An Interview with José Olivarez
By Becky Zhang, Pomona '22
José Olivarez grew up in Calumet City, Illinois and was raised by Mexican immigrants. His debut poetry collection, Citizen Illegal, was published September of this year. His work has also been published in the poetry anthology The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Alongside writing, Olivarez co-hosts the podcast The Poetry Gods and serves as Marketing Manager at Young Chicago Authors.
Given your vast experiences writing poetry, being part of The Breakbeat Poets, and also part of your podcast The Poetry Gods, what are your thoughts on the relationship between the written and spoken word, between hip hop, lyricism, and poetry?
I really love poetry, and so I’m always trying to find ways to put poetry in places where maybe people aren’t expecting it. In New York there’s a group called Poets in Unexpected Places: they curate these poetry experiences, where perhaps they’ll get people to meet up on a particular train line in New York and then, one by one, they jump up and start performing these poems. The rest of the people on the train aren’t expecting this, so it becomes a way to get people to see that poetry belongs everywhere. That’s one of the things I deeply believe: that poetry belongs everywhere. So for me, it makes sense that my poems are spoken, that they’re written, that I have a poetry podcast where I get to talk to my friends about the poems I love, because I believe that poetry should be everywhere.
Regarding poetry and the linguistic freedom it offers compared to prose, when you sit down to write, are there any rules that you tend to follow in your writing? Are there are any written conventions that you actively defy?
I think it depends on the poem and the project. When I was working on Citizen Illegal, one of my rules was that no Mexicans could die in my book who couldn’t come back to life. That was a rule because it felt like too many Mexicans were already dying, and not just dying once, but their deaths were then showed endlessly, on repeat, via news cycles. I didn’t want to contribute to that.
On a poem-by-poem basis, even though I see myself as a free verse writer, there are poems in my book that appear either in invented forms or in received forms. There are a couple of sonnets in my book, a couple of broken sonnets, sonnets with extra lines. The poem “Ode to Cheese Fries” is an invented form, which follows the very basic rule of having a long line followed by a short line; it has a call and response line in it.
There’s a lot of playing with form for me. I care about the rules enough to know them, but I’m also always willing to break them if it’ll help move the energy of the poem forward.
How has your writing been influenced by Sandra Cisneros and Gwendolyn Brooks? How would you say your writing differs from theirs, how you’ve built and developed your own style?
Sandra Cisneros, specifically in House on Mango Street, uses this very playful voice that is rebellious and so observant, in particular in the documentation of adults and their habits. She also writes the book via vignettes; a lot of the chapters are very short. It made me realize, as a young poet, that everything didn’t have to be an epic, that I could tell my story in these fragments. That idea of collecting and telling those small stories has been instrumental to the development of my own artistic aesthetic.
With Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the ways that she’s been important is that we read her poems pretty frequently. Not just the well-known ones like “We Real Cool” but “The Lovers of the Poor” and “Beverly Hills, Chicago.” In the traditions that I’m a part of, Gwendolyn Brooks was always invoked as what it meant to be an artist working in community. We learned about how she would host writing workshops—this is how one of the traditions of Chicago writing was sustained, by her own efforts.
When I think about myself as a writer interested in community, in the world, it’s always great to remember Ms. Brooks. I think her poems are really timeless. I think of a poem like “Kitchenette Building,” which is about how hard it is to hold onto dreams, when that language of idealism doesn’t pay the bills. In that poem, she talks about how dreams are not as sturdy as words like jobs, salary, or whatever. The way that she writes about class is very important to me, too.
In terms of how my own writing differs, my writing probably takes some of the aesthetics they use, but also takes a lot of aesthetics from standup comics and from rappers. You see more sample-based writing in my work, in more of a collage aesthetic.
Why are you drawn to writing in vignettes and fragments, and what do you think is the benefit of writing in that form as opposed to in one collective piece?
It feels more real to me. When I think about particular memories, if I’m talking to my brother and we’re trying to remember a particular event, we remember it differently. It’s not that one person remembers it correctly and the other doesn’t; it’s that there’s no such thing as a singular truth.
Writing in fragments allows me to try and make multiple attempts at getting to the truth of one particular moment—trying to approach it from a couple different angles. For me, it feels more real to write in vignettes as opposed to writing in longer, more connected ways that imply that this is the way it happened. I don’t necessarily see it that way. Everything is always happening at once, so how can I allow that into the work? How can I make space for the multiplicity of truths to exist in my poems?
The title poem of your book Citizen Illegal repeatedly inserts the words “citizen” and “illegal” in different places, in an emphatic way. How do you define the two words? Is it possible to define these words, or are they fluid depending on their context?
I think that they’re fluid. I see the title as a way to talk about the fraught nature of citizenship in the United States. I wanted the title to reflect not just a contradiction, but also how liable the system is to fail in protecting us.
Much of Citizen Illegal concerns the occupation of liminal spaces, of being in between or in transition between two modes of being. What do you feel are the rewards one can get from inhabiting such a space? And what do you think are the risks of occupying that liminal state? To you, does this liminal nature mean being simultaneously a host of contradictory things or shifting between them, not being those multiple things at once?
I started writing my book because when I was a young person, I felt very pressured into choosing one side or the other in all of my various identities. To be masculine required a certain set of answers, to be Mexican did too, and those answers were diametrically opposed to this idea of American-ness. What I’ve found in living is that we’re not required—I don’t have to choose between those identities. There are things I appreciate from being in all of those different spaces.
The reward of a liminal space is that you can continue to redefine yourself, to add to what it means to inhabit this space. It also maybe puts you more at risk because you’re more bound to come up against other people’s definitions for what they’ve decided you should be or should act like. But I do think the rewards, for me, outweigh the risk.
One of my favorite poems of yours is “Mexican American Disambiguation.” It echoes this theme in your writing of the rigid, oppressive nature of words and labels. But at the same time, in your act of writing Citizen Illegal and the act of writing in general, it can be liberating to use words to explore and express vast and open ideas. What are your thoughts on the tension between language as a medium of freedom and language as something bound by certain conventions and restrictions?
That’s a great question, and I don’t know that I have a great answer. How much liberation is possible for me while writing in English, given that my first language is Spanish, that the language of my family is Spanish? But alternatively, Spanish isn’t a much better language given that it’s another colonial language, another language inherited from a set of violences.
For me, it’s not language I’m necessarily putting my faith in, because all of my languages come from violence, from colonialism. It’s people that I put my faith in. How I can use language to build towards the people and communities that I care about is always where I end up going.
It’s not that a poem like “Mexican American Disambiguation” is not meant to disparage the ability of language, of the importance of titles and names. I think names are very important. But what I’m hoping to do is try to add to the conversation and remind people that perceptions change, that who we are in one space might be totally different than the way we’re received in another. How we can find new language to articulate, to honor this experience of changing is something else that I think about as well.
Throughout Citizen Illegal, you make use of humor to address relatively heavy issues. How do you toe that line when you write, and why do you choose to use humor as a tool?
Humor is a great way to generate surprise. Mainstream America has so little knowledge of what it means to be Latinx or Mexican, and the only time they consider our experiences is when there’s a traumatic report on CNN, or whatever. They never stop to consider that we might also be hilarious.
Humor immediately adds surprise to a poem. I’m interested in the mischief of it, of messing with people by adding humor. Humor adds a different register to poems that might otherwise be about traumatic or grieving topics. And I’m interested in humor because it just feels true. When I think about how I process various traumas in my life, I think part of the healing process is being able to crack a joke about it, being able to see the humor in the situation, which is often absurd in so many ways.
Humor’s also important to me because at the end of the day, I have to go around with the book. If the book didn’t have humor in it, it would be so much more draining for me to have to carry it around and read those poems over and over again. Humor’s definitely also extended my own life with that book.
Your use of capital letters in Citizen Illegal is unique and feels intentional; the poems are mostly in lowercase, including the word “god,” while words like “Mexican” and “The Girl from First Period” are capitalized. Can you talk more about the choices you were making there?
By and large, I don’t use capitalization because I want the book to be communal rather than about a capital “I” narrator. I wanted to create space within; to me, there’s more space within a lowercase “i” for other people to step in.
Secondly, it’s an homage to a number of different writers whose work I admire. Lucille Clifton also wrote in lowercase letters, the poet Nate Marshall writes in lowercase letters, and so it’s also a small gesture toward claiming a literary community that’s important to me.
Do you feel that you undergo a transition when you write, when you enter a different voice?
I don’t think that there’s a transformation that I undergo when I write, but I do see a distinction between the speaker in my books and myself as the author. That’s useful to me in a couple of different ways. One, it gives me the ability as an author to keep running around and changing and growing, not staying static, in a way that the speaker of the poems in Citizen Illegal is kind of static by the nature of the book. The speaker in those poems is going to have the same revelations, is not going to grow. Maybe from book to book there’s growth, but that’s on me as an author to grow.
It also gives me the ability to keep growing and forming new opinions. It gives me enough distance to be able to do, emotionally, the things I need to do: to write about my grandma’s passing, to think through my relationships with my parents in a way that gives me new ideas, that makes me feel like I’ve written a successful poem. I think it’s useful to have that particular space.