I first encountered José Olivarez at Hanif Abdurraqib’s book release event in Hyde Park—an event I knew nothing about but decided to cover for Habitat because what I had read from Abdurraqib was incredible. He had “relentless Ohioan” in his Twitter bio, and because I have an Ohio outline tattooed on my arm, I thought hearing him would maybe ease some of my homesickness. Without any drama, what I heard that evening changed what I thought about poetry. My own naivety led me to think of poetry as a monolith of anachronism and rhyming. That evening I heard just how easily the passion one has for sports, their city, food, love, and literature can blend together and create incredible poetry—breathing and dripping with life.
At the helm of that—both figuratively and literally—was José Olivarez. The opener for the event, Olivarez was tasked with warming the Chicago literary crowd, a demographic the Chicagoland native is intimately familiar with. His poems spoke of love and fried food and his love for fried food,that is, love for his home and all the trappings it entails. It didn’t matter how greasy or complicated his relationship was with it. He spoke of being the child of Mexican immigrants, and how that further complicated an already complicated existence. More than anything, Olivarez’s work emanated a down-to-earth attitude that made me, a fairly new resident of Chicago and a complete newcomer to the Chicago literary scene, feel absolutely at home and welcome. His poems are largely about people much different from myself, but what Olivarez says his work is about is “Mexicans just chilling,” something that Olivarez asserts is his attempt to humanize a group of people who is currently anything but humanized in mainstream conversation.
Recently, Olivarez announced that Haymarket Books will be publishing his first solo collection of poetry, Citizen Illegal. Habitat spoke with Olivarez about his inspirations, what this book is mostly about, and his writing rituals, or lack thereof:
Frank EnYart: Your recently announced book, Citizen Illegal, focuses at least somewhat on the struggle to find an identity. How has that struggle changed given recent political events? How has that manifested itself in this book?
Jose Olivarez: I don't know that the book is about a struggle to find an identity as much as it is about the struggles that still happen even when you find an identity and an exploration of how identity is fluid. The title is contradictory in some ways, but I don't have any other language to explain how I can go from cracking up in the group chat to having a racist Donald Trump quote tweeted on my timeline and my whole position changes. Whatever ways I settle into the world are interrupted, and I feel myself shift. I'm the same person, but depending on where I'm at and who I'm with and what the headlines are, the way I see myself and the way others see me changes. Look. I know that I'm very light skinned and could be white-passing. With this book, I'm not trying to ignore that. I'm trying to bring that into the book.
In terms of recent political events, let's name it: Donald Trump is president. He was not magically placed into office. He was voted in by regular degular Americans and Russian robots (will I get in trouble for writing that? I don't care). He's a person who can be voted out. Even when he is voted out, we will have a lot of work because the problem is not one person. The problem is systemic. It's those regular degular Americans and their regular degular beliefs. What I'm trying to say is: I've been writing towards this book since I started writing. I don't think Donald Trump appears in this book. There are lots of Mexicans, though, and the work I'm most proud of are the poems where Mexicans break the rules and drink beer and live. I knew I didn't want to write a sad book of poems for white people to read and cast pity on, so there's lots of Mexicans just chilling. There are some white people too, but they're mostly there for us to crack jacks about.
FE: In “Mexican American Disambiguation” you struggle with racial identity. In what ways has a struggle for identity—racial or otherwise—played a role in your work?
JO: That poem is inspired by Idris Goodwin's “A Preface” in his first book These Are the Breaks. I loved that piece because it was one of the first times that I saw an artist treat race and class with complexity and humor. It was a revelation to me to be like, “Oh shit, I don't have to be burdened by my race. I don't have to be sad in order to be a truly woke Mexican. I can crack jokes and be angry and be a whole-ass human being.”
I think in my writing, I tried to avoid having to write poems in which I was a character with the power to oppress. I wrote a lot of poems where I was the victim. Those poems weren't very good. Now I'm trying to face myself and all the ways in which my position changes. That means writing poems that name my cis manhood, my straightness, my light-skindedness and so forth. It's been freeing to not have to run from any of my identities but to dive into them instead and to really take ownership of the fact that I am capable of hurting people. I spent a long time only trying to be good and only trying to write poems about my goodness. I'm embracing my complexities in my writing and trying to keep growing.
FE: You have a podcast, The Poetry Gods, where you talk to poets about their lives and work. What difficulties do you run into talking to artists about their work? Or do you run into any?
JO: I'm very lucky because I work with Aziza Barnes and Jon Sands. The three of us have really good chemistry. We also have a couple special ingredients we add to the mix, and those special ingredients are good rum and hummus. We went into The Poetry Gods because we were frustrated by a lot of interviews and conversations we were seeing with poets that were only about craft and only invited the poets to present a dissection of their work. We were also tired of seeing the same questions and answers over and over again from poets whose work was so wild and imaginative.
I think the hardest thing is that we interview a lot of poets without books out and the hard thing there is that one of us might be very familiar with the poet's work, but the other two of us might be meeting them for the first time. When we interviewed genius poet Paul Tran, that was only the second time I met them, and it was our first real conversation. It works out though because rum and hummus are very special ingredients, and we do a good job of creating a very low-key vibe.
FE: How do you keep the well from running dry with your writing?
JO: I don't. I write in spurts. There are some months where I'm on fire and I write hella poems. There are some months where I write only two or three poems. I try to be kind to myself when I'm not writing because even when I'm not writing, I am learning and collecting experiences and artifacts that I can use in writing. I have to keep figuring it out. I can say, in general, that the only time I have been consistent with writing is when I do it in the morning before all of my daily responsibilities take over my mind. If I wait until 9pm then I'm too exhausted to write. It's just not going to happen no matter how much I want it to.
I also try to read a lot. I'm reading Joseph Rios's Shadowboxing and Vanessa Angelica Villarreal's Beast Meridian. I'm reading Marcial Gonzalez's Chicano Novels and ThePolitics of Form. I watch Netflix. I listen to music. I go to therapy.
FE: How did you get into writing poetry? Did you ever imagine a life where you would spend so much of your life in poetry?
JO: I always loved books. I used to take out ten, twelve books at a time from the library, and read them as fast as I could. I loved that each book was its own world and those worlds could be very familiar or very different from my own world. But I didn't know that people from Calumet City, Illinois could write books. I didn't know a mocoso like myself could write books. I thought writing books was something that happened in castles in New York or maybe all of the authors who would ever be born were already born. Did people still write books? I didn't know. That changed when I saw my high school Louder Than A Bomb Poetry team. I realized that I could be more than a lover of literature, I could be an author.
When I was five I never imagined a life with so much poetry. But by the time, I was eighteen, absolutely, I was starting to imagine this. By that point I was spending my Saturday nights going to Nate Marshall's grandma's house to watch poetry slam movies on VCR and argue with Nate about whether poets should go into slam looking to win or just looking to participate. By that point, I knew that poetry would always be a part of my life. I didn't imagine this exact path, but if my eighteen-year-old self could see me today he would be like what happened to all of our hair? And then he would be happy.
FE: In your work with Louder Than a Bomb, what inspires you most about seeing the student’s poetry? Or is there another aspect that inspires you more?
JO: I love everything about Louder Than A Bomb. I love Crossing The Street where we gather one thousand poets from around the city and have them split from their school team to form a brand new team with people they might not know. I love that all of the poets are getting so much better at performing and writing. I would be a scrub compared to some of our teens. I love their kindness to one another. I love that before and after the poetry slams everyone is dancing. I love watching students grow from year to year. I love seeing alumni come back to watch. I love talking to the coaches. I love getting to be a part of a really thoughtful and dynamic team at Young Chicago Authors. During LTAB, the city of Chicago is its best self.
FE: Do you have any advice for young poets?
JO: Go to therapy if you can. Take care of yourself. Read everything. Be kind to yourself and to other poets. Also, rejection does not mean that your poems are trash, it just means that it wasn't a good fit. Keep going.
FE: What poets/artists are you finding/do you find particularly inspiring? Who inspired you as a young artist?
JO: Right now, I am loving the work of three visual artists: Yvette Mayorga, Sentrock, and Ramiro Gomez. I think my poems are working in similar ways to their work. At least, I hope so.
When I was just starting out, the poets who inspired me were poets like Saul Williams, Beau Sia, Mayda Del Valle, Kevin Coval, Idris Goodwin, La Bruja. And also lots of 2pac. I loved 2pac.