“Before the Words Became Pages, We Were Eating.” Why Kay Ulanday Barrett’s Best Poems Are About Food
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks with poet/performer/advocate Kay Ulanday Barrett (More Than Organs) about their decision to get top surgery, the intersection of family and food, and writing through health crises.
Full episode transcript available here.
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Grey’s Anatomy • Swype • The Asian American Writers Workshop • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
From the episode:
Kay Ulanday Barrett: I think my best poems are about food, honestly, Jordan. I think that’s the one time—maybe even more than performing poetry or writing poetry or witnessing poetry—is eating and cooking that make me feel like all of my parts in their whole being are present. There’s something about food, because I’m using all the senses, right? There’s a piece of nostalgia because most of my family is dead. And so for the hard things that happen, whether it’s the transcendence and the new books that I will publish to having my partnership to anything big that’s happening, surgeries galore included.
The one thing I think about is, what do you do after a gig? When I host somebody at the Asian American Writers Workshop in-person pre-COVID, what do we do afterwards? Korean barbecue! That’s what we do. After an event, we process what happened, and food is that way that brings in people who may not be interested in poetry, or for me may not be interested in cultural conversation. But we all have connections to some type of family, even if it’s chosen family, some type of culture that held us and developed us.
Before the words became pages, we were eating. Or we were trying to eat, or were trying to get food, or somebody was bringing us food, or somebody was growing food. So for me, I feel like the nourishment and the utter sensations, the compelling enchantment and heartbreak that food and body memory just do naturally for so many of us. Even if you don’t like to eat, then there’s trauma in that. There’s a conversation in that. Why? What about nourishment is difficult? What made it difficult? What made it a privilege or a structure? Food is this way where I think I’m actually my best self, my least performative self. And so writing food is this conduit to my family.
It was our peace treaty. Somebody could dislike my haircut. Not like that I’m queer. Dislike the way I was politicizing myself or have a different ideology in the way I protest. But when we got down to the table, we could critique the food in front of us. “This crab is too salty, this rice is too soft, oh, this is delicious, what did they do? What do you think was in there?” I think there is this sensation of food bringing us back alive.
Because that’s what it does—it keeps us going, it’s more than fuel. But it’s also this cultural conversation. It’s this dialectic that happens, at least for me as a Filipina person whose family was in mixed migrant status, anywhere between nine to fourteen people at our kitchen table had to share food. That means multiple people had to cook it and share space together. That means multi-generations together, working jobs, going to school, whatever we were doing, we sat down and we would just be in this beautiful, sumptuous place together.
Haven’t you ever have a really good meal with somebody or gone out to eat and the food was so good you didn’t even have to talk? Like, what are words? It was just quiet. And I think food does that in a way that maybe other tasks don’t do.
Jordan Kisner: Right. It’s one of the rare spaces where you can share an experience of pleasure, even with people with whom your relationship might be really tough at the moment or conflicted. Family dinner is a place where even if there are lots of things going wrong in those relationships and you can’t really talk to each other about any number of things, you can sit down and you can experience pleasure together, which is pretty major. I think the physical experience of pleasure is as much a kind of communication as anything else. And having that in the absence of other kinds of connection can be really powerful.
Kay Ulanday Barrett: Absolutely. I really think when you’re denied pleasure on a systemic level, when you’re not able to access joy the way other people can access joy, food becomes this centripetal, important, necessary force for you. It becomes a way for you to really connect emotionally with people who otherwise aren’t allowed to have those things.
For more Thresholds, visit us at thisisthresholds.com. Original music by Lora-Faye Åshuvud and art by Kirstin Huber.
Kay Ulanday Barrett aka @Brownroundboi is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. Their second book, More Than Organs (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) received a 2021 Stonewall Honor Book Award by the American Library Association and is a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. They have received residencies from Tin House as a 2022 Next Book Winner as well as MacDowell as a 2020 James Baldwin Fellow. Other residencies include: Drunken Boat, VONA Voices, Monson Arts, and The Lambda Literary Review. Barrett is a three-time Pushcart Prize Nominee and two-time Best of the Net Nominee. They have featured at The United Nations, The Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, Brooklyn Museum, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia University, Northwestern, The School of the Art Institute, & more. Their contributions are found in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Poetry Magazine, them., Colorlines, Al Jazeera, NYLON, Vogue, The Rumpus, to name a few. Currently, they remix their mama’s recipes and live in Jersey City with their jowly dog.