Portrait of an Artist: José Olivarez

José Olivarez Portrait
Courtesy of José Olivarez

Photo of poet, José Olivarez.

José G. Olivarez ’10 is an award-winning poet and son of Mexican immigrants. His debut book of poems, “Citizen Illegal,” was a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Award and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. He is the co-editor of the poetry anthology “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT.” His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.

The Harvard Crimson: What made you want to be an author, and a poet more specifically?

José Olivarez: I wanted to become a poet because poetry was the first genre of literature and writing community that made space for me and my stories. So I always read a bunch, but it wasn’t until I encountered poetry, and specifically spoken word, that I saw that there was a space for me and my stories about my family and everything else.

THC: A lot of your writing concerns themes of immigration and family. How do you approach writing about these really personal subjects?

JO: When I'm writing about subjects that are really personal, but also very big, I want to make sure that I have total conviction in what I'm writing. Because I think when we're talking about big subjects — whether it's race, immigration, class identity — there are ways that we can come to regurgitate stories that may be harmful to us.


So I want to make sure that I’m investigating where these stories come from. And do I actually want to say this? Do I actually believe this? And then the other thing is… I try to read broadly about what I'm writing and what interests me, so that I can understand a little bit better how my story kind of fits in as to what other people are writing?

THC: I wanted to know what your creative process is like, for writing poetry. Where do you get your inspiration?

JO: I love to read all sorts of things. As I'm reading, I'm kind of looking to see how the author is doing what they're doing… And then the other thing that I'm doing is, I'm trying to figure out what word, what story, what image can help me get underneath what I'm talking about. So, for example, with immigration… if I try to review the policy set forth by the United States government, it's hard to find the poetry in that. But if I start with a word or an image from when my parents were undocumented, and how they were navigating that experience, then it might help me come up with something that that does the job of reviewing that policy more effectively.

I'm trying to find the connection. I'm trying to find language that helps me figure out exactly what I want to say. Because with poetry, I think there's always what we think we know. And then underneath that there's something else. There's a reason why we study what we study, right? And so for me, part of that is understanding that, yes, I think some people would say I write about immigration, but I'm also writing about my family. I write about immigration so I can get closer to understanding my family, and how we came to be in the United States with each other.

THC: After publishing “Citizen Illegal” and “LatiNEXT,” can you speak to some of the differences in putting together an original poetry collection versus editing an anthology?

JO: With writing an original poetry collection, there's a little bit more control because that was my book, and it was my vision for the project. With the BreakBeat Poets volume for “LatiNEXT,” there were two other editors: Willie Perdomo and Felicia Chavez. And so, that was a much more collaborative project, which was a really a joy, to get to hear from them and think about, from their perspective, what was important for them in tackling the project, which was about kind of bringing together a chorus of Latinx poets to help us better question and understand this idea of Latinidad.

So the big difference is the collaborative aspect. But also, I think that, in between the time when I wrote “Citizen Illegal” and when we were working on “LatiNEXT,” my political ideas changed a little bit. And my aesthetic might have changed a little bit. I think one way to read “Citizen Illegal” is as a Mexican nationalist text, which-- it's not about Mexico being superior to the United States or the other way around. It's that all of these states have flaws. And so, I think, in “LatiNEXT,” there's a little bit more critique to it, maybe more than in my first book.

THC: What are you planning to work on next? What are you working on now?

JO: I'm working on two projects right now. One is a collaboration with a photographer in Phoenix who is a really great photographer. And he has these photos that I think showcase this kind of meeting place of male identity and also tenderness and love. Like this kind of machismo, although we're going to try and frame the book a little bit differently than that. But there's a point that shows the tenderness and care of Mexican men in families. So one project is like a collaboration: a bunch of photos, a bunch of poems.

And then, the other one is kind of the follow up to “Citizen Illegal.” I find myself kind of thinking about class a lot more. And I think, partly, that's because my class identity has been changing in some ways. And so, I've been grappling with that: how to make sense of myself, when I'm still carrying all the stories from my parents and from where I come from, but now I find myself in very different rooms.

It was also inspired by a Zoom reading with Kenyon University, and they were asking me about how to write stories beyond the typical kind of personal statement. When you're putting together your admissions packet for college or grad school or whatever, they ask you to frame those stories in particular ways. And so: How do we write our stories in ways that are not just about making them consumable, or sellable to people with more power and money, right? What else can we do with those stories beside selling them in that way? Those are some of the questions that I'm thinking about.

THC: How has Covid-19 impacted any of your creative projects?

JO: It feels very difficult to work some days because I'm so drained from worrying about my parents and my brothers. I have one brother who works in a factory, so I'm always texting him to make sure he feels okay. I just find that it's been hard to figure out a routine. So, for me, it's been really hard to be creative. I’ve still been writing, but it's a little bit more slower and sporadic than it usually is. I think that's because I'm someone that really benefits from having routine. And now it just feels like I have much less of a routine now.

— Penelope M. Alegria can be reached at