By Alyssa Shapiro
Kinsale Hueston is a student at Yale University, recognized widely for her work as a poet, much of which orbits around her personal and familial history as a Navajo woman. She has received three National Scholastic Gold Medals for poetry, the Yale Young Native Storytellers Award for Spoken Word/Storytelling, and in 2017-2018 was named the National Student Poet. In 2019, Time Magazine named Hueston one of the “34 Optimists Changing How We See the World,” and to converse with her is to understand why immediately: this 19-year-old sees true beauty in community, in sharing her own point of view through art and conversation, and in welcoming in the perspectives of others. This month, she’ll launch the Changing Womxn Collective, a digital literary platform that exists to uplift the marginalized voices of women, femmes, and nonbinary people of color—a platform she longed for prior to her own recognition.
WATCH HER STORY:
AS: When it comes to poetry, why do you write?
KH: I write for myself, because poetry is a healing mechanism, and it’s easier for me to deconstruct my identity and figure out parts of myself that are more difficult to do without poetry. I started writing for my grandmother because of the grief I experienced when she passed away. I didn’t really know how to deal with that, and poetry really helped me. And so now, I continue to do that, writing about my family, and all the stories that we have. I feel like I have this responsibility to carry them on through my poetry.
AS: Did anyone in your family write poetry? How did you first pick that up as a tool?
KH: Nobody in my family writes poetry. That was a huge surprise to my parents, they love that I came out of left field with poetry. I kept it very private at first, and it was my own thing. I got poetry books for Christmas, like Maya Angelou, and children’s rhyming poetry. I wrote my own little rhyming poetry and I would share it with my friends. It wasn’t something I took home and showed my parents until I won an award for it in high school! And they were like, what is this? We didn’t even know you were doing this. But now that they know I do poetry, they’ll actually write poems for me, like my aunt wrote a poem for me that was so beautiful.
AS: I love that your parents found out you were writing poetry when you won an award for it. But you were sharing it with your friends?
KH: Yes, at school. I remember in high school when I was about to submit for the award that I won, I was so nervous because it was about my grandmother, and it was so vulnerable. That’s what I love about poetry, but that’s what’s so hard about it. Even with my best friends, it was so hard to share my poetry, but I think it was necessary to share with somebody before I threw it to a bunch of judges.
I submitted it to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, which is the program that has the National Student Poets program. But it was a year before I became the National Student Poet—it was the first time I had written a poem seriously that I felt like really hit home, and that I felt was a very honest poem. And that was the gateway for me to write the types of poems that kind of laid the groundwork.
AS: Do you feel a responsibility to write?
KH: Yeah. I think it’s hard, because, if you’re writing for an audience, or if you have that in the back of your head, the poetry is less honest in a way. It’s very honest to me when I write about my family and the stories we have. I feel a responsibility to the people who came before me who sacrificed so much for me; as an indigenous woman my native family did so much, literally survived genocide for me to be here, and we have stories from that. I feel this insane responsibility to preserve those stories which at one point were only oral. That’s how my mother told me those stories, and my grandmother, and for me, poetry is the best and most honest means to convey those to whoever comes next, and my children, and so that’s the responsibility that I personally feel when it comes to writing.
AS: I’ve been thinking about this, how it’s harder to write in a meaningful way when you think about who is going to read it—you just have to write.
KH: Sometimes writing commissioned poems, it’s hard as a writer to get what you want to say in there. It’s hard when you’re being paid to make art.
AS: On a deadline.
KH: Yeah, which is weird. Thankfully I’m a very fast writer, so I like doing them. It’s an easy thing for me to bang out a poem and feel like it’s honest, and good with me.
AS: Is there preparation that goes into it? Do you take notes a lot, read a lot, what is your prewriting process to get to the point where the words just come out of you when you sit down to write?
KH: I don’t even think there’s a prewriting process. When I write a poem, I just sit down and I have usually exactly what I want to say just there. It’s not even something I really think super hard about unless I’m really struggling and I’m tired and I can’t come up with a metaphor. I have this imagery in my head already that is related to what I want to write about, and it all kinda comes out, very honestly, at once. It’s kind of weird. Telling that to other poets, they were like, what the…? And I was like, I don’t know! This is how I write.
If I don’t have a commissioned poem, I have to wait to write a good poem that I really want to write. A few years ago, I went like six months without writing, because I didn’t feel motivated, and to force myself to write a poem then would have been so dishonest and weird and awkward feeling. And that’s when I would have to force myself to make a metaphor, but when I have something to write, that’s when it happens for me.
AS: In your poem, on giving, that you wrote for us to include in the zine, you write about your grandmother’s acts of giving, her sense of community, and what it means to do good. Can you speak about her influence on you?
KH: My grandmother was such an amazing person, and was such a leader, not just in our family—she was the head matriarch of our family but she was also this big leader in my mother’s community in Navajo Mountain on the reservation. And she and her husband who was a tribal councilman just gave so much to other kids and the community, and they taught our community members, they were teachers. In terms of what she gave me, it wasn’t just food, it was also stories and how to work hard and really make good.
AS: What do you think makes life beautiful?
KH: I think the people I interact with make life beautiful for me, whether that’s the matriarchs in my family, my aunts and my grandmother and my mother, or my siblings, my dad, my friends, the other young artists and leaders I work with when I get to do this amazing work. I come out of the conversations we have feeling like a better person, more beautiful in a sense.
AS: The recognition you’ve received, what has that done for you in terms of giving you a platform?
KH: I’ve definitely been able to grow my audience with recognition and being awarded, but what I value more is being able to grow a community which can give me feedback about my art, where I can meet other artists, where I can share my work and feel heard, because in high school I didn’t feel like I was being listened to as an artist or as a Native woman. I think that’s what I value most is being able to grow my community, whether that’s in person or online.
AS: Can you tell us about the Changing Womxn Collective, and I wonder, did that come from a need for space for certain voices?
KH: Changing Womxn Collective definitely came from a need to create space. I feel like I’ve been granted such a privilege to have grown my platform, and having people who want to listen to what I have to say, and my art and my poetry. But I feel like that’s not true with so many other young creatives who don’t have the same opportunities. I was lucky to go to a high school which promoted the Art and Writing Awards which got my work recognized in the first place. And I just wanted to share opportunities with other—especially young, indigenous—artists who wouldn’t have the same opportunity. And so Changing Womxn Collective is a digital platform I’m creating, but it’s also a way for me to raise up other artists and writers, and that’s a healing thing for me, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I feel like it’s the perfect next step for me as someone who’s still writing poetry, but I want to share the space.
AS: If you could explain Changing Womxn Collective…
KH: Changing Womxn Collective is a digital space and literary platform for women of color, femmes of color, nonbinary people of color, especially indigenous folks, to share their art, receive feedback, connect with each other, share opportunities, and have a space for us, for our voices. It has community workshops that you can download and use in your own communities. We’re going to have a publishing platform for poetry, prose, op-eds. We’re having a spotlight on badass women of color who do amazing things in their communities. I’m creating something for my past self. There’s a lot of young people out there who were like me at one point, marginalized voices who were denied the platform. I want to give that to them.
AS: Beyond writing, are there any mantras or rituals that help you feel more centered or more whole, more like yourself?
KH: I love reading. And I think that always helps me ground myself as a person and a writer. When I have nothing to write, I pick up a book, and if I fall in love with the book, I usually have something to write about.
AS: How do you make doing good a part of your life?
KH: I think writing is a form of doing good when people bring their truth to the table and bring their voices, no matter their experience. It makes the people you interact with think a different way, and that’s so important, especially with the political climate, anything, issues that are going on. If you can bring your voice to the table, in whatever form you can, that’s doing good.
Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy