Writers Talking About Anything but Writing: Jubi Arriola-Headley on Kilts, Beaches, and Public Transportation

Laura Villareal (LV): I’ve known you for a little over four years, but I don’t think I ever asked about your love of kilts, so let’s start there. I remember that you visited a kilt shop when we were in either Philadelphia or Portland. When and how did get into kilts?

Jubi Arriola-Headley(JAH): Back in 2007 I attended the Folsom Street Fair (“Folsom”) for the first time. Which, I think, if I start the story this way, sets up my love of kilts as a fetish or a kink (see what I did there?)—which it might in fact be. Folsom, for folks who don’t know, is an annual event in San Francisco that features kinky (in the sexual sense) scenes or performances; booths or stalls selling all sorts of kink-related gear and wear; organizations that promote safe, sane, and consensual kink; companies that produce kinky porn; kink-focused or inspired artists and craftspeople; and corporate (of course) entities that might in some way benefit from an association with the folks that frequent such an event. Et cetera. So—I passed by a booth that was selling kilts and it might have been the thick hairy calves of the person selling the kilts that first caught my eye (I’m a leg man), but, in any case, I decided to try one on and the clearest thing I can tell you is that I felt at once transgressive and at home in this kilt, and in my own skin in a way that I never had before. Ever since that moment I’ve had a deep and abiding love of kilts. The superstitious part of me, before Sibling Rivalry agreed to publish original kink, said a prayer to God or The Universe or whomever that if my baby found a home that I’d wear a kilt to every reading I did thereafter. And even though I didn’t anticipate at the time I’d be doing most of those readings via Zoom, I’ve by and large honored that. So even if you, dear reader, can’t see my legs, just know I’m rocking a kilt during my reading. If Omicron or some future variant doesn’t end us all, I’m looking forward to many more in-person kilted readings. My own calves are quite lovely, for those of you who enjoy such things.

LV: I hope one day we get to see you kilted and reading your incredible poems in person! You’re wearing quite a lovely kilt in your author photo on your website. Was that one your first kilt?

JAH: No, actually, that’s my most recent kilt. On my “About” page there’s a photo of me in a blue tank top and a green Utilikilt (see below for an explanation of what this is)—my second kilt, actually. That photo was taken in 2008, if I remember correctly. My beard’s a lot grayer and the laugh lines and crows’ feet have deepened but I think otherwise I look much the same.

LV: What are some places you might recommend if folks are looking to buy a kilt?

JAH: USA Kilts is a wonderful resource. Not only do they have literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of tartans to choose from. They also have a YouTube channel where the owners (two good-natured middle-aged white guys) post dozens of entertaining and informative videos on how a how to measure yourself for a kilt, how you should wear your kilt, general kilt etiquette, the different types of kilts, which tartans anyone can wear (“universal” tartans), and so on.

That all said—traditional kilts aren’t cheap (a good one, most often made of wool, runs you easily upwards of $400). Also, they tend to be heavy (see previous reference to wool material) and formal feeling. If you’re looking for an unbifurcated garment with a lower barrier to entry, consider Utilikilts. These non-traditional kilts (invented by a dude who, to me, looks like the original poster for Burning Man, but don’t let that stop you from living your best kilted lyfe) tend to run cheaper than traditional kilts, and have the added benefit of being lighter on the frame as well as the wallet (they’re made of heavy-duty cotton instead of wool), AND—they have pockets. (Traditional kilts don’t.)

LV: Talk to me about your favorite beaches, Jubi. You live in South Florida with beautiful beaches within driving distance. Is there one you visit more than others? What do you like most about the beach?

JAH: It might not surprise you to learn (based on my previous answer) that I’m a nudist. One of the main draws of moving to South Florida, where my husband and I now live, is the beautiful Haulover Beach, one of the few legal clothing-optional beaches in the United States, which is less than an hour drive from my home. There’s something liberating (figuratively as well as literally) about sunbathing nude among like-minded folks. Somehow, exposing the body renders one less visible, less subject to a judging gaze. I can’t quite explain it yet—I’m working on an essay on the topic but I’m still fumbling for the words. For now, let’s say it’s like the Matrix—you can’t be told what it is… you know how the rest of that line goes.

But I don’t spend all my beach time at nude beaches. I live about two miles as the crow flies from the middle of a 50-odd-mile stretch of beach through Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties that’s home to some of the best beaches you can find anywhere. A few of my favorites: Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is home to a chill, family-friendly beach that never feels too crowded in my ever-so-humble opinion—super important in the COVID era, right? North Miami Beach is a city in its own right, and the beaches there can sometimes get touristy but are home to boutique hotels and cafes and also have lovely mangrove patches to get lost in and overall feel about less 104% stressful than South Beach, which is located (surprise surprise) to the south of there. Finally, Virginia Key is a historic, secluded beach—once Miami’s official “colored only” beach, FYI. If you pick just the right spot, you’ll feel like you’re on a secluded island in sometime other than now—either in the past or future. Also: I had the great fortune to participate in a group reading of Zong! there that I’ll never forget. (“Reading” feels inadequate to describe that experience; I should call it a ritual or a summoning.)

LV: It’s wonderful to hear you describe these beaches. I totally agree about the importance of finding a place outside that’s not crowded in these times. More than ever before I find myself needing to be outside in nature. Do you find yourself going to the beach more now than before the pandemic?

JAH: Absolutely! So many places I used to go are off-limits to me now (COVID, right?)—I tried to go back to the gym in August and five minutes into my attempt at a workout I knew that was a bad idea. I haven’t been to the movies since 2019 sometime, nor have I sat indoors in any restaurant or coffee shop. (Luckily, living in South Florida, many restaurants and cafes have outdoor seating, which feels a lot safer, but still not fully safe safe, you know what I mean?) So, I spend more time outdoors in general, taking long walks, and sunbathing at the beach. Plus, the ocean, I feel, has a calming, restorative effect on me, and in the wake of all the horrorscape that’s been the past two years, I’ve needed calm and restoration more than ever.

LV: What would your perfect beach day be like? How do you like to spend your time—sunbathing, reading, swimming, collecting shells, or perhaps everything?

JAH: I went to the beach two days before New Year’s and the worst part about it was the traffic on the way home. I brought lunch with me, went into the water twice (mainly to cool off, not to spend any time actually swimming, that sounds like WORK) and spent the rest of my time laying out, listening to the waves crashing, talking to no one, dozing off every so often, remembering to flip occasionally so as to brown equally on all sides. That took up most of the five hours I spent at the beach that day. That was pretty close to perfect for me.

LV: Sounds like a perfect day!

Public transportation varies so wildly across the U.S. Where I live in Texas we rely on cars since there are few, if any, forms of public transportation, but other areas of the U.S., like the East Coast, have trains, buses, or even ferries readily available. If I remember correctly, you’ve lived in quite a few different places like Massachusetts and Texas. How did your experience with public transportation differ and what’s your favorite form of travel?

JAH: I love a city with a robust public transportation system—which for me (fight me) means trains and trolleys (more than just buses in other words). In Boston, where I grew up, there’s three intra-city train lines (Red/Blue/Orange) and on top of that a trolley system (Green) and an extensive set commuter rail lines (Purple) that venture not only into the suburban areas outside Boston but into neighboring states. I didn’t get my drivers’ license until I was twenty, for no other reason than I didn’t need it. Public transportation in Boston—if defined by how extensive it is in terms of track miles, or how well the train/trolley infrastructure is developed—is top-notch. New York of course surpasses it. (Though maintenance there is an issue, for obvious reasons.) DC’s public transportation system is pretty good, based on these criteria; other cities, like Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, have decent public transportation but are limited by the reach (or lack of reach) of their train lines. Los Angeles’ system was a surprise to me when I spent six months there in 2018 on a fellowship; it’s a lot more extensive than I thought it’d be. There’s tiers below these cities (Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami); beyond these cities I’ve named, though, I’m not sure that most U.S. cities have any more than highly limited (in terms of track miles) light rail.

I did spend time in Texas; there’s a car-worship culture there that’s dispiriting. I lived for eight years in Houston—for five of those years I lived in the Westbury neighborhood, and the regional transit board came up with a plan to bring light rail to our area. Maybe half of residents loved the idea, but the other half hated it and the idea died and never came to fruition. I’d moved to Houston because the cost of living there was inexpensive (read: for a dude), but I think the day I learned they’d killed the transit plan was the day the cheap sheen of the city started to wear off for me.

I also love Amtrak—or, more accurately, I would love to love Amtrak. The Acela train which bounds up and down the Northeast Corridor, connecting Boston to New York to Philly to Baltimore to DC, is the closest we might ever get in this country to the way Europe—not just cities or individual countries but the continent, in general—approaches mass transit. In Europe, you can take a high-speed train from country to country and have it rival, in cost and speed, a flight. Of course, tight geography helps. But it’d be nice if more cities in our country could benefit from high-speed rail.

LV: It’s illuminating to hear you describe each city’s public transportation. Boston sounds like a dream in terms of ease of travel. I wish we had high-speed trains like in other countries. Perhaps this is a silly question, but if in the future we had high-speed trains available, do you think you’d give up flying and driving?

JAH: I do love high-speed trains. LOVE. I remember taking a train from Paris to Lyon about ten years ago and falling in love with high-speed rail on that ride. I think if you have access to high-speed rail, if you’re traveling anywhere within 500 miles of your home, it’s a no-brainer to travel via high-speed rail instead of a plane. It’s more environmentally friendly, and all that time you spend checking in at the airport and navigating security, you spend instead chilling on the train, enjoying watching the landscape whiz by. I would also consider taking overnight trains, if that was a viable option. I know “the billionaires” (at least two of them—you know who they are) are working on bringing us high-speed rail so superfast you could theoretically cross the country (Say, New York to San Francisco) in half a day. But I really don’t trust they’re putting as much effort into that project as they are into their cockrockets. So I’ma wait until phase three or so before I jump on a hyperloop.

Jubi Arriola-Headley, Interviewed by Laura Villareal

Jubi Arriola-Headley (he/they) is a Blacqueer poet, a storyteller, a first-generation United Statesian (the son of Bajan immigrants), and author of the poetry collection original kink (Sibling Rivalry Press), recipient of the 2021 Housatonic Book Award. He’s a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and has received support for his work from Millay Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Lambda Literary, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Jubi and his poems have been featured in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Beloit Poetry Journal, NimrodSouthern Humanities Review, Washington Square Review, PBS NewsHour’s Brief But Spectacular, and elsewhere. Jubi lives with his husband in South Florida, on Tequesta and Seminole lands, and his work explores themes of masculinity, vulnerability, rage, tenderness, and joy. Black Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter. Stop Asian Hate. Art is Labor. Abolish Policing. Eat the Rich. Stay Kinky. Free Palestine.

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl's Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She has received fellowships from Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and National Book Critics Circle. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Waxwing, AGNI, and elsewhere.