Poet Of The Week

Vayl Luella Larkin

     October 11–17, 2021

Vayl Luella Larkin is a trans/enby, wheelchair-enhanced writer and all-purpose nerd. An upstate New York native whose past employment has ranged from opera singer to exotic dancer, they have settled happily in Pittsburgh, where they write poetry, short fiction, theater and sometimes impassioned essays. Their creative work often explores scientific ideas and metaphors, as well as their experience as part of historically marginalized communities. Social justice, both for people and the planet, is a prominent theme. They have been published in Drunk Monkeys and the anthology Love Letters to Gaia, and their work has been featured in the webseries Tales from the Trail and the Bay Area podcast Phynnecabulary. This past spring, Larkin was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Gregory Crosby’s workshop on The Poetic Sequence.

Toolmakers

 

The green wild goes mad

in its agony, skies

crashing down with

thunderheads to crush us,

our baking cities, desiccated

of any liquid save oil.

Is it any wonder that they

burn and burn?

We watch the dying seas

rising, spreading salt

through the aquifers

and licking away sand and

tender wood and

rusting metal,

in rushing rivers

down every street.

We would need to become

fish-people,

or frog-people, or long,

stilted herons,

if we were to stay.

Too late, too late:

We should have remained

animals to begin with.

Better that than what

we have become –

a vast maw,

snatching every scrap of

land from all who have

always belonged to it.

We are toolmakers,

chained to our DNA

like a wagon.

If only we made tools to

regrow cloud forests,

to repair the great

scars we have carved

in the mountains,

to renew creatures

we’ve long since

doomed to decay,

and to diminish

ourselves, to the mortal

meat of our own substance,

to the sounding of our

own hearts,

to our place in the

greater pattern,

to the vitality of living

beyond the veil of avarice.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem started with the idea of hominids (along with other known species) as toolmakers, and that phrase, “If only we made tools to regrow cloud forests.” Everything else followed, including the images of evolution in a future where we have destroyed our current ecological structure: “We would need to become fish-people,” and that’s not only referring to sea-level rise.

Trees should ideally be the dominant large lifeform here, but instead it’s us. Trees produce the oxygen life needs, while we consume it. The imbalance is unsustainable. What we are doing with deforestation alone could reduce this planet to one sustained exclusively by oceanic oxygen, for example, and what would that mean for everything that lives now? If we would only put our remarkable ingenuity to work on repairing the damage we have already done, and preparing for a future we’ve now created, it would benefit literally every living thing. How is this not a top priority for us?

What are you working on right now?

I have a couple of projects ongoing. First, the video accompanying this interview is part of an access-focused multimedia series using AI voices, voicing by other poets and performers, and musical recordings, some from my own catalog (I was an opera singer in a former iteration), and some by a remarkable Pittsburgh outfit called Doors in the Labyrinth, which includes film music composed by its frontman.

This project is inspired by difficulties I’m having with my voice, due to a spinal condition. While I can use my voice at times, it isn’t very clear, and sometimes doesn’t really work. Creating these multimedia pieces allows me to maintain my performance participation and creative flow through my disability.

All of this (including lyrics in the music, where applicable) is being interpreted by Deaf ASL performers to include artistic elements that are not only accessible to the D(d)eaf community and educational for those learning and maintaining their ASL vocabularies, but also visually engaging regardless of skill level in the language. Performative ASL is gaining ground, thanks in no small part to performers like Crom Saunders and hip-hop artists like Tech N9ne featuring their interpreters in stage shows. There’s still so much more room for growth here, and I want to do something to help.

My other project is long-term and also involves other performers and artists. It’s an experimental poetic play called Words of the Prophets that follows the stories of five unhoused characters from various walks of life. I was a housing-insecure sex worker in my twenties, and this project will ultimately benefit community organizations that work on the ground with unhoused communities, including sex workers, LGBT youth, and veterans, three of the populations most vulnerable to housing insecurity. Masculine veterans, for example, comprise about seven percent of the general population, but over one-third of homeless masc individuals.

What’s a good day for you?

I’m a disabled wheelchair user, and I have a couple of pain-intensive conditions. A good morning starts with little pain and reasonable energy. I spend a lot of my time reading, listening to music and doing pretty much anything stationary I can do, bar staring at pictures on a screen, because I am secretly an ancient humbug who hates television. My available energy is very limited, but the one advantage to being too disabled to work is that I’m able to use good self-care techniques to make my usable time more productive and fulfilling.

I read a great deal. I love all kinds of authors and genres, from the writing of N. K. Jemisin to John Irving, and Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet is probably my top desert-island book, because there’s just such richness there. I also like certain varieties of fanfiction. (I am a literary gourmand.) I write a great deal, from journaling to poetry and various forms in between. I have also been known to clear my head by playing pickup games of Magic: The Gathering online. I have no shame, and a decent Arena ranking.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I’ve been located since 2007. I love the vast amount of green space and waterways. I really enjoy the way this city is really ninety-nine tiny villages in a trench coat. (Literally. Google it … OK, not the bit about the trench coat.) If you don’t particularly care for the vibe, cross the street and go down a block. It will change.

I’m a nature junkie, so I’ve loved anywhere I’ve lived with a lot of that around. I’m originally from upstate NY, and Pittsburgh is the first larger city I’ve lived in. I’m pretty sure that this is as big as I’d like to go. It has the benefits of a city—great museums, venues and restaurants—but with beautifully vast forested land (there are multiple huge parks inside city limits, along with all the standard green spaces you’d see in most cities), amazing waterways and mountains, and in a lot of areas, small, locally-owned businesses instead of big chains. I hope it maintains that character.

Pittsburgh is really on the cusp of something, but it’s hard to say where it will land. This city has been labor Democrat since the 1920s, I believe, but that hasn’t benefited the Black population like it has others. We just elected our first Black mayor, a Progressive, and I couldn’t be happier about that, but gentrification is still driving out entire historically Black neighborhoods. Friends whose families have lived in the same houses for generations have had to move outside of town. I really, really hope we’re going to see changes in that trend.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

Because I am a stereotype, I once went on a road trip with three of my college friends from the LGBT student org (in a Subaru wagon, no less!) and one who lived in Brooklyn hosted us at their house for part of the trip. We had a great time, basically just riding the subway all over the place and hitting up interesting little shops and parks. My times in NYC have all been like this, and I have always been happier experiencing less familiar places like this—on the ground, and avoiding tourist traps as if they were nuclear dumping sites.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

For me, the community of poets is really multifaceted. We support one another, we provide feedback and constructive critique (ideally, only when requested), and being immersed with creative minds all focused on similar pursuits is fulfilling and nurturing to artists in really extraordinary ways. The poetry community here in Pittsburgh can be extremely positive, supportive and safe for newer writers, or writers who are newer to workshopping and performing.

I also have to talk about the online community for poets, which has grown by leaps and bounds during the pandemic. Disabled folks have dealt with a lot of personal conflict throughout this time, when our community has faced more death, disability and discrimination as a direct result of the virus than most. There are multiple examples throughout the country of disabled people, particularly the intellectually disabled, being triaged out of care in favor of those with “higher-quality” lives. To think that we are still treating human beings as though there’s some sort of invisible ranking system is appalling.

At the same time, we are dealing with the world turning around and finally seeing our existence, not only because a lot of us find it much more realistic to interact online than in person (where our conditions, our assistive devices, and public infrastructure combine to make travel out challenging, if not impossible), but because suddenly, everyone is kind of immunocompromised. Many, many more able-bodied people were kept in the house, or away from their careers entirely. Social connection became about more than just seeing, waving, idle chat and then back to our smartphones. The world worked with us, for the very first time in many of our lives. Imagine facing a situation that is making your immediate environment infinitely more engaging, while simultaneously threatening your life in new and frightening ways. It is, as they say, a mindfuck.

A number of venues have seen the value of online programming during this time, bringing together community members in far-flung regions, rural writers, writers without access to easy transport, and disabled folks. The Nuyorican, for example, is planning to maintain an online open mic after they reopen, and both of their online hosts, Advocate of Wordz and La Bruja, have been instrumental in building and developing the community beyond the confines of NYC.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Coincidentally, I would have first mentioned Whitman. My earliest influences, as someone growing up in a rigidly religious household where classics were encouraged over contemporary writers, were Whitman and Christopher Smart. As someone who identifies with the term madness, I appreciate that these were each people who struggled, in their own ways, and ultimately created exactly the art they wanted to, on their own terms. The influence of their outsider perspectives can’t be underestimated. It’s tragic that only one of them was given freedom to live his life while the other was incarcerated for long periods.

Two very different situations at different times, but there’s somehow a common thread of calculated chaos in their work, especially in Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It isn’t true chaos, without order, but the order has been created by someone with their own way of looking at things, that we can’t fully grasp. I sometimes wonder if what separates outsider art from mainstream is the fact that a true outsider perspective cannot be accurately translated into a language built by a society that rejected significant aspects of the outsider. In the cases of both Whitman and Smart, their use of language is revolutionary. We can never discount the contributions of those we cannot always understand, and it’s important to remember that for every Whitman, there are millions of neurodiverse artists whose work never sees the light of day.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

There is one name that will spring immediately to mind, forever: Rachel Guido deVries. She is a lesbian poet of Italian ancestry who came into schools in my district and did poetry enrichment programs with all of the students every year. Her programs were amazing! She spoke to us in clear language, while never talking down to anyone. She introduced everything from metaphor and rhyme in grade school to forms and other poetic devices later on. As a young queer kid, her example was certainly a shining one.

I had the genuine privilege of attending school in a district with a largely lower-middle-class and poor student body, but a very strong tax base due to a local nuclear power plant. The programs we had were extraordinary, and many of us had our choice of colleges after graduating. It’s tragic that this interest-based, engaging educational style is virtually unheard-of in modern institutions, due entirely to lack of funding and reasonable allocation.

Attending those schools with me was my other major influence, my first girlfriend. She was a fantastic poet, and when I went off to school primarily for music, she took a bunch of writing classes and just grew as an artist by leaps and bounds. She came to visit me, bringing some of her newer work, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be done poetically. I think Rachel taught me to understand why the rules can be so useful, and this woman taught me that it’s okay to employ them as flavors and textures, and not always the whole dish. She is, I believe, living in Brooklyn herself, so I will leave her to her privacy!

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’ve been listening to a lot of live, online readings for my poetry consumption, which I’m really enjoying because of the wide variety of styles, voices and approaches. I can listen to a slam poet back-to-back with a Shakespearean sonnet and three haiku about spin glass magnetism. It’s my ideal world.

I’ve also been acquiring more small-press poetry books. My favorite recently was Black Calculus by Norm Mattox, out from Nomadic Press. As an inveterate nerd, I find that his melange of science, mathematics and justice issues hits exactly right for me. I am sapiosexual in my reading—I love writers who teach me as they engage and inspire.

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 read many hours a day, which for me includes books, ebooks, journal articles (mostly math and science), individual and collected poems, and my personal blend of news sources. If you can read it, I like it. If you can write with/on it, I like it. I don’t discriminate based on technology (or genre, for that matter). I love the smell, feel and look of hardback books. I use fountain pens religiously. I also love the fact that my ebook reader can rest lightly on a bookstand on my lap without requiring me to hold it with my hands, which are arthritic and can barely manage the writing. I don’t see why I should have to choose!

I take notes, but oddly enough, only on fiction. I have a fairly decent head for information, so I usually pick up concepts from nonfiction reading and worry about memorizing details later. I love writing down literary quotes that dig deep, though.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I’m most focused when writing outdoors. When I was younger, I spent a lot of my time down by the river, or by Lake Ontario, which abutted our town. Even before I was allowed to go the few blocks it took to get to the water, I had a tree in the neighborhood park, out of the way by an abandoned rail tunnel, where I would climb up into a nook and roost with books and notebooks for hours.

One thing that’s not talked about enough with disability is the way it can divorce people from the natural world. Many of us are reliant on technology for our function/survival, which is frequently too sensitive to be used outside of a controlled environment. Even when sturdier, more resilient options are on the market, they are out of the price range of the majority of the disabled community, which lives in poverty. (An off-road wheelchair costs as much as a car, and the price can range much higher for better models.)

Medicaid, for example, pays for only the most basic and essential of technological aids, leaving most of us without choice about where to spend our time: we must be indoors, or at least on paved surfaces with enough clearance for our bodies and assistive devices.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Honestly, the longest visit I had in Brooklyn was during the late ’90s, and even at that age, I could feel the way the community was changing. Gentrification is the reason I’m on my way out of the neighborhood I’ve rented in for fifteen years. Between Pittsburgh’s Little Italy and Polish Hill, the neighborhood was predominantly millworkers’ housing. Mostly white, but poor. A house down the street just sold for $2 million. Sure, there are the awesome little shops, galleries and eateries that open, but watch carefully: given ten to fifteen years of this golden age when some individuals with less money and more creativity can still afford residence, that same neighborhood will devolve into Gap and Apple stores from redline to shining redline.

I’m very much in favor of consciousness in real estate for white folks. Don’t buy cheap in marginalized neighborhoods. Don’t be that hipster that lures La Perla into demolishing main street to make way for stores where none of the employees can afford to shop. This is not about segregation, or personal freedoms. The facts are, Black and Brown people have a rough time acquiring and keeping property anywhere white people want to live, because of the system we’re all working under. Maybe someone would want to debate the merits of individual, financial reparations, but there are plenty of ways we can direct the money we’re already spending in ways that help ameliorate the systemic inequalities that tend to work in our favor.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate variety,

And what I give to you, infinity,

For every joy of me as good begets you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

As a variation, I’m basing my response on some rhymes from the Black Star album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star: passionate, aftermath of it, assassin shit, Nazareth, master discs, gathering, tenements, regiments, Brooklyn, believe that, police be at, we be at. These are Mos Def’s closing rhymes in the first verse of “Definition,” used below with slight modifications to avoid misuse or appropriation of AAVE in a white writer’s work.

Nature of the Emergency

(for all us pale fuckers)

 

We are always so passionate

in the wreckage, the aftermath of it,

calling in those assassins,

like they’re saviors from Nazareth.

Download this to your hard disk,

all these facts that we’re gathering

from those bullied in tenements:

It’s all Nazis in regiments,

marching through Brooklyn,

and if you can’t believe that

see where the police are at—

Any target we aim them at.