November 23–29, 2020
Leo Aquino is a multidisciplinary storyteller and artist living in Los Angeles. Their poetry has been published in Curlew Quarterly and the Asian American Feminist Collective’s First Times series. Leo is a community-builder and knowledge-bearer. Before moving to Los Angeles, they built and supported community organizations that serve women and non-binary people of color in Brooklyn. This past fall, they received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship for study in Shira Erlichman’s Recess for Poets workshop.
Author photo by Jia Nocon
when my words refuse to poem,
I stop time
I soulwatch the oxygen enter my lungs
trace each molecule’s origin back
to saber-toothed lionesses
tilapia scales from lake sampaloc
carabao husk shavings from malasiqui
dirty ice cream man’s manila fingernail crust
chinese silkworm droppings
hapsburg oil portrait resin
I bodysort all the molecules into microscopic
phil of the future time capsules behind my skin
then I re-member that my mother crowned me
bringer of joy
she poemed me just as i am
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I made this poem when I was on the brink of announcing my name change. There’s so much grief in the process of coming out as trans. To some degree, I really didn’t like who I was when I was pretending to be a woman. But I choose to love myself in all versions and lifetimes. This poem celebrates the name that my mom chose for me, where I come from, and what I’ve learned while surviving the gender binary.
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing an essay about revenge-cleaning my ex’s apartment. I’m making poems about coming out as trans. I’m making one ghazal per day this winter. And like every writer that moves to Los Angeles, I’m working on a screenplay.
What’s a good day for you?
The best days are the simplest days. I write my morning pages in bed with a nice cup of ginger turmeric tea. I say good morning to my plants and to my grandparents, whose photos I keep on an altar in my room. I take a long walk in my Hollywood Hills–adjacent neighborhood while listening to a podcast that makes me cry. (I love a good sweaty cry, honestly.)
I take a drive out to the Pacific Coast Highway to see the ocean and the dolphins. I talk to my mom, my sisters and my besties on the phone and share deep belly-laughs. I meet a friend for vegan pizza at Sage, now that LA has turned me into a vegan sympathizer. I eat celebratory my-ex-is-allergic-to-shellfish-and-I-love-being-single sushi from my favorite spot on Hollywood and Argyle. It’s the simple things.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I wish I could say something cute and inspirational, like “The energy was irresistible” or something. But honestly, I found an immaculate apartment with the rare washer and dryer in-unit. I signed a two-year lease with two dudes I met on the Internet the day before, and the rest is history.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived on the border of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick for four years, near Stuyvesant Heights. I loved that neighborhood. Before moving there, I was squatting in an artists’ studio in Long Island City and showering at Blink. I felt blessed to finally live in that apartment. By the same token, I also knew from day one that I was a guest in a historically Black neighborhood. Stuy Heights, specifically, had this vibe of community looking out for one another, which is really inspiring. This is a place that invites you to embody your anti-racist work through community building.
I can’t speak too much about how it’s changed, but I can speak about how it changed me. My neighborhood helped me to name and honor what’s buried under the concrete. In comparison to other cities I’ve lived in, Bed-Stuy is the most poetic.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
A few years ago, I wanted to start a book club for women and femmes of color in my neighborhood. (I identified as a woman and femme at the time.) I put my phone number up all over—on lampposts, in libraries and local businesses. I told my sister about it and she said, “Don’t you think that’s kind of dangerous?” And I was like, “I mean … maybe?” But I felt in my gut that something magical was about to happen—and it did. It was the best gift that my neighborhood gave me.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
A poetry community is a soft place for poems to land. Brooklyn Poets has definitely been that soft place for me. I’ve yet to find it in physical form here in LA, but since the pandemic started, I feel energetically surrounded by Internet friends and poets sharing their work online.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
JP Howard, a fellow Leo (astrologically), who showed us how to write a proper ode in a Yawp workshop.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Marwa Helal and Shira Erlichman. I took their workshops (Imagining a Vernacular Future and Recess for Poets, respectively) through BK Poets. They injected my life with new kinds of magic. I feel really lucky to have worked with them.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Ross Gay’s “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt.” These lines remind me how easy it is to celebrate my genderfluidity:
will be on the other
I am a woman
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I’m a literary polygamist, baby. I read eight to ten books at a time, but occasionally a good book brings me to my knees in singular devotion. I stop everything to read it in two to three days. I can’t stand digital texts because I love to fill margins with witty responses to the author and anecdotes I want my grandchildren to read when they inherit my book collection.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I can’t stop writing ghazals. Usually, following poetic form makes me feel like an unruly egg yolk bursting through my sac. But not the ghazal. The repetition of words, encouragement of homophones, and internal rhymes soothe me. Saying my own name in a poem feels almost as good as a lover saying my name in bed—this new name, Leo, that I feel I’ve been gifted by my ancestors. Embracing a poetic form humbles me, makes me a poet among poets.
The ghazal is such a sacred and much-needed form of self-celebration for me. This is how I love myself when the world around me is hellbent on erasing my story.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
At the top of a hike. Parked in the car next to the sprawling, glittering ocean on the Pacific Coast Highway while listening to jazz. And at home, near my plants—when the sun hits me and a plant at the same time, I become one of the plants.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
In Bed-Stuy: Macon Library, which is where I held my first book club meeting. Saratoga Park, because I love watching dogs run off-leash underneath those big ole trees that know more about Brooklyn than any of us do. Milk & Pull on Malcolm X and Decatur, because the owners are lovely and it was my favorite place to work in the neighborhood.
And in Williamsburg: the Commodore. For their superb chicken sandwich, which I still miss dearly.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate delicious joy,
And what I bake in the oven you devour ravenously with all eight hands,
For every crunch and crumb in me as good as the temple of delights I see in you.
Community over everything.