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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Inside Issue #22: Maybe It's a Renaissance; Maybe It's Community

By Levi Todd

Our silk-screen babies baptized
in these Third Coast holy springs.
Imagine the Lake Michigan waters
washing jubilee into our streets.
Watch us closely.

Be our witness.

--From “Litany: Chicago Summers” by Parneshia Jones

I have no time to explain to the doubtful that poetry is not, in fact, dead. In any era, the often repeated statement is laughable. There are always poets working tirelessly to promote their art to the world, and there is always a devoted audience willing and ready to receive it. Anyone who is confident that poetry has died must also believe that music is dead, or maybe they think visual art is on its way out the door as well. Poetry is not just eeking by; it is thriving. This has always been and will always be true. However, it is especially true today.

On a daily basis, I give thanks that my friends and I were born into this era. We are surrounded by absolute icons who are creating work that expands the cultural canon, who are bringing poetry to new audiences, and who are showing us all the ways in which poetry is the lifeblood to our lived experiences. Poetry book sales are skyrocketing, with 2017 being the best year for poetry sales to date. We have poets performing for late night talk shows while being treated with the same reverence as musicians. I cannot begin to list the poets who are both embracing and redefining convention while producing stunning collections of work, but how blessed are we to be living at the same time as Layli Longsoldier, Tyehimba Jess, Morgan Parker, Ocean Vuong, and Fatimah Asghar, just to name a few? (I almost want this essay to simply be a list of the countless living poets I’m leaving out.) This poetic greatness is true across the globe and across the US, from Rochester to Los Angeles to Muncie to Austin. But if the poetic renaissance can be seen especially anywhere, it is in Chicago.

Numerous publications have taken note that something special is taking place in the Windy City. There have been articles on Young Chicago Authors’ youth poetry festival, Louder Than A Bomb, and the outstanding young poets who are making names for themselves. The New Yorker did a feature on No Blue Memories, Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall’s shadow box play utilizing puppets to celebrate the life of Gwendolyn Brooks. The Chicago Review of Books highlighted just a few of the countless poets who continue to center their work around the city. The CRB was bold enough to call our current cultural moment what it is: the Chicago Renaissance.

Of course, the CRB is not the first to recognize that Chicago is fostering a cultural renaissance, and it is certainly not the first to give it its proper name. Local musicians, writers, dancers, and artists of all kinds have long been celebrating each other’s work before it becomes recognized at a national level. Noname, Saba, Ravyn Lenae, and countless other local musicians have moved past the Chicago circuit to venues across the country. Artists like Hebru Brantley, Max Sansing, and Sentrock are finding innovative mediums to showcase their work, from book covers to public murals to music videos. This essay alone cannot capture the scope of the cultural garden that is blooming (and already grown) in Chicago. But since it’s National Poetry Month, let’s focus on the poets.

It is absolutely impossible to talk about poetry in Chicago without talking about its youth. In an era where public schools are slashing their arts budgets, countless organizations such as 826CHI, the Chicago Poetry Center, and Young Chicago Authors are stepping in with classroom visits and afterschool programming to guarantee that our students are exposed to poetry at a young age, and that they understand its accessibility, potential, and importance. Increasingly, more schools are developing slam poetry teams to compete in Louder Than A Bomb, and these students spend the entire year gearing up to share their work in front of audiences of hundreds. The result is that our students are saved from thinking that poetry is outdated or dull, or simply not for them. When I recently volunteered for a poetry field trip hosted by Open Books, we asked the visiting 6th grade class what they thought poetry was for. Without missing a beat, one girl raised her hand and said “Poetry is for resistance.”

The impact of prioritizing our young people in poetry communities is that once they find a home in poetry, they stay. For example, the same students impacted by Young Chicago Authors’ programming at its inception are the ones now leading it. The success of poets who studied under YCA such as E’mon Lauren, Jamila Woods, Britteney Black Rose Kapri, and Nate Marshall proves that once young people are brought into poetry, they stay, and they lead the next generation. This legacy of mentorship continues to pay homage to Chicago’s own Gwendolyn Brooks (one of many participants in the Chicago Black Renaissance of the early 20th century), who didn’t just dedicate her life to her own writing, but also taught free poetry workshops and hosted opportunities for young poets to showcase and develop their work. Unlike cities such as New York or Los Angeles that have flocks of artists moving there to begin their careers, the majority of our creatives are built up within the community. Poet and curator H. Melt summarizes this well by saying, “Chicago poets care about each other. We actively support each other--not just as writers and teachers, but as whole people too. We see ourselves not solely as individual poets, but as part of larger communities who all deserve to be heard. We value telling our own stories equally to listening to the stories of other people. We celebrate each other, hold each other accountable, and frequently collaborate. Poetry in Chicago is thriving because we recognize that being a poet is not simply about writing, it's about supporting the people around you.”

Chicago poets understand that the only way towards our communal success is through collaboration. This is the city indebted to the work of small presses, independent bookstores, and DIY shows, all of which work in harmony together. Independent shops (which vastly outnumber Barnes & Nobles here) like Women & Children First, Uncharted Books, The Seminary Co-Op, and Volumes Bookcafe make a concerted effort to stock small press books and zines, and host readings for local and visiting poets. Open mics and readings take place regularly across the city, whether they be in someone’s living room, or at a neighborhood bar, or at a gallery. Small presses like Haymarket Books are making an intentional effort to anthologize the work of poetic greats, through projects like The Breakbeat Poets, The Breakbeat Poets Volume II: Black Girl Magic, and the forthcoming Volume III: Halal If You Hear Me.  There’s simply no room in this city for a sense of competition among poets. The community is always willing to share its resources and knowledge in the name of uplifting local talent. As Eve Ewing puts it in her New Yorker feature, “There is a Midwestern cultural aspect to it—a cultural norm of sharing and abundance, rather than scarcity and competition,” The culture in Chicago is not just do-it-yourself. It’s do-it-together.

We don’t just have a duty to develop and hone our own craft, but also to be kind citizens both to our local communities and to the poetry community at large. Poetry inherently aims to resist the traditional lenses we view the world with, and this resistance is a sibling to political resistance. The hardworking activists behind #LetUsBreathe Collective, Assata’s Daughters, and #NoCopAcademy fighting against the city’s police violence, housing inequality, and lack of investment in the city’s South and West sides are the same people you see at the open mic. Protests and direct actions make space for poems in between speeches, understanding that they are two heads to the same coin. On this connection, poet and organizer José Olivarez says, “I think our poetry communities developed in response to our particular socio-political realities. Chicago is famous for being segregated. The city has a gang database that targets and discriminates against Black & Latinx people. Artists in the city have responded by making work that imagines alternative possibilities & by creating spaces that attempt to uphold values more in tune with the city we hope to make.” Chicago understands that we use the same language to write poems as we do to write manifestos and visions for equitable futures.

Chicago’s poetry community isn’t perfect, certainly. Like any community, we need to continue to improve and open the door wider to guarantee that everyone truly feels like poetry is relevant to them, and that they are capable of breathing their own life into it. Producer and creator Daniel Kisslinger explains, “I think sometimes we sugarcoat what community means and leave out a lot about how community means tension and disagreement but not disposability." When we talk about a renaissance of poetry in Chicago, we shouldn’t imply that we have all the answers that folks can learn from. Rather, we should open ourselves to the likely possibility that we will make mistakes, and that we will be better for listening to the folks that hold us accountable for them.

Poetry and imagination go hand in hand, and poets in Chicago are trying to imagine the city they want to live in. We know that community will take us there, and that it is both our responsibility and privilege to hold each other up. At the end of the day, it’s not just about poetry. It’s about Chicago. Our artists are creating work with the people who live here at its center. We care about each other first and foremost. The incredible poems that continue to pour from our city are part of a larger task: to let the world know that our community is home to people with their minds set on a more inclusive, radiant future. It takes activists, artists, workers, dancers, organizers, musicians, and yes, poets, to get there. It’s not a Second City complex that makes us rep Chicago wherever we go and whatever we do. We’d just like you to join us.

  read the whole issue here.