the presumptions that surround and obscure the queer and trans stereotypes in popular culture. Originally from Evanston, H. Melt left Chicago for the University of Vermont, but was drawn back home to pursue their MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They are the author of the recently published book “SIRvival in the Second City,” and have had their work published in THEM, the first trans literary journal in the United States. Their work combines the voices of both trans and queer communities, as well as a unique Chicago perspective.
H. Melt’s work deals with the non-physical aspects of violence that are often ignored by mainstream media coverage, a focus that we at I Speak Chicago know is essential to include if we want to shift the paradigm of discussion around violence in Chicago. Full disclosure: we’ve known each other since high school, but I wasn’t familiar with their work until I caught wind of what they were producing in college. In addition to their work as an artist, H. Melt also works with Chicago youth as a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors and teaches workshops for queer youth through 3rd Language, a queer collective and zine based in Chicago.
H.Melt and I spoke last Saturday about youth poetry, physical and non-physical expressions of violence and how the power of making art is essential to survival.
What is your story as an artist — as a person?
I began working with Young Chicago Authors (YCA) kind of at the same point in time when I was just beginning to figure out my queer and trans identities and really at the beginning of me being invested in the idea of being a poet. Young Chicago Authors and that whole Chicago youth poetry scene that surrounds it was really where I began developing my craft and identity as a poet, at the same time I was developing my identities as a queer and trans person. So those things – being a poet, being queer and trans – were never really separate for me in that space.
What drew you back to Chicago after you finished undergrad?
I came back to Chicago after undergrad for poetry. I wanted to continue doing work with YCA, but also because Chicago is the place that inspires me as a writer. While I was away in school I noticed that there was this queer art scene going on in the city [Chicago]. There was a publication called Chicago IRL that I had submitted to; and there was this scene that was emerging from this publication. And I wanted to be a part of it. I had seen all of these people who had been published by them [Chicago IRL] or who had been connected to Chicago IRL on the internet, on blogs, in all of these places online. And there were all of these different queer events and arts nights and I saw that there was so much going on that I knew I was missing out. I wanted to immerse myself in that queer arts culture and meet some of the people who were involved in that scene.
Describe the work you do with the Young Chicago Authors project, and how you got involved.
So, YCA is basically a literary organization in the city that focuses on breaking down barriers between young people. The largest way that they do that is through Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB), the worlds largest youth poetry slam. I’ve been going to LTAB now…I think this is my 5th year. I started out on staff last year; working the bouts, managing scores, timekeeping, checking in teams – all the logistical stuff. And I’m doing that again this year. And, I mean, before I started as a teaching artist and doing stuff for LTAB – I started out writing there.
When people think about youth and violence in Chicago they think about gang shootings; they think about violence happening within communities like Englewood — the shootings that make it onto the news and to the public consciousness. You’ve touched on the work that you do, in terms of violence that happens in trans and queer communities that it isn’t always physical until it comes down to trans/queer individuals hurting themselves or taking their own life. How do you feel art plays a role in survival?
That is something I have been thinking about recently; what counts as violence? Especially in a Chicago context. And I totally agree with you. I think what you’re pointing to is that violence that relates to queer and trans people is not seen as violence and also that violence has a much larger definition than physical violence. But even on a physical level, first of all, Chicago is a large urban center and has a sizable trans population. Chicago has a thriving community, specifically of transwomen and transwomen of color, and that population is most affected by violence in LGBT and queer communities. And we’ve had several murders in the past couple of years that were murders of young trans women of color and they have not gotten any attention at all in terms of mainstream media covering them. So I think that is something that is ignored – violence against trans and queer people in general because our lives are seen as expendable and not important.
Can you expand on how you have had to deal with these issues in your own life?
I have been dealing with a lot of institutionalized violence that is not necessarily physical but contributes to the high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety and you know, poor mental health that a lot of trans and queer people face. I’m in school right now at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s the first time for me being in an educational institution as an openly trans person and the level of resistance and ignorance that I’ve experienced around trans people surrounds even basic things like having [to make] people call me by my chosen name, getting an id card [with my chosen name], having professors, security guards, students, everyone understand that I use “they” pronouns or you know, that I’m not a lady or female or a girl. Things like that where you’re in an educational environment and you as the student should not have to worry about that – having your basic body and personhood respected. But in reality because I am different in the sense of my gender in particular, it has completely affected my educational experience. We are being denied access to health care, to use our own names, access to space. Denying someone healthcare is not the same type of violence as physically punching someone in the face, but they are both still violence.
Has your art or creative process been impacted by these experiences?
I met my first trans person/poet at Check the Method, which used to be the summer writing workshop run by YCA, that now has a different name. It was a summer intensive writing workshop and during that time I got to know this young poet named Greyson, who was several years younger than me.This past Thanksgiving, Greyson passed away. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently and what it means to be a trans poet and the meaning of trans art and literature specifically, and how far too often trans artists and writers as well as a trans people in general do not have very long lifespans. I think that’s something that is always in the back of my mind – I need to have a high level of craft and believe in everything I’m doing and make sure it’s what I want because at the end of the day my writing, my work is going to be what’s left behind.
How has this experience within the art institute as a trans person informed your work as a coach and educator?
Because of my particular lens and because I know what it feels like to be really uncomfortable in educational settings I always try and bring in material, curriculum wise, that is from a range of experiences. I try and pick things that the students can understand and relate to their own lives. My philosophy is that it’s not about me as a teacher - it’s about figuring out how to get the students to connect to their own lives and to see that education isn’t separate from themselves.
What do you feel you and the trans and queer community, can do for reducing the violence we discussed earlier?
For me personally my art and my writing — they are the place where I have the most voice. A lot of times in my daily life I won’t have the energy or be in a solid enough mental state to confront all of the different things that are going on. My writing, especially, is where I turn to; where I can say whatever it is I want. It’s the place I can be most honest with myself and communicate that to other people. For me, it’s also a community building tool. I write a lot about people that I know and places where I go and where I hang out and where I experience things–maybe I couldn’t control a situation but I can write about it and figure it out and resolve it that way. There isn’t a whole lot of trans writing and poetry specifically about Chicago. Chicago doesn’t have an organized queer literary scene in the way that other cities do. Our queer culture is more underground than in the Bay Area or in Brooklyn. And there isn’t a lot about Chicago in the trans/queer literary canon. There are many Chicago queer and trans voices, but they have not been amplified or explored very well outside of Chicago.
Through your work with youth, was there ever a watershed moment or experience that impacted you?
Last summer, 3rd Language had a series of workshops I taught for queer young people of color. [3rd Language is a quarterly zine and art collective based out of Chicago. Full disclosure; the author of this piece has been published in 3rd Language]. The workshops were about queer history and queer art, and documenting your own queer history through different art forms like printmaking, bookmaking, collage, photography and all different types of mixed media. And that for me is what needs to happen in Chicago – having these spaces where queer people and queer youth can make art together. We don’t really have that. There were a lot of moments of breakthrough, especially in the beginning – we had a lot of conversations and we read a lot. Just having conversations with other young queer artists was really impactful for me. One of of the main things I took away from that as a teacher was the privilege I had in that space to have students that were queer. Most of the times when I’m teaching I’m not in a queer space. Maybe there are one or two students in the room who are queer or gay or trans*. Its not to a room full of queer folks. So because of that, as a teacher and and as a collective of people sharing space, we were able to get so much deeper into issues in the queer community like racism, and gentrification in Humboldt Park – we were able to go into things on a much deeper level because we all had an understanding about being queer. Even though our ideas about what we felt queer means may have differed, there was no fear that people were going to look at you funny because of what you looked like. A lot of the times queer issues are not talked about in art. Political issues are not discussed in a lot of art contexts. The workshops prove that there need to be more spaces like that in Chicago.
All images provided courtesy of the Artist.
Buy H. Melt’s Book, SIRvival in the Second City, here.
SAIC MFA Show: April 26th – May 14th, 2014, at the Sullivan Galleries, 33. S. State St., 7th Floor.