Chicago Poet H.Melt on Their Work and the City's Artistic Legacy

A prolific visual artist and transqueer poet, H.Melt is a crucial voice in Chicago's queer poetry scene. Represented also by slam poets, writers and activists like Mar Curran, ellie june navidson and Jakob VanLammeren, Chicago's queer poets are rethinking the divides between the public and the private, the visual and the discursive, the page and the stage.

These young artists challenge our societal divides and narratives, showcasing what it means to challenge the norm. I spoke with H.Melt, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, about their work and their upcoming collection of poems.

Nico Lang: The title of your newest poetry volume is SIRvival in the Second City. What does that title mean for you and how does it relate your work in this collection?

HM: As I say in the introduction, I wrote this book to keep myself alive. My art and writing practice is a means of survival for me. Writing keeps me honest and is a space in which I reveal new truths to myself. Most of these poems were written during my first semester as a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was an incredibly frustrating time. While the institution projects an image of progressiveness, I found that it is actually quite conservative in how they deal with trans students, staff and faculty or more accurately, ignore our needs. My experiences during that time were representative of how our society treats trans people in general -- our needs are ignored until we repeatedly demand them. And even then, they are often silenced.

Survival is one of the biggest issues in queer and trans communities. Figuring out how to live in a world that stigmatizes and denies our existence is a daily struggle. I hope that by sharing my stories, it encourages other people to stay alive. Sharing my work is a combination of affirmation, liberation, and survival. The only way we can make the world a safer place for all of us is by sharing our real experiences through our own voices.

NL: In addition to being a poet, you're also a prolific visual artist and many of the poems in SIRvival are interspersed with personal artifacts, such as your birth certificate and a school ID from childhood. How do you feel your visual work influences your written craft? How else can we see it in your poetry?

HM: It was very important for me to include visual elements such as my reworked birth certificate and various forms of identification in the book. I did this to question the authority of those supposedly official documents. They are incredibly limiting and do not rule how we see ourselves. However, it is necessary to have the ability to identify who we are--whether it's on a driver's license or job application, many of us are forced to lie because gender self-determination is not an option. These documents and outdated classification systems attempt to control our lives but we know they are not accurate reflections of who we are. We need to be given the option to define ourselves.

NL: This book of poems is structured around themes of birth, death and rebirth. How do you see those reflected in your work and why particularly is transformation such an important idea, considering that it's the final segment?

HM: The birth certificate in my book identifies Aug. 27, 2012, as my date of birth. This date was my 22nd birthday and I consider that the time of my rebirth. The time when I really decided to stop pretending that I am cisgender. The date when I starting asserting who I am more openly to other people. The time when it became too overwhelming to not be myself.

I needed it to be on paper for other people to see. Mostly for me to see. I am done being Hannah. For me, Hannah is dead. She is dead. But for many other people, she is not. Everyone goes through transformations throughout their lives and this is one way that I am letting people know that I have changed. My rebirth does not include an assignment of gender. My gender is many things that cannot fit into the tiny space or check box it is usually allotted.

NL: Your poems often deal with the intersection of personal themes and stories with an attention to spatial location and geography, the private and the public. Why do you think those threads so often recur in your writing?

HM: Trans and queer lives are simultaneously public and private. Straight and cisgender worlds have a hard time recognizing or understanding our lives and bodies, our signs and signals to each other, and knowing about spaces that are welcoming to us. I fully believe in the value of occupying public space. There is also a danger in that. I am most affirmed when I see other queer people out in public, and when I attend events with a queer presence. But there is a lot about queer and trans lives that cannot be seen. For me, having public places to be myself -- such as Nuts and Bolts, Subject to Change, and Lexica at Salonathon is key to my survival.

NL: In our conversations, you've often mentioned your passion for Chicago as a "poets' city." Why do think our literary and poetic histories are so important to our city's identity?

HM: As Nelson Algren said in City on the Make, Chicago is a "poet's town." It is the birthplace of the poetry slam. Original home of Louder Than a Bomb: Chicago's Youth Poetry Festival, which is the largest of its kind in the world.

The literary history is so important to this city, and to any place, because that is where the stories of everyday people are recorded. While many of our stories are not covered in the mainstream newspapers, television shows, films, or art galleries, writing provides a space for the underheard to exist in their own words. It is particularly difficult in a city such as Chicago -- the most segregated in the country -- for people to listen to each other across our expansive flatland. I identify as a Chicago poet. That means that I value our daily struggles, I document people's lives in my communities. I write what I know in order to change it and create a more realistic portrait of this city, country and world.

NL: You often note your many influences as a Chicago poet, particularly writers from Carl Sandburg to Kevin Coval. What effect have they had on you and what would you like to give back to Chicago poetry?

HM: Chicago is one of my most significant muses. A large part of that is the people who are here. It is true that Carl Sandburg and my mentor, publisher, employer, friend and fellow radical poet, educator and community builder Kevin Coval heavily influence me.

It is also true that they are both straight white men, and it is often those writers and writers like them -- including Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Alex Kotlowitz and Rick Kogan -- that get the most credit for representing the city through writing. I am influenced by everyone I listed above and admire their work. But there are numerous writers from and currently living in Chicago who are just as influential on me and do not happen to be straight white men.

I am inspired by Third World Press, which includes writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhubuti and Gil Scott-Heron. I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of South Side Community Arts Center and the DuSable Museum of African American History, before she passed. However, I am most inspired by my peers and fellow teaching artists at Young Chicago Authors -- young poets like Malcolm London, Kush Thompson, and Jose Olivares, along with Jamila Woods and Nate Marshall, who I am proud to share a press with on New School Poetics. In the queer arts scene, I am honored to frequently share stages with people like Joe Varisco, Wes Perry, Kiam Marcelo Junio and Emanuel Vinson.

The city itself is inspiring to me, but it is the people that keep me here -- and alive.

You can find H-Melt next at "Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival." H-Melt will participate in the first-ever queer reading series featured at the festival, titled Poets Speak Brave: An Intergenerational Queer Dialogue Project. This will take place Friday, March 1, at 12 p.m. on Columbia College's campus. SIRvival in the Second City will be available at Louder Than a Bomb and debuts in March on New School Poetics.

This piece was originally featured as part of The Q List at Windy City Times, a regular column spolighting local emerging queer artists. You can find the original here.