A Journey of the Heart with Kit Yan

FEB 5, 2018

Poet, playwright, and performer Kit Yan, whose award-winning solo slam poetry show Queer Heartache returns to OBERON February 9 & 10, 2018, after a sold-out run during the 2016/17 I.D. Festival, talks discusses the show with A.R.T. Institute dramaturgy student Yan Chen

Welcome back to OBERON! Could you tell us about your personal history with Boston and Cambridge and how you developed as a poet and performer here?

I went to school at Babson, a conservative business school, and one of my big retreats was to go to poetry slams. At the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, I thought it was invigorating to see written poetry become live poetry, and I started going to the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge a lot, which has more people of color. Melissa Li, a singer-songwriter and my collaborative partner, and I also used to perform backstage at this queer Asian cabaret at Jacques in downtown Boston. We then started a spoken word band called Good Asian Drivers and traveled to most of the states.

You’ve described Queer Heartache as “a testament to the resilience of queer love in all its forms.” Could you give us a sneak preview of the show and the expansive variety of love it explores?

Queer Heartache is made up of fifteen autobiographical poems. The show touches on romantic love, familial love, self-love, community love. You watch a character who starts off reflecting upon their life, and then you watch this character grow up. I start at a place of remembering when I was twelve and alone, with some thoughts on my mother, and I end back at the age of twelve, thinking about events around the death of my father. Through that journey, my character moves away to college and goes on a journey of self-discovery. Then there’s a romantic love section, and a family section addressing my little brother, my extended family, and community. We end with a kind of self-love, in a more enlightened state, with my thoughts on being queer and trans and relating to other people. The show examines the resilience or trauma of the heart in all these places as well. It’s true to my heart’s journey to explore all those different kinds of love.

You mentioned community love—what’s the role community has played for you and your work?

More importantly than the slam venues in Boston, I used to go to this longstanding open mic in Jamaica Plain called Gender Crash, where lots of queer, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and trans folks were sharing their poems, rants, and journal entries. That was really the place where I found queer community. It wasn’t necessarily the place where I found Asian American or POC community, but it was definitely where I learned about many, many kinds of queer identities. The people there were so positive and affirming of whatever you brought, and they also challenged me and held me accountable to the material. It was the most formative experience for me in learning about identity and art and how a community can uplift and inform my work.

How do you deal with the expanding landscape of our language in relation to the LGBTQIA community in your poetry, and how do you consider your relationship to language as a poet?

I’m really conscious of language as a writer. Times change. Language changes. The world changes. The way that people see themselves are constantly shifting. I think that’s a beautiful thing. In Queer Heartache, there’s this piece called “Hello, My Gender Is…” where a young queer version of myself tries to figure out language. As the years have gone on, I have changed Queer Heartache many times to use language that reflects the current times. My personal belief is that language should be purposeful, so if there was a reason to use outdated terminology, and I could contextualize it in a way that doesn’t traumatize the audience, I will do that. That’s not what every artist believes, and I respect multiple points of view on that.

In the two and a half years that the show has been on tour, is there anything else that has changed about it, besides the language?

I really believe in live editing through performance, so the more times I perform the show, the more I understand the audience, and the audience and the community really inform how I want to present the material. My personal style and belief is to keep updating the show, and to keep taking temperature from the audience in order to reflect how I want to experience the show as a performer, too—I’m onstage for over an hour. It’s as much of an experience for me as it is for everybody watching!

What would you like our audiences to take away from the show?

Having everything—terminologies, identities—be constantly fluid, shifting, and changing is something I want to always keep in mind as a performer and a person. Discovery, experimentation, and fluidity are very important parts of my own humanity, and I hope that audiences walk away with a sense of that. As they watch this character onstage who doesn’t get everything right as they grow up, but finds a genuine love for themselves in their stories, I hope that audiences walk away with that too, with a sense of love for themselves, our communities, their own stories, and the power of their own stories.

Interview by Yan Chen, a dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University (’18).