself a poet before the National Student Poets Program; they made us take ownership of being a poet, a capital-P poet. Before that, and even now, I saw myself as a student: always learning about poetry, always taking it in. 

Through getting published more, getting spotlighted more, I had to come to terms with becoming a poet in a more professional sense.

Being a National Student Poet is such an impressive achievement. Can you talk about your experience with the program? What were some major takeaways and ways you grew as a writer from being a National Student Poet?

I submitted my work to the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards because my teacher mentioned it to me. I was on [Scholastic’s] website browsing, and I saw the National Student Poets Program. I didn’t think much about it at the time because you don’t apply to the program, they choose you (in a very ominous way). I didn’t know what it really was until I got a notification that I was a semi-finalist. That was months after I had submitted my work. I thought that’s crazy, I was just on the website looking at all the stuff. When I was considered, I took it more seriously. I did a lot of research, looked at a lot of past poets, and learned as much as possible. I put everything into my semi-finalist application [so I could] be a finalist, then it happened.

[The National Student Poets Program] changed my life. It was a lot of workshops, a lot of writing, and a lot of meeting incredible people whom I still have connections with today and whom I never would have met outside the program.

The biggest takeaway for me was learning about performance and how to have a connection with your audience. I don’t think I’ve ever performed my poetry in an arena, or even in a big setting before. The program made me just uncomfortable enough to learn from it. I went from somebody who didn’t have a lot of formal practice with poetry, didn’t take any classes or workshops [to someone who was immersed in poetry]. I took my time with the National Student poets to take my skills to the next level. Not only was I made to hold workshops and create them (almost on a daily basis),  I was made to participate in them. And I was participating in workshops with poets like Elizabeth Alexander. There was pressure to create content. But it was a good kind of pressure, the kind you grow from.

In terms of inspiration, who are the poets that you adore, and why?

Layli Long Soldier, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, and Natalie Diaz were the Native womxn that taught me that I didn’t have to conform to Western styles of poetry, or traditional forms [of poetry]. They taught me that I didn’t have to write poetry to appeal to the non-Native masses, but [I could write poetry] for me and my family and my community. There was a huge shift in my work. They taught me that was okay. Rather than trying to appeal to editors, publishers, and mainstream media, I focused my work on myself and bettering my home community.

With the teaching of Indigenous feminisms—which I learned more about in college—poetry has a net good for our communities and our kinship practices; it’s good for healing. These poets are really well versed in that, especially Natalie Diaz and Layli Long Soldier who focus on poetry as a mechanism for healing to address traumas in our lives and different traumas perpetuated by the federal government. In the case of Layli Long Soldier, she reworks treaty language to find new ways of looking at federal papers. These are big bold official documents, once you break them down, you just see how ridiculous they are and how they lie. I think it’s pretty awesome how Long Soldier can do that with a poem.

I am an avid fan of the poetry you featured on your website. I learned recently that you edited and self-published a chapbook of poetry called Where I’m From: Poems from Sherman Indian School. How did you conceive of this collection, and what does it center on?

It centered on the students I worked with at the Sherman Indian School in Riverside, California. I wanted it to be focused on them and their work. I taught a series of workshops there for several months and got to hear their voices through poetry. It was fun, it was so much fun. I wanted to give them something that they could physically keep from the time we had spent together. 

Almost all the poems were from the high school students themselves. [The chapbook] turned out so beautifully. One of the students had done an art piece accompanied by a poem; he made it especially for the cover and I made it digital. The chapbook has a lot of meaning for me but it wasn’t for me, or for anyone else. It was mostly for them.

I am really interested in your poem “Love Letters from an Urban NDN.” It is split off into three sections and seems to follow a classic beginning-middle-end narrative structure. Can you dive deeper into the construction and meaning of the poem?

That’s so funny that you see it as a beginning-middle-end [piece], it must have been the way I paced it. The version I have on my website is actually an excerpt from a longer piece for the J. Edward Meeker Prize at Yale. 

I didn’t try to go in chronological order, but it’s spaced out the way it is because I wanted to experiment with form in the piece. I wanted to have a thread of identity in the piece about Indigenous urbanisms—the different experiences that arise out of being Native in an urban area—and the relationships with other people, with non-Natives, with other places you may call home, and with other human beings. 

It was a really honest piece. It was inspired by my time in Los Angeles working with the Native Arts community as a teenager.

Are there any other of your poems that you would like to give context for or explain more in-depth?

Not really. Whatever people take away from my work, they’re going to take away. Natives, especially the Natives in my community, take away different things than non-Natives. That’s kind of the point. Some of my poems are inside jokes; that’s a very Native thing to do, joking around. Some people don’t understand the jokes, but that’s okay. They can still appreciate them.

You mentioned writing for an English prize at Yale. I know you are heavily involved in Yale’s literary scene. What is it like being a poet in academia?

Being a poet in my extracurricular [time] is pretty easy. Being a poet while being a student is challenging, there’s traveling [and other tasks to balance]. There’s no better way to talk about this than [to talk about] last year. My first ever advanced poetry class was with Claudia Rankine. There were 10-12 students in that class and it was the most terrifying thing to sit down with her and talk about my work. To have Claudia Rankine comment on your work was crazy to me. It’s challenging to have such amazing professors, but it’s also a privilege. It propelled my work forward and made me write in different ways.

The terrible, awful thing is that I have to read the kind of poets I got to avoid as a National Student Poet, that’s the crusty, old, white men poets I read way too much of when I was in lower school and high school. I like all poetry pretty much, so I’m not going to complain. Reading any kind of poetry any time is fun.

You are the founder and editor of the literary magazine changing womxn collective. It does great work in centering underrepresented voices from canonical literary magazines. It is a platform for womxn of color and by womxn of color. Tell me about it. Why did you create it? Has your editor role has impacted or changed your writing process?

changing womxn arose from me having a platform. I was reflecting on [the size of my platform] and I wanted to offer my platform to BIPOC femmes and nonbinary folx as much as possible. They inspire me constantly. I wanted to create a community for all of us to come together to celebrate all of our writing and creative voices. changing womxn was what I wish I had as a little kid; my work would have developed a lot faster if I had something like this to look at, to take in, and to be a part of.

Being an editor has given me a larger workload, but I’m grateful. There are large amounts of writing and art I’m able to experience in that position. I love seeing new work that’s exciting or thoughtful. Every work I’ve seen has potential, even if we haven’t accepted it for publishing. I write back personal notes for the people we don’t publish because I genuinely want them to be published. Usually, their pieces of writing just take a little more time with the writer. I see that as my role as an editor. I’m giving them time and some suggestions to work with their pieces so we can eventually publish them. I wouldn’t say [being an editor] changed my process, but it helps keep me motivated. I get hit with writer’s block a lot, so seeing their work is inspiring. I’ll see a good poem and think that really makes me want to write about my mother. I’ll end up writing something new, all thanks to these amazing womxn who are submitting this work.

You have been featured by many media platforms like Time Magazine, Refinery29, and others. What was your reaction when you found out they wanted to feature you and how have these platforms impacted your life?

Some kind of hand movement and screaming. Every time it catches me by surprise and I’m very grateful to have my work spotlighted and what I do spotlighted. I’ve never seen [offers to feature me] and think it makes sense, I always can’t believe [these magazines want to spotlight me]. Especially with Time Magazine, which was the biggest feature at the time. It was Ava DuVernay that reached out, too. My platform doubled. Articles were published about me based on the single fact that I was in Time Magazine. I was in college as a first-year, back then I was known as the Time Magazine-poet. I would go to mixers or seminars and they would ask, ‘Are you the Time Magazine published poet?’ and then I would respond with ‘I guess.’ As a first-year [in college] and as a young poet, that had a big impact on my life, for sure.

What are your future plans? Whether it is with your own work, with changing womxn collective, and other things?.

The first thought that comes to mind is that I want to get changing womxn to print in some form. Maybe even just once. I want to see it happen; the womxn and femmes I work with are excited to do it eventually.

I want to keep writing. The future’s a little foggy right now just because of COVID-19 and how unsure everything is as a student. I know I’ll continue writing. I want to use my platform to create new things that can help during the pandemic. [For example], I put my poetry on two different shirts. One’s with [the brand] Orenda Tribe, which has been doing mutual aid powered by Diné womxn on the Navajo Nation. I also want to do a zine and sell that for donations and utilize my poetry in different ways. I’ll be hand-making the zines, so stay tuned on social media.

Last thoughts?

Spend some time out of your day to listen or to amplify a BIPOC artist. It takes two seconds to go to a collective like changing womxn and follow an artist that has been posted or to send a couple of bucks to their Venmo or PayPal, anything you can afford to give. It’s hard for artists to make money because we’re all stuck at home or in places with no internet and fewer resources. Take the time out of your day and amplify someone’s work.

Michelle Lin is a spoken word artist, activist, and daughter of the Asian diaspora; her work weaves emotions and imagery for a rich tapestry of storytelling. She represented the BAM! Toronto Youth Slam Team for two years and attended Brave New Voices (an international poetry festival) representing Canada. A rising sophomore in Kenyon College, Michelle majors in English and creative writing and serves as an associate for the Kenyon Review. She won Button Poetry’s video contest in the youth category with her poem “Eulogy to Van Gogh’s Ear.” 

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