Several years ago, KB Brookins attended a talk at Malvern Books and heard the poet i’rene lara silva mention, in passing, the phrase “when you identify yourself with a wound.”
Intrigued, KB — a Black/queer/transmasculine writer and cultural worker — thought, what if I wrote a how-to for identifying yourself with a wound?
“(There are) all of these ideas and identities that people want you to see as wounds because they distance you from this ‘normalcy’ or ‘privilege’ – like queerness, like Blackness,” KB says .“I wanted to know, what does it mean for me to recollect or recall these times where it’s been very clear to me that something about me was supposed to be a wound?”
Eventually, those questions became the throughline of KB’s first book of poems, “How to Identify Yourself With a Wound.” The chapbook, chosen (coincidentally) by i’rene lara silva as the winner of the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize, was released Feb. 1 by Austin’s Kallisto Gaia Press.
KB’s poems critically explore gender, race, class, sexuality, and other heady questions of identity. Yet their work remains grounded in the concrete beauty of real life, with a lyric voice that binds together ideas about pop culture, emotional experience, and an intellectual restlessness that is exhilarating to channel as a reader.
Though KB now calls Austin home, “How To Identify” begins in their poetic heartland, the city of Fort Worth, which for me at least, has never been depicted with such aching tenderness.
The first poem, “Greetings from Fort Worth,” narrates a cycle of conflicted love, from “I want to love this city,” to “I hate to love this city,” to “Damn, I love this city./ If you lay on the wood & rusted rail where southside / & the burbs meet long enough you hear church ladies humming.” KB’s Fort Worth shines with particularity, like Virginia Woolf’s London, or Dagoberto Gilb’s El Paso.
“I was very much a kid that was a daydreamer,” KB says of growing up in Fort Worth. “In the car I was just making all these worlds in my head with my little CD player, based on the music I was listening to.”
Music remains indispensable for KB as a part of their poetic imagination, with genres like neo soul and Afrofuturist music, as well as artists including Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, Solange and Megan Thee Stallion all important influences.
It’s no wonder, then, that poetry first came to life for KB, hearing it performed aloud by grade-school teachers Elaine Duran, also a spoken-word poet, and Ms. B. Williams, who read poetry out loud, captivating students. For KB, it planted deep roots in poetry that is performed, not just printed.
Moving away from Fort Worth as a young adult felt necessary: “I needed to be somewhere else where nobody knows me and I could introduce myself as exactly the person that I am.”
In Austin, they’ve searched for and found — or created — community spaces that feel welcoming, despite a pressure to assimilate in other places. Austin reminded KB of their college years at Texas Christian University. “A lot of what I was dealing with in college is here [in Austin] too. I’m not the only Black person in the classroom, but the only Black person in the HEB; it’s a majority white city at the end of the day.”
Austin’s liberal atmosphere notwithstanding it’s hard to escape the unspoken understanding that, KB says, “(others) want diversity but you want me to be just like you.”
KB has nevertheless found like-minded souls in Austin, co-founding Interfaces, a community initiative that curates interdisciplinary arts programs featuring marginalized people, and Embrace Austin, a coalition of LGBTQIA2+ individuals, organizations, and businesses — exemplify this dream and the work toward it. In 2021, KB was named a PEN America Emerging Voices fellow.
“How To Identify” resounds with the same impulse to reach beyond introspection in the search for identity; to collaborate; to share; and to study with a keen eye how others construct the personas they present to the world. Observation melds with wish in poems like “Elon Musk Is Moving To Austin”:
I want Congress to never be called SoCo again. And it’ll never be
by all those truck-driving abuelos tipping their cowboy hats to me
on Friday eves. They are my realm of possibility. When I grow up
I want to be all their leaky motors and leather seats, combined.
In a book that investigates notions of femininity much more thoroughly than masculinity, this poem is an exception. Among other projects, KB is currently at work on a book of essays largely about a personal understanding of Blackness and masculinity.
KB hadn’t started any medical transition when work on “How To Identify” began. “I was just starting to go by a name that wasn’t my legal name. Most of my life’s context was people perceiving me as a Black woman, specifically as a Black lesbian.”
In “I’ll Miss the Women’s Restroom,” KB writes affectionately about the experience of being welcomed into feminine spaces, despite the cost of being misunderstood:
… I miss
the women’s restroom, but not nearly as much as I miss the flood of feminine around me the stepping into a world that saw you as other than yourself, but at least a little bit softer.
Now, writing about masculinity, KB is becoming aquainted with new challenges. “My voice has dropped two octaves, and I look different to the gender-ignorant eye,” the writer says. “I’m finding that I’ve been forced into this black manhood and that has really changed my ideas of masculinity.”
Writing has always been a vehicle of personal discovery, a process for KB that feels palpable in reading the poems of “How To Identify.” “Poetry gives me this opportunity to speak about things that are somewhat unspeakable.”
The heartwrenching poem “Do You Know What They Did to Muhlaysia?” distills the grief and anxiety over violence experienced by trans people and their loved ones in a poetic context that weaves together KB’s ideas with the story of Muhlaysia Booker, a 22-year-old Black transgender woman and activist who was murdered in Dallas in 2019.
KB’s poem, however, also affirms the hopefulness of Booker’s life, and of those for whom she advocated:
Let me tell you the story of a tenderness the world refused to call
beautiful but it lives. Without watering, it lives like most cacti,
prickly & still, it’s always lived, & has centuries of history to prove it.
Don’t you know that if one of us fall & no one is around to witness,
our remnants still get to be beautiful? Don’t you know that when you look
in my eyes you are looking into the eyes of someone’s kin?
In addition to the book of essays, KB currently has a full-length book of poems, “Freedom House,” coming out from Deep Vellum Press in 2023, and is working on a novel in verse.
KB hopes “How To Identify” has an impact.
“The process of writing this book was really me trying to heal some wounds, trying to convince myself that all of these things that I am are not wrong. I really hope that that comes across especially to people who share or shared those identities with me: they’re not wounds, but we can heal from people projecting that on to us — together.”
“How To Identify Yourself With A Wound” (2022, 52 pages) is available through the publisher, Kallisto Gaia Press, and booksellers everywhere, including local shops Bookwoman and Malvern Books. A virtual book release event and reading will take place via Malvern at 2 p.m. Feb. 5