KTCO Re-run: José Olivarez

This week on Keep the Channel Open I'm revisiting my 2017 conversation with poet José Olivarez. In our wide-ranging conversation, José and I talked about how his podcast The Poetry Gods came to be, toxic masculinity in the poetry world, and how discovering poetry allowed José to find his artistic voice. In the second segment, we talked about beginnings and endings.

Since we recorded our conversation, José has released two books: his debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal, and the anthology he co-edited, The BreakBeat Poets, Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. You can order either from your local independent bookstore, or you can buy them directly from the publisher, Haymarket Books, who is having a 40% off sale through January 4, 2021:

Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript on the episode page at the KTCO website.

The Party of Stasis

In a few days, I and several of my colleagues will be meeting with our Congressman for the first time since the election. I believe this will be our 17th meeting with him over the past four years, though to be honest I’ve lost count. That’s just to say that I’ve met him enough times now to know him and his positions well, and how these meetings go. My Congressman is a centrist through and through, not out of practicality, as he likes to think, but out of ideology. This has led to a lot of frustration on my and my colleagues’ part, and in the aftermath of the election it’s making me extremely worried.

Last month, Senator Joe Manchin said in an interview that “Democrats have to be better at defending what they stand for.” I don’t agree with Senator Manchin on much of anything but I do sort of agree with that, though I’d go a bit further: Democrats don’t need to just defend what they stand for, they need to define what they stand for. Right now it’s not clear that the Democratic Party actually stands for anything, and I think that’s why they have so much trouble with so many constituencies.

That is, Democrats talk a lot about healthcare and working families and diversity and climate and stuff but the policies they as a party actually work toward are mostly small tweaks to the existing system. The fundamental ideology of the centrist Dem is that the system is mostly fine as is. I think this has a lot to do with why Democrats struggle so much in so many parts of the country and why there’s so much in-party fighting. They struggle because the system as-is doesn’t work for a lot of people, and they don’t actually present an alternative. Moreover, they don’t really want to present an alternative.

But people whose lives are in danger from racist cops, mass incarceration, and the by-products of segregation are not going to be helped by new police training standards. People whose communities’ economies have been tanked by dwindling natural resources and corporate greed are not going to be helped much by things like wonky tax credits and minor tweaks. People who are being threatened by climate change are not going to be saved by things like tax credits for electric cars or streamlined permitting procedures for new hydro plants. The system as it is just doesn’t work for a lot of people, especially not the people who are the actual core constituencies of the Democratic Party. It’s hard to turn out a vote from those people when what your party demonstrates is a commitment to the status quo.

Whatever else we can say about the Republican Party, they are actually committed to changing things. They’re committed to changing things for the worse, of course, to making things more racist and sexist, to taking from the poor and giving to the rich. But it’s something.

Centrist Dems all over the country have been screaming that they lost (or almost lost) because Republicans are tying them to stuff they don’t actually support from the progressive wing of the party and from activists. But if it were clear what they actually stood for, you couldn’t do that. That is, if somebody lies about you and a lot of people find that lie plausible, I think it’s worth taking some time to understand what it is about your character and behavior that is leading people to find that lie plausible.

This is fundamentally what electoral politics is about. You need to define what it is that you stand for. You need to make it clear. You need to demonstrate why your way is going to help your constituents, both in your messaging and in your actual governance. If you say one thing and then do another, people aren’t going to trust you. And they shouldn’t. Right now the Democrats only real redeeming virtue is that they aren’t the Republicans. “Same” is, at the end of the day, better than “worse.” But that’s not ultimately sustainable.

Really, what both parties are doing right now is looking backwards. Trump explicitly calls back to a pre-Civil-Rights-era America in his campaign speeches, and we rightly denounce him for it. But it seems to me that a lot of the Democratic Party messaging is calling back to the Clinton ‘90s or the Obama years—Biden did that a lot during his campaign. They’re making an appeal to some imagined past when everything was better and more decent. But were we ever decent? Maybe our political rhetoric was less obscene, but Obama still deported more people than any President before him, climate change was already underway and accelerating, and billionaires were still looting public instutitions—they were just quieter about it and most Americans were comfortable enough to look the other way.

I know that when I sit down for that meeting next week, my Congressman is going to talk about the need to avoid alienating Republican and moderate voters, about the need for bipartisanship, about not being too extreme. But we are past the point where incremental changes can solve the problems we face—if, indeed, there ever was a point where incrementalism was sufficient. My fear is that if big changes aren’t made in the near future, the kinds of change that meaningfully affect people’s actual lives, the backlash in 2024 will be more than we can handle, and certainly more than what centrists like my Congressman are expecting.

Things aren’t hopeless. Even somebody as milquetoast as Chuck Schumer has acknowledged that we need more. I just hope we have time to get there.

#MatteredToMe - December 11, 2020

It’s Friday, so here are some things that mattered to me recently:

  1. Helena Fitzgerald wrote about small rooms, about repetition, about time, about how our stories aren’t what we think they are. It’s about the pandemic, of course, but it is mostly about longing, and mostly about unfulfilled longing.

  2. I was catching up on past episodes of LeVar Burton Reads this week, and listened to Rebecca Roanhorse’s story “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life.” The story itself was great, a Western that centers on a Black lesbian couple. But also, Burton’s monologue at the end, in which he talked about race and policing and the importance of sitting in our discomfort as a path to growth. It was personal and deeply moving.

  3. Episode 80 of Ross Sutherland’s experimental fiction podcast Imaginary Advice starts off with a discussion of his recent series The Golden House, which was a form of alternate reality game. He talks about the way ARGs play off a certain form of paranoia, and talks through the responsibility of making something like that. Then in the second part he showcased a collaboration between himself and Emmy the Great, which involved writing two pieces of fiction with the exact same soundtrack. I loved how both segments got me to thinking about my own creative process.

  4. This week on Anand Giridharadas’s newsletter The.Ink, he posted an interview with grassroots organizer Vincent Emanuele. They talked at length about the ways the Democratic Party is failing to reach the voters they need to, prioritizing fundraising over engagement with the people that make up their base, and why that’s dangerous for the future. But, importantly, they also talked about the alternative and how to build real community and make real change.

  5. I was so happy to see Rachel Zucker’s podcast Commonplace return this week, and extra happy to see that she was talking with David Naimon of Between the Covers. These are two of my favorite podcasters, and a lot of the insecurities and frustrations and shame that Rachel described were things that felt very familiar to me.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. Try to remember that it's okay to ask for help when you need it—something I've been working on, too.

Thank you, and take care.


On the night of my youngest’s sixth birthday, when the house was quiet and everyone else was asleep, I wrote in my journal, “I will never put you to bed as a five-year-old again.” That was months ago now, but I am still thinking about it. It is in many ways—most ways—a small change, and yet it is one that nevertheless feels profound in its irrevocability. Change is, of course, inevitable, and though in this case I feel the loss of a part of my daughter’s childhood that will never and could never return, I’m fortunate that in return I get the opportunity to know her as a six-year-old.

Though, of course, not every change comes with an opportunity to offset the loss, at least not in a way that provides any comfort. I’m increasingly aware of my good fortune in that, still, no one I know personally has died of the virus. But as I write this, 276,000 Americans have died and more than 2000 are dying each day, a number that is only going to continue to accelerate as we see the effects of Thanksgiving get-togethers, and then Christmas. It seems inevitable that at some point I will lose someone to the virus, it seems just a matter of time. One in 1200 Americans have already died from it, and I have surely known more than 1200 people in my life—I have more than 500 “friends” on Facebook alone, many of whom have, themselves, lost family or friends.

I don’t know what will come. I don’t know what tomorrow will look like. It seems like most people I know want simply for things to get back to “normal,” and, to be sure, there are things I miss that I look forward to doing again some day: visiting family, spending time with friends, eating in restaurants, browsing in bookstores (or even just taking my time strolling through Hmart). But so much of “normal” didn’t work for so many people, whether you were queer or a person of color or a woman or an immigrant or even just working a shitty job. Our leaders failed us, and we failed each other, so often and so profoundly, it’s hard to understand wanting to go back to the way things were.

Of course, I say that, but is it so hard to understand? After all, there’s a part of me, too, that wants to be comforted. All it requires is to look away from that which is discomforting, and that’s such an easy thing to do. And I do, all the time. We do.

But next year isn’t going to look like last year, or like 2016, or 2008, or 1996, or 1960. Those we’ve lost are not coming back. I’m never going to put my daughter to bed as a five-year-old again. Things change, and all we can do is choose how we respond to those changes, choose what kind of people we want to be in a world that so often refuses to give us good choices. I’m doing my best. I’m sure you are, too.

#MatteredToMe - December 4, 2020

It’s Friday, so here are some things that mattered to me recently:

  1. The Allusionist did an episode this week about the destruction and revival of indigenous Australian languages. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear the discussion of family words and how English words get adapted.

  2. The BBC podcast Short Cuts released an episode called “The Interpreter” last month that included a segment called “A Birthday Card.” It’s an elegiac and beautiful piece about family after a divorce, tender in both the writing and the delivery. I thought it was amazing.

  3. The latest issue of Don’t Take Pictures magazine included a feature on Fabienne Rivory’s constructed landscapes, which combine photography, collage, and painting in a way I haven’t seen before, and which is very beautiful.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I’m trying to remember to take care of my own needs, too. I hope that you’re able to do that, too.

Thanks, and take care.

KTCO Re-run: Esmé Weijun Wang

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm revisiting my 2016 conversation with writer Esmé Weijun Wang. Esmé's debut novel The Border of Paradise was one of my favorite books of 2016. A multigenerational epic centered on an interracial family, the Nowaks, this book touches on so many profound topics, from mental illness to intergenerational trauma to culture clash to the very question of what it means to be a family, all done in stunningly beautiful prose. Esmé and I had a great conversation about her book in the first segment, and in the second segment we chatted about our favorite social media platform: Twitter.

Since we recorded our conversation, Esmé has also published an award-winning collection of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias. If you haven't read her books yet, I highly recommend ordering copies from your local independent bookstore. You can also order them via the following links:

If you're interested in supporting Esmé's work while also learning about restorative journaling, you can purchase Esmé's guided e-course The Rawness of Remembering via her website. Through the end of 2020 you can get over 30% off by using the coupon code GOODBYE2020 at checkout.

Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript on the episode page at the KTCO website.

Not If, But When

I roasted a turkey last night for the first time in my life. It turned out much better than was reasonable, considering that I’d never done it before. I used the “Roasted Brined Turkey” recipe from The Joy of Cooking, 7th edition (1997). When I was a kid, I used to leaf through my mom’s copy of Joy, which was always either out or close to hand in the kitchen. I particularly liked the section where it described how to dress small game, including butchering a porcupine. Both J and I were given copies of Joy by our respective mothers—she the Christmas after she graduated high school and I as a housewarming present when I got my first apartment after graduating college—so when we moved in together we had two. We ended up keeping hers because it was in good condition and had an inscription from her mom in it, whereas mine was beat up and not personalized. 18 years later, the dust jacket on our copy is getting frayed around the edges, and some of the pages are warped from having gotten wet. Sometimes I forget that it isn’t the one my mom gave me. The Roasted Brined Turkey recipe was very easy, and the meat was more moist and flavorful than I was expecting.

Last night was also the first time in my life that I ate a Thanksgiving dinner in my own house, without any extended family. We Zoomed with J’s family for a bit in the afternoon, 29 people in 10 households across 4 states. I called my mom and aunts afterwards, and texted my brothers and my dad. I didn’t end up talking to the cousins I’d usually see, or my grandmother.

My grandmother—my dad’s mom—has been hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner at her house since well before I was born, with all of her kids and grandkids in attendance as well as her sisters and their kids and usually a number of family friends. Over time, as we’ve grown up, my generation have started to move away—me to San Diego, one cousin to the Bay Area, another to Seattle, another to Florida. As kids we saw each other all the time, but now it’s just the holidays, either Thanksgiving or Christmas as we switch off between my family and J’s. My grandmother is 92 years old, and though she’s in good health and still lives on her own, it’s been on my mind that I probably don’t have too many more holiday meals with her left. Last night as J and I set the table, our middle child said “It’s like a feast!” And it was, and a bigger one than was strictly necessary for just the five of us. I couldn’t help wondering if my future Thanksgivings would look more like this one than like the ones I remember. Or perhaps not if but when.

So much is in flux right now. Nobody knows what the future will look like, except that it probably won’t look like now. Then again, continuity has always been more of an idea than a reality. There will be a last time my grandmother hosts a Thanksgiving dinner, but there was also a first time. Things change. The desire to hold on to the past can be urgent, even desperate. But eventually change comes, and maybe sometimes letting go means we get the chance to shape what comes after.

#MatteredToMe - November 27, 2020

  1. Lyz Lenz wrote about our individual and collective failure of empathy during the pandemic. It's not a feel-good piece. It does not contain easy answers or comfort. But I think the discomfort it elicits is an important and useful one.
  2. Brandon Taylor wrote about fall, about nostalgia and about experiencing a season or a life mainly in reference to something else. What I thought was impressive is how it manages to be both nostalgic and a critique of nostalgia.
  3. I finally got around to playing the game Night in the Woods. I'd heard that it was very good and very affecting, very fun and often funny, and all that is true. I wasn't prepared, though, for how well it captures the poignancy of homecoming when you're young and a little lost, or how complex the friendships and family relationships would be. I thought it was really well done, and very moving.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I'm thinking a lot about change lately, change on both a global and a personal scale. I'm trying to remember that there's loss in change, but there's gain, too. I hope you're well.

Thank you, and take care.

#MatteredToMe - November 20, 2020

  1. Nicole Chung wrote about loss during the pandemic, about losing the comfort of in-person rituals, and about finding new ways to honor one's grief.
  2. Alexander Chee wrote about the black jeans that are getting him through. I think this, too, is about separation and connection across time and distance, about having something you can literally hold onto.
  3. Hannah Cohen wrote about her younger days as a fanfiction writer. I think it is in part about nostalgia, about community, about honing her craft. Also, though, it is about carving out a space for oneself, about making a new kind of future.
  4. Finally, I spent a lot of yesterday singing along with a song from a 10-year-old Sesame Street episode. It's a nostalgic song for me because it reminds me of my son as a toddler, but it's also just a catchy and warm-hearted song about togetherness that always makes me feel a little bit better.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me. I know it's hard not to be with people, and more and more so as time goes on. I hope you're able to find some connection across the distance soon, if that's what you want.

Thank you, and take care.

Thinking About Kindness (Again)

I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness for the past couple of weeks, mainly because I’ve seen so many people talking about the need to be kind, to forgive, to build bridges and extend an olive branch to the people who voted differently from us. As an organizer, I know that it’s important to leave the door open for people who want to find their way into a movement, that it’s important to welcome newcomers instead of berating them for taking so long. But this is key: in this example the new arrival wants to join you.

I know I’m not the only one thinking about this, of course:


The thing is, I do believe in kindness and compassion for everyone. I really do. I’ve written about having compassion for my abusers. But I’ve also written about how kindness and compassion are not the same as deference or politeness. I don’t believe that answering cruelty with cruelty is either moral or practical. Moreover, I believe that allowing someone else’s cruelty and callousness to make me cruel and callous hurts me more than anything else—only I can decide what sort of person I want to be, and letting someone else turn me into someone I don’t want to be isn’t okay with me.

But having compassion, being kind, listening, leaving the door open—none of these mean that I’m obligated to continue letting people have the power to harm me, nor do they mean that I should stop advocating for my own rights and protection.

There’s a lot more to say about all of that, of course, but I’ll leave it there. I hope you’re well, or at least as well as can be.

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