Poet in the Mirror: José Olivarez
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This month, José Olivarez—author of Promises of Gold (available now from Macmillan)—shares insight into collaboration, bilingual books, and manuscript assembly, among other things.
On the In-Between Period
Huge congrats on Promises of Gold! What was the in-between books period like for you? What do you do to re-energize your creativity?
Within a week of Citizen Illegal’s release, I was asked what my next project would be. Next project?
I spent the first year after my first book in the dark. There was a void. I told friends I would never publish another book again. I was being dramatic, but it felt that way. The poems I managed to write felt like they belonged in the first book. Perhaps, I had said everything I needed to say.
It wasn’t until I began collaborating with other artists that I started to re-energize. First, a collaboration with Chicago artist Victoria Martinez featuring her collages with poems of mine. Secondly, a long term collaboration with photographer Antonio Salazar on a project featuring his photographs with poems of mine. That project is called Por Siempre and it’s slated to be released by Haymarket in April. Those collaborations helped me find my way out of my first book and into this second one.
On Book Structure
Could you tell us a little bit about the assembly of this book? For instance, in your introduction, you talk about the book’s sections in terms of “waves.” What led you to this structure?
The structure of the book was a mystery to me. I believe I originally had it in three parts. Each section was massive and chaotic. It wasn’t working cohesively.
When I am sure I have a manuscript together but I’m not sure how to properly assemble the manuscript, I reach out to my friend, Nate Marshall. Nate is one of the best poets I know and the best executive producer on the planet. He is so good at evaluating how poems speak together. In the case of Promises of Gold, Nate suggested that we structure the book after Common’s album, Be. Be has eleven tracks, so we used that as a guide. It just so happened to work perfectly.
On Bilingual Publication
I know Citizen Illegal was published in English—could you speak to what went into the decision of making Promises of Gold a bilingual edition and what the experience of working with a translator on your work was like?
Frankly, I didn’t think there would be an audience for Citizen Illegal in English, let alone Spanish. It was my first book. I had no expectations. I didn’t know it was possible to publish bilingual editions of contemporary poets.
I wanted to publish a bilingual edition of Promises of Gold because I teach poetry workshops for families in both Spanish and English. At the end of those workshops, the Spanish-speaking parents tell me they wish they could read my poems alongside their children.
Working with David Ruano was a joy. That’s my homie. He translated my poems before when I visited Mexico twice in 2019. I love that his translations maintain the music of the poems.
On Becoming a Professional Writer
When did poetry become a professional endeavor for you? How did that begin?
I’ve been working in poetry since about 2012 when I was a teaching artist for Young Chicago Authors. After Citizen Illegal was released everything changed for me. I was touring a lot more and that’s when I felt confident becoming a full time writer and performer.
What is a popular craft advice that you don’t practice yourself?
I don’t know if this is popular or not, but a piece of craft advice I do not practice is: Write every day. I work best when I have routine and structure, but I also need periods of silence and rest before I can return to writing.
What was the most surprising thing—either a joyful one or a challenging one—about ushering this collection into the world?
Here is a joyful thing. My parents have been able to read my poems for the first time ever. My homie is book clubbing my book with her dad and boo. Two of my book events featured readings by sixth grade students from The Ella Baker School. Honestly, it’s been mostly joyous.
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 the Adroit Journal, NPR, and the New York Public Library. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he coedited the poetry anthology The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext. He cohosts the poetry podcast The Poetry Gods.