An Interview with Jarvis Subia
August 13, 2020
Interviewed by Sarah Neilson, TSW staff
Before this summer of disaster and unrest, Jarvis Subia was already on fire. As a staple of the Bay Area poetry community, he was performing and winning awards at slams from California to New York.
His spoken word is electric and hot like blood, tender and vulnerable, bright and verdant. Artfully traversing the landscapes of queerness, masculinity, the natural world, love, fear, resilience, and the complexities of this place called America, Subia’s voice and craft are a gift. In addition to writing and performing poetry, Subia is a teaching artist working with Bay Area youth to find and amplify their voices, especially in communities where education and academia are more exclusionary than uplifting.
As the pandemic, and the ongoing brutality of the American police state, continues to till the global soil into a mess of pain and possibility, Subia’s life and art have shifted, as is true for everyone. Sarah Neilson spoke to Subia over the phone about joy, masculinity, access, activism, mental health during the pandemic, change, and flowers.
Sarah Neilson: I was introduced to your work through the poem “After Dancing at the Gay Bar,” which you performed at the Individual World Poetry Slam in San Diego in 2019, the video of which was recently released on the Button Poetry YouTube channel. That poem and performance is so full of queer joy and resilience. I’m curious about the origins of it, and how you approach centering or cultivating joy in your work in general?
Jarvis Subia: I guess you could say a theme in my work is trying to approach queerness as a masc-presenting man, and really trying to find out what masculinity means for me, particularly in the way that I grew up and found that it didn’t necessarily always benefit me. There were a lot of ways that I grew up very closeted. I hid a lot and was very aware of the violence that masculinity presents itself in in many ways. I did a lot of unlearning [of that] throughout my adulthood, but really, I’m attached to wanting to present this framing of, you can be all the things. I would say that poem is saying, Hey, I’m a queer man who’s pansexual, who sometimes — because I came out of the closet in my early twenties — is still trying to navigate his own queerness and find himself in community because maybe he doesn’t always present in a way that’s usually seen as queer.
I think sometimes it makes the community harder. Sometimes it makes certain places I go harder. I know for a fact is there’s been a few times when I’ve gone into a queer space, like a gay bar, and get this vibe of like, “Why is this man here?” Which I completely get, because I think I grew up… when I was in high school, I was a closeted jock. I was kind of a bro-y dude. I wasn’t the kindest person all the time. And I get that I present in a way that many folks who have had experiences with that, that might be considered violent or considered aggressive. I presented the way of people who may have bullied the people that I admire and love and want to be more like. So I think that’s part of that poem. And then also really trying to find the joy and happiness, trying to find resilience. I’m learning every day that being queer is a journey. It’s constantly learning and learning to push through somehow, to overcome things like losing friend groups, gaining friend groups, navigating my own personal family in that, being aware of what it means to present as a queer person in the world, particularly when there’s so much saying not to do that.
I mentioned this in the video, that when the Pulse shooting happened, I was still learning to come into my queerness. It was a blatant reminder of the danger of what it means to be yourself in the world.
Sarah: You talked about masculinity and how you’re unlearning a lot of things about it. A lot of your work touches on masculinity and I’m curious about how you think people, especially queer people, can expand the conception of masculinity? And how can that be connected to joy?
Jarvis: It’s a concept I’m still trying to figure out in my work, because of what I think we’r conditioned to know masculinity to be, and the way masculinity presents itself in the world, which is in these very aggressive ways. I was raised in a hyper-masculine culture and I am the youngest of five boys in my family. So I’ve seen a lot of versions of masculinity, but a lot of them are very similar — aggressive, this idea of rigidity that masculinity has to be a tough hard shell and there’s no opening up outside of that. Or if you do, you’re subject to persecution by your fear. There was a lot of fear of my growing up.
I’m very sensitive and very emotional. I wear a lot of who I am on my sleeve. I think I was conditioned to have to hide some of that. I compartmentalized it and tried to show up in this way that was more rigid and firm. I think through coming out and queerness and learning that my gender is definitely more flexible than what I’ve been taught for it to be, and the idea that gender doesn’t matter… Gender is like this concept that we’re learning every day is more and more fluid than [we were told]. These are like boxes we put each other in. You don’t have to do it in the way everybody’s told you to do it. You’re allowed to have more personality traits than what masculinity teaches you to have. You’re allowed to be queer, masculine and male. I think there’s a lot of culture of men who don’t want to open to their queer identities and the way they kind of show up. There’s more closeted masculine men than you think. And just showing that, that hiding of yourself isn’t really beneficial and that we should learn to create a culture that lets people be more open.
Sarah: Another thing that strikes me about your work is a reverence for the natural world, especially as it relates to gardening and the specifics of place. You also often wear flowers in your hair during performances. Can you talk about the connection between gardening, place, and poetry for you?
Jarvis: I love to garden. That’s the big passion of mine. I always feel very attached to nature. I think I’m now realizing it’s coming from a few places. One, at home, just living in an environment where there wasn’t a whole lot of green growing up. Growing up in impoverished neighborhoods, you don’t see as much of the foliage as you do in other places. And as I got older and started seeking that out, I became really attached to it. Another aspect is I did have some back story. My grandfather was actually one of the big gardeners in my life. He was also a male who presented his masculinity in a very soft way, different than the other versions I’ve seen. I think I’m attached to those two ideas.
Flowers are also a really large part of Latin culture and particularly wearing the flowers of where you’re from and all that are around you, but it’s one of those things that’s mostly seen in women. It’s considered more feminine to wear a flower, to show up in that way. In the shifting of the way I’m perceived when I’m out and the way I present in the world, I wanted to wear that more often. Like I said, I was raised in hyper-masculine culture. I’ve been conditioned to show up in the world in a very firm way as a form of protection. I grew up in the hood. In the hood, you have to be a mean mug and show up strong so you don’t get bullied or hurt. I know I look like this large masculine man, but I’m also a very soft person. Sometimes I have to wear that on my sleeves to kind of break the barrier in some places. I think the way the flowers are the spray of bright colors, looking floral just in the color scheme, are a big part of it. And also, as I’ve learned more of nature and flowers, it’s become a bit of an obsession of mine. Maybe I’m more of a nature poet than I think I am.
I’ve been learning the ways gender navigates in the natural world and I also think that’s really reaffirming to me — like learning that more plants are asexual. Corn was one of the ones that I recently found out has both male and female parts to it and actually will pollinate itself. Corn is also a plant I’m attached to because I’m Latin and it feels ancestral.
Sarah: Recently, you wrote a Twitter thread about mental health and how different it is this year for you than it was last year. I was especially struck by this part of the thread: “the winds will change, all tides rupture eventually, the sun will set and rise and set and rise and go dark but regardless it is still the world we choose to live in, we choose to live.” This also made me think about the theme of this issue of The Seventh Wave, which is Before After. How are you currently thinking about this feeling or idea of a Before the pandemic and an After, or before and after a painful time period? How is that dichotomy, of the pandemic in general, influencing your work or creativity?
Jarvis: Yeah, it’s a very new time for everybody. Part of that post is more to kind of honestly let everybody know where I’m at with my mental health because I have been in communication with all the regular people that I have been with. I would say as a self-appointed mental health advocate, I’m always in a space of being open with those stigmas of the things that I’m going through — suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, PTSD. So learning that these are the things that I’m always navigating, but particularly now because of the extra stresses from the pandemic and the lack of access to self-care, feels important. I also feel like many people I know are going through it. It became more of an issue for me that I had to manage and to deal with, but it allowed other folks to see me too. And also, it’s okay to tell people what’s going on with you.
I think the silence of it is one of the biggest things. There’s always a Zora Neale Hurston quote that comes to mind, and it’s, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So I try very much to be vocal about who I am and why I show up like that, to let people know, because if they don’t know, then they’re going to assume and do what they want. And my artistry right now is a bit, I would say, up in the air, with the uncertainty of the future. In many ways the world is changing in the ways it needs to change. There’s a lot of social change happening right now because of the unrest, and I think that’s a beautiful thing blossoming and I am in support of it, And the changes that need to happen because of the hell state that we’re in, right?
Performances are seeing us completely shifted into a virtual space. The human connection of a performance is something that probably will look vastly different in the future. And also, I did a lot of reprioritizing early on in the pandemic where it became less about me needing to create and more about me needing to make sure that people around me were okay, making sure that people around me are protected and safe. One of my favorite poets told me, “Poetry is what happens when we are not concerned with survival.” And I think throughout this whole period and even some period before, as in my life circumstances, survival is always at the forefront and I feel it’s always conflicting with how creative I want to be because I need the space and time and quiet to write and be with my words and thoughts, which I can hopefully then bring out to the world as a performance. But if I’m so concerned with making sure I have space at all, then the creativity is going to kind of fall back, and in a way I think that’s also okay.
I think I’m learning that it’s okay to not be making anything, to not be writing, to really take care of yourself, that [the poetry] will come. A lot of people around me are really talking about shifting the narratives around productivity and how we need to be productive in the world, and the demands that were being asked of us before the pandemic were in some ways too large. It really put a lot of stress on everybody, especially artists who are trying to live and survive in the world. And so realizing that it’s okay to not create and not be in that space as much to make sure you’re okay. And then you might flow back in to it, you know? Part of nature is that change is inevitable. The idea that you’re going to be stagnant or stationary throughout your life is a myth. You have to adapt to the world that’s becoming around you, and I’m just kind of reminding myself that that happens. And then because change is such a thing in nature, right? With the seasons, the plants are always dying and growing. And for some reason, people think they’re separate from that nature, but they’re attached to it.
Sarah: You mentioned performance and the human connection of performance, and how that’s looking different now and will continue to look different. I was wondering about the difference for you between writing something on the page and performing it. How do you approach each of those things, how do they inform each other?
Jarvis: I started as a performance poet. Well, I guess I did start as a page poet, but I kept them all to myself. But my appearing as trying to do poetry in the world was through performance, like open mic, and I would go to them religiously and bring these things that I wrote with the intention of them only being heard. I wasn’t concerned at all with how it looked on the page. College is when I started learning that I wanted to understand craft more, but craft only as a mechanism to improve performance. I wanted to write metaphor so my poem sounded better, so I could work it into something on the stage.
Through studying the history of spoken word and the history of how literacy works within communities of color and impoverished communities, I learned early on that I think the reason why I wasn’t pulled to the page earlier is because of the lack of education I was given growing up. Very poor schools that I went to didn’t teach me proper English skills and proper writing skills, things that will push you through. Written literacy tends to be this hierarchical difference, where academia will preference written work as opposed to vocal work. It kind of wants to say that you’re less of a writer and less of a poet if you speak your word as opposed to writing them out because that’s just a more academic way of doing it, which is also tied into racism. That pushed me. I worked a lot to figure out how to really make spoken word shine. And in a way, it is shining in a lot of recent work. But also, it’s important to know that being a poet is to do both. Early on I didn’t think it was really a thing because my elders in the spoken word community in many ways were kept from and pushed out of the literacy community. There were many events or opportunities that weren’t kept for them because they were seen as spoken word poets. Spoken word poetry — by literary academia, by the poetry world on the page — was really seen as not even validated. There was just this cool thing you all do in open mics, but y’all ain’t really writing poetry; they try to call it something else.
I think a lot of the folks who were kept out of opportunity who came before me and helped bring me up in this world, we just had those challenges. And I think early on, when I started doing this, I started seeing a few poets who were learning to bridge that gap and cross over, folks like Danez Smith or Franny Choi. I grew up watching [Sam Sax] do spoken word and admired him as a spoken word poet, and I saw him really blossom into the page world. And so I think there are poets who really hold both of these things well and really try to show people that that community is very valuable — that community of poets who are learning poetry by saying them out loud is really creating a style and a type of poetic that I think is unlike any other. I think I’m really attached to trying to fulfill both of those. I consider myself a spoken word poet first and foremost, but I am attached to try to get published and figure out that world, if only to boost the many people coming up in the spoken word and get them more visibility.
Sarah: In addition to writing and performing your poetry, you’re an educator. Do you bring that kind of ethos into your teaching and how do you approach being an educator when education, at least the academia arm of it, can be such a fraught world?
Jarvis: I try to come into teaching poetry, and what I would also call teaching literacy art, in a very open way. I see it a lot in the young folks that I work with, they’re very apt at speaking their minds and their emotions and vocalizing that, but maybe haven’t been taught the skills for writing that as well, and that becomes a barrier for them. So really trying to build the confidence and build the self-awareness that you are intelligent and have a skill and you can present it in this way.
I’m a big advocate of not holding standards or trying to grade. My goal is to get students to really go through their own thoughts in a new way, try to view the world around them in a way where they feel they have a voice to add into it. That they can be advocates for themselves through their expression and voice. I really try to create this circle in the classroom where I’m not necessarily this magic poet who’s coming to bestow knowledge, that really that we’re coming to write together. And maybe I got some info to give you and also asking what can they teach me. I think that makes it not just a better working environment, but a better creative environment. In my experience, it really helps the students feel like they can do this. Really trying to show them that you could do what I’m doing and I’m very similar to who you are and the places you came from. In my heart, I’m very passionate about working with communities that represent my own, because of the lack of access and the way folks kind of view their own capabilities, especially in academia. Academia is a very traumatic place especially for kids of color and kids who are poor. And so as much as I can shake that up, I’d like to try.
Sarah: What is a truth that is sustaining you right now?
Jarvis: I think the idea of knowing that somebody will be there to do the work when you cannot, that when you’re unable, someone will carry you to the next place. And I think I feel that and as much as I’d like to be out in the streets and protesting and trying to balance that and managing my own life, knowing that if I’m in a place like this, somebody is going to be there. And vice versa, I hope that I’m in a position to help carry them forward and push us forward. There’s a group of us out there, we’re going to kind of carry each other through it. So that’s really very helpful.
Sarah: Is there anything you’re working on right now that you want people to know about, or alternatively or in addition to, any other people or work that you want to shout out?
Jarvis: I would really love to shout out the Virtual Slam that has still continued throughout the pandemic. Part of this people carrying you idea, I think, is knowing that many of the organizers who were running slams in the Bay Area have just shifted it beautifully. It’s just keeping them going. And so I would say places like The Berkeley Poetry Slam, Oakland Poetry Slam, The Root Slam and Open Mic (Oakland), The San Jose Poetry Slam, and Nomadic Press Open Mic, which you can see from anywhere now. You don’t have to physically be in the space, which is nice. I really recommend someone checking into that and popping into one one day.
Sarah: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask you about?
Jarvis: I would like to add in on a dovetail at the end, too, for your readers to please continue to stay in the movement and in the streets and protesting and voicing yourself, that it’s going to be a long haul and really try to lean on the efforts of imagining the world without police and defunding and hopefully abolishing them so we can have the services that we actually need instead of this prison system that we force everybody into. So if they’re not already on it, or if it’s a reminder to hop back on it or to donate money to a place that’s doing that work, I would much rather see support there than support to myself.