KB Brookins

On Building a “Freedom House,” Art as a Tool for Change, and Their Full-Length Poetry Debut

Cover of KB Brookins: On Building a “Freedom House,” Art as a Tool for Change, and Their Full-Length Poetry Debut

KB Brookins is a true powerhouse in their forthcoming debut full-length poetry collection. Freedom House, which releases June 6 from Deep Vellum Publishing, takes readers through a multitude of topics—spanning climate change and abortion to being Black and trans in America— through the framework of a house, its four rooms, and how Freedom in its many forms is built. 

I spoke with Brookins via Google Docs about using a house as a blueprint for the collection, their literary influences, their chapbook How to Identify Yourself with a Wound and forthcoming memoir, and more. 


Erica Abbott: First of all, congratulations on your upcoming full-length debut! Can you tell me about how Freedom House came to be and how you landed on the title and concept of the collection?

KB Brookins: Thanks! I first said the phrase “Freedom House” while teaching a community-based workshop that I went to monthly in 2019. At the time, I was fresh in a new city and just really wanting to connect with the local organizing and literary communities, and one condition of being a part of this workshop was that we led a discussion on a rotating schedule. It was my turn to lead, and I thought to talk about the merging between poetry and social justice. 

I think I said something like “if Freedom was a house, what tools would need to be present in order to build that house? How can we ensure that our poetry is one of those tools?” Those two questions seemed to resonate with participants, and I continued to think about it afterwards. I was writing from 2019-21 and really just trying to figure myself out — gender and otherwise. Living through the trump admin and living through the anti-Black, anti-trans sentiments that our culture holds so close as a Black trans person is violent, to say the least. Every day I wake up and there’s new bad news. I was also, in this two or three year span, figuring out who I was as a poet. I was trying new forms and feeling audacious on the page since it was the only place I could truly be “free” to be messy, to explore hard questions, etc. So anyway, I realized that after looking at some poems that they belonged together, and then Freedom House was born.

EA: What is it about a house and how it can embody freedom that you think makes a great blueprint for this poetry collection?

KB: Well, I think that we are our most free selves at home; home is where we lay our heads at night and where we (hopefully) are given the gift of privacy in a world that is so pervasive and based on us goingoingoing. It is our domestic space, which is important for us to get in order before we go and start trying to change the world. There’s a saying in the Black church “sweep around your own front door before you try to sweep around mine” that comes to mind; many of these poems are internal, or talking about person-to-person interactions and history. I think the metaphor of a house is perfect for my collection since it aims to look at the self and how we treat others as pathways to freedom that are just as important as looking at what could change in the world. There are no shortcuts to being free or living freely that don’t require that we clean house, so Freedom House uses this structure because it’s necessary to the work of liberation.

EA: As the collection is divided into four sections, each with its own distinct room, is there any one room/section that feels most crucial to the overall theme of the book? If a fifth section had been part of the collection, which room would you decide to add and why?

KB: I don’t think one section is more important than another. You can’t take a room out of the house and not expect it to have issues, you know? I think that the themes of this book are interspersed through every room/chapter. No need for a fifth.

EA: Towards the end of the collection, the phrase “freedom house” is mentioned explicitly in poems like “Finally, A Slow Weekend” and “Freedom House Manifesto”. There’s also a line in “A List of Things I Want Before This Life Lets Me Go” that reads: “A win that is a win only for me. A me that is / the foundation for the house that holds freedom.” Can you talk a bit about this idea of the “me” being the foundation of this concept?

KB: Well, I wake up every day trying to be a good person, ideally a better person than I was yesterday.I think that is required of everyone who wants to be free. So if the “I” in these poems is manifesting the life they want, a free life, it’s important for me as the poet to include a manifestation of being a better person. To be a foundation is to be the freedom you want to see in the world. That is at least what I was trying to get at in the line you point out, but I’m open to readers telling me what they think as well. 

EA: The closing line of “Notes After Watching the Inauguration” is also one that illustrates this: “This is not my house. Someone else / must open it”. In what ways does this line call back to that concept with more of a focus on stepping up and taking action in a world of complacency and passivity?

KB: I wanna say before I answer this question that I’m not interested in giving a definitive answer. Meaning, how I feel about the poem/what I intended is not the only thing that matters here. Once I put a poem into the world, I release knowing well enough that readers will bring their ideas to the forefront, and even unearth things I may have not even known I was doing at the time, and I invite that! But here I will share a bit of what I meant with that ending. 

So every day on the internet and in real life non-Black people ask Black people to solve the problem of anti-Blackness. It’s regular, lazy, and frankly offensive that something that is done TO us is always positioned as our problem to solve. There is an easy answer which is JUST STOP BEING ANTI-BLACK, but because anti-Blackness is so global and subconscious (thanks to colonialism), many non-Black folks don’t know where to start. What I was alluding to in this line is that it’s not on me or any other Black person to figure out the corruption that exists within electoral politics or any of the other things that made the scenarios I mention in “Notes After Watching the Inauguration” (inaugurations, protests, etc) happen. It’s not on the people who are being oppressed to figure out why and how people can stop oppressing them, ever (in my opinion). If non-Black people want to be better people, I think they have to admit to themselves first that there is an issue — the things I mention in this poem aren’t even specific to one inauguration. I think that goes back to the concept of “cleaning house”. You must figure out what your issues are and not make your issues other people’s problem. So yeah, it does ask for those wanting to be allied to Black folks to rely on themselves and the knowledge already available to them to get up and do something. Attend the protests, listen to Black people who have the patience to teach you/lead revolutionary spaces, let your legislators know that they work for ALL of their constituents, etc. That is what I was getting at. 

EA: In section II, there are several traditional forms, like the ghazal and erasure, in addition to unique ones like the resume and Amazon search. How do all of the forms utilized throughout work to tell the story in the best way possible?

KB: I learned in one of the first poetry classes I took that the form needs to match the content. For me, the content usually comes first and then I find a container, a form equipped with line/non-line breaks, for it. 

EA: There are also a couple instances of plants being used as metaphor, namely the snake plant and the hackberry tree. In “Another Relative Says KB Don’t Call & Don’t Write, Again”, there’s a line: “This work / can’t be uprooted by bigotry. What? / Does the greenery disturb you too much?” Why do these work so well as metaphors for the topics covered in the book, whether it be their “need for water” or being “bumpy but keen on survival”?

KB: I don’t know, you tell me. Clearly I am interested in plant life, and what the things that grow around us can teach us, but really, it’s up to the reader to decide what metaphors “work” and don’t work. They work for me because the earth and their resources is always connected to us.

EA: Themes of sorrow/grief and hope/joy are entwined in this collection, whether it be talking about transness, climate change, police brutality, abortion, imagined futures, etc. How do you envision Freedom House contributing to the lexicon of “writ[ing] a future more joyful”, while still acknowledging the work still needing to be done?

KB: My hope is that Freedom House joins the lineage of many books on these subjects, and also proves itself useful to organizers/people on the ground doing the work to make our everyday lives change. Art is another way to communicate, so if Freedom House makes something “click” for someone who was once ignorant or doubtful of climate change/the other topics I discuss, or if Freedom House gives a trans person or Black person or person who’s any kind of similar to me the humor and validation that they need to keep on keeping on, then I’ve done my job. 

EA: Do you have a favorite poem from the collection? What is it about and can you share a snippet of it?

KB: Nope! All of them are good (and I am supposed to say this because I am selling a book).

EA: What are some of the similarities and differences between this collection and your chapbook How to Identify Yourself with a Wound?

KB: The obvious answer is that it’s longer (haha), but I think the honest answer is that it showcases how I’ve grown as a poet. Both of the books display a level of curiosity about the craft of poetry and about themes I’ll likely write about forever (gender, sexuality, etc), but I think Freedom House met me when I had a more stable sense of what my gender identity was and what I wanted to contribute to the legacy/history of poetry, so the poems just hit different for me. I’m a bit reckless with what I say in Freedom House, and I think that’s important to the goals of the book and my goals as a writer. I wanna be able to say what people like me can’t say unless they’re ready to lose my job/housing/etc in my books. I wanna be able to be the reprieve from a day spent getting beat down by our powerful oppressors. I also wanna be the reminder that there’s more to do, and I’m overall more confident of that in Freedom House, I think. Both of them are no doubt good books, but I hope that I’m always improving with every book that comes after the last one — getting smarter in my lines and form and figurative language and personhood. My hope is that readers can see that effort at improvement when they read How to Identify Yourself with a Wound and Freedom House. 

EA: Can you talk a little bit about your forthcoming nonfiction debut with your memoir Pretty that’s set to release next year?

KB: There’s not much to say at the moment other than it’s coming! Anyone interested in Pretty — which is about Black transmasculinity — can follow me at @earthtokb on twitter/instagram/tiktok or subscribe to my newsletter Out of This World to get updates when I have them. 

EA: Who are some of your biggest literary influences? What inspires you?

KB: This changes as the days do. I can tell you some poets I read recently that I loved, which are Sam Slupski, José Olivarez, Vincente G. Perez, K. Iver, Homer, Alice Oswald, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nicholas Goodly, D’Mani Thomas, Kwame Opoku-Duku, detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Kim Sousa, and Gabrielle Bates. These all will likely influence whatever poet-thing I do next, or at least have influenced one or two poems that I’ve written this year.

I am most inspired lately by my peers who are debuting this year or without books yet. They inspire me to keep doing; truly, I am just trying to keep up with their greatness most days. I am also inspired by what has already happened/the history of poetry. It feels like the only genre that is in a constant loop with its ancestors at all times. Really, isn’t it wild that extended metaphors existed in like, BCE? Or that things like love, fidelity, and death have existed as themes in poetry since it started? It makes me feel less alone. It gives me less pressure to be “unique”. It’s all poetry. 

EA: Do you have any other projects on the horizon? 

KB: My biggest project is working on taking care of myself in the age of nation-wide anti-transness. Besides that, I am debuting my first two museum exhibits next year — both of which are based on Freedom House. Folks can follow me or subscribe to my newsletter for more info on that. 

EA: Anything else you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?

KB: Please go buy Freedom House at Deep Vellum, Bookshop, or wherever you get books! Keep Black, queer, trans, disabled, or otherwise diverse lit alive by buying books by diverse authors, requesting them at your local libraries/bookstores, and interacting with those authors online. It helps more than you know!



KB Brookins is a Black, queer, and trans writer, cultural worker, and artist from Texas. Their chapbook How To Identify Yourself with a Wound (Kallisto Gaia Press, 2022) won the Saguaro Poetry Prize and was named an ALA Stonewall Honor Book in Literature. KB’s writing is published in Poets.org, HuffPost, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. They have earned fellowships from PEN America and Lambda Literary among others. KB has two forthcoming books, Freedom House (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2023) and Pretty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2024). They are a 2023 National Endowment of the Arts fellow. Follow KB online at @earthtokb.

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