Interview with the Chicago poet behind Citizen Illegal
by Leah Johnson
José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, Citizen Illegal. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Chicago.
[This interview has been edited for clarity]
LJ: I’m really interested in talking to you, not just about the craft of writing, but the lived experience of being a writer, as they move through the world. Could you talk to me about how you came to this particular line of work, not just as a writer but as a teaching artist as well?
JO: Absolutely. My first experience in writing workshops was with teaching artists who made it clear that their process was something I could use to create my own workshops. So, I remember being on the verge of graduating from high school in 2006, and sitting in on a workshop with Kevin Coval at Brave New Voices and getting it in my head that I was already capable at 18 years old of creating my workshops and being able to teach others. So, when I went away to college and was given an opportunity to teach an elective at a local charter school with one of my friends, we jumped on the opportunity. So, I started teaching when I was, I think I was still 18 years old.
LJ: I love hearing about the people who make space for us to do this work. Who are some of the people who you feel made space for you to write the collection that you wrote?
JO: Yes, I think the people that made space for me, there’s so many people, there’s so many people that come to mind. I mean, first, all of my English teachers from grade school, all the way up through high school, I feel really blessed that not only did they kind of [make me read] really great literature, I really feel like they pushed me to read even more and to write and answered my questions when I had them. So I’ve always had a deep love for all of my English teachers. In terms of other authors whose work has kind of paved the way for me, the first two poets that come to mind are Willy Perdomo and Sandra Cisneros.
When I read their books, different collections by them, sometimes it felt like it could have been my own voice—like it could have been my own hand writing those stories. To have that connection with an author that is that intimate feels like a real gift. But I also have had the fortune of working with really incredible teaching artists here in Chicago. So, Kevin Coval and avery r. young, and Krista Franklin and Idris Goodwin, my high school slam coach, Mr. Mooney, these are all people who have paved the way. And then there’s my peers, whowhen I went away to college and didn’t really have much of a connection to the poetry community in Boston for a while, continued to harass me, and ask me for poems. And they were like, you better email us something. So, Nate Marshall and Britteney Black Rose Kapri, and Sydney Edwards, and a whole bunch of other people, and like, all of these people have made space for me in different ways.
LJ: Who do you believe produced work that Citizen Illegal is in conversation with?
JO: I mean, there’s a bunch of books, but I kind of think three books that I’ll name right now, one is Electric Arches by Eve Ewing. I was really moved by these rewriting and retelling of stories, and reimagining of history as something that is fallible, that’s something that we can remake constantly via our present axis. Then there is Natalie Scenters-Zapico, whose book The Verging Cities is really extraordinary and made me consider how I could allow the image to just kind of grow and invite everything else that kind of lives in that image and system into the work. And then, the third book I’ll mention is When My Brother Was an Aztec by –
LJ: Natalie Diaz!
JO: Natalie Diaz! Yes! I love that book so much.
My copy of that book is, you know, like, the pages are all dog-eared, and I’ve written all over it, and I have multiple copies, and I give it to students all the time, and that book is another one that I think I returned to over and over again as I was writing this book.
LJ: You talk a lot about the educators who formally taught you about poetry, but also about your contemporaries who are influencing your work in these different ways. So how does being a teaching artist influence the way you approach your own work?
JO: It influences my work because when I bring poems to my students, when I’m working with students on poems, there’s a context there. I can’t pretend that my poems don’t live in the world, that I don’t live in the world. I see my students when they’re hurting, I see my students when they’re joyful, so I have to be there with them, be present with them. I think being a teaching artist, and working with young people, that I can’t try to pretend that what’s happening in the world isn’t happening. I can’t try to remove myself, or pretend that I exist in a vacuum. I have to really consider how my work as a person and then how my work as a poet lives in community with all these people that I really care about.
LJ: I’ve read a lot of your interviews, and listened to The Poetry Gods quite a bit, and you are always shouting out Chicago writers and Chicago institutions that made space for you to do this work. I’m wondering what being back in Chicago after being away for a while has done for your work? Or maybe even what it’s done for your spirit or your body, which I think are all integral to that.
JO: Yeah. I love that question. I think coming back to Chicago after having lived in New York City for three and a half years has made present history and conversations that in New York I felt a little more distant from, it put them at the forefront of my imagination. So it definitely, in my spirit, gave me the direction in terms of, I knew that I wanted my book to be a Chicago book, and I knew when I came back, there were all of these conversations happening, in the city. I wanted to have a book in conversation with the city.
An example of that, right, is there’s an organization here that I love called Organized Communities Against Deportations, and one of the reasons why I love them is because in their organizing work against deportations and against ICE and for undocumented people, they have targeted the gang database in Chicago as one of the tools of violence that both the police and ICE uses to target undocumented people, to target Latinx people, to target people of color in general, and to target black people. And so, in this way it has created, kind of, like, an entry point for multiple communities to organize together in a way that is really powerful.
For me, when I was writing the book, I knew that I wanted to have poems that looked at the issue of criminality [in a way that] focused on immigration and citizenship, but also with this broader context of everyone that is being criminalized and hurt by this violence. We’re in a moment of great public violence towards Latinx people, but at the same time, we can draw connections to many people who are undergoing violence, whether or not it’s super public at the moment.
LJ: Let’s talk about the bare bones production of this manuscript. I heard your turnaround time between signing the contract and actually handing over the manuscript was very short compared to most people’s. So how do you manage to produce such powerful words in such a short period of time and balance living a healthy, full life?
JO: The honest answer is I don’t know. I did it and I still am not sure. It feels impossible sometimes. I think, this is one of the things that I get asked about publishing and how people can publish their work, and even though I did it, it still feels kind of impossible. I mean, I remember there were days when I would wake up at five in the morning and try and write, but that meant that I wasn’t sleeping. You know what I mean? And that meant I was always sacrificing something, and that was really hard. And I don’t really know exactly how I did it.
I think what I found was that the way I was able to do it, when I was able to do it, was by trying to keep firm deadlines. I’m like someone that needs structure, so the more structure I had in place, the more successful it was. So, if I was waking up at five, and then if I was writing until 6 or 9 AM, and I was at work from 9 AM to 4 PM, and then I would go to the gym, just finding way to keep myself structured was the only way that I was able to pull it off.
L: In a post-book world, what does your writing practice look like now?
J: Oh my God. I felt that after the book was done that I’d be able to kind of get back to reading and writing a lot more, and that still hasn’t happened. I’ve written some new poems. I was asked to participate in a collaboration with a visual artist named Victoria Martinez, who is at Yale right now studying in Visual Arts.
So, those are the only new poems that I’ve written since writing the book, and I feel okay about that. I think I used to get mad when my favorite artists took forever to produce work. [Now] I’m like, I totally understand, I understand why Frank Ocean took as long as he did. I get it. I don’t know how long it’ll take for me to produce a substantial piece of work But I think that I need to get myself some distance from this project and to read a whole lot more before I can really dive into whatever the next project is.
LJ: Right. Right. Keeping your spirit, I feel like, rejuvenated, is just as important as generating content, so –
JO: Yes. Yes, definitely.
LJ: So, as an educator thinking about the way you teach poetry to your students, when people bring Citizen Illegal into their classroom, what do you hope that conversation sounds like? Or, what do you hope young people in particular glean from this collection?
JO: One of the things that I’m proud of and that I hope educators will bring to their students is this idea that—not that you have to write about everything—but that shame is, I think, one of the tools that silences. So, I think the book can be a way to talk about shame, to talk about how it works, and to create conversations that are interesting.
I think it allows us to move towards a place that allows for more conversation. I think that conversation is a lot more useful than shame, so those are some of the things I’m of thinking about. But honestly, you know, I haven’t really taught from my own book, so I don’t know, I’d be curious to hear from educators about how they’re using the book to teach different classes.
LJ: I’m thinking you kind of already answered this, but when you imagine your audience, who is it that you see?
JO: So, when I was thinking about my audience, I was thinking about some very specific people. I was thinking about my three younger brothers, first and foremost. And then secondly, there’s a small cohort of young people, recent graduates, that I work with here in Chicago, Ken Muñoz, Victoria Chávez Peralta, Luis Carranza. Victoria and Luis actually gave me a blurb for the book. So I don’t imagine them, my audience— I know them. I talk to them and I get their feedback.
LJ: Is there anything you wish someone would have told you when you were just getting your legs under you as a writer? Or maybe something someone did tell you, but you just weren’t ready to hear yet from them?
JO: I think when I was just getting started writing, and I was beginning to discover that I really wanted to be a writer, and that no matter how scary that idea was to me that this was something I was going to pursue. One of the things that I heard over and over again, that I didn’t quite understand when I was young, was about how important it was to revise and to learn and to take breaks from writing. I think, when I was young, when I was really getting into it, I wanted to think about writing the way I thought about school, meaning that I wanted to have a list of milestones and then try to set about achieving those milestones.
I think that a writing career doesn’t work out the way school does. There’s no graduation. I mean, even after this book, it’s not like, “Now I have graduated and I get to stop writing.” There’s always more work. I wish I had understood that writing is long and you have your whole life to do this. And so it’s okay if it’s not a string of progression to your career, and that all you can really do is try to keep learning, keep growing, and keep revisiting the work, and try to innovate as much as you can.
Leah Johnson is an essayist, fiction writer and hopeless Midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah received her MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work—which can be found at Bustle, Electric Lit, Yes Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Establishment and elsewhere—is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.