Chicago poet, activist and performer KOKUMO is celebrating publication of her first book.
Reacquainted With Life is a raw, performative work in which KOKUMO details her history with abuse, rape and violence, and critiques the culture of activism. Yet at times, a dark sort of humor breaks through, making an already incredibly engaging work even more so.
"I feel like sometimes you just gotta laugh or blow your brains out," KOKUMO said, about the relationship of humor to trauma and outrage.
Windy City Times spoke with KOKUMO shortly after the book's publication.
Windy City Times: In the beginning of the book, you have a manifesto of things you believe, and you also turn the author's note into a poem. Why did you choose those forms?
KOKUMO: I just wanted to be creative, and I just wanted to make the entire book a poem. I wanted this to be my For Colored Girls, I wanted this to be my Push, I wanted this to be my book that discussed those issues that I believe are pertinent to me. Being plus-sized, being dark-skinned, being intersex, being femme, being a survivor of a life of sexual abuse and physical abuseI just wanted something that could talk, that could attest.
WCT: Have you always written poetry?
KOKUMO: I've always sung and written poetry. I've always loved the rawness of poetry. I've always loved how I was able to say whatever I needed to say in poetry. The process I went through with this book was that at the actual moment of processing the actual experiences, I wrote the pieces. That's what makes many of them so visceral. It's like the words were burning off of my tongue and singing through my skin. Most of it was free-written. Like, I just experienced the pain of trauma and then I just wrote.
[Reacquainted with Life] was birthed out of another project I was working on called "Beauty is My Revenge," which was supposed to be about four Black trans women who were all doing sex work. It was originally written as a play. And so I wanted the poems to be tandem with that concept.
WCT: What was the hardest poem for you to write?
KOKUMO: I guess it would be the poem "My Desperation Road," because that poem comes from being fat, from being dark-skinned, and from feeling like I could never be loved, and letting what the world has told me about myself seep into me to the point where I don't take care of my body.
I've had points in my life where I didn't take care of my body because I didn't care about itbecause I disassociated from it via all the abuse. And so the poem "My Desperation" is about wanting someone to love you even though you don't love yourself. Wanting someone to love you in lieu of yourself. And I guess what was so difficult about that is that it came from a really true place. A place of not always feeling worthy of love, or even possible to have it or know what it is.
WCT: Which is most important to you: language, image or emotion?
KOKUMO: Sometimes one is more important that the other, but I feel like for the most part they all work together for me. I can't write a poem about envisioning what it feels or what it looks like to be in a specific type of pain. And then, I guess it's a chain reaction. First, I feel it, then I think about the image, then I think about the way in which I can convey the image on paper. And then, the emotionthat's a given. It always has to play a part. That's what I love most about poetry, making people feel me. We live in a world where people don't want to feel. We're trained to not feel. So for like, as a poet, as a musician, as an artist, that's my job, is to make people feel.
WCT: As an artist viewing an audience, how do you know when you've connected with people?
KOKUMO: I feel like when I perform live and I can no longer hear people breathing, that's how I know I've done my job. There's always that ebb and flow of a live performance where the audience or the speaker or the artist is giving the art, and then the audience is receiving it.
WCT: What artists or inspirations have been with you over the years?
KOKUMO: I honestly would say Push and For Colored Girls"[were] the two biggest. I wouldn't say obsessed, but they were like my compass. Those entire pieces were those type of pieces that are the type of pieces where people stop breathing. Because it's so honest. I wanted to write like Ntozake Shange and Sapphire. I wanted to write poems that would make people literally cry. Or literally, you know, like, want to commit suicide. Or literallyit had to be that visceral for me. And so those two, they were like my Biggie and Tupac.
WCT: What was something you needed to learn while writing this book or to write it?
KOKUMO: One, everything doesn't have to rhyme. I feel like poems are better when they don't rhyme. Two, it doesn't always have to make sense, just write it. Sometimes, it's not gonna make sense, because it's not coming from a logical place. It's just coming from the place of pain, and pain has its own language.
Sometimes, the job of the artist is to be a conduit to other people's pain. Like, give people the tools to feel their own pain. As an artist, that's my job, to not always feel but be a conduit, a platform, a catalyst to which other people can feel their own pain. And see that there's nothing to be afraid of. Emotions are fun, once you get control over them.
Reacquainted With Life can be found at Topside Press at TopsidePress.com .