José Olivarez AB ‘10 is a poet and author from Chicago, IL, whose debut collection of poems, Citizen Illegal, was named a top book of 2018 by NPR and the New York Public Library, in addition to winning the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. Last year, Olivarez was awarded the Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), and his work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and more. The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez is currently based in New York. (Photo by Marcos Vasquez)
Q. When did you first start writing poetry?
A. [High school] was the first time that I started writing beyond school assignments. We’d have a poetry unit and I might write a poem, or a short story unit and I’d write a story, but once I was introduced to the poetry slam team in high school, I started pursuing writing on my own time. I developed a lot of close friendships with writers and we traded poems even as we started to go in different directions.
But I did not know that I wanted to be a poet. Frankly, I did not know that it was possible to be a poet as a career. Up until 2005, 2006, I had never met a living poet. So if you had told me that all the poets had gone extinct like all the dinosaurs, I would have believed you.
It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I realized, “Oh, there are pathways to having a career in literature right now.”
Q. How nurturing did you find Harvard to be of your artistic pursuits?
A. Harvard was important to my development as a writer in a couple different ways. First, Harvard has such an incredible library. All of the poetry books I was learning about—from my friends who gave me reading lists, or professors’ suggested readings—I could find all of those books through Harvard’s library system.
Second, more opportunities became available to me to read poems and share poems with my classmates. I got invited to read poems at an acoustic lounge in the Quad, and that was one of my first opportunities to do a long set of poetry. [Performing] taught me a lot about pacing and how to put together a set list, and what it might mean to put together a book. I also performed with the Harvard Spoken Word Society.
Q. For many new alumni—especially first-gen students or children of immigrants—attending Harvard comes with the hope that you can pursue a “stable” career after graduation. How did you envision your career path after college?
A. The Great Recession hit in 2008, and so all of my upperclassmen friends who were entering the workforce and who might have given me advice about how to get a job at a bank—a lot of them lost their jobs. Job offerings [in finance] disappeared. So it became clear to me that stability was an illusion in all fields, and I was going to have to figure things out anyway. It just made a lot of sense to me that, if no one profession could promise me stability, I might as well dive into the kind of career that I love most and that feels most urgent to me.
My parents didn't always understand that; they wanted me to go into a professional field, whether it was to become a lawyer or a doctor. For a while, I felt a lot of tension because I was worried my parents would be disappointed in me. But I’ve been really surprised. Back in the day, my parents would ask: “Can’t you be a poet and a lawyer, or a poet and a doctor?” but now, they’re very supportive and really proud of me.
Q. In this interview with the NYT, you cite high school as being the first time you felt you were “allowed to write stories” exploring what you’d considered to be taboo questions and topics. Do you mind expanding on that thought?
A. The way that I was taught as a young person, when I was a child, was: everything your parents tell you, you listen, you apply it, you try to make yourself as small as possible. I didn’t want to be a nuisance. Both of my parents worked long hours, and from an early age, I understood that they made a great sacrifice moving from Mexico to the United States. The sacrifice was intended for me and my brothers to live an “easier life,” a life outside of menial labor.
In expending so much time being what my parents wanted me to be, I didn’t even realize that I had my own life to figure out and explore. My parents never talked to us about these things. It was one of those situations where I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And when I heard my classmates talk about those things, that’s when I realized: “Oh! I can ask questions about how it is that my family ended up in Chicago of all places”—which, when I was a child, did not make a lot of sense. There was a big Mexican community in Chicago, and I would wonder, “How did Mexicans end up in Chicago? It’s so cold and it’s so far away.” Art was one of the places where I could imagine those answers.
Since those early days, I think my approach to [poetry] has changed because back then, I was just trying to write to a particular idea. I wanted a poem where I was thinking about gender, or a poem that was thinking about immigration, a poem that was thinking about race. Now, instead of trying to write directly toward those issues, I’m interested in the way that things blend together. I’m more interested in writing about a particular moment and then having that moment be interrupted by a lot of those socio-political realities that we carry with us at all times, whether or not they are always present in the room.
Q. Can you tell us about the process of creating your debut poetry collection, Citizen Illegal? Do you just write and write until you have enough poems to put together in a collection? Are you consciously writing toward a theme or do you look back on a body of work to identify the theme?
A. It's a combination of writing toward particular themes and then writing expansively until the image started to come together. I wrote the title poem in 2014. Before I published it, I shared it with a friend of mine. He said, “That should be the title of your book.” I didn’t have a whole lot of poems at the time, but that seed started to grow. In my head, I had the idea that I was working toward a book of poems called Citizen Illegal, but I had no idea what the shape of the book would be, the order, what poems would be in it or out of it.
By about 2017, I had close to 100 poems compiled in various stages of completion. When I laid out all the works together, I saw I was pretty close to completing a book that I could be proud of. From that point on, I started working toward specific gaps in the project. There were a couple questions I had for my manuscript, so I started writing poems using those gaps as writing prompts, figuring out ways to make [the book] more cohesive.
Ordering the book feels pretty natural at this point because I’ve had a lot of practice ordering sets for a featured performance. Whenever I do that, I’m always thinking, “How do I want to start the set? How do I want to close it?” That’s a muscle I’ve developed from reading out loud many times.
Q. What were the logistics of finding an agent or publisher for your manuscript?
A. I don’t have an agent right now, and that’s something I’m open to for future projects.
The way Citizen Illegal came together was that I had a working relationship with my publisher, Haymarket Books. I was working full-time at Young Chicago Authors, and Haymarket is always donating books and has often published our Chicago poet laureates. I had met a bunch of people from the Haymarket team, so they let me know that if I had a manuscript, they would love to see it.
I sat down for a meeting with them, which ended up being very helpful because it forced me to articulate my vision and clarify it for myself. I left that meeting feeling really good about the book that I was working on and feeling really good about what a partnership would look like between [me and Haymarket]. The most important thing for me was, [Citizen Illegal] was going to be my debut book, and I wanted to make sure Haymarket would give me the same attention and push they give any of their authors. And they have some really big authors, like Rebecca Solnit and MIchael Bennett. I wanted to make sure they’d have the time to help me accomplish my vision, and they’ve been really terrific to work with.
Q. Have your parents read your work?
A. My parents have read some of my work. My mom is not fluent in English, and my dad is fluent in English, but he prefers Spanish. That’s very hard for me, knowing that my parents don’t have a lot of access to my poems. When I was younger, I thought there was a liberty in that. I could write about my parents freely without facing consequences. It feels heavier, now that I’ve gotten older, because I want—I think we really crave that connection. That’s something I’ve been thinking about, and in the future, I definitely want to have Spanish translations, whether I do them myself or work with someone else. I love my parents and I have really worked and tried my best to capture them in a way that makes them proud.
Q. How do you know when a poem is done?
A. It's kind of a gut feeling. There are still poems in Citizen Illegal that I revise when I read from my book: I don’t like the way something sounds, and it isn’t until I read the poem 150 times that I think, “That sounds clumsy to me. I’m going to change it.” If you come to a reading, the reading may vary a little bit from what the actual text of the poem says.
So one answer to your question is: a poem is never done. I’ll probably be tinkering with poems long after they’ve been published. When I feel a poem is ready to send out into the world for submissions or whatever, it’s a poem that is exciting to me. The poem is doing something that is new to me. It’s teaching me something about writing or about the world in a way that older poems have not.
When I feel like the poem is doing a service to myself or to my community or to the world, as opposed to just… one of the questions I ask myself when I write is: “These stories and this language that I use, where does that come from? What part of me learned to call myself a Mexican American, and is that something that I’m cool with? How can I interrogate that?” If I feel I’ve done a good job of answering those questions for myself, and I don’t feel like it’s an internalized self-hate that’s pushing the poem out, that's when I feel good about the poem.
(photo by Angie Star Mejia)
To you, is performing, reading your poems aloud a separate artistic craft?
A. They’re related but they are two different experiences. I learn different things from the writing than I do from the performing. Both show different parts of myself. So they’re related, but I think of performing as being its own craft.
What are you working on next?
A. Right now, I’m editing an anthology of Latinx poetry called “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT,” which will be out April 2020. It will be one of the broadest anthologies of contemporary Latinx poetry; some of the people we’re looking to publish have not received broad attention from publishing before. I am really excited about the poets featured in the anthology.