Editors Talk: Alan Chazaro, Editor of HeadFake and Agni
As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to provide practical help for serious writers. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve been asking some great editors from around the literary community for their frank thoughts on why poems may get accepted/rejected from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Alan Chazaro, Editor of HeadFake and formerly at Agni.
Can you talk to me about how you started working as a writer and editor? Who inspired you to write/edit?
Alan Chazaro: I was a late bloomer who never wrote an actual poem until I was in community college. I used to rap and do graffiti as a teenager and I struggled academically in school because I never learned how to apply my creativity and curiosity in an institutional setting. I almost flunked out but a couple of amazing English teachers helped me believe in my writer’s voice, and I slowly began to take an interest in literature after high school. After teaching high school English myself for a decade, I decided to pursue my own writing and that’s when I wrote my first collection, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album, while teaching 10th graders in the mornings and getting my MFA in the evenings. I just continued on that path and have been continually interested in building community, amplifying others, and providing spaces for authentic expression through my own writing; eventually, editing became a natural outlet for that as well.
Can you talk about the work and writers you publish—any consistent themes, forms, aesthetic qualities, you look for?
As an editor, I’ve worked with AGNI, Black Lawrence Press, Deep Vellum, and HeadFake, among others, and in different capacities. My main focus has always been to seek out marginalized voices–not just in a “fulfilling a quota” kind of way, but in a genuinely rooted sense of bringing more narratives and perspectives to the table. I know what it’s like to be overlooked or invisible for so long as an artist, but once someone recognized and encouraged my potential, it made a world of difference. I largely went into editing because, as a writer, I noticed most of my editors were white folks who didn’t come from the same background as mine. I wondered why very few publications were run by people of color (shout out Winter Tangerine, Huizache, Acentos Review, and a few others that were pivotal for me as an emerging Mexican American voice). So I launched my own publication (HeadFake) and became involved in a prestigious literary journal (AGNI) so that I could help to shape the modern canon I wanted to see. By inserting myself into the conversation and decision making, I was in a position to help identify, advocate for, and even publish a wider variety of diverse writers. Of course, quality is important to me, but there are so many systemic factors and barriers in place that have historically prevented certain voices and identities from reaching that level of institutional acceptance, so I would much rather take on a developing and passionate writer who is coming from a real place than some polished piece of writing that is just aiming for the status quo.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Be your fullest self. Don’t play into what you think others want. Write the poems and stories that only you can write. Don’t be afraid of rejection, it’s part of the process, and every editor has their own idiosyncratic tastes. The things I might not like in a poem, another editor might love. It’s completely subjective. You kind of have to develop a bullet-proof sense of confidence–as hard as that may seem–and constantly remind yourself that at the end of the day, you are writing for yourself and no one else. You’re not writing for acceptance from an institution; you’re writing to tell your truth. Eventually, you’ll find the right audience for it.
From a craft standpoint, what typically causes you to accept a poem? What causes you to turn the page and move on to the next poem in Submittable?
Lately, I’m interested in layered complexity, fragmentation, experimentation, and surprise. I often use the phrase “multidimensional” when I’m working with younger poets to describe this feeling. Some poems can feel flat or “one dimensional”–maybe they’re relying on the easy and obvious elements or are playing it too safe. But whenever I sense a poet is taking a bold risk and is in tune with themselves in a genuine way, it comes across in the smallest craft choices and language/imagery being used. Don’t worry about sounding weird or not making sense; I’m a fan of organic wandering in a poem rather than a strict adherence to some antiquated expectation of what a poem is supposed to look or sound like.
What have you learned as an editor and writer from working at various journals/venues for the past few years?
There is sooooo much talent and diversity and beauty in our writing community. I honestly feel privileged to be writing and editing in 2021. I’ve read things that have blown me away and make me want to just stop what I’m doing in that moment and write a poem in response. I think we’re living through a golden age of expression and there are more poets than ever writing and sharing their work who might not have had that opportunity or space a few decades ago. It’s hella cool to be a part of that, for real. Also, constantly reading the work of others deeply informs my own voice and helps me to better understand the vast literary landscape that I’m a part of, so it’s a great practice for my writing and helps me indirectly sharpen my own craft and aesthetic as well, which I’m grateful for. But yeah, like I said, more than anything, art is completely subjective and being in the editor’s chair has really made me realize that we ultimately need more folks from our communities in positions of decision making. Or, we need to just start our own publications and projects where we can celebrate each other and not put too much weight on some of those majorly established outlets which continually have proven that they are out of tune with us.
Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and Notes from the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge (Ghost City Press, 2021). He is a graduate of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley and a former Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow at the University of San Francisco. He writes for SFGATE, KQED, Oaklandside, 48Hills, and other publications, and is usually on Twitter and IG being a useless millennial @alan_chazaro.
Jose Hernandez Diaz
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is from Southern California. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Currently, he is an Associate Editor at Frontier and Guest Editor at Palette Poetry.