Writing Towards Complexity: A Conversation with José Olivarez

by    /  May 4, 2020  / Comments Off on Writing Towards Complexity: A Conversation with José Olivarez

Photo by Mercedes Zapata.


This series — Latinx & Proud! — is a look into the world of Latinx literature and the poets who use language to explore the boundaries of their communities and identities. By sharing these interviews and articles, we hope to elicit conversations that empower and amplify the Latinx community in Pittsburgh and beyond. 

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants. His debut book of poems, Citizen Illegal, was a finalist for the PEN/ Jean Stein Award and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. It was named a top book of 2018 by The Adroit Journal, NPR, and the New York Public Library. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is the co-editor of the anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods. In 2018, he was awarded the first annual Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association and named a Debut Poet of 2018 by Poets & Writers. In 2019, he was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Over Zoom, Olivarez spoke to us about life in quarantine, the feelings of diaspora, and about home and community.  

First, how are you doing during isolation? 

I kind of go back and forth. There are some days where I wake up, and I have energy and can be useful to myself. Then, there are days where it’s hard to do anything besides look at my phone and scroll through Twitter or watch a movie. It depends. Some days are better than others. One activity I’ve been doing is cooking. Yesterday, I made a buffalo chicken cheese dip that was really delicious!

That sounds delicious! To start things off, I wanted to delve into some of the poems from Citizen Illegal. The first poem that struck me was “Boy & the Belt,” where the speaker reflects on a moment of punishment between a son and father and recognizes elements of love within it. How did you approach writing this poem, especially when considering the complexities of familial love?

Family relationships are complicated no matter what. It’s hard to remember that there are a lot of layers to familial love. There’s no one blueprint on being a good parent. My parents wanted the best for my siblings and I, so they were trying to love us and teach us in the best way they knew how to. When I revisit these moments in poems like “Boy & the Belt,” I don’t only remember the impact they’ve had on me, but I also remember that I wasn’t the only person in the room during these moments. If you look at a situation one way, it can reveal a lot of meanness and, perhaps, cruelty. But if you look at it another way, I think there can be a lot of tenderness and chances for us to understand each other. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just jumping to my first conclusion, but I was also taking the time to think and try to grant my parents the same tenderness and care and grace that I try to extend to the child version of myself in these poems. Everyone deserves tenderness and grace.

When writing poems that contain autobiographical content, how do you separate yourself from the speakers of these poems?

It was important to create some distance between myself as a person and as the speaker of these poems, so that I could write about the speaker in a more honest way without worrying about how I would be perceived as a person. This distance allows me to write in a way where I don’t feel like everything is at stake all at once. It also allows me to occupy multiple places within a moment. That way, I can see the nuance in situations, like in the poem “Boy & the Belt.” 

If I were writing about that moment in my life as autobiography, it would be hard for me to write without really leaning into the sadness. By putting myself outside of the moment, I could see my dad in my room with me, and I could see the way his heart breaks. I could think about the belt as a material and what it means, and I could see it as something that brought us together in a moment. Violent or not, it brought togetherness. I could see the little boy that I was, but with my grown-up eyes I could extend care to all of those within the poem.

Another form of love in Citizen Illegal was not just directed toward people, but places to call home. I saw one of these moments in “Hecky Naw.” How do you evoke tenderness within your readers who might not be familiar with all the places you’re describing?

That is one of the questions I always come back to when I’m writing. To be “from” a place means that you get to see some of its beauty and to know that it’s much deeper than the flat pictures that the media portrays. The reason I wrote this poem was because I was sitting in an anthropology class where my professors and fellow classmates would talk about places as if it were just theoretical — a mind exercise, a hypothetical — but I know people who have been laid off. I know classmates who have to leave because their houses were foreclosed or because they had to look for work somewhere else. It’s not just theoretical.

I always think about how I can make poems that hold the complexities of places. I never want to add to what the Google headlines are of a place. That’s easy to find. What are the other stories present there?

Speaking of homes, you’ve lived in Chicago, Boston, and New York. How has immersing yourself in all of these communities informed your writing?

I’ve lived in a bunch of different places. But I think there is a tension for me in that I deeply love where I’m from. Whenever I step into a new location, I step into Chicago first because that’s my hometown. I have to watch that tendency because I can really miss what these other places have to offer. When I first moved to New York, I was really still trying to live in Chicago. It felt like I was on an extended vacation. I had to learn how to love this place.

Living in all these different places helped me see some of the pieces of my home I didn’t realize before. For example, I didn’t know “hecky naw” was Chicago slang until I left and went to Harvard. People were like, “Where are you from? Who says ‘hecky naw’?” Then I really started to pay attention. You know, I never thought of a “Chicago accent,” but then I started picking up little sounds, little pieces of language — like, as a kid, when someone was getting roasted we’d say “treated” instead. Suddenly, all of these words became full of life because I could see how these words were special and particular to where I come from.

As our Latinx & Proud! series works to explore the boundaries of Latinx identities and communities, I wanted to talk about some conversations surrounding diaspora poetry. Recently, I have been reading critiques on diaspora poetry that claim some poems tend to trap diasporic identities within a Western framing. Are you familiar with these discussions?

Absolutely. I have seen some of those critiques, and I think they are really valid. For me, I love when I see those discussions on Twitter, because I know for a fact that I’ve been guilty of writing in this way. When I get into my diaspora feelings, I can be like, “My mom sacrificed everything to be here!” There’s some truth to it, but that’s also denying her all of the joy she has experienced here. She is very happy, and I think that she would choose to do what she did again. When I talk to her about coming to America, she doesn’t feel pitiful. She feels powerful, because she made her own choices.

There is no one migration story, and even within those individual stories, there are a million different emotions. If you remove your ego, there’s a lot to learn and contemplate as we continue to think about what it means to be writing about diaspora. What does it mean to be reaching toward a place that maybe doesn’t care whether or not we’re reaching for it?

For my last question, I’d be curious to hear your input on how we can stay connected during social isolation when it forces us to forgo an essential component of human connection — touch.

You know, I don’t know. A couple days ago, I had a virtual happy hour with some of my friends. It felt good to be onscreen with the three of them, but I just don’t know that any of that is as meaningful as being able to put your hand on someone’s shoulder, and say, “I see you. I hear you.” 

I’ve been paying attention to our communities and how we are rising to the occasion to take care of one another. It’s like an impossible thing. Everyday, I see a new GoFundMe for a business I care about or someone who needs medical help. I’m interested in how these relationships are developing and how we can continue to build on them after the pandemic.

Comments are closed.