Writing Poems With a Love Ethic: an Interview with José Olivarez

interview by Levi Todd
photos by Davon Clark

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Lately I’ve been wondering about what poems do. We often hear about  what they help us do -- they are a balm, a motivator, a light to guide the way. All of these are true, and I think it’s helpful to imagine what poems can help ourselves accomplish or pursue. But, I’m also curious about what poems themselves actively achieve within the space of their page, how they act as verbs. José Olivarez’s new collection, Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books), provides tremendous insight. The poems in this book question the meaning of words we use flippantly, they imagine what sanctuary and solidarity look like, and they give name to love’s countless shapes. In both his poems and in our interview, it’s clear that José actively thinks of himself in the context of several communities -- those of Chicagoans, family, Mexican and Latinx people, and poets, while considering what it means to be a citizen of these communities. In his own words, Olivarez writes, “[with] an ethic of reaching towards my people and giving us poems that make us feel powerful & dangerous.”

How are you doing? What's on your mind?

Thank you for asking. I feel pretty good. My book release party is in a month, and I just spent this whole weekend celebrating Fatimah Asghar's book, If They Come For Us. Fati said this thing yesterday about how we used to sit in our apartments in Logan Square together when we first met dreaming and reading all the books we loved, so for us to have books coming out within a month of each other and for Britteney Black Rose Kapri's book [Black Queer Hoe] to come out on the same day makes my eyes a little sweaty.

Your last book, Home Court, was co-authored with Ben Alfaro. What did you find similar or different about writing the two books?

Home Court was cool because it was my second attempt at putting together a collection with a friend. I also released a self-published and printed a  chapbook with Cydney Edwards called Seeing Double. With each project, I've gotten closer to articulating myself how I want. I had a reading for Seeing Double where I read a poem and afterwards someone came up to me and said they were sorry. I realized that what I thought was powerful about the poem wasn't conveying. I wasn't writing precisely enough, so I was giving people space to pity me and I hated that. I think the question I keep turning around my head is how to write about my histories, personal & communal, which include some trauma and violence, in a way that doesn't give people tourist access to pain. I want to write poems with a love ethic. With an ethic of reaching towards my people and giving us poems that make us feel powerful & dangerous.

Throughout the collection, there are a series of poems titled "Mexican Heaven", which repeatedly imagine what this place might look like. Some of these vignettes align with our expectations of heaven, and others challenge them. For example, one section where you say "all the Mexican women refuse to cook or clean ... so heaven is gross." What are your thoughts on the way we imagine utopias, especially in speculative or futurist works?

Eve L. Ewing says that all of her poems are true stories. I don't consider my poems speculative. They are true.

I've seen on social media that you share a lot of Lucille Clifton's poems, and you make reference to reading her in "Summer Love.” What about her work speaks to you, and how do you think your poems are influenced by her own?

I love Lucille Clifton's poems. Her poems have an anthemic quality that is hard to reproduce without sacrificing the quality of the work. I love poets that make their poems look seamless. Ada Limón's writing is like this, too. I read Lucille Clifton's "moonchild," and I can imagine writing that poem. I am capable of a revelation like "only then did i know that to live / in the world all that i needed was / some small light and know that indeed / i would rise again and rise again to dance." Yet, that poem is very difficult to write. It turns out, I actually can't write that poem. So, I study her writing because I want to learn, and because I need her poems. Lucille Clifton's poems prepare me to face the world and win.  

One poem I keep coming back to is "When the Bill Collector Calls & I Do Not Have the Heart to Answer," because it's this imagined space where the speaker's current and younger selves meet each other and also exist at the same time. If you could spend a day with nine-year-old José, what would you do?

If I hung out with nine-year-old José, we would probably play a lot of video games. My homie's nephew is ten and when he comes over the house, we play a lot of video games. Video games were way worse when I was nine, so I'm sure I'd be impressed by the graphics of the games.  

On a serious tip, I wrote this book because I wish I had this book when I was a nine-year-old. At nine, I felt like I had to choose one identity and perform that identity to the max. I was always scared I wasn't manly enough or Mexican enough or American enough or whatever. I would have asked my nine-year-old self what was up, and I would have listened.

Poems like "(Citizen) (Illegal)" and "Mexican American Disambiguation" explore political or academic buzzwords that get used so often that we focus more on the words themselves than the people or topics they aim to represent. Are there any other words or phrases you've been thinking critically about that maybe didn't make it into the book?

All language is poetic. Martín Espada has this essay where he explains that the language of the War in Iraq is a type of bad poetry. What are “weapons of mass destruction”? It's imagery. I was listening to the radio one day years ago and they were talking about whether or not “advanced interrogation” is ethical. I had no idea what “advanced interrogation” was. Was it like an AP Test? Was it the scientific category for Final Jeopardy questions? They were talking about torture. “Advanced interrogation” is a dishonest way of saying torture.

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about about the “wellness industrial complex” & how things get packaged as a product. Self-care, joy, body positivity, all of these words that are very important to me get eaten up by capitalism to sell me a product. I guess capitalism is deep on my mind.

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I love that in the acknowledgments, you mention that conversations with your students helped shape the poems in the collection. What did these conversations help you better understand about your work, or just about life?

Before working with Luis Carranza, Victoria Chávez Peralta, and Ken Muñoz, I was writing towards an ambiguous audience. I was writing towards my nine-year-old self, my teenage self. Luis, Victoria, and Ken gave my poems a real audience. They could tell me if I was off-base or wrong. They were a big part of workshopping these poems.

Their own work also opened up possibilities. Victoria has a beautiful poem about their mom and in it they use Spanish in a way that doesn't seek to translate. That poem helped clarify how I could write beyond a poetics of translation. Ken has a series of poems that take place within a Latinx grocery store in a gentrifying neighborhood. Those poems helped me think about a poem like “Gentefication.” Luis writes anthems and seeks to mobilize his community. All of those stories and styles were influential. They are fantastic writers in their own right.

For the folks in Chicago, where in the city would you most like folks to read this book, and what snacks should they have with them?

Haha. I love this question. Here's my ask, I want you to read this book on your favorite Lake Michigan beach. Bring a beach towel or a blanket and pack your favorite snacks. People have all sorts of dietary restrictions and allergies, so I'm not going to get too specific. If it was me, I'd be bringing some brown liquor, I'd bring peaches, ricotta, and some honey. Then you gotta read the poems out loud to the lake. If you have a group of friends, that's even better.

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