May 18–24, 2020
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 Adroit Journal, NPR and the New York Public Library. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is coeditor of The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is cohost 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, Paris Review and elsewhere. On Thursday, May 28, Olivarez will read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Aria Aber and Rick Barot.
Mexican American Disambiguation
—after Idris Goodwin
my parents are Mexican who are not
to be confused with Mexican-Americans
or Chicanos. i am a Chicano from Chicago
which means i am a Mexican-American
with a fancy college degree & a few tattoos.
my parents are Mexican who are not
to be confused with Mexicans still living
in México. those Mexicans call themselves
mexicanos. white folks at parties call them
pobrecitos. American colleges call them
international students & diverse. my mom
was white in México & my dad was mestizo
& after they crossed the border they became
diverse. & minorities. & ethnic. & exotic.
but my parents call themselves mexicanos,
who, again, should not be confused for mexicanos
living in México. those mexicanos might call
my family gringos, which is the word my family calls
white folks & white folks call my parents interracial.
colleges say put them on a brochure.
my parents say que significa esa palabra.
i point out that all the men in my family
marry lighter skinned women. that’s the Chicano
in me. which means it’s the fancy college degrees
in me, which is also diverse of me. everything in me
is diverse even when i eat American foods
like hamburgers, which to clarify, are American
when a white person eats them & diverse
when my family eats them. so much of America
can be understood like this. my parents were
undocumented when they came to this country
& by undocumented, i mean sin papeles, &
by sin papeles, i mean royally fucked which
should not be confused with the American Dream
though the two are cousins. colleges are not
looking for undocumented diversity. my dad
became a citizen which should not be confused
with keys to the house. we were safe from
deportation, which should not be confused
with walking the plank. though they’re cousins.
i call that sociology, but that’s just the Chicano
in me who should not be confused with the diversity
in me or the mexicano in me who is constantly fighting
with the upwardly mobile in me who is good friends
with the Mexican-American in me who the colleges love,
but only on brochures, who the government calls
NON-WHITE, HISPANIC or WHITE, HISPANIC, who
my parents call mijo even when i don’t come home so much.
—From Citizen Illegal, Haymarket Books, 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Mexican American Disambiguation” has many origins. One of the origins is Wikipedia. I was fascinated by disambiguation landing pages. For example, there is a “Rose (disambiguation)” page that asks you to clarify which “Rose” you want information about. There are five films titled Rose, so Wikipedia asks you to disambiguate. What “Rose” are you talking about?
Another origin is Idris Goodwin’s poem “A Preface.” Idris’s poem is an attempt to clarify what he means when he talks about Black people. The poem attempts to clarify Blackness, but it also muddles our understanding of race along the way. I’ve been studying Idris’s work for a while now. Idris was one of my first teachers. I think “A Preface” is so smart and funny.
“Mexican American Disambiguation” was my attempt to clarify and muddle and question my understanding of identity.
What are you working on right now?
Staying alive. Secondarily, I’ve been cooking some things I’m proud of. Also, I’m up to 237 Pokémon caught in Pokémon Sword, so if anyone wants to help me out, that would be great.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day begins with coffee and peanut butter toast with my partner. After that, I’m grabbing a basketball to run pick-up with my boy Jon Sands down in Brooklyn. A good day means we lose a whole bunch of times to some teenagers and then go split some pizza and lie about how we should have won. On a good day, I write some words and I read a whole bunch and I don’t look at my phone that much. On a good day, there are no sirens. On a good day, there is a lot of coffee and if it’s a really good day then maybe my friend Lisandra will meet me in Jackson Heights to eat tacos together. On a good day, I meet my love at the movie theater and we share some popcorn and watch a movie. On a good day, we slide to Grill on the Hill to meet up with Javier and whoever else we can convince to come drink and play pool with us. On a good day, when I see the moon, I howl.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I live in Harlem. I’ve lived here for almost a year and a half. Seventeen months or so. My life in Harlem is just learning how to walk and say its first words. I like a lot about Harlem. I like listening to the chatter from the various people walking through the neighborhood. I like being in close proximity to Riverbank State Park where in another life I used to play basketball on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I like a bunch of the restaurants in the neighborhood, especially Clay on 123rd and Manhattan Ave. Harlem is dope. How does it compare to Chicago? I don’t know. Chicago is the center of my universe. It’s where I make most sense. I can’t compare the two experiences at all.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I go down to Brooklyn every now and then. I have a bunch of friends that live there. Mostly, if I’m in Brooklyn it’s to go to Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene or to play basketball with Jon and some other homies. I love Brooklyn. Sometimes, I go to Downtown Brooklyn to people-watch and be near the waterfront.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I don’t really know the answer to this question. I used to believe in the overall goodness of poets, but I was naïve. Poets can be jerks and worse just like anybody else. I have a community of people I love and care about. A lot of them are artists and poets, but it’s hard to call them a poetry community because if I never wrote another word, they would still be my friends.
In Harlem, my writing community is really me and Javier Zamora. We have a spot down in the West Village where we spend hours writing sometimes.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I already talked about Idris Goodwin. He was a poetry mentor. I took a bunch of workshops with Krista Franklin, Avery R. Young and Michael Haeflinger when I was in high school, and they were very helpful and inspiring. I still look to their work for guidance. In high school, I had a poetry slam coach named Mr. Mooney who burned CDs of spoken word artists, so I could listen to them on my Walkman. He introduced me to the work of Saul Williams, whose work I love.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Angel Nafis. Morgan Parker doesn’t live in Brooklyn anymore, but Morgan Parker. Jon Sands for sure. Ariel Francisco. Karl Michael Iglesias. Zakia Henderson-Brown. Maya Phillips. Crystal Stella Becerril. Elisabet Velasquez. Jenny Xie. Mahogany L. Browne. Jive Poetic. Rico Frederick. Tina Chang. Marwa Helal wrote my favorite book of 2019, Invasive species. Aracelis Girmay lives in Brooklyn! I’m sure I’m missing many people.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Manuel Paul López’s Death of a Mexican and Other Poems is phenomenal. I know this book is special to me because after devouring about half the book, I immediately ran to my laptop to write. These poems are funny, smart and surprising. They make me want to cheer in one moment and they make me want to cry in the next. Manuel Paul López is masterful.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve been meaning to read more Li-Young Lee. I’ve only read Rose, and I loved that collection so much. I want to read more of his poems.
I, briefly, kicked around the idea of reading a bunch of second books because I’m beginning to think about what my second collection might look like, and I feel lost. Maybe I’ll try to follow through with that starting with Lee’s second book, The City in Which I Love You.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I read multiple books at once. Usually nonfiction as well as poetry. I underline and write in the margins of my nonfiction books, but I try not to write in my poetry books because I teach from them so often. Besides, when I read poetry, I have to make myself slow down even more than usual. Back in the day, I prided myself on being a fast reader, and when I read fiction and nonfiction, I can still read pretty quickly, but when I read poems, I want to slow down as much as possible. I have a reading journal where I write down my noticings and questions.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Patricia Smith has a poem called “13 Ways of Looking at 13” which is written as thirteen stanzas consisting of thirteen lines made up of thirteen syllables. I heard her read it at her book launch for Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and after she finished reading it she challenged us to write our own poems with the same parameters as her poem. I think I wrote three or four stanzas in that vein, but never finished. I’d love to try it again.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
There’s a little coffeeshop not too far from my apartment called Plowshares. It’s usually not too crowded there and the coffee is good and strong. I like reading and writing in coffeeshops because my home feels too homey, you know what I’m saying? Being in public helps me get down to the business of reading and writing.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The first spot that comes to mind is Washington Park Skate Park where I have lost many basketball games and once pulled a muscle so bad I thought I tore an ACL. Why do I love it? Because the rims are solid and it’s easy to get a run in. Because Jon Sands meets me up there and I get to do my best Shaquille O’Neal impersonation.
I love Books Are Magic and I love Greenlight Bookstore because I’ve been to a bunch of phenomenal readings at both those stores and spent a bunch of money on books that I treasure there.
The Knitting Factory has my favorite comedy show in all of New York on Sunday nights. If you like laughing, go to the Knitting Factory on Sunday nights. Tell them I sent you and they’ll charge you full price, I promise.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate breath,
And what I throw away you remix.
For every plastic bag curls around me as good as oil softens you.
Spread love / it’s the Brooklyn way.