one more from José Olivarez

olivarezIn my recent microreview & interview of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books), I noted some of the ways the collection interrogates the multiple dualities of the Latinx, specifically Mexican-American, experience. Through word play and rhetorical moves, Olivarez uses his gift of speaking about narratives that often get neglected to present the nuances of language as well as life.

In “My Parents Fold Like Luggage” (below), the speaker is in story mode, presenting a fabulistic interpretation of his parents crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a narrative of risk as much as deception; these two sources of tension are presented through the speaker’s point of view through the metaphor of folding. Informed by memory, distance, and imagination, this folding turns out some rich moments of language:

my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke.

Here, human breaking is folded into financial breaking. So much is riding on this fraught vulnerability, both in the moment and in the larger picture. The distinct punctuation and use of variations on “break” do a great job of evoking what is at stake. One finds a similar turn in the poem’s ending:

from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

The key word here is “steals,” a word that nods toward the risk and deception of the narrative. Yet it’s the context, “from the sky,” that renders this ending heartbreaking. Not being able to “hear” from the distance of memory creates an engaging ambiguity. In not knowing if they “cheer or pray,” the poem allows those words to live side by side in the poem and moment.

My Parents Fold Like Luggage – José Olivarez

my parents fold like luggage
into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.
stars glitter against a black sky.
from the sky, the Tercel is a small lady

bug traveling north. from the sky,
borders do not exist. the Tercel stops
in front of a man in green. stars glitter
like broken glass. the night so heavy

it chokes. in the trunk, it is starless.
my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke. they protect what might
unfold them to discover they are six:
a family.  if the man in green opens the trunk,

the road folds back. this moment & everything
that follows disappears into the ink of a police report.
why doesn’t he open the trunk? my parents say
god blessed us. maybe they are right,

but i think about that night & wonder where
god was—a million miles away in the stars,
in the shared breath between my parents, maybe
everywhere. maybe nowhere. from the sky,

the man in green is so small it is impossible
to see him wave. from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

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To learn about José Olivarez’s work, check out his site.

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microreview & interview: Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez

review by José Angel Araguz

olivarez

The Latinx experience is often reduced to ideas of duality. There’s the phrase “ni de aqui, ni de allá” (neither from here nor from there). There’s Gustavo Peréz Firmat’s idea of “living on the hyphen,” which acknowledges the duality of having a hyphpenated identity, in his case Cuban-American. Even one of the more popular textbooks in Spanish classes across the nation is titled Dos Mundos, a nod to the narrative idea of living in two worlds.

This kind of phrasing and thinking is reductive when only one duality is considered. What I have found in my own experiences is that it is not only one duality that defines my own Mexican-American life, but a multitude of dualities. This thinking feels truer to the Latinx experience because while one duality implies a clean split into halves, multiple dualities implies a series of splits in one’s identity. One of the driving forces of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books) is an exploration of the complexity inherent in these kinds of multiple dualities and splits.

The opening poem “(citizen) (illegal)” begins this exploration in the subverted phrasing of its title, which takes the phrase “illegal citizen” and turns it via parentheses into two separate adjectives. The poem goes on to develop its narrative using the rhetoric of word problems:

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have
a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
Is the baby more Mexican or American?
Place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).
If the mother holds the baby (citizen)
too long, does the baby become illegal?

Here, the logic of words is placed against the logic of human laws. Having isolated (citizen) and (illegal) in the title, the two words begin to develop a life of their own as they move in their narrative placement. In the first line, (illegal) is strictly in the language of immigration law. Yet, the word is something different—and marked as such by the absence of parentheses—by the end of the stanza. This change occurs via the question asked in the last three lines of this stanza. This question’s narrative places the mother and child, one marked as (illegal) and the other as (citizen), in a familiar embrace between mother and child. Through context, the question parallels the proximity of this embrace with the proximity of words on a page, both the physical closeness but also the way the closeness of two words changes the meaning of both.

In bringing together word logic and law logic through this parallel, Olivarez evokes the fear immigrant parents live with, even in such innocent moments as holding a baby. By taking charge of these two words in an objective, logical way, the poem makes the humanity that is affected by them more evident and real.

One of Olivarez’s accomplishments in this collection is this ability to make present the humanity behind dualities in poem after heart-wrenching poem. In the aptly titled “Mexican American Disambiguation,” Olivarez works the duality of presence and influence through contemplation of American cultural staples:

everything in me
is diverse even when i eat American foods
like hamburgers, which to clarify, are American
when a white person eats them & diverse
when my family eats them. so much of America
can be understood like this.

Here, we have another moment of closeness, of something being embraced out of need. While the stakes are albeit different than the closeness between a mother and her baby, the meaning remains the same: words and ideas are affected by the human presence behind them. Even a hamburger, which here is at first taken as an American symbol, can become politically fraught when put in contact with the narratives of the Latinx experience. This poem quickly shifts to higher stakes as the speaker takes note of his family’s effect on the idea of the American Dream:

my parents were
undocumented when they came to this country
& by undocumented, i mean sin papeles, &
by sin papeles, i mean royally fucked which
should not be confused with the American Dream
though the two are cousins.

Within the complexity of the wordplay here, which moves between English and Spanish as well as between the metaphor of the American Dream and ideas of family, lies the conscience of this speaker. It is identity, ultimately, that the speaker is seeking to make clear by working through the ambiguity of symbols and ideas of America. Yet, clarifying one’s identity isn’t as simple as noting the right words; one must work through what the words mean. From “sin papeles” to “royally fucked” to “American Dream,” the poem seeks to understand each word through correlation, ending at “cousins,” a word that means family, but not immediate family. In Citizen Illegal, readers are invited to slow down and dwell on such distinctions for what they say about connection as well as for what is missed.

This navigation through distinctions of duality is consistently reckoned with in this collection on a personal scale. In “my therapist says make friends with your monsters,” the speaker delves into the context of therapy, where “monsters” are self-created; yet, within the greater context of the collection’s Mexican-American narrative, the speaker’s monsters are as double and duplicitous as the two countries themselves. The lyric sequence “Mexican Heaven,” braided throughout the collection, reimagines heaven as a source of respite but, as the following excerpt shows, tinged with familiar mistrust:

all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven.
St. Peter has their name on the list,
but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list
since Ronald Reagan was president.

Movement is the common thread of this meditation on multiple dualities. In the most compelling moments of this collection, Olivarez presents to us poetic spaces where one dwells alongside the speaker on the elements in motion around him. The poem below, “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where The Mexicans At,” is a good example of what I mean. Within the context of a problematic conversation at a party, the speaker navigates beyond the good intentions of the conversation and unravels the meanings and memories at play in his mind. In this space, one sees not only what it feels like to be seen in a distorted manner, but also what it is like to survive it.

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I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At – José Olivarez

i know we exist because of what we make. my dad works at a steel mill. he worked at a steel mill my whole life. at the party, the liberal white woman tells me she voted for hillary & wishes bernie won the nomination. i stare in the mirror if i get too lonely. thirsty to see myself i once walked into the lake until i almost drowned. the white woman at the party who might be liberal but might have voted for trump smiles when she tells me how lucky i am. how many automotive components do you think my dad has made. you might drive a car that goes and stops because of something my dad makes. when i watch the news i hear my name, but never see my face. every other commercial is for taco bell. all my people fold into a $2 crunchwrap supreme. the white woman means lucky to be here and not Mexico. my dad sings Por Tu Maldito Amor & i’m sure he sings to America. y yo caí en tu trampa ilusionado. the white woman at the party who may or may not have voted for trump tells me she doesn’t meet too many Mexicans in this part of New York City. my mouth makes an oh, but i don’t make a sound. a waiter pushes his brown self through the kitchen door carrying hors d’oeuvres. a song escapes through the swinging door. selena sings pero ay como me duele & the good white woman waits for me to thank her.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

José Olivarez: For me, poetry has been most powerful in shared experiences. The moment that made me want to write poems was seeing my peers, teenagers at the time, perform poems that spoke truthfully about their own experiences to an audience full of rapt teenagers and adults. My favorite past time is getting drinks with friends and then reading them my favorite poems (Ada Limón’s Glow, all of Lucille Clifton’s poems, Aracelis Girmay’s On Kindness, Patrick Rosal’s BrokeHeart: Just Like That). I believe that poetry is communal. I wanted to write a book that people would want to share with each other. I wanted to write a book that people could laugh to and cry to and feel all the feelings to. I wanted to write a book that young poets would want to read and rewrite and challenge and remix. I wanted to write a book that could belong at the library and on public transportation and in the park. I wanted to write a loud poetry. An impolite poetry. A poetry that asks you to reimagine the world.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

José Olivarez: One of the challenges in writing these poems early on was that the poems were fitting too neatly into already established narratives about Latinx people and immigration, things like the sense of belonging neither here nor there, the arc of the American Dream, the othering gaze of whiteness. Where did these ideas come from? How could I complicate and destabilize them? I tried to rewrite the poems with an eye towards mischief and subverting those tropes. When I finished a poem, I tried to rewrite it to see what other possibilities existed. That’s how poems like “Poem to Take The Belt Out of My Dad’s Hands” were made. I didn’t want to write poems that fit too neatly into what was already expected of me.

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Special thanks to José Olivarez for participating! To learn more about Olivarez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Citizen Illegal can be purchased from Haymarket Books.

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JoséphotobyMarcosVasquezJosé 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.  In 2018, he was awarded the first annual Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association. He lives in Chicago.

poetryamano project: may 2017

This week I’m sharing another installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.

Below are highlights from May 2017. This month found me going further with erasures. Along with working out of a true crime book, I also began finding poems in a novel written in Spanish.

Be sure to check out the previous installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.

Stay tuned next week for more of the usual Influence happenings. For now, enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!

may 2018 1

may 2018 2

may 2018 3

may 2018 4

may 2018 5-1

may 2018 5-2

may 2018 6

may 2018 7-1

may 2018 7-2

may 2018 8

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Happy amano-ing!

José

one more from Valerie Wallace

In my recent microreview & interview of House of McQueen (Four Way Books) by Valerie Wallace, I note how Wallace’s interrogation of the observable and imaginative aspects of Alexander McQueen’s work, and how the two suggest and influence each other, makes for compelling lyric meditations. Furthermore, there is a parallel conversation between the observable and imaginative occurring in the collection on the level of craft, as Wallace writes into and opens up McQueen’s world for her readers through ekphrasis, collage, and other formal poetic moves.

wallaceThe poem below – “Haute Couture” – is a good example of the formal conversation that underlies House of McQueen. This poem takes on the acrostic form by taking a quote from McQueen himself – “At the end of the day they’re only clothes” – and placing each word of it as the first word of each line. This form suits the overall vision of House of McQueen in a number of ways. First, by the very nature of the acrostic form, we have McQueen’s voice embedded in the body of the poem however indirectly. Also, that the quote itself can be read vertically while Wallace’s poem can be read horizontally echoes the way Wallace “reads” into McQueen’s work both here and throughout her collection.

House of McQueen is an inspiring book for the risks and routes it takes into the possibilities inherent in language and visual art. Because our lives are dually complex and private, we end up learning about each other as we learn from words; that is, by conjecturing and connecting with what is around in the life of a person. The acrostic form here does just that: By playing off of McQueen’s actual statement and presenting Wallace’s own lyrical flight, what is conjured in the act of the poem is a poetic space that is part McQueen, part Wallace. In short, the form is itself a visual representation of the observable and imaginative elements at work in Wallace’s collection.

Haute Couture – Valerie Wallace

Alexander McQueen acrostic

At the first, a promise to share the fireflies in your brain with
the crickets in my brain, gift the heart-shaped apricot at my
end for your bunspark unpuckered, your stalk of young maple in the gorge
of the river you brought with you. Reach your hand in this fashion.
The discovery of how to really bite dark cherries. Swollen bordercall into me into yourself
day in day out. Arm :: swan :: fumble :: ruddle :: winker :: fist :: throttle into the unforgiving current gathering stones.
They’re spun from their beds and they are comprehended. I know you are
only, no matter how we relish this thing we do. Look at us, our radiant cooling. Relinquish your
clothes. I’ll cut you mine.

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to learn about Valerie Wallace’s work, visit her site.

microreview & interview: House of McQueen by Valerie Wallace

review by José Angel Araguz

wallace

In the note for “Let’s make a dress from these,” from Valerie Wallace’s  House of McQueen (Four Way Books), we learn that the poem’s title is a quote from Alexander McQueen himself, spoken “as he walked into his workroom with a handful of red medical slides.” In the same spirit of ingenuity and repurposing, Wallace’s collection presents poems that inhabit similar liminal spaces. Ranging from ekphrasis and collage to engaging with docupoetics with singular purpose, the poems of House of McQueen brings McQueen’s aesthetic vision and humanity to life through its engagement with the observable and imaginative.

The aforementioned poem, “Let’s make a dress from these,” which centers on the dress made from medical slides mentioned in the note above, starts with an objective description: “Stained red medical slides layer vertically on sleeveless sheath, / high-necked and cut away from right shoulder to right hipbone.” The reader is presented strictly with what the eye can see in these lines. The poem then moves from the physically observable, to the suggestive and poetic:

Heavy overskirts of crimson ostrich feathers swish & switch,
thick & deliberate into underskirt of plum-black ostrich feathers.
These skirts obey the law of push. From the slightest pressure they bloom.

In these lines that round out the first stanza, the observable is engaged on two levels. First, there is the evocation of the image through phrasing with the repetition of “ostrich feathers” across two lines; but there’s also a structural echo of the image in the enjambment of “swish & switch, / thick & deliberate.” Here, the repeated use of the ampersand works like typographical stitching joining two descriptions of ostrich feathers. The last line of this stanza furthers this evocation, taking it to an imaginative space through its mention of “the law of push” and “bloom,” language that makes the observable fact of the dress into an active, engaging image.

Another kind of engagement between the observable and imaginative occurs in the poem “Shears,” only this time it is one on the level of craft. Composed out of text found and “occasionally corrupted” by the author from Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems (New Directions), what makes this poem remarkable is how Wallace is able to find and repurpose language outside of the McQueen-centered project and bring it into conversation:

Silk tweed gray felt sable damask flannel
Glory of sharp tool be the lasting part of me

Plip scut slew slew all sounds fall still
Have you seen the fox? Which way did he go, he go?

These opening lines begin with fabric language and quickly go into intimate revelry. The repetition and wordplay here are to different purposes than in the poem discussed above; yet the move on the poet’s part to evoke image and feeling from recovered language remains the equally compelling.

Similarly, the poem “Autobiography of Alexander McQueen,” which is composed of quotes from print and video interviews with McQueen himself, takes the found language approach and creates from it a sense of human voice and presence:

I’m a romantic, really—
I try to protect people.
People say I do it for the shock value
I just like exploring the sinister side of life.

Drawn from McQueen’s lips, these opening lines are haunting in the way they represent isolated moments of self-awareness and aesthetic vision. Despite their repurposing into poetic form, in this case a pantoum, the designer’s unique sense of self-possession and character ring out. When the poem closes and the form repeats the first and third line above, the argument performed through the act of the poem lands for the reader as an argument of being:

Solitude is the blank canvas I work from.
Life is transformation.
People will say I did it for the shock value—
But I’m just a romantic really.

House of McQueen can, in fact, be read as a romantic’s transformation of language materials into aesthetic revelation. The very spirit of high fashion is implied throughout the conceptual and structural narratives explored. Wallace’s deft eye and ear create poems that keep pace with and come close to matching McQueen’s original sartorial creations. What stands out as the book’s highest accomplishment is how Wallace is able to bring readers again and again to the liminal, imaginative space of inspiration.

The poem below, “Council House, 1972,” opens the collection with exactly this note of dwelling on the possibilities inherent between the observable and imaginative. From the feeling of having “never seen anything like it” to “wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn,” the reader is presented with two artists: the artist McQueen was on the verge of becoming, and Wallace now, able to find the words to house them both.

Council House, 1972 – Valerie Wallace

When I was about 3 years old, I drew a dress on the wall. And what dress was it? Cinderella.

When she turned, I’d never seen anything like it.
Dress made for charming prince and fairy.
I could manage the little sleeves, tiny waist rising
out of skirts which laughed as they traveled with her across the ballroom floor.
And they had stars woven in them.
I got caught wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn.
There was trouble, but I didn’t care. I knew it was the dress
that saved her. All the rest was just a story.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Valerie Wallace: Thank you so much for this question. I think poetry is a space for great permission, so for me this collection invigorates that idea, because it takes on many challenges at once – persona, ekphrastic, formal, free, a bit of narrative – all in an attempt to make a cohesive  emotional . . .  welling forth about a singular life.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Valerie Wallace: This is probably obvious, but my primary challenge – which animated all the other challenges – was to stay true to McQueen’s aesthetic and vision. Ultimately I used form and craft in service to his tailoring foundation, and a wide range of source material, as he had, for his collections. I researched Scottish and English history and the history of fashion, learned bespoke terminology, read McQueen biographies, and made use of interviews with McQueen, as well as his close friends and family. I felt my own imagination had permission to be wild. If I thought, Why not? I tried it. If I thought, What if…, I did it.

I’ll just add that at first I thought I was writing a kind of elegy. Then I thought I was writing language poems. At times, I was forcing poems into these categories. Of course, those poems were not very good. I learned that I had to strengthen my listening muscles. I had to listen to what the poems needed to say, wanted to say, find the little soul for each. As that began to happen, the poems and I began to trust each other, and then a collection began to hum.

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Special thanks to Valerie Wallace for participating! To learn more about Wallace’s work, check out her site! Copies of House of McQueen can be purchased from Four Way Books.

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wallace 2Valerie Wallace’s debut poetry collection House of McQueen (March 2018) was chosen by Vievee Francis for the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry. In their starred review Publishers Weekly said that Wallace created “…a literary seance…serving as a scholar of and medium for the late iconic fashion designer Alexander McQueen….” Her work was chosen by Margaret Atwood for the Atty Award, and she has received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Award in Poetry, as well as many grants to support her work, for which she is extremely grateful.

José Antonio Rodriguez’s House Built on Ashes

house built on ashesThis week I had the distinct pleasure of having poet and essayist José Antonio Rodriguez video-conference into my current creative nonfiction class here at Linfield College. We discussed his memoir House Built on Ashes (Oklahoma University Press),  a collection of lyrical essays that delves into his childhood memories, interrogating them for the stories and insights behind them. The essays range in topics from the intersection of the immigrant experience and borderland culture to sexual identity and social class dynamics. What makes the collection richly compelling, however, is how Rodriguez’s writing makes such complex topics human and intimate.

In class discussion before Rodriguez’s virtual visit, I shared the following excerpt from an interview with Rodriguez on the Letras Latinas Blog:

[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode…How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?

[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.

What Rodriguez says here about using ambiguity as a way to remain in uncertainty and, thus, subvert society’s expectation to move away from uncertainty and have things end neatly is a powerful lesson in how to have art and politics meet without one sacrificing the other. This move also invites the reader closer to the experience of the text and provides a space to dwell on complex feelings rather than turn away from them, a turning away that in creative nonfiction can read as false or simplistic.

I also made sure to note the moment in the interview excerpt above where a series of statements by Rodriguez about “the narrator” of his essays is interrupted with the shorter statement “To me.” This brief acknowledgement of self is a lived out example of what is at stake in creative nonfiction and the work one must do in writing it. To speak of a narrator-who-is-you and thus frame a piece this way can establish distance between the raw material and your own self at risk and alive with feelings. In this space, aesthetic moves can be made and revisions considered that lead to illuminations not afforded in real life.

In the piece below, “Open House,” one can see some of these ideas at work. The narrative of an elementary school open house braids the two worlds of the child narrator together, that of his family life and that of his education. The split across language and culture, home and aspirations, is charged by Rodriguez’s use of the present tense. The reader is brought right into the action and thoughts that propel the story. By the end, the meeting of two worlds becomes a blurring of them, to the point that the open house – which itself is an event where others go and see a place – becomes a site where the narrator himself feels the weight of being seen.

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Open House
By José Antonio Rodriguez

It is a strange sight, the school at night, aglow with light emanating from all its open doors. Amá, Luis, Yara, and I walk toward it, together. Amá begins to lag behind. We slow our pace and she catches up but eventually lags behind again, like she prefers to walk one step behind us.

In every room, we find a corner to stand in, Amá wringing her hands like she owes the room money. I tell her about how crowded the school is, built for half the number of students that now live a third of their lives in it. The teacher walks to us. In every room I translate for the teacher. In every room I translate for Amá. In every room I am a gran estudiante. The Spanish reminds me of church. The Spanish sounds foreign—talk of literature, talk of math, talk of science. In every room the white students marvel at my perfect Spanish, my Spanish without an accent, avert their eyes from my mother’s lack of English.

In every room they harbor the suspicion, hear the language, my first tongue, the telling sign that I could not be from here, that I could not be American. How they look at me, see someone they didn’t imagine.

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from House Built on Ashes (University of Oklahoma Press)

Watch a clip of this piece being read here.

vital signs & 3 word poems

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Happy November everyone! Just a quick post to share the above 3 word poem from the poetryamano project.

A note about 3 word poems: I picked up the form from reading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño years ago. I became fascinated by the punk rock way Bolaño’s poet characters spoke about the art. This form is spoken about as a kind of graffiti, a subversion of seriousness through compression.

Having a rough time healthwise this week. Time got away from me because of it. Please check in next week for a new, full post.

Til then, here’s to living life 3 words at a time!

José