The best advice Seattle-based poet and educator J Mase III has ever gotten came from a conservative Christian woman in his hometown of Philadelphia who called him the night before his first professional poetry gig when he was 19. She wanted to hear the poems he was planning to perform.
After hearing the poems, which largely centered on Mase’s experience as a black, trans, queer youth, she issued a warning: “You have to be careful because when you’re on stage you are also ministering to people.”
The next day, the woman and her fellow event organizers cut Mase’s set down from 20 minutes to 10, attempted to physically cleanse Mase’s spirit with holy water, and issued another warning for Mase to be careful because there were children in the audience.
“So I went out there and said the gayest things I could,” Mase said, laughing as he recounted the tale over oyster shooters at his favorite happy-hour spot in Capitol Hill. “I spoke really fast.”
Despite the censorious intention of the original warning, Mase artfully spun the admonishment into wisdom that now guides his work as a black, trans, queer poet and educator.
Today, Mase makes his living by crafting loud and proud poetry on everything from white supremacy and LGBTQ rights to personal grief and growing up in an interfaith home. He hasn’t forsaken faith communities either. He teaches workshops on LGBTQIA+ rights and racial justice at schools, universities and in faith communities across the U.S., and his current work-in-progress is the “Black Trans Prayer Book,” an interfaith book of prayers centering on the spiritual stories of black trans artists and theologians.
“When you are on stage you are ministering to people,” Mase said. “So you have to really be clear about your message and why you’re spitting and who are you spitting for and who needs to hear your poems. Maybe you will be the only black trans person they’ve heard speak. Maybe they are a little black trans kid or brown trans kid or a Muslim trans kid, and they need to know that other people like them exist. So I’m gonna spit that poem so they know it.”
Throughout his career, Mase, now 34, has frequently worked with faith groups and often encountered pushback. He cited incidents where people have tried to fight him or arrest him or hold prayer circles for him while working with faith groups.
“Sometimes people think because I’m a trans person that I’m also somehow afraid of religion. Let me tell you something, you can try me on your Scripture. I guarantee you, because I didn’t learn this on some seminary, I learned this for survival so you can quiz me if you want, but you’re gonna go home embarrassed, cause I’m gonna do this in front of your friends,” said Mase.
Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, a performance artist, author and frequent co-collaborator, said this fearlessness is what drew her to Mase’s artwork.
“To be able to watch [Mase] operate and say the things that he says in the spaces that he occupies is revolutionary,” Edidi said. “There is an activation that can happen by hearing this black trans man on this stage just call out white supremacy and actively call for us to dismantle it in the ways that he does.”
Since becoming a full-time artist six years ago, Mase’s “ministering” has taken many different forms, including poetry performances, workshops for fellow LGBTQ artists, the work-in-progress “Black Trans Prayer Book,” and, most recently, his first book “And Then I Got Fired: One Transqueer’s Reflections on Grief, Unemployment & Inappropriate Jokes About Death.”
Centering on Mase’s struggle with grief after his father and grandmother passed away in the same year, the book is a mix of memoir, poetry, blessings for trans people and interactive work sheets that Mase said makes it not just about his own journey but “also a memoir of the person reading it.”
“When I was putting this together, [I realized] I haven’t seen anything from a trans perspective about grief,” he said. “Trans people, we lose people all the time, especially as black and brown trans people. We lose people all the [expletive] time to so many different conditions. So [it’s] just having a place of healing tools.”
Edidi, who was a first reader for the book, said it helped her feel permission to mourn.
“Recently in my life, some very important people have passed away,” she said. “So, his book in many ways helped me be able to process what does it mean to not feel selfish for mourning and for mourning the way that I need to mourn.”
The smiling photo of Mase that graces the book’s cover seems like a sharp contrast to the title and subject matter. But even in person, Mase exudes a persistent welcome and warmth that comes from his thoughtful engagement in conversation and a casual charm that easily breaks into hearty laughter.
As our conversation turned to his experience after the death of his father, a man he described as “my best friend as an adult,” Mase’s smile faded and the engaged eye contact he usually held seemed to turn inward.
“After my dad died, I was a basket case. I was a mess,” he said. “I lost my job six weeks after my dad died. My boss literally called me while I was in my dad’s hospital room while he was in a coma and said, ‘I thought you’d be back at work already.’ So I lost that job [working in higher education] and I decided I wouldn’t go back to work because I couldn’t function and the whole world stopped. … Your whole world literally ends. Your whole world ends.”
“And Then I Got Fired” was born out of the bad advice Mase said he received when he was struggling with this grief. Like with the warning-turned-wisdom of his poetic naissance, Mase characteristically turned this bad advice into a book of blessings and poems that unabashedly address the messier parts of grief.
“Sometimes the basic act of someone telling us that what you’re feeling is normal can be the difference between feeling like I have nothing left to give or my life is meaningless to —” he cuts himself short and pauses as a smile eases back onto to his face.
“I don’t like the word ‘hope,’ ” he says.
“Sometimes with hope, there’s this belief that someone is coming to save you. For me as a survivor of DV [domestic violence], in these places where people are like ‘it will just get better,’ it kind of robs you of agency. Sometimes I don’t need hope; I need to know that something needs to happen and I’m the only one that’s gonna do it … Especially when we talk about what it means to be trans folks of color,” Mase says. “It means a lot of being clear like that. If there’s going to be a movement, it’s going to be you and your friends making it, or you and your community making it, or sometimes, it’s just going to be you.”
Unwilling to wait “for someone else to affirm that [his] message is important,” or take a chance with institutions that are not “trans competent,” Mase promotes his own art. He self-published his book and largely oversees his own marketing and publicity efforts. In his workshops, he guides fellow queer and trans artists through an examination of their needs — financial, artistic, medical and otherwise — to create actionable plans to move toward sustaining themselves solely by their art.
At 11 p.m. on a Monday, after a full day that included a photo shoot, leading a three-hour workshop and the interview for this story, Mase reflected on the past six years that he’s spent fending for himself as a full-time artist.
Success is “being able to not have to worry about the people that don’t understand my experience being in control of my life,” he said.
“I’ve already surpassed everything I thought I was going to do. So my next step is doing this on a higher scale. … being able to travel more internationally, being able to support more trans artists of color.”
“And Then I Got Fired: One Transqueer’s Reflections on Grief, Unemployment & Inappropriate Jokes About Death” by J Mase III, 84 pp., $20