In his 2011 work Necropolitics, philosopher and African history and politics scholar Achille Mbembe writes about “necropolitics,” a term he coined in reference to how political and social powers subjugate certain people to death through colonization, imperialism, and domination. Texas writer mónica teresa ortiz has incorporated this concept into her own work as a poet, exploring how forming creative communities is a political act in the face of oppression. “Everyone dies,” ortiz says. “But no one deserves to die because of policy or brutality or empire. As a poet, I am interested in social, civil, or physical death and its relationality to geography, history, and society.”
These themes are especially evocative in her first chapbook, muted blood. In it, ortiz ruminates on what people conceive of as safety, and for whom, while history and memory tell us something different. For instance, in the poem “archaeology” she writes: “Shoal Creek should be considered a boneyard, a boneyard of fossils, of final breaths, of Georgetown Limestone and Ash Juniper trees. There along the dry bed, where hundreds of white rocks stacked restless like bald eyes, were where both an ichthyosaurus (unearthed on an archeological dig) and Larry Jackson Jr, a man unlawfully executed by Austin Police Detective Charles Kleinert in 2012, drew in one last lungful of Cedar Elm.”
By ruminating on the gnarled relationship between politics, violence, and death in her work, the self-professed “necropoet,” who hails from the Panhandle, immortalizes the often tough act of remembering. After having lived and worked in Colombia, the borderlands of El Paso, and across other regions of Texas, ortiz has been steadily building a body of work with two poetry chapbooks, muted blood (Black Radish Books) and autobiography of a semiromantic anarchist (Host Publications) released in 2018 and 2019, respectively. (Host recently released the latter as an e-book, with proceeds and donations going toward funds benefiting Black trans women.) Both of these works examine what it means to be a student of the world, both as witness to and enactor of small revolutions.
Ortiz was raised in rural Castro County. As a child, she was surrounded by ranchers and farmhands going about their work, providing what they could for themselves and their families; her own father worked for a corn syrup plant for thirty years. Ortiz is Texan and Mexican, and honors the experiences from both her mother’s side of the family (she’s close with her abuela, who is from the state of Chihuahua) and her father, who considers himself Tejano and whose family are Spanish-speaking cowboys. The Panhandle, as well as the work ethic she was surrounded by while coming of age there, is also where ortiz came to understand how one can create outside of the spotlight.
Growing up she had a preternatural curiosity, which she often channeled into reading and learning about the political histories of the U.S. and Latin America through the likes of Eduardo Galeano’s writings and the work of the activist and poet June Jordan. “She said that the work of the poet is to deserve the trust of the people,” ortiz says, reflecting on Jordan’s influence on how she views her responsibility as a writer. Ortiz also notes that José Muñoz’s writings on “queer futurity” helped her to understand that “the future we need is not the future we have created yet or even imagined.” Through these writers, ortiz says she “learned from each of them to be a student of history, of geography, of the environment, and to be committed to remembering the past while dreaming of a future that doesn’t exist yet.”
After completing her MFA in poetry at the University of Texas at El Paso and teaching English during a stint at the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, Colombia, ortiz moved to Austin in 2009, where she connected with other poets and creators. Her focus as an artist now, she says, is to create and to uplift her friends and other artists. Ortiz’s poetic communities include Malvern Books and Resistencia Bookstore in Austin and Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, spaces that affirm the voices of queer poets and poets of color and confirm for her the belief that “the work of writing, of creating poetry emphasizes community over capitalism.” She doesn’t consider herself a performer, though she understands that anything put into the public sphere is performance. “I prefer to be doing the work quietly,” she says. As a consequence of the recent pandemic, ortiz lost her job as a barista in Austin and moved back home to be with her family in the Panhandle. She’s been isolated from the communities that she used to work with, and is focusing on gardening, reading, and staying safe.
In the wake of devastation the coronavirus has wrought, ortiz also felt a particular urgency to help create more accessible opportunities for mutual aid and creative outlets to underrepresented queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people of color who may not be able to afford traditional poetry workshops. To that end, ortiz has been helping nurture future generations of writers as the editor of Pariahs, an anthology published by Stephen F. Austin University Press that aims to “build spaces for the voices whose stories are excluded or silenced” and as a creative writing workshop facilitator. She has also led workshops for youth and co-facilitated writing workshops for factory workers on the Texas–Mexico border for almost two years.
Recently, ortiz connected with Tierra Narrative, a Central American production house, to collaborate on writing workshops that help fund mutual-aid work by the Indigenous Kinship Collective, a community of “Indigenous womxn, femmes, and gender non conforming” people. “In sharing reflections about centering our relationship to the land and water, to the letter as medium, and our own writing created in that moment, mónica’s workshop made for a space of respite and production,” says one participant in ortiz’s “Letters to the Land” online creative writing workshop, which took place in late May. “Not in a mechanical or obligatory sense, but in the liveliness of exploring how to be in good relation to our surroundings and our selves.”
Like many people, ortiz is currently trying to navigate what life looks in quarantine. “It took a global pandemic to bring me back home to the Panhandle after twenty-one years,” she says. “Home is a complicated place for many of us. Nothing about returning home is simple. However, I think being here has been healing.” Relationships to home and memory, and how one remembers things, are undoubtedly complicated but vital to ortiz’s work. In one poem from autobiography of a semiromantic anarchist, ortiz addresses the way that Mexican families often bury trauma and unwanted admissions. She writes: “My mama ain’t the kind to forget except when I came out to her then she pulled out her shovel and buried my admission in the same grave as her childhood memories.” In her poetry remembering can be a way to heal from past hurts, particularly when it comes to family history.
While ortiz’s poems document a chaotic world, her verses also speak to the idea that because there is violence and injustice there is also beauty, love, and living to be done. One poem begins: “I love you / the world is ending,” demonstrating—in one breath—the need to be emotionally honest during a time of amplified anxiety.
Despite these anxieties, ortiz thinks of future generations and what we are leaving behind for them as creative ancestors, just as other writers, such as Jordan and Muñoz, did for her. “I hope that young people have something better than my generation experienced,” she says. “That they don’t have to live with so much fear, and that they care just as much for others globally as they do themselves.”