Today we’re joined by poet, writer and educator José Olivarez to discuss his new book Promises of Gold, a collection of poems exploring all forms of love, including familial, romantic and cultural. We find out why José had someone else translate his collection into Spanish when Spanish was his first language. We also discuss how he thinks about organizing his poems on the page and in the book, and why balance in a collection is so important.
The Stacks Book Club selection for March is Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. We will discuss the book on March 29th with Shanita Hubbard.
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Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by Jose Olivarez. Jose is an educator, award winning poet and author of a brand new poetry collection called Promises of Gold. I absolutely loved this poetry collection that started as a series of love poems to his homies and then grew to include the scope of a world dealing with mortality, grief and tenderness in the face of COVID-19. We talked today about language and translation, love poems, and so much more. Remember our March book club pick is the essay collection Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, we will be back on March 29, with Shanita Hubbard for that discussion. Everything we talked about on each episode of the stocks can be found in the link in the show notes. If you love the stocks and want more of it, like our incredible community on Discord, our bonus episodes and our monthly virtual meetups to discuss our book club picks, you simply must join the stacks pack on Patreon. It’s just $5 a month and you get all of that and more and you get to know that you’re a part of making this black woman run independent podcast a reality every single week. So head to patreon.com/the stacks to join. Special shout out to our newest members of the stacks pack. Lydia Holt, Lewis wolfenden Giselle green, Denise Varughese Tamra Adebisi and Joe Hughes. Thank you all so much. And thank you again to the entire stacks back. Alright, now it is time for my conversation with Jose Olivarez.
All right, everybody, it is March. And we are talking about a poetry collection because I don’t only talk about poetry in April when the poems are superduper. Good. I’m joined today by Jose Olivarez. Who is the author of Promises of Gold, a brand new poetry collection Jose, welcome to The Stacks.
José Olivarez 2:02
Hi, Traci, thank you for having me.
Traci Thomas 2:04
I’m so excited to talk with you. I joke about that, because I’m usually very bad at poetry. Okay, I’m just throwing this out, because you’re apparently very good at poetry. So you’re now gonna get to talk to those of us who are failures. But before we get into that in about 30 seconds or so can you just tell the folks about your book?
José Olivarez 2:25
Yeah, absolutely. So I started writing Promises of Gold during the pandemic, and right before the pandemic, and it was my attempt to write love poems for all the people and homies that kind of have held me down as I’ve gone through various stages in my life. And as I was writing those love poems, the pandemic happen, and a whole lot of other things happen the uprisings of 2020. And they complicated those love poems. And so, Promises of Gold is what happens when you try to live when you try to write love poems, you know, amidst our complicated and sometimes cruel world?
Traci Thomas 3:04
Yeah, I want to start with, I guess, the outside of the book and the early pages of the book for folks who don’t know, this book is published both in English and in Spanish. And I guess my first question is, why did you want to do it that way? As opposed to having a translated copy? That was a different book physically?
José Olivarez 3:23
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one thing is, it’s more accessible this way, right? So people don’t have to spend their money twice. But the other thing is, for me, this is the first time that my parents will be able to read my poetry. I’ve talked about it. Yeah, I’ve talked about my poetry with them. But it’s the first time that they’ll be able to experience it on their own.
Traci Thomas 3:43
Do you speak Spanish? Because in your English poems, there is some Spanish language in there?
José Olivarez 3:48
Yes, Spanish is my first language. So yeah, I speak Spanish, but I don’t feel super confident writing poetry in Spanish.
Traci Thomas 3:56
What is that? Can you talk more about that? Because I just I think it’s interesting. I think most people would assume like, Oh, if you it’s your first language, you speak the language, and you’re a poet, you’d be able to do it in both and you did it. You got you have a translator who worked with you. So I’m just curious if you’d speak more to why that’s difficult for you.
José Olivarez 4:12
Yeah, absolutely. So my parents migrated to the United States from Mexico. And I went to school my whole life in English only classrooms. So I learned, you know, how to write with style and technique in English, whereas Spanish is more conversational and, and it’s just a little bit harder to access the creative, the creative side of Spanish for me.
Traci Thomas 4:39
Did you ever try to translate your own poems? And were like, no, not gonna be able to do it?
José Olivarez 4:44
Yeah, I mean, of course, of course. I’ve tried to translate my own poems. It’s hard. It’s hard. It feels like you’re writing a different poem all together.
Traci Thomas 4:53
Yeah. Have your parents read this book? Yes. My mom and
José Olivarez 4:57
dad have both read this book, my brothers I’ve read the book, they all really loved it. They said it made them cry at time. So it’s cool. It’s cool to have their support.
Traci Thomas 5:08
I’m gonna start crying right now. That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever had. Okay, one more question about your translator. And then I’m gonna move off of this. But I do think it’s like, really worthy of conversation. Because I’ve never seen a book like this before. I don’t think I don’t know. I mean, again, I don’t read a lot of poetry. So it could be like a thing poets are doing, and I have no clue. But I think it’s really cool. And so your book starts with an author’s note. And then your translator has a note where essentially, your translator says, You’re not shit basically about. He’s like, he’s like anyone who says, America when they mean United States. sort of jokingly, but I, I mean, I want to talk about that a little bit. It was like such a moment for me, because he’s in the introduction, he sort of talks about some of the choices he makes, like he talks about what it is to translate something. You know, he talks about Mexico and Mexico. And he talks about like losing a letter and all this stuff. It’s really interesting. I love the inside baseball of it all. But he talks about towards the end about, I’ve traveled, he says each time the word America is used to name a country except in American Dream. Tangential, I decided to say it was thought it was estado su nietos. Why? Because America is a continent and not a country. The territory that goes from the Canadian northwest to Patagonia is America from Mexico to the south, we are not merely Latin America, I need to say this, because when somebody uses the word America to mean the United States, they are omitting millions of people 1000s of miles of territory, countless cultures and languages. America is more than the USA. And many times this kind of reductionism leads to the oppression, for example, leads to oppression, for example, make America great again, as a white supremacy slogan that a racist people who don’t meet certain standards, even if those people don’t live in the United States, but we can’t condemn Jose Olivarez because he used that the word America to mean the United States because he hit back by saying America is toxic. So I’d love for you to just love for you to hit back again. I’m gonna start a fight between you two.
José Olivarez 7:04
Yeah. I really love that note, and I love that he included that explanation. I mean, it makes a lot of sense to me. And, you know, I thought about in those in our conversations in the editing process, going back and changing the title of that poem. You know, it’s a, it’s called the American tragedy, and change to get to United States in tragedy or something like that. But I really, I thought it was important for people to kind of see that even in our conversations, there’s, there’s still potential to learn and continue to grow. So I appreciated the note from that view, I think he’s right on point. And I’m trying to, like, slow down and catch myself now. Whenever I do, jump to use America as a country, right? So remember, that America is not a country? We’re not, you know, this is not the America we’re talking about the Americas, right? So yeah, that was a really big learning moment for me for sure.
Traci Thomas 8:04
I loved it, I loved I just I, you can tell from reading this from reading both of your notes, even just from the beginning, how collaborative It was between the two of you. And so were there times where you did change a poem or change a word because it translated better or like, he sent you his translation of a poem. And you’re like, oh, I want to change it in English, too, because it’s not right, or whatever.
José Olivarez 8:28
I mean, there weren’t really times where we went back to the English to try and change the English. But we did have tons of conversations over specific word choices in Spanish. So there’s like a word that the VA uses, or Cholatse in this sentence mean? Which is like, you know, a great, it’s an a fake number. That means a great many, right? Like, 5011 Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So the Vive when, when he came across the word in English, I forget exactly what the English word is. But he presented me with a whole bunch of options. And so we would talk back and forth and, and not just talk about meaning, but also the music of the poem, right? Like, something that I pride myself on is that I really believe that the English poem sound good and I wanted the Spanish poems to sound good out loud, right. So that that was kind of the process. I’ll say, the one disagreement that we had was over the word for grass, which I translate to psychotic, and he used assessment. So that became like, a big disagreement. We, you know, we started an email and moved over to IG to like, continue our disagreement. Wine, you know, honestly, I have to look back and check I don’t even remember. But
Traci Thomas 9:49
it sounds like you lost a probably you’d remember if you want yeah. There you go. Speaking of word choice there, like I mentioned before, there’s part In the English poems where you use Spanish language, Spanish language words, how much agonizing did you do over that? Or was it just sometimes like, I have to use the Spanish word, the English word just doesn’t hit?
José Olivarez 10:13
Yeah. So there’s kind of multiple reasons why I use a Spanish word, right? One is because the music of the Spanish word is just prettier. It adds a different element that the English translation doesn’t add. The other thing that I listened for is, there’s certain textures that the words have in Spanish that the words in English don’t have. And so, for example, one of my favorite words in Spanish is the word or her law. Now, or her law translates loosely to like, hopefully. But oh, Hala is derived from Inshallah, right? It comes. There’s like a texture of spirituality and holiness to that word that gets lost when it’s translated to hopefully. And so those are the kinds of things that I’m thinking about when I’m kind of deciding which word to use.
Traci Thomas 11:05
Right? And obviously, you have just from hearing your talk, but I think I know this about you from the people that you’re friends with. You have a background in outloud poetry, spoken poetry, poetry performance, so you’re really thinking about the music of the words and how it sounds and how it should be, how readers should receive it. And so, guess the question is about the translation of that, like, how do you translate you getting up on stage and doing your poem and knowing the cadence and whatever to actually making it look, the way that you hope will, will tell your readers to read it that way. And I know that you can’t exactly do that. But I have an eye, every time I have a port on I talked about this, I have a performance background. So when I’m reading a poem, I’m taking line endings, punctuation, like the length of a line, I’m taking all of those things into account and saying like, Okay, how should I read this? And I often do read poems out loud, because I feel like there’s clues just in how the words sound. But how are you thinking about giving me those clues?
José Olivarez 12:08
Yeah, absolutely. So for me, the process of going from reading a poem out loud to how it should be organized on the page is not simply like, where I’d take a breath. That’s where the line break goes. Because part of what makes, and I’ve learned this over time, right, part of what makes reading poetry on a page exciting to me is that, you know, every line is its own unit. And so, and then, you know, you read two lines together, and that’s a different unit. And it can complicate the meaning of each of those individual lines, right. And so, for me, when I, when I started writing, I didn’t really like to use punctuation, I kind of just ended lines where the breath was, and that was how I organized it. And now I’ll use punctuation so that I can be a little bit more creative with the line breaks. And so for me, if I was trying to give someone a guide for how I would read the poem out loud, I would say kind of follow the punctuation more so than the line breaks.
Traci Thomas 13:18
You’ve deviated from my, from my personal crusade that I’m a line break queen. That’s,
José Olivarez 13:24
that’s me, though, I think the important thing is, you know, I really believe that poetry is collaborative, right? So I start the poem, but it’s not finished until the reader does whatever they do with it.
Traci Thomas 13:38
It’s okay, I’m not really mad at you. It’s just this is, this is the thing that we talk about every time I talk to a poet because I’m, it’s so different. Everyone has a different thought or feeling about it. And I again, come to it, I studied Shakespeare. So I have very strong feelings about iambic pentameter. And what the punctuation verse the line ending means in a, in a, you know, a speech from Shakespeare or whatever. And so taking, like, those are my skills that I come to a poetry book with. And so I’m always like, what are you? What are you thinking about it when you put it down? And you know, like, sometimes poems look, cool, but then you try to read the way that it looks and you’re like, snot doing it. Like it looks cool on the page. But clearly, this was a poem that you wanted people to read off the page, and it there’s no chance you could perform it that way.
José Olivarez 14:22
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Traci Thomas 14:25
Okay. I’m gonna talk about your author’s note one more time. I love it. I’m a big fan of when poets tell me give me any clues about the work, do you? How do you feel about it? Because I know it’s sort of a contentious thing in the poetry role of like giving clues or answers to your readers, especially at the beginning of a collection.
José Olivarez 14:46
I mean, I wrote that out there is no you know, when I before I even had the publishing contract, it was like part of what we use to get the publishing contract. And I didn’t know that the publisher would want to include that note, in the actual physical book, but I’m really glad they did mostly because, you know, like we talked about, right, my, my kind of entrance into poetry was via spoken word. And that meant that when I tried to take those skills from going to a million poetry slams, and open mics and trying to transfer that to the page, it was really hard for me at times to make sense of what was happening on the page in some people’s poetry. And so I’m not too far removed from those days, and I can’t remember what it was like to like, want so desperately to enter into a poem and find locked door after locked door, right. So if I can make it a little bit easier, a little bit more welcoming, I’m all for that.
Traci Thomas 15:48
I, thank you so much. Appreciate it. It paid off, at least in my case. So you started, we started talking to you about at the very beginning, where this poetry collection came from, and then others now you’re talking about how it was sort of like an ode to the homies and then you know, COVID happened and the world happened and 2020 happened and beyond. But I’d love for you to talk about why writing love poems to your friends was important. And especially I’m thinking about it, after watching the media cycle about Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan majors the last few weeks and like that, like tenderness between them, and you talked a little bit about machismo in your book are quite a bit, actually. And so I don’t know if all of those things are sort of swirling in my brain. And I’d love for you to speak to what was swirling in yours.
José Olivarez 16:39
Yeah, the media cycle was so wild, because Jonathan Magers is like, he is the epitome of a certain type of masculinity, right? Like he’s read, he’s strong. And yet, for this, like, it just goes to show that there’s no winning that game, right? There’s no way to be my cheese style enough or masculine enough, it doesn’t matter how many muscles you have, I started thinking about writing love poems for my friends, in part, because I started writing the collection at this very particular moment, where a lot of my friends were starting to get married, and our friendships were starting to change in different ways, right? It went from, you know, when we were in our early 20s, we would squat up together and roll like, 20, deep wherever we were going to now, you know, we’re kind of spread across the country. And, and we just, we don’t get to see each other as much. And so I was thinking about how special those relationships were and are right and how even in that has changing, they remain special. But how we held each other together, through so many heartbreaks through getting fired at jobs through deaths in the family, you know, through so much. And that’s a really special type of relationship that just doesn’t, we don’t spend enough time I think really thanking people for for being there. Right. It really feels like if it’s not a romantic relationship, it kind of gets pushed to the side and cultural discourse.
Traci Thomas 18:20
Yeah, I I wish more poets wrote about friends. Because I really liked that. And I feel like that’s really relatable, right? Like, we all have friends. At some point in our life, hopefully always. But like, I don’t know, it’s like, people write up poems about trees. And like that friend, I like trees. They’re everywhere. Like, there’s so much to talk about.
José Olivarez 18:41
I love that. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s true. You know, it’s funny, you say that I was just in Arizona, and I visited Saguaro National Park, right? National park full of cacti. And I remember seeing these ancient cat that and just feeling like I was with the ancestors, and they’re just like, standing tall. And sometimes the cacti are like very close to each other. And it kind of looks like they’re hugging each other. I was just like this. This is how we survive. Even in the desert. This is how we survive.
Traci Thomas 19:16
I feel a poem coming. Maybe I have a sense, I don’t know. Please dedicate it to me. Thank you. Know that you have this great poem and in a word you just mentioned? Oh, holla and Oh, hello, my homies that poem. Oh my God. And so emotional. It’s about sneakers and friends, and how you tuck your sneakers away because you didn’t want to get like you didn’t want them to get ganked or whatever. And that’s how you all learn to love was to was to keep the things you love most close by and out of sight like the sneakers and I don’t know, man, that one really just got got to me. I mean, how do you hope these poems about like your deep love For your friends will be received or seen.
José Olivarez 20:04
I mean, that was one of those flashbulb moments in my life. Like I remember, my friend, he was coming over to, to hang out, and he was just like, I just saw somebody get jumped for their shoes, and he was wearing the same shoes, you know? My hope is that the poems will be shared with people will. I know that like, for example, I have a friend out in California, who is book clubbing the book with, like, her boo, and also heard that, you know, so I, yeah, I think that’s cool. So I hope that people will share the poems and, you know, I don’t know that they need to be used for like, how do I put it? You know, and now let’s talk about this, right? Like, I don’t know that they need to be you. I guess I’m cool with however people use them. But I really hope that people will share them. And then maybe down the line, they’ll have opportunities to talk about the different ways that we love and the different ways that we hold our emotions in particularly when it comes to like, men and masculine people.
Traci Thomas 21:15
So your book is broken into sections, there’s 11, but the last three are all titled glory. And oh, hello. Oh, hello. Oh, helot comes up in two other sections. Talk to me about that. I mean, I know you made a choice. I just would love to know what your thinking the three different glories are or why separate and all of that?
José Olivarez 21:40
Yeah. So the organization of the book was the idea of my friend, Nate Marshall, who I know, you know,
Traci Thomas 21:49
friend of the pod, we love me. Yeah.
José Olivarez 21:53
Absolutely. Mate is the person that I go to what my manuscript is almost done, but there’s like, a little something missing. And so I visited Nate. And his idea was that we should listen to the album by calm and be. And so that album has 11 songs. And so we went about trying to organize these poems, into 11 sections to kind of follow the movement of that album. We landed on the last three sections being called glory. Because, one, you know, I think Nate was telling me that there’s like, like an old church him called Glory, glory, glory, there’s a song that goes Glory, glory, glory. And so we wanted to end it on this kind of upward note on this song, that is thinking about, what, what is glory in our lives, what is what is the thing that is going to keep us as in sustain us? And so that is why, but even still, those poems are not always easy, right? Like, the movement is not straight up. And so yeah, part of what I like is that each, each one is an attempt, again, like maybe the first glory fails at reaching that place. But then the next one is another attempt, and then you get one more attempt after that. So that’s what I was hoping for is that, that kind of repetition, and another tried so like, make something beautiful.
Traci Thomas 23:32
So and when you’re organizing, I’m always so curious about this, because you started writing this before the pandemic. Now we’re in 2023. So clearly, some of these poems are a lot older than others. When you figure out the the organization, the 11, things, you have the different titles, how much of it is moving things that are already done into the correct place? versus writing new things to fill up the different different sections? Or is or is there a different process that you use?
José Olivarez 24:03
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a little bit of both, right, like, part of it is definitely moving poems that I like into the correct sections that will give them the most kind of four in terms of like, how they relate to the poems around them. But the other part is, once you get a look at the whole build up of the book, you might, and I often do see where there are like small gaps, and then I tried to write and be more purposeful in how I write the poems that kind of, they’re not necessarily the last poems in the book, but they’re the last poems that I write for the book.
Traci Thomas 24:41
Do you remember the first poem, the first, chronologically the first poem you wrote for this book? And then chronologically the last poem you wrote for this book?
José Olivarez 24:51
I definitely remember the last poem that I wrote for this book. The last poem that I wrote was a poem called More please He’s, and it’s a son. Yeah, there you go. It’s a poem. It’s a sonnet. And I was trying to find a way to write about, you know, the kind of fear that I had in thinking about my parents and the distance that was between us. And I had just had a conversation with Nicole who’s like one of my friends and who’s gets a shout out in the poem. So that was the last poem I wrote, I would say, the first poem that I wrote, oh, is a poem that I pulled from the archives. It’s a poem called bulls versus sons 1993. And that one was published that one that was published in the late magazine and like, 2012. And so that’s the oldest poem for sure.
Traci Thomas 25:44
I think that poem, I think I made a note, let me make sure it’s the right one. Oh, no different one. But I do remember that one, I made a note. Because on page 132, you have a poem that has like, it’s down to my elbows poem that ends with the Shakespeare line. And then on the next page, you have rebuttal that has NBA 2k. And I was like, this is very much the exact two pages of this book that were written specifically for me, like Shakespeare and basketball. I was like, this is very much exactly my shit. Though. There are other poems that I was like, yes, there’s much, much much food in this book, which I love as a snack queen. So had to there’s a Cheetos Pom, there’s a tortillas palm, just thank you for including food, because that’s my personal joy. But there’s I, I felt like, and this is sort of a weird thing to admit into a microphone. So I hope this isn’t horrible. People don’t hate me. But I’ve, as I mentioned, I struggle with poetry. And a lot of the times when I’m trying to find a collection and trying to figure out what it is that I like about poetry, I turned to people that are exactly like me are very close to me, right? So like black millennials, who are talking about pop culture, right. And I really struggle if I’m reading like an older poet or poet from a different background, and your book is the first time that I’ve read a book, and you’re a millennial like me. So we have a lot of the same cultural references, but you’re Mexican, and I’m black, and I wasn’t sure it was gonna, like work for me, you know, just being really honest. And it really did. And it gave me a confidence, like, Okay, I’m getting somewhere like, I could do it. But I also was like, This is so awesome. Because this poetry is so good. It doesn’t really matter. And like, I think, you know, that’s speaking to a lot of different things with me, and also some great things about you. But I think the food and the basketball and the Shakespeare, and the friends and all of that, like really, really helped. Because it does feel not universal, because I hate when people say that shit. But it does feel like an invitation. I felt like an invitation like, I got to know you better. And I got to see things that I already knew and loved in this collection. It’s not a question, that’s just me expounding. We’ll take a quick break, and then we’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back. I have to tell you my favorite poem in the collection. And then I want to hear from you about your favorites. But I’ll tell you mine first. Maybe it’s not my favorite poem in the collection, because there’s a few that popped my but my favorite love poem I’ve ever read is in this collection. And it’s love poem beginning with the yellow cab. I just love that poem. Why is it so perfect?
José Olivarez 28:25
That makes me so happy. I really liked that poem. So especially as someone that finds it difficult to write love poems. I’m glad that that that one worked for you.
Traci Thomas 28:36
Oh my god, I’ve read it. It’s so early in the collection. And I read it and I was like, I love him. I love her. I love taxi cab, like this is the best thing I’ve ever I now love the color yellow. I didn’t I don’t even like yellow, but I loved it. Do you have favorites? Or are you a kind parent to your poems and you don’t pick favorites?
José Olivarez 28:57
There there are, you know, my relationship to the poems changes as I spend more time with them. So for example, one of my current favorites is eating Taco Bell with Mexicans.
Traci Thomas 29:09
José Olivarez 29:13
It’s one of my favorites, because it’s one that people request when I read at shows, and it surprised me at first. To me that’s kind of like a fun year kind of sillier poem. But people really enjoy it. And so, in turn, it has made me enjoy that one. And then I would say like the poems about my parents are really special to me. And definitely, probably the poems I’m the most proud of.
Traci Thomas 29:40
I love that the one about the church, I didn’t write down the name known about the church, and your parents and the community and like waiting for salvation. That one, so good to I mean, people who are listening, you have to get the collection because I’m just like saying lines from poems. So it’s kind of like a clue for you. When you get the collection you’ll be able to know what I’m talking about. But There are I mean, there’s so many good ones. There’s just it’s like such a, I guess this is not a question again, but we can talk about this. But what what else really works for me in this collection is that you have like the love poems, right? And you have the humor, and it’s pushed up, like right up against the grief and the fear, there’s so much like anxiety in this collection from you. And there’s so much tenderness. And when you’re writing these, these poems, and you’re, you’re actively working on the book, so I guess not like when you’re writing something years ago, but as you’re putting it all together, how are you thinking about balance and authenticity when it comes to love your life and putting it down on paper?
José Olivarez 30:50
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I don’t know that I think about authenticity, a lot. I definitely think about balance. Sometimes I’ll hear poets talk about how they’re only writing for themselves. I don’t really think that that’s my experience, when I’m writing, I’m writing and also thinking about it, in terms of how the reader will experience it. So I want to make sure that if there is a poem that feels heavy to me that I’m following it up with some sort of lightness, that there’s movement, right, that it’s doesn’t feel, monotone. To me, that’s one of the things that I look for, when I’m reading a book of poems is, even if I really liked the first couple of poems, if I get six or seven more poems in the exact same register and the emotional field, you know, it kind of it dulls me, right? It kind of loses me. And so I want my collection to feel surprising. Maybe you read a couple of love poems, and you’re like, Alright, I think I know what this is. And then boom, there’s a poem that kind of hits you in an unexpected way. So I definitely think about how to balance the book.
Traci Thomas 31:59
Are you thinking about that when you’re writing it? Or are you thinking about that more when you’re putting it together?
José Olivarez 32:04
I think about it more when I’m putting it together.
Traci Thomas 32:07
So when you’re writing, you’re sort of just writing what you what is coming to you. And then as you start to think about a book, you start to think like, okay, maybe this one doesn’t make the cut this time, because it’s too much of the same or or something like that.
José Olivarez 32:20
Yeah, absolutely. When I’m writing, it’s a little bit of a mystery to me. And so when I sit down, I’m often searching, I’ll write line after line and kind of throw it away until I write a line or an image that feels like a door opening, right? Like, I this is the way I explain it. Writing poetry to me is sometimes the same feeling as when I go to therapy, which is that there are certain days where I like, sit down with my therapist. And I’d be like, I don’t know what to tell you that like I’m good this week, nothing. There’s nothing on my mind, I feel good. We might as well skip today. And then the doctor will ask me, you know, one question, and suddenly, I’ll be like, on the verge of tears, and it transports me right? It opens up this place that I didn’t know was underneath my kind of present self. And so poetry works the same way. Like sometimes I’ll write a word and it’ll something solid will be underneath that. And that’s kind of how my writing process of each individual poem goes.
Traci Thomas 33:26
You mentioned the reader, I want to talk about audience a little bit. How are you slash? Who are you imagining is the reader how are you like, because if you’re thinking about how they’re reading it or their experience, you must have to think about who they could be to have a better understanding to write to them.
José Olivarez 33:43
Yeah, so I begin by writing poems that I think my brothers will enjoy. I have three younger brothers, and none of them are really like poetry majors, English majors. So I want them to really enjoy the poems and then also poems that are impressive to my friends, right? I started writing as a high school student, and the thing that kind of kept me going was, you know that my friends would email me their poems, and I’d be like, this is the best thing I ever read. And I don’t want to like continue that and want them to feel that way about me. So those are the two audiences that I’m thinking about.
Traci Thomas 34:23
Okay, I love that. It’s funny because I feel like I know many people or I’ve read many people who are like, kind of in your poet friend group, at this point, like many of the names you think at the end, I was like, Oh, I know them. And it’s funny to think of you all. And then to think of like, the old school like beat neck poets like doing the same shit but like, not having you know, not having email but being like, okay, like, I don’t know their names, but you know, like, Lenny Bruce, or whatever, like, yeah, he beat this. And I’m sure it’s exactly how it was. But you’re not taught that in school. You’re not like, oh, Walt Whitman was like talking shit to his friends being like, I bet you can’t write like this my guy Ah,
José Olivarez 35:01
that’s great. I love imagining what like that I’m sure that I really hope he was talking to his friends.
Traci Thomas 35:08
Yeah, I hope so too, because I feel like we’re sort of taught that like, poets are like very serious and like, uptight and sort of precious about their work. I don’t think there is some of that because I think there’s like some neuroticism about the type of person who will like, take 30 words and spend like five years trying to make it appear like there’s like something about like, the specificity. But all the poets I’ve ever talked to are hilarious and competitive, and like, and silly and loving and tender. And like maybe mean sometimes like, and there’s like so much more than the like, I’m a poet and like, I speak softly. And I, you know, sit outside by the moonlight, and I’m sure you all do that, too. But like, I don’t know, it’s just knowing real life poets who are writing right now makes me think about olden time poets very differently.
José Olivarez 36:01
I love that. I mean, I for one, love sitting by the moon that I think we’re getting a full moon today, as we think soon. Yes. I’m very excited to see the full moon. But But yeah, I mean, I think I mean, I think it’s weird, right? People treat poetry and I think certain types of visual art too, right? Like, I had a friend from high school who became a glassblower. And it kind of stunned me to be like, wait, but if you’re just like, a regular person, how did you get into glassblowing that feels so esoteric in, you know, adult, I didn’t think about like, who becomes glassblowers but, but yeah, like, you know, it’s, it’s like a profession. It’s a craft. It’s a hobby, it’s, it’s something that we love, but at the end of the day like it I don’t really think about poetry as defining who I am like I I think about I think if you wanted to get to know me, like you probably a lot closer if you if you know any like long suffering basketball fans, you know what I mean? Like, Chicago
Traci Thomas 37:13
was one. I’m the opposite of us. So I’m a warriors fan, which means my whole childhood was long suffering. And now we’re in the success and you’re the opposite. You had a great childhood rooting for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and now it’s sadness in the wake of Jimmy Butler and Derrick
José Olivarez 37:30
Rose. My broken dreams. My best friend in college was a warriors fan. And so one of my best college memories was like, like commandeering like a common area in 2008. And watching the we believe warriors, like shocked
Traci Thomas 37:47
to go to the game where were Baron Davis dunked on Kirilenko is that yeah, that’s like a Mother’s Day game. Yes, we grew up. So this is people might notice, but you don’t. But we grew up. Eventually, my dad was able to like get us season tickets to the Warriors, these great seats. And he got two tickets. And my mom would go to all the like, big games, like when Kobe would come to town, right. And my brother would go to like the mid tier games. And I got to go to every Kevin Garnett game in the history of the warriors, the Timberwolves because they were so bad. And we were so bad. I think we like got tickets, like, you know, the 13th, wind season or whatever. And now I like looked back at a few years ago, when they had only 13 losses or 12 losses. And I’m like, I did both. I’ve been here for all of it. But yes, that 2008 I remember staying up besides living in New York having to stay up so late to watch his fucking games. And now look at us prime time all the time. That’s true. Sorry to rub it in.
José Olivarez 38:55
I can’t relate. Honestly, those days are long gone for me.
Traci Thomas 38:59
They’re in your rear view. But you know, these things are cyclical. It’ll come back. There’s hope for you. I hope, I hope for you. I love that your personality like I’m not a poet. I’m just a Chicago Bulls fan. Just a sad, sad boys, Chicago Bulls fan.
José Olivarez 39:16
I mean, honestly, I feel like that might like there. There is some sort of link to the kind of despair, loneliness that comes from like watching those games, the kind of the hope at the beginning of the season and the way that he kind of deflates and the rhythms of some of the poems like I actually don’t think that that’s like, I’m kidding, but I’m not.
Traci Thomas 39:40
I love it. I mean, Hanif is also a long suffering basketball fan. Right. He’s a Timberwolves fan. He’s got it. Maybe there’s something in there’s something in there about basketball and sad boy poet, or sad boy basketball fan poets, I guess I should say it can I ask you about a sonnet about sonnets. Yeah, you have a few you have a few sonnets in here. And then you have a almost Sana come up with a phrase us, but it’s like close to us on it. Hmm. I think of sonnet is Shakespeare once on it, but there’s obviously a different definition. What is that 14 lines? Is that the only rule of a sonnet?
José Olivarez 40:20
It depends, right? There’s various kinds of definitions of rules and rules. There’s like a patriarchy and sonnet that has, I think, a different rhyme structure as well as a different a different meter than than the Shakespearean sonnet. For me, the kind of two things that are important is the 14 lines, but that there is a volta, right. And so a volta is a turn. And so it’s the point where, you know, the poem changes and shifts gears and rushes towards some kind of climax. For me, I started writing sonnets, in part because it felt like a very familiar way to organize a poem. You know, when I consider like growing up and poetry slam in the way that at the end, you wanted to leave the audience with something strong, so that they would give you a good score, right. And, and I think, that was, like learning in that tradition taught me how to write the endings of my poems. And so I think, for me, the sonnet was just like a very natural fit in some ways.
Traci Thomas 41:25
I want to talk about how you write, yeah, how often? How many? How many hours? Where are you music are no snacks, or no beverages, or no rituals? Or no?
José Olivarez 41:38
Yeah, I’m, I’m trying to put myself back into that place. So I tend to write in bursts. And so I don’t necessarily write every day of every month of every year. But for, you know, three or four months, sporadically, right throughout the year, I’ll write every day. And the way that I do it is, it’ll be basically the first thing that I do in the morning, I’ll make a pot of coffee. I’ll sit down at my desk, usually with some snacks for sure.
Traci Thomas 42:16
More, say more, what kind talk about it?
José Olivarez 42:21
It depends. I’m a big fan of sour patch kids, I like to have those. Yeah. And then you know, I also really like gala apples, specifically gala apples for refrigerated or no refrigerated I like them cold, cold and crisp. You know, definitely some water, some coffee. And sometimes I’ll sit at the desk for three or four hours. Sometimes the poems come much quicker, sometimes. all I get for my three or four hours is the beginnings of a poem, right? But I try to be that’s kind of my ritual is do it first, do it in the morning. Because if I procrastinate on writing, then either I won’t do it at all. Or when I sit down to write, my brain will be clouded with all of the things that happen during that day. And so I don’t I kind of want to bring a clear head so my writing
Traci Thomas 43:21
When you’re out in the world, and you’re not at your desk, like prepared to write Are you do you have a notebook? Are you taking notes? I just imagine poets are writing down like things like, Oh, I saw a dog today like Border Collie. Remember this? Or are you not doing that?
José Olivarez 43:37
I keep a notebook with me. But very rarely do I like pull it out to jot little notes. More often the thing that I’m doing when I’m traveling or when I’m not kind of at the desk is trying to read and pay attention and taking notes about what I’m seeing. Yes, for me like that. Being present in that way is more useful than always trying to jump into writing.
Traci Thomas 44:08
And then you said, you know, three or four months you’re writing, what are you doing the other eight, nine months,
José Olivarez 44:15
Watching the balls and being miserable? I don’t know. I mean, what I’m doing the other month is like really trying to read it’s also something that kind of changes. Right before my first book came out. During those eight or nine months, I was, you know, working a full time job and like being in relationship with all the people that I love. After my first book came out, I became I began touring a lot more and visiting colleges and so those eight or nine months were in part because I was just traveling a lot and visiting different places. And so if I wasn’t traveling, then I was resting. I was, you know, playing video games with my friends. Don’t know. So that it kind of changes.
Traci Thomas 45:05
Got it. Okay. And what’s the word you can never spell correctly on the first try?
José Olivarez 45:12
Rhythm? Rhythm is? I can never spell correctly. I always forget if it’s in eight y eight. Like, is it two H’s? Does the H come? Right after the R? Is it our y THYM? There’s ours mess it up.
Traci Thomas 45:31
It looks wrong. Also, the problem is that even if you get it right, it doesn’t feel right. It feels like this just can’t possibly be right. I hate that word. Truly. I didn’t ask you about the title, but I want to talk about it. Haka and the cover. Will you tell us about both of those things?
José Olivarez 45:46
Yeah, absolutely. So, promises of gold is the title of the collection, because I wanted a title that hinted at, you know, some of the, like, different conversations that were in the book, right. And I think, you know, we talked about the love poems, I think there’s like a fair number of poems that are thinking about class identity, right. And then it also that gold is really important. When I think about like, the history of colonization of Latin America, that’s one of the things that brought, you know, the Spanish to the Caribbean, and Latin America’s South America. And so for me that gold is, it has two sides of it, right? Like it is part of what ruins or brings about the attempt to ruin the people in different peoples in the Americas. And it’s also this kind of shining thing that still can be beautiful at times. So that’s kind of how the title came to be. And then in terms of the cover, I really loved the cover. And that was all my press my press, the kind of the visual editor at Henry Hulk, whose name is Christopher, Sergio. It was his idea. He wanted to kind of highlight the flowers and the different things that are highlighted in the text, and then also bring in the Lucia loadmaster. Which, yeah, I just think it looks really beautiful. So I’m really happy with it.
Traci Thomas 47:17
I love it. I love it. I think like, so engaging. Is there anything that’s not in this book that you wish? Could be? Or was?
José Olivarez 47:28
That’s a good question. I don’t think so I think, you know, honestly, if anything, I kind of, if I had it my way, I would have published a slightly slimmer book, I think I’d maybe take out some poems, and not necessarily, because I think they’re bad poems, I just my preference is for like a slightly smaller book of poems. I think part of what I love about poems is that it can be a fast read, right? And so when you get these big Tomes, you lose some of that, some of like, what poetry offers, which is that it can, it can transport you somewhere else in a short amount of time. So that’s probably the one thing I would change.
Traci Thomas 48:14
Hmm. This is maybe a little esoteric, I don’t know, how do you know, when you’re done with a poem? Because some of your poems are like, eight lines, and then some are like 30, or something?
José Olivarez 48:27
Yeah. I know, that a poem that I’m finished with the poem when I feel it’s like a particular feeling. You’re right. I mean, it’s different from like a short story, or a chapter in the novel where, you know, maybe you will arrive somewhere. In poetry, it’s not necessarily that the plot is resolved, but there’s a feeling or a slight texture that has revealed itself. So for me that that’s what I’m looking for is that something has surfaced. And then it’s really depending on the poem, sometimes, once the motion has been surfaced, and that’s it, sometimes there’s an attempt to kind of reverse or some set like, I think about poems almost as like spells right to try and build the poem that changes that emotion. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s, it’s all about feelings. I think that I think that’s ending poems is one of the hardest things.
Traci Thomas 49:33
Well it seems like it would because it sort of feels like you could keep going, right? Like, it’s like seems like one of those things like you’re saying, like, because there isn’t a specific place that you’re writing to necessarily like it would be easy to do, at least for someone like me be easy to do too much right? Like to not know how to stop. And I’m also thinking about like your background and in spoken word, and like those poems are usually considerably longer than a lot of the poems in this book. Uh, so was that a difficult transition for you at all?
José Olivarez 50:06
I think it was a difficult transition when I was a lot younger, right. But at this one, it’s been probably easily at least 10 years since I participated in like a poetry slam. So even though I still read my poems out loud for audiences, I’ve had a lot of practice kind of writing, specifically for the page. And so from an honestly, the short poem feels good to me, in part, because I think one of the things that I struggled with when I was younger was always wanting to make sure that everyone understood exactly what I was saying. And so I was overriding a lot of those poems, right and being like, in case you didn’t get it, this is about being Mexican. Yeah. And one more time, just for those of you in the back. And it’s so I feel I feel much more confident as a writer. And so I think, I think that gives me the ability to write the short poem and to be like, No, that where I ended, it feels good, that that’s enough.
Traci Thomas 51:21
That’s, I mean, that’s so cool that you could do that just feels like such like discipline, because as you can tell, I can’t stop talking. What’s, what comes next for you? Do you know?
José Olivarez 51:34
Yeah, so two things. I have a collaborative project with a photographer from Phoenix named Antonio Salazar, who takes these beautiful portraits of life on the south and west sides of Phoenix to neighborhoods. You know, that struggle with violence at times. But he takes photos of really hard things in really tender and beautiful ways. And so in some ways, that reminds me a lot of the types of poems that I’m trying to write where it’s like, treating everything, even the things that are hard with tenderness and compassion. And so that project is called for sympathy. It’s mostly photography by Antonio, but it also features 15 of my poems that will be released by Haymarket in April. On April 4, yeah. So coming up soon.
Traci Thomas 52:28
So if you’re listening to this, you’ve got three weeks.
José Olivarez 52:31
There you go. And then the next solo project that I’m going to work on is a novel. Yeah, so I don’t know how to write a novel. I have to figure it out.
Traci Thomas 52:47
Thank you that lets you know how you did. Yeah, please. For people who love Promises of Gold, what are other books you might recommend to them that are in conversation with what you’ve done?
José Olivarez 53:00
Yeah, absolutely. I think about the Danez Smith’s book, homie. I think that’s a great one. Brandy Choi has a collection of poems that was just released. The world keeps sending in the world goes on. And then I think two books that are a little bit older that I’m always writing in conversation with our ie viewings, book, electric arches. And then Nate Marshalls book wild hundreds. I love that book.
Traci Thomas 53:29
Wild Hundreds. I know it’s the one that got like all the attention. But I think Wild Hundreds is so good. Finna is also amazing. Finna is also fantastic, but I just wish more people would go back and read.
José Olivarez 53:43
Wild hundreds is my jam. Like, I know that. Nate probably feels like the poems and fender are are much stronger. Probably that makes sense. Right? He’s a different artists at that point. But um, for me the poems and wild hundreds are just so excellent, imperfect. And then the last book, I would say it’s probably Natalie Diaz is when my brother was an Aztec, which is another book that I keep with me at all times and read from it whenever I’m feeling unsure. And it really is that beautiful to me.
Traci Thomas 54:20
I’ve never read any Natalie does because I’m a little intimidated. Do you think that I can handle it?
José Olivarez 54:25
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Traci Thomas 54:29
I sometimes get scared to read people that everyone else says is great, because I’m like, what if I’m not there yet?
José Olivarez 54:35
No, no, that that book is amazing. You will okay. I really think you’ll like it. I hope you like it.
Traci Thomas 54:42
I’ll take your recommendation on it and then I will tag you when I like. So some notes for Jose to more if you are what do you hope people will keep in mind as they read promises of gold?
José Olivarez 54:55
That’s a good question. I hope people I hope people will be patient with themselves, right? You mentioned that sometimes people struggle getting into poetry. And I would say, you know, if there are particular poems that you don’t understand, that’s okay, like, keep reading, I promise you that the book has a bunch of different types of poems. And if you don’t understand one, it doesn’t mean that you won’t understand all of them. So be patient with yourselves with yourself as a reader and give yourself space to enter the poems in whatever way you can.
Traci Thomas 55:34
And then my last question for you is, if you could have one person dead or alive, read your book, who do you want it to be?
José Olivarez 55:41
My paternal grandmother and grandfather died before this book was published in Mexico. And I think, I think recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about, like the way stories, the way people keep stories and what happens when they’re no longer with us, and particularly for my family, because like, I’ve tried to trace some of the documents and the histories of where we’ve lived in there. There just isn’t any official paperwork, like all of our histories were kept by people. And so I would love to for them to be able to read the book for sure.
Traci Thomas 56:23
It’s really beautiful. All right. Well, everyone. This has been a conversation with Jose Olivarez, the author of promises of gold, a poetry collection and also the author of a very shortly forthcoming 15 poems and a fantastic photo book from Haymarket that we’re all gonna go get to while we’re at it. Jose, thank you so much.
José Olivarez 56:43
Thank you so much for having me. Traci. This was really fun. Yay.
Traci Thomas 56:47
And everyone else we will see you in the stacks.
Alright, y’all, that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Jose Olivarez for being our guest. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Clarissa Long for helping to make this conversation possible. Make sure you tune in on March 29 for the Stacks book club discussion of Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay with our guests Shanita Hubbard. If you love this show, and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/thestacks to join the Stacks Pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stocks wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from The Stacks follow us on social media at thestackspod on Instagram and at the stackspodunderscore on Twitter and check out our website thestackspodcast.com This episode of The Stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin McCreight. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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