Culture

Now Awards: Christopher Soto Believes in Poetry, Not Prisons



Since Soto first began writing Diaries of a Terrorist over a decade ago, abolitionist language has entered the popular lexicon following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the United States has witnessed its largest civil rights protests since the 1960s, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified existing racial and class inequities

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 prompted the Minneapolis City Council’s public pledge to abolish the police, Soto says they felt particularly emotional.

“In those days, I remember sometimes being scared to outwardly identify as an abolitionist because people would conflate their personal safety with policing, and then they would react to me as if I were a threat to their safety,” they tell me. “One of the only other abolitionist poets that I knew was Jackie Wang. I remember hearing publishers and other literary people saying that poetry couldn’t be political. Now, less than a decade later, a lot has changed.”

While people are more aware of abolitionist concepts today, in large part because of these sociopolitcal shifts, many continue to fire back, setting up a straw-man argument in which the movement is measured against an unattainable goal.

“Abolitionists are often tasked with imagining a world that is beyond violence, as if complete safety is what we are experiencing now under the police state,” Soto says.  “Instead, I think the framing should be: how to prevent and more appropriately respond to violence when it does occur?”

Not long after our interview, those words have already taken on a haunting resonance, with a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas claiming 21 lives and the police reportedly taking a staggering 78 minutes to mount an ineffective response.

In a carceral country where violence is often seen as the only logical response to violence, and “good guys with guns” are held out as a solution to “bad guys with guns,” Diaries of a Terrorist challenges us all to interrupt that cycle of harm. 

As Soto melodically deconstructs and pulls apart words like “terrorism” and “free” in Diaries of a Terrorist, the poet pushes us to dismantle these concepts for ourselves. Together, the poems ask whether people who have been victimized and incarcerated can ever be free in a police state. Can our communities be the same once even one of us has become a target of state violence?

As more people begin to question their own views on abolition, violence, and policing, Soto is optimistic but resolute. The movement is rapidly shifting and gaining momentum, expanding transnationally, encompassing struggles like Palestinian liberation and migrant rights, and across industries like hospitals and universities. Soto’s recent work with the movement to get Cops Off Campus is part of an ongoing effort to abolish university policing across the country, led by students, faculty members, and staff. 

Soto is hopeful Diairies of a Terrorist can be a helpful record of this momentum — a snapshot of a turning tide.

“In the poetry community, I hope the publication of this book is even a small addition to the abolitionist movement, too,” Soto said. “The movement is growing faster than I ever anticipated and it excites me tremendously, all of the places where abolition thought and community is growing.”

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