José Olivarez is the author of Promises of Gold (Henry Holt and Company, 2023) and Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018), winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. Olivarez is the recipient of fellowships from Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, CantoMundo, and other organizations. He is the cohost of the podcast The Poetry Gods and lives in New York City.
Poets.org: Transformation happens throughout this book. Many of the poems and sections share titles, such as “Glory” and “Mexican Heaven.” The speaker and/or the characters become a pigeon, a plant, Lamborghinis, and bologna. What’s the relationship between symbolism and miracles? Transformation and translation?
José Olivarez: I don’t know, to be honest. I grew up in Calumet City, Illinois. I sort of hate that my images are pigeons and bologna and sometimes reduced to cute or sentimental because pigeons and bologna are ordinary, everyday ephemera. I was poor. My uncle worked at a lunch meat spot, so we always had cuts of bologna or turkey or whatever. The miracle is that we ate. The miracle is that we were always broke but we always ate. The miracle is that we survived. The symbolism isn’t symbolism. I’m not conjuring anything.
You call it transformation, but I think about it as revision. When I was a college undergrad, Professor Glenda Carpio taught us about Suzan-Lori Parks’s use of “rep and rev”—that is, repetition and revision. I’m not so much trying to transform the world, as much as I am trying to revise particular circumstances and moments, thereby opening up new possibilities—possibilities for alternative relationships, for healing, for care, for revival, for laughter, etc. The book is translated into Spanish by my friend David Ruano. And yet! The individual poems refuse to translate. I like this refusal to translate alongside the tactics of misdirection employed by the speaker of the poems. Does translation offer us opportunities to transform our relationships with one another? Maybe—but be careful. When I was a kid, I had to translate all the conversations between my teachers and my parents, and it wasn’t my fault if some of the teachers’ comments about me got lost in translation.
Poets.org: The poem “Maybach Music” engages with hip-hop both thematically and formally; in particular, it samples a line from a verse by Houston rapper Paul Wall. Outside of hip-hop and electronic music, this technique has been denoted variously with terms such as “collage,” “bricolage,” “pastiche,” “interpolation,” and even the phrase “with a line from. . .” How do you think the notion of the sample relates to or differs from its relatives in the literary arts, and how does it inform this poem?
JO: I love the use of the sample in hip-hop. I love tracing the contemporary songs I love back through the stems used to create them. The sample brings texture and rhythm to new works and adds layers to the music they pull from. When I hear The Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps In The Dark,” I also hear Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.” I don’t know if a sample is different from its literary cousins, but I can tell you how it informs this poem. The title is also a sample of sorts. “Maybach Music” is a series of songs by Rick Ross. The songs flaunt their spectacular wealth. My version of “Maybach Music” plays on the wealth Ross and his peers brag about by boasting about buying fancy toilet paper. The sample of Paul Wall comes from trying to turn the poem towards the light. It comes after the humor of the poem is punched open like a balloon shot out of the air. I can feel myself striving to bend a poem upwards—for myself and the audience—so we don’t end with our hearts in our shoelaces. I imagine the sample cut in with Paul Wall’s voice. I imagine the delight in recognizing the voice and verse. And then the poem turns back towards the darkness. Sometimes, there’s no way to rescue the truth of a poem.
Poets.org: A “promise” is defined as assurance. However, in the author’s note, you state that it is “an attempt.” Could you talk more about the structure your collection provides in the liminal space of assurance and attempt, thereby offering the waves of grief, humor, love, and healing found in this collection?
JO: The movement of the collection mirrors the movement of some of the poems. There are moments of joy and humor that are undercut by intense moments of pain and grief. Sometimes the poems manage to rise again towards joy or revelation or wonder and sometimes they don’t. I was nervous about constructing this collection because I had an overarching idea. I visit high schools and universities all the time, so I get to spend a lot of time with young adults. I remember asking them about love and being met with silence. It made me want to write more about love. It felt like a gap that I might be able to meaningfully contribute to. I was a little saddened then, when textures of grief and fear punctuated my poems. Maybe I could revise away from those troubling emotions. Yet the poems and the collection felt realest to me when it acknowledged how much darkness there is in our attempts to love and do right by each other.
Poets.org: Promises of Gold features a number of sonnets and sonnet-adjacent poems. Like fellow Chicago poet Carl Sandburg, who has one “Broken Sonnet” to his name, your experiments with the sonnet sometimes veer into a disruption of that very form. How does Promises of Gold react to and engage with the sonnet, both as a form and as an institution?
JO: I love sonnets for a number of reasons. One, I’ve always written in form. I started writing by writing for poetry slam, and poetry slam has a strict form. Not just any poem will do well in the context of the slam. Within that structure, I learned how to subvert and surprise my audiences with my own particular flourishes.
Secondly, I love sonnets because for so long they felt like a form that was forbidden from me. Indeed, I recoiled from sonnets. Why the hell would I want to write in a tradition that felt like it sneered or otherwise dismissed me as a viable writer, participant, or reader? That was my gut reaction when I was an angry twenty-something writer trying to find my way through my craft questions.
I found my way back to the sonnet because of Terrance Hayes, Wanda Coleman, and Diane Seuss. Their sonnets felt wild and imaginative to me. When I began writing sonnets, they felt like a good fit. Because I started writing in the slam, I am always writing towards revelation—the moment of astonishment wherein I might win the audience and judges. The sonnet has that moment built in in the volta. I like messing with the form because, somewhere inside me, there’s still a twenty-something writer flipping off the canon.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
JO: I am currently reading Darius Simpson’s Never Catch Me and Ama Codjoe’s Bluest Nude.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
JO: “the days is numbered” by Marwa Helal, “Looking For The Beautiful Things” by Joy Priest, “The Raincoat” by Ada Limón, “What The Living Do” by Marie Howe, and “the earth is a living thing” by Lucille Clifton.