“Too Many Dolores & Not Enough Dollars”

José Olivarez, author of “Promises of Gold,” on writing a failed book of love poem and what materialized instead

Family and place make us. Whether the relationship to where, and who, we come from is complicated or not, all poets must reckon with these two fundamental things that shape who we are, our worldviews, and how we learn to love. For Chicanx poet José Olivarez, Chicago and his Mexican family are his bedrocks and he delivers his second full-length collection, Promises of Gold/Promesas de Oro—with a Spanish translation by David Ruano—as a brilliant and moving homage to both:

“there’s two ways to be a Mexican writer, you can translate

from Spanish, or you can translate to Spanish.

or you can refuse to translate altogether.

there’s only one wound in the Mexican writer’s imagination

& it’s the wound of la chancla. it’s the wound of birria

being sold out of the taco truck. it’s the wound

of too many dolores & not enough dollars…”

Following ably in the giant footprints of Chicago poets past, who have produced some of the most important poets in our country’s history from Gwendolyn Brooks to Ana Castillo, Olivarez has been integral to this latest crop of Chicago poets. Side by side with heavy hitters like Nate Marshall and Eve Ewing and backed by leftist press Haymarket Books, which publishes the BreakBeat Poets series that has helped launch a number of young BIPOC poets’ careers, Olivarez’s debut collection Citizen Illegal came out to wide critical acclaim in 2018 and was then followed by a co-editor spot for The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext in 2020. Needless to say, Olivarez has been on a lot of people’s radar, including mine, for a few years and he has successfully delivered one of the most anticipated poetry collections of 2023. 

I had the chance to catch up with Olivarez via email about Promises of Gold, writing a book of “failed love poems,” and which up-and-coming poets he thinks we should keep locked in our sights.

Angela María Spring: I’m always interested in the growth and process of a first collection to a second because in many ways it’s such a pivotal marker of a poet’s long-term career. How would you describe the experience of writing Promises of Gold versus Citizen Illegal, emotionally and technically?

José Olivarez: When I wrote Citizen Illegal, I was obsessed with questions of belonging. The book’s opening poem ends with the question: is the boy more Mexican or American? By the time I was done writing the book, I no longer felt compelled by whether I belonged here or there. I discovered that in-betweeness was where I felt most comfortable. De aquí y de allá. 

I had to write Citizen Illegal in order to write Promises of Gold. In Promises of Gold, I’m still thinking about belonging, but rather than questioning my place, I’m thinking about what it means to maintain and be in community with people you are committed to loving. What does love mean when we live in a country where violence is central to everything? 

Technically, there’s no comparison. I was only beginning to understand how to use line breaks in Citizen Illegal. Some of the breaks in those poems make me blush at how random they are. Promises of Gold is a confident book of poetry. I know what I am doing and I made every decision with purpose. 

AMS: Promises of Gold is laid out in a newer style of a the Spanish translation of your poems as it’s own book next to the original poems in English, rather than poem by poem translations throughout the book. I first saw this format with Raquel Salas Rivera’s new collection, antes que isla es volcan / before island is volcano. What does it mean to you to have your work presented in this way, as its own separate book, as well as what the process of having your writing translated to the language of your family especially as so often those of us who are first and second generation end up only knowing pieces of our parents’ language or can only speak but not necessarily read or write in that language. 

JO: Raquel’s collection inspired my decision to format Promises of Gold this way! Raquel is an incredible poet, and I always look to his writing for inspiration. I decided to go with this format because I wanted the reader to have a singular experience in either language. In other words, if you are reading the poems in Spanish, you will not be interrupted by pages written in English. 

I discovered that in-betweeness was where I felt most comfortable. De aquí y de allá. 

I can’t explain what it means to have my poems translated into my first language—the language of my parents and grandparents. My mom read the book and said it made her cry. I’ve never been able to share any of my work with my parents before, so this something else. Maybe in time I’ll be able to express how meaningful this is to me, but for now, I just want to thank David Ruano González— whose translations sing. 

AMS: In your author’s note, you describe Promises of Gold as an attempt to write a book of platonic love poems, but it didn’t end up being what you originally envisioned because “if [you] wrote that book, [you’d] be ignoring all the contradictions & messiness of the world we live in, all the ways in which love is complicated by the forces larger than our hearts.” For me, the poems that comprise this book are all love poems, you can feel the fierce beat of your heart in each, even when it’s anger at injustice like in “It’s Only Day Whatever of the Quarantine & I’m Already Daydreaming About Robbing Rich People”. Your love for your family, friends, your gente, your hometown, and the world, pulsates from each page like a living, breathing being. So it intrigues me that you found this book to be almost like a failed book of love poems and would like to hear more about whether you still hold that view or if it’s shifted into something else now that it’s out in the world in so many hands.

JO: That’s such a kind and generous reading. Thank you. I hope other readers will agree with you. Promises of Gold is a failed book of poems in the sense that the poems fail to materially change the world in the ways I want. For example, I can’t actually punch Jeff Bezos in the face— even though I would really like to. The point of the poems is to rehearse the impossible and in doing so maybe make a little more love possible. 

AMS: Sometimes Latinx poets can find themselves trapped into the stereotype that every diaspora in the U.S. is the same and, while we all have similar larger themes throughout our cultures, we are wildly different “Americans” based on where we grew up within the U.S. and where our family came from originally. One of the things in your book that is very powerful is how you seamlessly weave that uniqueness of Chicago in your Cal City and Ojalá poems, among others, with specific slang and references really root the reader there with the poet, on that specific sidewalk waiting for a bus or in a school or a factory where the community works. These are important details, vital language, revolutionary in a way; can you talk a bit more about how place has shaped your work over the years?

What does love mean when we live in a country where violence is central to everything?

JO: They are poems in of themselves. Where a book is located is important to me because it gives color and texture to the poems. It gives context to the narrative and lyrical element. One of the amusing things to me is that there are poems that people from certain neighborhoods in Chicago won’t understand because they are disconnected from  the particular part of Chicago (and Cal City) I’m writing from and towards. I like that it’s not just the Spanish bits that will obfuscate some of the poems. We can speak the same language and still talk past each other. How that happens reveals something about the reader and about myself. 

AMS: The emotional range that your poems embody in Promises of Gold is nothing short of astonishing. For example, the fierce, sad tenderness in “Fathers” or wry deprecation in “Between Us & Liberation”. And how you can affect the reader so deeply with so few words. I felt an arrows pierce my whole being when I read the tercet poem “Eviction Notice” and nearly fell off my seat laughing when I read another tercet poem, “Authenticity”. I’d love to hear more about how you play with emotional resonance in your poems, especially humor because I sense that humor is very important to your culture and work.

JO: Some people are from emotionally healthy families—I am from a hilarious family. 

I try to write poems that evoke the full range of human emotion. Why would I deny myself humor in making poems. Like a visual artist, I make use of all the tools at my disposal.

AMS: I loved the text message poems in your book and am always interested in the different contemporary forms poets are playing with; are there any forms you’ve been particularly drawn to work within lately?

JO: The text message poems were written by my brother Pedro and sent to me via text. He did not know he was writing poems, but he was. 

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the sonnet. It’s a perfect form for where I’m at right now. 14 lines is all I have mental capacity for since my brain more quickly turns to mush these days. 

I also love Action Poems in the style of Yoko Ono. Practical and mystical. I teach the form to students all the time. 

AMS: What authors/books were you reading while writing Promises of Gold that you found influencing your writing or process? Did any of them surprise you to find their way into your book?

JO: I am always reading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec & Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things. I’m sure those two books show up in everything I write. I carry those books everywhere and recommend them to everyone. Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets is also hella important to me. Diane’s writing is so musical and sharp. I’m always drawn to it. 

AMS: Same question as above but this time music/musicians. Or does your book have a soundtrack?

JO: My book has a soundtrack! You can find it here. 

I will also say that the book has 11 sections because Common’s album Be has 11 tracks. There is some correlation between those songs and the material of the sections in Promises of Gold. This was Nate Marshall’s idea and for that I give him thanks.  

AMS: Who should we definitely be reading right now that we might not be?

JO: Janel Pineda and Vic Chávez. If I were a publisher interested in poetry, I would be emailing them regularly to ask them for a manuscript. I think Raych Jackson’s next book is going to be phenomenal. Her first book, Even The Saints Audition, is excellent and she’s getting better. Everyone should read her poems. I love Darius Simpson’s poems and will read anything he writes. Carina Del Valle Schorske writes the most beautiful sentences.

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